If you visualize the prose poem as a canvas, given its rectangular shape on the page, then reading Melissa Bull’s debut collection, Rue, is like experiencing an installation in an underground gallery with all your senses brought to high alert. The lighting is demanding (think strobe), subjects raw and frisson-inducing, landscapes more urban than not, accompanied by the “perpetual groan of engines from the highways behind the traintracks.” Dispersed among the canvasses, you encounter collage-like poems in stanzas tight with edgy precision: “Last spring his limbs bent on a folding chair / heron in the Green Room / I shot him down.”
The book begins with “Bleeding Hearts,” first of the many prose poems, in which we’re introduced to the speaker’s parents: the journalist father with mustard smeared on his upper lip and the art teacher mother who used to wait up for him before she realized “talking to him was like communicating with a mattress.” There’s tenderness then rupture as the factoids become increasingly alarming: “My mother’s got a shotgun in her closet. She won’t have it registered.” The risks of a four-page opener are compounded by the risks of premature disclosure. At this early point in the ‘secret story’ are we engaged enough to care about the narrator’s lineage? Yes, because the poet makes us care with the inventiveness of her craft.
Take the opening lines of “Near Miss,” a verse delivered in two knockout stanzas: “Rode up leaflittered Clark / traces of hand underskirt / sober in spite of the beers on his tab / and the giddy moonclear streets…” The poet, in a few rhythmic brushstrokes, renders setting, mood and emotionality. You are with her on the bike, “back sticky as his jaegerbreath call, / Who’re you fucking?” Beneath the provocation, the secret story roils and brews.
Bull doesn’t overdo the linguistic playfulness. These are managed risks she takes. Another involves the banal. In “Down with a Case of WTF,” layers of what first appear to be disenchanted non sequiturs build into an ironic social statement. “I bought some loose tobacco in some ye olde general store by the Harvard Yard. I had food poisoning and sat on the curb, trying not to shit myself, watching whitetrash ghetto Irish kids in bomber jackets appliquéd with Celtic insignia, schoolgirl women who bounced from campus in egalitarian Gap tweeds, shoulder-length hair parted to the side. One chubby Jackie O after another.”
There’s also plenty of banal’s antithesis, the unusual, delivered with brash lyricism. “Fuse,” an erotic poem, opens with “I peony / flex” and closes with “Bloom bloom’s bursts. / Swoon / till seed.”
Most of the geographies in Rue relate to Montreal, often street-specifically as in the poems “Dante” and “Everett.” But the narrator travels well. Whether in Bogotá, Saint Petersburg or Rivière-du-Loup, she never relinquishes authenticity of voice and gutsiness. Bull refuses to shy away from life’s horribleness, tackling failed relationships, illness, grief and the myriad ‘what-if’s’ that haunt the thinking person. Yes, there is regret, as the book’s title suggests, but not at the expense of humour or playfulness. In “1:00 – 2:00 pm Décarie and Paré,” the narrator acknowledges her “brokenness” and admits the “only thing that works to bandaid the sight of it is pop tunes and romance novels and crime TV. Banal makes me feel okay. Shrinks my goals. Cozies around me.”
If you believe that art is the honest expression of significant particularities, the poems in Rue are exquisitely artful.
Cora Siré lives in Montréal where she writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the author of Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014).
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