Coach House Books
80 bpNichol Lane
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3J4
2015, 72 pp., $18.95, ISBN: 9781552453209
In his review of Ben Ladouceur’s Otter, Stewart Cole describes “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.” If this description goes a long way toward answering the question of how Andy McGuire’s poetry works, it nonetheless bypasses a tripline of questions pertaining to what this poetry is, and who writes it and why, that do not only deserve but demand our extended attention. Indeed, answering that first question—the question of craft simpliciter—does not take much effort at all, especially considering the groundwork laid by Cole and other critics. Subtracting Cole’s somewhat harsh criticisms of the Toronto ‘house style’ (he also describes examples of it as “hipster drivel” and “beautifully modulated nonsense”), his description more or less adequately summarizes McGuire’s debut collection, Country Club—I would only add that McGuire applies Cole’s list of stylistic preferences to traditional, often sing-songy poetic formalism as much as free verse conventions, and that he demonstrates a mastery of the strangely powerful technique of rewriting or recombining idioms and popular verses. If this is all I had to say, these punchy yet hauntingly thoughtful one-liners could likely seal the review: “Rome was built on a day like today” (“Pool”), “Best two cents I never spent” (“Rat’s Ass”), “Things are not as they kick and scream to be” (“Shotgun Infinity”), “Into the system he goes. / Where he stops, video evidence shows” (“Waiting Room”).
I don’t dispute the aptness of Cole’s characterization; however, being a poet who both enjoys and identifies with the style Cole describes, I also have a strong desire to look for more. Country Club performs a kind of poetic work touching on the seemingly distinct topics of pleasure, privilege, Southwest Florida, and traditional and popular poetic formalism. The Toronto ‘house style’ is certainly part of this, although in McGuire’s hands it takes on a special power to locate and exaggerate its own audacity and failures, while at the same time questioning what might come of the evaporation of “sustained reflective immersion” from literary writing. McGuire’s poetry challenges the traditional standard of delicate, understated harmony between a poem’s content and its form; instead it tries way too hard, breaks down, and refuses to give a shit. But beyond simply being subversive, these formal experiments link up with the real-world context of McGuire’s writing—a winter spent in the hedonistic dreamland of Southwest Florida—to construct a quasi-parodic portrait of what it’s like to blind oneself to reality, in both art and life. Overall, I think Country Club is a kind of self-consciously privileged writing: even as it denounces the pleasure it takes in its excesses, it is also unafraid to identify those pleasures as its raison d’être.
To start untangling this fabric, let’s begin with one of my favourite poems from Country Club, “Spring”:
Time I slip
On that dress.
Time my closet
Time I whisper
It’s time again
To every trampoline
On the block.
As if God
Despite being one of Country Club’s shortest poems, “Spring” features cameos by a laundry list of poetry’s most beloved and reviled traditional techniques: rhyme (“dress” and “cleanliness,” “block” and “chop,” “oink” and “point”), repetition (the idiomatic use of “time”), metaphor bordering on pathetic fallacy, and a terminal pun/punch line with pretensions toward aphoristic wisdom. It even has flowers in it, for God’s sake (not to mention God himself, a recurring character in Country Club). Further, “Spring” doesn’t employ these formal constraints with the familiar brand of subtle, almost invisible technicity characteristic of much post-free verse formalist poetry (syllabics probably being the best example). Rather, it wears its formal shackles awkwardly, attempting too much in too small a space, and with too little motivation outside an almost impudent insistence on appearing ‘writerly.’ Yet it is precisely this discordance that sets the poem in motion, spurring a kind of poetic slapstick that structures McGuire’s humour throughout Country Club.
“Spring” is much more than just funny, although this is not because there’s a deeper or more intimate expression beneath its ill-fitting clothing. In fact, the lines where McGuire’s remembered or ‘real-life’ inspirations show most clearly—“To every trampoline / On the block”—are the poem’s loosest and weakest. “Spring” accomplishes what it sets out to—that is, to offer a fresh portrait of the season of freshness itself—by exaggerating the uncomfortableness of its outfitting, by pushing its already failed devices further. Thematically, we can see this in how McGuire assembles two of the most hideously overused poetic muses—the eternal circulation of time, and the season of rebirth and beginning—into a fragment of bad infinity: time repeats itself, but never gets things quite right; thus we start again, fail again. At the level of the image, the effect peaks at “Flowers oink,” which is not so much a surrealist chance encounter as an immature or graceless symbolism, a metaphor we can tell is trying too hard. The magic doesn’t come from the line’s being a true portrayal of flowers, but from its being a true portrayal of flowers in the distinctly adolescent key of springtime. Placing its bets on a formalist grandeur that’s really too good to be true, but succeeding anyway, the poem as a whole comes across like a masterfully negotiated gamble.
