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Pickle Me This

May 9, 2010

Patient Frame by Steven Heighton and Joy is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook

Amazing, I think, that the range of a single volume of poetry by Steven Heighton can put me in mind of a book like The Essential P.K. Page, which encompassed an entire career.  Patient Frame is quite different from other poetry collections I’ve been reading lately, lacking an essential narrative. And while I do find narrative-driven collections immensely appealing, the various nature of Heighton’s book is fascinating to consider, a poetic lumber room packed with corners to explore.

It’s a room that’s remarkably well-organized however, complete with a key as an appendix that places these poems within their wider contexts. Placing Officer Hugh Thompson, an American helicopter pilot whose heroic actions ended the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam; Roy Bryant, one of the men convicted for the murder of 14 year-old Emmet Till; Toussaint Laverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution. The poems reference music by Alison Krauss, the Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones, and other figures including poet Richard Outram, and Edith Swan-Neck, mistress of a Saxon king. (This poem is followed by another called “Reading  The Saxon Chronicles in a Field Hospital, Kandahar”.)

Some of the poems are personal, addresses to family and friends (most of these contained in the section Elegies & Other Love Songs). “Home Movies, 8mm” finishes with the wonderful line, “If I could start over, I would stare and stare”. Fourteen Approximations comprises Heighton’s translations, including “Fragments of a Voyage”, constructed of pieces from five sea-faring texts. This is a fitting collection by a man whose other works include novels, short stories and other poetry collections. His range seems unlimited– everything he touches turns to story.


Susan Holbrook’s collection Joy is So Exhausting is bursting, exuberant. Holbrook engages with the stuff of the world as Heighton does, but in a way that is more immediate, or perhaps just more akin to his translations. Because her work is very often also translation– her poem “Insert” takes directions for inserting a tampon, playing with the language to make clear the banal ridiculousness of the original source, and also to invest ordinary words with unexpected meaning– “Get into a comfortable Poseidon. Most wimples either sit on the Toyota/ with knick-knacks apart, squat slightly with knitting needles bent, or/ stand with one football on the town clerk seep.”

“Poetsmart” translates a pet training manual: “Using positive reinforcement methods, you’ll learn how to prevent/ unwanted behaviour and establish a bond with your poet.” A poem called “Constance Rooke, Author of The Clear Path: A Guide to Writing Essays, and Home-Inspection Consultant Brad Labute Converse, with Rude Interruptions by Walt Whitman” is exactly what it says on the tin. Holbrook has made sudoko with words. She writes a love letter to chocolate. “Textbook Case: Questions to Consider Regarding Our Last Phone Call” contains the line “11. Do you think that I will ever forgive you? Cite evidence from the conversation to support your answer.”

Holbrook’s poetry is bounding, raucous and fun(ny). Ending on an incredibly touching note with the twelve page poem “Nursery”, which traces a mother’s train of thought as she feeds from side to side. This epic poem is a microcosm (can an epic be a microcosm though? But Holbrook has made me think that anything is possible) of the entire book, bending words and perspectives, irreverent and wonderful.

“Left: Now that you’ve started solids, applesauce in your eyebrows, I’ve become a course. Right: Spider on the plastic space mobile, walking the perimeter of the yellow crescent moon. Left: Dollop. Right: Now it’s on Saturn’s rights; if it fell off, it would drop right into my mouth. Left: I take 2%, you take hindmilk. Right: Fingers shrimp their way through the afghan holes. Left: I have hindmilk.”


It is worth nothing that both these collections’ bottom right-hand corners have been well-chewed. Initially, this annoyed me, but I decided it shows that they’ve been lived in.

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