Sunday, August 12, 2012

6th Canadian book challenge - 1st post

I really thought that Headhunter would be the first book I reviewed for the 6th Canadian book challenge (I read it over a month ago), but I wanted the review to be more polished and have sort of run out of time (I will finish it soon though).  Details here if you are interested in signing up for the Challenge: 6th-annual-canadian-book-challenge.

Generally, for lesser known authors and/or books I try to follow the adage that if I don't have much nice to say about the work, I should keep it to myself.  This doesn't apply to mega-best-seller authors, but it certainly applies to poets.  So I will only review poetry collections where I like the work.

I am making an exception to this general rule for Thomas Chandler Haliburton, who was an early essayist/humourist.  He is best remembered for The Clockmaker and The Old Judge.  He is far more political/polemical than Stephen Leacock, though you might be able to trace some line from Haliburton to Leacock.  Actually, some of Mark Twain's lesser writings do have some of the same features and weaknesses of The Clockmaker. I think these were probably pretty dated in the 1950s when the New Canadian Library tried to resurrect Haliburton's career, and I find them basically entirely unreadable now, and in both cases I stopped after about 3 chapters.  Possibly I would have liked them a tiny bit more if I agreed with Haliburton's politics, but I still think the writing style is dire.  Thank goodness I simply borrowed them and didn't put down any hard cash for these.  Really just wanted to get this off my chest, and this post isn't actually going to review these books.

Instead, this review is about a poetry collection that really reads like a novel, and I mean that in a good way.  The book is In Cars by Kimmy Beach (Turnstone Press, 2007).  I can't tell if the poems are literally autobiographical or an imagined autobiography, but they certainly ring true.  I will proceed as if they are autobiographical.

Kimmy writes about growing up in the 1980s.  A time when pop radio mostly played 70s hits (Eagles, Led Zeppelin, T-Rex) along with the early 80s music (Blondie, The Cars, Flock of Seagulls and of course Gary Numan's "Cars") along with groups that spanned these decades (Kinks, AC/DC).  This is important because nearly all the poems talk about driving around with the radio blasting, and Kimmy name-checks all kinds of songs, all of which were part of my late childhood.  If you weren't driving around or trying to score beer, then you were at the roller rink.  Here there is a small divergence, and I suspect I am about two years younger than Ms. Beach, since for us, the roller rink was definitely fading and the video arcades were the cool place to go (at least for geeky guys like myself).  It is fair to say, however, that I grew up in a small to mid-sized city in Michigan and Ms. Beach is somewhere in rural western Canada, probably not far from the Alberta/ Saskatchewan border.  But we drove everywhere, just like those kids did.  In Michigan at least, you could drive at 16, so lots of high schoolers had cars, just as the kids in this collection do.

She definitely sounds like she hung out more with the "wrong crowd" than I did, since I never did try to sneak smokes or beer.  Nor did I try to get any of the "action" that she gets in her car.  But still, this really brings me back.  (I'm working on a set of linked posts on nostalgia and this book definitely contributed to a near fatal case I had about a month back -- joking.)

The poems almost are chapters in a novel.  Kimmy has a bad encounter with a boy she thinks of as a friend.  She almost loses a female friend after the boy spreads rumors about her.  She starts seeing another boy.  She goes to the rink to meet up with friends.  They head to the 7-11 to hang-out (I used to love 7-11 -- it had all the kinds of junky, comfort foods that teenagers craved and no healthy, boring foods).

Kimmy is a bit of an outlier in that she has her own car and drives quite a bit (a bit unusual) and she seems to know a bit about fixing up cars (her brother is a kind of master mechanic apparently).  There are car accidents throughout the book, including some fatal ones.  The last few poems kind of showing her rerunning events in her head, haunted by what has happened, wondering if she could have changed the course of events.  Actually the cumulative effect of the last 9 poems is quite powerful.

Rather than explicating a few poems line by line, I will simply post two of the stronger poems in their entirety.  If you like them, I would definitely encourage seeking out In Cars to read the entire set.  To me, this collection is really quite an impressive achievement.

Kimmy Beach

How I Learned to Drive

mom in the driver’s seat
of our white ‘63 Chrysler New Yorker

my brother and sister reading
Archies and love comics in the back
she fishes a lighter and her Cameos
from the huge black purse between us
her other hand leaves the wheel
Drive for a sec
one hand flicks the lighter
the other cups the flame
and I reach across without a thought
an eleven-year-old lost inside
Casino Royale    scarcely lift
my eyes from the page    take the square steering wheel
keep the car straight on the road with one hand
for as many flicks as it takes her lighter to catch
the first whiff of tobacco

she takes the wheel from me
I go back to my book
shoulder line a blur to my right
through an open summer window
on a long prairie highway

Kimmy Beach
We Ride

you’re next to me and we’re riding
in my Mustang
all the windows down and winter
pouring in

cold air and swirls of snow
at our faces as I spin out at intersections
on dark back roads and deserted parking lots
speakers pushed to the edge of distortion

I’m driving the way you like it    dangerous
revving to five thousand before I shift
you say you wish every girl
drove like me
you reach over to stroke my thigh
and I settle my leg into your hand
slam the stick into fourth then touch
you with my right hand    your thighs sigh open
shrieking muffler
snow and exhaust a wall behind us

I drive harder    hard as I can
our breath sharp puffs at the dash
light from the fuel gauge and tach
reflect orange in your eyes
the car giving us all it has
thrilled to be under us    letting us ride it harder
we scream past tilted stop signs
an inch thick with snow
my hands leave the wheel
my car takes us and we ride
we ride