Canadian-born Seattleite Kim Fu has followed up her much-lauded debut novel, For Today I Am a Boy (HarperCollins, 2014), with a debut collection of poetry. With it, she proves she is no less afraid of portraying emotion and complexity as a poet than as a novelist.
How Festive the Ambulance is divided into five sections, each themed around the relationships her miserably modern characters have with different parts of the world around them, from animals, to loved ones (and things), to culture, to place. Despite the divisions, each poem throughout the book is wound in a tangle of influences and affects, all tied to contemporary lifestyles.
These poems are cinematic vignettes of time and place, written in a smooth, delicate pace. Fu’s characters are each unhappy where and when they are, whether in an imaginary fairy tale, a party of poets, a roadside diner, or, as in “Dissection,” from the book’s Small Crimes of a Northern People section, a series of bodies: “Cut into a lobster, a crow, a mouse, / an ape, your mother. / See the economy of space inside the body, / a shared rented room in the city.”
In How Festive, Fu proves herself a rising master of the many-edged sword of metaphor and emotion. Her poems often combine deep sorrow with quiet, playful humour, leaving the reader grinning and tearful, as with the collection’s title poem, where the emergency lights are “ruby and amber on the outer rim of a Ferris wheel / Carnival riders tilted up to the fireworks: Whee! Ooh. Whee! Ooh,” bringing us ultimately to “their sweet confirmation: not-dead, not-dead, not dead.”
Fu’s subtleties in description ease her often blunt judgments, whether they’re on the vapidness of a gaggle of teenagers in a restaurant, the social isolation of city living, or on death, race, chores, love, herself, etc. Even still, Fu’s language remains rich with multiple meanings in each of these tellings. Her striking, resonant whispering of details, for example, render the personal tragedy of “No-Fault Divorce / Breakfast” heartbreakingly mundane, instructing: “You may divide the raisin toast / along the cinnamon line // The coffee, cleave / into two great, black waves.”
Fu’s elaborate layering of metaphors can, at times, work against itself. In “Landing Gear,” she sews quilts of farmland and hairs and seams and mountain ranges and strolling cats together into a single, messy, hissing ball of description. Leaps in correlation in several of the poems are either a bound too far, or based on an incorrect assumption of shared insider knowledge.
The resulting frustration and confusion are discordant, especially following other poems that fulfill their promise of insight and empathy, as in “South of Maryland,” where each subsequent rereading delivers yet more meaning: “White snakes that slither and nest, cross distances, grow vast. / They reveal the shape of a pillarless cathedral / with ample time for your slow-motor mind / to recognize grey and purple; long, long lightening.”
Everywhere, for Fu, there is something hidden beyond the lights: a seething emotion, a spider, a meaning inside another meaning. Something at the core of the contemporary world scalds her characters’ souls.
The illnesses of modernity may be too nebulous for Fu to diagnose with names, but the lights of her ambulance illuminate them beautifully.
Anita Dolman’s poetry and fiction have been published throughout Canada and the U.S., including, recently, in Matrix Magazine, Bywords.ca, Triangulation: Lost Voices, and On Spec. Her second poetry chapbook is Where No One Can See You. Twitter: @ajdolman.
MISERABLY MODERN? WELL, IT MAKES GOOD POETRY!