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Laurie Fuhr's Review of Splitting Off in bloom oon

Splitting Off by Triny Finlay
reviewed by Laurie Fuhr

If poetry is partly a way to let adults continue the play instinct, words on paper substituted for toys on grass, no longer the problem of getting Barbie’s mini-skirt up over her sticky rubber legs – and if the reading of poetry fulfills the play penchant as well as writing it does – Triny Finlay’s Splitting Off could be the ultimate playland. Follow the poet-playmate through the parkscape of her imagination. I bet in girlhood Finlay had the neatest ideas for what Barbie and friends were going to do to hapless Little Sister Kelly next.

In Splitting Off, you get a variety of structures and forms. Poems of two, three or four line stanzas to monkey up and down with eyes. Non-rhyming sonnets, each of fourteen lines the plank of a playstructure’s tipsy spanbridge. Square block, chunky imagist poems full of malleable words: sandcastles built here.

Each of five sections generally follows a different exercise the poet has set up for herself. In Liking Chocolate Again, Finlay reclaims that underrated colour, pink, from the walls of little girls bedrooms and inserts it into verses of adult feminine concerns: Holly Hobby’s caplet bonnet vs. pink pills, pair of panties as an unasked question, pink elephants that aren’t blushing and a liquiscape of pink cocktails. Then in the section’s last poem, Pink Sneakers, enough is enough: “Eschew pink jeans, pink tank tops, pink cashmere sweaters. The force is sudden, and limited to shoes” – the force of wanting pink again, the force to be near something in the present for reminding you of past instances it featured in your life, here pink and its symbols for the past in this section. But don’t overdo it; checkout one item or less. The present is not, in fact, a very ‘pink’ place; it’s not made up of the past even though the past got us here, because when what a thing or colour meant before is imported into the now, it alters now – but it’s also altered by now. Oh, the glorious convolutions! Pink could stand in for anything whatsoever in the present that reminds a person of their many encounters with it in the past, and how it now affects them to be reminded. The entire section of poems in turn assumes the function of a single poem about then vs. now, safety of childhood vs. dangers of the outside world, hopes vs. outcomes. Readers can deduce this through the series of poems, writing a kind of poem of sense in their own heads, so that the writer provides a message without seeming to promote one. Is this really what she’s up to? Or just how I’m interpreting it? Is the poet, or the poetry, more responsible for the reader’s interpretation? Whatever the case, the reader may come away impressed by both poet and poetry, and also with him- or her- self as poetry translator. Finlay’s is a rare modern poetry that actually rewards its readers and whets appetites for more calamari, Bermuda honey, black olive stuffing and roasted pumpkin seeds (just some of the exotic fare for feast in the book).

Section two, The World We Already Knew, is a fairly eclectic section of stranger-than-fiction personal experiences operating within the world you think you know til the inevitable, unexpected accidents of chance, happy or otherwise, go down. These are situations you can imagine the circumstances around, but never the emotional substance of, til you’re in them: Getting off the phone after bad news might find you oddly paralyzed, as though an Orange Plastic Chair held you up; choosing one’s weapon against an enemy sickness hiding below a friend’s skin, below friendly skin; the very specific objets Finlay chooses and all their very subjective meanings (as per the individual’s perception of pink through remembrances in the previous section) that alter, with her empathetic interpretation, the seemingly easy to imagine. A poem called The Virgin’s Bathroom alters whatever image its title brings to mind. Through Finlay we see how many poets are guilty of easy poetic logic: a lesser poet undertaking such a poem, title first, might immediately begin trying to describe how a virgin’s bathroom could be the same as or different from that of an experienced gal. Finlay enters door number three and pointillisticly paints the intricately detailed picture less likely seen by the mind’s eye at first glance. Taking into account the personal subjectivity of all experience, exampled in Splitting Off, could The World We Already Knew hardly exist, since knowing truly knows no we?

Other poems in this section seem to defy thematic categorization, perhaps another rebellious act by the poet. There is a loose theme of transit in many, mostly by cars, once walking a dog and another two on foot. A tighter theme could be instances of that which we wouldn’t expect in these scenarios: the dog finds and gobbles up a rotten fish plus corresponding ick-factor; a daytime dark pub revelation; a temple vaulting up beside a highway. In the latter poem, Finlay states “We don’t have words for this kind of incongruity”, then attempts words anyway – descriptors that provide the feeling of the mystery if not dispelling that mystery. Finlay’s poetry is one of defiant triumph; she sees poetry’s possible limitations then pointedly attacks them where others might turn away. Here is a poet of real spunk who will enjoy a long career if she chooses, one not likely to get taken in by the depressing maxims of embittered writers looked up to. If this book misses out on awards and due attention, which ought to be very unlikely, I doubt it would keep her from continuing to write work of this quality.

My favourite section has got to be the title section. Here we have truly unusual metaphors for self portrait: Self-Portrait As The Gooderham Flatiron Building, Self-Portrait As My Own Brain Tumour, Self-Portrait As Daisy and Violet Hilton (whom, it is explained in a back of the book notes, were conjoined twins) and so forth – I’m not about the ruin the element of surprise by explaining further. Yes, the poems are as good as their concepts. In section four, Confidence Tricks, Finlay continues to turn into unexpected objects and food but it’s the audience of her poetry that morph her by their actions. She is become the walnut-dusted skin of a small goat cheese ball, a flax loaf spread, a flightless parrot, she is carried under a callus. Then she turns it around, turns someone into a dried apple, and thereby, a mummy. Soon objects are rebelling against being turned into people; insidious little tufts of lint grow like moss on a pair of lovers.

Finally, having found that The World We Already Knew is actually so unknown, we can anticipate by the title of the final section, The Moment When It Seems Most Plain, that very little in this section will be plain in either the obvious or the boring sense. The titles seem most plain, one word titles which, like the interesting titles of the other sections, tell you very little about the content of the poem – this time setting up an expectation prejudice in the reader’s mind with but a single word before smoting it. Here are fourteen-line, non-rhyming sonnets that woo subtly with cleverness, making classical attempts seem so squarely straight-forward. Sensuous, pointedly unusual and eclectic images, metaphors, and similes, and the wondrously surreal effects of their use together, continue to surprise and inspire. Get your hands on a copy of this book before you read another review that gives too much away.

Splitting Off is a best-case scenario debut. It allows Triny Finlay to demonstrate her skill, grace and versatility like a jock – maybe not then a Barbie girl after all but a climber of trees, a soccer player. She might be showing off as she kicks another one between the goal posts but she’s so good you bite your green tongue til it turns purple. Better yet, grab your pen and start playing along. This is the kind of book that can inspire writers and non-writers alike to write; it aptly demonstrates that the potential for inspiration abounds. What we need to learn is not only where, but how, to look.

bloom oon Canadian Surrealist Journal
Vol. 1 No. 1 – January 2005