“swelling that anticipates”: Review of Kilby Smith-McGregor’s
Kids in Triage (Hamilton: Buckrider, 2016)—80 Pages—$20
by Joseph LaBine
Kilby Smith-McGregor won the 2010 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award and her debut poetry collection, Kids in Triage, explores elegiac and sorrowful lyric forms.
The book is a dizzying overcoming. Its media-stained elegies point to kitschy common fetishes: fear, emergencies, deviant sex, public and private grief. Smith-McGregor insightfully acknowledges how we value surface truths. The opening epigraph from Wallace Stevens is a curious touchstone in regard to this theme:
It is a violence from within
that protects us from a
Stevens’s lines inform Smith-McGregor’s most emotive poems and, particularly, “The Wife of the Man I’m seeing”:
Gets hold of me in the shower, slides
her fingers down my ribs and cups
my belly from behind. I’m afraid she’ll
jam her pinky in my navel and deflate me,
or pry out the umbilical root and pull. (58)
Here the title drops down and, as with every breaking line, “slides” arrestingly to surprise the reader each time: fingers slide, hands cup a “belly”; breaking the line between “she’ll / jam” quite literally jams the syntax, the comma “deflate[s]” the sentence; but none of these are more tantalizing and threatening than the concluding image in the last line of the stanza, “pry out the umbilical root and pull.”
The word economy of “The Wife of the Man” and the effect of its line breaks make it a great poem. It is one of Smith-McGregor’s best - mysterious and yet direct, powerful but vulnerable, deeply maternal. In a small space one sees the driving motifs of the collection some of these include pregnancy, motherhood, divorce, the entitlement children feel they have, grief, and both physical and emotional trauma.
The aim of the more ambitious, technical side of Kids in Triage is to catalog impossibilities / miscatalog. The headier poems in the book frequently elide clarity, confound, and confuse the reader. Brecken Hancock notes this is part of Smith-McGregor’s technique, “to provide a diagnostic manual for the mess of the human condition.” But many of these poems are bereft of meaning and will leave the average reader wondering whether or not they are failures. The notes on pages [69-71] help with some of these longer sequences especially the poems that fail to establish an emotional connection through the use of the lyric mode, like “Untitled (NO RADIO)” and “From The Artist’s Private Collection.” Such academic pieces would be better served in a thesis or a project where requisite theories and the motives for using them are outlined more clearly.
Kids in Triage is a varied debut but the poems that dare to be conventional (rather than experiment for the sake of it) show tremendous promise. Smith-McGregor has a seeming predilection for the spoken word, what Gil Adamson calls her “gusts of cadence [and] fired language.” Hearing the book’s more muddled poems spoken aloud may draw them out more.
Charming design by Wolsak and Wynn (and zephyr paper from Coach House) make Kids in Triage an impressive book. The author is also a “freelance graphic designer” by trade and while the cover is gorgeous in red, and while it anticipates the author’s ode to the colour with “Red pools. / Red glances. / Red glares.” (26-27); one expects a little more from the appearance and visual layout of the poems themselves.