Mike Spry’s Bourbon & Eventide may be the saddest book of poetry to launch in Canada this year. With both wit and tenderness, this 56-page collection strings together tercets to tell the story of a relationship falling apart from the beginning. Bourbon & Eventide continues some of the same themes of obsession and disappointment tackled in Spry’s first book of poetry, JACK, with a focus and economy that compresses a novel’s worth of narrative into 168 lines. Spry, whose poem “The Follicular” appeared in The Puritan Compendium I, is making failed romance his own undisputed poetic territory.
Many of Spry’s poems end in the bleak punch lines that let the reader know this relationship was dead-on-arrival. Fortunately, Spry carefully balances his jokes with a nostalgic lyricism. Where his last lines are longer and more sombre, he creates a tranquil kind of despair. At other times, a punch line buried in the middle of a poem becomes an occasion to reflect on how sad it is to be the butt of the poet’s joke.
In spite of their brevity, these poems don’t move rapidly. They hang around in the reader’s mind like the lachrymose memories they briefly indulge. For example:
Everybody told her to move to Brooklyn, so she didn’t.
Instead she went west like Alger, dreaming of the Pacific,
but only made it to Toronto, slowed by the false promise of hope.
Spry exposes this couple’s pet language and the embarrassing details of their sex life. In their domestic vocabulary, “‘Cocktails’ were ‘adult beverages,’ / ‘hangovers’ were known as ‘daytime,’ and ‘having sex’ was ‘apologizing.’” I’m reluctant to call Spry’s two characters dysfunctional, although he exploits their faults for the sake of humour. Both of them drink too much. They work odd jobs at the fringe of the creative class. He cheats. She is a kleptomaniac. The poems morbidly foretell the relationship’s demise every several pages. The woman in this story frequently makes oblique references to a lack of commitment, dissatisfaction, and disappointment, while the man remains unconvinced of his ability to keep her interest. Bourbon & Eventide is heavy with the inertia of failure. These characters know they’ve screwed up, but they don’t know what to do about it.
The male counterpart is poor in bed and helpless with the realization that he has failed as a romantic partner. In the end, even his sterility abandons him. The woman, on the other hand, is hyperbolized to the edge of disbelief. She teaches English “with falsified credentials” and “served time for attempted robbery.” The eleventh tercet suggests that Spry is playing with the trope of the manic pixie dream girl:
The colour of her hair was Midnight Disappointment,
and its pixied frame lit her face in a shining brilliance.
‘When this ends,’ he thought, ‘she’ll be all I know.’
The second poetry collection from Mike Spry
Spry deliberately describes her with fey-like attributes and associates her with the natural elements, such as summer, grass, and pastoral settings. Unlike the manic pixie dream girl who “teaches broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” she indulges and worsens the male character’s bad habits, such as drinking every night and not caring about other people’s orgasms. She is a cynic and a shoplifter. The impulsiveness that defines MPDGs have real consequences. She has both an abortion and a criminal record. The promise of her otherworldly magic is always dispelled. She is more like a goblin dream girl who leads her partner off the beaten path but into the bog.
Each poem is an enclosed picture of a love affair going awry that builds on character tropes and histories. A persistent return to a meditative voice and subjects like the seasons, departures, and domestic life make Bourbon & Eventide sad and haunting. Its narrative shows the foresight and patience of a talented storyteller. Spry shows a great sympathy for his characters, if only because he has been cruel enough to make them so bad at love. Spry knows how to make a reader laugh at his characters’ despair and turns the misty-eyed subject matter of a breakup into a book that moves artfully between dolour and lampoonery.