Reviewed by Alessandro Porco

A Good Time Had By All
Meaghan Strimas
Exile, 2010
88 pages, $18.95

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m really digging Meaghan Strimas’s A Good Time Had by All (Exile, 2010). It’s a book filled with consistently good poems and a small few that are as high-quality as anything I’ve read recently. (It stumbles only on occasion, as I’ll mention later.) Over the last couple of weeks, as I prepared for this review, I’ve seized the opportunity to recommend it to friends. Poets like to bemoan a dearth of readers. Well, boo-hoo. With A Good Time Had by All, Strimas proves she actually deserves that readership.

These are poems filled with sex and booze, pleasure and regret. They’re filled with ribald bar-room conversation (“Liquor in the front / & poker in the rear”). The poems are populated with characters who make bad decisions that probably seem good at the moment they’re made—the morning after, not so much. These characters are often hurt, sometimes intentionally, other times incidentally. Either way, everyone seems a little too wounded, lonely and heartbroken to go on. But they do, for the most part. In other words, Strimas taps into the world of hurt that makes country music so appealing.

In fact, reading Strimas’s collection brought to my mind Mindy McCready’s mid-’90s country anthem “Guys Do It All the Time.” Strimas shares McCready’s attitude and sees no reason why she shouldn’t create full-fledged portraits of women who have real urges and actively seek to satisfy them, whatever the repercussions.

In a poem like “One Last Shot: A Lovelorn Soul Testifies at His Local Saloon,” the barmaid responds to the saccharine romantic overtures of a drunk with a running interior monologue that includes lines like “Will you bash my head against the rail? Will you screw me up against the wall?” In “Man from the Abattoir,” young girls learn “how to furdle photos / of spread-eagle girlies”—Strimas’s wonderful verb-choice, “furdle,” is that sentence’s money-shot, metaphorically speaking. Hell, in “Job Search,” the poem’s speaker even takes pity on her pathetic, “pimply” boss who “plays pocket-pool as / [she bends] to stock the shelves.”

Lastly, there’s the brilliant finale to one of the collection’s standouts, “And Once Again.” After a particularly nasty breakup, a disgruntled ex smashes his girl’s apartment while packing up his shit. That physical damage is an objective correlative for her emotional damage. Upon witnessing what he’s done, the speaker admits, “Every corner of me in need / of caulking, or cock.” Has there been a better use of “cock” in Canadian poetry ever?

There’s nothing gratuitous in these poems. The dirty talkin’ and tail-waggin’ is all part of that world of hurt I mentioned earlier. Strimas is neither valourizing nor demonizing these actions, and that’s precisely what makes the poems work.

In addition, while there is much loneliness and heartbreak, it should be pointed out that there’s also a lot of joy and pleasure. As in real life, people do manage to salvage moments of goodness—however fleeting—amidst all the sustained horror, what Strimas calls life’s “dirty reason.” As she writes in the “The Devil in Make,” “Broken, we wade through.”

For example, in “A Grand Affair,” “Bert,” in a loveless marriage, finds solace in a quickie bathroom romps with his mistress, “Carol,” once a week. Why wouldn’t he find solace in Carol, given Strimas’s elliptical yet spot-on description? “Va-Va-Va-Voom. // In walks Carol’s / perfume. Shortly / thereafter comes Carol.” Or, consider one of my favourite poems in the collection, “The Spirit.” Ostensibly, it’s about two “surly” teenage girls who “outshot the old boys, Chugged! Chugged!” As they stumble into the morning light, regret sets in. “Betrayed,” says the speaker, “we wept like children lost in the woods.” Yet there’s recompense for the damage done, and it is the source of poem’s moving quality. The poem’s not about how much these girls can drink. That’s not interesting in and of itself. The poem’s actually about how they do it together. The experience produces a bond. They may be “like children lost in the woods,” but these two friends help re-orient each other. What they find in each other is a shared “spirit.”

It’s a desperate desire for just such a feeling of companionship that is at the thematic core of Part III of A Good Time Had by All. “Gnome, Sweet Gnome (A Suite of Poems)” is composed in the voice of the interminably alone and, by extension, less-than-stable (to put it politely) Harry Humbolt, a man-child who’s grown a little too attached to his best friend, a garden gnome. But as Humbolt explains in his opening poem, “My Gnome’s gone missing. / Three whole days. Eternity.” The suite continues on, moving back and forth between Harry’s search for his Gnome and glimpses into their past relationship. Without his Gnome, Harry’s world is crumbling around him: “Gnome was my soul subject / without him I can’t rule. / Our TV took her antennae off, / our goldfish jumped the bowl.” He suspects his Gnome’s found a new home with a neighbourhood “girl.”

Strategically, Strimas doesn’t play the poem’s action off for laughs at Humbolt’s expense. The result is a darkly funny sequence that’s a radical departure in terms of the book’s tone. (In fact, the sequence provides a timely reprieve from Strimas’s more standard frank and boisterous fare.). While the rhythms veer toward light verse, there’s a sense of menace that pervades Humbolt’s quest for his Gnome’s safe return and that makes him an eminently compelling figure, even if you wouldn’t want to live next door to the guy.

If there’s a part of the book I had some resistance to, it’s the opening section, which just doesn’t seem to compare favourably to the latter sections—though “The Spirit” and “Where Are You Billy Spano?” are standouts. It’s essentially made up of poems of loss: the death of a first love, the loss of virginity, the end of innocence, the loss of community, etc. There’s even an elegy for the victims of the Pickton murders. Despite mercifully resisting the urge to conclude that particular poem with any false consolation, the poem’s details still dabble in sensationalizing the action, which I found a little off-putting, the relations between the aesthetic and ethics seemingly tossed out the door. The opening poem, too, put me off in a similar way. It’s about a “lunching / & lonely” girl who sits on a bench beside a man “pissed drunk at noon & stinking of piss / & booze.” They share a “singular” moment, in which the speaker transforms the drunkard from “gilt to gold.” In other words, the poem’s a con: it’s about the heightened poetic sensibility of the disingenuous speaker more than anything else, and it sentimentalizes the world’s shittiness.

But these infrequent falterings shouldn’t detract from a book that succeeds so often and so wonderfully. I mention them not to cast these poems in a negative light, but rather to point to a key difference between these poems and the latter, more arresting poems, which evade to such trappings. A Good Time Had by All is a wonderful second collection by a young Canadian poet who’s hitting her stride in a major way.

Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage and The Jill Kelly Poems, both from ECW Press. He writes “In Extremis,” a hip-hop column, for Maisonneuve Magazine online.

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