Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Iron-on Constellations, by Emily Pohl-Weary

This slim volume of poetry (just 54 pages) was published in 2005 by what must have been a still very nascent Tightrope Books. Pohl-Weary, known for her editorial work on the magazines Broken Pencil and the now-defunct Kiss Machine, uses these poems to examine her feelings about guys and other foibles of young-person angst, as well as the various vicissitudes of being a west-end Toronto hipster.

Indeed, Canada’s largest city is a live wire in this collection, (starting with its opening piece, “What I Learned Growing up in Parkdale”), a near-electric current that Pohl-Weary plugs into for inspiration. Her take on the city is what we’ve come to expect from young, distracted hipsters leery of substance: her observations are urban without being particularly urbane, a surface exploration of the sights and smells of this patchwork city, the whalesong of streetcars, the storefronts of Queen West, the fish markets of Chinatown, our clich├ęs of downtown Toronto superimposed over its daily, actual existence.

Pohl-Weary is at her best when she allows her desire for raw emotion to slip away in favour of evocative implication. One of the strongest pieces in Iron-on Constellations is “Throat Flower”, which opens with the stirring lines:

Today, walking,
we talk as a flower sprouts deep in my throat.
Spewing green, red pedals push out.
I submit to growth.

and closes with the earthy couplet, “I gnash at the green stalk,/ tastes like wooden asparagus.” There is just enough wiggle room in the central symbolism of the plant for the reader to create his or her own meaning. Or take “My Gold Hair Is So Unreliable”, a piece that fuses clever imagery to the ache of a broken heart to create a deceptively complex poem.

Unfortunately, these examples are the exception rather than the rule in a book overrun with adolescent anguish, lazy descriptions, and minimalist misfires. The poem “Break the Ice” is among the worst, a narrator’s shallow plea to a boy to awaken desire in her, which comes with the cringe-worthy stanza:

You are life.
You are not life,
you’re just a boyfriend.
A little boy kneeling before my pain.

I’ve read lines by ninth-graders that contain more polish and sincerity. Or take the piece “Subway of Love.” The poem is as bad as its corny title suggests, where Pohl-Weary tells us “I’m riding the molten metal flow/ you would probably call desire” and describes the stars as “muggy”, which wouldn’t make sense even if you didn’t set your poem in a subterranean locale.

In these and other instances, it often seems like Pohl-Weary is reaching for the easy rather than the difficult, the vague rather than the specific, the prefabricated rather than the vibrantly original. In her poem “Picking at Walls and Armies,” a kind of half-ekphrasis, she writes: “I would portray my lover in black and reds,/ infuse him with the correct dosage of passion, mystery, and pain.” Look at the lack of specificity: not one single word or combination of words in those two lines create—if you’ll forgiven the pun—a portrait in the mind of the reader. It’s like the poem can’t muster enough drive to be vivid.

And therein lies the larger issue, the hipster hole that Iron-on Constellations has fallen into. There often seems to be a deep and abiding suspicion of ambition in these poems. There is a lackadaisical tone, a half-hearted indifference to the craft of poetry throughout this book, as if the author felt that such effort was somewhat beneath her. Which is a shame, because Pohl-Weary does display instances of talent throughout this collection. But I’m left with the sense that it didn’t even occur to her that anyone would, eight years out, actually read this small book closely, or with any care.


  1. did you find this book at rustic owl cafe and decided to trash it on your cool blogspot bald blog?

  2. Um, no. It was included in the prize pack of small press books that I received as part of the Thomas Morton Award I won with The Puritan literary journal last year. And I hardly "trash" the book--the review above is well balanced. As for "who cares", I guess I do. I came to the collection with an open mind, as I do with any poetry collection; I read Pohl-Weary's work closely, then rendered an honest opinion.