Expanding from the tightly woven series of over-exertions that make up “Spring,” McGuire’s style throughout Country Club repeatedly evokes a complex discussion about the roles of pleasure, failure, and privilege in art. We can see almost all of this discussion’s facets in “Pool,” although they are subtly and expertly nested in the poem’s layered performance.
On the surface of “Pool” is a giddy, even childishly ambitious formal conceit: to rhyme every one of its lines with the word “today.” McGuire accomplishes this—42 times, in fact, with words and phrases ranging from “dossier” to “beaux idées” to “JFK.” It feels impressive, especially since this is Country Club’s opening poem. But scratching the surface even a little leads us to realize, as McGuire certainly does, that this impression is less than purely legitimate. First, it soon becomes obvious that McGuire’s constraint isn’t really as difficult to accomplish as it seems, since the “ay” sound is one of the easiest to rhyme in English. Second, McGuire isn’t interested in taking up this constraint as a challenge to communicate meaning despite or in conformity with it, in the manner we’re used to associating with the difficulty and pleasure of traditional formalist writing. Rather, considering its easiness, as well as the lack of any constraint on the poem’s line lengths (which vary wildly), McGuire exploits every opportunity to bully his rhyme scheme into absurd territories engaging a very different set of aesthetic principles.
This slippage is played out in the very first lines of “Pool”:
I’m too tired to care today.
It costs too much to care what you say.
I love you too much to care anyway.
I write I love you too much to care on my resumé.
I hear they’re hiring masseuses at the New York City Ballet.
While the first three lines establish the poem’s rhyme scheme with relative sobriety, keeping its metrical and narrative consistency in check, this high-mindedness is quickly discarded. In the fourth line, the poem’s narrative (though only just beginning to emerge) is dropped or at least intensely fragmented—never to be recomposed. The same happens to rhythmic continuity in line five.
Amazingly, the initial sense that “Pool” is governed by a highly disciplined constraint quickly becomes an excuse for McGuire to pursue some of his most abstract and frivolous flights of fancy. Here’s an example from the poem’s third stanza:
Everyone under the sun is killing a power play.
A wedding is underway.
They vow each word like vertebrae.
The bride has died and gone to heaven, and I catch the bouquet.
It must be my birthday.
Clearly, there’s a lot here that isn’t motivated by McGuire’s rhyme scheme any more than by poetic sensibility or even common sense. What are we meant to read in the mixed colloquial registers of “Everyone under the sun is killing a power play”? Why use a metaphoric descriptor as obscure as “vertebrae” to complete the rhyme? Why insert a death scene that has no place in the poem’s formal structure, and which only distracts from an otherwise straightforward wedding narrative? These questions aren’t restricted to “Pool”; rather, they are carefully calculated to lend a special unity to McGuire’s style, insofar as it repeatedly and insistently prods us to ask, “Why would anyone write this?”
Like “Spring,” “Pool” layers poetic techniques that would be hokey and audacious on their own, and engages interest not by fusing them into beatific harmony but by continuing not to give a shit. The effect is allegorized perfectly by a YouTube video McGuire shot with fellow poets dalton derkson and Julie Mannell, “Smashing Shit w/ CanLit,” in which derkson and Mannell hammer old appliances and wooden boards to bits while McGuire, seemingly oblivious, calmly reads “Pool” aloud. Indeed, Country Club is fuelled by a particular brand of nihilism, and most readers will quickly learn not to expect answers to the questions posed above. We feel the gravity of this situation beautifully at the end of “One Too Many,” the book’s last poem and a spiritual successor to “Pool”:
I stop making sense
And every single thing I know
For a moment smells like pool.
As we polish off the Pinot,
A satellite of lust acquires life on earth.
There is no God.
There are no words.
At the same time, the sense of closure conveyed by “One Too Many” betrays the fact that something happens on the way to nihilism’s nothingness; Country Club is dense with layers of technique and imagery, even if these layers amount to little more than pretension and bluster and are quickly discarded. To put it another way, as McGuire does in “Year of the Driving Nail,”
When they ask,
You saw nothing. Nothing is the elephant
In the room, not even the elephant.
(But I did just read that, didn’t I? “Elephant in the room”?)
Two moments in Country Club strike me as being intensely aware of this paradox. First, in the book’s only prose piece, “Toronto,” McGuire writes, “History remembers only the best of the worst ideas. I have these words I wrote posted above my desk because I need to remind myself to do my best worst.” What else could we describe as McGuire’s “best worst” than the incredible series of unripe formalist adventures that gives us “Spring”? Second, I hear a different, though equally evocative name for this kind of poetry in “Grand Bend,” where McGuire writes:
I make fail porn.
