If Dorothy Parker’s poetry was adapted as a cinematic thriller, we would have a hybrid screenplay already foreshadowed in the work of Alexandra Oliver. Her rhyme schemes flutter formally and fiercely in and out of themselves with, as some readers have noted, “terrifyingly clever, dazzlingly skilled, and chillingly accurate” (Molly Peacock) portrayals of the suburban. Oliver’s eerily frolicking narratives move from a party littered with celebrities in a decidedly northern—likely Canadian—location, to a humbling and empathetic ode to the life of a queer man caught in unfriendly environs.
A “sad field of lettuce”’ tugs at the heartstrings like acidic conversations with bitter, camp-fuelled cocktail party-goers of the most fabulous kind. There is, in the broadest sense of the word, a form of queer consciousness (see Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now”) that ripples throughout Oliver’s recent collection, and becomes scathingly specific in the poem “Protective.” In the first stanza of this poem, Oliver describes Mr. Jensen, the subject of the poem: “He’s been pinned / as deviant, lunatic and fag, / and every time he stops to tie his laces / some say he sends a scent downwind.” Oliver both internalizes and sympathizes with aspects of the queer voice and the queer existence and entertainingly comforts those of us gilded, feathered, and fried by homophobic speech acts. When she uses the term “fag” here, after a list of endearing behaviour deemed outrageous by some (like dressing “like a woman”), the reader as ally welcomes Oliver’s witty form of empathy and understanding that possesses the titular notion of protection being offered to Mr. Jensen.
She then gingerly takes a musically scented, comic swipe at queer detractors, delineating particular vistas and personalities frequently found within suburban landscapes: “he doesn’t haunt the laundry room with sneers / or frolic in the same suburban lie, / blasting his Coldplay after seven beers.”
Oliver’s queerly acerbic perspective supports other marginalized subjects in the third and final section of Hail, the Invisible Watchman, entitled “Clever Little Dragon: On Hetty Dorval.” She addresses misperceptions about women with new life and fresh, rhyming momentum. Oliver’s rhymes are never simple nor cliched, as she utilizes a variety of forms from slant rhyme to easily imagined yet complexly configured ABAB formations, among other alphabetic configurations. “Clever Little Dragon: On Hetty Dorval” becomes a feminist revisionist piece that resuscitates a misidentified voice from Canadian literature. In the notes at the end of the collection Hetty Dorval’s back story is concisely and engagingly delineated.
In “Epilogue: Vienna,” the last poem of the collection and the finale of “Clever Little Dragon: On Hetty Dorval,” Oliver punctuates her collection with a moment of epic historical force that further renders the overall work haunting as the character of Frau Stern, a “neighbour woman” points her finger and cries out “Juden, Juden” as she “meanders into her war, / light to a fault, diffused, unknown, misread / as flocks of fleeing geese scream overhead.”
(updated April 2023) David Bateman is a Toronto-based poet, painter, and arts journalist. He has taught creative writing at various universities across Canada. His four collections of poetry, as well as a collaborative long poem (with Hiromi Goto) were published by Frontenac House Press (Calgary) from 2005 through 2014. His first novel, DR SAD, was published by the University of Calgary Press in November of 2020. A collection of short stories & creative non-fiction entitled A MAD BENT DIVA – an anagram for the author’s name – was published by Hidden Brook Press (Brighton) in 2017.