Review of Paper Oranges

Paper Oranges

The elevation of the fragment, as a writer’s means of portraying his or her world, has become the literary verification of the 20th century’s recognition of the broken nature of perception. It’s a technique not only for bringing the written word in line with the phenomenal, but also for forcing the reader into the same world as the writer. At its best, it produces work of cognitive immediacy that jars expectation. At its worst, it produces a scrap pile of debris under which poets attempt to hide their deficiencies.

In Carolyn Marie Souaid’s new collection, Paper Oranges, she uses the fragment as a strategy to slow down what is otherwise a remarkably fluid style, and to give her poems a fractal, hesitant edge. Billed as the poet’s response to the blunted spiritual quest of characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Souaid commences by invoking a sere Beckett landscape in fragmented Beckett-like language. The first poem begins, "Darkness. A tree. Dry grass husks." And then the single word "until" constitutes the entire next stanza. Souaid leads us into her poems and then drops us off a precipice. The reader quickly realizes that the mimetic world of conventional perception does not exist in these meditations, and that her demand, which conscripts us in her quest to find the source of her longing, does not include taking us by the hand. Souaid’s poems demonstrate that the ease of standing upright is not the same thing as possessing grace.

This is from "L’Intensite de l’instant":

What binds you, of course,
not the logical universe
or the reliable moon
but a common lemon desire:

Tang & verve.
The exuberant, pumped-up heart.

The fragments here force us to fill in the blanks. As in many of Souaid’s poems, the words aren’t always where we expect them, but they’re impossible not to see. When she needs the savour of a sour kiss to provide a little sting, she miraculously finds a lemon to do the trick.

Despite the sustained note of restrained despair in Beckett’s play, Souaid’s response to it is glittering. She’s still responsive to the dazzle of creation and language, but cognizant of the shadows that loiter in the understory, threatening catastrophe. Alternately, she gives us stanzas like this, from "Dada Landscape":

Look, it beckons: tambourine dawn.
A cold, queer dance.
Glaze on the naked field
where the moon slid down….

And follows them with lines like these, from "Improviso":

First things first: we averted life.
Then we averted death, spinning

into & out, mostly out, of control.

Ultimately she knows, like Beckett, that much of existence is a conflict between inertia and attentiveness. But she knows, too, that inertia is easily mistaken for a spiritual state by the inattentive, that its duration can be the record of a mind slowed to the point that the infinitesimal can be examined for evidence of the monumental. She’s prepared to see everything, even if it’s through eyes dimmed by error. The imperative of self-examination through poetry compels her to an inwardness that she constantly revises.

Her poems rock back and forth, between light and dark, on a fulcrum that never permits them rest. The poems are her way out. She writes, "On the runway, a plane will be waiting."

Souaid’s poems work best as starbursts, sudden illuminations on the rim of our consciousness. At 106 pages, unfortunately, this book violates these limits and risks the hazard of surfeit. Its claim to be a meditation on Beckett, which seems more important to Souaid than to the reader of her poems, begins to feel strained. The last section, "Flight," which itself runs to almost 40 pages, strikes one as complete in itself, taking up its own complex set of themes-renewal, decline, place, the vertigo of travel, and "the chemistry of leaf & leaf / rubbing up against love." It’s easy to see "Flight" as a book in itself, or the beginning of a new book. Regardless, Carolyn Marie Souaid writes like an angel, and honours her art, both in its fragments and in its whole.


Rover

More Reviews of this title

Paper Oranges

Montreal writer Carolyn Marie Souaid's fifth book, Paper Oranges, is the kind you keep coming back to. Many of her lines have an aphoristic quality: "When you haven't done/ freedom in a while/ you forget/ what it sounds like."

Other times Souaid's clarity is gripping:

"Were we busy watching all-night sports?
The good news is good news, of course,
practical tips on how to replant:
Once daily, kiss an apple.
In case of injured ova, make salt.
Sing as though the sky were a bowl of oranges."

Souaid is funny too, often just in the choice of titles such as Stuck in Traffic, Listening to a Yuletide Message of the Emergency Broadcast System.

There's anger, wit, and social comment here, in lines that sing on the page.


