Anyone who has experienced the explosive live performances of Vancouver’s C.R. Avery—a folk, rock, punk, blues, bebop, hip hop, beat box virtuoso—knows that he has a way with words. Many of his songs contain cadenced free-verse rants and rambles that easily lend themselves to poetry, so it is no surprise that he should be a proficient poet as well. At least half of the poems in 38 Bar Blues are written versions of his song lyrics. This is not a criticism of the book—the fact that his transcribed lyrics work as finely crafted, beautiful poems, complete with surprising turns of phrase and arresting images, speaks volumes about his literary abilities. Avery is both physically and psychically a nomad and, like any quester, he finds wisdom in the journey rather than the destination. In “My ‘What Next’ Memo to Myself,” he presents rootlessness as a necessary step in the life of a young artist. After the high school prom, that most obsequious of rituals meant to transition a person into adulthood, he splits town and the “guillotine suburbs,” abandoning the fate of those in the straight world for the wanderings of a musician: alone at night on a desolate stretch of Quebec highway, smoking outside a closed auto-body shop, “taking in each puff / watching the smoke curl in the light / it tasted like victory.”
Avery’s terrain is rooted in the idea of the fallen world, where the roads and rails between towns are long and lonely, bars are run-down, hotels are seedy, cities are gritty and largely populated with broken but essentially good-hearted people who are seeking some form of redemption. He finds inspiration in other musicians, loners, misfits, eccentric working-class characters and other assorted down-and-outers, “the news boys and gals who have testified every Sunday” and “the host of the modern times hobo,” (“St. Marie”) he meets in his travels. And he rhapsodizes a great deal about women, in both sacred and profane terms. In my favourite poem, “The Coroner’s Office and Figure Eights,” he states emphatically that “I’ve been called more than once to come downtown / to identify the body of a woman we call our city” and that “if we don’t help her / we are shit head people / self-absorbed, greedy and mean.” And in the love poem “Open Letter to a Beautiful 20 Year Old” he recounts various outfits worn by a girlfriend as a way to conjure up her memory while he is on the road missing her, before finally concluding “This Halloween, let’s dress up as each other.”
Avery moves among these people, his extended kin, absorbing their stories, perhaps seeking a little redemption himself, through his art, “like a comic super hero / who left home to roam / on some type of secret mission.” It’s an old tale, one we’ve heard before, from François Villon to Charles Bukowski to Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen, but I can’t think of anyone else telling it so well these days.
Priscila Uppal has published eight collections of poetry, most recently Successful Tragedies: Selected Poems 1998 – 2010 (Bloodaxe Books, UK); Traumatology; Winter Sport: Poems, and Ontological Necessities.