January 17, 2014
Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway by Alexandra Oliver
Poetry can be perplexing, but it’s got nothing on the poets. Many a time I’ve tried to make sense of who likes who, what and why, going straight to the source and asking poets themselves who’ve confessed they’re just as confused by the whole thing as I am. I’ve tried flowcharts, diagrams, and spreadsheets, and have managed to uncover no pattern except that having me really love your collection is generally an indication that it’s not poetry proper. I have even tried to be more discerning as a result: last year I read Personals by Ian Williams, and while I really liked certain poems, I thought, Nope. This isn’t cutting it. And then the next day it was nominated for the Griffin Prize, so there you go. But then a few weeks ago, hell must have frozen over (along with everything else, I suppose) because critic Michael Lista (whose book I liked, granted) went and picked Alexander Oliver’s Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway as one of his books of the year. A book that I’ve been reading and enjoying considerably!
Here’s how I came to this book (and be forewarned: I’m going to start talking about Book City again). I went to the Biblioasis launch in October and hear Alexandra Oliver read from her book, which is the best advertisement for this book. She was amazing. Though I didn’t actually buy the book until about a month or so ago when people were talking about it on Twitter, and the nature of my excellent life is that I can be reminded about a book on Twitter and then march straight out to purchase it at the bookstore around the corner (where of course it is on the shelf. They saw me coming a mile away). And I’ve been dipping in and out of the book ever since, intrigued and delighted.
These are poems that are deceptively simple; they rhyme. Sometimes I think that Alexandra Oliver is making fun of me, but I don’t hold this against her. These are poems about familiar situations–encountering other mothers in the park and discussing stroller models, angsty troubled romance. Proud poems about trouble—one called “Curriculum Vitae” contains the lines, “The hive of hell was crowded with my bees/ the sea of ill acquainted with my oar”. Dark, sinister, sardonic and hilarious. A poem about a camera user’s manual, and yes, the title poem, about recounting an old bully years later. “It’s been so long. They say. Amen.”