Guest Review: Porco on McGimpsey

Alessandro Porco reviews
by David McGimpsey

David McGimpsey’s Sitcom (Coach House, 2007) marks the writer’s much-anticipated return to poetry (it’s been six year since the release of his Hamburger Valley, California [ECW Press, 2001]). As expected, Sitcom is sometimes uproariously funny, always pop-acculturated, and intimidatingly literate. Of course, McGimpsey’s humour has always been thoroughly noted by critics, while the formal, thematic, and philosophic scope of his work (i.e. the more literate elements)— omnipresent in Sitcom— often willfully ignored. Critics will grant that McGimpsey’s humour succeeds; however, that very humour is also used by those same laudatory critics to dismiss McGimpsey’s efforts as trivial or light. An even greater problematic: because McGimpsey has shown repeatedly he possesses a capacity to access and effect a comic mode with ease, it’s wrongly assumed that McGimpsey’s always only working within that mode. Thus, those poems that seemingly challenge such a purview of his work are either misread as exercises in hip postmodern irony or damned to be, in the end, utterly heteroclitic works in his oeuvre.

Thus, his moving elegies to Alan Hale, Jr., Hank Williams, John Kordic, for example, have suffered damning fates, as have poems like “As Seen on ER” and “Ancient Rock Mythology” — the former, a seemingly simple ekphrastic study of an episode of ER, though in fact an expression of empathy for a TV character-actor lost in the background (not quite an extra, but definitely not a star); the latter is a lyric meditation, in four parts, on the process of losing child-like whim and sovereignty in an adult world governed by “codes of maturity” (10).

With regard to McGimpsey’s poetry’s pop acculturation, a problem not unlike that of his humour presents itself: the subjects, lexicons, and intertextual references that populate McGimpsey’s speakers’ imaginations are presumed to be trivial and light. Correspondingly, the poems often take on those adjectives as deadweight; and, at the same time, in a strange twist of fate, self-interested critics cleverly maneuver to impose totalizing “ironic” readings upon McGimpsey’s poems, therefore making said poems appear to be substantial enough for consumption by virtue of the irony’s supposed immanent negative critique of a (supposedly) substanceless pop culture.

The motive for this maneuver is one McGimpsey is acutely aware of: Poetry functions as a socio-economic marker, what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as “cultural capital,” a “way of arranging respect, / a second car parked by a bungalow,” he writes in Sitcom (“Susan #42” 46). The poem “Rejection” is a satire enumerating certain aesthetic-poetic prejudices — inextricable from socio-economic considerations — upon which the aforementioned “respect” (a dubious term) is founded; prejudices which, ultimately, have stunted McGimpsey’s growth into a major figure in Canadian poetry: “Tired of the gimcrack catachresis, / the meretricious pettifoggery / and farouche intemperability / of kids raised on Gilligan and powdered juice, / we ask poetry to retain its own mien,” argues the all-too-real anxious poetry-editor of the mock-Canadian poetry journal Tearsea (89). And that same editor writes, “We welcome those… who compassionately tune lexicons / away from gum-stuck seats in nosebleeds” (90). Here, in the these two passages, the interconnectedness between poetry, language, and class (or economics) is articulated. Aesthetics, here, become an issue of capital-power: who has it and who doesn’t.

With all that said, if the speakers of early McGimpsey poems, specifically his “chubby sonnets” (16 lines rather than 14), sometimes tended toward caricature, now, in Sitcom, there is, instead, an insistence upon mapping the ever-changing interiorities of said caricatures. The result: it’s near impossible to apply simplistic and reductive “comic” or “ironic” labels upon these poems, as there are equally sufficient doses of pathos looming and complicating matters.

