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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Elements of a Fourth Dimension

In “Everyone Needs a Couch”, Tanker, a bankrupt writer, is commissioned by an amorphous “cross between an octopus and a camel” to write a story about teleportation. The only requirement is that it must be “scientifically possible.” Jumping at the chance to pay rent, Tanker takes the job. Inspired by the sofa his girlfriend was kind enough to cleave in half before leaving for a job off-planet, the billion-dollar teleporting couch industry is born—as is Suzanne Church’s couch teleportation universe.

The universe is then continued in “Waste Management” from Lorna’s perspective, the girlfriend who originally cleaved the couch in half while leaving Tanker, his insensitivity, and his empty bank account. With Lorna’s perspective Church creates an interesting take on mechanical engineering applied to orbital lodging satellites (both biped and multiped excretions must be taken into consideration).

The couch teleportation universe is the dominant motif within Elements. All twenty-one of the stories are very brief; so brief, in fact, that Elements could be labelled a collection of speculative flash fiction. What gives the collection consistency and cohesion are the common elements Church weaves through the stories, supporting the collection’s title.

The classic elements of science fiction are of course present—teleportation and time travel underlie and bond many of the stories that would otherwise seem unconnected. “Everyone Needs a Couch” and “Jelly and the D-Machine” introduce these classic elements of speculative fiction through the teleporting couches and time travelling treehouses, respectively.

Nature’s elements are also present. Water is the literal common element throughout several of the opening stories. It is present in the warm steam between the ice and fire courting lovers of “Courting Ice”; the slushing coolers that preserve the flesh of fallen soldiers for transplantation in “Coolies”; the power of the storm man in “Storm Child”; etc. Even in the teleporting couch universe, water is pointed out as a commodity on Deslot (a planet renowned for the quality of their tequila), in the cowardly invertebrate aliens called Drips and the leading protagonist Dree Waters. Church’s water theme certainly allows the short and sometimes choppy stories to flow.

The subject of the collection’s title, Elements, is present in the chemistry of several images, such as the metal wire coils that run through a stove, teapot, or heater. However, the needle, whether it tattoos or inoculates, is also a running motif, and recalls how the club in “Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop” is named “Conduct.” The metal stylus, a heated or sharpened filament, is another theme that pierces through and joins the meat of Church’s stories, stitching the different stories of Elements together.

Perhaps one of the best attributes of a collection of speculative fiction—as opposed to a single work of speculation—is that it encourages the reader to speculate on the connections between stories.

CBC literary prize recipient Caroline Adderson recently discussed the difficult relationship between the novel and the short story collection. Disliking the distinction, which she feels isolates and unnecessarily constrains the work, she wrote Ellen in Pieces, “a novel in which you follow a traditional story curve, but each chapter is a standalone short story”. Such a format liberates both the meaning of the short stories individually and collectively as elements of a larger work. Church’s Elements follows this format, as she connects the stories using the same universes, that of the teleporting couch and possibly others, but maintains their independence and imaginative integrity throughout.

Together, with all three uses of “element”, Church creates a thematic work that transcends its individual parts. The running themes and the different interpretations of the title are bookended by the ultimate elements—life and death. The protagonist of “Coolies” survives the grenade that kills his daughter, but his life afterward is plagued by endless guilt. In the last story, “Soul-Hungry”, two dead souls find life in the afterworld through their love—though they continue to eat the souls of the living.

Most if not all of the stories of Elements were published individually before being compiled into a single book. As a collection of work there is contrast and, in comparing some, incompatibility. Still, in a very unlikely way, just as a severed couch could teleport through space missing half its stuffing, Elements is a balanced and fruitful work of speculation.

-Helen Picard