Review of All the Lifters
“In Esther Mazakian's All the Lifters, a long series of lyric poems recounts a woman's unsatisfactory marriage to an older man and her more satisfying (if ultimately destructive) affair with a much younger one. Most of the book unfolds in unusually long lines, though the result is not the lyric expansiveness one might expect, but a sort of gangly angularity--not simply because short lines (often just a single word or syllable) often disrupt the movement of the text, but because of the gear-shifts, and are regularly fissured from within along fault lines of syntactic discontinuity, fractured by rapid shifts in diction, tone, or metaphoric register. So, in 'Bear This Brilliance Inside' we find the tropic profusion (perhaps a little too profuse) of 'A polar/hibernating/headiness sealing her in her/master's hands. He was gone and she was yawing,/her balancing fingers thawing a crust of ice off the top of his desk--she bore this/hermitage inside like the pristine words he'd written.' And the language used to describe a childhood sexual experience in an earlier poem moves rapidly from the colloquialism of 'scuzzy/hair' to 'a zealous, crural squeeze' that sent me to the OED.
There is, then, a distinctive and consistent voice in this volume, a voice that is tough, coolly ironic, passionately intelligent, and sensual all at once; at times, I seemed to detect notes of Anne Carson (say, of 'The Glass Essay' or The Beauty of the Husband), of Lynn Crosbie, perhaps some Atwood. And it is really the voice and the style that matter here. The basic narrative situation is not exactly startling (a friend recently summarized the normative Canadian novel of the last decade as 'early-middle-aged woman leaves husband and discovers female sexuality'). Mazakian's success is not so much in slapping some fresh paint on this old house of fiction but in convincing me that she's built a whole new house with new materials. Her work is often at its most convincing when staring down the darker aspects of this passion, showing how her narrator acknowledges the bitter ironies of her potentially dangerous pursuit without deviating from it: driven by 'the cruelties of entomology . . ./On an acrid, fly-by-night lark,/she went to bed with him and his heartbreaking/hair dyed ash blonde and rank./And the flow, /the low/criminal flow of moisture/between them submerged her even when/her indecision was pressing/then lifting her body/and her psyche/was home laughing away this humiliation.' ... the poet keeps us on our toes with her angular rhythms, dissonant clashing of line-unit and sense-unit, and disjunctive juxtapositions of different metaphoric registers. Mazakian's style is not exactly avant-garde, but it can make us feel as though some dark energy were shattering the normal surface of language and flowering as the very substance of these poems.”
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