Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jill Hartman and Brea Burton's Booty and Natalie Zina Walschots' Thumbscrews

There’s just something about the sexy stagger and raw work of Calgary poets Jill Hartman [see her 12 or 20 questions here] and Brea Burton’s collaborative Booty (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2007). For Burton, this is her first foray into trade books, but for Hartman, it’s a follow-up to her magnificent solo collection, A Painted Elephant (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2003) [see my review of such here]. Originally created for a three-person performance at a conference in Scotland and chapbook publication, as Pirate Lore (Calgary AB: modl press, 2005) [see my review of such here], with Cara Hedley (who since went on to produce a novel with Coach House Books), the remaining two continued the project, eventually resulting in Booty. The best part of their collaborative Booty is its passion, quick-wit and playfulness, turning a language back on itself, including language that has been negatively used over the years on and about women; what Hartman and Burton do with Booty is to turn that language around, as a weapon back.

It’s interesting how the two initially separate works managed to intertwine, with Hartman writing her “Hurricane Jane” and Burton writing “Typhoon Mary” together, wrapping themselves around each other in ways reminiscent of that other recent Mercury Press collaboration between Toronto poets Stephen Cain and Jay MillAr, published as Double Helix (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2006)[see my review of such here].
just ashes to dust to. a sheepskin jacket, a pair
of old cowboy boots, brass-tipped toes, Alberta.
her picture next to the two-humped camel and
the largest easter egg in the world, afloat on the
pages of a coffee-table book. it is all a dream.

occasionally she dreams she is a man, chest flat
and hairy, genitalia external to her body, on the
sea it doesn’t matter. first, she pretends she’s a
man, hides herself, binds her breasts, but on
board there is nowhere to hide so she fights
bare-chested, all comers, until she is the leader,
the jolly roger, the master, masthead come to
life, wooden limbs splinter. she is the vessel, the
salty fish, the mother of it all, mother-fucking
mistress of the seas. in her dream, she’s a woman
on a river of jizz, a river of jazz, a river of jasmine,
a river of sea men, semen, siren song. one hell
of a ride. (Burton, “pirate love,” Booty: Typhoon Mary, pp 14-5)
Burton’s writing is tight, existing in condensed blocks of prose and the language of women pirates, and children’s stories (including portrayals of watery women such as The Little Mermaid), but Hartman’s is more fractured, staggered, and exists in a lyric sway of the hips, knocking bold into whatever gets too close without permission.
bottled up
belted a torch
a flame
belly up to the bar
pretend you’re OK

the ship and anchor
red mile at night, GGW and bar fights
or cowboys
porn stars and prairie oysters
pastoral cloister
is the pub we use the pub we desire?

a landmark decision
palm print incision
hand bag
fun bag
bar rag
bottle of trad

we drink it in with mother’s milf (Hartman, “first: the grapevine,” Booty: Hurricane Jane, p 13)
Each section exists as a long poem scattered into sections that, too, break down, into pieces that can live by themselves on the single page.
cat owns it, domestic sinew and bone can’t imagine caressing a
velvet wall with the back of your hand with the palms of the
hands at hip level like shells with the finger and thumb in a circle
or held to the forehead
and sigh and

did you expect me to talk about war
duck hunt for the cunt
in a barrel chested red herring wild goose chase girls gone
accordion musket tussock blind
shoot arrows just cupid
burlesque of the sexes
why blame you?
just lucky I guess
a read prince
real charming
prince, consort, prince albert
finger you figure?

I fing
snake my arms
sing (Hartman, “first: the grapevine,” Booty: Hurricane Jane, p 16)
Calgary poet Natalie Zina Walschots’ first trade collection, Thumbscrews (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2007), published as the first winner of the annual Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (current deadline forthcoming), plays some of the same engagements of female sexuality and what doesn’t get discussed in “polite society”; certainly not in poems. Writing “a poetic engagement with the aesthetics of sadomasochism and consensual pain,” Walschots carves out a space of spare words in short bursts and contained, sharpened marks, yet continues in that Robert Kroetsch long poem way of delay, delay, delay; pushing the end back as far as you can. Thumbscrews knows its limits, but pushes the boundaries in brevity through the elongated, extended poem; the long poem in parts, writing her way through seven sections, including “Christening,” “Toy Catalogue,” Photopsias” and “Passion Play.”
cuffs: ankle

jogging butter
fat lag stumble
slagging gutter
drag lax amble
plugging glitter
rag burn tumble
I love that the collection includes this fragment in the section “EMERG’,” referencing the folk-legend of (as I’d heard it) the sexual games involving a woman tied to a bed, and her husband, who, dressed as Batman, was jumping off a dresser onto the bed, only managing to knock himself unconscious in the process, leaving her trapped there, underneath him.
time of admission: 7:23am

rescue workers found female Velcro cuffed to h-frame, uncon-
scious male bent double, contusions to forehead from doorframe
when he jumped off the night stand, “Well, his pants were in the

“No, he wasn’t intoxicated, just Batman”
What makes these two books (these three works) exciting, in part, is working through taboo subjects for poetry, much the way Alessandro Porco attempted in his poems on mainstream pornography a few years back, The Jill Kelly Poems (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2005), or even Michael Holmes in his poems about professional wrestling, Parts Unknown (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2004) [see my review of such here]. Unlike Porco, whose book as a whole wasn’t strong enough to get away with poems on porn stars (despite having extremely strong poems throughout much of the collection), both of these books hold up as unified collections. But still, is Calgary becoming the new hotbed of the female post-lyric, reclaiming sexuality from a culture that still works so hard to repress female desire?

[Jill Hartman & Brea Burton read from their collaborative Booty in Edmonton on January 22 as part of the Olive Reading Series]

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