Coach House Books
80 bpNichol Lane
Toronto, ON M5S 3J4
2015, 80 pp., $17.95, ISBN: 9781552453100
Ben Ladouceur’s debut collection is not likely to inspire indifference. Though assorted enough to elicit a common continuum of response, from admiration to something more skeptical, its compelling coherence of style and subject matter lends Otter a rare decisiveness that makes it impossible to simply shrug about. A significant part of the book’s fascination resides in its rootedness in queer culture and experience; discussions of it elsewhere inform me that “otter” is an idiomatic term for a gay man with a hairy body who is thinner and weighs less than a “bear” (a term I did know), and throughout the collection one is granted vivid access to spheres of intimacy between men—sexual, emotional, more broadly communal—that remain under-depicted in mainstream literary culture. It’s not as though such writing is new; many gay poets since Ginsberg have trafficked in the bodily candour on display in Otter, and Ladouceur himself cites, for example, John Barton (both his own work and Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, co-edited with Billeh Nickerson) as a crucial Canadian predecessor. But Otter may indeed stand as the first collection to wed such a revelatory exploration of gay male experience to what is fast ossifying into the ‘house style’ of many younger Canadian poets (particularly those within Toronto’s orbit): associative, ironic, urbane, sonically dense while figuratively loose, and favouring the splash of flitting wordplay over the resonance and depth to be won from sustained reflective immersion. In a recent review of Cassidy McFadzean’s debut collection Hacker Packer, Danny Jacobs cites its “Coach House cool” and calls it “an exemplar of a well-established cadre” before elaborating: “Don’t get me wrong: I like this book very much, but there’s something fashionably urbane in its poetics, something we’ve seen a lot of lately.” My mind couldn’t help hearkening to Jacobs’s hesitation as I read and re-read Ladouceur’s debut: it’s a book with many arresting elements somewhat undermined by the sense of their having been combined according to what are becoming visibly fashionable formulae.
Otter’s third poem, entitled “Ox,” exemplifies the book’s overall approach (and can readily illustrate my critical dividedness). The poem’s first half reads:
That was our last unripe year, rib cages bald, bright
and evermore palpable. The county’s only queer bar
had just swapped its signage from hand-painted
to Helvetica. We drank as though new policies had
activated and we would not be grandfathered.
The men inside covered in slobber and glitter, I felt
unreflective, so filthy, a pauper. Did someone
say poppers?, Alexander would blurt, and his asshole
would begin to open wide. Outside, the rain arrived
as if under curfew. We had curfews too.
This is outstanding writing. The sensuous diction of that opening line and a half (“unripe year,” “rib cages bald,” and especially “palpable,” with its lovely onomatopoeic appeal to touch) deftly serve to set this out as a Bildungspoem, a story of boys fuzzing into sexual ripeness.
The detail of the signage quickly expands the poem’s purview from the personal to the societal, with the shift to official typeface signaling an (at least nominal) increase in the gay bar’s wider acceptability. But this typographical legitimacy proves comfortless for the poem’s “we”: whether because of their youth (“We had curfews too”) or from feeling at odds with their own ostensible community (“The men inside covered in slobber and glitter”), they find themselves oppressed by the scene, suspecting that they “would not be grandfathered”—with that last brilliant verb here evoking both a storied history of homosexual mentorship dating back to the erastes and eromenos of ancient Greece and the speaker’s keen sense of lacking such a mentor among the bar’s glittering men. The reference to “poppers”—alkyl nitrates, used recreationally to relax the sphincter muscles—and to Alexander’s own dilating asshole serve to anchor the poem’s emotional content in the sexual body, powerfully highlighting their inextricability: to put it in vulgar Marxist terms, the needs of the body form the base upon which the poem’s fraught psychic superstructure is erected. This is something Ladouceur does extremely well throughout Otter, rooting his speakers’ journeys in unabashed carnality. This is partly designed to startle, of course (the book’s very first poem remembers a lover “throwing, upon my balls, your tongue, how sea urchins / throw their stomachs upon the coral reefs they eat”), but he does it with such consistent eloquence and in such consistently compelling narrative contexts that the overall effect is not to shock, but ultimately, to challenge the ludicrousness of the heteronormative mindset from which all opposition to LGBTQAI lifestyles stems. Otter asserts both the truth that queer sex is simply sex between people and the wish that the social order would finally fully absorb this truth.