The Winnipeg Free Press

Paper Oranges

Divided into three sections, Paper Oranges comes as a poetic response to Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon. Souaid has a knack for assembling clips and images, creating depth from a scattered handful. Her words are carefully plucked, and her arrangements are neither stingy nor indulgent. What we have here is a collection of poems that attain buoyancy, like a bouquet of red balloons against dismal waters.... By the end of Paper Oranges, one is left asking the age-old question: where is Godot? And while certainly he isn’t here, the reader has come this far being carried with such care that is no longer seems to matter.


Grasshopper Reads

Paper Oranges

Souaid's Paper Oranges is a thought-provoking, resonant response to the plight of Samuel Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, two men who waste their lives and potential fruitlessly waiting for an absent and elusive Godot. These poems, each as engaging as the next, highlight that although existence is characterized by an inevitable sense of uncetainty and attendant despair, one must appreciate the possibilities offered by the moment rather than speculate over the future. Moreover, they suggest that by fully taking in the moment, one can detect subtle hints of better things to come.

The opening poem, "Throat Song (Refrain)," contains one of the richest most intriguing lines of the collection: "Until." In this single word, which comprises its own line and stanza, Souaid captures the sense of limbo and waiting that is so central to Beckett's work. This word implies a period of waiting that precedes some sort of event or destination; that it is visually demarcated on the page highlights that the state of waiting in and of itself, distinct from what one is waiting for, is meaningful and valuable. Throughout the collection, Souaid frequently uses the terms "wait" and "weight," suggesting that when we approach life as an extended waiting period, existence itself becomes an oppressive burden, or weiht, that we must shoulder; we become consumed by the uncertainty over what comes next and therefore completely disconnected from the vitality of the present moment and indeed of life itself. Rather than view every moment as a relatively inconsequential instance of waiting "until" the next moment, in this pivotal poem Souaid suggests we reframe our conception so that we appreciate and revel in the possibilities offered by the various "untils" that comprise experience.

The poems "If Her Last Breath Were an Epiphany" and "The Road of Excess" form a poignant juxtaposition. In the former poem, an unidentified "she" "hides in the car, away/from the harping rain,//away from death.//Outside, a dozen umbrellas still/with places to go." In attempting to resist death, the woman resists life and is destined to experience an unfulfilling existence as a result. In "The Road to Excess," on the other hand, the "she" is a "Sex leech" who "boozed on the bed//danced on oil, danced hungry,/disheveled." Although Souaid does not promote the timidity and trepidation that characterize the first poem, neither does she promote the overt excess and indulgence of the second one. In both cases, the subject of the poem fails to appreciate the moment either because she hides from it or because she becomes too consumed by her own pleasure. Both women retreat inward, focusing on their own anxieties and desires, thereby missing out on the possibilities offered by engaging fully with the moment.

Souaid recognizes that it is not always enough to stop and smell the roses, as it were. Accordingly, many of her poems address broader existential questions, particularly the almost universal resonance of the following thought: "Some Thursday, mid-month, it occurs to you/that you're a nobody, an insignificant" ("Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder"). She highlights the futility of trying to change or better our circumstances since life seems to unfold as an unbreakable cycle of disappointment: "Pointless to stay in bed, count sheep/or imagine a clean slate//when Friday is on a return flight to Monday" ("The Wait"). In "Conduit," however, Souaid suggests "There's a soothing way to read this": if you accept that "the Earth/spins on, without you" and that "All you can do you've already done," it removes the onus from you as an individual. You do what you can reasonably do in life, and beyond that, it is out of your hands.

Furthermore, as the collection progresses, Souaid asserts that even though we as individuals are small parts of a much larger, unfathomable whole, "Things matter, including the most inconsequential" ("City Sandals"). Rather than become oppressed by the realization of our relative insignificance in the face of immensity that surrounds us, Souaid offers the following encouragement: "Change your perspective" and "Activate Imagination's alphabet" ("Fght Dpor Cy"). In other words, she urges us to view this immensity as liberating rather than oppressive and to use our imaginations to recognize the numerous possibilities that await us if only we are receptive to them.

Although occasionally Souaid's language and imagery are allusive to the point of obscurity, this is a rewarding collection in which the poet urges us to recognize the Vladimir and Estragon within us only to break free from their crippling influence. We must transcend their passive despair and "Think. Where would we be without drive, without verve" ("Afterword").


— Poonam Bajwa Event

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