#863 A love letter to Vancouver
by Evelyn Lau
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2020
$18.00 / 9781772141474
Reviewed by Grace Lau
If, upon hearing the words “pineapple express,” you immediately think of a certain feel-good stoner/buddy comedy from the late 2000s starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, and a few tons of weed, you could be reasonably forgiven.
Though also named Pineapple Express, Evelyn Lau’s new — eighth, to be exact — poetry collection is probably as far from feel-good (at least on the surface) as you can possibly get.
The collection is made up of six parts: “Family Day,” “Earthworms,” the titular “Pineapple Express,” “Anti-obsessional,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “You Are Here.”
It begins, as many of our stories do, with family. And as in many Chinese families, our stories and lives revolve around food. In “Mid-Autumn Festival,” the stars of the show are, of course, mooncakes: decadent lotus-seed-paste-stuffed pastries with dried, salty egg yolk cores. Almost always bought as gifts for families and friends as a Chinese tradition during the mid-autumn season, the mooncakes in this poem are depicted as payment. In Lau’s case, to pay herself a gift of love that was never received in childhood. The familial isn’t always familiar.
In some Chinese immigrant families, the relationships between children and parents (and aunts and uncles, and grandparents…) are often fraught with complicated emotional exchanges:
But even if love was never said,
even if they called you fat little pig,
they kept nothing for themselves.
How can a person, especially a child, discern the meaning of love when it has so many conflicting faces? To feed a child is an act of love. To feed a child — when there is not enough for everyone else — is an act of love that comes with questions. Questions of shame, guilt, and worthiness.
Lau quotes John Updike twice in Pineapple Express and has spoken of his influence on her work — specifically, the grace with which he writes about the shameful, but plain and ordinary moments in our everyday lives.
For example, in “Summer Funerals,” it’s clear that, at least in the speaker’s point of view, most people don’t actually want to be at this funeral; it’s just a duty that has to be fulfilled. And that’s just one of the many thoughts expressed by the speaker that most people would be too embarrassed to admit. (No but seriously, if it’s a “Celebration of Life,” why does someone always cry? Is it a sign that we should actually make the effort to reckon with grief and mortality instead of just giving it a euphemistic name?) One of the remarkable things about Lau’s poems is their unabashed lack of a filter; they’re thoughts that have crossed most of our minds, as much as we don’t want to admit it. Which then leads to the question: would it be so bad to be honest?0
And then there’s “Earthworms,” which not only pays tribute to Updike, but also showcases Lau’s unflinching self-awareness and wry humour.
In “Earthworms,” Lau uses just over a page to describe “the slow hours of summer” spent slicing up earthworms and snipping wings and legs off of miscellaneous insects. But she’s not just telling this story to us; she’s also telling it to her class of poetry students. As she describes each cruel — let’s face it, they’re cruel — death with loving, almost Hannibal-like precision, Lau lures the reader into a (very understandable) feeling of repulsion. It’s revolting! It’s deviant!
And then she snatches you up and drops you into the most dangerous place of all: empathy. Which leaves you, the bewildered reader, with the question: if you do indeed feel empathy for the speaker at the conclusion of this poem, what does that say about you?
A kind of heaven, to inhabit
a time outside of time, a bubble
of pure concentration. How lovely it was
to be the bully for a change.
Are you really a psychopath? Or are you just having a human experience in the grey areas? The margins, where so much of our capacity for forgiveness — and humanity — lives.
It’s also interesting to see when Lau chooses to use the first person in her poems and when she uses “you.” Yes, it addresses the reader and draws them into the poem — but Lau also often uses the “you” in poems where the speaker is experiencing shame or something distressing. One might venture to say that the “you” acts as a kind of separation, a barrier for when she is writing about emotions that are too painful to bear.
As a poet reading a poet, it’s always fun to see someone write so honestly about the messy craft and process of creating a poem that doesn’t suck. Even for someone like Lau, who was first published at the age of 13, who’s written 13 books and has a lifetime — lifetimes, even — of literary work and achievement under her belt… the journey continues. In “Kate Braid’s salon: the role of the poet,” Lau describes the unending obsession with finding the perfect word. Here, poetry is not so much a craft as a hurricane that tears through our memories, our exes, and our families, all of which become “collateral damage.”
And it’s true. The act of writing (and reading) poetry does things to relationships. It can colour the way you think of someone, even change everything you thought you knew so intimately. To write about a relationship, past or present, honestly, is a test of not just the poet, but also the other person in that relationship. All the words said — and left unsaid — all the hurt inflicted, is given new life in the words of a poem.
