Coach House Books
David McGimpsey’s Asbestos Heights interrogates preconceptions about the definition of poetry. Famous for his humour, cultural references and allusions to sport, his newest collection veers into supposedly traditional poetic terrain with poems about flowers, and national and literary history. It appears to be a challenge accepted as McGimpsey quips: “the editor of the Fiddlehead once asked me, ‘Have you / even tried writing poems that make no mention of arena / football star Jared Lorenzen or that time you brought a / Shamrock Shake to a job interview?’” (66). True to himself, the writer his readers love, McGimpsey makes the new material his own. He enters a deliberate tug of war between high- and lowbrow, hailing lettuce as a flower (9) and comparing poetry to baseball.
Throughout Asbestos Heights a rough duality is established – on the one side stands poetry and the poet, denigrated as uncool, classist, often the outsider. Poetry is an example of the undesirable:
A government program seeks to leave poems
in hospital waiting rooms so patients
might read them and begin to understand
there are worse things than diabetes. (68)
On the other side there is baseball, the hot dudes, “the inevitable meh of comparing the sport / to writing because oh boy, writing, oh boy!” (45). The poems are stocked with allusions to baseball teams, players, nicknames, famous matches and moments. It is this gesture that adds an edge of literary critique to comedy.
Usually, poetry is a boy’s club of erudite references. McGimpsey turns the tables, expanding poetic subject matter to the popular contemporary, but creating a new niche readership in the process. It is a deliberate move for he himself is a poet and self-loathing only reaches so far.
In the poem “Kate Chopin,” McGimpsey cites her suggestive title The Awakening and then asks, “Why you want people / to hate baseball like they hate poetry?” (44). McGimpsey demands an awareness that the approachability of poetry as a genre, or the renewal of poetry, or conversely the conventionality of poetry is not dependent upon content, but the confidence of a writer in his own voice: “If I were to go back in time […] I would still / come back with a poem much like this” (67).
A formalist, McGimpsey crafts each poem in four tight quatrains. This visual symmetry creates a sense of narrative continuity throughout the collection. The poems are less single entities and more an ongoing series, ballads that, at their lyrical prime, chronicle a childhood in Anjou, Quebec, and draw a gentle portrait of a father who shared his love of flowers and sports. While Asbestos Heights is ready for fun and farce, these poems also stem from a heartfelt place. For McGimpsey, it is no longer the proverbial “for God’s sake,” but rather “for poetry’s sake” (9).