Wednesday 28 October 2015

REVIEW: Pearl Pirie (BookThug, 2015)

“The Hem in Vehement”: a review, the title poem,
& Pearl Pirie’s the pet radish, shrunken

Jospeh LaBine

     If you glanced at BookThug’s Spring list for 2015, you may not have noticed Pearl Pirie’s exciting, new collection of poems, the pet radish, shrunken.  Here’s some basic information about it:

Cost—$18.00; paperback, also available as an e-book; edition—800; length—96 pgs

It’s been described as, “the world in words in miniature,” an “incidental collation of plays on a Scrabble board,” and a foray into words inside words; but Emblazoned on the back of the book, Dapne Marlatt offers the following blurb:

In Pearl Pirie’s poems, language ferments, foments a ‘vinegar vigour.’ Flipping the labels off contemporary mores, cooking with sound, she offers quick food for thought. Keep up with her if you can.

These descriptions are not wholly satisfying though, because they do not interrogate Pirie’s lusty, zesty use of language, nor do they explore word play in the individual poems.

     One of the best poems in the pet radish is the title poem, which represents, in miniature, the humour of the collection at its best. The speaker’s quirky observations are framed in an arms-length perspective rather than the traditional, close lyric addressing a lover. Here it is in toto:

            the pet radish, shrunken
            it’s kept as the head of operations
            for the methadone gaffe. no one question.

            magical thinking bile is required
            to med the agate ditz of comfy.

            look at that dory, minus the hunky
            it’s as seaworthy on the tines of gale.

            pr is the inevitable start of any time
            of prayer. the blitz howls its own oaths.

            such putz work avoids the snip snap of soars
            of the tachyon pulses of the fatal laws of later.

            sidestep the rule of: fresh is best.
            much is tucked inside the virulent must.

            recall: even the most buxom blues thin, thin out
            by dawn. to pray is to flick a spraying fez of gold.

            chin up, birth enzymes of a slug’s swagger
            to shrink the antlers of their onwards despites.   (tprs 76)

One might speculatie that the radish at the “head of operations,” is a scrotum, not a vegetable; the “methadone gaffe” is likely the euphoric blundering resulting after coitus; the multi-coloured, “ditz” – airheadedness “of comfy,” is orgasm.

     Before this explanation gets too deep, or intense, errr…another poem, “how to root out the normal,” brilliantly explores the codification of sexuality in language and offers some context for further discussion. It examines the “fruit machine,” what Pirie defines in her note as:

a device for a homophobic program run by the federal government in the 1950s and 1960s. Subjects were made to view pornography, and the device measured the diameter of the pupils of the eyes, perspiration, and pulse for a supposed erotic response. (tprs 10; 92). 

In “…root out the normals,” Pirie employs an n+7 method (rough translation, a form of Oulipo, ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’)—a method of selecting different nouns from the dictionary (or another source text) just ahead of the initial poetic impulse: i.e. “the impulses of the test homosexuals” becomes “the impulses of the text hyenas” (10, my italics); but later, also, “turning hyacinths” (10). Hyacinths also denote beauty, and with it, a beautiful sexual connotation (See The Waste Land & Eliot’s “hyacinth girl”); but combined with the tension of homophobia in the verb turning, as in converting. Wonderful words emerge from this type of noun play: “hyacinth” (also “hyenas”) revises the negative resonance of the word “homosexuals” within the original fruit machine text. Pirie shows through Oulipo that homosexuals, like hyacinths, are beautiful.    

     This method of masking words is used to greater effect in title poem. The line, “look at that dory, minus the hunky,” tantalizes a look in the dictionary for a different d-word.  While “minus the hunky” reveals a disembodiment with “seaworthy” qualities that do not go unnoticed, nor do the “birth enzymes of a slug’s swagger / to shrink…” because what is true of the slug is also true of the post-coital penis, the slimy trail, its semen. The sex act: “the blitz howls its own oath,” and the sexual connotation of this poem, the performance being expressed (like the lack of sexual imagery in the “making children from scratch ’n sniff” poem), is only one meaning within a vibrant language filled—brimming over with potential: “to pray is to flick a spraying fez of gold,”—the line is as elusive as it is orgasmic. Put that “fez” atop your head and cry out: “much is tucked inside the virulent must!”  

     In 2011, Pirie won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative poetry. The three main sequences offered in the pet radish show that this award is well-well-well deserved. But it would be foolish to think that this means much, beyond small recognition for good work. However, it does raise a question about that word innovative, a lyrical quality Pirie arrives at by challenging language to break apart into component words and meanings. Try the word generator page at, and have fun with more matryoshka words like hem in vehement.

     If anyone is “vehement” about anything, it is readers who have snapped their pens (or laptops) in half, made furious by the thought that they did not [, could never] write the pet radish, shrunken. Pirie entices readers with cartoonish, sing-song lyrics, the words ring out their music, this is poetry sung to an air:

             pulp fiction & meadows & gun
            a dagger
            a digger
            a 2 o’clock trigger
            how a summer comes undone
a cord of wood & an axe have begun.
to begin
you begin
the lifted swing
under long slanting afternoon sun.      (tprs 91)

The jolly atmosphere of “Scholars” (the final poem of the closing sequence) is rivaled in the earlier sections by clever attempts to undermine negativity and twenty first century cyncism: “shall we turn this can’t / into a canto?” (tprs 44). In “from the annals 1,” the phrase, “wild dust bunnies (hereafter w.d.b.)” recalls the over-used American abbreviation for “weapons of mass destruction”: w.m.d., and offers an ironic political gloss at depth of the speaker’s joyful levity (tprs 31). The comic turns are thematic to the playfulness of the collection: Pirie’s word play tests the cultural constraints of language (i.e. the fruit machine and constructing gender identity). She tests the sexual and political intentions of ordinary turns of phrase.
     Earlier versions of poems in the pet radish originally appeared in several magazines: the Ottawater, Touch Donkey, Peter F Yacht Club, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2014. However, Pirie and BookThug poetry editor and award winning author, Phil Hall, finalized the collection together, working towards what reads as sustained thought/argument. An editor in her own right, Pirie publishes little miniature folded chapbooks under the phafours press imprint. Hall supplied the drawing for the cover illustration and title image. Copies are available through your local bookstore and online at