by Jason Guriel
(Biblioasis, 2022, 112pp. Paperback. $12.99)
by James Pollock
(Signal Editions, 2022, 66pp. Paperback. $16.95)
Sitting down to read Jason Guriel’s new collection of essays, On Browsing, I prepared myself for an assault of nostalgia. After all, if my online sources are accurate, he and I are about the same age, seem to share common tastes in books and music, and probably, I wagered, hold similar memories of the improbably recent—or distant, I can’t quite decide—analog past. Of nostalgia, there is indeed plenty, but Guriel’s kind is vibrant and erudite, one that seldom succumbs to the temptations of sentimentality.
Simply stated, On Browsing is a book about the importance of our engagement with an increasingly marginalized physical world—both things and places—as well as the consequences of the isolating digitization of our lives. Throughout the course of eight closely aligned essays (plus a brief coda, used as a call to action of sorts), Guriel reminisces about what he terms the Age of Browsing (as opposed to our current age, that of Scrolling) and records the decline in popularity of tangible entertainment and our interaction with it. The essays—much like the activity they repeatedly depict and endorse—are sometimes circuitous in their development, though always keen in their observations. While the book can be read front to back as a cohesive collection, each chapter also stands on its own. Often, I found myself sampling the essays at random to poignant effect, accompanying various iterations of the author’s younger self through his favorite bookshops and record stores, through the once-ubiquitous Blockbuster Video and, of course, various malls. Whatever the approach, the reader is treated to a convincing argument in favor of, to use the writer’s own words, “a high-minded, romantic philosophy about the virtues of wrangling physical media” (14).
Indeed, it is largely Guriel’s high-mindedness that keeps him from becoming mired in the vanished pleasures of the past or wallowing in the inevitable losses of both people and places. Halfway through the opening essay—Browser History—he pauses to peruse (a browsing of sorts) the history of the word “browser.” It is a fascinating, if longish passage, which I’ll do my best to excerpt here:
The verb “Browse” originally meant “to eat buds and leaves.”….“Browser,” naturally, meant the thing that does the browsing: the nibbling animal. The noun entered the language around 1845….By 1863, “browser” was being used to describe a person moving among books….Over a century later, in the early 1980’s, the computer scientist Larry Tesler applied the term to a software search system he was futzing with. Today, billions of us bring up browsers when we want to sift the internet. (15)
Quite often in these essays, Guriel draws his readers’ attention to the ways that the meanings of certain words have evolved alongside the actions of the people performing them. At different times, he draws similar attention to how other words such as “stream,” “device,” and “roam” have altered, especially in the relatively short time between our adjacent ages of browsing and scrolling. Here he is riffing on the last of these, occasioned by his recollecting a typical Saturday at the mall when he was young: “I was a teenager armed with a little bit of spending money and the freedom to roam. By ‘roam,’ I don’t mean the thing your smartphone does. To roam was to be a body in motion, confronting the world in all its shaggy, unmacheted density” (22). The point here is not merely Guriel’s proclivity for etymology, but an awareness of how placidly most of us pass from change to change, and not always for the better—perhaps even, Guriel might argue, a little like the frog who doesn’t realize it’s preparing to be boiled alive in a seemingly-familiar element. For while the browser that sifts the internet on our behalf might share a name with the activity many used to spend hours engaged in at libraries and stores, an algorithm and an excursion offer two very different experiences: “Your real-world browser history, the one your mind accumulates as you wander the world, can’t ever really be erased” (20).
Another of the pleasures of the Age of Browsing that Guriel enumerates and reflects upon is that of inhabiting a particular physical place, whether it be the dimly-lit corridors of a slowly dying suburban mall, or the aisles of Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore. He describes the latter as follows: “low-ceilinged and harshly lit, with many rows of orange shelves. The building itself had two floors, one entrance, and a long approach, and there was usually a homeless person right by the doors, so you had time to root for change or steel yourself, especially if you were a shy, naïve kid from the suburbs” (44). Comfort is not the goal here. It’s the tangibility, the there-ness of the place that matters most, whether pleasant or otherwise.
All of this, Guriel reminds us, is in stark contrast to browsing a website with one’s laptop on the sofa, no matter how comfortable and convenient this more recent kind of browsing might be. The main problem being where this takes place. “Screens absorb and disperse us. When we’re online, we’re everywhere—and nowhere” (46). One senses a prescient warning in Guriel’s words about the danger of a new kind of erasure we’ve all already experienced enough to be both comfortable with and often blind to. He is not, however, an old-fashioned reactionary who wants us all to retreat back to our pre-digital practices (as if that were even possible anymore); he is, like most of us, fascinated by the speed and capacity of the internet even while reminding us of its limitations: “Miraculous, sure, but you’re never quite somewhere. There are no aisles, no vistas, no long views” (47). The real danger, of course, is that the limitations of the medium eventually become those of that medium’s users. For this reason alone, we need the voices of those like Guriel in our midst—those “late adopters” of the newest information technology who remind us of the peculiarly human characteristics that we nibbling animals should be keen to hold onto as the world around us changes.
Despite the occasional temptations of its nostalgia, we could do worse than take On Browsing for our field guide in the years ahead—years that will surely test our ability to remain sentient, meandering inhabitants of the physical world in an increasingly digital society. My copy is already a well-thumbed and annotated reminder of the advantages (to quote Guriel’s fellow Canadian Marshall McLuan) of “marching backwards into the future.”
While Jason Guriel’s book is in part a meditation on those elements of the tangible world we’re losing to the digital revolution, James Pollock’s latest collection of poems, Durable Goods, is a series of encounters with many of the everyday objects, tools, and machines that still very much inhabit and share our physical life. It is a book about things and, as such, at once reminds the reader of other thing-poets like Rilke in his New Poems, the Neruda of the Odes, and Francis Ponge in his prose poems. Similar to Guriel’s browser, the speaker of Pollock’s curious, often quirky mediations also invites us to nibble at our surroundings in ways that reveal the strange within the familiar.
An invitingly slim volume of forty-eight brief poems, each of which takes as its title the name of that thing it depicts, Durable Goods appears at once packed and spacious: both variety of subject and ample margins abound. On the page, these poems bear a marked visual resemblance to one another, each comprised of between one and four iambic pentameter quatrains, invariably rhymed abab. From these modest, uniform blocks, Pollack has created a base upon which he can vary the content and approach of each thing-poem, much in the same way that lines composed in a regular meter can better allow the reader to hear those rhythmic modulations of the poet from line to line. Pollock has made his form direct and mundane, so that his content may be intricate and daring. A similar bare-bones approach seems to have been taken in the arrangement of the collection as a whole, for there are no section headings or divisions, simply the title of one poem after another in an unbroken list of no immediately discernable order. As one looks more closely, however, certain aspects of organization begin to appear. The poem, “Toilet,” for example, ends with the line, “that trembling holy image of the ghost,” followed by the poem, “Kettle,” which begins, “Listen, it’s haunted.” Later in the collection, two related appliances, “Stove” and “Microwave” appear adjacently. The more one reads, the more these inter-poem connections become evident. This, too, is often the way that different parts of Pollock’s individual poems fit together—by the startling yet logical sinew of their language.
To begin to see some of what I’m on about, here’s “Book,” the opening poem in Durable Goods, a poem which also serves as a kind of introduction to the method Pollock will employ in various ways throughout the rest of the collection:
The book remembers living in the wood,
roots in the earth, wet boughs in the sky.
Perhaps if what is written here is good,
it may forgive the chainsaw. So to die
for hinge and board and flyleaf, sheaves of word,
dry heaven in which the silverfish believes—
or strange grove in which the author is a bird
and the reader the fresh wind that turns its leaves.
When I first read this poem, it reminded me of another kind of curious thing-poem, Russell Edson’s, “A Chair,” which is brief enough for me to quote here by way of contrast, so we may better apprehend what Pollock is accomplishing. Here’s Edson:
A chair has waited such a long time to be with its person. Through shadow and fly buzz and the floating dust it has waited such a long time to be with its person.
What it remembers of the forest it forgets, and dreams of a room where it waits—Of the cup and ceiling—Of the Animate One.
While both of these poems trace an everyday man-made object back to its origins in the forest, Edson’s chair appears remarkably less alive than Pollock’s book—a fading memory and simplistic, singular longing, which ties it to people in a way that makes it seem less than itself by way of that connection, its only focus being the person it waits for each day (that “Animate One”). By contrast, The Animate One in “Book,” as well as in the rest of Pollock’s poems, is, exhilaratingly, the heretofore inanimate thing, now suddenly co-inhabiting our world. Pollock’s book has a vivid memory of its past life as a tree and is given the potential ability of forgiveness. Its afterlife as a book also contains the insect heaven of the silverfish, in which there is the potential of a resurrection of sorts, should the writer’s words be keen enough and a reader committed enough to exploring those words—the possibility of a new grove within the ruins of the old. Where Edson’s former tree seems relegated to the flat afterlife of the chair, Pollock’s book has undergone a miraculous transformation, living its next life here among us, where it is not our dependent, but instead our collaborator. Such a comparison is not meant to disparage Edson’s poem, but to show how much more Pollock is accomplishing in his equally spare deployment of language. Or, in other words, to quote the final line of Pollock’s poem, “The Faucet,” “The truest poem is the most pretending.”
Such epiphanies employed in such a singular, distinctive fashion are well and fine, but an entire book of such poems would quickly become tiresome. Luckily Pollock mines a variety of poetic techniques in a variety of tonal registers to continue reintroducing his readers to the familiar objects in their lives in ever-fascinating ways. One technique he uses often is the pun, that often-derided and bemoaned play on words which, when done seriously, can redirect—and sometimes derange—the reader’s attention to keen effect. By virtue of the frequency and aptness of his puns, Pollack, in the best of these poems, inhabits the same rarefied air as that twentieth century master of word-play, James Merrill. In order to back up such an audacious claim, allow me to curate a brief gallery of some of the best puns from across Durable Goods:
from “Gooseneck Lamp”
….the lamp, for all its brilliance, is discreet,
silent in fact, and placid in its pleading.
Only by degrees do you feel its heat.
It knows how much pressure you’ve been under,
that you could use a change of atmosphere.
Your seasonal depressions, rain and thunder,
are easier to predict than they appear.
It’s going to snap. But for now, it just kills
time, high-strung, tongue-tied, sitting tight among
…………..It shines a constant flame
on the table, gutters on the shelf,
pours scent like a half-forgotten name,
and makes light of, not suffering, but itself.
These four excepts capture just a small portion of what Pollock is able to accomplish through his use of puns. Even when funny, they are engaged in serious play—never just a cheap quip or a fleeting punchline. Whether humorous or serious in nature, these figures of speech are always in service of extending the depths and testing the elasticity of language. And, on occasion, when the frequency and voracity of such puns threaten to eclipse the subject of the poem itself, it is a vigorous and memorable eclipsing, one that, more often than not, enhances what this collection does best: incisively to give life to those things among us that we’ve mistakenly labeled as static—and thereby to reanimate parts of ourselves long left for dead.
In a world increasingly inundated by self-righteously thick poetry collections, by padded, obtuse abstractions, Durable Goods is a trim volume of wild exactness. To read and reread it is to be reminded afresh of the tangibility of language and of those familiar things surrounding you that its language so vividly animates.