God of Missed Connections
Curio: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age
By Elizabeth Bachinsky
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
God of Missed Connections (Nightwood, 2009) is Elizabeth Bachinsky’s third collection of poetry and the follow-up to 2006’s Governor General’s nominated Home of Sudden Service (Nightwood, 2006), which won unanimous praise from critics across the country due, in large part, to its mixing of taught formal structures and sassy-sexy, rough-and-tumble, colloquial language that made available the unique psychological depths of otherwise fungible characters, particularly young people in the habit of self-eulogizing their lost youths far too early. With God of Missed Connections, Bachinsky broadens her scope, turning to a more dauntingly large subject matter: what T.S. Eliot dubs the “cunning passages” and “contrived corridors” of history — in particular, the history of Ukrainians in Canada. As she writes in her “Postscript,” “The history of Ukraine and of Ukrainians in Canada is fraught with tragedy, warfare, ethnic conflicts, racism, anti-Semitism, political intrigue, ecological disasters.” Smartly, Bachinsky balances the inevitable listing of history’s ethnic ship by considering the Ukrainian-Canadian experience vis-à-vis her own family, thus making her project more manageable and, ideally, relieving the poetry of flag-waving representational duties — though, at times, Bachinsky’s poems slip (for the worse) into the pedagogical mode, throwing poetry overboard.
The collection is divided into three parts. Parts 1 and 3 are composed of short lyrics (none longer than two pages); while the middle-section, titled “The Wax Ceremony,” is a long poem about Ukrainian immigration to, and internment camps in, the Canadian prairies. The long poem also includes Bachinsky’s self-reflexive commentary on the difficult task of writing poetry about such things as immigration and internment camps from a clearly privileged position in the here-and-now. (Bachinsky seems especially concerned with not indulging sentimentalism.) Scattered throughout the book — especially in the long poem — are Ukrainian folk-songs, or “incantations,” which Bachinsky borrows from Rena Jeanne Hanchuk’s The Word and Wax: A Medical Folk Ritual Among Ukrainians in Alberta. These incantation add texture to the book overall. Finally, also noteworthy, there are drawings by Bachinsky that initiate each section, serving as thematic keys to the book’s sections (for example, the drawing that begins part 2’s long poem is titled “Men Walking, Castle Mountain Internment Camp, Banff, 1917”).
Part 1 of Gods of Missed Connections is by far the book’s strongest, and it illustrates how Bachinsky can call forth as many perspectives, styles, and tones as necessary in order to create a kaleidoscopic vision of the Ukrainian-Canadian experience; as such, the section is best experienced as a whole. Bachinsky begins, in “Goddess of Safe Travel,” by framing the section with the question, “Why bother with history? ” “Because we can. Because we’re curious … Because one day you can be conscripted into one army and the next day another. Because extremism thrives. Because you have not lived thirty years and have many questions.” Ultimately, though, it is “love” that propels Bachinsky’s historical imperative (“Because I love you”), a desire to re-“connect” with both the living and the dead who are “missing” from Canadian textbooks and from the poet’s everyday historical consciousness. After this opening, Bachinsky proceeds to include a sonnet for a disfigured, “two-headed” child of Chernobyl as well as an ironically-tinged ode, “To Ukraine,” “whose capital is cosmo- / politan as any in Europe. / Where pornography is a popular / career. Where one can get an AK-47 and hire a pretty girl / to shoot it.” The most affecting poem, though, is “Evolution of the Species,” a short, twelve-line poem that illustrates how the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident has saturated “the structure of feeling” in Ukraine ever since. Here is the excellent poem, in toto:
In Belarus, it’s said, men fear
to make love with their women.
Who can take the chance
to take to bed such lovers?
Since Chernobyl, children
arrive in fabulous shapes,
legs and arms on backwards.
Some are born without eyes.
1986: the little mothers
pulled carrots from their gardens,
From the matter-of-fact folk truism of the first two lines, Bachinsky is able to adduce frightening results, ending with the tragically-phallic and sexually-charged carrots, “lush” and “tasty,” which have come to replace those “fear”-ful men with which the poem began.
A little past the mid-way point in the opening section, Bachinsky offers two poems about Holodomor, “(sometimes known as ‘murder by hunger’), in which millions of people living in Eastern Ukraine were forcibly starved to death after having resisted Stalin’s program of collectivization. The number of people reported to have perished in the famine ranges from 2.2 to 10 million.” The first poem, “The Bread Basket of Europe,” about children sold as “meat” during this time, evokes the grimmest of un-expurgated Brothers Grimm fairytales; the second poem, “Holodomor,” is simply a title with a blank page — here, Bachinsky seems to be thinking of Adorno’s maxim about lyric poetry (in a later poem about the same event, Bachinsky writes, one “can’t begin to write / about this”). The blank-page conceit as response to the murder of millions seems a little too cute or contrived, in this case, especially so since the four remaining poems in the section are, in their own way, far more interesting responses to the unconscionable “murder by hunger.” In the section’s remaining poems, Bachinsky turns to present-day Vancouver and the excess and waste of the hysterically-complacent contemporary moment (“I’m never hungry. / I make some money, I go home. / I like to drink. I don’t care what you think”). The thematic emphasis on “meat” and consumption — literal and figurative (i.e. the penis as edible) — functions as a counterpoint to the substantive lack that dominates the early poems in the section.
