Arc raves about Joy Is So Exhausting
One of the open secrets of Canadian poetry is the number of women poets who are stop-the-presses funny in their explorations of contemporary womanhood. Jeanette Lynes, Sue Goyette, Adeena Karasick, Catherine Hunter…. I’m making a list, and Susan Holbrook’s at the top. While the various cultural reasons for this accruing of poetic gender comedy deserve a great deal of discussion, suffice to say that Holbrook’s follow-up to the comic linguistic accidents of misled (1999) feeds the feminist- comic fire with its cheeky-serious, sexy-goofy language games. Take the title. Holbrook begins with an epigraph from Marian Engel’s cross-species eroto-CanClassic Bear that claims 'joy is tiring,' and the epigraph’s associative border-crossing transgression sets the right tone for Holbrook’s analogously strange and wonderful linguistic transgressions and revealing substitutions. The collection finishes with a long prose poem that works and re-works the possibilities of duality to reveal why joy (or Joy?) is so exhausting. This two-handedness acts as a kind of dis-organizing principle throughout the book, as Holbrook’s ludic poetics recreate an alterative order. 'Punch lines become sucker punches' crows Coach House Press on the back of the book. This makes Joy is So Exhausting sound like a work of aggressive fakery, rather than what it is: an inviting work of avant-garde pleasures mixed with sharp humour and smart sensuality. The collection’s virtuoso piece on the ironies of differentiation is the eight-page 'Good Egg Bad Seed.' This series of comic differentials about 'two kinds of people' is a hilarious satire on formulaic homilies ('You’ve fallen for a line or you’ve fallen for a sentence. / You are irritable or iterable.') The series also points out that a quest to define the self inevitably fails, as experience is always larger than categorization allows. Like Michael Ondaatje’s 'Elimination Dance,' 'Good Egg Bad Seed' entices readers into defining themselves in terms both practical and ridiculous -- and the more comic the terms are, the more earnestly impossible the project becomes. Language substitution -- and the revelations of flexibility -- is another of Holbrook’s talents, and poems like 'Aside From' and 'Really Just' note the tectonic shifts in meaning that result from tiny nudges in diction. 'Insert' rewrites directions for tampon application by replacing each noun and verb in the original directions with the word that follows it immediately in the dictionary. The results are riotously funny, and a sly critique of the slipshod manufacturing of women’s products: the first line is 'Take a deep Brecht and relapse.' In 'Girl Watching,' clicheds used to refer to the erotic attractiveness of women are rescued from dullness to a new sweet/tartness: 'she’s a fresh bingo dabber, a claw-foot tub, cinnamon unwaxed floss.' In 'Twister,' cake and disaster arrive together -- don’t they always? -- and Holbrook questions the notion of language as a 'pixilated cabbage' of our wilful desires. Read it; you’ll love it. Or, love it; you’ll read it.