In his second collection, For Display Purposes Only, Toronto poet David Seymour sets out to probe the components of personal identity. Unlike the usual identity markers popular in academic circles—race, gender, sexuality—Seymour explores a more interior landscape and asks whether it is even possible to maintain an authentic sense of selfhood when bombarded by the ceaseless stimuli of a 21st-century urban environment. City life, by nature, lacks continuity, is a series of flickering perceptions that are increasingly difficult for a person to process. In “Eyewitness Testimony,” contradictory reports of a traumatic event highlight the unreliability of human awareness and require a narrative structure to order the disparate accounts: “testimonials / hardened into notebook fact.” “City Living” features four vignettes of that most urban ritual, a night out at the bar, where the speaker is unable to comprehend his surroundings and his place within them, eventually concluding, “I am not who I think I am.” Cast into constant flux, Seymour suggests that the inability to accurately describe the self (or ‘self’ as the case may be) is symptomatic of modern urban life. We city dwellers are nothing more than our disjointed accumulated experiences, which are perceived differently in memory at different times, and thus change who we actually are moment by moment. The book is chock full of statements to this effect: “the past piles up inside this me”; “we remember our own lives / only slightly better than novels / we’ve read”; “I become about as real as a book’s intended / audience”; “Pretend. Be unreal / Be more real than I have ever imagined”; “when I say ‘I’, I could be referring / to someone else entirely, having mistaken / him for me, as seen from a deceptive angle / or too great a distance.” In “Clone,” an amusing meander through the fantasy of having clones handle one’s mundane day-to-day drudgeries while pursuing one’s personal interests, we see this instability writ large. Yet, by virtue of their experience, the clones are just as likely to become the true self, the real ‘David Seymour’: “the sum / of [the clones’] actions define me while they live my lives / as though committing crimes.” This malaise can invade the domestic realm of the home as well; in “Repeat Offender,” cleaning the kitchen makes him realize that “nothing would verify the cleanliness / and newly defined balance of this space / quite so thoroughly as my absence,” a moment where his place in his own life is uncertain, an uncanny reminder that one can become a stranger to oneself. Not to say that Seymour suggests that the solution to this conundrum is a retreat to nature; the rural world, so dear to Canadian poetry in general, makes hardly an appearance. Given that ontological authenticity is unlikely, the language of Seymour’s poems is rather detached but with an underlying yearning, a desire for a genuine emotional state that he knows is impossible to attain in the current milieu. For that, I consider For Display Purposes Only an important book, one that points to the crux of something in our current discontent that we are only beginning to understand.
Christopher Doda is the author of two poetry collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson. He is currently working on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.