"For me, courage means being able to change the patterns of our lives, recognizing the faults and the beauty in our lives and always going beyond the limitations that other have imposed upon us."
- Leslie to her mother, 1979
"For me, courage means being able to change the patterns of our lives, recognizing the faults and the beauty in our lives and always going beyond the limitations that other have imposed upon us."
- Leslie to her mother, 1979
"We have thought how places are able to evoke moods, how color and line in a picture may capture and warp us to a pattern the painter intended. If to color and line in accidental juxtaposition there should be added odor and temperature and all these in some jangling relationship, then we might catch from this accident the unease we felt . . . There is a stretch of coast country below Monterey which affects all sensitive people profoundly, and if they try to describe their feelings they almost invariably do so in musical terms, in the language of symphonic music. And perhaps here the mind and the nerves are true indices of the reality neither segregated nor understood on an intellectual level.
Bodin remarks the essential nobility of philosophy and how it has fallen into disrepute. 'Somehow,' he says, 'the laws of thought must be the laws of things if we are going to attempt a science of reality. Thought and things are part of one evolving matrix, and cannot ultimately conflict.'
And in a unified-field hypothesis, or in life, which is a unified field of reality, everything is an index of everything else."
- John Steinbeck, from The Log from the Sea of Cortez
"I have a high opinion of story. I see it as the essential trajectory of narrative: a coherent, onward movement, taking the reader from Here to There. Plot, to me, is variation or complication of the movement of story.
Story goes. Plot elaborates the going.
Plot hesitates, pauses, doubles back (Proust), forecasts, leaps, doubling or tripling simultaneous trajectories (Dickens), diagrams a geometry onto the story (Hardy), makes the story Ariadne's string leading through a labyrinth (mysteries), turns the story into a cobweb, a waltz, a vast symphonic structure in time (the novel in general)"
- Ursula K. Le Guin, from "The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum"
"And this whole absurdity about doubting the 'I' in poetry I don't understand at all. The 'I' is the source of communication of things that matter. At least, that's what I feel. I want to trust the speaker of the poem. It's like biting into gold, to see if it's true metal."
- Jack Gilbert, from an interview with Chard deNiord
"Women must convert their 'love' for and reliance on strength and skill in others to a love for all manner of strength and skill in themselves. Women must be able to go as directly to the 'heart' of physical, technological and intellectual reality as they presumably do to the 'heart' of emotional reality. This requires discipline, courage, confidence, anger, the ability to act, and an overwhelming sense of joy and urgency."
- Phyllis Chesler, from Women and Madness, 1972
(Cut from a grant application.)
In my favourite scene in any film, the camera has been set close to the floor and pointed through a kitchen doorway. Off-screen, a sack of groceries is dropped with a crash and a cabbage rolls into the frame, bumping across the linoleum and into the hallway before coming to rest. I can’t for the life of me remember what the movie is called. It’s a black and white movie; I want to say Polanski or Hitchcock directed it. I’ve never forgotten the scene because—at that exact point in the story, and because the black and white palette delays the viewer’s ability to identify out-of-place objects—the cabbage rolling into the room is, for a moment, a severed human head.
It’s not the gruesome nature of this image that thrills me (though it certainly heightens the anxiety of the scene). What thrills me is that the cabbage rolling into the room and convincing the tense viewer, even for a second, that a violent act has been committed fulfils exactly the same dramatic purpose as a decapitation would have. It says the same things about the plot as it has built thus far and the characters off-screen, and makes an actual violent act wholly superfluous in the film.
The rolling cabbage accomplishes all this by tripping some buried associative wire in the viewer’s mind. Further elaboration on the film maker’s part is unneeded; this simple, incongruous, mundane image has done all the subtle work of creating horror and pathos in a single shot. The effect is all the more profound because the viewer has to make the irresistible leap herself.
The rolling head of cabbage is (more or less) what I have always strived to do with words and images in my own work.
I made bread yesterday. The simplest of activities, really just a few spurts of activity to mark intervals of waiting. Something to expand and fill the void I have to stop ignoring. Whether the void opened when I lost my Christian faith, or whether it opened when I lost my childhood's sensual attention, it's hard to say. At times, these things I've lost seem like one and the same thing.
I do know that my week in Salt Spring--a week of smells (lilac, seaweed, dog, cedar, roasting chicken, Dylan's hair), of building fires, of walking in the forest, sleeping deeply, watching basketball every night, revising the same poem every day--had me feeling more human, less digital node.
And I guess becoming more human is an exercise in "spirituality". A misleading word, implying a desire for transcendence. As far as I'm concerned, transcendence is the problem. Technology has allowed us to transcend almost everything--every physical need, every earthly measure of distance, most human conceptions of time. In our digital transcendence there is no place for the limitations of the body, the frisson between body and mind, the painful conjugation of the two that we have tended to call the soul.