Moreover, there is an emotional transparency that charges the opacity of the flora and fauna of Tvland and English poetry to which McGimpsey’s speakers’ allude, and vice versa. It’s this shift that marks the occasion of McGimpsey’s Sitcom as a significant one: composed entirely of demanding, extended monologues and intermittent ventures into the sonnet, the collection— McGimpsey’s most accomplished— repeatedly foregrounds the essential interanimation of humour, pop culture, and literary learning within the complex and (more often than not) damaged psyches of his various dramatic personae. And the source of this damage is, and always has been for McGimpsey, the imminence and immanence of loss. Thus, what his early work only suggested, and what Sitcom finally makes irrefutable, is this (stand back: here I go very much against the grain of popular opinion): McGimpsey is first and foremost an elegiac poet— a designation, to be clear, that still allows for his timely comic touches.

To begin, it’s important to discuss the central intertextual reference in McGimpsey’s Sitcom: Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Both Timon (as play) in the context of Shakespeare’s entire works and the character of Timon are of thematic and generative significance. Perhaps a very short mention of the plays who’s-and-what’s is in order: Timon, a wealthy Lord of Athens, having over-extended his means (he gives gifts, lends money, is patron to the arts), is forced to ask his friends for financial assistance so that he (Timon) might pay off his hounding creditors duly. Timon’s friends deny his requests for assistance, and these denials reveal to Timon the ethical vacuity of an Athenian high-society in which he exists: “When Fortune her shift and change of mood, / Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents… / let him slip down / Not one accompanying his declining foot.” In response to such an ethos as well as his own complicity, Timon escapes beyond the walls of Athens: “Timon will to the woods.” (That famed declaration serves as the epigraph to “Act I” of Sitcom.) And, upon finding a treasure of gold in the woods, Timon takes it upon himself to perform various acts of misanthropy against Man, who has so disappointed him (“Grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow / To the whole race of mankind, high and low!”) before dying there in the woods.

How, then, does this all function in relation to Sitcom? First, Timon of Athens, as Donald MacKenzie writes, is “the Ugly Duckling of Shakespearean tragedy and no critic [. . .] has advanced a reading which persuasively reveals it as, in the end, a swan.” Its action is unbalanced, its generic classification impossible, and its structure incomplete — it is the most problematic of Shakespearean “problem” plays. Many of McGimpsey’s speakers, too, are “ugly ducklings,” dramatis persona non grata: for example, the aforementioned pop culture poet of “Rejection,” who relies to heavily on American content; the doggerel-writing dogs (literally, “a fox terrier and an Afghan hound” [92]), not invited to the “‘beautiful people only’ affair” (“Manhattan” 92); the spurned lovers of McGimpsey’s Sonnets (in particular, see “Guelphadelphia” [48]); the middle-aged failure-of-a-man attending his high school reunion with nothing to show or tell for the years since graduation (his “news” is nothing but a punning zero-looking “noose” ready to strangle); and then there’s the “preposterously obscene” university student of “B-/C+” who refuses to anaesthetize his language and conform to the linguistic mandates of academic discourse (34-36). In this last example, the poem’s speaker, a professor to the young student in question, states,

In fact, many of the things you say strike me
as original. One of the few times
you actually came to class you said
Timon of Athens was an unreadable play
about ‘a fucktard who has a hissy fit
when he realizes he can’t buy friendship.’
Though preposterously obscene, I thought
yours was the best reading I heard in class. (34-5)

Timon’s “ugly duckling” status also has a second function as a critical gloss on McGimpsey’s poetic style. That is to say, McGimpsey’s baroque admixture of disparate lexicons, subjects, and rhetorical registers is as difficult to resolve as Timon of Athens’s ambiguous action, structure and generic classification (the first half is satiric, the latter half classically tragic— though either designation isn’t quite adequate so as to make a something of a whole). I f critics have been consistently unable to see and reveal the “swan” within Timon’s “ugly duckling,” then perhaps two things might be said: first, sometimes a duck is a duck; second, if there is a problem, it is in our limited vocabulary, aesthetic categories, and methods rather than the duck’s ontology.

That’s how McGimpsey reads Timon, and that’s how we might begin to read McGimpsey. For example, we must accept his “rare sympathy / for both Osric and Arthur Carlson” (“B-/C+” 34), and subsequently we might begin to read how such a rare sympathy works to effect certain feelings and ideas; or, another example: in attempting to capture the flux of emotional and psychic interiorities, the monologues depend upon what one speaker refers to as “impertinent interruptions” (“Architeuthis” 32) — interruptions which indicate a moral, dramatic presence and at the same time contest the myth of organic wholeness which seems to leave Timon (the play) out in the cold.

