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Pickle Me This

April 8, 2008

On poetry, and Sitcom by David McGimpsey

Yesterday I read my husband “Summerland” and “Invitation” from David McGimpsey’s Sitcom, published in 2007 by Coach House Books. From the latter poem I was particularly fond of a reference to “the summer I said I would ‘concentrate/ on my portfolio’ and ended up/ taking extra shifts at a frozen-yogurt stand”. Or the last line of “Summerland”, “The future will be full of shiny new books/ and I promise to skim at least one of them.”

I read these poems aloud, and realized that such a reading made McGimpsey’s poetry come to life. That my voice could not help but take on new inflections, hang on certain tones, take up a rhythm that’s not altogether apparent on the page.

“That’s good,” said my husband when I was finished, and then he said, “but those sound like stories.” We thought about it for a moment. “What makes a poem anyway?” he asked. We were both quiet, and then I flipped through the book a bit. “Line breaks, I suppose,” I said in a small voice, but it was clear that I wasn’t sure.

What does make a poem anyway? The best I can get is that I’d know one if I saw it. And I certainly know that David McGimpsey’s work is poetry, but it’s why I’m not sure of. It must be something more than line breaks, though they were the most obvious clue. It was also something my voice took on when I read it, the rhythm. But his poems aren’t poetry as I’ve always known it– he’s short on rhyming couplets, his poems stretch on for pages and pages. And while his allusion are classical as one might expect, they’re coupled with just as many allusions to Mary Tyler Moore, Elvis, Hawaii Five-O, and Gilligan’s Island. Also to Suddenly Susan and Judging Amy, just so you don’t think he’s stuck in a ’70s rut.

I bought this book last fall after hearing about it on the radio, intrigued about whether or not pop culture was worth making art about. That was also about the same time I learned that Kimmy Gibbler had become an academic, and so I’d decided that anything was possible. Though now I realize that it’s only possible because David McGimpsey knows all the rules he is breaking– this made clear by his broad allusions, by his control of language. And while his collection is fun, is funny, it’s in no way frothy. Instead, underlined by a caustic bitterness and certain sadness which makes the humour all the more remarkable, actually. And that 60% of the jokes went over my head didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying myself.

I would wonder about any culture one couldn’t make art of, but I wonder still if McGimpsey ever thinks he might have availed himself of tools lacking in richness. Is their lack of richness the point, or is McGimpsey to show that this stuff is rich after all? I could make an argument for either side. And what then of the nature of poetry anyway? Heady questions, all of these, which– even short of answers– must mean that Sitcom is doing something right.

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