Cassidy McFadzean invades the past and dusts off some relics in her debut collection
by Danny Jacobs
Hacker Packer, Cassidy McFadzean’s debut collection, starts with the promise of a flight (the first poem is called, “The Night Before a Red-Eye Flight”) but spends most of its time digging deep underground. McFadzean’s concerns are often subterranean: the poems skulk around caves, caverns, crypts, closed spaces. They mine medieval tapestries, prehistoric carved idols, and Roman architecture. It’s poem-as-reliquary—many of the pieces vessels for the oddments of history.
But despite their ancient subject matter, these poems are far from bone-dust dry. They burst with phonological energy. There are amped-up zingers on every page, a kind of soft surrealism she controls in solid stanzas; she can do Dodds and Babstock (two poets thanked in the acknowledgments) with the best of them:
In which home cannery inflected botulism
via winging the diced tomato’s acidity
and pH levels under pressure fluctuating.
We botched salsa for frugality and spousal
Dizzying, no doubt; but this stuff isn’t mere soundcloud. Like the best poems, some of McFadzean’s go beyond technical bravura to pursue big themes.
One can place McFadzean’s poetics squarely in what poet-critic Carmine Starnino calls the Steampunk Zone. Starnino recently co-opted the term from sci-fi in an attempt to describe a new generation of Canadian poets unconcerned with aesthetic camps: foragers who take what they need to create verse that often straddles the line between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘traditional’ (if these appellations mean anything anymore). Their creativity, according to Starnino, is “defined by salvage and customization, neither backward nor progressive.” McFadzean seems to embody this approach. She certainly sounds new—this book couldn’t have existed ten years ago. There’s Instragram, iPhones, ringtones, and Beliebers.
But there are also sonnets, set stanzas, ekphrasis and Anglo-Saxon riddle poems. And yet unlike most debuts, Hacker Packer reads like neither a ragtag of best efforts nor a blinkered book-length assignment. The former might be most common: isolated strong poems insulated by the padding of throwaways. The latter is worse: the big brush of the author’s topic whitewashes all work, leaving no standouts. MacFadzean’s book, though, continually returns to motifs (the underworld, antiquity, religious iconography) and enduring themes (mortality, time, the ephemerality of art) while maintaining the integrity of the discrete poem. Indeed, the lack of section breaks in the book’s table of contents bespeaks confidence; these poems are separate beasts.
The riddle poems, by the way, are so deftly done—gapped caesura and all—I thought they were translations straight from the Exeter Book (“I ride the chariot rail, roam the billowroad/ trammelled the soft skies, sightseeing steering me/ where flycatchers soar.” I want to keep quoting. Answer: the sun). The surreal imagery and sonically adroit signal-switching are there in much of the work, but cut with moments of pathos and insight. So in the same poem we find precisely tuned assonantal description (“Dogtooth violet/ hints at spring, its lilac fangs turned skyward”) and assured direct statement (“It’s// awful to suck the colour from all the things/ you look at in this world and see”).
McFadzean’s careful forms and universal themes ground the poems. In “Thermal Shock, Dolní Věstonice”, she opens with her characteristic surrealism: “The stars’ swordmouths gleam above us,/ speaking.” Then after ten lines in a similar vein, we get a jarring italicized interjection from Selena Gomez: “Boom, gone. Yeah, we move on.” It’s a poem in couplets, but the Gomez gets its own stanza: a surprising choice that marks a change of channels. And yet the pop starlet quotation doesn’t just pay lip service to Late Capitalism’s detritus. According to Google (a useful tool when reading McFadzean), Dolní Věstonice refers to an archaeological site containing clay representations made between 27,000 and 20,000 BC (“We gather/ the windshaped sediment, mould clay into men,// lions, bears”). Gomez, like these prehistoric idols, is fair game, one more shard of our making. The lyric gains metaphorical weight in the context of the poem: we move on, our art gets buried. Later on, the speaker breaks in with the straightforward statement, something we’ve learned to expect from a McFadzean poem: “Nothing’s gone for good, nothing’s ever new.” An insight like this—frequent and earned in the poems—adds weight to pieces that might otherwise resemble linguistically punchy joyrides. In the universe of Hacker Packer, art, as well as life, is a continual reconstitution of ingredients, a repurposing of parts already there: “Under fluorescent museum light we examine/ a vial of stardust, matter that formed us all.”
There is risk in mixing these ingredients. McFadzean’s book is impressive, but the method of packing on the references and wrangling forms with verbal legerdemain has been done to the gills. It may just be the norm for Canadian debuts right now. This isn’t a bad thing; there are good books every season (we’ve all heard the chorus: one can’t keep up!). But books like McFadzean’s are trending. Hacker Packer is published by McClelland & Stewart but has Coach House cool about it: the experimental footwork and associative leaps bring to mind the press’s recent back catalogue. No surprise there: Kevin Connolly was the poetry editor at Coach House, and edited Hacker Packer.
Connolly is part of the new poetry board at M&S, along with Ken Babstock and Dionne Brand. It’s an overhaul of sorts, an attempt to relaunch “with new blood and a commitment to attracting new talent”. The young McFadzean clearly has fresh plasma to donate. And she is an accomplished poet. But is this a singular book? In the aforementioned Steampunk essay, Starnino registers reservations about declaring the Steampunk aesthetic a style. Style, according to Starnino, is “the result of a voice so grounded in its subject, the effect is not a self-regarding newness but a newness absorbed into the poem, a newness ripening into something effortlessly manifold and available.” Sometimes McFadzean’s newness calls attention to itself as the disparate allusions and associations pile up, and it starts to look a lot like other Steampunk-esque efforts. The book, then, isn’t inimitable, but perhaps an exemplar of a well-established cadre. Don’t get me wrong: I like this book very much, but there’s something fashionably urbane in its poetics, something we’ve seen a lot of lately.
McFadzean is all too aware of how the artist might be an intruder who devalues what she borrows. Hacker Packer is filled with anxiety about our impositions. Her speaker often traipses through museums and historical sites, a tourist capturing what she can. In one sonnet, we are told that “Museums are zoos where we see other countries’/ breeds of griffins, nymphs, endangered stone beasts” (“The Boundary Stone of the Agora”). Museums, zoos, poems: places of capture, containment, false arrangement. Yet despite her reservations about how we appropriate history, McFadzean reminds us that poems are supposed to be just this: pure fabrication and artful placement, a roping in of myriad things. In McFadzean’s hands, it’s a necessary exercise that still calls for celebration.
DANNY JACOBS is the author of Songs that Remind Us of Factories (2013). He lives with his wife in Riverview, New Brunswick, and works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.