There is, increasingly, no proper place for anything. Almost all context is lost. And I think it is in the acknowledgement of context (as it shifts, as it remains constant) that "spirituality" lies. (If you use a better word, please let me know. Perhaps we can say "the sacred" instead.)
What is sacred about food? Knowing who tended the plants, the country where it grew, the plants and animals it was symbiotic with, the degree of relation to poisonous life forms, how long it took to become food and in how many steps, how your body reacts to it, the family or national or literary history of a recipe, the heirloom that is the serving dish, the medicinal properties of the herbs that have been used as flavouring--and on and on.
What is sacred about a book? The smell of the paper. The work's history of censorship or translation, how it got to you to read in the Twenty-first Century. Your aunt's name on the flyleaf in cursive, the girl you love who told you to read it, the author you love who quotes from this book--and on and on.
Being able to shift and extend context is what we call magic. We also call it metaphor. A Google search has no context apart from the algorithms attached to it (and you). The personal is homogenized with the universal. Despite our furious hyperlinking, there is no wholeness of parts. Those algorithms exclude whole corners of the world, creating islands of people, islands of information, cut loose like mangroves on the ocean.
(I just finished Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez, so I have mangroves on my mind.)
Most people seem to have developed little practices to save themselves from the tyranny of techo-capitalism. They walk their dogs, or learn to make sushi from scratch, or go hiking in the mountains or drive the highways at night. Sometimes I am really amazed at people's ability to quietly survive.
The first thing that I noticed about Accomplice is that it is an extremely attractive work. The semi-gloss green of the cover and the simple yet elegant cricket illustration (by Kaylin Put) is minimalistic in an effective way. The rough-cut pages and gentle stitching make holding this work a pleasant tactile experience.
On the whole, the poems in Accomplice are disparate in theme, but unified by Derksen’s consistent style and tone. In a way, it reminded me of looking through someone’s photo album; it is a curated collection of important moments. I especially enjoyed how the poems seemed to grow in intensity as I read through the chapbook.
The poems run the gamut from fairly abstract scenes (the fireworks) to more prose-centred pieces (The Man From Mars Tries Coca-Cola, [title], lilacs). Despite this variation, none of the pieces feel out of place. There is also lots of good play with repetition, such as the poems less and more and summer.
Specifically speaking of less is more and summer draws attention to how well ordered the collection is. In addition to these two poems complementing each other in their repetition on opposing pages, opening and closing with poems about relationships that are obviously very close to the author lends the collection a wonderful symmetry. The inserting of the same cricket from the cover illustration divided by a centrefold (in a restaurant) also makes Accomplice feel very complete.
The best aspects of the work in my opinion are Derksen’s use of narrative, second-person address, and personal confession. While none of these techniques are new, Accomplice says something important in an interesting way. Derksen uses these vehicles to comment on many issues which are faced by millennials; pieces like The Man From Mars Tries Coca, Cat Fracks, gate, and the tap running speak to very topical issues in an innovative way.
All in all, Accomplice is a fantastic collection of meaningful pieces, and I’m excited to read what Derksen writes next.
M.C. Danzinger is an Edmonton poet and translator. He holds a BA in Japanese from the University of Alberta.
You can order a copy of Accomplice in the shop at the top of this page.
Hello. Writing to you from Salt Spring Island. Something moderately exciting has come up, for which I need a new headshot. This afternoon, Dylan and I went up on a scrubby bluff littered with aqua-blue piping and mysterious cast concrete forms, blooming with tiny yellow flowers. Bella and Ranger came with us.
Thank you for your timely and detailed report. Bulky man in the leather jacket is certainly concerning; I've seen him before, as you said, sneaking. Luckily we have the dogs.
SSI activity is not as dramatic. The most exciting point of the day is usually the moment we leave the mansion to walk Ranger and Bella up the nearby mountain (criminally late, in their opinion). Then there are, of course, the ferry crossings, approximately 8 times daily, back and forth across the bay. The ferry crossings mostly serve to remind Dylan that he is frittering away his career. (Not.)
Food is very good, as are clothes. We've hosted several dinner parties already and outfitted ourselves handsomely. I've managed to engage the BC natives in a rousing pipeline debate, and our table has been graced by a charming one-year old and equally charming three-year old.
