Parts Unknown, Michael Holmes
2004, Insomniac Press, 88 pages
His first trade collection of new poems since James I Wanted To Ask You (ECW Press) was published in 1994, is Parts Unknown, edited by Paul Vermeersch and published by Insomniac Press. With his work since as editor for ECW Press (a position he took in 1995, to replace outgoing poetry editor Bruce Whiteman), very little of his poetry and fiction has appeared in print over the past decade, with a chapbook published by above/ground press, 21 Hotels in 1998 (later reprinted in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003) and the "Hate Sonnets" in 2005 as an issue of STANZAS (some of which appeared earlier in an issue of Queen Street Quarterly), among other stray pieces, as well as the novel Watermelon Row (2000, Arsenal Pulp).
A collection of "wrestling poems," subtitled "Wrestling, Gimmicks and Other Work," the collection is built in five sections: Parts Unknown, Battle Royal, 10 Bell Salute, Finishing Moves and Parts Unknown: A Selected Professional Wrestling Glossary. Parts Unknown is a celebration of the sport of professional wrestling, as the pleading earnestness of James I Wanted To Ask You replaced with a carny’s sense of irony; the "Battle Royal" section including titles such as "The Godlike Genius of Scotty Too Hotty," "It’s True, It’s Damn True," and "Eat Your Hart Out, Rick Springfield." I don’t know of any other Canadian writer this much into wrestling, with the possible exception of Nathaniel g. Moore, or unoffical poet laureate of pop culture, David McGimpsey. There does seem to be a McGimpsey influence, from a poet Holmes has edited three books for so far, through ECW Press.
Socko’s hobby? To boost pomo works on non-stops from Oslo
to Moscow or Compton from Toronto; hotshot, gold shod, lord,
Socko’s cold, cooly loots (won’t kow-tow or cop to who jobs
for who). So coy Socko scowls, shoots: fops, fools, tools, boobs–
dolts pop for Holy sock-rot. Socko rocks how Bon Scott shook:
(p 32, Socko’s Bök, for Cowboy Bob Orton)
A lot of my problem with Parts Unknown as a collection (if "problem" is even the right word) comes from the fact that I don’t think I get it; I don’t know the references Holmes is making about specific wrestlers, events or wrestling moves. I don’t know who "Mr. Socko" is, and I don’t think I’m going to. Is this my problem or is it his? The way he has written the collection, for the pieces to work seem dependant on the reader knowing what the references mean. When Lisa Robertson worked her collection, The Weather (New Star Books, 2001), as she wrote in an afterward, the book "took shape when [...] I embarked on an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description." Where Robertson wrote around her exploration of the language itself of "English meteorological description," Holmes explores, instead, the meanings and stories of contemporary professional wrestling, which, if you don’t know the stories, works often to alienate.
Nothing beats an education–the Hart school’s
basement and the Red River journalism program
will do–into you, separates everyday jackass from
serious assclown, like the cold. No one fools
or suffers themselves after being stretched by grim
extremes like the Chicago Manual of Style and Stu.
(p 26, The Walls of Jericho)
Certainly, there are enough literary references in the collection, from bpNichol in "The True Eventual Story of Badd Billy Gunn" (merging wrestler Billy Gunn with bpNichol’s Governor Generals’ Award-winning collection, the true eventual story of billy the kid) to Christian Bök in "Socko’s Bök" (merging "Mr. Socko" with a reference to Bök’s Griffin-prize collection, Eunoia, built of chapters written each using a single vowel). But even these aren’t necessarily written with a need to know what the literary references mean, engaging instead the language of the thing, and of the sources. Intended as play, or bonus, instead of necessity.
The bulk of the collection is the strangely uneven "Battle Royal" section, where some of the best pieces lie. A series of individual poems referencing wrestling, as well as a number of other cultural tics, as in this stanza from the poem "What?"that references both a loans commercial involving the over-the-top, carny threats of a wrestler (can’t you see him on your television, shouting into that microphone?), and the South Park movie:
Excuse me, excuse me, Intercontinental Champion here
gonna hit him so hard he’s gonna grow hair
don’t blame Canada, blame yourselves
so, for the benefit of those with flash photography
somebody call my momma, because I’m about to hurt somebody
(p 46, What?)
There is a lot of interesting play going on in Parts Unknown, and a poetry collection on professional wrestling (a sport/entertainment that arguably took much of its theatrics from the late comedian Andy Kaufman), considered an over-the-top entertainment, deserves the same from its literature, and Holmes delivers, for sure.
whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.
(I kicked your ass, Jake Roberts. No more
piledrivers, ever, Owen Hart.) The Hollywood Blonde nightmare
always leaves him like this, paralyzed by holy ghosts, whispering
Flying Brian Pillman. Stone Cold, we cannot rebuild him.
(p 19, A Man, Barely Alive)
There is a lot in Parts Unknown that I don’t know about. I’ve never been a fan of the "glossary" in a collection of poetry, especially in one as long as the one Holmes ends the collection with, over five pages of his "Parts Unknown: A Selected Professional Wrestling Glossary." But given the title of the collection, is "unknown" perhaps the point? Is it exactly this not knowing that Holmes is working with, and working against?
You knew wrestlers could be anything or anyone,
even your boys could hail from parts unknown.
(p 13, Parts Unknown)
The section I got the most out of in the collection is the penultimate section, "Finishing Moves," a twelve-part series of wrestling moves collected in groups. The section least dependant on knowing information about wrestling, it focuses on the movement of the words themselves, and as I would suggest, the strongest writing in the collection. Highly entertaining, a merging of meaning and play that both removes meaning, and plays off them.
Jalapeno Roll Sudanese Meat Cleaver Polka Dot Drop
The Shitty Elbow Bolo Punch Tutti Frutti
Flying Burrito Super Frankensteiner Marvelocity
"It’s the Big Foot!" Alabama Slammer Veg-o-matic
Towering Inferno Snake Eyes Niagara Driver
Razor’s Edge Pearl River Plunge Honour Roll
Human Frisbee Northern Lights No Laughing Matter
Shooting Star Press Sky High Seven Year Itch
(p 70, vii. Miscellaneous Phenomena, Condiments and Potables)
For the longest time, Michael Holmes has been one of my favorite poets, but I’m thrown (so to speak) by the writing in Parts Unknown. I recognize it, admire the play of language and the fun being had; I know that much of it is good, even great. But it feels like a joke I’ve been left out of, through the process of telling.
originally appeared in filling station