Monday, April 22, 2013
Review: Li’l Bastard, by David McGimpsey
Ah yes, the ‘chubby’ sonnet—David McGimpsey’s innovative retrofit of two extra lines onto this traditional poetic form, plaything of Shakespeare and Milton Acorn, confounder of high school students and other haters of poetry. So instead of the typical 4-4-4-2 breakdown, McGimpsey’s final stanzas get two extra lines, for a total of 16. This affords the pieces in his 2011 collection, L’il Bastard, some additional wiggle room, but it also establishes an air of the unconventional, a bald statement that says, No, this ain’t your daddy’s sonnet.
Even this feels like an understatement. The poems in Li’l Bastard take us to places we rarely go in Canadian verse: part picaresque, part ribald exposé of the middle-aged self, part send-up of the ubiquity of pop culture, McGimpsey’s work is unafraid to explore both the high and the low aspects of our ultramodern world. The book’s 128 sonnets are divided into eight sections, mostly geographic in nature (spanning Montreal, Texas, and other locales that have played a role in the poet’s life) but also includes a flight of ventriloquism involving the 1970s detective show Barnaby Jones. If there is a unifying refrain to this collection, it is that of the poet having to return over and over again, for financial necessity, to the role of teacher. As McGimpsey puts it in sonnet 49, one of the many references to this reality:
In the end, I had to go back to teaching.
I missed the apartment buildings and bookstores,
and by that I mean I needed the money.
One imagines various poetic exploits coming to an end after some prize money or grant funding runs out. But to focus on this binary—of poet as free spirit vs. poet as participant in the work-a-day grind—would be to do Li’l Bastard an injustice. McGimpsey writes with smash-mouth intensity about how even a writer deeply committed to the rich tradition of poetry cannot escape the relentless chatter of popular culture in every aspect of our Western world. He doesn’t critique this noise; he relishes it, finds musical verve in references that span everything from Twitter and The Flintstones to Major League Baseball and the Robin Williams film Mrs. Doubtfire. It shouldn’t work—in lesser hands it wouldn’t work—but the author’s grand vision wins us over.
McGimpsey can be comic and serious, silly and condescending, a prankster and cool observer, all in a single 16-line poem. The success of Li’l Bastard—if I may pay it a slightly backhanded compliment—is that McGimpsey is able to perform his antics on the page without the book growing tedious or predictable. He skirts pretty close to that line in several pieces, especially near the end of the book, but he thankfully has the talent and good sense never to cross it. The result is a poetry collection unlike most you’ll find in Canada, a book as loud and unapologetic as it is clear-eyed and insightful.