We've made several excursions to charming cideries and farm stands, accessible only by making a sharp turn onto a partially-obscured dirt road, all the while praying that a Subaru doesn't come careening around the bend before the sharp turn is accomplished. One farm stand had just been stocked with hot fresh bread when we arrived. We've also acquired blackberry jam, sprouted peanuts, fancy balsamic vinegar, lamb sausage, one distinguished wool shirt for Dylan, and one pair of skinny jeans for me. I haven't worn size 29 since I was fifteen, so you can imagine that I'm feeling very warmly toward the island boutique industry.
Daily struggles include forcing myself to write a humorous and informative mortgage-concerning article for ATB, deciding how early to begin watching basketball, and building viable fires.
We will be returning to Edmonton Sunday night, and sincerely look forward to our reunion.
At the beginning of the year, I decided to try and stop using my phone.
I told some people; they were mostly dismissive. Some were envious--envious in that desperate, hating way they would be if someone with whom they went to highschool lost 20 pounds. Several older adults smirked and said, "Good luck with that."
And yet we all know, I think, why someone might do this. We know. We feel it in our bodies. Our twitching fingers and racing hearts and eyes that don't know where to settle if not on our phone screens. Our restless legs that refuse to allow us to sit down and do anything if we are waiting for someone to like our picture, to reply to our message--the subtext of which is "I am lonely," or "I am angry," or "Please fuck me," or "I can't concentrate long enough for anything to mean anything until I receive your response, and the one after that."
There is something suspect in the sentences autocorrect and search suggestion compose for us.
There is something sinister in the way it is easier to buy a pair of shoes than get rid of the ad for those shoes, which pops up like a whack-a-mole everywhere we turn on the internet.
There is something scary about a phone's buzzing and flashing insistence that it is time to go to work (we should leave now, by this route, taking light traffic into account).
These are technologies for us to serve, not technologies that serve us. We want to be free. At least, I do.
I remember my parents getting their first cellphone specifically so that my mother would feel safer driving the Saskatchewan highways in the winter. My phone did not make me feel safe. My phone made me feel like I was an animal in a lab, perpetually on the verge of a mental breakdown, helpless if the gadget in my hand died, craving an ever-increasing level of stimulation. I couldn't trust myself.
You could even say my phone was gaslighting me. You could say we were in an abusive relationship. How else should you characterize a system that seems to make superfluous your memory, judgement, and skill at navigating social and physical space?
So I got a wall calendar. I got a watch. I deleted my Amazon account and switched my server over from Google to Proton Mail, glacier-pure encrypted email from Switzerland. I mostly stopped using Google Maps. I deleted Tinder, reinstalled it, and deleted it again. I deleted most of my social media. (I still have a Twitter account.) Almost immediately, people tried to impress upon me how much I would be missing.
It was true. Concerts, parties, impromptu lunches, and scheduled movie nights happened without me. I would find out about them next time I saw a close friend in person; they would say, "Fuck, I'm sorry, I forgot you didn't have . . ." Whole relationships, solely sustained by text conversations and mutual monitoring of the other person's Instagram or Facebook activity, quietly died away. And I didn't mind.
I was worried, of course, that doing my best to drop off the face of Google Earth would have the ironic effect of separating me from the real people I care about, the real food I want to eat, the real sex I want to have, the physical gatherings I want to be a part of.
Instead, the more I supposedly missed out on, the more my life moved into focus. Writing letters to my sister in Cape Breton. Uninterrupted reading. Uninterrupted movies. Watching people at the bar. Making brunch with a bunch of neighbourhood women and their dogs. Plans I do not change at the last minute. Exchanging new work with fellow artists. Sleeping 9 hours a night in the winter and 6 hours a night in the summer.
My friend Geoff called my landline the other day to ask what he should get his godson for a baptism gift. I thought for a minute. "A tree," I said.
I refuse to excuse my idealistic tone when I say that this is a better way to live. I am less anxious. I am having more interesting thoughts. I am (I think) developing more nuanced opinions on current events. I am reading a hell of a lot. And I have become curious about the idea of the soul--what it might be apart from what Jaron Lanier calls "the giant global brain that will inherit the earth."
I learn about the importance of a person’s lunar return in trying to conceive a child. For all that millennials love to talk about astrology, we are not interested in babies. We assume we are the last generation; any new babies will soon be distributed by Amazon, and we are trying very hard not to engage in any form of corporatism. Better to opt out now.
I go around as lazy and apathetic as any of us, half the time, but I secretly want to believe we are part of history. I secretly want to believe in a life cycle, that scourge brought on by the Baby Boomers.
Over breakfast, I mention this to my husband. We are eating cruffins (if you didn’t know, they are a trendy cross between croissants and muffins) and listening to an article about Rachel Carson, read aloud by a voice actor so we don’t even have to read it. Rachel Carson is the marine biologist who wrote Silent Spring, and warned us all about DDT, back in the sixties. She believed we are all connected, and were before the internet. She introduced that chemical-crazy generation to the idea of ecosystems.
