Reviewed by Matthew Redmond
Conflict. BookThug, 2012.
As both a full-time book conservator and a part-time Facebook user, Christine McNair is likely better equipped than most poets to portray change as the essence of writing. Her concern with process is everywhere apparent in her first book, Conflict, which carefully probes the interdependent roles of language and silence in our production of meaning. Through constant collapse and regeneration, McNair’s work also frustrates any readerly assumption that great art should stand the reputed test of time, recognizing instead that time itself constantly shapes art, for better or worse.
In McNair’s best poems, the failure to communicate is acknowledged and explored, but never lamented outright. Blank spaces, as signs of erasure, both colour the words that remain and create impenetrable resistance to any search for determinate meaning. Often McNair’s choice of words leaves the reader wishing for silence, as when the haunting “Lost Cosmonaut,” inspired by tapes from a clandestine outer space mission, collapses into eerie repetition of the word “forty-one…” (14). While McNair denies having prepared this first book with any rigid organizing logic, her poems read collectively like a scrupulous search for all possible varieties of fragmentation. One cannot preserve, after all, without understanding how things decay. The speaker of “Restoration” proposes that “evidence should be salvaged / but loss is inevitable: find the space between / fragments” (31). This is precisely the space in which McNair situates herself poetically. The need to preserve and restore, it seems, is tied inextricably to the fear of loss, which finds its apotheosis in “the image of her profile gone to dust” (31).
In keeping with its concern for change and originality, Conflict self-consciously borrows material and techniques from a wide range of sources, literary and otherwise. A well-chosen epigram from Robert Kroetsch’s “The Sad Phoenician”—“but I live by a kind of resistance” (7)—foreshadows the use of gaping Kroetschian caesura in entries like “Uninflected Particles: A Sieved Cahier” and “The Keep,” both of which play very differently with a shared realization of printed words as the perfect visual metaphor for mortality. McNair usually signals more direct instances of literary borrowing with “Remix” in her title. More than a gesture to the poet’s own reading and influences, this deceptively casual word poses the question of whether anything is ever truly repeated. Equally implicit throughout Conflict is a suggestion that re-mixing and restoration might be different names for the same fraught yet necessary process: that of establishing a dialogue with the past.
Among the most energetic yet alienating entries in McNair’s book are three numbered interludes called “Time Machine,” each one a long, unpunctuated stream of declarative statements that issue from the subject “Christine” (18). In a recent interview, McNair revealed that these interludes are actually Facebook statuses stitched together in reverse chronological order (BookThug). Social media thus becomes the vehicle for a type of confessional poem that seems strangely authentic in its total facetiousness. Just as importantly, McNair’s experiment reveals (and revels in) the failure of words to capture something more tangible than other words. With these three poems, as with nearly every other in Conflict, the author’s close attention to medium paradoxically deepens the reader’s awareness of a world beyond the page (or screen).
McNair has described her ideal reader as “an intelligent omnivore” (BookThug)—someone capable of approaching different motifs and styles without strong prejudice. The final offering in Conflict, called “Anti-Statement,” confirms the necessity that her readers remain keenly self-aware at all times. With deadpan determination recalling Leonard Cohen’s anti-style in “How to Speak Poetry,” McNair’s speaker renounces both her own book and the very act of renunciation, finally confessing, “I negate the negation but white out still beckons” (130). This line is a dramatized final demonstration of what her book has done all along. Through Conflict, the reader learns that rejection and erasure are not only part of the creative process, but also creative acts themselves.
At press time: Matthew Redmond has just completed his BA in English Literature at McGill University, where he is now working on his MA. His research interests include nineteenth-century American literature, postwar Canadian prose, and the novels and influence of Dickens. He has also contributed creative work to several student magazines, including the Veg, Steps, and Paper’s Edge.
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