The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore by Adrienne Weiss

Reviewed by Abigail Slinger

Adrienne Weiss

There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore. Nightwood Editions (Harbour Publishing), 2014.

80 pp.

$18.95

In the epigraph to her most recent poetry collection, There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore, Toronto-based poet Adrienne Weiss recalls Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s modern paraphrase of Jaques’s aphorism, “All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”  Weiss’s lyrical and prosaic experiments in dramatic monologue dwell on this complacency and inattention, qualities also characteristic of the collection's seemingly slapdash arrangement.  As the title to the opening section of Solid Gold affirms, “The Future Comes Anyway.”  Though the pieces gradually begin to substitute passivity with possibility, “like a coin toss [that] / [one] fear[s] to call” (67), one wonders if effort is ever more than superstitious ritual.  Readers are interpolated into veteran daytime TV viewers of “Fortune’s Wheel,” for example – consumers who daily drain three cups of coffee so that “Luck, [as] announced by Rod Roddy,” might be heard to call their names (emphasis in original; 26).  Remarkably, however, the collection concludes with an image of male and female bodies actively leaning, plant-like, “too far off the street’s concrete” to catch the looked-for rain.  And so, while the future may “come anyway,” one must nonetheless – proposes Weiss – be in a position to receive its gifts.

Many of Weiss’s speakers also learn, however, that expectations are not always realized, especially where art is concerned.  In Part I of “Once Upon a Time,” plain language is dissonantly used to portray two teenage girls, Cathy and Jen, affecting various poses –“Very Madonna” – in what is described as the full-length mirror’s limited space (20-1).  The picture is only partial; something remains hidden.  Moreover, with the help of curling iron and hairspray (20), the young women have jointly fashioned their heads into sculptural portraits, each one a titular “Pygmalion.”  In so doing, both figures embody the fictions beneath apparent sincerity.  Weiss suggests that art can only offer fragmentary views of illusory realities.  As objects of the gaze, false fronts will nevertheless determine the teenagers’ real social currency.  Good looks will get them noticed.  The caption later found on a Polaroid of the two girls, “Best friends forever” (21; emphasis in original), now sounds specious, an affectation designed to effect certain behavioural scripts.  Play the part to avoid social sanction and exclusion.  Weiss confirms this suspicion in Part II of the poem when Cathy, sidekick to the beautiful Jen, begins to puzzle over the pressure that will inevitably fracture their mirror; whose face, for instance, “will fall to pieces first, never to be put back together” (22)?  “Forever” is an adolescent fiction.  Mirrors are breakable. “The Future Comes Anyway.” 

One could argue that Weiss hereby guides readers to interpret her own words in view of the caption’s reliability: the accuracy of poetic representation can never be guaranteed.  In Part III, a witness to Cathy and Jen’s youthful antics feels that the clichéd phrase “happily ever after” has actually turned cold (25); heading for the parking lot after a school dance, encircling “headlights glowing / disapproval,” the speaker hears the personified convention “gasping for air” (24-5) in a frantic attempt to preserve its promise.  Figuratively, words “survive” so long as the experiences, settings, and/or ideas they communicate “survive.”  When the dance ends, the opportunities that it offers for new love, engagement, and pleasure disappear.  Smacking her strawberry lip-gloss as she looks on, Jen can conjure a future neither more “tasty [nor more] long-lasting [than] watermelon Hubba Bubba” (24).

It is perhaps for this reason that Weiss’s poems, most of which draw upon a dense pop cultural matrix that cites everything from ‘80s celebrity fashion and The Wizard of Oz to Bob Barker and Casey Anthony, feel so dated.  As in Joyce’s Ulysses, extreme allusiveness occasionally muddies the author’s message; who, for example, is Joe Miller, and what does it mean to “trade Joe Millers between takes” (39)?  Do we care?  Should we?  A search of the Oxford DNB reveals that Joseph Miller was an eighteenth-century stage actor whom one obituary in The Daily Post fondly recalled as a “comedian, of merry memory.”  A friend of satirist William Hogarth, Miller was celebrated for his performance of Trinculo in The Tempest and the First Gravedigger in Hamlet.  To “trade Joe Millers,” therefore, is to tell jokes.  Notwithstanding contextual cues, the reference is obscure and will likely leave even educated readers wanting footnotes.

Personal stories take precedence amidst the collection’s final section, “The Small Part of the Universe,” as Weiss’s poems become increasingly circumscribed by particular places and specific times.  What, then, is the poet’s legacy once his or her words no longer speak for contemporary reality?  In the work’s eponymous poem, Weiss writes that, one day, “What I do, what I’ve done … [will] make / a mighty fine epitaph: LIVED, LAUGHED, DIED” (62).  Her very name will therefore carry even less of “a definition, a lexicon, a history” than that of the half-remembered Mr. Miller (62).  Because Weiss recognizes the temporal limits of language, the distinguishing feature of this poet’s epitaph is ironically nothing more than a single word, “LAUGHED.”  And so, as “the future comes anyway,” her plant-like human body will lean in to jest at those who, desperate to quench their thirst amidst burning police cars and Teenage Dream posters (70), still believe in the immortality of verse.

Upon completing her BA in English and Theatre Studies in 2014, Abigail Slinger began work on her Masters’ research on nineteenth-century, Canadian literature and material cultures at Concordia University. She quickly realized, however, that her true talents lay elsewhere. Ms. Slinger currently helps to provide various supportive services to members of Montreal’s homeless population as she pursues undergraduate coursework in social psychology. 

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