At least they were concerned back then. They listened, for a while. Birdwatching housewives wrote to the newspapers. Our news sites report that in fifteen or twenty years, human pregnancy might be as rare as the pregnancies of right whales. Reporters muse about how already, it seems surprisingly difficult for those few young Luddite couples anachronistically trying to start a family. My peers scoff at their naiveté. Don’t they know the human race is doomed?
We have been trying to get pregnant for approximately seven months and three-quarters.
Engrossed in Witch in the Bedroom, I am sad to realize I do not know what phase the moon is in, much less the phase of my own lunar return. For all that I protect and revere the cycle that just so happens to match exactly the 29-day lunar cycle, for all that I get a thrill when I see the blood from my own body, for all that I dump my diva cup into my houseplants, for all that my friends might call me a good plant mom, I can’t remember the last time I looked at the moon.
The witch author explains that having sex with a man during my lunar return will prompt spontaneous ovulation. My woman’s body, which is supposed to be a societal construct, will respond to the man’s body by laying an egg and the result will be the child I want, that my society refuses to construct. I am too politically incorrect to live.
The chard at this grocery store comes hermetically sealed in plastic sturdy enough to transport water from a distant well. Perhaps we find it exciting to think we are coming to this.
- Joan Murray, from a letter to a friend, 1941
"Though Murray was a self-professed perfectionist, she distinguishes between a pejorative 'neatness' and 'balance'. The latter signals an erotic feat--when divisions inherent in ones self intertwine. To be vulnerable to both continual destruction and creation and still participate in the work of the building spirit is Murray's invincible realization as a poet."
- Farnoosh Fathi, from her editor's introduction to Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, and Poems, xxxiii
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Already fighting nostalgia for this apartment. Only a year ago we were painting the livingroom walls green. We got engaged and married in almost the same spot in the diningroom. It is not the apartment, it is the historical fact that we lived in it, struggled against it trying to make it reflect us, and fit us. There were so many strangely difficult things. The futurism of having a dishwasher. The pasteboard and laminate. The weather-proofed windows. The north side that painfully twisted some internal compass needle, jerking me around to face a direction I preferred not to face. And now, of course, that we are leaving, I see exactly where we succeeded in making it ours, exactly where it failed our respective, manic desires to thrive.
I try not to feel guilty for some vague failure, as if we would be better specimens if we loved spending all of our time deciding who will change the sheets and who will clean the bathroom.
I refuse to spend too much time looking backwards. Even as we move back within blocks of our old apartment on 99th St, I know that we would be mistaken to believe that we are trying to go back to the way things were. To put it bluntly, we are better people now. Living together has made us better.
In my sadness at what we are leaving, Dylan reminds me that the whole apartment building is our house now, with two artists' studios connected by a carpeted stairway. He's christened this new building The Renaissance, for all that we will experience living there. Here. When we dropped off another load of books tonight, I noticed that I'll be able to see into Dylan's kitchen from the sidewalk that runs up to the back door, and this made me happy. And it looks as if my brother will be moving in to the same building.
Thursday, March 1, 2018
It must be nine years to the day that I moved myself, my loft bed, and my four Superstore plates and four Superstore bowls into the tiny suite on 86th Ave, across the street from Ashleigh's house, where later a Dylan I didn't know yet attended their Infinite Jest book club.
I just came from the walk-through of my new apartment. I arrived with all of our plants in the car. Our bumbling landlord and his wife (?) were 20 minutes late. She spent the whole inspection scurrying around wiping down baseboards and he spent it whining about how the pharmacy was going to close. His eyes and his belly roll in tandem; he has a wild, bleary, sweatpants look about him. If he is dealing prescription drugs I will only be surprised because he does not seem smart enough to avoid getting busted for it. Anyway, I was worried about the plants freezing.
I read and listen to all the Patti Smith I can get my hands on. I start having black coffee, brown bread, and olive oil for breakfast.
I put a deposit down on a new apartment on the south side of the river; I move in on March 1. We're going to go back to colonizing two whole apartments in the same building, like we did on 99th St; like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton.
I start a three-month contract as a copywriter for a bank. I've never gotten paid so much to do something I am so good at.
I return to the 90s Catholic music I grew up with. I need these ideas and these melodies; there is no escaping it.
Dylan and I go to France to attend the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, where Dylan's film PEAK OIL is premiering. We see Picassos and Van Goghs, and discover the Neo-Impressionists. Dylan convinces me to buy a long wool coat, one of those pieces of clothing that promises to transform you into the person you want to be. Surprisingly, I am very glad to return to Alberta.
