In the first section of her collection Sabotage, Priscila Uppal playfully solicits her readers:
I am urging you to join my class action suit—
already millions strong—suing the fine arts for centuries
of criminal negligence resulting in countless occurrences
of inoperable emotional suffering.
This tongue-in-cheek poem goes on to cite the harm and “trauma” that has been evoked by works of art, from Shakespeare to the Sex Pistols. If the role of art is to “abuse” its audience by generating feelings of offense, discomfort, nostalgia and regret, then Uppal rises to the challenge, with a collection that confronts both personal griefs and political injustices.
Yet, throughout the book, the tone of wry playfulness continues, providing relief from the heavy subject matter of depression and historical violence. “I Sold My Future Life on eBay” and “The Dead Have Sabotaged My Facebook Page” irreverently frame life and death within these icons of the internet age. The section “Adaptations” creates mash-ups of reality television shows with historical events: “Survivor” renders the First World War as a game show where “nations text their ballots into the trenches.” “The Amazing Race” is re-imagined as the race for empire where
the trick is to plunder with purpose, land
agricultural punches, haggle
into power. (And kill Indians.)
This juxtaposition of history with current pop culture is reflective of the contrasts that abound throughout this book. The sections of the poem “Discussions Concerning Artistic Merit” are separated by bits of dialogue that cleverly evoke unexpected, antagonistic associations: “Do you love the theatre? / I love assassinations” and “Do you love sonatas? / I love car alarms.”
Many of these are difficult poems that play with language and quick shifts, in image and setting, to obscure narrative meaning. Yet amidst this dense, acrobatic verse are moments of blunt, raw clarity: “To My Suicidal Husband” stands out for its plainness and straightforward plea:
Please do not look for poetry
in your death. Your drowning or
hanging or tsunami of pills & booze
will not be poetic.
Sabotage is guerrilla warfare against personal loss and injustice, the forgetting of history and the trivialities of modern life. But there are also moments of joy and exuberance. In contrast to the first section’s “Class Action Suit,” several of these poems are about a love affair with literature itself – literally. In “In Defense of the Canon” the speaker declares, “Sidney I would have seduced out on the battlefield / in my naughty nurse outfit,” and “Stein, I could have been her flapper mistress.” Elsewhere the speaker exchanges emails with Rilke; in “Books Do Hold Me at Night” books are life partners, who “sweat with me on the elliptical” and “grieve when I’m sad.” If art has the power to harm it also has the power to provide pleasure, companionship, and redemption.
Jennifer Delisle has published widely in literary magazines and academic journals, and is the author of The Newfoundland Diaspora. She is also a member of Room Magazine’s editorial collective. www.jenniferdelisle.ca.
TONGUE IN CHEEK AND EYES ON ARC!