Reviewed by Alana Fletcher
Thrum. Talonbooks, 2014.
Thrum, Natalie Simpson’s second book of poetry (following accrete or crumble, published by LINEbooks in 2006), contains poems—perhaps more accurately termed word-constellations, collages, or linguistic montages—of visual and auditory curiosity and pleasure. The pieces in this collection often break sentences and phrases into their constituent parts—a process both enacted and described in the opening poem “Sentencing,” where Simpson writes that “Sentence is a word in pieces, plastered, faster.” A sentence is, of course, not so much a word in pieces so much as a word is a piece of a sentence; the sense that language is malleable, crackable, and hackable comes across firmly both despite this reversal of expectations and because of the formal support it lends the statement. The added descriptors emphasize the “plastered”-together nature of the word-collections that result from this kind of breaking-apart and the pace at which their terms seem to clamber over and compete with one another.
Simpson’s syntactical experimentation ranges from approximate adherence to linguistic expectations upset by selective word substitutions—as in the poem “My Biography,” where she writes “We were looking a foolish lull”—to more extreme departures from language structure as in the one-poem section titled “Smash Swizzle Fizz,” where “pall mall caruso tom collins to the moon rum runner” and “van vleet frisky witch cream fizz gin swizzle.” In this type of poem words are less significant than sonorous, combined for their auditory effects and their strange conceptual echoes. This latter phenomenon makes me want to characterize the collection as meaning by montage: as with filmic montage, the meanings made here are those implied by juxtaposition itself. The reader reads meaning into word-compilations based on an expectation that they are syntactically arranged—“One plus one synchronically,” as Simpson puts it in “Notes”—rather than appearing together by chance. This reliance on the reader’s reflex lends sense to poems that have none while critically underlining the arbitrary, automatic, and conventional character of that sense.
The collection’s preoccupation with language is highlighted self-reflexively within poems throughout, and is a major concern in the opening piece as well as in “Notes,” a meditation on language’s “perpetual machination” prefaced by a quotation from Ferdinand de Saussure, and “No Code Means,” in which “NO CODE MEANS / ( mainly syntax snatches.” Some of the poems in the collection visually mimic the crumbling of linguistic sense accomplished at the level of diction and syntax; for example, “No Code Means” devolves from verse arranged in long prose lines to short enjambed verse to a two-columned split and, finally, to one-word lines vertically descending to the syntax-snatch conclusion. Certain linguistic genres or idioms are also targeted individually: the section titled “Eclectic Sentences,” with its affinities to the online “Overheard at” compilations of campus eavesdroppers, echoes the focus on public language—brand names, products, and general consumables—in “Smash Swizzle Fizz,” while the poem “A Long and Fitful Sentence Accumulating Grace” parodies the run-on tendencies of contractual legalese.
The intellectually playful tone of the collection will recommend it to anyone interested in language and its uses. Some might find this approach of play unsatisfying at times, however; the section titled “Systems of Pleasure,” for example, is dominated by poems prefaced with epigraphs from female writers and seems in particular to hold out a promise of feminist critique, but this promise is left not wholly realized by the linguistic play. Both “Her silk dress hugging her points” and “Does he scruple to break the seal?” (the titles of which are borrowed from Carole Maso and Anne Carson, respectively) have clear feminist undertones, but the sound effects of the staccato prose in which these pieces are written draws much more attention to how than to what Simpson means to say. Regardless, Thrum represents an important contribution to contemporary language poetry and is a must-read for those with an interest in Canadian examples of such work.
Alana Fletcher is a doctoral candidate in the department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University. Her dissertation looks at the ways in which adaptations of oral histories have garnered remedial attention for a major instance of environmental injustice in Canada’s North. Alana’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in SCL, Canadian Literature, PBSC, Victorian Review, and elsewhere.
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