I try to figure out what it means to be a wife while my husband is falling in love with someone else. She's incredible. I'm determined to pursue this less-taken path, convinced there is something magnificent waiting for all of us at the end.
I perform the long poems from Accomplice at a bar on Whyte called The Almanac. For the first time, my name is on a poster. For the first time, my words feel right in my mouth.
My current artistic heroes are all women, except for Van Gogh. Patti, Frida, Virginia, Sylvia (as always), Sally Mann, Andrea Arnold. It's taken me over 20 years to stop thinking of my gender as a liability.
I get an email saying CRICKET is going to screen at FAVA Fest in April. A sign of acceptance from the small-but-brilliant film community here. I am honoured and excited.
I stop using my smartphone. I delete most of my social media. The peace and focus I was hoping would return begins to return.
1. The end never justifies the means; the means are the end. If the means are low, unethical, or unbearable, the means are one problem and the end you're inventing to justify them is another.
2. Your body will tell you when you are doing the wrong thing; in acute cases, it will break down and fall sick to prevent you from doing it.
3. Good work does not cause damage you will need to repair later; if it does, what is broken is more beautiful than it was before.
4. Distraction will be the end of you, if you aren't careful. Reject its sources and refuse to perform them.
5. Debt makes you a slave and takes away your ability to make decisions based on your own well-being. Avoid debt like the fucking plague.
6. Protect your arrogance and your compassionate urges equally; do not allow yourself to be convinced that anyone is so evil you should not be so arrogant as to feel pity for them.
7. No one will ever value your time as highly as you do. Sell as little of your time as possible.
8. Love is a decision; love is paying attention; love is kindness; love is truthfulness; love is difficult; love is gratitude for what is there.
9. Love is the secret ingredient of sex. Love is the secret ingredient of good writing.
10. Direct your work wholeheartedly towards an audience (at least one other person), but do not worry about the size of that audience.
2017 was the year I got married for real. In Mario Martinez's book The Mind Body Code, I read, "For example, if you were wounded by shame as a child, as an adult today, it is very possible to consciously create for yourself living conditions that are based on honour."
In 2017 I learned to drive. What does it mean? It means that if last winter I hated this apartment on the wrong side of the river, if I insisted on renting an office for five hundred dollars a month just so I could be away from it, if Dylan and I fought because he was more free than I was, this winter I can drive away to buy donuts or go to a movie by myself any time I want. I can drive myself home from work at three-thirty on Saturday morning. I can drive to Three Hills in a blizzard.
In 2017 I put up white curtains and dismantled the vinyl blinds. In February we painted our livingroom green and in July, while I was in Saskatchewan, Dylan painted the office crocus-purple. We had a Maxim calendar hanging in our front entrance. We bought two incredible photographs from our friend Jord Rule, who makes Alberta's perennial construction sites as grand as Greek ruins.
I read these books:
Just Kids (Patti Smith), The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings (Charlotte Perkins Gilman), War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), The Story of My Teeth (Valeria Luiselli), John Steinbeck, Writer (Jackson J. Benson), Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders), An Experiment in Love (Hilary Mantel), Universal Harvester (John Darnielle), A Breath of Life (Clarice Lispector), The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood), Saved (Ben Hewitt), Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber), Ina May's Guide to Childbirth (Ina May Gaskin), The Glass Castle (Jeanette Walls), The Winter of Our Discontent (John Steinbeck), A Defense of Ardor (Adam Zagajewski), Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O'Neill), The Mind Body Code (Mario Martinez), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery), O Pioneers! (Willa Cather), My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), Project Compass (Lizzie Derksen, Matthew Stepanic, Robert Strong, Kristina Vyskocil), The Stand (Stephen King), The Crossroads of Should and Must (Elle Luna), Under the Glacier (Halldor Laxness).
13 books by women and 11 by men and 1 by two women and two men. 7 in translation. 8 non-fiction and 17 novels.
2017: We adopted a puppy from the Yu-kan Rental yard outside of Dawson City. We walked more of the river valley than we ever walked when we lived six blocks away from it. I watched Dylan care for a small creature and my heart and my uterus swelled. We let Ranger sleep on our bed and colonize the Gurba couch. We taught him that "Slumber" means Lie down, and "Release the Kraken!" means Get out of the car.
I published two chapbooks and a novel. I finished a set of short stories about Caronport. I finished my first funded film and showed it to a roomful of 30 people who buzzed and rustled before the movie started and asked the right questions afterwards. For the first time, I felt that my work was beginning to come all the way across to my audience.
