poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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What's Love Got To Do With It?: two Margaret Christakos poetry collections, wipe.under.a.love & Excessive Love Prostheses
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I don’t know if I feel excess      is my porch it was too much or not all the
problems with men, the same. enough for the now of my life. with me, sure,
but it does not make a difference I tried to keep an open view came from loving
excessively, one could argue through a window that looked onto dance floors all
the problems I have had with women where your torsos were individual sinews
flickering on where I appealed to various possibilities.
 – “orange,” page 9, wipe.under.a.love
The author of five poetry collections and a novel shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award, Charisma (Pedlar Press. Toronto, 2001.), Toronto writer Margaret Christakos’ poetry is a series of texts that turn in on themselves, turning inside out and building, pieces rewritten and twisted constantly into other forms, within collections and without. One of the most original young Canadian writers currently publishing, Christakos’ books completely sidestep the banal repetitive rut of narrative geography that so much Canadian poetry seems trapped in. Considered neither lyric nor language poetry, her poems crisscross with what she calls “various vehicular engines,” pushing hard the “belief in both as important currents ...”

The poems in her two most recent collections, wipe.under.a.love and Excessive Love Prostheses, specifically (her fourth and fifth collections, respectively, after Not Egypt, Other Words for Grace and The Moment Coming), work many forms of poems and love from the same parts, the same mechanics, even going back into previous collections. Her poems exist as a weaving, a re-investigation and reconsideration around notions of excessive love (hetero, homo and familial), mothering, sex, gender wars and, in Excessive Love Prostheses (Coach House Books. Toronto, 2002.), complicating the process by adding pornography and cautionary nursery rhymes. In wipe.under.a.love (Mansfield Press. Toronto, 2000.), for example, the piece “Grounds 11B” cribs from, she tells us, the piece “Mercure” from her first collection, Not Egypt (Coach House Press. Toronto, 1989.), which includes the thread of orange light that runs through her work, with Christakos writing: “There is an orange light in the test-house window. It extenuates in / an orange beam bridging its leprous yard, indicating the track, the / bluish field. In the train’s wake the glow ignites, shroom like spilt / baskets of garbage, exhuming the house’s carcass” (“Mercure,” page 76, Not Egypt).

As obvious as the first section of wipe.under.a.love, “orange porch (book of reminiscences),” the first piece, “Horizon,” is cribbed in the second, “Offshore,” a longer poem that, in the first part, spreads “Horizon” in order forwards, and, in the second half, back, turning the brief “porch view on sinews or possibilities. her out reminiscences shoulder laughing / recently distance literature writing” (page 2) to “porch difference with all I feel view // on neighbours through looked sinews // or nor where various possibilities. // her holy just where estimate and I cotton out” (page 3) and even further, to “porch excess same. all difference / with argue came women all / I don’t know if I feel // on flickering streetlamps neighbours / through a window that looked” in the third piece (“Staircase,” page 4).
out I and down her                                                         
possibilities. where nor radical or                                                         
sinews through neighbours streetlamps on                                                         

view not it I all have porch              – “Offshore,” page 3, wipe.under.a.love
Christakos’ poems are built like microcircuitry – no matter how close you get, there is still another level of breaking down, of weaving and intricate movement. There are no flat surfaces, or endings here. She knows how to fragment the poem and then widen, scalpel and explore her life, and the language of her life in art, in an increasingly generative series of texts, defining and redefining.
from this poem of the impressionists
or after sex, different art results
 – “Grounds 4C.,” page 37, wipe.under.a.love
The extended series “Grounds” in the first part of the title section of wipe.under.a.love includes a brief “therefore” as coda to each piece, using words from the text boiling down the meaning and consequence of each. No simple retelling, the piece becomes an extension as revision, re-visitation, turning each poem into more than what it already was. In this collection, Christakos works the two-headedness of poems, with a foreground and a background in some, an interior and exterior in others, and with the added layer of “therefores” as Greek chorus, re-interpreting what had gone before, even as she references her twin children or Margaret Atwood’s Two-Headed Poems (House of Anansi Press. Toronto, 1978.): “all right, when nudged under atwood is / women and bisexuality, another sort of two-headedness / the one lower body straining toward two lovers / always imagining the counterpoint, double desire / in cold storage awaiting a free bookshelf. come on now / i’m not unhappy, i’m happy, two ways of saying / the same thing and reflecting a perfectly calm / exterior” (“Grounds 4B.,” page 35). In sections broken and still breaking, wipe.under.a.love moves in leaps and jolts, in tales told around feminist theory, a birthday party for Christakos’ five-year-old, and moments stolen to write on the computer as toddlers sleep, or not, a coffee metaphor riding through the section titles of the second half (“Grounds,” “Grounds for Action” and “Free Refills”).

