Saturday, April 24, 2021

Mary Germaine, Congratulations, Rhododendrons


The Reception

in the church basement
a shred of lettuce limps in the Miracle Whip
Wonder Bread sops the pickle juice

someone chewed the entire circumference
of her Styrofoam coffee cup

but left the coffee and the continents of creamer floating in it

to be fair the traffic’s on everyone’s mind
when the exhausted topics seep between the cousins
the tables down here are all uneven

and whispers roll down them like Shirley’s blue eye

on the march back upstairs polished shoes pinch hot sympathy
to the parking lot to watch the hearse drive away
nobody knows whether or not we should wave

before rush hour swallows all our reasons to be angry

I’m fascinated by Fredericton-based poet Mary Germaine’s lyric scenes, displayed through her full-length debut, Congratulations, Rhododendrons (Toronto ON: House of Anansi Press, 2021). Congratulations, Rhododendrons is a collection of poems braided together from odd musings, recollections and observations, and long stretches of lyric that run out and across beyond the patterns of narrative sentence. Consider the title of the poem “The Look on Your Face When You Learn / They Make Antacids Out of Marble,” and its subsequent opening: “Who knows the name of the empire that took your arms, or the earthquake / that left you to drag your way, legless, to the top of the rubble.” Her perspective is delightfully odd and slightly skewed. Uniquely singular and refreshing, Germaine provides new life into the narrative-driven lyric. Consider, too, the title of the poem “Upon Hearing How Long It Takes a Plastic Bag to Break Down,” that includes: “”We built them to make it easy / to carry groceries, gym shoes, / shorelines, treetops, and dog shit. / And they do. And they will, until the end / of time, or the next five hundred years— / whichever comes first. I will be buried / and I’m not sorry some plastic will outstay / my appreciation of sunsets. I suspect even sunsets / will be garbage by then.” Or again, the poem “Every Poem Where I Have to Pee in It Is a Pastoral,” that includes: “This is why everyone hates nature: / nothing to buy out here. / Plenty to smell but nothing good to eat. / Nobody knows that better // than the night-browsers, riding the crooked / wheel of their shopping carts / up and down the laneways, perusing for / who knows, finding wire hangers.” I think it is safe to say that Germaine is writing some of the finest poem-titles I’ve seen in some time. They are remarkable for their evocative wit and slightly twisted humour.

The scenes she writes out and the points within that she highlights are fascinating. “If you don’t love me then there’s no / seeing each other around,” she writes, as part of the poem “Valediction,” “not dressed like this. Look, / our separate fatigues / blend us with the scenery: / a scrim of any busy station, / a busy life in the blue distance.” Her narratives are playfully, subtly odd, writing a resigned, sly wisdom and melancholy that emerges only through experience, and the maturity of a writer usually further along than that of a full-length debut. There aren’t too many poets that manage to emerge seemingly out of nowhere, so confident and fully-formed. Just where has she been hiding, this whole time? Or, as she writes to close the poem “Good News”:

To be a disciple means you can’t prove what you know.
But you keep your eyes open and you promise you will
never fall asleep again.

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