2017 was the year I grew my hair out for the third time. It was the year I started life modelling. The year I started reading my writing out loud. The year I wrote two rejected grant applications. The year my best friend of 13 years and I tattooed the woodcuts from Dutch Blitz on our right arms, above the elbows. The year I finally put together a decent CV. The year we drove up north and lived in a van for a month and I finished a lace sweater. The year I worked in a calzone restaurant for three months because not only were my accounts depleted, my credit card was maxed out. The year I did things for money that will show up in a fictional story one day. It was the year I realized I only ever want to work for myself.
It was the year that my brother and sister and I were all writing novels at the same time.
In 2017 I forgot what it felt like to experience a sense of absolute loneliness and despair in my body. I stopped living as if I had been thrown out on the inhospitable crust of the world to scavenge by myself. I recognized a family who asks me to marry them in spite of my views on Beyonce, who hangs a gold sequinned stocking for me, who slums it on the north side, who makes smoothies in the morning, who sends me their stories and music, who reads my difficult words, who lets me be good.
May we all be so lucky.
"Today is the day of nothing. Today is down to the wire. Could there be a number that is nothing? that is less than zero? that begins where there is no beginning because it always was? I tap into this vital absence and I'm a young man again, both contained and complete."
- Clarice Lispector, from A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), 3
The first two years that Dylan and I spent together, first in our opposite apartments on 99th Street, then in this subsidized, south-facing idyll of a co-op, we often got into serious arguments about poetry. I would write a new poem and after about 30 seconds' hesitation, email it to Dylan, then scuttle over to his desk to stand over his shoulder while he read it. He would tell me he was sure it was very good, but he didn't know anything about poetry. I would get angry and insist that understanding poetry was not an intellectual or esoteric skill, it was something any feeling, curious person could apply themselves to. I would point out that Dylan wrote beautiful songs with subtle, well-developed metaphors, complex structures, and lyrical turns of phrase. He would shrug. Later that night, or the next week, we would inevitably find ourselves sitting at the table with a bottle of whiskey between us, hashing out the painful truths of our divergent artistic sensibilities.
Then, last October, Dylan emailed me a poem. It was called "yesterday," and it was about the painful truth of possessing a divergent artistic sensibility--namely, mine. I yelled a little when I read it. I replied: I KNEW IT! Holy fuck. We have been emailing poems to each other since, sometimes composing poems in direct response to something the other has written.
As a Yuletide present, for our families but also for you, we've collected our email poems to-date in a chapbook (hopefully the first volume of many, which we plan to bind in different colours, like Ted Hughes's original conception of The Rainbow Press.) We've printed 29 of them. You can order one here.
“Accomplice” is a powerful word, mostly because of its potential: it insinuates, involves, complicates, and befriends—choose a verb. Accomplice (2017), Lizzie Derksen’s most recent chapbook, forces readers to interrogate the accomplice and to revise their own role in the relationships they hold. The accomplice, like the cricket on the collection’s cover, is often unseen, but heard resonating throughout the collection.
I struggle to understand certain parts of Derksen’s poetry because, as I see them, I am not able to, or (more importantly, perhaps) even supposed to, empathize completely with them—what is my role, other than to bear witness? A forced complicity, in my role as accomplice, if you will. This statement is not a negative criticism, but rather an inquisitive observation. Many of the poems are distinctly personal: as a reader, I am clearly the outsider to a joke—and maybe I should be so. I am the unseen cricket all over again, voicing ignored frustrations. The experiential and private nature of these poems offers refreshing, yet ambiguous insights: “Am I confusing?” (1), the speaker poses at a certain point, to an unnamed “you,” present throughout the collection, to be sure, but also to the reader. As a reader, personally, I do not belong entirely to this space created: I read this collection in the position of a clueless accomplice, and not that of a negotiator—always reaching, trying to locate the cricket by the sound of its chirps.
Before delving deeper into the chapbook’s content, however, its peculiar form deserves mention. Readers, in thinking of form, need to first acknowledge that this collection is self-published, and self-publication is highly compelling because of its lack of screening: while Derksen may have sought help in putting together her chapbook, no editors belonging to publishing organizations were present to open and/or close certain formal doors. Visually, one could divide the work into three distinguishable parts. From “accomplice” (1) to “Sask” (9), the form could be called “familiar,” if not traditional, since the poems are read vertically, though the style vacillates between minimalism and prose poetry, and minor details, such as capitalization and punctuation, are inconsistent. The second part (11-16), however, forces an horizontal reading of the poetry, as the writing is rotated 270 degrees; moreover, the cricket encapsulates this section, with an image of its upper half opening this central segment, and an image of its lower half closing it. Again, this section varies in style, yet these poems—and perhaps not surprisingly so because of the cricket’s explicit presence—are the most relatable and powerful to the outside accomplice: it incites an empathetic response, of course, but also orders a physical complicity in that the reader must manually rotate the chapbook to read its contents. Finally, form-wise, the last section reverts to a model similar to the first. Otherwise, as rare as using literally and seriously the phrase “without rhyme or reason” may be in critical discourse, readers must consider the saying with respect to Derksen’s poetry, as it seems to follow no set structures or rules, but instead relies chiefly on bursts of emotion and flares of potent imagery—à-la-Emily Dickinson, one could say.
