Nightwood Editions - January 15, 2007 - 3 Comments
Home of Sudden Service by Elizabeth Bachinsky
Reviewed by Liam Ford
“Welcome to the Valley Gothic,” smirks the inside cover flap of Elizabeth Bachinsky’s Home of Sudden Service, like a greasy, ursine man in a dirty white cube van (with tinted windows) prowling the local high school. Turn the pages and you’ll find all the horrors that fill the minds of overworked and overwrought suburban parents: teen pregnancy (“For the Teen Moms at the Valley Fair Mall”), murder and abduction (“Wolf Lake”), missing children (“Sometimes Boys Go Missing”), teen sex (“Of a Place”), young love (“Outcasts,” “For the Punk Rock Boys”), more teen sex (“At Fifteen,” “St. Michael”), juvenile deliquency (“To a Future Delinquent,” “B & E”), and even more teen sex (“The Diner of Her Heart”). Surprisingly, you won’t find the unctuous pedophile, but the other caricatures of suburban personality types will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Fubar, watches the news, or The Trailer Park Boys.
Home of Sudden Service is a fitting title. It bespeaks the empty promises of life, as in the title poem. A young mother brings her child to his father’s body shop. They stand unnoticed
in the office. There’s a sign out front that reads
Home of Sudden Service, but sometimes
it takes him a while to notice us.
Throughout this poem, the speaker rationalizes her decisions. For quitting her first job: “I quit that place for the coffee shop with / the medical/dental” (11-2). For moving in with her boyfriend: “got an apartment / with Angel right away, which was about time” (12-3). For getting pregnant: “Didn’t seem to be any reason not to, especially / with the mat leave” (20-1). For why she loves the smell of him when he comes home from work:
he smells like my father used to when he came home from work. I don't know… is that fucked up? I don't think so.
These are examples of either the author’s skill at character development, or the degree of insight she attributes to her subjects. A case could be made that Bachinsky is continuing the tradition (attributed to the Romantics) of glorifying the down-and-out, giving a voice to the voiceless. Given the benefit of the doubt, such a job is better left up to a different medium, like television.
Unfortunately, a TV show written as a poem is still a TV show. “Sometimes Boys Go Missing” is a nine part poem that reveals little the television couldn’t and omits much that it could. It’s like a transcription of a TV news investigative report, yet struggles to achieve anything insightful or affecting. Part “I” is a “(Prologue)” (1). Clearly, from the title, a boy has gone missing, and here the family reacts with paper:
Staples stuck in telephone poles, Xerox gone To tatters after one good rain. That can't-make-out- His-face-anymore-the-sun's-gone-bleached-it-out Decoupage / paper pileup where his face once was On the corkboard at the grocery store.
The unrhymed couplets resemble paper snipped to make tear-off stubs, on which a cash-starved student has put a phone number offering tutoring, editing or proofreading services. There’s no crying mother, no forlorn father, no description of the boy. “II” adds a bit of intrigue. Imagine a news reporter’s voice reading the lines about how “the business of teaching boys to transport goods from small / town to small town likes to remain small and unnoticed” (6-7). The plot thickens. “III” offers the logical, probable explanation. Imagine a re-enactment, à la Crime Stoppers, narrated in sober tones. The boy, out for a walk along the dike by the airstrip, “slips / on the muddy bank, cracks his head on a stone and drifts away” (17-8). In “IV,” the calls come in. Imagine a camera close-up of a youthful, baseball-capped face. A buddy reminisces about some harmless drunken tomfoolery. For “V” the investigative reporters have consulted a conspiracy theorist, who claims “there have always been rumors of cult activity near this river, / and the rumours make sense if you think about them long enough” (2-3). Part “VI” cuts to the anguished girlfriend who says,
it just makes me sick, your conspiracy
theories. Like you’ve got to have a reason. Well,
sometimes there isn’t a reason. Sometimes boys go missing.
“VII” likens the disappearance of the boy to a salmon returning to spawn. Cut to a darkened room, blinds pulled; a shadowed figure sits in the corner of a room, unidentifiable. For “VIII,” the investigative reporters have tracked down someone who will speak on behalf of the smuggling business alluded to in “II” “(in a voice distorted so as to become unrecognizable)” (1). The last part, “IX,” is an “(Epilogue)” (1). Another segment of the interview with the baseball-capped buddy:
I never got back the router I lent him to do the edging on his mom's new kitchen cabinets. It's a damn shame what happened to him. What happened to him? He was a good guy to have a beer with. Anyway, the router's gone.
That’s the end of the poem. The paucity of words gives space for the imagination to picture what’s happening, but for the most part, the reader’s left wondering what the point is. Little is revealed about the boy or even his family. We’re given glimpses of the thoughts of friends, but what they say leaves us shrugging our shoulders. Is that all this is about?
I offer an alternate title for Home of Sudden Service: “a trailer park fire of the mind” (“Valley,” 7). This line squeezes together two of the book’s prominent features: The subtle allusion to Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind echoes the poet’s efforts to pay homage to poetic predecessors. The term trailer park, which conjures images of Julian, Ricky and Bubbles, echoes the subject matter of many of its poems. This title would draw further attention to the perpetual celebration of a less-than-desirable lifestyle and, in doing so, resonate with a number of Canadians who fit such a celebration into their definition of culture.
Still, Bachinsky attempts to elevate her subject matter through experiments with what the inside cover flap calls “punk rock villanelles,” pseudo-Petrarchan sonnets, and even a glosa based on a poem by the Canadian Queen of glosas, P.K. Page. She name-drops Layton, samples Millay and, most successfully, Blake. In “Of a Place” and “Of a Time” she starts to spin Home of Sudden Service as her own Songs of Innocence and of Experience with great, but unsustained success. The experimentation continues with “Drive,” the long poem placed at the end of the book, which is written as fifteen sonnets, where each line of the first sonnet provides the first line for each of the succeeding sonnets. Despite exciting and excellent experiments in form, Home of Sudden Service lacks something. The characters are entirely unsympathetic. They accept their lots in life and do nothing to change.
What it lacks is hope. Even in “Drive,” the most freeing poem, the speaker completes a cross-country drive just to hop a plane back. This sensational Babylon of false stereotypes and empty caricatures doesn’t even end up flooded, as in “Wolf Lake” where “the place had been / a valley, before the dam, before the town” (47-8). Maybe the reason can be found in “Valley,” a peculiar play on a Petrarchan love sonnet.
Instead of eyes like diamonds or hair like golden flax, “cold suburban cartography / falls where it falls, like breathing or wind” (3-4) from the Valley. She looks something like “Kathie Lee [Gifford?] / meets corned beef hash” (8-9). This is no ideal lover, that sounds like “the scream of a swing set / rusty from years of schoolyard piss and shit” (9-10). Nevertheless, the form is satisfied because the speaker is in love, in some depraved, stripper-obsessed way:
I long for you each moment
I’m away. I want your legs as far apart
as the poles. Sick, I’m sick with longing for
some punk midnight vandal, some bleach-blonde hair.
What is it about the Valley that the speaker loves? Perhaps it’s in this: “Yours is the landscape of my youth” (1). Despite the piss and shit and corned beef hash, despite the hopelessness, the depravity, the fervent sex, the shamelessness, the crime, this is youth as the speaker remembers it. The trailer park fire burns in the mind, warming the speaker with sweet memories of youth and fueling the hopeless present. Fire consumes all, and though she can escape the trailer park, she cannot escape the memories.
Maybe the longing is ironic. After all, the speaker can’t seriously be “sick with longing for / some punk midnight vandal, some bleach-blonde hair” (13-4). How then, are we intended to read this poem, and the rest of the volume that it introduces? Is it an ironic eulogy, an insincere tribute? Or is it really a paean to youth, to a simplicity perverted by misunderstanding minds, by a world that won’t let kids be kids? Unfortunately, I have no answer. And it is this uncertainty that leaves Home of Sudden Service flickering weakly with poetry, or roaring with it.