In the Poetry Spoken Here bookstore section of the League of Canadian Poets website, Christakos writes of wipe.under.a.love as:
“. . . a book-length generative structure of linked poetic texts. There are two major sequences: ‘orange porch,’ in which I write from a deliberately nostalgic position, calling up a collage of memories and reflections, hashing through the playful terrain one gets to at some point (mid-life, perhaps), particularly sifting through bisexual positionality in relation to a current life with male partner and three children, etc. The other sequence is called ‘Fresh Coffee,’ with many poems each numbered and called a ‘Grounds,’ and leading to an accretive manifesto-text called ‘Grounds for Action’ and, of course, ‘Free Refills.’ In the ‘Fresh Coffee’ section, each individual poem iterates three modalities, beginning with a lyrical domestic or epistemological poem, then proceeding through a set of specific, desire-led ‘word processing’ operations which form a sort of filter for the piece, and a final procedural capsule that concentrates original lyricism and some sort of epiphanic self-inscription.

Whereas my previous collection dealt largely with birth and mothering, ‘Fresh Coffee’ strives to be a proprioceptive sidebar to the experience of living the mutually mutational identities of writer, lover and mother. Themes of inspiration, relationship and intellectual environment are always delivered in midst of the practical realities of having left the scene of mothering in order to write; and written within the aesthetic of routine required by anyone living among young children. Accessibility has some purchase. That is, the lyrical is always subject to the methodical, rudimentary assignation and sorting processes one uses as well for folding laundry or loading a dishwasher. What one might consider assemblage is always also disassemblage, an economical reassemblage of utterance and density of recombinant experience. As in much of my writing, I’m working with the limitations of the lyrical form, discovering the intensifying yet deromanticizing strategies that will lead me to a more original poetic voice.”

In Excessive Love Prostheses, as the title suggests, there is an extra love added on, unclear whether the replacement of a missing limb or an extra, but excessive nonetheless. As Gerry Gilbert’s Moby Jane (Coach House Press. Toronto, 1987.) or George Bowering Selected: Poems 1961-1992 (McClelland & Stewart. Toronto, 1993.), the book begins with text, even before the half page, colophon and dedication, and end with the same. The collection has two pieces bookending: “Uncomforted” at the beginning and “BeHeaded” at the end, as well as a middle section, “L: Mother’s Lessons,” which are all on different colours or weights of paper, to stand out.

Where wipe.under.a.love moves through domestic blisses and frustations, Excessive Love Prostheses seems more restless, wary, less sure of what is coming next, writing nursery rhymes as warnings:

when I was little I used to steal candy
if you were a child and you worked here

I would leap out from my closet and say,
a prairie of the appetite. I can’t abide
 – “E3. Father,” page 28, Excessive Love Prostheses
The movements through this collection are far more subtle, creating a strange sense of deja vu while reading through the pieces in the first two sections, “A. Repetitive Strain” and “B-G. Career Paths,” until you realize the words repeated, shifting the order, and therefore the meaning, to tell a different story of employment, from “A1. Accountant” (page 12) to “B1. Construction Worker” (page 16) to “G3. Social Scientist” (pages 34-5). As the celebrity personal assistant speaks, “when she corkscrew-pinched the back of / my arm last week I adjusted my perspective.” (“B2. Celebrity Personal Assistant,” page 17), we later relive the other side of it through the same language, spoken by whom she (presumably) assists, a voice that speaks, “I myself // feel so she thanks me for it not / angry but full of corkscrew-pinched the back of / spew about to erupt, like adjusted my perspective” (“B3. Female Rock Star,” page 18).

