Susan Bee, illustrator
(Toronto: Book Thug, 2010)
order from Small Press Distribution
order from Book Thug
Meredith Quartermain’s Recipes from the Red Planet pays homage in its title and inspiration to Jack Spicer’s notion of the poet as a conduit of language that seems to come from a source other than a consciously creating self, Martian signals being his memorable metaphor for this otherness of the poetic voice. But voice it is nonetheless, and whatever metaphor serves to describe the source of the poetic energy (Martians, radio signals, parasites, or invaders), the voices in Quartermain’s prose poems take center stage as they rant, apostrophize, soliloquize, surreal-ize, tell tall tales. Her stage is populated by a host of selves and others engaged in playful—often seriously playful—dialogue, and fittingly illustrated by six wonderfully quirky and surreal collages by Susan Bee.
Book Thug appropriately placed this collection in its Department of Narrative Studies series: even when the speaking voices and time dimension of the stories seem most fractured, thing happen and voices talk about them. The narratives’ layered effect gives the illusion of alien languages and customs from different planets colliding to form new alien cultures that come into being in the act of reading. And the overlapping narratives create meaning that is in its own mysterious way decipherable yet also porous to allow variations of understanding and delight.
Perhaps it’s apropos that poetry claiming, tongue in cheek, alien provenance doesn’t come across as traditional lyrical, meditative poetry. In Recipes from the Red Planet, there’s a wildness, often breathlessness, to the voices that broadcast dramatic and narrative speech celebrating the free, unfettered riffing of imagination.
Unfettered isn’t synonymous, however, with disengaged. Although some poems in the collection revel in linguistic play for its own sake (not to say that such play isn’t politically engaged, at least not overtly), the playful stream of words more often than not swarms around and explores something of concern to her—a memory, a place, or social injustice, for example. Such concerns are what Spicer called the poet’s personal “furniture,” which the “Martians” work with, arrange, and invest with clues. For Spicer, the furniture—the poet’s language, memory, knowledge, idiosyncrasies as a human being—are not as relevant as his or her ability to clear the room of personal desire (“this is what I want the poem to say”) and allow the Martians to inhabit the furnished space and their voices to stream, as if through a neutral conduit, into the typing fingers.
But the furniture is there nonetheless—Spicer never claimed that poetic dictation involved becoming a tabula rasa and letting go of one’s beliefs, but that in allowing an otherness to flow through, those beliefs might not come across the way one expected. If a poet wants to write about Vietnam, Spicer says, the Martians might end up talking about about ice-skating in Vermont (as Norman Mailer did when he exposed the horrors of the Vietnam War by telling the tale of an unsportsman-like bear hunt in Alaska).
Quartermain’s perspectives on feminism, corporate misconduct, and the rescue of voices lost to the shadows of history come through clearly, and true to Spicer’s ideas about poetic dictation, these ideas are voiced by her “Martians” in wild tangents, unexpected flights, and strange juxtapositions. Personal opinion has not left the room, but a chorus of voices (and here the invasion metaphor seems apt) swarm into the room, rearranging the furniture as they please, creating surreal parables and buildings haunted with swirling voices. Agenda may seem secondary to the thrill of linguistic play, yet that ludic impulse is also intimately intertwined with the political. In the tradition of dystopian science fiction’s tactic of cognitive estrangement1, Quartermain’s Martians defamiliarize the inhumanity that is too often taken for granted, providing fresh perspectives on the troubled history of Earthlings.
One poem that exemplifies such defamiliarization while also invoking Spicer’s Martian metaphor is the delightfully comical “A Disagreement over Lunch.” A woman asserts to a man over lunch that architecture is not only a human activity but a phenomenon of living beings—ants, for instance—that manipulate their environment under biological pressure: a decidedly anti-heroic point of view. But the man, firmly in the Ayn Rand camp, prefers to see the architecture of humans as heroically creative and uniquely above animal constructions.
