As I mentioned earlier, Margaret Christakos was in Montreal to read at the Coach House/Snare book launch last weekend. She closed the show with aplomb, but it was the longer reading the following day at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute that really allowed readers to get a sense of Christakos larger project, a grand poetic that unsettles ideas of domesticity, subjectivity, desire, communication, lyric…
Christakos is one of those poets who seems to remain under the critical radar or, as someone said at the reading, a poet who seems engaged with and “writing for the next generation…” even though she is in fact using tools and tactics very much of the moment. In her last collection, Sooner, she proved that she is a master of the recombinant text, creating bitingly satirical and luminous collages of either self-generated, or google-generated material. I’ve discussed Christakos before, never at great enough length or in great enough detail. She is also a generous community-minded spirit who sees her work as singular, but plugged into a larger network of poetry and cultural work. She is community minded, and concerned with fostering poetic discussion. To that end she has been running the Influency series out of the U of T’s Continuing Education department and causing quite a buzz (take a look at the line-up for Influency 3!). This poetry workshop asks eight poets to encounter and respond to the work of eight other poets and brings the discussion of these poets, as well as the poets themselves, to the classroom. Pedagogically brilliant. And even more brilliant is the idea that these poets not simply bring what they know to the table but that they themselves reach out of their usual frame of reference.
Not only is this series interesting for the poetry it introduces students to, and for the conversation between the poets themselves, but for the way it illustrates reading practices.
Christakos is also a great reader of her work in terms of her presentation of it performatively and in her discussion of it. Those up for poetry at 12:30 on a Monday and who managed to make it to the Simon deBeauvoir Institute were treated to a good hour of text, from both from Sooner and What Stirs, Christakos new book. What Stirs traces the notion of the “latch” both literally and figuratively as a sense of connection between mother and child, between reader and text, self and other, subject and referent, door and lock, and so on.
Christakos describes her own work as employing strategic word pairings harvested from the internet and elsewhere, to construct “forceful collages.” The indeterminate narrator undoes, or troubles lyric expectations. The latter isn’t perhaps news anymore (Hejinian, Howe, Moure, Robertson, Zolf, Riley, and so on), nor are Christakos methods of troubling lyric, but what she does with all of that certainly is original and effective. Thematically What Stirs operates, as I stated, as an exploration of the word “latch” and its many implications, most importantly the notion of entitlement and comfort. Grace Jones comes to mind here, her strangely haunting disco hit from the early 1980s in terms of our endless desire for comfort and capacity for entitlement. What if what we have is enough, Christakos asks. What if we are sated? Why are our fists still out for more?
One of the powerful forces at work in Christakos is the complicated representations of motherhood and domesticity. I talked about this in my essay on Canadian poetry for the Gulf Coast Review, but Christakos is the most inventive “domestic” poet I’ve ever encountered (other than perhaps Elizabeth Treadwell, post on her to come). Here we see a poet/mother figure who traces desire textually/linguistically/and literally through her texts such as “News & Now,” “Mumsy,” and “Used:”
Be a letdown Always match Cleverly
match the gaunt Be up up
vain All the cleverly the punk
bowtie with some nice elbows Zesty
The desiring mother with her nursery rhymes and status as President of the Frank Sinatra fan club serve as markers here, the text using the tropes of mother/child expectations: the repetitions that soothe and the differences that surprise and offer pleasure. Throughout the text Christakos returns to latch, turning and turning the word on its head, so that we see the “maternal subject negotiating her desire to resist the suction of the ‘latch'” through costuming in poems such as “My Attache Case,” for example, the usual shopping tropes in “Visual Splendour Coupons,” and “Lost (‘Immortal’)” There is a lot of fun in this text. Very subversive fun. “Turret Door,” had me laughing out loud:She
She lifted the hyphen dash and entered the turret door, while the lady and I waited below.
SheHe’ll dash on fine initially, then he pulls off and pops himself back on with a shallow dash.
SheThe pink one has a hyphen dash for the lid and would look real cute on a chain.
SheSo they think because there is a hyphen dash you push under a flange a bear could not watch you once and figure the whole thing out.
SheI will have to come up with some sort of hyphen dash.
SheI admit that I am an addict.
SheDash hooking is my life.
The latch becomes what we click down, attempt to hold in place, rely on, undo and do. Finally we see the very structures of language, letters latching one to the other, piercing and clicking our own tongues.
I thought that Sooner showed the poet at the top of her game, but What Stirs is an even more concise exploration of similar themes and a lesson in the possibility and power unleashed in innovative poetic craft. What is the difference between this and flarf? That would (and I think will) be an intriguing discussion for I think the efficacy and power of that mode should not be underestimated. These are rigorously honed syntactical and etymological machines. Anyone who thinks that feminism or motherhood isn’t sexy, simply hasn’t read Christakos. She pushes the envelope here in her willingness to offer up details of the body and its yearnings as much as she is instructing us on the practices of using found text.
If the geese thought they’d still have time
they were wrong
A bonk on the wing is better
than sewer rats for lunch
The way to San Jose is aquiver
with few and fewer friends
Ba ba ba ba ba ba-ba bah-
Anyone engaged in recombinant or google sculpting must contend with Christakos. And she has set the bar high. The only aspect of this poetry that frustrates is the fact that encountering it without the benefit of discussion can be so unproductive. But I think that the lack of critical engagement with such texts is the problem ultimately, not the texts themselves. Having sat in on a lecture on collage in the art department the other day clarified for me that absolute desert of poetic discourse. Where might one hear a similar lecture on the use of collage in poetry, for example? Ah yes, Ubu.com.
(In the interest of time I’m posting this in progress. Samples of poems to be added. Meanwhile you can see two Christakos poems on an earlier post, and recent poems appear on Ditch. In a few weeks there will also be a guest reading of a Christakos poem.)
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