The middle section, “L: Mother’s Lessons,” subtitled “Six and Twenty Lessons,” reads as variants on and fragments of Victorian nursery rhymes and children’s stories. Hence the cover image from The Babes in the Wood, the story of two children who are abandoned in the woods and die horribly, thanks to a woodcutter father (or step-father). The woodcutter dies horribly at the end, getting his certain due. The lessons and warnings not only for children but for the self. Unlike Christakos’ previous work, where the process of revision is easier to track, the first step is referenced, but not included, of the original text that she works from, dropping words and meanings instead directly into the mix, or, in this section, from old stories, and twisting them around. Through these poems, Excessive Love Prostheses reads as far less naive, more wise, more wary, and even darker than her previous work.

      this is not your home.’ Pussy’s neck then swing A very heavy
brick, And then she suffer’d ten times more, All
 – “Nine Lessons,” page 54

Christakos’ work, too, continues to be highly sexual, as in the section “H-K: Journal Notes,” from “Carry me // for your storm of semen. I’ll carry you about like dropped teeth” (“I. Anniversary Journal Notes,” page 40) to “inside that gets to thoughts of him as I / drifted full water, as my belly untightened, reverie conceding / the point of getting to his wildness [ . . . ] unintelligible bursts, messily here so much I’m getting when / in the groin” (“J1. Heterosexual Affair Journal Notes,” page 41).

For Victorian children hearing stories, the distance one has to travel to ruination is never far, even as Christakos plays without the Victorian moral judgement of storytelling, but leaves the harsh inevitability looming. They read less a punishment than that, merely an inevitability, of what will happen to you if you stay, or go. A rabbit’s head struck with a brick, and children abandoned to the dark wood. In a review by Sonnet L’Abbe of Excessive Love Prostheses, she wrote that Christakos “is known for her fascination with the extreme borders of gender politics, and has earned her reputation by throwing her lived, embodied experience in the face of critical theory and laughing at the mess. In the visually striking Excessive Love Prostheses, Christakos continues her de/reconstructive impulses by fashioning an abecedary of poems with visible seams. Sentences are ripped apart and tacked back together in random orders, sometimes pseudo-syntactic, sometimes grid-like, as though, when it comes to their arrangement, the words are merely binary bits of information signifying no more than their presence or absence” (The Globe & Mail, November 2, 2002).

I’d argue the apparent randomness of the binary bit is far less than random, and the individual poems are less individual than part of a “random” whole, writing poems as fragments or building blocks of something more, needing the other poems to play off of, into a meaning far deeper. It’s perhaps why so little of Christakos’ work appears first in magazines or anthologies; how the individual poem isn’t necessarily the point.

Christakos’ work reads very much as the book as a unit of composition, with deliberate boundaries between the back cover of one and the front cover of the next, but so much still bleeds through. The excesses, turning love on its side, and the wonderings. With her third collection, The Moment Coming (ECW Press. Toronto, 1998.), the first of her collections on domestic matters, and how domestic matters, the three read as a trilogy of works, one for each of her children. Consider too, the small matter of wipe.under.a.love including a double author photo on the cover, and a triple author photo in the back of Excessive Love Prostheses. They read as a considerable shift in form and content from her first two, as her second collection, Other Words for Grace (Mercury Press. Toronto, 1994.), dealt with mothering from the other end, speaking daughter and of the narrator’s mother; called an extended piece on “the coming of age of a little girl in the 1970s” while still cribbing from her first collection, Not Egypt, in underlined phrases and words scattered through the text. On the other hand, her collection of prose poems, Not Egypt, worked the lyric diary of travel and love, in Eastern Ontario, her hometown of Sudbury, and beyond, writing of travels from Montreal (where she was living at the time) into Ontario, and past Alexandria, in Glengarry County, her “Alexandria-not-Egypt.” It’s interesting the way a distance has been deliberately created through reworking bits from her première collection, while she has, at the same time, provided a stronger link back to that earlier work by referencing it.

The Moment Coming, as a collection, also provides a further break from her first two collections, not just of substance but of style, as the earlier texts of revision and folding in bursts forth in full measure in the remaining three, and poems in sections become less and more, less individual pieces held in a section, to fragments of another fragment of a further fragment, of another whole, broken, then, into (presumed) thirds. Christakos, whether consciously or unconsciously, is moving her writing as her life moves, vaguely weaving autobiographical notions as themes before specific details, from young love and feminist theory, to looking back on childhood, to three collections of domestic matters, one-two-three, with mothering and love running through as a constant thread.

Now you think you know it all, but in a lit-tle time
you may have for-got-ten past, and will be glad to read it
 – “Lesson of the Past,” page 50

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