The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Sabotage by Priscila Uppal

Reviewed by Jennifer Baker

Priscila Uppal 

Sabotage. Mansfield Press, 2015.

93 pp.


Priscila Uppal's Sabotage presents itself as a mobilization of whimsy and wit against the rhetorical overload inherent in the proliferation of modern social technologies. A collection of sections titled “Accusations,” “Discussions,” “Adaptations,” “Riddles,” “Arguments,” and “Defenses,” the book mimics the structure and rhythm of the online personal and political battlefields, postmodern consumer justifications, and the ubiquitous social manipulations of the twenty-first century. It is at once a send-up and disruption of the veneer of rational distance that codes the complex power structures of the contemporary public sphere and its intrusion into the private and personal. But Uppal's frequent appeals to whimsy, irony, paradox, and language games reveals an underlying anger, which “goes deep and turns exotic colours” (13) rebelling in a bid for a greater expansion of affective freedom. Often, these poems struggle to break the stylized and artificial ironic detachment that has become stagnant in contemporary Canadian poetry, and are not always successful. At their best, however, Uppal's poems expose the manipulations and distractions that threaten our most vital sites of resistance by using a series of paradoxes, juxtapositions, and wordplay to undermine the speaker's ironic distance and call attention to more complex emotional and psychological reactions to powerlessness.

Sabotage begins with the playful battle of repartee on “nights ripe for accusations,” (11) as the speaker of the poem accumulates and recounts the increasingly absurd betrayals of both the material world and the subjects' relations. The accusations Uppal details are, at first genuinely entertaining, as the speaker notes, “I accuse your briefcase of prematurely filing for bankruptcy. / You accuse my hairpins of setting fire to the tool shed” (11). But as the poem continues in its witty romp, the accusations become increasingly uncomfortable and intimate: “I accuse your love of being small. / You accuse me of dumping mine on the side of the road like a lame dog” (11). The final line, “All this before the bullied sun offs itself” (11) cracks open the poem's overall tone of light-hearted—if uncanny—witticisms to reveal a familiar discomfort: the feeling of a joke gone too far, the surprise realization that we have not taken a situation seriously enough. This is the moment that sets up the rest of the collection, and the sabotaging most often comes from moments of unexpected and jarring interruptions of emotion into Uppal's delight in language play and delight in the technical details of rhetoric.

While not always successful in her attempts, Uppal often manages to push through the temptation to allow poetry to cling to the cool and detached. Instead of leaning on irony, she achieves something more interesting by calling attention to the peculiar feeling of “the habitual disappointment one feels / encountering the past and not knowing how to care-- / what to discard or keep or fortify. How to fit it all into / boxed shapes for strangers to ignore in the rolling darkness” (“No Postcards” [62]). Uppal uses the familiar—even well-worn—stance of cool detachment to act as the surface broken by the more uncomfortable and uncanny, sometimes unnameable and confused, affective responses to cultural histories. The section on adaptations, for example, re-imagines historical and culturally significant narratives as reality TV programs. In its most perfect pairing, Uppal imagines King Lear as an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” in which “a King held a competition / to see which of his three daughters / loved him more” (42), reviving the uncanny, sinister aspects of both the play and the concept for the television show. “The Amazing Race” imagines history as the competitive reality TV show of the same name, which ironically parrots a social Darwinist idea of evolution and colonial history.

There is also a sense of urgency permeating some of the poems that sing at a more personal level for the speaker. In the section titled “Arguments,” too, there are some moments where the ironical position of the speaker is busted open by the pathos of an image. “To My Suicidal Husband” responds to the tendency in Romantic poetry to aestheticize suffering, with a relentless description of the physical and psychological aftermath of completion, heeding the poem's recipient to “Trust me. / While I am still your wife, and not a warning” (55). In this, it echoes the yearning of “In the Psych Ward,” where the speaker imagines her husband “floating away / attached to the end of a black umbrella / lost among the black roaming clouds” (20). These poems, and those that deal with other more personal relationships, like those with the speaker's father, offer a much-needed sense of intimacy in a collection that deals widely with the cultural and political from the perspective of the public sphere.

Overall, Sabotage gives the impression that Uppal has gingerly picked her way through the shifting dynamics that technology and popular culture have created between the private and the public, the personal and the political. When she deals with the overwhelming complexity in issues of culture, identity, agency, and history that remain emotionally charged, many of these poems embrace the distance and protection afforded by ironic or urbane poetic tones. The collection's strength resides in moments when Uppal is able to push beyond and through this contemporary compulsion to some richer affect. Whether she deals with the political or personal, there are times when the poet succeeds in breaking through the congealed ironical stance in contemporary Canadian poetics and achieves naming the unnameable in the chaotic jumble of political, personal, social, and technological couplings of the twenty-first century. At its best, Sabotage offers a glimpse of what lies beyond a postmodern poetics of detachment.

Jennifer Baker is a poet, doctoral candidate and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Canadian Literature. Her first chapbook, Abject Lessons, was published by above/ground press in 2014. Her poetry, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Ottawater, The Journal of Canadian Poetry, Illiterature, and Dusie.

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