The first book review I wrote was on request. Helen Guri asked me to review her debut with Coach House, Match, in the fall of 2011. It’d barely gotten the attention it deserved, though things were beginning to seethe– CWILA formed around that time, pointing to the dearth of reviews of women-authored books in Canadian publishing. I was still in school, finishing my MA degree, and by default, Editor-in-Chief of echolocation, a tiny literary print journal put out by the graduate English department. Like so many of the tiny university literary journals, was run entirely on volunteer time, university grants and departmental neglect. All but two of the previous years’ staff had graduated. I’d offered to set up its new blog and found myself conducting the whole set-up. Lesson here? If I name it you might assume I’ve actually learnt it.
In June 2012, Match was nominated for the Trillium prize, and yet still hadn’t been reviewed. My review appeared in echolocation‘s Fall 2012 issue, and soon after it was reviewed in Lemon Hound, then Event and Arc Poetry in early 2013.
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Helen Guri, Match, Coach House Books, 88pgs, $17.95
I may be giving away the punchline before you’ve heard the joke when I reveal that Helen Guri intended Match to consist of love sonnets, where the love object is a blow-up sex doll and the sonnets bear only a vestige of its formal conventions. Guri divulged this to a recent audience, and my memory may be inaccurate– it’s possible that I extracted from her preamble the explanation that validated my own reading of Match. This experience of craving verification for our assumptions, however, lies at heart of Guri’s novel-in-poems.
If Match has a protagonist, it is Robert Brand, though his background is unimportant for the reader to know. Instead, the reader learns about Robert, the main speaker of the poems, from the inside out. He’s wary of relationships with the opposite sex, but still curious, and this conflict impels his journey to find fulfilling love. Contemplating the maxim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Robert questions not only his own ability to love, but also to perceive.
Titles of poems such as ‘If Love is a Sleeping Jackrabbit’, ‘Resonance is a Direction’ and ‘Cognition’ signal the book’s concern with the difficulty of recognition. Particularly in Match’s first of three sections, the poems question how we know our feelings, our selves, and the objects in the world around us if they were stripped of their familiar features. The speaker constantly corrects himself regarding his perceptions, or asks for clarification. In ‘Revision,’ the narrator declares, “Let me be perfectly clear./It is not a triangle I mean but/ three dots” and in ‘Wallflower’: “You are right to be suspicious.” The reader is repeatedly asked to “imagine”, to “consider this”. At the close of the first section, Robert wonders if he’s reading too much into things: “I told myself/ don’t be stupid./ A plant is its own thing – try to see it literally.”
The questions that the poems pose relate meaningfully to Match’s overarching preoccupation with revision, resemblances, and the essence of things. Is an ode still an ode if it is stripped of the identifying features? How much of a thing’s form can be altered, or a loved one’s nature modified, while still remaining knowable to the subject? Reading Match becomes an exercise in questioning self-evident truths, which can be an uncomfortable experience. Guri’s wacky metaphors eases that discomfort. While most poets would be content with making startling comparisons, Guri also is interested in the degree to which something resembles something else. In ‘Still life with love doll and potato’, the speaker considers what this “unlikely set – /Barbie and her jowly pug, heroine and sidekick” could have in common. That all metaphor originates from an individual perspective is expressed thus: “Who knows what anyone sees in anything?”
In the book’s second section, the speaker suggests that the object of his affection might have views of her own, in poems such as ‘Subjects on which my love doll could conceivable have opinions’. Robert claims that “In some pictures/ objects come alive/ and the living are objects”. The poems challenge the act of projecting onto a loved one in such a way that occasions the subject’s own inner growth, a power dynamic much scrutinized in gender politics. Match may be alluding to a tradition that harkens back to Dante’s La Vita Nuova, where the speaker’s glimpse of his beloved, the eight-year old Beatrice, inspires a personal crisis and conversion. In ‘Rubber Bride’, the view lovers have of their adored is humorously over-inflated, the object is now a “silhouette celebrity”, “embarrassingly loud in public places,” but when Robert attempts to remove his bride, he’s told that “you’ve been designated a World Heritage Site.”
In the poems of the last section of the book, an aging Robert realizes that “it is hard to know/what is background and what is person”. He is less certain about his own presence while ruminating on statues, stand-ins, and movie star bum doubles: “In hindsight, I’m MIA”. In the aphoristic ‘If’, the speaker declares, “Art means giving an object a mind, letting that object use it against you.” If Robert aspires to be an artist, one of the consequences is that he becomes an object of study, even if only to himself. Another consequence may be the loss of his own humanity, in Match’s final poem, ‘Study in a Bathroom Mirror’: “Not human after all, my mug/more like a volleyball, more like a waning”. Robert may disappear from view: “Will I blend/ into the landscape with surprising guile,/ or explode like an improvised device?”
Readers should not be put off by Guri’s elliptical language and catalogue of curiosities. The thickly-knit images can be overwhelming, so rather than parsing each one, I would recommend leaning back to receive an impression of her playfulness. Guri’s sense of irony recalls the stylistic modes of Canadian poets such as Ken Babstock, Jeramy Dodds and Suzanne Buffam. But I also hear in her writing touches of early Atwood’s power games as well as P.K. Page’s curlicues of wit. What is distinct about Match is its assertion that once we begin to be curious, we also begin to love. Since those impulses alter both the object of our desires as well as its surroundings, what is clear is that we never see the world the same way again.