Sometimes a book’s associations are so alien to the person reading it that the latter can only concede defeat in making a bridge to the work. Such was the case for me when attempting to gain anything from Triny Finlay’s 2010 Histories Haunt Us. The first components that puzzle are the headings for the first five poems. Not a sequence, suite, or connected whole, they comprise five separate poems,but they’re pegged as “Abstract Loss, 1”, “Abstract Loss, 2”, and so on, until 5. This suggests that the poems are separate entities, even though they display a titular connection. The confusion increases after reading each poem since we're treated to a disjointed personal history that could just as well have no title, or even merge with the rest of the book. The first poem is bizarre. It references John Thompson in line one, and is composed in five couplets, so the obvious conclusion is that it’s an English ghazal or bastard ghazal, where the strict rules of the Arabian form, let alone the spiritual yearning and grief-with-joy coexistence is neutered, if not eliminated entirely. Actually, as a flippant Andy Weaver would define the term (and what’s a modern ghazal if not flippant or slapdash – cf. Margo Button’s shameless attempts), this is more appropriately a bastard bastard ghazal since its most important rule – contained couplets – is broken. Rumi? As Alice Cooper sang, “I’m so adaptable for you”. The first couplet is self-contained, as is the second. And there’s the leap in subject between them. So far, it’s the singular bastard. But then, there’s another jump, and the enjambment begins between couplets. And the content, or narrative, is of a piece. So we have a bastard mixed with a bastard bastard. This is like a novice “revolutionary” unsure of how far to go. One of column B, and one of column Q. And the content? Line 6: “Purple orchids slumped like shamed teenagers.” Now I know that our subjective experiences colour all our emotions and thoughts. But this line shows how a past emotional trauma or (at least) unresolved or difficult memory can intrude on the most innocent of sightings. It reminds me of the old game where one tells another, repeatedly, not to think of pink elephants. Even here, in a neutral thought experiment, we can see how the mind is diverted, and how our will can be a puny and wayward force unable to marshall our thoughts. But poetry, if it’s any good at all, isn’t about regurgitating whatever happens to spill into our minds at any and all times. It’s as much about editing and exclusion as it is about what is said. And of course, what is said then has to be ordered or, if that’s too militaristic a choice of words, shaped into something more memorable, apt, and metaphorical. In what world are purple orchids like shamed teenagers? Or – in what world are shamed teenagers like purple orchids? Wouldn’t a shamed teenager show red instead? Would the slumping be that graceful? But Finlay, as the book proceeds, isn’t interested in using images in order to effect comparable associations. The best surrealist poetry could achieve this. Disparate images can work. But they work in the same way that slivers of dream sequences do, by a feathery tail-link to what came before it. Finlay wrenches the first image into a distorted second comparable, the better to engineer what’s really on her mind: her narcissistic and crushingly depressing 6 x 8 internal world.
There are far too many other examples to use as evidence, and it’d be piling on to a pile-up, anyway. But I’ll include a few all the same, since quoting is necessary.
“What Is Cut Or Negative”
“After the bliss of the baby came the flies.
They cruised through a hole
in the screen and gathered,
a buzz of watchful parishioners.”
What is the relationship between the flies as parishioners and the newborn baby? It was a blissful occasion, after all. Here’s where a backstory, a meta-explanation, is necessary. Because without it, confusion is amplified. It turns out that the author’s lover left soon after their child was born. But even with this knowledge – (and surprise! autobiography is elevated) – questions persist. Why are the flies parishioners? Are the parasitic dregs the man who flees? But if so, it’s a poor association, since flies stay in order to feed, and in any case they gorge on garbage, not the actual fruits (of a relationship). Is it self-castigation? Flies as mind, feeding on the mind’s garbage? Or (what I believe, and what fits the orchids-as-teenagers link) is it just one more slapped-on cheap metaphor for attempted shock value, to underline that the writer is suffering, and that that fact alone validates and excuses emotional falsity and moral assumption?
Hysterical poems inevitably include lists since the catalogue of whatever’s-on-hand nouns increases the force of the simple assertion at the list’s outset. Hence, “Prestidigitation”, wherein “[f]or my next trick I will devastate all insects.” (Maybe that fly-parishioner was the departing lover.) And a few lines later:
flimsy window screens
knives in blocks
But if orchids can be teenagers, then any of us are allowed to complete the puzzle by equating patio doors with admen, potted plants with yesmen, and knives in blocks with stab wounds by troubled lovers. There’s no end to this kind of imprecision. If leaps are going to be long and wild, there needs to be some accountability.
And speaking of leaping, after this latest poem, the long and final section commences, and it’s – yes – a series of 26 bastard bastard ghazals. The book’s opener was just a tease. I’ll let those who truly value ghazals fulminate on these stabs and feints. But this isn’t modification. It’s belittling. Why are these narcissistic burblings set in a cheapened ghazal form? Well, Finlay has some roots in New Brunswick, and Thompson thundered and blundered in that province. A bad boy romantic, he was an attractive possibility for poets who loved the authoritative subversiveness he represented while disguising its responsibility in the incompleteness of the Canadian ghazal. And Finlay is up to the template here. (xxii) starts out with “vaguely, just vaguely, from my point of view: into/ the book about red, for the world about flight, about red/running out, or growing wings, volcano-like, monstrous.” Monster, flies/flight; incomplete conceits. That is, until the melodrama later in the same poem. Why, then, a ghazal, which lives in association? This is a ham-handed, slow link. Now, each of these 26 pieces have, in the book’s back-page notes, a listing of the corresponding authors who gave birth to these efforts. But with any good allusion, the entire point is to disguise it artfully so as to elicit a guess or surprised and pleased recognition from the reader. This is like providing the answers in bold text right next to the blank crossword. Just because it’s “hidden” after the poems doesn’t make it a mystery. Associations should be there to be discovered for months or even years, not garnered in a casual glance at the back matter after completing the poem sequence the first go around. And “red/running out”? Mary Wollstonecraft gets the nod, but Katia Grubisic also would like to raise a hand. It’s funny because it also reveals a young poet anxious to be seen as having read the canon (intoned in a slow baritone). Let’s face it: these ghazal-lites, or rather sham-ghazals, have nothing of the regenerative, let alone sacred, in them, despite the closing, stuttering last two hysterical depictions, and the last-gasp insincere positive sop-throw, “The truth is, it stings, it sings to me now.” The truth is? That reminds me of businessmen who say “frankly” to preface their imprecisions.
Triny Finlay, after two books, is a creative writing teacher. I remember when a mentor was a forbidding presence, the gulf between student and master so wide that it caused the former to either quit in logical hopelessness or get on board with manic ambition. But this kind of authority can only lead to a confused student union, and a discipleship with more fervency than talent.