Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

It’s Nighttime Survival for Men: Nic Labriola’s “Naming the Mannequins”

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No one knows who Nic Labriola is. This Toronto writer was only recently shipped to our poetry clubhouse from the neighbouring community of drama, and his first book arrived this year from Insomniac Press as a complete surprise. Its author has stayed away from the usual tours of duty through open-mic nights, pass-the-hat reading venues, and other opportunities whereby a young person could introduce himself and his ideas to the Toronto Poetry Cult.

It’s fitting, then, that Labriola’s first professional work, Naming the Mannequins, is a book about outsiders. Set during a single anonymous night in the backrooms and alleyways of some seedy entertainment district, Mannequins borrows as much from theatre and film as from verse, both in the linear narrative structure of the collection, and in the way the poet chooses to pan his camera over the ephemera of his scenes, highlighting peripheral objects such as a motorcycle waiting outside a tattoo parlour, or a ring girl’s discarded numbered cards as she has quick, violent sex with the loser of the night’s big fight.

Naming the Mannequins chews scenery that’s similar to Adam Sol’s latest, Jeremiah, Ohio, but its net is cast more on sociological breadth than to the intimate two-person character study of Sol’s book. Mannequins offers shelter to a half-dozen characters, letting them slip through its fingers, only to pick them up again several pages later in the background of someone else’s big scene. What makes Mannequins unique is the stripped-bare economy of its episodes. There is no room here for narrative wanderlust, and there’s a lot of action packed into Mannequin’s sixty-some pages. In the best tradition of hard-boiled fiction and penny dreadfuls, no paper gets wasted on an ancillary moment

Efficiency aside, there’s a sprinkling of near-misses scattered throughout the book, choked, mistuned lines that can’t always be blamed on the vocabulary of the speakers. However, harping on them seems a little petty because Labriola hasn’t written his book with the line (or even the poem) as its defining unit of evaluation. To bastardize Hamlet, “the book’s the thing”, and there’s an all-or-nothing, atomistic property to the text itself. Naming the Mannequins possesses an immense narrative energy that makes it a definite success as well as a book that’s sometimes hard to defend, as when someone wants to bring up unmemorable images like “To you, it looks purple at times,/when your blood’s run thin and your skin/ is the color of milk.” without the context of speaker, narrative, or place.

To compare the book’s narrative preoccupations to its author’s history as a dramatist seems too easy, so I’ll say instead that Labriola’s most immediately obvious talent is his ability to differentiate between the demands of a play and those of a book of poems. Those differences (and I say this knowing there are hundreds of exceptions to every rule) are the intimacy of the reading experience versus the communion of theatre, and the separate power relationships between creator and audience that each medium suggests. Dramatists can expand the scope of their art through collaborations with other artists (actors, designers, costumers), but in doing so lose pieces of their authorial hegemony. Poets, however, are pretty much solo acts, beyond the decorations of book design and the suggestions of an editor. Labriola intuited something of these differences and managed to translate that intuition into a work so removed from the politics of cultural theory that even talking about it in this review makes me blush with the guilt of the academic over-reacher.

Moreover, a book that’s all structure and no content will collapse on itself, so luckily Labriola finds more pearls than sand in his images. When he nails his specificity, he can be potently corporeal in his word choice. As when the above-mentioned ring girl survives the following quiet moment:

You tear up. The ashtray
wobbles from your stomach
and hits the floor.
There are ashes in your pubic hair.

What makes Mannequins more than the sum of its parts is the funhouse-mirror grotesqueness of Labriola’s best images. Some of its men look like eggplants, and their “tragic sisters” are said to look like “cellos”. His book is as much Louis Carrol as it is Dashiell Hammett, as much French surrealism as hipster neo-noir. And while his characters approach their various morality plays with real gravity and hurt, there is a narrative distancing effect at work here, too. When he sticks in a comic piece about tattooing a man’s perineum (not his word) in between two mumble-mouthed essays in the stunted voices of a night nurse and a gangster, the author is showing us something about how to approach his book. It doesn’t matter who survives and who dies, who wins and who loses. What matters is the act of telling the story, not necessarily the story itself. This might also be something that a book of poems (at least a contemporary one) has that a play doesn’t. It’s not that poetry readers are willing to take style over substance, it’s just that they love language so much that they can’t envision substance existing without the bedrock of style (any style!) to build it on.

As a first book, Naming the Mannequins struggles almost as much as it succeeds, but it remains vital because the things that are second-nature for Nic Labriola are often the things that veteran poets never get around to learning. The questions of how to plan a book, and how to balance a theme across poetic episodes, are answered with verve and a playful dexterity that most writers never acquire. This book has a lot to teach poets interested in mapping the boundaries between monologue and lyric poem, and seeing how the narrative spirit of both can be harnessed to move a story forward.

Moving forward,

Post-script: Want to buy a copy? I think you should. Here’s the publisher’s link:

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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