The Anxiety of Failure: Jenny Sampirisi’s Croak

Reading through Croak, I felt like I was having an anxiety attack. This isn’t a negative comment on the book. Firstly, everything gives me an anxiety attack. Secondly, the book stokes anxiety through its attempts to dissect the complexity of body, science, politics, and gender. If I didn’t have an anxiety attack, Sampirisi would have been unsuccessful at leading me to her culminating final line, spoken by the chorus of Girls, “(rubbing their eyes.) So it is that we’ve failed then.”

Croak’s anti-narrative dwells on frogs’ mutation alongside female body mutation, intermingling segments of frog and girl until a weird bio-experiment female is created. As the reader travels along the opera, language is lain out on a dissection table to be examined—erasure and cut-up techniques sever language into pieces. From these pieces, body, gender, myth, and science are woven together: “Once upon a time there was F-R-O-G1 / Once there was ANTIMONY7440-36-0 / Once there was TETRACHLOROETHYLENE127-18-4 / One in time / was frog // Are we agreed? / We’re all in agreement?” Inter-spliced with humour, this long poem has a harsh lyrical tone—it is jabbing, quick, and filled with playful terms adapted from a scientific lexicon. The strongest of these sound pieces, for me, was “Flip the Frog” with its bouncing rhythmic tone: “bub / bub / bub / dangle udder butter better / hub bub if you need anything /// will werk for bazooms or spider / glider lily pad ruckus sack awe / ruse dance toot toot a haw.”

Each poem feels like a return to the start—deconstruction that leads to genesis—like playing Jenga, a game where you build the tower until it breaks: “Go back to left leg. Stop. There are exactly two. It’s possible you’ve neglected a third. Probable is two thirds. Stop. Are you certain this was always here? Reconstruct the shoddy work youknowwhat.” Sampirisi’s pieces reiterate, again and again, that something’s not “right”: “She’d kept sharpening it so that it continued to be unusable. The world never looks that focused.” This constant feeling of failure, of going back, of neglect, of uncertainty, of shoddiness, becomes the underlying strength of the book. Through repetition, through layering, and through her play with language, Sampirisi suggests that, even when we do fail, such experiences prompt us to learn, to review our tactics, and build from them.

The book interweaves complex issues of femaleness, genetics, and the body while tackling various poetic styles that constantly shift. The poems complicate each other until there is a chorus of voices morphing together, until it’s too complicated, until language breaks. And we’re left, not with a conclusion, but with a new beginning. This book is to be read over and over again, and new meaning will be gleaned each time. For me, the compulsion to re-read is one of the principle markers of strong poetry.

Let me state this again: reading through Croak I felt like I was having an anxiety attack. Part of the anxiety comes from what poetry does—its language games make it difficult to interpret, make the process of understanding more complicated than one straight-forward read through a book. If you’re looking for the instant meaning in poetry, and in this book, you will fail. And in this failure, Croak is a brilliant success.


Daniel Zomparelli is the editor of Poetry Is Dead magazine. He writes and works with magazines across Vancouver including Geist, Megaphone Magazine, Sad Mag and formerly Adbusters. His articles and poems have been published and are forthcoming in journals and magazines around the world. His first book of poems Davie Street Translations was recently published by Talonbooks.


Add Arc‘s Monopoly to Sampirisi’s Jenga, and make tonight a poetry night!


Skip to content