My first encounter with Priscila Uppal’s work was last summer during the road trip that RR and I took to PEI. We brought along a stack of literary journals so we could read aloud and critique the short stories therein during the long drive. One of the stories we read was by Uppal, and it was about a diver. It was obvious right from the beginning that Uppal is passionate about athletics, about the poetic and linguistic possibilities of describing a body and mind engaged in competition.
This passion extends to her recent poetry collection Winter Sport, which she wrote last year as the “poet-in-residence” for the Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver. Here, Uppal casts her poetic prism across the gamut of the Winter Games: she renders ski jumping and the luge into haiku; she’s got love poems for the bobsleigh and figure skating; and she’s even written a gorgeous lament for disqualification.
For me, the best aspects of this book were when Uppal married the explicitly erotic possibilities of poetry to the implicitly erotic possibilities of sports. I had to smile at her “If My Lover Were a Snowboarder,” which takes the pot-infused patois of snowboarding and turns into a hilarious take on dirty talk: “You look so beautiful when you Pop Tart./ You drive me crazy when you wet cat.” Ahem. There are also some great visuals of speed skaters in their flesh-tight superhero suits.
Uppal is at her strongest when she uses a heightened lyricism to paint some pretty astounding images in the reader’s mind. She has a great poem about imagining herself as a skater while teaching her English students, bent low and arm gallantly tucked behind her as she leads them around a track. She also has this amazing riff in “Capturing Momentum: A Paradox”:
I would like to think language
travels at the speed of light
or at the very least the speed
of a high kick or triple jump.
But this too: paradox
Every page a penalty lap
Where Uppal is less strong is in her more experimental poems: pieces like “Numerology”, the Bok-influenced “Winter Olympics Parade” or filler pieces like “Snowboarder at the Door” feel very much out of place next to the stronger, better-crafted works of straight lyricism. I also kind of glazed over during her lengthy essays on the Paralympic and Arctic Games; better to have rendered these into poems as well. And I could have gone without the three pages of acknowledgements at the end of this collection, but that’s true of any book – an insidious trend among Canadian writers, I find.
Uppal proves in this collection that the gap between jocks and (poetry) nerds is a myth, and that even something as physical as sports can be rendered into art, an art that reminds us what it feels like to be alive. She certainly gets a gold medal for that.