The Scarborough by Michael Lista
Signal Editions, 2014; 68 pp; $18
Reviewed by Brian Palmu
One might at first be forgiven for thinking Michael Lista’s latest poetry collection, 2014’s The Scarborough, is a cynical attempt to gain sales and chatter by picking a subject more commonly covered at the checkout line. Serial killer narratives are also big business among the better-selling tropes that the horror, thriller, and mystery genres have to offer. But to Lista’s credit (though poetry wouldn’t sell even were the subject Elvis’ alien offspring crashing a nude Miss USA pageant), the lurid Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka timelines are buried (though with classically etched tombstones) for the more fruitful exploration of the traffic between innocence and evil, chance and grace, agency and fate. Good thing, too, since trying to get into the head of most criminal psychopaths, fictional or not, isn’t just cynical, it’s unfathomable and uninteresting, which is why the treatment of murderers in serious literature—post Shakespeare—is often oblique and understated. There are minority reports, of course. Paul Doll, an Auschwitz commandant in Martin Amis’ novel, The Zone of Interest, is given interior first-person narrative colour, but even there, the exception proves the rule. After Doll’s exhaustive and incongruous record, the reader is no closer to understanding evil than before the book was opened.
Lista succeeds in navigating a way through the twin challenges of sensationalism and confusion by an impressive, integrative mix of allegorical image and reflection: “The lid entombs them, live, / Like the sealed lips of a girl’s barrette / That shuts its mouth on what she can forget” (“Capri”); “Hiya there Jodi. Oh hi Sam. / Jodi straightens Jeffery’s magic tam. / Everything’s safe here let’s go upstairs / Sam says through a moustache Props repairs. / Jodi is so pretty. I hate her. / She carries Jeffery up the escalator” (“Today’s Special!”); “Even the cartoons have come to die / In the swampy penis of the USA / Where clouds resemble naked little girls / Waiting at a bus stop in the sky.” (“Florida”). The most direct approach to the backgrounded, yet pervasive, subject matter occurs in the collection’s fourth poem, “Fowl,” where “The girl from Scarborough liked being slapped / Down the hall from where her mother slept. / A big, hard-working hand, anybody’s / To come medicinally down.” Even here, though, Lista, thankfully, offers no explanation.
Many poems in The Scarborough expand into a more searching general metaphysic. How can innocence exist with a knowledge, however vague, of evil? Lista was nine when Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka murdered Kristen French. That age—eight, nine, ten—is the transitional period when the world’s wonder remains but with a tinge of smoky foreboding, a presence, even, of mortality, which Lista chooses to investigate in some moving anecdotes, however much they may be embellished or misremembered. From the poem “Yorick”: “His tooth-jeweled jaw, lashed to his skull with springs, / Which I marionette to make him sing,” rivets and overcomes, however tenuously, the fixed, grotesque grin with childlike and childish imagination. And notice the jaw settings (tight, opening into awe) when reading aloud “His tooth-jeweled jaw.” Here, and in other poems, Lista succeeds in creating that raft on which Charon ferries us, at least briefly, from the (now adult) slumberous shore to the blank environs his book’s elided dedication recalls. »
from subTerrain #72