‘The Scarborough’ by Michael Lista
Best known as a book reviewer for the National Post, Michael Lista is a controversial figure in Canadian poetry. It is possible that Lista’s strategic and managed controversy might colour the reception of his book in terms of reviews by others, but at the outset of this review I mention Lista’s status as reviled yet powerful figure only to acknowledge it on the way to discard it. This review is about poetry, not personality. This review is about the aesthetics of transgression and Michael Lista’s poetic practice in the context of that tradition.
Lista’s first book, Bloom, initially impressed me. I wrote as much in Quill and Quire. Yet my review came shortly after the book’s release. I faced a tight deadline and, under that time pressure, I made a mistake unique to the kind of book Lista wrote. Bloom is a text dependent upon the greatest writers of poetry of the past 200 years, a book dependent upon a scaffolding of conceit. Bloom features poems meant (a) to follow elements of Joyce’s titanic work Ulysses in terms of narrative structure, (b) to follow the biography of Canadian nuclear physicist and Manhattan project personage Louis Slotin, and (c) to alter, schmooze, or cross-dress (I can’t decide which verb is more accurate) poems by the greats. Don Paterson, D.H. Lawrence, Seamus Heaney, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ted Hughes are but a few of the poets Lista schmoozed. Especially Ted Hughes, who was ripped off four times in the book. If, when reading this, you are wondering how a poet could pull off such a feat, how a poet could juggle all those conceits in the air, then you are thinking along lines the poet likely wished. It’s exactly what I wondered, amazed at the grand cathedral Lista had made. More problematic, though, is the micro-level of the individual poem, and zooming in from there to the level of the line. Since the time of my sentinel review, the poems in Bloom have been closely examined for their derivativeness. I’ll put this charitably: Lista’s work is disconcertingly similar to original works. Bloom’s cross-dressings have been cross-referenced, for example, on Rob Taylor’s blog in 2011, and simple head-to-head comparisons are not edifying for Lista[i] – or for me, who didn’t notice when I first had the chance.
Though Lista’s self-described “creative plagiarism” got past me, it was hard not to notice the hype preceding Lista’s second book, The Scarborough. When word got out that he planned to write a text about Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, Canada’s most infamous serial sex killers, I thought: only a few texts in the Canadian poetry canon are transgressive and aesthetically successful. The combination is rare. To see the perils inherent to such projects, survey the aesthetic graveyards of Lynn Crosbie’s Liar or R. M. Vaughan’s Troubled. The challenge books of this ilk fail to meet is simple: the poetry aesthetic must rise to or surpass the level of the original transgression. As poet, one must draw in the black air and breathe out the beautiful. George Elliott Clarke pulled off the feat in Execution Poems, and it’s possible Leonard Cohen did in Flowers For Hitler, but the point is that the dark matter is more inspiration than ticket.
World literature offers many examples of artists who were able to do this: de Sade, Dostoevsky, Bataille, and Ginsberg to name a few. Though every writer will rely upon myth and archetype (especially Ginsberg), the four quoted here didn’t require their myths as set programs, a series of 1s and 0s that set what came out on the page. Bataille wrote L’Oueil and Dostoevsky wrote Notes From Underground to make readers uncomfortable, to push society beyond what was considered permissible and safe. They presented fringe opinion that was detestable, and yet beautifully rendered. Ginsberg took on everything in his “Howl,” from drug use, sexuality, identity, you name it, and he punched up the transgression by studding his masterwork with Judeo-Christian iconography. While he was at it, Ginsberg stole from Whitman, the father of American transgression. The trick is possible to accomplish.
Compounding the problem for Lista is the strong precedent set by Lynn Crosbie, who beat The Scarborough to the punch in 1997 with Paul’s Case (Insomniac Press), a horrible and awful black box of a book that had Bernardo’s evil as its central concern. Ostensibly a book of prose, the book is in truth a prose poetry masterpiece, a song from the dark by a mind fascinated and repulsed by Bernardo and the culture that spawned him. Crosbie puts Bernardo’s name in her title, his face on the cover, and his address at the Kingston Penitentiary at the top of letters to him in the book. Crosbie directly names the victims, listing not only the crimes but also details of the crimes, using those details as a trampoline into further dark. Crosbie writes in her frame letter to Bernardo, “John Rosen, your lawyer, showed Karla a photograph of her sister’s dead body and she looked away. Look at it, he commanded. This satisfied many, though I will carve out her eyes instead. She has become the blonde starlet of my Senecan drama. Like Vendice (and you my Gloriana), I’ll make the bad bleed and the tragedy good” (19). Key to these sentences is the forceful confrontation, the resolute look at evil and then the vindictive infliction of blindness upon evil itself. Crosbie took that on and wrote her masterpiece. She didn’t look away, nor did she, like Lista and his showy use of the Orpheus myth, make her book about looking away. She made a full look at evil her book’s power source, and she clearly knew her Greek myths, too.
Notwithstanding the sponsoring dark matter of Bernardo and Homolka’s crime spree, about which more anon, The Scarborough features a Big Daddy Writer of Myth layer. This time out, Lista leans heavily on Dante and Virgil. The Scarborough also has a biographical layer, this time Lista’s own. It should be apparent by now that in terms of idea, Bloom has been put in the witness protection program somewhere in Scarborough. I will not carefully unpack Lista’s use of the myth-kitty because anyone passingly familiar with the works of Lista’s presiding geniuses will easily spot allusions in the book. Though Lista didn’t need the myth for this book, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps because Lista is the kind of writer who’s into an ornate portcullis when a simple door keeps out the cold better….
Editorial note: The remainder of this review will be published here after it appears in Contemporary Verse 2 sometime in November, 2015
[i] Argue if he’s improved the lines, moved sideways with them, or ruined them; all three occur in my opinion. What’s more troubling is how close he stayed to them (for example, look at the beginning of Lista’s “Do. But Do.” and Robyn Sarah’s “The World Is Its Own Museum.”) That makes four possibilities that distract one from Lista’s poetry as poetry–a problem that seems to have carried into The Scarborough, but in a different form.