A few months ago, Broken Pencil asked for a series of "retro reviews," reviews of Canadian poetry titles from the 1990s that deserved attention, or were possibly overlooked at the time. The pieces were published in Broken Pencil #50. Here was my contribution.
By the time Lynn Crosbie’s Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1998) appeared, a comparison to the late London, Ontario artist Greg Curnoe was entirely appropriate: we watched, in part, because we didn’t know exactly what they would do next. In the mid to late 1990s, Crosbie was the rarest of artist, alongside Michael Turner and Douglas Coupland, watched for the very fearlessness and experimentation, the unexpected and entirely compelling movements that permeated their works. We could say the same, more recently, of Christian Bök. She had already published three poetry collections, from Miss Pamela’s Mercy (1992), VillainElle (1994) to Pearl (1996), edited or co-edited the anthologies The Girl Wants To (1993), Plush (1995) and Click (1997), and published her infamous documentary novel Paul's Case (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1998). Obviously, Crosbie’s writing lived wild, informed, pop-culture awake, and highly intellectual and unafraid of those dark places other writers manage to water-down in comparison. Who else would attempt to title an anthology “The Girl Wants To Fuck,” or read sections of her Paul Bernardo-inspired documentary novel to an audience at a Toronto fundraiser for PEN Canada and be, ironically, censored by members proclaiming otherwise intellectual freedoms?
Had the rules for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry not changed to no longer consider selected poems (a rule that allowed Leonard Cohen, Patrick Lane and plenty of others the prize), she should have easily won for Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems. Didn’t it matter that forty percent of the collection was actually previous uncollected work, including the Toronto-laden abecedarian “Alphabet City”? I would say still that this piece is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, of her works to date, magnificently sampling from a series of other works, including Michael Ondaatje’s Governor General’s Award-winning The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970). It was bad enough that they short-listed Robin Blaser’s life’s work The Holy Forest (Coach House Press, 1993) and didn't award it, but a further crime that Crosbie wasn’t even eligible. But in the intervening years, the follow-up question insists, what happened? Is her fearlessness still there, but less reckless, perhaps? Have readers, somehow, unfortunately, confused a lack of resulting shock-value with a lack of credibility? Was it her writing, or was it our attention that changed?