Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forms of Intercession: Poems by Jayne Pupek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Perfect Paperback: 102 pages

Publisher: Mayapple Press, 2008

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0932412599

ISBN-13: 978-0932412591

Sledgehammer or tissue, choose your weapon, but you’ll need one of these, and possibly both, when reading Jayne Pupek’s nearly one hundred poems in this debut collection. Most explore and reflect a woman’s survival in a battering world, poems that will make you ache and sometimes want to inflict ache. This is the poetry of rage and suffering, of a woman who has had all that a man’s world can thrust upon her and yet survive. Here is the abuse, the battering of both body and mind, the diseases that afflict flesh and spirit alike. Take it in small doses. You won’t be able to take more than that in one sitting.

But you should. Take more than one sitting, curl up on the floor in a fetal position if you must, but if I learned about a year ago from Jayne Pupek’s Tomato Girl, a novel about the horrific abuse of a child, that she knows, oh she knows, and her mission is to make you know—well, then, take your medicine. It will sting. It will burn all the way down. But not all in life is butterflies and smelly roses. Far too much of it is this: the cruelty to which children and women are subjected in a multitude of ways. And know this—that such things will not go away of their own accord. Silence only empowers abuse and protects the abuser. Pupek’s subject matter may be difficult to read and contemplate, but it is necessary and it is good.

And I do mean good. Not all novelists can be poets, but I would venture to say Pupek is even stronger in this medium. Each one is a therapy session, a rant that is horrific yet somehow astoundingly beautiful at once. She captures it all, the agony and the ability to overcome. These girls and women may be ground to dust, but they do rise up again. They fight back (most if not all), claim their own ground, stronger than ever, independent and feisty to the core.

At forty-three, I’m too old to wait on a redeemer,

sometimes you must intercede on your own behalf.

I’m spreading tarot cards on the ground

and tossing out the ones that land upside down.


I crush bodies, shove my tongue into their mouths,

don’t let them go until they promise blue skies.

Or here, the woman with an unfaithful lover who has learned to pick her battles:

…My lover snoozes upstairs,

dreaming of red-eyed women with iridescent nipples

and thread-thin appendages kneading his oily back.

Why disturb him? I’m a woman who asks nothing,

a woman with a knack for surviving godless nights.

Even as she “asks nothing,” however, Pupek shames the woman for giving in to what’s given her, and observes in a museum of natural history with undisguised disdain:

Homo erectus, female,

bending on hands and knees

displays her species’ ineptitude.

Not all is forgivable. In these poems of suffering and survival, Pupek stretches the limits of endurance—incest, beatings, rape, emotional and psychological battering, suicide—and finds the boundaries.

You keep stepping on the cracks.

How much more can your mother take?

Already her spine is twenty times split,

one for each of your mistakes.

Sometimes there is no absolution.

Scrape the onions off the bread and keep going.

You do what comes next, no matter how ordinary.

What if? Pupek asks in the middle section of this collection. Here we find the occasional moment of loving tenderness, although often it is found between women and not with the opposite gender. These are moments when one comes up above water, gasps for air, and goes down deep again.

What if stars aren’t real,

but another of God’s parlor tricks,

a handful of jacks pulled from black pockets

and tossed into random skies?

What if your hand on her thigh

means you never loved me…

So simply, so simply Pupek captures the torment of the betrayed woman, who then questions life itself, and God, having to endure as he did.

And here’s my Christ-walk on water

stepping over your sea of dirty pictures

where oily stains and bent pages

mark the ones you doggy-fuck in dreams.

She meant nothing is the declaration of a man

born with weak knees and no story.

I can’t be distracted. Are you paying attention?

Let me hold your dim eyes and hollow ear

until I cross the threshold and close the door.

Pupek follows the path of the woman who leaves and the initial fall into loneliness and apathy. Her words knife and nail these feelings with accuracy.

Apathy is dried mustard on last night’s dinner plate.

Loneliness is a fever, igniting the hands and loins.

A woman can get scorched that way.

Dive deeper still, and you find poems about beaten women birthing stillborn children, or women who fall into such despair that they kill their own babes as if in this way alone can they be saved from such a world.

No, this was not easy reading. This was a slim book from which I had to walk away many times. Put it aside so that I could read another. Each time it drew me back, however, haunted me, because too, too many of my gender carry these scars on our own hides and in our own hearts.

Pupek will not leave you without hope. Through this all, this beautifully described ugliness, is truth, and in truth is always something golden: hope for change. Once understood, we can also see the ability to change and live otherwise. In her final poem, she offers this sliver of endurance, even if only on a cellular level:

Still we go on,

because it is in us, the need for continuance,

that sliver of persistence inside every cell.

This is undeniably a collection of poetry that requires courage to read. The poet’s artistry exposes what we do not want to see, yet must. There is no other way out but through the fire of understanding.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 384 pages

Publisher: Counterpoint; First Trade Paper Edition, 2009

Price: $14.95

ISBN-10: 1582434808

ISBN-13: 978-1582434803

You’ve heard it said, “hurts so good.” About the writing style of Elizabeth Hay, I can say: cuts so soft. Her words, her turn of phrase, her sweet sentence construction, it is as precise and expertly sculpted as with a sculptor’s chisel or a surgeon’s scalpel. Yet soft. The sharpest knife enters your flesh with hardly more than a red line—and finds its target. The heart. The reader’s mind. There are no ragged edges here.

The setting for this novel intrigued me right away. The book was a choice in my book club, recently joined, and I thrilled to the story description of northern wild, a small group of misfits who broadcast from a radio station in a town called Yellowknife, where there is nothing but radio.

I was suddenly back in my days of traveling northern Canada and Alaska, and listening to a voice on the radio, passing messages from friend to friend, husband telling wife he would be home late, George telling Harry that the part he needs for his truck has arrived, and hello! Shirley’s baby is born!

Late Nights on Air has more sophistication than that, and this group of radio broadcasters and technicians and managers bring with them more than just the drama that flies over the air. There is also the air between them. And their love of the clean air about them. But at the same time, there is that intimacy of community, of strangers connecting by bond of shared humanity. Late Nights on Air is love story of the misfit, love story of the northern wild, love story of life, lived however we manage. And like all love stories, these loves, too, die, except, perhaps, the one for the open wild.

A proposed gas pipeline runs through the story like a guideline of place to cut. Hay makes the incision cleanly, and from this opened place emerge the voices of the town, those who have come to it because they found they did not belong anywhere else, and those who belong there root and soul and have so through ancestry. What we see in that opened place is the wilderness inside a man’s, a woman’s heart, and also the stunning wilderness of northern Canada, in this town called Yellowknife and far beyond. It is a cruel yet beautiful world, and we are spared neither cruelty or beauty.

Such fine lines Hay writes:

“…her voice sounded like a tarnished silver spoon…”

“…in the free and easy woods of herself…”

“…constant light was like endless caffeine…”

“…she seems to want to erase herself…”

“At stake was something immense, all the forms of life that lay in the path of a natural gas pipeline corridor that would rip open the Arctic, according to critics, like a razor slashing the face of Mona Lisa.”

“The girl had laced up the soft shoe of her voice.”

“Dido had a vibrancy about her, like a watered plant after a drought.”

“Such a lot to unpack from that slender gift of a sentence.”

“…in the wind their voices tore like fabric…”

“And the thought came to him that it wasn’t just one person who had died, but all the filaments of life connecting that person to everyone he’d ever known and to every place he’d ever been.”

“The sight of her did something to his heart. He felt its exact location and entire size inside his chest.”

And there, she’s done it, Hay has done it: thrown away all the excess, trimmed away all the fat, and left the words that describe a moment, a sensation, an image, a life exactly. She has even done the remarkable, passed my personal test of expert word artist, and written both one of the best love scenes I’ve read in many years (and not one thing graphic or crude about it), and later, one of the most profound breaking up scenes I have ever read (and not one thing graphic or crude about it, either). Add for frosting on this Arctic ice cake one of the most memorable death scenes I’ve encountered on written page, without a single note of melodrama about it. These are typically the scenes where even the best writers fall into muck. Where even the best writers die, impaled on a cliché. Hay shines.

These human lives tangle and untangle, and they tangle, too, into the wild around them, and there is great sacrifice, yet also great humanity. Not in the deeds marked by medals and honors, but moments marked by one human being alleviating, for but a passing instant quickly moved into memory, the loneliness of another before both go on their way again. These are the imperfect, caught lovingly in their fascinating imperfections, and made perfect by the artist who captures them so on paper for our witness.

Late Nights on Air is winner of the 2007 Giller Prize. Elizabeth Hay is a former radio journalist, author of six other books, all of which I intend to read, and winner also of the Marian Engel Award. She lives in Canada.