Wise readers should forego this review and instead find Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s Status Update. Her second collection of poems and seventh book in three years is an oddly profound, quirkily rewarding catch-all interpretation of Facebook postings. It is a deceptively simple premise, but what began as a writing exercise for the author fresh from completing her MFA at the University of British Columbia has bloomed into something else—a fun and moving exercise for readers. Tsiang discovers not merely found poetry, but found inspiration.
Tsiang demonstrates breathtaking fearlessness with form and draws from her arsenal of poetic forms including ballads, free verse, prose poetry, sonnets and haiku, uncovering glittery-golden truths. Sometimes, her lines sing. With grace, wit and charm, Tsiang empathizes with any given Facebook user. How do they feel about memories, dreams, grief, or the anthropomorphism of a toy fish? Consider “Sarah Pelton has been unfriended…interesting…” From these four words, Tsiang imagines a less-than-understanding lover abandoning the narrator in a corn maze, ending on hard epiphany:
I want to tell you how I could have
cried with relief, seeing the end
of it, the sudden sky, a house in the distance.
But you were already in the car, flipping
through a magazine. Behind me the maze,
my imagined life without you.
Thus, Tsiang expands pixels into themes of loss, hindsight and regret. Throughout the collection, she likewise draws profundity from curt messages. There’s some John Newlove in here, certainly; she excavates her subjects to barest truths, evincing much with cleverly quipping phrases. With aplomb, Tsiang also takes other poets’ lines, sometimes entire poems, to add to her recipes. These dashes go far, as in the touching “Broke the mold,” regarding P.K. Page’s death. Tsiang includes a line from Page’s “Autumn” at the end of every stanza, making the piece part eulogy, tribute and discovery.
As Tsiang told The Kingston Whig-Standard, she ponders Facebook’s break between what we know of people and what we think we know. This she does successfully, suggesting a lurking darkness—unhappiness, sadness, and loneliness—behind social media’s storefront contentment, a vacuity behind the colourful pixels, beeps, and smiling photos.
The subject being Facebook, there is also more name-dropping here than in a conversation at the open bar of a writer’s festival. Emily Pohl-Weary ponders treacherous terrains. Andrew Pyper ironically describes an old-school paternity suit. Michael Leary complains “A parsec is a unit of distance, not time. Stupid Han Solo.” However, one can probably forgive such nepotism since Susan Musgrave was one of Tsiang’s teachers and first Facebook friend. More importantly, Tsiang’s work stands on its own, regardless of the names involved.
Wise readers, though, might ingest no more than two-to-three poems at a sitting to appreciate the fine body of work. Finally, someone has extrapolated something of deeper value from social media, which is cause for celebration. Tsiang’s work is also cause for celebration. Her poems tend to linger after reading like the last-yet-welcome party guest; you share another bottle of wine with them that you really ought not to.
James K. Moran’s fiction and poetry have appeared in various Canadian, American and British publications, with poetry recently in Bywords and Empty Mirror Magazine and fiction in Chase The Moon: The Magazine of Misfit Stories and Glitterwolf: Halloween. Lethe Press published his debut horror novel, Town & Train, in November 2014. A journalist and longtime Daily Xtra contributor, Moran’s articles and reviews have also appeared in Celtic Life International, Rue Morgue and the Ottawa Citizen. He blogs at jameskmoran.blogspot.ca. Moran lives in Ottawa, Canada.
WISE READERS, DON’T FORGO ARC!