There are archetypal elements to Czaga’s poems about family, though they are caught up in particular circumstances: her mother’s illness, her father’s relocation from Hungary, her childhood in a remote northern B.C. town. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins become our own catalogue of typical specimens, even though there may be nothing stereotypical about them. Czaga’s debut focuses on how these relationships recur, setting up patterns for our later lives. In “Biography of My Father,” for instance, the speaker is mystified by all she doesn’t know, and at the same time, baffled by the arbitrary facts she does hold: “I have a memory of my father in which he shaved / his beard” she offers us. “I have a memory of my father holding a rubber chicken. / The night I was born he won a bowling tournament.” Czaga highlights how these stray observations fail to add up to a composite picture: “Every conversation we’ve had could fit/ in his ashtray… In a language I didn’t know, / my father spoke only mouthfuls of smoke.”
While autobiographical, Czaga’s work refrains from the shock factor associated with the confessional mode. Her anecdotal portraits of extended family show an unremitting attention. They evoke no sense of trauma, but of gentle pathos, which no one is held responsible for: “The family smells of barbequed / corn, dry leaves, cheap beer. The family smells / of family to discourage touching.” Czaga’s lucidity, combined with her withholding of judgment, creates an interesting tension for the reader. We want to know more about the speaker’s relationships, and yet they’re all too recognizable.
The second half of For Your Safety continues to investigate how the forbidden undermines the familiar. In these poems about time, gender, pop culture, violence and how “little girls / lose the game inside their heads,” the tension between Czaga’s facility with language and her uncertain relationship with meaning increases. Only a few poems engage in a more inventive wordplay, yet lines like “how little girls / want wrong men, men with audible problems, men with holes” or “A girl is given dolls to mirror or she is / a far fat turkey. She does so for she is a /fine yes, fair Sunday” suit Czaga’s implicit social commentary, understated humour, and still, sharp emotion. While the poems don’t necessarily offer new insight on these topics, the authenticity of Czaga’s voice gives the poems their sense of freshness.
Poems about Etch-a-Sketch, peanut allergies, school violence and the death of Blockbuster are elegiac, without pretension or false sentiment. Czaga is still casting about for an apt form, and comes closest in the coda-like poem “Many Metaphorical Birds.” This final poem grapples with its allusions and wanders, like Anne Carson’s “Glass Essay” or Adrienne Rich’s snapshots, through personal experience and meditations on being:
Though we live in being, Heidigger
tells me, it is the furthest thing
from our understanding,
like his ungainly tome, six inches
from my face, but it might
as well be shipped to China to be
factoried into paper trinkets.
Metaphorically many birds
thwack continuously into
my being. They do not see it.
Czaga’s strong sense of line and enjambment and her colloquial diction contrast the speaker’s constant demurrals and claims that language eludes her. Despite the many tools we have to facilitate connection and communication, the same unsolvable problems confront this generation of millennial poets. Czaga also faces the burden of her own eloquence. Perhaps that is why she chooses to write about the subjects she knows best, even if they her evade understanding.
Phoebe Wang is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared this fall with Odourless Press. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.
NOTHING TYPICAL: ARC POETRY!