Pearl Pirie’s An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion (words(on)pages, 2016).
Pearl Pirie is concerned with vectors, disruption, iridescence, and combustion, and using them to unsettle seemingly settled things. Ignore for a moment that the title suggests a disappointment in not spontaneously combusting. Motion is a position, as in the poem “We Casually Toss Around our Rucksacks” where “all we have is looser than clouds. we are air, this breath from / our octopus beaks.” As a reader you look again, unsure what you saw. That “we” really is air, really is this breath from our own beaks. The fantastical pushes boundaries of that which “we” encompass.
This collection gives the sense of poems in conversation, as if they spill from an ongoing correspondence. They don’t pretend to inhabit a closed territory. “Sunrise With Sea Monsters” originates in a blog project by Paul Vermeersch in which poets responded to the J.M.W. Turner painting of the same name. It produces one of several cases where a vector in the background of these poems signals before vanishing: “words point forward, not / prophetically but profitably / not for profit but for gain.” What’s important isn’t that the words point toward something but that they are propulsive.
A series of guidelines from a poetic HR department address questions you didn’t know you needed to ask in “Poet’s Guide to Buildings on Fire.” Here, Pirie plays dangerously between the literal and metaphorical. Everyday speech isn’t any less metaphor and exaggeration than poetry. Insert a flame emoji. Turning everything into metaphor can be a too-serious business. Laughing at the conventions of poetry (and poets) is an essential method for keeping poetry (and poets) from becoming unbearable. Pirie recommends carrying a small axe.
Laughing at the conventions of poetry (and poets) is an essential method for keeping poetry (and poets) from becoming unbearable. Pirie recommends carrying a small axe.
So, “if the building has a small fire, put it out.” Easy enough! But “if the building is on fire, be aware buildings have been on fire before. are there horses running into it? can they be allegorical unicorns?” Meanwhile, someone might be on fire. What’s seriously addressed in funny lines are questions of priority. One can’t inhabit metaphor to the point that it inhibits interaction with the world. Well, one can, but there’s a cost and that cost is worth imagining.
Meanwhile, “If You Want This” engages wryly with the self-help suggestion that throwing away enough of your self can reveal someone more authentic. What’s to be done about the predicament found in these lines?
poke a nose along
the boarded up strip, the one all-night
coffee shop. dizzy-boned fatigue is real.
talk recklessly to the waitress even tho she knew
when she greeted you that this isn’t your scene.
the lynchpin of your i preceded you.
“I” is cleverly implicated here with that possessive “your” and exposes how hard it is to make a kind of escape. It’s what comes between you wanting this and why later in the same poem a signifier of that I is left behind: “you’re out nearly naked, without your cell.” There’s a jolt to realizing cell (phone) and (jail) cell aren’t paired more often. Try not to forget one is figurative and one is physical. If you see someone in a cell, maybe help them out, especially if how you read their “I” is part of what’s keeping them there.
There’s a jolt to realizing cell (phone) and (jail) cell aren’t paired more often.
“Scrunched Against the Sound of Rain” serves as an example of the tonal, imaginative range in Pirie’s work. It’s a speculative, surreal list of things balled and born into other things, of skins, gloss, and a well-placed “whoa.” To read it and then return to the first poem, “At Two With Nature,” exposes more fully a sublime, glittering, moment that’s so brief it is easy to miss:
have owned that glimpse
that unconscious inhale of glow.
and still have intact that
cynical safety of pretend.
It’s a pleasure to speak the beats of those lines and hear the play of glimpse and glow poised against what we know is pretend. Escape from what you imagine as your self is pretend, like the idea you can “be one with nature.” So, these poems ask, why not be two with nature? Why not pretend in our own way. Poems, like play, are pretend but can let us see what’s really there.
As a way of concluding, it’s worth returning to the title itself: an ongoing lack of spontaneous combustion is just the state you happen to be in if you are not spontaneously combusting. Most likely this is the state you are in right now. What does it change to feel through the world that way?
Aaron Boothby is a poet from California now living in Montreal. Work has been published in Vallum, Axolotl, Whiskey Island, and others while a chapbook titled Reperspirations, Exhalations, Wrapt Inflections was published in 2016 with Anstruther Press. Tweets appear @ellipticalnight and a website can be found here.
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