God of Missed Connections
Nightwood Editions, 2009
80 pages, $17.95
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” So says Stephen Dedalus, famously, in Joyce’s Ulysses. To the speaker of Elizabeth Bachinsky’s God of Missed Connections, history can indeed be nightmarish — the hard facts of torture and war and famine; the inability to solve or resolve its contradictions and cruelties. But history, both private and collective, can also be drenched in the sunlight of nostalgia — the happy illusion that things were, at some uncertain point in the past, better. So we dwell in old family photos, use our mothers’ handed-down recipes, stoop to smell our fathers’ coats. What else can we do? For Bachinsky, reminiscence is inevitable; “what was lost / returns,” she writes. We ceaselessly dwell and uncover, though that which we unearth can be both beautiful and horrific. As one poem states, “we can neither love [it], nor turn away.”
God of Missed Connections is, specifically, about the diverse history of Ukrainian-Canadians, though it’s certainly not a history book. It’s about immigrants and farmers, doctors and lawyers, teachers and writers — that scattered landscape of over a million people living in Canada claiming to be of Ukrainian descent. Many readers will find this history unfamiliar, as it is to the author herself; “it is impossible to encapsulate all that is Ukrainian,” she writes in the book’s postscript. Bachinsky’s attempt to engage with this fractured history entails a search for “my self, my gaze, my story” [italics mine] — a particularly located perspective, a mingling of personal memories and stories and a great deal of research. As the title indicates, it’s also about making connections, or exploring where those connections fray — expressed throughout the book as an almost violent juxtaposition between the rituals and traditions of her European ancestry and the strangely cold and floating landscape of Vancouver, B.C., where she lives and works and remembers.
GoMC is less formally experimental (or conceptual or crunchy) than some of the author’s previous, limit-stretching work with the anagram and palindrome. However, Bachinsky remains formally diverse, dabbling with metrical lines, empty space on the page, snippets of dialogue, diary entries, and chorusy, incantatory repetitions. Most of these poems are deliberately conversational, first-person lyrics, largely driven by content, rather than by sound or structure. This overall thematic consistency means the book has a particularly strong cumulative effect. Taken piecemeal, the poems occasionally leave less than crushing impressions; but don’t let me tell you how to read, or approach, a book.
The collection begins, fittingly, In Memoriam: dedicated to the memory of countless dead, but also, I’d wager, to the missed connections, the narrator’s fragmented and frustratingly partial recollections. Each of the book’s three sections is also prefaced by an illustration: indistinct, vague sketches, like hazy memories, white outlines on black backdrops. “Goddess of Safe Travel” opens up the collection, posing the relevant question “Why bother with history?” The poem then bludgeons us with its list of answers: “Because we can. Because we’re curious. Because we want to know.” It works, as so many of these poems do, as a rather breathless, prosy piece; it surges forward, its pounding momentum breaking on the rocks of short sentences spiked with cusses and the final sentiment of “Because I love you.” But it also anticipates many of the themes Bachinsky will explore in subsequent lines: extremism, ignorance, curiosity, falsehood, and the issue of history as a form of property, the idea that “to plough it, you’ve got to own it.”
This concept of property is especially intriguing considering the speaker of the Vancouver poems — a woman renting space in a city of immigrants, working meaningless jobs, eavesdropping on the rich and privileged, the yuppies and students. Bachinsky offers a convincing critique of the easy luxuries and casual indifferences, the profound lack of curiosity, of our contemporary predicament. Increasing in bitterness as the book unfolds, the tone of these poems is one of both accusation and guilt; and it is guilt in relation to the past, to the concept of property: the speaker’s ancestors, though persecuted beyond imagination, also plowed and cultivated and owned the land she now lives on. In “God of Mechanical Accidents,” Bachinsky conjures the Janus figure — “looking forward, looking back” — in her description of a child born without eyes in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. But this double vision also applies to her function as a poet, bridging the present and the past. Such a duality of gaze represents a heightened self-consciousness, a vision of history necessarily coloured by the particularities of the here and now.
Ukrainian memories seem divided into general and personal histories, the personal being more reassuring, more obviously happy. In “Letter to My Sister,” say, or “Tips on Performing from My Mother,” the narrator revisits her own store of cultural impressions; these poems struggle with a sense of belonging, or of not quite belonging, yearning for the binding cords of family and tradition. Some closely related poems depict specific cultural ceremonies, of marriage or hunting or music; these are also celebratory gestures, I think. Other, less personal encounters with Ukrainian history offer us the opposite, sometimes delivering a devastating portrait of unimaginable suffering. Chernobyl is resurrected in poem after poem, describing the children of cancer hospitals, the “fabulous” deformations. We learn that in Ukraine, “pornography is a popular career,” that “irradiated wolves populate abandoned cities,” and that its “population of people living with HIV/AIDS is the highest in Europe.” These poems don’t seem preachy or dry, but empowered by a kind of irrefutability, the hard logic of truth.
Most devastatingly, Bachinsky attempts to confront Stalin’s 1932-33 forced starvation of the country, known as Holodomor (“murder by hunger”) — an imposed famine that killed between 2.2 and 10 million. I say attempts because the famine is only gestured toward in the early poems. “Holodomor” the poem isn’t really a poem at all — it’s a blank page. This is a provocative gamble (one thinks of the cheesy joke of the polar bear in the snowstorm …), but in the context of the work as a whole, Bachinsky manages to pull it off. What was the Holodomor if not a lack, an emptiness, both of compassion and of physical bellies? Such cruelty cuts through any linguistic evocation. Rather than potentially botch a poetic treatment, Bachinsky admits that the event is unspeakable, and in doing so seems both sincere and humane.
History, as portrayed in GoMC, is a mixed dream. The real nightmare, Bachinsky seems to be saying, can be found in all the connections, missed or otherwise, between a murderous past and a present we so blithely accept. The poem “Celebration” reminds us of the depleted uranium in the weaponry used in Iraq, affecting children in the same way it did (and continues to do) to those born near Chernobyl. Reminded of this connection, we are being asked to associate the two events, to never assume that a tragedy can exist in isolation. Bachinsky succeeds at locating and reminding us of these overlooked connections, interrogating our assumptions, challenging our complacency. The poems explore a present in which the past has always been prologue, a culminating history resulting in decimating pandemics, environmental devastation, even after the obvious lessons of what has come before. Again, in “Celebration,” her narrator reminds us that “we ought to scream” — scream against what we’ve allowed; scream against what we will allow. This is the real nightmare. A present that is greedy, exploitative, terrifying. A present that will never learn its lessons, that simply doesn’t care.
Bachinsky seems to care, and deeply, so much so that a substantial part of GoMC is devoted to exorcism. The long poem “The Wax Ceremony” is lined with incantations from a Ukrainian healing ritual. We are helpfully told that such a ceremony is known as “the pouring forth of fear.” In the preface to Section Three, the speaker asks “Satan” to “let Elizabeth alone,” to “cleanse her from the devil.” These requests for purification suggest that a psychological toll has been exacted. To exhume and confront the past, in the context of this slim volume of poetry, requires courage: it means engaging with big, complex issues, with terrible, seemingly untreatable suffering. But it also demands a quiet, personal bravery, to confront the connections between indifferent brutality and personal responsibility. In “The Wax Ceremony”, Bachinsky writes:
In my family, we don’t speak of family.
And we don’t speak of the past.
What is there to know? I’m not afraid to ask.
As readers, we are enriched by this careful willingness to ask, to interrogate. Reading God of Missed Connections means to follow a curious line of questioning, but one leading to lasting rewards: those of witnessing a private and public history combine, transform, and ultimately mirror our own.
Spencer Gordon lives in Toronto. He does some writing, editing, and publishing. Head to dangerousliterature.blogspot.com for more juicy details.