ASBESTOS HEIGHTS by David McGimpsey
(Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2015, $17.95, 96 pages)
Review by Danny Jacobs
The opening section of Asbestos Heights, David McGimpsey’s latest collection, is entitled “A Harkening of Flowers.” McGimpsey is so good at parodying the tacky earnestness of Canadian poetry that I could’ve sworn I’d heard that title before. Languishing in our country’s thrift stores are likely copies of a late-80’s chapbook by a defunct publisher (Creaky Farmhouse Press?) called just that. It’s a fitting section title: this might be McGimpsey’s most focused collection in its attempt to use CanPo banality as poetic fodder: “The asters on the roadside banks, wispy blurs,/ could be squeezed one day from the roots up/ to draw out at least three Canadian poems” (“Aster”).
Asbestos Heights spares nothing in detailing “the ivory tower’s ivoriness.” McGimpsey has always been entertaining when lambasting Canadian poetry’s constructed myths and social insularity. And some of his best quatrains are cuttingly and refreshingly frank about the population’s indifference to verse:
Outside, as the yarrow whips by, are towns
where Canadians happily live their lives,
unperturbed by who was excluded
from the Can Lit? Can Do! anthology.
In “Anthem for why you write poetry,” McGimpsey is equally entertaining while taking shots at our country’s affected literary hipsterism. The anaphoristic lines accrue in hilarity, and like a lot of McGimpsey, they flirt with absurdity but somehow seem spot-on: “You do it for microcrafted microbrew,/ for speeches about ‘the community’.” The poem’s final line is my favourite: “You do it for every cat named Salinger.” You may not know someone with a cat named Salinger, but you know the type. McGimpsey’s final lines often have a pay-off like this, relentless and carefully aimed. The poems rarely peter out.
Yet you’d be misreading McGimpsey if you thought he was penning this stuff just to spitball the professors’ tweeded backs. Its project isn’t all snarky tittering at CanPo’s cheesy themes and silly cliquishness. If that’s all there was, the poems would grow tiring, even petty, and sink under their own satirical weight. The truth is, McGimpsey loves poetry, and that is evident in his craft, in the sincerity that bubbles under every gag. The brilliance also lies in the working of his complex irony within the rigging of form. So a McGimpsey poem is funny, sure, but his best ones are first and foremost effective as poems, not punchlines. The less they seem like dashed-off jokes, they stronger they are. In “Sylvia Plath,” McGimpsey once again deftly skewers poetic pretentions, referencing Plath’s line about the “peanut-crunching crowd” in “Lady Lazarus”—a kind of lowbrow society McGimpsey is at home in. Here’s McGimpsey’s penultimate stanza:
Plath imagined her art’s insensitive foils
as the ‘peanut-crunchers’ around ball games.
When I spoke of my dream trip visiting ballparks,
my poetry teacher said, ‘What a nightmare!’
But it’s the next and final stanza where McGimpsey ups the ante with a smart tonal shift, a shot of pathos that raises the poem above flippant ridicule:
My father, at ninety-nine, could not
recognize his favourite Yankees’ faces
but knew their body shapes, averages
and what they did their last time at bat.
Baseball, in the working-class Parnassus of Asbestos Heights, is just as legitimate a subject for real poetry as anything else.
The new book, like the last, is filled to the brim with McGimpsey’s signature 16-line “chubby sonnets” (the only deviation from the four quatrain form is the italicized and untitled “I Love Noodles” poems that start each section of the book). One drawback to this repetition is a sense of sameness during some stretches. But when the stanzas are working, when they clack along within their respective poems, one gets to witness a top-level writer working in his perfected form. This is a rare and pleasurable event in Canadian poetry, where a lot of books come off as scattershot in their approach to lineation and stanza structure. In terms of voice and aesthetic aim, McGimpsey might be one of the most consistent and honest poets writing today. Please visit Asbestos Heights, and experience one of our national treasures throwing our nation back at us.
Danny Jacobs’ poems have been published in a variety of journals across Canada. His first book, Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. He lives with his wife in Riverview, NB.
This review was published in the digital issue 12:2 “Humour.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website here: