REVIEW OF SUZANNAH SHOWLER’S FAILURE TO THRIVE (ECW PRESS, 2014)
September 17, 2014
by Myra Bloom
Suzannah Showler’s debut collection Failure to Thrive is not confessional poetry, but it’s very tempting to read it that way. It’s not just because many of the poems are written in the first person; any time a poet says “I,” the line between fiction and autobiography starts to get hazy. Here, what make the line particularly blurry are the specific references to the places and things that you’d associate with a person in her twenties: a visit to No Frills, a torrid summer relationship, living in a sketchy apartment. “As a whole,” Showler admits, Failure to Thrive “does reveal a lot, I think; not necessarily about my autobiography or my day-to-day routine, but it does reveal a lot about my worldview, or at least my worldview at the time that I wrote the book.”
In spite of the book’s pessimistic title, the worldview that emerges through its poems is not purely one of doom and gloom. Although, as a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly put it, “Showler’s verse mirrors the disaffection of her generation,” it also conveys our hopefulness. The collection ends with the poet pledging her allegiance to higher-order principles: “words like good and beauty frequent/ The same bars I do,” she writes, challenging the misconception of our generation as unapologetically ironic. Showler’s collection is intelligent, wry, and yes, often ironic, but at the end of the day, it is also a young writer’s sincere attempt to say something meaningful about her world.
Failure to Thrive is very much a product of its time: the poems are filled with references to chain letters, Craigslist ads, Jeopardy questions, the Google Street View Car, Scratch and Sniff stickers, Magic Eye, Etch A Sketches, and other pop culture ephemera. For those of us who grew up in the nineties, this mélange will strike a particular chord. By her own admission, Showler is “fascinated” by stuff, particularly the way “people engage with things, lose things, keep things.” She used to curate a website, The Art of Losing, which published peoples’ accounts of items they had (figuratively or literally) lost. In today’s digital culture, many of the ‘things’ we encounter come to us in the form of information bytes; the internet is an important backdrop, and source, for Showler’s work. Several of her poems are particularly indebted, specifically those that make use of the “found poem” technique, in which phrases are lifted directly from an existing text. The lines in “Thirteen Subcategories,” for example, “were, at one time, the subcategories filed under ‘Accidental Death’ on Wikipedia”:
Accidental deaths by location
Victims of aviation accidents or incidents
Accidental deaths by electrocution
Accidental deaths from falls
Filmed accidental deaths
Firearm accident victims
Deaths by horse-riding accident
Hunting accident deaths
Industrial accident deaths
People who died in ATV accidents
Railroad accident victims
Space program fatalities
Deaths in sport
On their own, this is a fairly banal list of the ways in which humans meet untimely ends. In the context of the poem, however, these lines become elevated to the status of commentary on contemporary culture: they reveal our obsession with lists, our ability to transform life’s complexities into easily-digested facts, and, ultimately, the frailty as well as the absurdity of human existence. It’s possible to read “Thirteen Subcategories” as a kind of information-age counterpart to Leonard Cohen’s famous song “Who By Fire,” which is likewise a catalogue of ways to die:
And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
The lyrics of Cohen’s song, which are adapted from a Jewish liturgical poem recited during the High Holidays, emphasize the uncertainty of life: although we will all die, few of us know how or when. There is something holy, Cohen implies, about this mystery. By contrast, “Thirteen Subcategories” is distinctly unholy and unmysterious. Death has happened, has been recorded, and has consequently been demoted to a banality on par with the other factoids we encounter on the internet. In the guise of a straightforward list of facts, Showler offers us a biting commentary on our prosaic, information-driven culture.
However, this is clearly not Showler’s final take on contemporary life. In “Jeopardy,” she playfully reworks the tired conceit of the Jeopardy question to undertake some surprisingly deep existential reflection. On the game show Jeopardy, as we all know, contestants have to state the corresponding question to the answer provided by the host. Showler’s poem opens with a number of more or less plausible contestant responses:
What is the Magna Carta?
