Sarah Dowling, 86 pgs, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $17.95
This past October, I heard Regina-born poet Sarah Dowling give a short reading from her new collection DOWN in Toronto. The piece she read was the second poem in the book, “Sunshine Honey,” which splices lyrics from the Temptations’ “My Girl” together with original lines that mutate the original song lyrics with an anxious and particular logic. It was disorienting — to some extent, Dowling’s original lines frustrated my recognition of the lyrics in her performance. My friend experienced the reading differently. “As soon as I heard ‘I’ve got sunshine,’ everything else just tuned out and I felt like I was listening to a really mellow cover of ‘My Girl,’” he said.
The difference between our experiences seems to better capture Dowling’s project in DOWN than either considered on its own. By presenting her thoughts through and alongside the hazy, almost-recognized words of the Temptations, John Ashbery quotes and fragments of newspaper articles, Dowling draws anxious parallels between what is pop and what is peripheral in our shared culture. The reader feels an understanding of the text, but only on a shaky ground that barely hints at the vast world within it. Reading DOWN, it is impossible to tell whether the reader’s grasp of the work has been fabricated by Dowling in her creative use of so-called “junk language,” or if she’s secretly drawn your attention while you were grooving to a more familiar analogy.