On the topic of imagery, and returning to content, Derksen’s Accomplice, while at times challenging for the outsider, features some evocative and provocative images that reel in even the most distant of (ignorantly, maybe) complicit readers. In the collection’s titular poem, “accomplice” the speaker claims that they are “not jealous but… do not want to be / an accomplice” (2), surmising the dilemma: in opening the chapbook, readers become accomplices, whether or not they wish to be, and, in writing, so has the author. A sense of lifestyle, of lived experience permeates the poems: readers share in the problematic reality that “all winter we had not been young” (8), that of being “cricket-gut green, / [with] the flood of grief welling up over the brim” (9), and of finding “something inside [them] that will shrink and harden” (14). The unknown pain, like the cricket’s seemingly innocent chirping, resounds relentlessly, chipping away at an idealized sanity. For some, this chapbook will forcefully surface overfamiliar emotions: “You look up and the sentence in the book / you are reading appears on the wall” (24); for others, conflicting sentiments will dawn: “just my delicate treatment / just their mounting conviction” (25). In either case, readers may choose to embrace the empowerment offered by the role of accomplice, or refute it and enact their own agency.
An especially powerful piece, in my opinion, is “in a restaurant” (13), in which the collection opens up to include the outsider/viewer—the voyeur—and establishes a more relatable narrative to the accomplice. The details of this captured moment are particularly striking: “a Dutch woman in her forties” (13) sits across a man “whose work boots are visible beneath the tablecloth” (13). The situation is of a silent conflict, of a repressed dynamic, of helplessness—it is an active story of stasis, reflecting the contentious ambiguity of the chapbook as a whole. Most readers have been at this restaurant, on one side of the table or the other.
Lizzie Derksen, with this latest chapbook, adds to her clandestine, yet invigorating productions: she has been part of the poetry, fiction, and film scenes in Edmonton for some years now, and these works are all interrelated. Her short film, Cricket (2017), and the presence of the cricket in this chapbook, speak to that fact, assumedly. While I would caution Derksen to add some sort of preface in her collection to prepare readers for what lies in wait with respect to their immediate reading, I certainly applaud the originality and character behind these few pages; poetry, speaking generally, has recently become such a form of polemical grandeur that readers lose their personal connection to its personality—and on that note, chirp, chirp.
"Matthew Cormier is a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholar and PhD candidate in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta. He completed is MA in Canadian Comparative Literature and his BA in French Studies at the Université de Moncton. His research interests and publications chiefly concern postmodern, Acadian and English-Canadian fiction and poetry—particularly in relation to the digital humanities and affect theory—as well as current apocalyptic writing in Canada."
Accomplice is available for purchase here.
It makes me tired. And what is wrong with the world in which my son, graduated with a Master’s degree, can only find work making coffee? Not even making sandwiches and coffee. He stands in one place all day every day, behind a coffee machine that looks like a Camaro, and pours pictures in people’s lattes, which those people then cover with landfilling plastic lids and slurp while texting and driving.
And what is wrong with the world in which my son is dead? The unbelievable shit frequency with which I forget. Yesterday I walked into the fancy cafe where he used to work. I say ‘fancy’ with about a box of iodized salt; I wouldn’t blame anyone for mistaking it for an industrial design studio with a species of chandeliers in bad imitation of the decor at Versailles. I walked in for the first time since it happened, likely sporting a sour look on my face. I never have been able to pretend to like a stupid person or a stupid thing. And what could be more idiotic than the establishment in which my son earned minimum wage for the last two years of his life? He always reminded me that it was minimum wage plus tips. Oh honey, hold the door. The place still made me sick. But he did all he could to calm me down about it, try to make me enjoy myself when I came to visit.
He invented a coffee design for me called the Jackson Pollock. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, but I got a kick out of it. I mean, the fact is that Blake could make one of those fern leaves in three seconds, and he made a point of taking about two minutes on my latte, allowing the brown foam to set a bit, then laboriously drizzling trails of white foam across the surface. Usually he ended with a big blob, slightly off the centre, of whatever was left in the pitcher. Once he almost got fired for the appearance of my coffee, until I told the manager to calm his soul, I had studied art history in college, I was just fine with an abstract design. I’ll never forget the look on Blake’s face. His scalp pulled back so his shaggy bangs rose above his eyebrows. He was mortified. I was damn proud of him. That was less than a year ago.
