An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion

wordsonpagespress2Poetry has comfortably slipped into its current position as the most honest medium of writing. It allows the poet to play with images, scenarios, and characters that may not necessarily be personal, but, at the same time, inject their words with a truth serum of sorts. There is a certain naked honesty to the medium regardless of how fancy a dress it chooses to don, with however many layers of taffeta and crinoline.

In her 2012 collection Love, an Index, poet Rebecca Lindenberg wrote: “Poetry/ how thought feels”, while James Dickey defines a poet as “someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.” Some subgenres of poetry can be considered more “naked” than others: one would understand, for example, why Emily Dickinson or William Blake are not necessarily the go-to for young audiences (unless they are trying to woo someone with romantic poetry). There is, however, one genre that I’d argue captures this wild spirit best: the surrealist genre.

When presented with the term, most people will proceed to recount the fantastical paintings of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte. Few will think of literature. Even fewer will be able to identify French writer André Breton as the “father” of the movement.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that the genre is not popular with the masses, though that is not to say that there are few writers who choose to work in the genre. This is why, if one is searching for contemporary surrealist poetry, it is best to turn to the smaller indie presses and poetry chapbooks. Pearl Pirie’s An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion is a fine example. Released in April 2016 from words(on)pages press, a Toronto-based publisher, this poetry chapbook not only demonstrates that the genre is alive and kicking, but that it is conscious of and adapting to current events.

The poems of An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion never stray too far from the reality of everyday life. Rather, they are gently planted amid a sea of turbulent self-reflection. Take the poem “Under the Tongues of Thunder”, which instantly won me over with its wise flying hippos, stating: “you can only fly/ for as long, as well, as I can, if you train for years/ by carrying hearses of friends.” That is not to say that one needs a red flying hippo in order to understand the beautifully dark reality of these words (although if you’re like me, the fantastical imagery does stimulate an otherwise drowsy mind). The balance and subtlety of the real and slightly ridiculous is so fine in these poems that moving in and out of them not only becomes natural, but one also begins to realize that our routine lives are not much different.

The true tour de force, however, is the poem “The Procedures for Filing Claims for Refugee Status.” If the exploration of the self is a topic that has existed—and will likely continue to exist—until the end of mankind, then the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis is more immediate. The poem approaches the subject with the same level of ridiculousness as the accusations government officials have been making; which is why the lines: “you can’t be too careful about who/ may carry disease or dis-ease” read so pointedly. Yet there is something about the images of tiny insect visas and the frisking of butterflies that makes it impossible to focus solely on the magical nature of the images. If anything, surrealism is the very thing that brings one’s focus to reality.

It’s a rather sad fact that one must often resort to shock value in order to get mass attention on an important issue. Luckily for literature, the genre of surrealism is still alive and kicking. An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion covers the realms of self-exploration and social justice, finally leaving the reader with “Poet’s Guide to Buildings on Fire”, which is impossible to do justice via explanation—one simply has to read it for oneself to appreciate the wit and honesty. It is like a modern-day companion to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Surrealism is more than melted clocks and heads instead of flowers, despite what much of modern day culture tries to convince us. True surrealism is conscious not only of the subconscious realm, but more importantly, it strives to address the ailments that plague it, presenting them in an unfiltered and moving manner—and Pearl Pirie’s chapbook does exactly that.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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Enter the Raccoon

I would never have known about the existence of Enter the Raccoon if it wasn’t for Beatriz Hausner herself, who came in as a plenary speaker for the Vic One program. Surrealism is clearly not the most popular genre, and the science-oriented students could be seen smirking quietly. But it was undeniable that, once she began to read, a trance-like quality in Hausner’s voice took hold of the entire auditorium. In that moment, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was the way in which she read or the words themselves. I only knew that I wanted to read more of her work and see if I could experience such a feeling on my own.

The results were indeed replicable, although I did learn one significant thing: Enter the Raccoon isn’t the type of book you’d want to read on a subway ride, for the wandering eyes of nearby passengers might occasionally be shocked by what they come across. The collection traces the love affair of the narrator and a human-like raccoon, with a particular emphasis on the sexual side of the relationship.

9781927040386

The prose poems interchange: a piece that furthers the reader’s understanding of the love affair may be immediately followed by a poem that has a very journal-like quality to it, discussing things such as artwork in a museum, a popular Chilean TV show, or the way in which raccoons act as carriers for diseases. It’s strange to describe and feels equally strange while reading, yet there is an allure to the poems that makes it impossible to put the book down.

Despite the raccoon’s description as not only human-like in stature but also possessing several mechanical limbs, the relationship he shares with the narrator is not far from the kinds one might encounter on a daily basis. It is possible that one might have experienced something similar in the past.

The wordplay and riddles that the two lovers exchange are perhaps tamer than the act of leaving and staying that categorizes modern relationships. There is always a sense of sitting on the very edge, wondering whether the relationship will continue or end, and on what note the latter would happen. Most significantly, there is an element of nostalgia present even when Raccoon and the speaker are together, as if there is a much greater emotional and psychological rift between them.

While this half of the collection may be less accessible to some readers, the other half makes up for it quite easily. Hausner mentions Amy Winehouse several times, and the event of her death is recent enough for the impact to still be palpable. These moments also act as an invitation for the reader to take a glimpse at the poet’s internal thought process.

The technique of automatic writing in these rather personal and at times rather informative pieces is what brings out the other side of surrealism; the much less outlandish one that counteracts the sheer bizarreness of reading about the relationship of a human woman and a human-like raccoon. These other poems still manage to transport the reader into a deeper exploration of the self-conscious by remaining rooted in present day scenarios and factual events.

Either way, Enter the Raccoon never stops exerting its weird charm. It also isn’t the type of collection that one can easily pick up and dive into. Rather, it requires a proper mood or mindset (or a ridiculous sugar high, take your pick). It successfully demonstrates that the fantastically bizarre isn’t as bizarre as one may think, successfully pairing it with real-life examples that create a transient state that is no less odd but enticing.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko