Chapbook Review: Poco Loco by Brooke Carter

Cover design by Erica Smith.

Brooke Carter. Poco Loco. Toronto: Anstruther Press, 2016, 17pp.

The Commercial Inn
On Thursdays you go for smorgasbord with your dad
and you love the sweet and sour pork
so you eat way more than your fill
and show off your new spandex pants.
You see a lady who can double-cross
her leg all the way around her other leg
so you try it while waiting for dessert,
the special chocolate pudding in the tulip glass
clotted with cream and cherries.
The waitress asks if you want wine, too,
but you tell her you’re only nine.
You know you are big for your age,
and developed, and alone having dinner
with a man among the couples, but
when your dad smiles like he’s flattered
and he winks at you in that way
you no longer want the pudding.
The food you ate is heavy, an ache
inside you, pushing you into your seat.
You stare at the bill, adding up the costs,
and untangle your legs.

Despite (or due to) being the most innocuous poem in Poco Loco, “The Commercial Inn” is also the most unsettling. Though not much violence occurs in the poems, the spectre of violence hangs over women’s bodies throughout the chapbook; in the opening poem an old porn magazine in a tree becomes indistinguishable from a corpse:

In Poco, porn breeds in the pussy willows.
I found it when I was ten, torn
and soiled. Hard-looking girls
with hard lips and hard hair
found frozen in winter bush

In the next poem, “Split,” a woman’s “half-empty threat” to leave her abusive partner is recounted from the perspective of their child, in whose mind this escalating confrontation “is just like the time / I stepped on a nail.” The third poem, “Gravel,” is addressed to a girl whose body was found by the river with gravel in its lungs.

Poco is a nickname for Port Coquitlam, B.C., Carter’s hometown. Once better known as the home of Terry Fox, Port Coquitlam has also been home more recently to Robert Pickton, who murdered over twenty women from Vancouver’s Downtown east side, and Amanda Todd, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2012 after being harassed, assaulted and blackmailed.

With this recent history in mind, and in the climate fostered by the preceding poems’ insinuations of violence, I approached “The Commercial Inn” with a certain dread. The image of the lady with double-crossed legs, paralleled somewhat by the tulip glass, occupies the nexus between eroticism and violence, contortion and distortion. Given the blood-related baggage of “clotted” and that cherries are a euphemism for the hymen, the one-line stanza “clotted with cream and cherries” links the dessert’s decadence to violence and sex, distorting my reading of the poem’s other one-line stanzas, in which the girl’s father winks at her and she uncrosses her legs, overcome with an indistinct shame about her body, her appetite and the cost of the meal.

Ultimately, I attribute the unnerving quality of “The Commercial Inn,” despite the fact that very little happens in the poem, not just to Carter’s ability to believably inhabit the consciousness of a sensitive child, but also to the power of a carefully crafted poetic suite to evoke a small world greater than the sum of its parts.