And in a very Evelyn Lau way, Lau flips the seriousness of this thought into something a little more… sardonic:
… we turned inward, counting
the bones of the dead, plucking our own nerves
in blank rooms with the blinds drawn,
as if the fate of the planet depended
on finding the right metaphor.
The threads of depression are woven throughout the collection, but they’ll twist into you most vividly in Part Three. In “Side Effects,” the reader sees exactly what it’s like to be on antidepressants — not just the physical side effects, but also the mental and emotional side effects.
… There’s so much happening
in that other land —
you are winning arguments lost
decades ago, smiling at well-wishers
you snubbed, visiting loved ones
who died while you were busy
with your cruel young life.
For anyone who has ever known the twinge of regret from past relationships, who’s ever fantasized about those conversations while drifting off to sleep, it’s a relatable feeling. Even if you’re neurotypical.
This thread gets picked up in “Depression in Summer,” where the speaker is unable to keep the company of anyone other than a lazy mosquito and fly. It’s a compelling depiction of the thickness of a depressive episode, the feeling of being stuck and unable to enjoy something that you know you should, that you know everyone else is out there enjoying at this moment.
In “Cakewalk,” Lau pens a love letter to Vancouver that only a Vancouverite could truly appreciate and love. From the dreariness of the November day, to the way “the sharpened knives sing,” to the “sky the slime of shucked oysters,” this siren song walks the line between “is it depression or is it just a winter day in Vancouver” so, so perfectly.
But as much as Pineapple Express is an inward examination of psyche and emotion, it converses frequently with the outer world too. “Tinder Dry” is a fascinating look at a dystopian not-so-distant future thanks to global warming. Not only does Lau convincingly describe the logical, torturous next step of climate change, she also contrasts it beautifully with creativity and art: “the land of the subconscious lush as a rainforest.” As the world dries up, so too does the artist’s well. Fittingly, the poem ends with a Midas-like image of death. Not of the speaker herself, but of beautiful words and the world we know and love.
In Part Five, “Sunset Boulevard,” Lau explores the less glittery, less glamorous parts of California and Florida. A seedy motel on Sunset that brings the speaker back to earth from the unattainable Hollywood dream. A garbage-strewn highway to Santa Cruz, which leads to yet another “motel where you won’t remove your shoes.” But it’s not all grime and grit — there’s a night that salvages everything, spent atop an Art Deco hotel watching the sway of Santa Monica’s waves in the distance. Then, over to the east coast to Florida, where the stars (Shaq, P. Diddy, and Ricky Martin) glitter in the white sands. It’s a breath of fresh air — and hope — after the gloom of Vancouver. Hey, there’s always an escape.
And finally, in “You Are Here,” we find release — actually, right in the very first poem in this final part of the book:
If only you were more monk-like!
Then you wouldn’t eat chocolate caramels
all afternoon, or own thirty dresses,
or covet your neighbour’s counters
and floors. You would bless the panhandler
who called you a “chink,” instead of telling her
to go kill herself. You would simply let it go —
It is in poems like these that the line between grief and humour, between “right” and “wrong” are blurred — and sometimes, completely smudged — with a giggle. It showcases one of Lau’s greatest gifts: her ability to make us question what is acceptable behaviour and the true value of civility, under the guise of a joke.
Between the very Vancouver references to the seawall, Granville Island, and restaurants that locals will no doubt recognize like Joe’s Grill, the collection has plenty of material that anyone who’s the least bit fond of Vancouver will recognize. But Lau goes deeper than that too. If the spectacle of Dîner en Blanc has ever made you feel gross, then “inside and out” and “investment” are for you. These two poems in particular ask questions that are especially important for anyone living in Vancouver today: do only people who can afford to live here deserve to live here? What happens when we allow a city of homes to turn into a city of investments? Is a home really a basic human right? Sure it is, just not here. It’s an easy enough answer to let slide off your tongue, until you think about the many other world-class cities where the words “affordable housing” don’t routinely cause an outpour of stuttering rage from both politicians and citizens.
And yet, after all that, Pineapple Express ends by bringing together “Pronoia” and “Happiness.” It is as joyful and hopeful an ending as you could ask for in a book so mired in the greys of a Vancouver sky:
Then the meds seem a gift, like the first snowdrops
splintering the soil, your chest cracking open so briefly
Grace Lau is a Hong-Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian writer living in Toronto. Her debut collection of poetry is forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2021. Find her at gracelau.space and on Twitter at @thrillandgrace.
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