Reviewed by Robert Earl Stewart

Nyla Matuk
Frog Hollow Press, 2009
63 pages, $36 (limited edition)

“All nights are like postcards.”

This line appears, rather innocuously, in “Barbados Hotel, Almost Empty,” the second poem in Oneiric, Toronto-based poet Nyla Matuk’s debut collection. Sandwiched between “a lone Panama hat / drunk at the bar” and a karaoke performer belting Elvis into the tiki-bar night, the line can almost be glossed over, its significance to this dream-obsessed collection missed — lost between poetic details that straddle the border between painfully real and darkly comic. But which is painful? The karaoke Elvis or the drunken tourist? For that matter, which is comic? Which dark? Which real?

It’s lines like “All nights are like postcards” — lines that give us pause and make us consider the night, its vagaries, characters real and irreal, its carnivalesque nightmarishness and its dominion over the dream-state — that can bring a book of poetry into focus.

Which is not to say all the poems in Oneiric take place in darkness of night. In communicating these dream-like missives, Matuk’s poems exhibit a brightness, a vividness of colour and detail — at times surreal (“The Hashish of 1975”), at times hyperreal (“A Harbinger”) and sometimes just plaintively real (“Stopover in Copenhagen”) — and a willingness to explore and interpret oneiros (the Greek term for dreams or a dream-like state) across a breadth of poetic styles and voices. Matuk embraces the troubled (troubling?) non-linear logic and perceptions of dreams ,Here, beside a resort pool:

Midday already and waves of heat
gather like a reliable old office bore
around the pool concrete.

The hot tub coos lust and bubbles, infantile.

and this placemat called conversation
is as necessary
a drone-job as locking the gate at night,
as transubstantial a white noise of life
as the game glade of air conditioners.

Or, subterfuge from the poppy fields of Kabul in “Heroin,” where:

They feared thieves….
Houris in the high sculpted hours, and
toolmakers of occupation, deracination, denial,
desperate before the blizzard,
the whole night an isthmus always ahead
as a mirage of series, kinds of lazurites,
a rescue detail.

In “The Ex,” voodoo statuettes collide with aquamarine plush toys in a luridly carnivalesque atmosphere of rustic Morris dancers, organ grinders and “sadistic barbiturates bastard” carnies — an atmosphere that carries over from the book’s opening poem, the more ethereal and pageant-like “Aquarium,” where the “carnival begins like a city on fire,” with a pageant of marine animals masquerading as the celebrated monsters and dancers of Hollywood’s Golden Age as reader and poet stand rapt on the other side of the aquarium glass:

magic monkeys clinging
to our vegetable identities like failed poets
to pocket-ready sarcasm,
to cigarettes, and to wartime cinema

Matuk exhibits a great empathy toward animals. In her poems, livestock and wildlife are nearly always placed on the other side of a barrier (further barriers within those fuzzy, hinterlandish dream contexts), often rendered helpless by human architecture and machinations, at our mercy against a backdrop of blacktop, glass and cityscapes. Lines like

while zoo animals sleep
in the shadow of Alice’s giant mushroom and worm,
believing, finally,
carpeted and blanketed
that someone will care for them,
for their yearlings
for their sick
and their dying

from the poem “American Landscape,” are among Oneiric’s finer moments. In “A Harbinger,” a woman confronts a baby crow on her driveway. The crow is not even aware enough to be frightened of human contact, and the woman recalls her mother-in-law purchasing ground beef to fry up to feed to the crows because “that’s how they’d serve it, if they / could do it for themselves.” Here, when we project consumerist human desires on the natural world, we destroy the animals’ instincts, we mess with the natural order of things. In “Love’s Denotation,” an estranged lover walking along the street looks up at her ex’s apartment window, sees a two-volume Compact Oxford English Dictionary and wonders how, after all that has transpired between them, the ex-lover can

still keep those twin books unopened,
flute-charmed snakes embracing each other
in their own terrarium.

Having worked as an associate editor at Canadian Architect magazine, where she contributed articles on structural and landscape architecture, as well as art, Matuk turns her adept eye to the structures and objects of domesticity, yielding some nice effects. In “American Landscape,” an abandoned office “in a mirrored building by a golf course” sits ominously in wait as a “sobbing Reno hooker, / her face a stranger’s,” nears the nocturnal shore of its threshold. Will miraculous discoveries be made there? Will painful, all too human moments be played out within?

In “Tenebrous the Painter,” the eponymous artist deals with the problems of smorzando (the fading away of vision) and the ever-shifting backgrounds and foregrounds of contemporary perspective where “sorrow and sorry are similar things,” after the death of someone’s mother. Death, here, painted into the domestic architecture as

a kitchen at midnight,
sighing and glinting
perforated but present

Such echoing, dream-like logic recurs throughout the poems, the images and metaphors building upon themselves, alluding to that oneirophrenic place where we, and maybe even the poet herself, become unsure of the boundaries between dreams and that sublime state “where the mystery keeps authenticating itself”—a situation Matuk describes in “Detachment”:

we had both opened the Bluebeard’s door and could not deny
the absurd and the unspeakable, and so we sat
both prisoners and strangers.

One of the most surprising things about Oneiric is how the lush, powerful, visceral language of the poetry, at times verging on the ecstatic/giddy, manages to transcend the stark, muted tones of the book’s less-than-conventional packaging. Several pages in the “Endmatter” section of the collection are devoted to notes on the book’s construction. Handmade book mavens take note: the covers of what Frog Hollow Press calls the regular edition (Oneiric was originally offered in two bindings, the deluxe hardcover edition already being sold out) are made of Japanese “silk” bookcloth and St-Armand mould-made “grey cotton” paper, while the endpapers and flyleafs are starch-coated cotton paper made of castoffs from the Indian garment industry.

Aside from the author’s name and book title, the cover bears not a single piece of typographical information. The cover image shows an island of pines, book matched with their own reflection in a body of water, printed in muted, washy tones using archival pigment inks. The collection also features two sombre, photograph-based etchings of crows in nightmarish settings by Toronto artist George Raab.

Simply put, the enigmatic packaging helps extend the metaphor of the poems within; where what lies beneath a strangely unassuming surface can be dynamic, emotional and subjectively charged — even humorous. I would never have expected to find a line like this at the end of a poem in a book so dolorously (but beautifully) packaged: “And we’ll go topless next year.”

With Oneiric, Matuk succeeds at creating a vivid, affective, at times disorienting, but always joyous collection where the voices and realities of dreams reach out to us via the myriad postcard mediums of the night. Here, quite possibly beset by onierophrenia herself, Matuk is the messenger.

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