Finally, there is the action of the character Timon that needs to be considered. Most significantly, his determination to leave Athens for the woods: it is a pastoral gesture, and it is one that occurs repeatedly in Sitcom. However, to be clear, the pastoral in Timon of Athens and Sitcom is not that of Theocretian idyll. No, McGimpsey’s is a more Virgilian pastoral: there is a sense of historicity that always infringes upon the beechen cover — in Virgil’s case, there is the extant reality of land seizures, political treaties, and war; in Timon, the eponymous character abandons the material obsessions of Athens only to find in the woods a treasure of gold and to be, once again, bombarded by requests for financial help; and even in Tim’s woods, I would add, there is the politicking of War and Art.

In Sitcom, the pastoral pleasures of Tvland and Academia are constantly infringed upon by the speakers’ working-class history in “oil refineries / deep in the east end of Montreal…” (96). The smoke stacks are never out of view. For this reason, Sitcom cannot shake-off— and, most importantly, has lost faith and interest in the possibility of shaking off— the grip of Death. Death, McGimpsey writes in the collection’s best poem, is “irresistible.” (I will return to the poem momentarily).

The pastoral move I describe above occurs repeatedly. Consider the collection’s first poem, “Invitation.” McGimpsey rewrites Ben Jonson’s wonderful poem, “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” “Please join me,” begins McGimspey’s epistle, “on the occasion of my / thirty-ninth birthday” (12):

Gifts are not necessary,
but should you be strolling downtown and see
some nicely framed limited-edition print
of a sad battlefield where a general’s
caprice cost thousands of lives, or a pair
of antique binoculars, or a vintage
board game where the Happy Days characters
have to rush Fonzie to the hospital,
knock your self out.(12)

Like Jonson, McGimpsey’s plain style is easy and conversational (“Conversation’s the most important thing” [13]); there is a certain intimacy effected by his cultural specificity.

Furthermore, as the poem proceeds, it becomes more and more evident that the speaker— he who hasn’t quite succeeded in life— is the damaged failure in a group of more successful middle-aged friends who take “trips to Barcelona,” have “remodeled homes ‘not far from the city’,” and whose “adventures” in the “bronzed thighs / of lovers old and new” distinguish them as more sexually potent (13). We might read the speaker as more local, markedly less wealthy, and possibly impotent. And, as the gifts proposed in the passage quoted indicate, he desires via sympathy that which is “limited,” “antique,” “vintage”— that is, objects which are obsolescent, like him. McGimpsey’s speaker, then, is very much modeled after Jonson’s, if you recall that Jonson’s poem begins with an announcement of a similar meekness: “Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I / Do equally desire your company; / Not that we think us worth such a guest / But that your worth will dignify our feast.” But as McGimpsey’s poem nears its finale, we come upon the pastoral move or (re)-move, the Timon-like gesture “to the woods”:

If, unexpectedly, I excuse myself
from the party and walk into the cold air,
even forgetting a jacket, you can
rest assured I will not be gone for long,
no matter how tempting it would be
to go see a movie uptown, alone. (15)

That detail about “forgetting a jacket” is brutal; it suggests that in walking “into the cold air,” the speaker doesn’t really intend to return. He’s walking into certain death; he’s Berryman, headed for the Washington Avenue Bridge. And it’s McGimpsey’s speaker’s death-drive that distinguishes the poem, ultimately, from Jonson’s. There is neither “innocence” nor is there “liberty” from painful social realities, not even for as auspicious an occasion as a birthday party amongst friends.

Another pastoral move is located in “Reunion,” where the speaker imagines himself and a female re-unioner excusing themselves “to some long-lost / stoner’s enclosure made for bra-strap / fiddling” (20). But, even in this instance, what cannot be excised from the scene, we learn, is the “smell [of] the factories” of Montreal’s east-end. While other examples are present in Sitcom, this action “to the woods” has precedent in Hamburger Valley, California’s “Où Est Queen Street?”, in which the speaker narrates “the art of the ditch, / the backwoods that spilled away… / through the backwoods… / to downtown Montreal” (15-16). In fact, Sitcom may be read as an implicit critique of that earlier poem’s action: the city inevitably fails as ideality, as the place of promise, as a meritocracy.

