Susan Holbrook is funny, sometimes enough to make one laugh out loud. In Joy Is So Exhausting, her second collection, she employs a variety of poetic constraints to create poems that surprise and delight without being too cute or comfortable. Constraint-based poems often read as though they must have been much more fun for the writer than they are for the reader, but Holbrook’s sense of humour and preoccupation with the element of surprise help to make her procedural poems seductive.
Although some poems get lost in their own improvisation, the poet’s willingness to borrow from unexpected places (the insert in a box of tampons, the inspector’s report on her house) and to acknowledge the difficulty of her own poetic project (“Is it worth the portage?” she asks in “Q&A”) make these experimental poems unusually approachable.
In “POETSMART Training for Your Poet,” she perverts text from PetSmart’s website by substituting “poets” for “pets,” and promises, “Using positive reinforcement methods, you’ll learn how to prevent unwanted behaviour and establish a bond with your poet.” In “Memoirs of a Canada Council Visiting Writers Hostess,” the fatigued speaker remembers a long line of high-maintenance guests, including “the one who kept calling me Sharon” and “the one who always read final lines as if our lives / depended / on / them.” In “Good Egg Bad Seed,” she plays with the adage that there are two kinds of people by devising a litany of often hilarious dichotomies: “You have a way with animals or squirrels smell your fear and attack”; “You think Modigliani painted nipples too small or you think Emily Carr painted trees too big”; “No pulp or extra pulp.” “Nursing,” the long poem that ends the book, is most notable for the luminous simplicity with which it captures a new mother’s most intimate routine, but it has moments of humour, too, including its closing line, from which the collection takes its title.
The purpose of a joke can sometimes be to create social affinity — to put a stranger at ease or invite an outsider in. This is often the function of Holbrook’s humour: to establish rapport with the reader and make fragmented language less opaque. In poems created from a Sudoku puzzle or a creative transliteration of Garcia Lorca, the lyric epiphany favoured in more mainstream poetry is supplanted by formal and syntactical shocks. Although the poet asserts that either “you like an epiphany or you like a surprise,” her surprises are in a sense epiphanic. A good joke contains a flash of insight so sudden and unpredictable, we can’t help but respond, usually with laughter. While this species of epiphany may not be as cloying as its lyric counterpart, it is familiar enough to make Holbrook’s experimental jolts more palatable. Humour invites us into these poems and makes us want to stay even when we’re startled, a poetic strategy that makes Holbrook’s work especially innovative.
Abby Paige is a Montreal-based poet, playwright, and actor. Her one-person show “Piecework: When We Were French” will tour in New England in 2010. (No pulp.)