Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Jabbering with Bing Bong, by Kevin Spenst

Pop culture references abound in Kevin Spenst’s debut poetry collection, a full-length trade publication coming on the heels of several well-received chapbooks. Jabbering with Bing Bong marries itself both to concrete places – Surrey, BC features prominently – and a concrete sensibility, one we could dub “Gen X nostalgia.” Spenst weaves allusions to Nintendo 64, Kmart, Judy Blume (though misspelled here as “Bloom”), Star Wars, MC Hammer and other touchstones belonging to the children of the 1970s.

I myself fall into this category, and many of these references cling closely to my own youth’s experiences and consumption. And yet I didn’t find the references possessed the heavy-handed weight of an obvious hallmark. This is both a good and a bad thing. Spenst is especially strong in the confessional-lyric mode, and he’s able to twist and bend a snatch of narrative to his own purposes. Here’s an example of what I mean, from the poem “Expo ‘86”:

The world exposition
was guilty by association. My mom
asked if I wanted to go

with my grandparents
to a preview event. I didn’t
know the whoop-di-do

contained the armature    
of a riot that would start at a concert
after the singer

of a punk band mooned
the crowd and their sound was

On the one hand, this is straight story divvied up with seemingly random line breaks. But on the other, Spenst has cannily built a momentum through a skillful arrangement of colloquial and arcane terms. He knows how to take a quirky anecdote and light it ablaze.

Unfortunately, I found myself wishing he would apply a similar inventiveness to his pop culture references. Too many times, these felt more like zeitgeist name-dropping and less like a malleable catalyst to something truly creative. “Death Star Trash Compactor” is an example of a poem where a memorable movie moment (those screaming rebels Luke, Leia and Han saved in their garbage heap trap by a quick-thinking droid) is used as stand-in for other allusions to the 1970s and 80s. But the paring seems a bit too neat – I would’ve almost liked to see Spenst go half-cocked in this poem, take the ideas around the Star Wars characters and twist them off into outer space, give us something truly weird and unforgettable rather than a staid series of easy metaphoric comparisons.

Still, there’s a great deal of fun to be found in Jabbering with Bing Bong. Spenst knows how to lure you in to his world, make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. He can also be very funny. He writes with the insouciance of a poet who has already accepted the strengths and weaknesses of his own voice, and can write a debut collection that reads like much, much more.      

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