Edge Effects by JAN CONN Brick Books, 2012 $19.00
In Edge Effects, her eighth collection of poetry, Jan Conn is a time travelling, peripatetic sojourner excavating multiple hybrid landscapes swathed in the noxious social and political debris that hovers over all tourist sites. We follow her from Our Lady of Guadalupe’s gaze, Mexican idol, to the migrants who perish in leaving her maternal spell as they struggle to enter into the promised land north of a perilous border crossing. On another continent, a homeless man in Capetown’s District Six, the epicentre of apartheid, struggles to grasp at the shreds of his residual memories.
In these sites are images refulgent with a toxic glare, “like Bergman on acid”. What would this look like, the oneiric vision of a filmmaker renowned for bleak narratives, tinted in psychedelic hues? Visitations by an array of artists and authors punctuate and penetrate the verses. Many of them are no longer among the living and their spirits or their works saturate these poems, as do others still among us, who continue to produce the abiding and transforming cultural artifacts influencing Conn’s vision. Among the dead are Diego (Rivera?), the Spanish painter Vala?zquez, the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein, the poets Rilke and Ted Hughes, the Bro?ntes, singer Josephine Baker, Tolstoy, modernist artist Paul Klee, Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, and Marilyn Monroe.
This is not Monroe’s first appearance in Conn’s poetry. In her 2000 collection, Beauties on Mad River, Monroe appears as an iconic representation of the idealized female body caught midstream in full bloom, all plush flesh, hurtling towards morbidity. By the time she meets Andy Warhol in Edge Effects she is all artifice, from her teeth to her aura to her platinum hair – like Andy’s wig – “woven entirely of dead people’s hair” – to her “phony mole-near-the-lip-thing”.
“She” is a recurring character, at times an autobiographical actor among other female archetypes. Some are spectral women like Monroe, victims of a false culture. In “Close to Ghosts”: “With a tape measure, the supermodel loiters in a graveyard / A toxic terrain where / Pumpkins glow in the field like planets.” In another poem, “Tomorrow’s Bright White Light,” “the stripper goes on an outing.” We meet this character in a forested place where her flesh is “now a queer, cold tone / of green, as though reflecting conifers / and spirits commingled.”
In this grim image, she is a character like so many other ‘disappeared’ women, just another media statistic, an easily forgotten mystery, abandoned to a place where “She’ll die alone, / the residue of a photograph.”
The self is omnipresent in the text, dipping between layers of consciousness, as thin and translucent as “parchment”, threaded in stratums of occult phenomena and ecological danger, where personal history collides with political anxiety. In ”Disturbance in the Key of B” Conn asks “Where are the sources of the self? I need to find mine / and give them a good shaking.”
In the poem “Extreme Condition”, the everyday is a place that contracts and expands from the microscopic, ”where lead and zinc jingle percussively”, to the macrosphere where the “astrobiologist” leaps from her “glossy, refurbished brochure kitchen” into far-flung worlds corralled by language: “This planet a mere lexicon of the one left behind.”
Even the infinity of space is enclosed as a finite, encapsulated frontier, a lead-soaked underworld where “simian” escorts plunge to a dodgy descent. But it is human dominance in charge here: “survival of the –”
Many of the poems refer to or are inspired by specific paintings, films, encounters with artworks in museums and art galleries, and in dreams. Foreboding colours permeate descriptions: “enigmatic orange”, a river that is “errant blue”, “the hazards of nightblack”, and: “The velveteen texture of the golf greens / depends on enough herbicides and fertilizer / to poison our drinking water forever.”
We know Conn as a scientist, a biologist, an ecosopher who weaves the minutiae of scientific observation and the expertise of a rational, objective eye, the fictional assignations of our mediated daily lives with ineffable encounters in human and non- human places, and with an infusion of feminist logic and linguistic persuasion.
In “The Present is Elusive” Conn writes “I prefer to live in the cracks of events.” And so she does, inhabiting the elastic, rhyzomic spaces between science, art, social scrutiny, and personal history, soaked in a longing for “the ravine of childhood”. Family members arise here and there: a deceased father who appears in several poems, sometimes missed, sometimes admonished, and a brother who “sings off-key, startling birds”.
This is thick, complex work, alive with art and magic, spiked with intricate structures of ecological and epistemic context, in mesh with vibrant lived experience. With each return reading, I discover another shade of meaning, an alternative value to uncover, a new detail to research. The emotional topography of the text is infused with grief, with self-effacing irony, and humour.
EDIE STEINER is a PhD. Candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Her research and creative practice as an independent filmmaker and visual artist explores themes of place, memory, and landscape.