The critical masses
Can swallow my pride.
It’s hard to argue that McGuire’s “best worst” style isn’t, at the very least, memorable.
I could stop here, in which case I would wholeheartedly confirm my approval of McGuire’s formal innovations: Country Club is, I believe, formally innovative. But McGuire is also not shy about his poetic experiments’ inseparability from a set of very real experiences with potentially darker resonance.
In “Florida Origins,” his IFOA blog post about some of the inspiration behind Country Club, McGuire describes writing many of the book’s poems during a winter spent sunbathing by the pool in a small town in Southwest Florida. Or, more accurately, in a fantasy of Southwest Florida come to life. “Everyone calls the place paradise,” McGuire writes, and yet “I repeat Southwest Florida to myself so often it comes true.” At the same time, McGuire is sharply dismissive of the area’s inhabitants, often parodying their immaturity (“Alabama synonymous with awesome” in “Happy Hour”) or calling out a political backwardness bordering on evil (“Throw a stone and you get three cheers for the NRA” in “Pool”). Southwest Florida, by McGuire’s reckoning, is a kind of (North) American Cockaigne: no one seems to do anything right (or anything at all), yet everyone is lavishly rewarded.
Isn’t “the Coupon State,” then, a perfect analog of the poetic pleasure we experience in McGuire’s “fail porn”? What “Florida Origins” brings to light, however, is that the trail of ruinous diversions and smug failures (“the elephant in the room”) that constitute McGuire’s poetry have disturbing real-world counterparts. In his blog post, McGuire recounts how the intrigue and horrors of the world outside seemed to pass without interest during his stay in Florida: “In the evening I stride nowhere on an elliptical. Stock prices tick across CNN. Terror alerts rise and fall. Ukraine catches fire while we sleep.” These events rear their heads in direct and indirect references throughout Country Club, but are always subsequently buried under humour or absurdity. “The Long Fetch,” for example, takes the internet activism surrounding modern slavery as a cue to depict its speaker tracking his online Amazon order along the route of a slave ship across the Mediterranean. Similarly, “One Too Many” makes a point of hinting at the need for cosmopolitan humanity but then burying it within an enduring concern for simply having fun:
That was quite the party,
I must say.
The pool after hours normally sorts itself out,
But Syria has become a bacteria,
A playground for grown men with Kalashnikovs.
I shoot my mouth off
Because fun will always find funding.
Having fun is infectious.
Tip one bellboy well and business booms.
You have to be a little human
To slip past security for a midnight dip.
Here, the Floridian narrative of forsaking international humanitarian concerns for the sake of a pool party is closely conjoined with McGuire’s poetic technique, in which the metaphors for sectarian warfare and hedonistic pleasure surreptitiously cross-pollinate (Syria is a “playground,” and though it is also a “bacteria,” fun, too, is “infectious”). In the same way that McGuire’s speakers carry on more by means of indifference toward their excesses than by transcending them, Florida is the site of an American dream whose dreamers’ eyes are firmly closed to the harshness and evil of reality. As McGuire writes it in “Shotgun Infinity,” “I fall asleep and dream in American.”
The simplest way to put this, I think, is to say that Country Club’s poems are written from a place of exaggerated privilege. Of course, the fact that McGuire is conscious of this, and puts considerable effort into portraying his scenarios parodically, suggests that we shouldn’t immediately fault him for it. But there is still work to be done. This is because McGuire’s closeness to the experiences his poems depict, as described in “Florida Origins,” suggest we can’t read them as entirely distanced parodies or satires. Country Club’s pleasure of privilege is, to some extent, McGuire’s pleasure too.
Country Club could be labelled according to the genre Fredric Jameson famously described as “pastiche” or “blank parody” in his writings on postmodernism, a kind of writing that takes some critical or fantastical distance from what it depicts, but without a firm ethical stance of its own. Robert Archambeau has compared McGuire’s handwritten list poems to the style of Wes Anderson’s films, and I think the comparison applies to Country Club as well. Both McGuire’s poems and Anderson’s films depict colourful, fantastical lifestyles in a way that tells us they’re not real, but without telling us what real is.
But Country Club also does something over and above the genre of “pastiche” described by Jameson (and perhaps also the style defined by Anderson, though this point might be more contentious). That is, McGuire takes a shot at exposing how the pleasure we derive from this kind of storytelling can no longer be seen as unproblematically liberating, progressive, or even politically neutral. This conversation is more urgent now than ever before, and I’m excited to see how writing like McGuire’s might prompt us to start talking.
John Nyman is a verse, visual, and conceptual poet. Players, his debut collection, was released with Palimpsest Press in April 2016. Originally from Toronto, John currently resides in Guelph, Ontario and is completing a PhD in Theory and Criticism at Western University.