Alex Manley, We Are All Just Animals & Plants
2016, Metatron, Montreal QC
$12, 978-1-988355-01-6, 61 pages
Jessica Bebenek, Fourth Walk
2017, Desert Pets, Toronto ON
$12, 27 pages
reviewed by Carl Watts
Poetry “scenes,” whatever that word means at present, are strange things. While they tend to grow haphazardly out of university writing programs or English departments, alongside or in contradistinction to more accessible institutions like open mics and readings series, outsiders can often detect in a particular locality some identifiable group of poets with similar formal inclinations or subject matter. It’s from this outsider’s perspective that this review looks at recent books by two younger Montreal poets, both with backgrounds in Concordia’s creative writing program. Alex Manley’s We Are All Just Animals & Plants is a collection that applies vaguely ecological imagery to the vicissitudes of relationships that unfold in urban, academic, and digital environments; Jessica Bebenek’s chapbook, Fourth Walk, is a shorter, more abstract take on relationships both familial and romantic. Despite the distinctness of each project, there are noticeable similarities: both use somewhat irreverent, often prosaic lines to address themes of bodily experience and the consumption that continues to structure so many of our lives despite the dropping incomes and sparser opportunities of the neoliberal moment.
We Are All Just Animals & Plants is strongest when its nature-based images collide with uncomfortable observations of everyday life. “All I Want” begins by subjecting animal and fruit imagery to the artificiality of consumption and its slogans—“Do you remember the scenes from the dreams / I told you about? The way I was a deer, // and you were the moon, the candy peaches, the / mango strips?”—before imposing the raw routines of the neurotic on such traces of the natural world:
All I want to do is come into work a little bit
later every day, my beard a little longer,
and spend twelve to fifteen dollars on lunch,
Facebook stalk my old therapist
In the jungle of my browser tabs, and think
disinterestedly about my mental health,
Another impressive aspect of the book is the way Manley’s descriptions of memories often double as depictions of the way such memories are accessed. “Bad Reputation” abounds with lines such as “My brain is a body going through heat failure” and “My brain is a daisy chain” before converting social media’s fleeting, presentist essence into a form of nested documentation—of medium, of observer, of observed: “My brain is a Tinder match with a girl / I met in a bar last year, who likes my Instagram pictures // sometimes, who looks just like you, only her hair is curlier.”
The collection’s weaker parts come when memories are conjured via cliché or when its more prosaic sections seem unnecessarily bloated. “Bonnie & Clyde Night,” for instance, gets off to a clunky start with lines like “A fruit is just an explosion of a flower, frozen in time, I say. / That’s beautiful, you say. Maybe I’ll put that in a poem, I say.” But, even at these moments, Manley’s voice is recognizable; the poem’s finishing with “Maybe I’ll put that in a poem, I think” pulls off yet another blurring of medium, message, and the speaker’s awareness of this relationship.
Bebenek’s Fourth Walk begins in a different mode, using clipped lines and brief, enjambed, often ambiguous turns of phrase. “Accismus” is an especially effective example, with its opening—“I arrived in this poem / slant. Fell out. Tried again / to give this heartbreak breath, // a name”—using literary terminology and differing registers to produce especially multivalent statements.
Bebenek’s lines are longer in the following section, and the style here resembles Manley’s more than the clipped phrasings of a line-conscious lyric poet. The shift is somewhat jarring, but, when the run-on voice matches her narratives of investigation or descent, this mode works too. Take, for instance, the end of “Hospice”:
The feet finding sheets of stone beneath
themselves and these stones leading
around the side of the house, through several doors,
an accommodating hallway,
back into the room of the poem’s origin.
It was a room containing all the bodies I knew
in varying states of decomposition.
One shortcoming of the chapbook is its occasional tendency to foreground university or workshop culture. In a few poems, specific words are italicized, seemingly to highlight a certain interplay of cliché, intention, and effect. Still, such moments come across as overly considered and writerly, like when “Accismus,” for all the strength of its opening, ends with the lament, “I tried to make this—priceless / and so affected.”
This is only a minor criticism, however, given the way Bebenek frequently makes such reflections her own. Even when she employs a fashionable lens like body studies, she’s able to defamiliarize her approach by juxtaposing images of consumption renewal, as in the lines “I am full, heavier than the train / with the single light of my approaching, heavy with empties rattling / through me,” from “On the Night of the Morning My Grandfather Died.” Moments like these, where unexpectedly conventional subject matter is distorted by an approach that is at once up to date and original, suggest that the similarities between Bebenek and Manley ought not to be mistaken for a lack of uniqueness, regardless of the extent to which their books may be products of similar circumstances.
Carl Watts holds a PhD in English Literature from Queen's University. His poetry has appeared in journals such as The Cincinnati Review, The Cortland Review, CV2, Grain, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014; his debut chapbook, REISSUE, was recently published by Frog Hollow Press, in whose 2016 Chapbook Contest it was shortlisted.