April 27th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Killarnoe* by Sonnet L’Abbé

I knew I wanted to read something by Sonnet L’Abbé because I’ve seen her do a few readings over the last year or so and they were amazing. I totally believe that the best way to sell a book is to have the person who likes it most (usually the author, one would imagine) read a little bit of it to you. A few distainful readers notwithstanding, this would be the ideal selling technique if only more people went to readings. I am one who does, and thus buy a lot of books, though in truth *Killarnoe* was a gift (a requested one!)

*Anyway*, I loved L’Abbé’s readings , and I was pretty sure I would love the poems on paper too. I was right. Killarnoe is a book rich in play, in sex, in sound, in self-deprecation, in jokes and juxtopositions and alliterations and *rhymes* (the rarer it gets, the more I like it). It is joyful, thought-provoking reading.

The poems I heard at the readings were, I think, largely from the second section in the book, “Instrumental.” Each is a meditation or exploration of a sound, which gives the poems titles like the thoughtful “Ah”, catchy “I” or the sexy “Ungh.” These pieces are full of life, though I suspect highly theorized at their base. Breaking language down to sound memes (AMT, am I using that word right?) is not a simple task, but the poet manages a light touch nonetheless: “noteworthy / the pure ooh / of boo /of moo // the poor ooh / of few / of zoo.”

I was surprised to find I didn’t much like a section of political poems called “Z: Ghazals for Zahra Kazemi.” In a reading, I had been quite astounded by the weird sad fear and humour of “My Osama bin Laden T-shirt” (which appears in the book in the section after Z). Upon rereading, that piece held up, but the other topical stuff left me cold.

One reason could be is that ghazals are a highly complex, very structured form with which I’m not really familiar. There’s a lot of repetition (a L’Abbé trademark, I’m told) and not much room for narrative. To put it more bluntly, I didn’t understand these. Then I found the notes in the back of the book and I *did* understand–at least who Zahra Kazemi is, and some of the other people mentioned in the work–but I still didn’t really “get” the poems. I couldn’t go inside them–they required me to bring with me a certain amount of info, or at least insight, that I don’t have.

That’s ok–some poetry is always going to shoot over someone’s head, and writing for the rather large subset of the population that reads th newspaper is not a crazy idea. Most of L’abbé’s work is so multilayered, so open and accessible that though I nearly always suspected there was more to it than I had understood, there was plenty for me to savour.

Like a poem towards the end of the book, “Third Breast,” which was decidedly creepy and bizarre and I really like it. But I have the strong impression there it obliquely references a tri-breasted creature somewhere in mythology that I’m forgetting about…do you know? I’m sure L’Abbé knows, and I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. I will think about that poem for a long time anyway, which really, is the point.

I once had a wonderful English prof–this might have even been in high school–who drew a diagram about layers of meaning. Literal, metaphor, allusion, symbol, allegory, etc. Then s/he (I actually have no idea who this was, sorry) said that a story poem that was only surface would be pretty simple and dull, but that work that only existed on the deeper levels would also be dreadful, because the reader would have no point of entry or reference, no simple enjoyment or identification before the heavier work began.

I think about this when I read a book like *Killarnoe*, which operates on so many levels and seems open to having the reader on any or all of them, or wherever you would like to go.


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