Poetry Review by M. Travis Lane

Judith Fitzgerald, Impeccable Regret (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2015). Paperbound, 80 pp., $16.95.

Impeccable Regret"Religiosity" means the conscious display of being religious; similarly, Judith Fitzgerald's term "gorgeosity" means the display of being gorgeous. Both terms imply a deliberate "showing off" (even a hint of exaggeration or swagger). The tremendous vitality of Fitzgerald's poetry is partly due to the "gorgeosity" of her language, but also to the vision, power, and centrality of her themes: the blackness of our lives, and our lives' moments of splendour. She was our darkest poet, and our most life-affirming.

Fitzgerald's vocabulary, notorious for its abundant use of nonce words, portmanteau words, slang, and puns, provides her work with intensities and nuances of reference not available to more conservative poets. Reading her poetry can be as demanding and as rewarding as reading Finnegan's Wake, but the intended effect is entirely different. Joyce's masterpiece is written as if mused between the slippery contours of dream, as fluid as the river on which its musings float. Fitzgerald's style is almost frantically alert—abrupt, hasty, often directly addressing the reader as if to grab attention. When we read Finnegan's Wake out loud, as it should be read, we read slowly but without hesitations. When reading Fitzgerald out loud we must read more quickly, with short pauses emphasized, but the longer riffs sustained.  A theme may repeat, work up with variations, riffs, and "go wild" like a jazz improvisation, or "call and response." The exaggerated vocabulary is like those extraordinary sounds a great blues singer makes, decorative, extravagant—and because of the extravagance, expressive, as the "white bread" sound of your average church choir cannot be.

When reading a poem by Fitzgerald, listen as if you were listening to music. Do not approach it as if it were a cryptogram. Deciphering references later can be fun—but initially, receive the poem as a musical whole, allow the complexities to play themselves out in context, and enjoy the musical/emotional variations of style and approach. For example, the souped-up aggressive, jazzy sounds of the opening poem, "Dear Reader" ("Hello, There…Howzit? I hear you—Been / Where, done what? Learned abso-deffo-zen-zap-zip / Zero-zilcharoo") become gentler in the eighth stanza ("Or forgive this upstart heart's enshrined faith in dread art") but return, at the end of the poem, to the opening ferocity: "Jumpstart your heart—Reset it to that yesterday / Just before you reconnoîtered illusionsway.  Here, Dear // Reader… / O Terrora, O Madre—Smother, Sister, Slaughter, Daughter; / And you?  Forget punishments wrought past due. (They do.)")

Impeccable Regret is a collection of elegies—for friends, for love affairs, for the beloved and the cruel, and for ourselves—and for the ideas and happiness we cannot sustain:

The delicate gorgeosity of your vital words,
each shimmering  with irresistible possibility,
barely containing the truth catching in one's throat,
such exquisite intensity, the blackness each repudiates,
porous with damage, and longing. Indelibly sorrow
in the name
of answers materializing on the horizon when the sun
rises to reveal dysphoria in all its splendorous glory.
That? Think crux. Think matter. Think father,
Son, and wholly ghost-trace host. Think shatter.

        ("Que besa sus pies, que besa sus manos")

Yet what we mourn does not cease to be loved: "…A joyous sadness, one holds / Another sacred and never lets them go, even when / They're gone forever. Secularly sacred, not Christ…" ("We Hit Our Knees /Sashay Sway").

We, "the chorus of impeccable regret," ("Breaking News…") find the secular sacred—and impermanent. The "ghost-trace" haunts the collection. In the last poem, the "Friend" and guide for whom the poem is an elegy, seems to blend into and become the mourned sacred, the miraculous temporary; the poem is also an elegy to belief. "When we know what proved Him real what legitimately mattered? / Then we slow-dawning hoped all our delusions nose-dived, shattered. / O, Love, we never replaced the joy we shared that glorious night. / But, the miraculous keeps us strong, prepared for consuming light." ("Trinity") Everything is impermanent, our loves, even our memories. Before: "you, righteously runned down / by drunk Taxicab of Absolute Reality… // …You forgot…. // O—and the sea—the spreading sea crimson sometimes, crenelated / and that glorious yes, spun from the sun, sometimes, soft-settling / upon a red Yesterday  signalling yes you will [or simply forget]… // Does true / blue Penelope wait or end her lyric on the fickle /
finger-pluckings of fate luring that shared ol' / bursted Moon, sometimes?..." ("No Signal Input")

Penelope is not only true, but blue—and to fate's finger-pluckings (on the lyre/liar of life's promises?) and her recourse is to keep on with her lyric making, her weaving, mourning gorgeosity. Yes, light consumes, love is mortal, religion improbable,  but a wake for what is lost still hints of wakening: "Comfort takes cover under sadness (in the grand scam of give- / and-fake). Look, your hard-hearted heroes rise in eerie unison / to plan an elegant legerdemain. Ingression, parading raw egos / ripe for redemption. Break the rules, create the crush of all of it, / yesterdead. Take your time, My Guide, My Guardian, My Grief. // At some atomic level— O Chevalier— a garden, a garland / Once removed from jests both infinite and inviolable, gawd- / damned nightmares populated with sere ghosts. FinnWake." The "Chevalier" is a reference to Hopkins's "The Windhover," dedicated to Christ our Lord.  Fitzgerald's Impeccable Regret is both gorgeous and religious,  an elegy, perhaps, for faith.

—M. Travis Lane

As in The Malahat Review, 196, Autumn 2016, 102-106