Finally, I’d like to make mention of “Irresistible,” the collection’s tour de force, a poem that — should there be any justice in Canadian Letters — will become both a standard bearer for poets and part of the growing list of essential McGimpsey, which includes “O Coconut,” “In Memoriam: A.H. Jr,” “Babe Ruth in Love” (from Lardcake), “Quincy on Lycidas” (from Dogboy), “Ancient Rock Mythology,” “Museum Sweet,” “As Seen on ER,” and “Hamburger Valley, California” (all from Hamburger Valley). The punning title, “Irresistible,” embodies that inextricability of love and death, both conditions attracting and repelling each other. The poem is singular in its bearing (with skill and ease) the mark of McGimpsey’s reading and learning from Robert Lowell, another great elegist (“I grew up loving the Confessional poets,” McGimpsey once wrote, in the essay “Sweet Poetry or Mystery Meat?”).

It begins with some mild braggadocio, if such a thing is possible: “I have always been proud of my powers / of resistance. I’ve said no to Betamax, / no to acid-wash jeans, no to condos, / no to the finale of Dancing with the Stars” (96). But this gives way to more frank self-accusation. The speaker admits such resisting was never always something he could do and, equally important, it’s not necessarily something he continues to want to do. A doctrine of fatalism proceeds to be articulated:

That’s the way I thought things were: on a track,
straight to the factories on the horizon
and I would find it impossible not to spend
my whole life in the oil refineries
deep in the east end of Montreal….
Fate rule me,
and time would just fix me where I was born. (96)

What follows at this juncture in the poem is a series of similes that, in number and in increasingly strange conceit, are attempts to extend, if possible, the Time of Art, as if in defense against certain ugly inevitabilities of Life. It’s an attempt that ultimately devolves into absurdity: “as the flunk makes it to sweet flunkydom, / as the skunk skunks up the skunktorium” (97).

Instead, a certain truth, for the speaker, is communicated: there is no reward for resistance. It’s futile. Life is neither just nor moral — it’s only consistently painful, whether one resists or not, whether one love’s or not, whether one writes poetry or not. The poem ends like so, with an uncompromised and unrivalled flourish:

Those of us who wrote poems in taverns,
and who thought we would just flailingly die
of ODs in 29th St. apartments,
or being chased by moustached creditors
through the streets of Rabat, or would perish
by a lakeside fire having caught a last trout —
we’re dying wholesale of complications
from high blood pressure, fighting cancer
in little hospital rooms calling out
for our mothers and for a cigarette.
To learn the art of fighting without fighting —
knowing death is the only thing irresistible. (98)

What else is there to say, except that with this poem, in particular, as well as other monologues from Sitcom (“Invitation,” “Reunion,” “Manhattan,” “Sitcom”), McGimpsey leaps to the front of a generation of essential Canadian poets — such as Stephen Cain, Jason Camlot, Kevin Connolly, Wayde Compton, and Steve Venright — now in (or soon approaching) the primes of their respective careers. And, ultimately, “Irresistible” should serve as parallax for McGimpsey’s entire oeuvre thus far: in other words, it’s the poem that forces previously unsympathetic, confused, or single-minded readers and critics (i.e. those who think he’s a surface comic poet only or he’s all-irony all the time) to re-orient themselves as readers and thus come to read McGimpsey’s work in a new, more comprehensive and evolved manner.

Alessandro Porco is a poet, critic, and scholar. His latest collection of poetry is Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (ECW Press, 2008). He is also the author of The Jill Kelly Poems (ECW Press, 2005). Currently, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Porco is completing a dissertation on the subject of hip-hop poetics and the fate of American poetry. His monthly hip-hop column, “In Extremis,” is available at Maisonneuve Magazine Online.
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