Who is Helen Keller?
What are light emitting diodes?
Where is West Texas?
As the poem progresses, however, the questions become increasingly personal, abstract, and existential. The line “What are the contents of your refrigerator?” feels weirdly invasive; suddenly, we’ve moved out of the realm of impersonal fact into something much more intimate. “What is the patron saint of misdirected feelings?” the poem continues, “What is nostalgia for something that never occurred?” There are, of course, no simple answers to these questions, nor to the final query, “What is the direction in which we are currently headed?” This poem displays Showler’s ability to jump conceptual registers, to move back and forth between the sublime and the mundane.
This oscillation seems to be a common feature of a lot of books that are getting noticed these days. The one that springs most readily to mind is Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (reviewed by Natalie Childs in GUTS’s first issue), which is constantly juxtaposing life’s big questions (see the book’s title) with its lesser ones (how to give a good blowjob, as one example). Failure to Thrive shares many of its preoccupations with Heti’s novel, and even a phrase or two. The poem “Notes on Integrity” is particularly similar, with its self-conscious interrogation of the artist’s relationship to her peers. The line “But don’t we all/ just want to stand, mostly upright,/in a stick figure forest of contemporaries” sounds a lot like Heti’s in How Should a Person Be?, where her narrator proclaims, “I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries!” Showler couldn’t recall whether or not she had yet read Heti’s book when drafting this particular poem, though she said it was probable; “my writing process,” she told me, “tends to involve accumulating lines for weeks and months and sometimes years, so it can be hard to put a date on it.” (Interesting fact: Showler read Heti’s book while housesitting for the author. Her account of this experience was published by Hazlitt).
Whether or not Showler was unconsciously quoting Heti, it is clear that both writers are channeling the same cultural zeitgeist. While both are master ironists (Showler’s “Notes on Integrity” features the line, “I’m pretty sure this guy I know/is faking impostor syndrome”), they are also, at times, undeniably sincere. In response to my question about her use of irony, Showler mused, “‘Would I be more upset if people thought I was being purely ironic or purely sincere?’ Which would give me a more profound feeling of misunderstanding and anxiety? I don’t know. I think maybe it would be worse to be mistaken for being completely 100% ironic and completely insincere. That would make me really sad.”
This sincerity reappears in various forms throughout the collection. In spite of all the ways our culture induces the “failure to thrive” expressed in its title, Showler is ultimately unwilling to let go of the hope that concepts like “goodness” and “beauty” are still viable; in the final poem, “One Possible Explanation for What Appears to Be the Case,” these words “turn up like a colour haunting the primer laid down over it.” In the final lines, we witness the speaker “standing here like some chump on an anthill/holding a saw by the wrong end, dowsing for meaning./ Just waiting for all the wild nodding to begin.” This image is incredibly hopeful: in spite of the difficulty of finding meaning in a world that very rarely makes sense, the speaker commits herself to the search for the profound thing lurking beneath all of life’s banalities. In this poem, the artist becomes a kind of diviner, whose job is to find the secret, hidden source.
This hopefulness, I am not alone in arguing, is a defining feature of the much-maligned Millennial generation. Although we’re often accused of being “lazy, entitled and delusional” evidence abounds that we’re actually highly-motivated, self-sufficient, and optimistic. We’re the generation that denounces corporate greed by occupying local parks, affirms that we will remain idle no more, and is prepared to go to the wall to stop a pipeline from being built. We embrace words like feminism and believe in the power of language to change the world. Showler is not an overtly political writer: “I don’t see poetry as a place for polemics,” she told me; “I’d rather read an essay.” Nevertheless, her politics are implicit in her final, optimistic affirmation that, ultimately, out of the “failing, crumbling, dystopic space we live in” something beautiful might just emerge.
Myra Bloom recently received a PhD in Comparative Literature from U of T. She writes on topics pertaining to contemporary Canadian literature and aesthetics.