To return, then, to “Ox”: by the halfway point of the poem, Ladouceur has so skillfully woven the personal, the social, and the subcultural through two brief stanzas that my readerly attention is piqued, waiting to see how these elements will shunt themselves from the brink upon which he has poised them. Granted, “the rain arrived / as if under curfew” seems a bit throwaway—a quirky way of segueing into a reassertion of the characters’ youth (“We had curfews too”)—but overall, I’m rapt. The final two stanzas read:
If ever I got a tattoo—I confessed, walking through
the dirty water, through the lightning’s penmanship—
across my ribs, a zebra mussel, inching imperceptibly
away. Something clever written in the slime of its meander.
Maybe ‘epilogue.’ Maybe ‘occident.’
Alexander protested, because everything I did
was on purpose. It filled my heart with helium. Occident,
I emphasized. Not accident. Ox. His insufficient
moustache hairs caught small drops of rain.
Crickets scraped songs off their bodies with their legs.
With these stanzas, the poem turns from something potentially deep into something merely hip. Images skim across its surface (“lightning’s penmanship,” “zebra mussel,” “heart with helium,” “caught small drops of rain”), bearing little relation to one another or to the established themes of the poem, rendering them hollow in their cleverness. Perhaps “slime of its meander” and the lovely last line (by which point it is too late) echo the speaker’s dirty, pauper-like feeling in the second stanza, and Alexander’s “insufficient moustache hairs” clearly reassert (again) the characters’ youth, but overall this second half just feels flimsy.
It’s clear that a certain amount of this flimsiness is intentional—the poem draws its title from the coincidental sonic interplay of occident/accident/ox, an anecdote seemingly designed to illustrate nothing other than the speaker’s superior verbal facility as compared to poor Alexander—but what I’m arguing is that such an intention does not serve the poem well, at least as it was set out in the first two stanzas. It sounds good, the images pop, it quirks in all the right places, sure, but as a reader who wants poetry not just to pass my eyes over but to pass my full mind beneath, it leaves me wanting. Despite what our tiresome culture of metanarcissism—from How Should a Person Be? to Yeezus—would have us believe, it’s not always enough to signal one’s winking awareness of self-absorption, as Ladouceur does in emphasizing his speaker’s youth before veering into the hipster drivel about the tattoo: it’s often just better to detach one’s gaze from one’s navel instead. In this case, “Ox,” in the anecdotal mode of so much of Ladouceur’s work, sets up narrative expectations which it then flouts less through genuine rhetorical surprise than by swerving into a kind of fashionable frivolity. This happens often in Otter, resulting in myriad excellent chunks of poems but many fewer actually excellent poems than Ladouceur’s evident talent would seem to promise.
The word I’m looking for here is “affectation.” There’s a lot throughout Otter that feels affected, that seems inserted to communicate little other than a suitably stylish cast of mind, to reassure its youthful artistic target audience: Don’t worry: I’m one of yours. And so “At the Movies” presents us with Annik, who:
always hoped to make out
with a nameless stranger
as a box-office bomb blared
to an otherwise-empty
auditorium, as the score of violins
swept in to mute the audible
This is beautifully modulated nonsense. Did Annik’s hope absolutely hinge on the film’s being “a box-office bomb”? Of course not, but the endlessly amped-up sonic demands of the reigning School of Non-Sequitur can trump even basic logic. Elsewhere, in “Salutations from Abitibi,” the speaker tells us of his exiled lover, “My Zippo was on his person” and goes on to reflect: “I was planning to quit with the smoking / but how shall I now singe the frays // of my only warm coat?”. I think this question intends to convey anxiety at the lover’s absence, but it is so stiltedly posed (“on his person,” “quit with the smoking,” “how shall I now singe”) that it projects only self-indulgence, with the speaker broadcasting himself as a paragon of poetic torment.
Later (to take one last example), in “Tough Luck,” an account of a chance meeting at Yorkdale Mall with a “Friend of my lost and shivering youth” culminates in the revelation of the friend’s suicide a few weeks later (his blood “clotted in the snowbanks, all primrose // and sickly”) and closes on the lines: “I was back on Queen St., so snug / in my new tights, and we will likely / never know if you were sad or stoned or both.” This flirts with bathos not only in its proximity to emotional cliché (“sad or stoned or both”) but in its geographic and sartorial specificity (“Queen St.,” “new tights”), which read as poetic window-dressing, as insistent as the GTA’s ubiquitous condo billboards in selling us their chosen mode of consumption. This is an issue throughout Otter: with every telegraphed gimlet its characters drink (and that’s a fair number), I feel less like I’m reading a poem and more like I’m watching an elaborately staged advertisement for one.
