Chapbook Review: Reviews of Non-existent Titles by Pearl Pirie

Cover art by Brian Pirie.

Pearl Pirie. Reviews of Non-existent Titles. Ottawa: shreeking violet press, 2015, 16pp.

by Chana Caron (epipin print, 2014)
There are no words. Literally. A collection of visual poetry with graphics of text-based images and collage of old-school cut and paste letters, without the threat of kidnapping anything but your time. Punctuation, characteristic vocabulary and pronouns: n/a. A refusal of narrative tropes. Suggesting multi-lingual acknowledgement and respect through international diacritics while abdicating political opportunities, it is the calligraphic equivalent of abstract decorative art. This vispo is poetry suitable for corporate spaces without risk of offending clients with opinions, or controversial content.
Structurally, a platypus of a book, it is not so much a mix of duck and beaver as it is its own platypus not bound to beaver standards. Each zine-like chapbook is rolled intro chapters of perfect bound, heavy paper stock which sets up a tension of humour or poor judgement of mismatch of content and form. Is it bad, or is a book a neutral form now, and perfect binding is the new open mic?

If I’m ever struck by an interesting concept for a fun writing project, the idea alone can sustain several days of enthusiastic rumination before I sit down to face the reality that joyous work is nevertheless work. Yes, a fictional study of the poems of a fictional escapee from a fictional west coast cult could be fascinating, but that requires a lot of foundational world-building, thinking-through, research even. Research.

Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie has taken one such idea and put in the work, and her joy is palpable. A fun and instantly rewarding work of mock-non-fiction in the vein of Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, Pirie’s Reviews of Non-existent Titles is likely to cause discomfort in poets who may feel implicated in the “deification of an abstract female as an angel of death” or the “generally skilled use of rhythm and metaphor to express bitterness at book length.”

Reviews is a suite of two-paragraph prose pieces each evaluating a different non-existent poetry collection published by a non-existent press. Pirie’s invention of a new book for each entry makes this work similar to fellow Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell’s Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books, but where Brockwell excerpts from his subjects, Pirie describes and evaluates her inventions without offering the reader a glimpse of the purported primary sources.

It’s hard to tell if Reviews is meant to satirize poets or if it it’s a pastiche of pugilistic reviewers. The richness and nuance with which Pirie renders (and skewers) her non-existent titles reflects her familiarity with the North American poetry landscape, and how could someone conjure a world so thoroughly without harbouring some affection for it? Ultimately I think the prevailing spirit of this chapbook is like that of a roast.

Through a tactful infusion of very telling but very minute details into otherwise ambiguous portrayals, each review evokes various actually-existing people, presses, and books — types of poets and poetry — without resembling any specific one closely enough to constitute a personal critique. The umlaut in the above-quoted entry, “ö by Chana Caron (epipin print, 2014),” makes me think of American Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön (born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown) and (I think) unambiguously suggests Canadian poet Christian Bök (born Christian Book), who, in a pun for the ages, titled his 2010 guest lecture at Carleton University “Be Okay with an Umlaut.” I don’t think Pirie is calling out the likes of Chödrön and Bök for attempting to “[suggest] multi-lingual acknowledgement and respect through international diacritics,” but is providing a broadly applicable caricature for readers to project onto their own intended targets.

For instance, Pirie’s barb about visual poetry “suitable for corporate spaces” reminds me of Derek Beaulieu’s Local Colour, a “translation” of a Paul Auster’s novella, Ghosts, created by “removing all of Auster’s text except for the names of colours… then render[ing] those words, positioned where they appear on the original pages, as swatches of their denoted hues.” However ingenious or subversive Beaulieu’s process, the result very much resembles something you might find hanging above an armless lobby chair as you wait for a loan officer to deny you a mortgage.

Page 1 of Derek Beaulieu’s Local Colour (ntamo, 2008).

Like any fair-minded reviewer, Pirie approaches the non-existent titles on their own terms; while plenty of the fake titles in Reviews are arguably “suitable for corporate spaces” (“The Last Lily” and “Marblehead Bluff,” to name just two), the hypocritical politics of “ö” is singled out because many experimental publications (and publishers) project a transgressive image through gestures like epipin’s ultimately meaningless corruption of EpiPen.

The chapbook’s only serious weakness is tied to the double-edged nature of critical authority: Reviews doesn’t always meet the standards to which it upholds its non-existent subjects. A manuscript this sharp needs especially rigorous editing, in the absence of which the force of Pirie’s swiftly incisive observations is weighed down by indecipherable or over-encumbered metaphors:

Not so much a mix of duck and beaver as… its own platypus not bound to beaver standards (from “ö”)
A raw and cooked mixture of flash fiction, fictional letters and form poetry (from “Schaden”)
There is no light that risks extinguishing the penetrating post-apocalyptic dark of the concrete jungle of these poems (from “Heartpelt”)

Nevertheless, the triumph of Pirie’s faux-reviews is that they transcend their subjects, dreary books in which “each poem expresses the masculinity of rocks and sexual frustration,” by exemplifying the inventiveness and energy that make poetry exciting.