Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting is a collection of poems filled with clever wordplay and witty recrafting of borrowed words. It relies heavily on literary devices, perhaps the unifying property which holds the collection together, turning the mundane into the comical and the cliché to a whimsical game.
The result: a dizzying joyride which leaves the passenger exhausted, if smiling. But peek beneath the playful construction and you will find a poet interested in more than the laughter her verse engenders.
Holbrook utilizes the literary devices she chooses with a rebel’s mind, adapting them to best advantage. “Your First Timpani,” one of the comedic stars of the book, appears to be an Oulipo N+7 in which all nouns in a text are replaced by the noun 7 places from the original in the dictionary.
But first appearances can often be deceptive in this book. Holbrook threw out the rule of 7, broadening her playground and allowing for a more careful word choice which enriched the lyric and humor of the tampon instructions. It also provided for a variation of terms; the same noun never repeated twice. “The tomboy should now be comfortably inside you, with the remodeled Strindberg hanging outside your Buddha. When a tam-tam is inserted properly, you shouldn’t feel any discussion.”
Even the most stoic of readers will find themselves expelling a hearty guffaw with book in hand. But replete with this kind of humor, Holbrook could be mistaken as a satirist of little substance. Nevertheless, her choice of subject for these poems tells us she cannot be so easily dismissed. She has another goal; to make her reader stop and think about the everyday language that rolls from the tongue with an automaton’s care.
“Aside From,” a poem composed of partial idioms expressed “Jeopardy style” paired with the endings or beginnings of other idioms, creates a sort of game for the reader in pairing them back to their original partners. This not only makes some intriguing verb/object magic, but the choice of idioms is no coincidence and one might find themselves pondering the politics of the language used in them:
the lock what is gone out on
the vote what is raped
parole what is won
the night what he is out on
the heart what is taken back
“Girl Watching” renovates crass and misogynistic language into a metaphorical delight. It usurps the typical ways in which we speak about women’s bodies, and yet lays bare the very objectifying nature of that language:
Wow lookit her, there’s a sunlit hay bale, there’s a key lime pie and a million __pixels.
No way, she’s a mealy peach, a fourth-place finish, an overlong film clip of __Stockwell Day’s wetsuit.
Clearly, Holbrook is interested in subverting more than Oulipian constraints. But she accomplishes this in small ways, letting wit take central stage in this collection.
Her weakest poems also happen to be those most poorly disguised in their political context; “News Sudoku # 19, Level: Lowest” and “New Sudoku #24, Level: Led.” However, I don’t dislike these poems because of their forwardness of politic. What I find lacking in these poems is that they are purely driven by device and offer no narration, insight, or lyrical quality. They strike me as the treatment of words one might expect of a mathematician rather than a poet.
The final poem in the series, a personal favorite called “Nursery,” is where it seems at last we meet the real Susan Holbrook, free from artifice (save the driving organization of the poem). That is not to say that Holbrook’s poetry is not uniquely hers; her work contains a strong, unique voice that shines throughout despite the heavy adoption of text. While humor remains a strong component of the piece, it holds an inherent intimacy the others lack. It is in the action of mother nursing daughter, and in the ruminations of the narrator:
Left: Still pitch before dawn and I dream a little, that you were born a gnome, and I loved you just as much, maybe more. Right: Dimples for knuckles. Left: Dark green eye keeps darting up at me, as if finally putting the face and the food together. Right: I wouldn’t write this poem in Texas.
This poem is at once deeply personal and political. It demystifies the act of breastfeeding, rejects traditional values of what’s appropriate silage for poetry, and insists it’s possible to be both mother and artist. And it does all this with a quiet beauty that’s simultaneously simple and complex.
It is not only the gift of joy Susan Holbrook bequeaths her readers with Joy Is So Exhausting, but one of shifting perspectives. Regardless, it’s impossible to find this book anything less than entertaining.
JOY IS SO EXHAUSTING
By Susan Holbrook Coach House Books
Paperback, $16.95 CAD, 88pp