Granted, there’s an appealing element of camp—the essence of which Susan Sontag describes as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”—in Ladouceur’s persistent staginess, and his willingness to lay it on thick bespeaks a beguiling artistic confidence. This is perhaps best on display in Otter’s plethora of outlandish similes, which Ladouceur brings off with extraordinary flair: “I did love him, the crimson acne / flecked across his neck, he was like a man / a guillotine had made an attempt at” (“I Am in Love with Your Brother”); “Then you threw the parchment and the pencils in the fire / which ate and ate like an armada of starved orphans” (“Pollen”); “Humidity was climbing / like a millipede out of an oil bowl” (“Dog Years”); “down the back of whose leg ran / the blood, like a leash of foxes” (“Eiderdown”); and finally, “moustache / hairs, dark and sparse, like aphid // legs poking through bedsheets” (“Intramurals”). Just typing out these phantasmically wonderful figurations makes me almost want to take back the reservations I’ve outlined above.
And absolutely, Ladouceur’s extraordinary verbal talent combined with the urgency of much of his subject matter will prove thrillingly persuasive for a lot of readers (and even with what I’ve said, I’ll certainly be checking out whatever he writes next). For my part, the book’s second section, entitled “Rites of Spring,” drawing inspiration from Modris Eksteins’s book of the same title (subtitled The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age), serves as the collection’s apex. Here, liberated from the contemporary urban milieu and thrust instead into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, Ladouceur’s eloquence attains a ventriloquistic flexibility: Oscar Wilde appears, of course, as do Nijinsky and Diaghilev and rumoured lovers Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the latter of whom serves as persona for both “Masters of the Impossible” and the stunning “Bijou”:
I dreamt Wilfred lived, he and I
found a pair of boring sisters
who left us mostly to ourselves,
we wed them. I was a bolt of lightning the day
he exploded: the word for me failed
to designate the sound I later made—
the silence that followed that brightness
was an orifice so wide you’d fit
a fist in. Tonight I am a man, I am
awake, I watch moths battle glassware
and I sing interludes in a cant slang called
Polari, from a terribly odourless bed:
Here with my little cove, warm and carts
to carts, our clobbers off,
we shall aunt nell to the alight
vogues, we shall lean closely
in. Both of us at our most alamo—
like puppies that no one neutered.
Pared down, meditative, and figuratively careful, this manages to be at once dazzlingly strange and deeply sad. The comma splices through the first three lines bring Siegfried and Wilfred that much closer (“Wilfred lived, he and I”) while also lending the passage an impressionistic rhythm that highlights its irreality. The understated directness of metaphor (“I was a bolt of lightning the day // he exploded”) refuses to trivialize the speaker’s sense of loss by making it florid, while the more mysterious aftershock (“the word for me failed / to designate the sound I later made”) seems to hearken back to the title—“Bijou” meaning “jewel” but also, in the Polari slang meaning “small,” and so perhaps Wilfred’s pet name for Siegfried (“the word for me”). In other words, then, the speaker’s cry of grief (“the sound I later made”) was not containable by the designation “small.” This is rewardingly elusive stuff. After neatly gesturing to Owen’s and Sassoon’s status as soldier poets (“I watch moths battle glassware”), the poem fulcrums into Polari, leading to a weird and brilliant climax. Though I don’t think that as a Polari speaker Sassoon would say “a cant slang called / Polari” (a clunky piece of exposition that also closely echoes the first line of its Wikipedia entry), this is a small reservation, as the linguistic shift allows the poem to communicate deep tenderness without even sniffing cliché.
In Polari, cove means friend, carts penis, clobbers clothes, aunt nell listen, vogues cigarettes, and alamo hot for you/him. We can translate those last six lines, then, but like all good poetry, they remain in a sense unparaphrasable, their meaning inextricable from their patterned beauty. Here, Polari’s defamiliarizing effect conveys at once the injustice of men in love needing to speak in code, the glimmering promise of an alternate world in which such a necessity would seem ridiculous, and the achievement of that world in a tender community of two. Like most of Otter’s best moments, the strangeness of “Bijou” feels less intentional than integral, less fashionable than fully earned. This is a book that often powerfully communicates (among much else) states of marginality in all their injustice and violence, but also in their playful potential for liberation and empowerment. These poems are at their best when they seem least abashed, when Ladouceur really lets fly, whether emotionally, figuratively, or imaginatively. Often, though, one perceives in this work a persona overly concerned about his audience, about making a certain carefully curated impression, about advertising just the right on-market brand of cool. The detectable undercurrent of conformity here—by which I mean the more-than-occasionally overfamiliar kinds of choices being made at the level of diction, rhetoric, and sonic patterning—does not serve well what is in other respects a rare and singular debut.
Stewart Cole is the author of Questions in Bed (Ice House, 2012).