Part 3’s poems form a less cohesive whole than those of part 1 but some of the lyrics are excellent — in particular, “Goddess of Incongruity,” “God of Panic,” and “Young Faggots,” poems that share much in common with the successful material and rhetoric of Bachinsky’s earlier Home of Sudden Service. “Goddess of Incongruity” has fun with odd linguistic juxtapositions: “All our lives we’ve known the atomic bomb / but that’s okay, we’ve got these sedans … Get thee to Holt Renfrew.” The startling “God of Panic” describes, quite viscerally, a gang-bang; more than anything else it’s Bachinsky’s punctuation-less prosody, in conjunction with word repetition, which creates a sense of speed and action that coverts otherwise sensational — and sensationalist — material into the stuff of poetry. And “Young Faggots” is one of the most refreshingly and daringly self-critical poems I’ve read in a long while, and a poem that also doubles as a concealed carpe-diem and an elegy for AIDs victims. Unlike most of the other poems in the collection, its language and form seems rushed, slapdash, from-the-gut — and the poem is all the better for it.
Released at the same time as God of Missed Connections is another book of poetry by Bachinsky, Curio: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age. Originally published in 2005 (her debut collection), this re-issue features a new book design — kudos to Jay Millar of BookThug for the excellent production quality — and an afterword by American flarfist K. Silem Mohammad. Curio finds Bachinsky engaging in a variety of “language games,” including cut-ups (“Undressed and So Many Places to Go”), palindromic sonnets (“Spy Cam: Surveillance Series”), anagrammatic translations of Pound, Milton, and Eliot (“The Prose Same Ran as Sage”), questionnaires indebted to Jack Spicer’s theory of the “outside” (“5-10 ‘Yes’ Answers”), Stein-influenced prose poems (“What’s in a Noun”), etc. In other words, in these poems, Bachinsky is clearly working outside the purview of the character-driven lyrics and historical investigations of Home of Sudden Service and God of Missed Connections, respectively. Therefore, it makes sense that such work would find a home with Toronto publisher BookThug as opposed to, say, Nightwood.
What are we to make of Bachinsky’s Janus-like poetic praxis, moving from one position to another within the field of Canadian literary production? This shifting calls to mind Bachinsky’s poem “At Roberts Creek,” from God of Missed Connections. In that poem, two boys are swimming out “into the sea.” She writes, “You can see / that one is tentative while the other’s joy / is to swim just a little too far from the shore.” She diagnoses the behavioral difference between the two like so: “Both are right.” More importantly, at the poem’s end, via the pronominal “We,” she read her own pluralized condition as a manifestation of the two boys and their divergent actions. So, in one sense, we can begin by asserting that if Bachinsky has no problem with her split allegiances (“both are right”) then neither should we. And we could leave it at that.
This fact remains, however: no book of poetry is disinterested or innocent, and by (re)publishing a book such as Curio with BookThug (keeping in mind the publisher’s avant-garde leaning backlist) and with an “Afterword” by the likes of Mohammad, Bachinsky is, whether she knows it or not, situating herself in a certain aesthetic tradition and social circle, i.e. of the avant-garde, which has, historically, insisted on a radical relation between language, aesthetics and politics, a relation that Bachinsky, in her other books, either ignores or denies. A generous reading of this situation would be that, in fact, Bachinsky is tellingly showing and parodying the limits of such entrenched socio-aesthetic positions. Perhaps. A less generous reading, however, would be that Bachinsky — who, in God of Missed Connections is explicitly interested in the subject of history — expurgates the historical context / politics of the avant-garde altogether from her Curio language-games. In the latter case, then, her cut-ups or anagrams risk outright impotency (here, I differ from Mohammad, who ascribes a libidinal quality [“a perpetually excited surface of semiotic erectile tissue”] to Bachinsky’s work.) Curios, after all, have a way of instantly becoming kitsch. Moreover, it’s worth asking what the implications are for the avant-garde in Canada when a publisher such as BookThug determines to re-issue a book by Bachinsky and, in doing so, depend very much upon this Country’s economy of prizes (here represented by the Governor General’s award) in order to brand Curio uniquely within the marketplace (i.e. this is from the back-cover: “Published just prior to Home of Sudden Service, a collection that went so far in another direction as to be nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2006, Curio offers a very different view of what Bachinsky is capable of as a poet, and invites her readers to consider a much wider vision of her work as a whole”). The re-issue becomes a radically different text from the original pre-Home of Sudden Service edition and ultimately serves a different function for Bachinsky and the publisher.
As for the work itself, sure, it’s thoroughly enjoyable at times; sometimes, though, it’s tedious. At her best, Bachinsky displays a wild vocabulary and a cheeky wit that other poets of her generation can only hope to attain. The anagrammatic translations, in particular, yield some wild results. The Eliot translation, however, overstays its welcome. But what I most admire is that Bachinsky, at least, seems willing to do, say, or try anything at least once. That exploratory sensibility serves her well both in Curio as well as God of Missed Connections. Indeed, exploration is key to receiving her poems in Curio and is, fittingly, the subject of that book’s first poem, “On the Conventions of Narrative in Literature” — an excellent study in the uncanny:
Think of sailing the round earth to arrive at your point of departure. You arrive, but the landscape has changed so much you don’t recognize it. A deck-hand calls to you from dry dock, but he speaks a language you don’t understand. So much has changed
In the time you have been gone, you sail right past the harbour.
But Curio, more than anything, is a curiosity insofar as it demands certain difficult questions be asked about how we produce, disseminate, and receive poetry. As such, Curio is of far more use than most books of poetry published in this country.