Culture & Conversation

The Sweet Taste of Venom

These days, a little cleansing rage seems not only justified, but downright de rigueur. Between dead soldiers, greased pelicans, and one’s own everyday grievances, who doesn’t have a few choice words for the powers that be — be they oil barons, politicians, landlords, or ex-lovers? Yet outrage seems strangely rare in most contemporary poetry, perhaps as a consequence of creative caution. “Speak when you are angry,” Ambrose Bierce tartly advised, “and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

Like alcohol and over-inflated self-regard, rage has a delightful loosening effect on the tongue, but, as with booze and ego, the hangover it can leave behind is characterized by the chastening realization that your few choice words could have been chosen more carefully.

Those of us apt to hold our tongues can take vicarious pleasure in For and Against, Sharon McCartney’s new and seventh collection. McCartney’s voice is dark, sharp, and refreshingly fierce. Arguing against everything from skunks to therapy to “my father’s third wife,” she exploits anger for all its energy and bravado, her imagery vivid and her vocabulary expansive, as tends to happen when one is pissed off and on a roll. These poems for the most part trace the dissolution of a marriage, but their outrage is broader, more existential, and endearingly self-aware. Every once in a while a metaphor borders on melodrama — but then, every once in a while, real life does, too, as in “After Little Italy”:

Actually shouting at each other on Bloor — like couples we’ve
always laughed at, trailer park romance. So caught up in it, divorce
the only thing we can agree on, we lose track, forget where we are,
which way to the hotel. We’re on Yonge Street — you stop as if
at a precipice — I hate Yonge Street! And I, out of habit or love,
I don’t know which, pity you. That part of you I know too well, […]

This is deep anger combined with great vulnerability. McCartney’s speakers are not altogether likable, but the reader can identify with their rage because of the poems’ searing honesty. The poet doesn’t play any tricks to make things — or herself — appear prettier than they are or provide the comfy assurance that it all works out in the end.

This is especially true in the poems that refer, often obliquely, to breast cancer, such as “For (Against) Judith,” a diatribe directed at an ungrateful houseguest, which concludes:

… I recycle your malicious missive, left perched on the guest
room pillow like pissed-off cat shit, so calculated to wound, trash
your subsequent self-serving e-mail gasconades, the albino bone
of forgiveness that was in me once gone AWOL, fed up, ducked out
for a pack of smokes while I lay unconscious in the sequestral OR.

It would be easy for the theme of illness to take over, but McCartney astutely channels its force into a quiet fury, a darkness that lies at the centre of the poem almost as a tumour sits hidden within tissue, a dense node of gravity. McCartney is tough. She doesn’t feel the obligation to rise above a heart-wrenching experience, to find a bright side, or to soften her bitterness, and so we believe her when she concedes in one of the book’s final poems, “it’s an adequate life, no snipers, after all.”

A few poems take creative departures from the confessional tone: a romance between Dorothy and the Tin Man; the last thoughts to cross Marie-Antoinette’s mind; an ATM’s late-night soliloquy. And the book does finish off with a few poems that are for rather than against, but you wouldn’t mistake them for feel-good poems. These are poems for feeling bad and liking it; not for regretting the vile things you’ve said and done, but for regretting that you now, alas, know better than to say or do them.

Abby Paige is a Montreal-based writer and actor.

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