Asbestos Heights

A book about flowers

Looking at the body of a headless Cloten, Shakespeare’s Imogen says, “These flowers are like the pleasures of the world; this bloody man, the care on’t.” Flowers are one of the oldest images of metaphor. They stand in for spiritual, aristocratic, environmental, and romantic meanings. Shakespeare uses them extensively, but in the same breath, he tramples the lofty rhetoric of flowers with the weight of the body. Here, the body is both maimed and ironic (Cloten is wearing his lover’s clothes when he is decapitated). The body intervenes as a source of humour and satire, enlisting shit, sex (of the unromantic kind), and occasionally gore to undermine aesthetic visions that otherwise cross from art to utopian kitsch.

M Travis Lane’s latest collection, Crossover (Cormorant), is a three-section, lyric treatment of death that relishes in the finery and metaphor of nature. She cites “the chartreuse pines / the lime-yellow larch / and reds: red bark and maple bloom” and writes these catalogues of nature into quietly musical stanzas. M Travis Lane is powerful and confident with the lyric voice.

Lane wraps herself in the natural world. Trees, birds, and bodies of water are the sources of her poetry, and it is natural energy, a tranquil and sometimes sorrowful energy, that infuses her verse. In “I Have Put on Mourning,” Lane writes “Around my neck / I have strung a skein of hummingbirds; / around my head / wild coral, sea anemones … / I will wear / tundra, and forest, wet mosses.” The poem is a lament for ecological destruction. Faced with the impending loss of the nature that charges this poetry, the narrator desires to subsume herself with nature and cross over with it, before she is left in a barren spring. Nature poetry cannot be innocent in a time of environmental devastation.

There are lines in Crossover that come too close to CanCon kitsch, though. These are lines like “a correspondence of pelicans,” and, in a poem about anemones, “The child without a mother / says, “Wind, you are my mother! / I will dance! I will dance!” And this leads me to another book about flowers published this year: David McGimpsey’s Asbestos Heights, a parody of “classy” poets and snobbish critical culture. For example, Fiddlehead magazine is called out directly in the poem “As the editor of the Fiddlehead once asked me, ‘Have you even tried writing poems that make no mention of arena football star Jared Lorenzen or that time you brought a Shamrock Shake to a job interview?’

One of McGimpsey’s deflationary, comedic gestures is to return to the body, as in “Yarrow”:

There’s a poetry where trees don’t have sex,
when the yarrow observed from the car seat
can stand in, plain image, plain symbol,
and not be you observing me as overweight.

Parody is an easy way to categorize Asbestos Heights, but not the full story. There are poems where the metaphoric value of flowers are used in tandem with McGimpsey’s favourite material, like baseball and fast food. The last poem, “Schoolhouse Lilies,” allows the two vocabularies to coexist:

My father grew rows of spider flowers
but he called them by their French name, cleomes.
The cleomes were gone by mid-October
and the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs.

Some call oxblood lilies schoolhouse lilies
because when they bloom it’s time to go back.
‘It’s good to have a job,’ my father told me,
as I complained about ever returning.

Asbestos Heights

A book about lambs

For McGimpsey, the vocabulary of flowers is a site of classist definitions. The difference between an anemone and a buttercup is of more practical importance to gardeners and florists than poets, while the Pulsatilla patens is not even in the same world as the Ranunculus ficaria. By the same token, the rhetorical difference between the Greek anemone (meaning “daughter of the wind”) and the vulgar windflower can make or break a metaphor.

“Schoolhouse lily” and “oxblood lily” are equally vulgar, but “oxblood” sounds more poetic to me, in a Lorca-like way. “Schoolhouse lily” makes me think of my grandmother (incidentally, so does the cover of Asbestos Heights: an alarmed-looking plush lamb clutching what might be a daffodil in its mouth). In the poem, though, schoolhouse lilies are a vehicle for delivering paternal, working-class advice on the narrator’s academic, elitist, and frequently dreaded job.

Asbestos Heights is a jibe at a culture that survives by isolating (or at least pretending to isolate) itself from the vocabulary of consumption. However, as popular culture becomes ever more present in poetry, I’ve heard people ask, “What’s the big deal with McGimpsey?” There are poems that use Mad Men and poems that use Predator. The big deal is that McGimpsey writes lyrically dense and metaphorically subtle poems, like many celebrated poets, such as M Travis Lane. While there certainly are people who might yell, on opening Crossover, “Another fucking poem about flowers!” (and many, too, who would yell similar profanities at both of these books for finding yet another iambic quatrain or free verse stanza), flowers are understood to be one of the oldest, most reliable sources of metaphoric vocabulary.

That said, it’s not easier to write poetry that uses flowers instead of Doritos, just as it’s not easier to understand a poem that relies on a knowledge of Beyoncé instead of Richard Strauss. They are two different windows through which we see poetry that is basically lyric, humanist, and often sad, however reverent or irreverent its tone. In Lane’s “A Fault in the Pane,” the narrator sees two moons through a cracked window, until she shifts slightly, and “the sorcery which / bounced its pinpoints in old glass retreats.” The poem expresses a belief that poetry can be a true gaze at the world. The crack, which produces “a cuticle of art moderne,” is a style, as opposed to a truth-producing naturalism. McGimpsey, on the other hand, loves to lie, especially to make us laugh, such as when he writes, “The sexiest character in CanLit / would have to be … Poundy DeLaGrace / from Destin du Pays, Destin d’Ohhh.” The moon is a beautiful to look at, straight through clear glass or through cracked optics. CanLit, on the other hand, is a little more exciting when viewed through glow-in-the-dark shutter shades.

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