Angela Hibbs’ poetry is one of leaping semblances, wry cleverness, and urgent, dark confessions. Wanton, her second book, is actually two lengthy chapbooks sewn together: the first, a pastiche of dark, edgy poems mostly concerning an ill-fated love or oppressive father, the second, a long series of linked verses concerning unseemly goings-on in an imaginary Newfoundland town called, evocatively enough, Wanton.
Hibbs does very different things in these two parts, so they deserve to be considered separately; but her voice is consistent throughout.
Violence flashes like switchblades through slats of clipped phrases:
Again I hear betrayal in your clarinet’s song.
I shift from left to right; satin skirt damns me.
(“A Few Miles Above Twin Peaks”)
I composed thank yous slowly and typed them quickly
my stiff little fingers
Their pain was like applause.
(“Quick and Slow Lists”)
At times the writing is so tight one can hear the delete key. What remains is pithy, and frequently, rich in wit and implication:
I look like a pictogram warning against
Forgetting to listen to my own bad press.
(“Candy-Assed in Pointe Saint-Charles”)
Bad press: yes, publicity; image-consciousness heightened by social networking sites; but also bad impression, pressure, type, publisher perhaps? (Concision makes for some unlikely spinoffs…)
The influences of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are plainly audible. Sexton is apostrophized in a couple of poems. While “A Standard,” which addresses Hibbs’ own Daddy, does not reach the heights of Plath’s famous poem, it does achieve dramatic intensity.
Three pieces written from the point of view of an inmate of a mental institution include perhaps the strongest poem in the entire collection, “There Is a Room Reserved for the Hopeless.” Whether Ms. Hibbs is a psychiatric survivor or not, these have the ring of hard-won authenticity.
The second part, Wanton, concerns orphans in a small town who have been put to work to earn their keep. There is plenty happening here, none too savoury: exploitation, alcoholism, sexual abuse. The language is smart and fairly crackles: Hibbs captures colourful Corner Brook turns of phrase with an unerring ear. Her urge for terseness, however, does not always serve us well. A host of some twenty-five-odd characters, none really described and many referred to by shortened or nick-names, leads at too many junctures to confusion rather than clarity. At times the reader is left wondering, who is speaking? Who does that pronoun refer to? And does it, in the end, matter? Effects of ghostly presences and cryptic implication are achieved, but only in glimpses do we see beneath a sardonic surface. Context could be better nailed down with a poetic dramatis personae, as, say, George Elliott Clarke employs to introduce Whylah Falls. Perhaps someday this narrative will be expanded into a novel. Hibbs’ priority, though, is compressed musicality of expression, and this does lead to unforgettable moments:
The lock clicked, automatic.
Control was on his side
and on the wheel and on the console,
which he hadn’t removed,
highway handjobs a wrist twist and a half
for the same lousy three bucks, Three-buck-Nancy’d say
through buck teeth…
Rolled eyes and hips,
she adjusted in the bucket,
hoped he’d kick it.
Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight. It is reviewed here in the Rover.