Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Beach Reading with Elizabeth Bachinsky

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Beach Reading with Elizabeth Bachinsky

These last few weeks, I’ve been sitting in my Tommy Bahamma chair on the beach in Wilmington, North Carolina, reading through Elizabeth Bachinsky’s The Hottest Summer in Recorded History (Nightwood, 2013). It’s hot today: 88° degrees, clear blue skies. The surfers are doing their thing near Johnny Mercer’s Pier. School’s officially out now, so the beach is more lively— but still manageable. I smell hotdogs grilling somewhere nearby. I’m enjoying the late morning sunshine with my friend Megan, who is getting her tan on. She loves A.R. Ammons’s poetry, having grown up in his hometown of Whiteville (pronounced something like Hu-Why-It-Val).

Every so often, I interrupt her tryst with the UV rays by reciting a favorite passage or poem from Bachinsky’s book:

When, for no reason, my sister leaned over and bit me, hard,
on the outside of my upper arm above my elbow. Hard
enough to leave a crescent-shaped mark identical to
the curvature of her rather large, white, perfectly shaped
adult teeth. “Fuck,” I said. “That hurt.” I stowed my magazine.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I just did that.”
Below us, the well-combed provinces, buried under ice.
(“Up in the 747: for Christine Bachinsky”)

*

On two occasions, I shit myself: once when sick and
once when aroused. And here I’m thinking of Tess—


not the cat we sat, but the fictional girl
hanging from the fictional tree. I appreciated it

when you reminded me how easily I can become
bored. It’s true. I do need a challenge.

A teenager is like a scarlet runner bean; it will wind
round whatever trellis you do, or don’t, provide.

Sometimes it is satisfying to make a howling sound
that comes straight from the diaphragm. You know

what the diaphragm is? Ennui.
(“You Know What Readers Like: for Blake Smith”)

The Hottest Summer in Recorded History is Bachinsky’s fifth book, and the follow-up to I Don’t Feel So Good (BookThug, 2012). It’s a collection of occasional poetry: like her friend, mentor, and cultural hero bill bissett, Bachinsky writes “to and about [her] friends,” discussing shared events and stories, feelings and ideas— and even, yes, the occasional bout of incontinence. Almost every poem includes a dedicatory note addressing the poem to a particular person, the effect of which is that the reading experience is a lot like eavesdropping on a private conversation or opening someone else’s mail. By that logic, my ocean-side recitations are, technically, tantamount to gossip. Gossip and ennui are bedfellows, and they have been since the days of Chaucer’s wicker-made House of Rumor, filled with “new tidings” set to burn this mother down.

Bachinsky’s dedications charge the collection with a disarming intimacy, rendering each and every poem a small gift from one person to another. Gestures of love and for love and in love. As Bachinsky so eloquently explains, she name drops friends, family, lovers, and acquaintances— with the gusto of Frank O’Hara— so that she might “feel their absence and know / what’s already gone.”

The Hottest Summer… includes Bachinsky’s best poetry since the precocious Home of Sudden Service (Nightwood, 2006). To be honest, last year’s I Don’t Feel So Good is conceptually quirky but a little tiresome to read— it combined “material selected from the handwritten journals and notes of Elizabeth Bachinsky (1986-2012). Lines and passages were selected by the roll of a die and appear in the order the die saw fit”— and 2009’s God of Missed Connections is burdened by its aura of gravitas, with Backinsky exploring personal and public histories of the Ukranian-Canadian experience in Western Canada. The Hottest Summer… just has more (forgive me my punning sins!) sizzle. And pop— like songs. She has a knack for matching cheekiness and sincerity:

This is the sonnet I wrote for you in Spain.
This is the sonnet I wrote in fifteen minutes.
No. Kidding! You get what you get when you
get it. Get it? Do you get it? Do you get it?
Do you get it? Do you get it?
I probably know
more about this business than I should—
and that’s why you should hire me. Think
of all the good I’d do around here, cleaning up
the iambs and putting away the gerunds
where they belong. I could also do laundry.
I’d know which gift I’d pick! This is the sonnet
I wrote for you in Vancouver. It is what
I could afford at the time, understand?
When are you coming over, anyway? Babe?
(“Xmas Gift”)

This book has a handful of truly superb poems, including “You Know What Readers Like,” “Who loves ya, Baby?”, “Dreams,” “Somewhere There is Someone Waiting,” and “Occasional Poem for bill bissett, August 21, 2011.” More importantly, reading The Hottest Summer… is a good reminder that life, like poetry, is eminently social. As such, it requires a delicate balance of risk and care— and, of course, dedication:

And, oh, god, life was strange

but I went out to meet it. I didn’t know what I didn’t know:
that we could look out for each other. But look out for each other!
(“Mere Anarchy, St. John’s Nfld.: for Stephen Ferrone”)

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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