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Transgressionary Norms:
Adèle Barclay's Renaissance Normcore

Adèle Barclay's Renaissance Normcore
Adèle Barclay, Renaissance Normcore
Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2019.

Like the book’s title, the poems of Adèle Barclay’s Renaissance Normcore move swiftly from unassuming to tightly coiled and somewhat provocative. “You Don’t Have to Choose But You Do” follows fast from epigraphs by Jenny Lewis and Fiona Apple and into the more traditionally literary, creating a Facebook Messenger conversation between Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. The deft maneuvering is, by the end of the poem’s twenty-two lines, made comprehensible in the framework of an inequitable exchange: “I read their letters / and imagine them both on Facebook Messenger— / all the dick pics he’d send; her, chatting up / several men at once and never recycling material.”

It’s far from the only time in these pages that a man waves his dick around. Recurring as well is Barclay’s encapsulation of power relations in vignettes that combine literary figures with the contemporary. In “Borderlines,” H.D. and Bryher give way to Aeroplan points, Justin Bieber, and then shifting water imagery: “by the ocean I shed my skins / and steam with rain and swear / I’m going to learn about fire.”

A focus on astrology becomes more pronounced in the book’s second section, with poems like “Open Relationship with the Moon” adding bodily imagery: “I don’t want to live under the moon / but I’ll stick its sickle and shadow / to my right thigh.” The thematic movements of the book, too, work like phases of the moon, not mapped neatly according to numerical divisions but instead shifting and moving around an approximation of more readily comprehensible order.

The book’s final section is a culmination of previous images. “Moons Can Have Moons and They Are Called Moonmoons” collapses the planetary, astrological, and menstrual into the zanily quotidian:

like how I track
your menstrual cycle and say
it’ll come on Wednesday
because mine was supposed
to come on Monday.

The moonmoons are part of a dynamic in the book that sees humour approximated by kitsch and camp—as though, in a disorienting reversal, irreverence requires an earnestness that Barclay’s suave, studied knowingness just isn’t interested in committing to.

The book’s more prosaic third section departs from this compactness. Poems like “How Old Were You When You Were First Threatened with Libel” tell of traditional gender binaries and allegiances in a way that downplays the collection’s shapeshifting energy. Here a male staff member, addressing the speaker’s circulation of jokes about her teachers, threatens, “If you were eighteen and male…”; the speaker of “I Took the ‘A’ Train” “would skip our lessons to trauma bond” with her female piano teacher. There’s a comparative directness, but it comes at the expense of the adept twisting and questioning that characterizes much of Renaissance Normcore.

The final poem, “How Do You Respond to Conflict,” includes the declaration that “last May in parc Laurier / Klara and I made a caffeinated blood pact / to dedicate our lives to poetry.” In a sense, this moment—with the located speaker-poet declaring dedication to their artistic practice—illustrates an ethic of work-play that is at the centre of Renaissance Normcore. The book splices or personalizes familiar progressive narratives into something momentarily unrecognizable, only to re-reveal them as confident pronouncements in line with the wisdom of the professional-artistic classes. It’s a dynamic of containment that’s indeed normcore, not to mention almost classical in its stylistically masterful command of extra-literary reference—even if its perfection makes one wonder whether Barclay’s fast-moving cultural interrogations could problematize things in some messier, perhaps even more dangerous sense.

 

Carl Watts holds a PhD in English from Queen’s University and teaches at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. He has published two poetry chapbooks, Reissue (Frog Hollow, 2016) and Originals (Anstruther, 2020), as well as a short monograph, Oblique Identity (Frog Hollow, 2019).

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