Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Emptiness is Something: Mike Spry’s "JACK"

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Emptiness is Something: Mike Spry’s "JACK"

If a young poet is, in part, the product of his or her collected mentors (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), then a lot can be said about the world of Mike Spry’s debut collection JACK by namedropping first his editor (David McGimpsey) and his “publisher…and friend” (Jon Paul Fiorentino, of Snare Books). Here are two poets locked in career-long struggles to wrestle free some truth from their study of the ephemera of popular experience, and Spry clearly aspires to stand beside them. His first collection, JACK, arrives from a pointedly off-kilter world of hard-drinking road trips and (sometimes affected) ennui. His characters would like you to know that when they get drunk, they get drunk on Labatt 50. And when all that Labatt 50 is gone, they like to immerse their well-educated heads in paranoia, romance, and pettiness.

There’s something of a through line, introduced in a playfully formal matter in the book’s first poem “Idleness Foxglove”. There’s a love triangle, you see, and our (unnamed) narrator is in the process of losing his wife (Jane) to a superstar of prototypical masculinity named Jack. This narrative is only occasionally at the forefront and the lapses and flashbacks that poke up when it’s surrendered make for some of the book’s best moments. One of the reasons for this may be the sense of dramatic inertia that sets in once the characters are introduced, as Spry’s speaker is such a whiny submissive type that he seems like a natural candidate for cuckoldry.

The challenge of JACK then becomes Spry’s struggle to bring us to a place where we feel in any way responsive towards his cast of hipsters and their faceless aspiration objects (such as Jane herself). I’d argue that he’s mostly successful in this, though he’s equally aided and hindered by a whip-fast wit that can find the surreal edge of any situation. Sometimes he uses that edge to push his readership away from an emotional connection with his characters, but other times he places their skewed paradigms at just the right angle for a fresh perspective on his ancient story.

A good example of the former comes from a poem called “Harrison Ford, Perhaps” wherein Spry helpfully alerts us to this tidbit: “I’ve tired of masturbating,/and I can no longer think of you when I do./ I mean, I can, but it’s not helpful.” In another poem, called “Ampersand”, the speaker op-eds: “…everyday lives in Starbucks’ premium blend culture,/ while your peers, who left you behind long ago,/discuss Volkswagens, ecru lies, one night stands…” While these are both highly confrontational selections, the poet pounces on them too early (first with wit, then with pop-culture), before either idea is finished its expression. As read on the page, they come across as passive-aggressive volleys of shock, as exercises in edginess, snuffed out by their creator before given space to breathe. Spry sometimes wants his masculinity to be both mumble-mouthed and erudite, both Louis L’Amour and Lewis H. Lapham, and while this is possible, it’s rarely possible at the same exact time. Some of JACK’s poems struggle to maintain credibility under the combined weight of these ambitions.

That being said, there are more outstanding lines in JACK than awful ones, and more good poems than poor ones. The poem called “Now Accepting Applications for Hotel Reception” opens with the sentence, “It was the year of the vagina embargo/ and red was no longer a flavour,” and stays just as great. Near the end of the book, the speaker unleashes a series of paranoid descriptions regarding his sexual rival. The result was both hilarious and potent in its structured reveal of the speaker’s pettiness and fear.

“Jack will father my children. Jack will own my house.
Jack will leer at my sister-in-law at Christmas dinners.
Jack will contemplate my wife’s dry turkey.
Jack will pass off CNN opinions as his own.
Jack will steal jokes and fuck up the punch line.
Six midgets in the trunk of a Volkswagen, get it?”

My two favourite pieces in the collection hint at Spry’s willingness to work with the vapidness of his speaker’s worldview, not against it. Both “Calculated Distractions in the Absence of Someone Named Jane” and “Skate Betty” open new contemplative avenues for the archetypal “failing romantic”. The former is a hungover eulogy for the book’s principle relationship, expressed through a very unique brand of self-loathing, as the speaker concedes, “I am a Habs fan and an adulterer.…” The latter is a multi-part flashback that mirrors the book’s central soap opera, with Jane replaced by an adolescent girlfriend and Jack by a conflicted teenaged lesbian named Sara. Our speaker wonders, “Did it ever feel like you were loving a malleable mirror?” This is ironic because, from what JACK tells us about our speaker, a malleable mirror could very well be his romantic ideal.

There came a time for me in this parade of bon-mots and bitter reminisces that I started really giving in. I started to entertain the possibility that a book with a surplus of lines like “Jack drinks Jack and Coke so he can refer to his drink in the third person” is quite likely a good one. Moreover, I saw that the selfishness and the vapidness celebrated by the speaker was necessary to set up these kinds of lines. In the end, JACK has a marketing problem. Namely, its greatest value lies in its most marginal moments. That these moments are rarely more than just great punch lines is somewhat limiting, but true to the tradition Spry is writing from. I don’t quite have a name for that tradition, but its members fill the territory bordered by Dorothy Parker and Charles Bukowski, and include both McGimpsey and Fiorentino. The great works of this tradition use the detritus and the flippancies of the poet’s surroundings to make gains that are both funny and intellectually honest, the least among them settle for funny and exchange intellectual honesty for a kind of pantomimed thoughtfulness. Mike Spry’s JACK does a little bit of both, but leaves you with a dozen or so unforgettable lines for your troubles. That, in the end, is something.

**
JACK is available from Snare Books. Please buy from the publisher or an independent.

Yours,
Jake

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page