As they debate, however, a surreal drama unfolds: an eggplant-cum-football enters the room, hovers over a fruit bowl, lays eggs, and releases tiny creatures that roll their caravans and wagons over the peaches. The voice that narrates the surreal vision of the eggplant-blimp is ambiguous about the creatures and seems to debate itself: did the eggplant release ants or tiny humans? Thus the poem moves from the debate between the diners to a debate of the narrating voice at odds with itself, or at least unable to decide.
This refusal of the narrating voice to take a position, to reason politically, and side with one or the other, is part of the subtle brilliance of Quartermain’s approach. The trope of the Martian’s bird’s-eye view allows the consideration of human behaviour from an alien perspective: a Martian anthropologist, presumably unfamiliar with the imposed hierarchy of life that humans often assume in their anthropocentric hubris, would likely have a broader perspective on the commonalities of living creatures. But the narrating voice, instead of simply siding with the woman (which is apparent, in any case), embraces the rhetoric of debate (ants? humans?) and ends on a note of undecidability, thus bringing ants and humans into the same realm, parading in lines and shaping their world.
Like Spicer, Quartermain (or should I say, her Martians?) uses and rearranges the “furniture” of mythology, in her case to offer a feminist spin on patriarchal Greek myths. In “Sewing,” the aptly-named Mrs. Shears of Home-Ec is an unlikely but nonetheless quietly heroic feminist as she teaches her students to sew, all the while spinning yarns (so to speak) and debunking the partriarchal assumptions of ancient myths: it’s the women who kept home safe for the men, not the other way around; Andromeda was saved by a Minoan queen, not her future husband, Perseus. Thus Mrs. Shears teaches her students to stitch together their own stories without relying on prejudicial myths, and plants the idea that it is they who “piece reality together.”
Quartermain’s collection revels in imaginative wordplay, and some poems, such as “Snow” just seem linguistically to shimmer for the pure joy of it:
“down steady down fall flake down by flake down round cloud-whirl tree by roof by frolicsome milk-wing flight-of-steps runaway runway quick lattice icicle faceted minikin clusters wittily mimical silica ventriloquy down by down by down doors porches by churches banks frosty postage to rustle and bluster downtown towers flour the tree-bark fringe the stones the hedges the wires the trellises tickle crystal thickety particle curriculum [. . .]”
I can add nothing that wouldn’t spoil the fun of the poem.
And I could wax on about some of my favourites in Quartermain’s collection, such as “My City,” “Future Past,” “Fabulous Moderne,” “She would,” “The Plackener,” “Hotel Narrative.” But before I outstay the Martians’ welcome, I’ll end by briefly alluding to “The Sonic Boom” and returning to the idea, so important to Spicer’s poetics: sidestepping one’s own desires about the poem being written and allowing something else much stranger to speak through the poem and perhaps “say just exactly the opposite of what he wants himself, per se poet, to say” (Spicer 6). Quartermain’s “The Sonic Boom Catcher” hits the bull’s eye of the poet’s dilemma in implementing Spicer’s idea of writing as dictation. The paradox of the title beautifully sums up Spicer’s advice, quoted by Quartermain in her index: “You have to not really want not what you don’t want to say.” The trickiness of untangling that triple negative is like the trickiness of writing—you can’t fool the “Martians”; all you can do, says Spicer, is prepare the room and get rid of the personal.
“The Sonic Boom Catcher” could also be read as a parable of the slipperiness of desire: once you have what you want, it ceases to be the object of desire, because the object of desire is desire itself. Readiness, patience, and a quieting of desire lure the Martians to the poet’s antennae.
Recipes from the Red Planet is a paean to the imagination, sometimes madcap, sometimes pensive, but always generously liberating. Her description of the tree the speaker has given birth to in “Dear Mom,” is an apt mantra for the spirit of the book: “Merrythought. Willy nilly bodacious. Willy nilly lexiludic.” And imagination is just as often a celebration of its own play as an exploration of social and political engagement.
It’s impossible to summarize the wealth of themes and the explosion of wordplay in this collection, and my review cannot do it justice. How to describe being a guest at Quartermain’s Martian banquet? You just have to be there.
1 See Darko Suvin’s work on science fiction.
Spicer, Jack. The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Ed. Peter Gizzi. Hanover, New Hampshire: University of New England, 1998.