The worst part of Blake’s accident is the feeling that I have lost my partner in crime, my son I wanted the world for and who apparently cannot even experience my own species of indignation any more. The impact of the other car broke his collarbone. They put a foam brace on him, even though he was probably already gone when it happened, so that his corpse wouldn’t be deformed. Not that they told me any of this beforehand. I went in to see him and thought they must have made a mistake, he was just injured. In fact, he broke his collarbone in fifth grade and it was probably exactly the same place. I thought, Why in hell would they bother with a brace, if he was dead? He looked just like he had the first time around. The funny way he would sleep flat on his back with his hands folded over his stomach like an old man. The attendant girl at the morgue got flustered. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Christ, I was embarrassed. Blake, not my husband Bill, was the one who always understood what I meant.
Yesterday I walked in to the cafe, the only woman in the place not wearing ankle boots (more like sprained ankle boots, I always say to Bill). I ordered a regular latte from the new girl at the till. She was very kind to me anyway, even though I refused to consider any modifications or a five-dollar scone with jam for another dollar, and had that sexy young girl’s bedhead; Blake would have liked her. I waited even longer than usual for my coffee. I was grim but cheerful about it for twenty minutes, then I started to look for any species of real problem. Nothing. Nada. The girl at the till was still taking orders with her big smile. Men in dress pants and expensive sneakers were walking out as if they needed to take a pee, trying to balance recycled cardboard trays in one hand, reefing on their electronic car keys in the other and trying to shoulder open the double doors. Blake’s cafe used to be the main branch of a bank, for crying out loud.
I peered around the topknot of the woman in front of me, probably a philosophy professor, and discovered the cause. The young man standing at the espresso machine was moving very slowly because of his collarbone brace. It held his neck stiff, like those snakey woollen scarves Blake and all of his friends were always winding around their necks starting the first of September. He couldn’t look down to see what he was doing, which was why he was taking so long to make every goddamn drink. Furthermore, he was sticking his ass out in order to put his eyes at the right level, and that was just causing a traffic disaster behind the bar. His hair was falling into his face, not improving the situation. I tried to push forward to get a better look, but the woman with the topknot stood firm.
The next minute, she swooped in to take a compostable cup from the counter, turned around, almost crashed right into me, and spilled her coffee. She looked down at her duffel coat (probably from Holt Renfrew or some other place) and back up at me. What did she expect? I was standing in the same place the whole blooming time. Not my fault if she didn’t consider the fact that there was a line of people behind her. I stepped out of the coffee puddle that was spreading all over the floor and looked over to check on the handicapped barista’s progress.
I took a step back and bumped into the person standing behind me. And the barista, he reached for the big velcro strap on his brace and turned around and I just about lost it.
There were all these stray chest hairs poking up above the collar of his t-shirt. Honest to Jesus that’s the first thing I noticed, even though the boy’s collarbone looked like a shiny red goose egg with sharp white piece of bone sticking through the skin. Blood was trickling down into the fabric of that godforsaken shirt, which it was already crusted with blood and in fact, some of the red stains were already turning brown. You could tell he was trying to stand up straight, but he looked like one of those dancing puppet dolls from The Sound of Music that one of the von Trapps has been jerking around; his chest was caving in while his shoulder dropped down way below where anyone’s shoulder should be.
He was looking into the distance behind me, calm as you please. All these beads of glass were stuck in his stubble, in the oval shapes that would only surprise a person who’s never seen a shattered windshield. His face was covered in blood, evenly like someone painted it, except where the blood had been obviously washed away by the tears running out of his eyes, which they never blinked at all, and the snot coming out of his nose. There was even glass in his eyelashes, that I always teased him should be featured in a mascara ad.
I tried to think of something to say that wasn’t stupid, but before I could speak up, the manager showed up at Blake’s elbow. He smiled me, seedy little bastard, and said he was sorry for the wait. My regular latte would be right up.
The manager took the cup out of Blake’s hand and slid it across the counter toward her. And then Blake opened his mouth. Pieces of his teeth sprayed out and bounced off the counter. It was like some clumsy person spilled a cup of dry rice. The redhead professor leaned in toward him, elbowing me while she did it. Blake didn’t even look at me. He didn’t even look at his mother once. Some of his teeth shards fell down the redhead’s blouse, which was of course open and when she leaned it showed cleavage. He flapped his hand at her replacement coffee and oh god he told her it was an abstract design.