Philip Quinn — The SubWay

The SubWay
by Philip Quinn
Toronto: Book Thug, 2008, ISBN 978-1-897388-27-3, 130 pp., $20.00 paper.

Philip Quinn has taken a rather backward route to poetry. In 2000, Gutter Press published his collection of short fiction, Dis Location, Stories after the Flood, and in 2003 his novel, The Double. Most aspiring writers who engage with poetry will publish two or three poetry collections before getting tired of poverty, scorn and isolation. Is Quinn a masochist? That, and other similar questions, will not be answered here. We leave them to his analyst.

There was a picture once–title and artist forgotten in the melee of time, though the imprint remains. Done in the ultra-realist genre that was once the rage, it consisted of a kitchen in an ordinary middleclass home, cupboards somewhat old-fashioned, scene outside the screen door one of spring–birds singing, flowers budding, green lawn shimmering in morning dew; scene outside the window above the sink–winter, snow piled on the ledge. Quinn has written this painting in a collage of images, mixing the metaphoric with the real, both embedded in the bedrock of the Toronto subway. Reality as hard as the rails on which it rides. Metaphoric as Savoy Brown’s Hellbound Train.

Train as triune brain each rail a synapse between the ganglia of stations. Bicamerality divided. The subway is a language running beneath the bowels of the city, carrying away its excrement. The thing which supports that which lies above, gives structure, creates corporeality in a sanguine sort of way belying the decay at the core.

Open with the publicity machine of the Toronto Transit Commission, then quick flash to Sagan and Gurdjieff, and the reptilian (snake), mammalian (rat) and neocortex (human) brain, “a 25-foot Burmese python with the half-digested remains of the villager in its belly / try riding that train”(8), with their forked, foraging and flapping tongues “I want you. You’re so hot and I’ve got a pig inside my skull” (9). Taken to a collage to graduate from “earliestmemorieswearingmother’sfluidsuckingonskin” to other famous riders including Winona (with a “y”) and Easy. All that in just the first three pages. Hang on for this ride.

We are introduced, at “Bloor & Yonge Station,” to a “fiddler in a monkey suit play[ing] the Strauss waltz / rigid bodies mov[ing] in a fractionated dance” while “inside this car, puppets hang on a herniated string, theoretical starlight” where we discover “we’re nothing but a reproduced line of theory” (48).

Anything that runs beneath the surface is fair game for exploration. In “Sub-Molecular Journey,” we discover that “The throat forms a tunnel, a multi-layered coating / The sub strata gurgling of the omohyoid // The train trills to a vibratory wetness” (65). It’s all just a “Question of Layers”:

Saying it that way, the twist in the mouth as it tries
Well-worn words
Too slippery to pronounce with authority
Or to put to good use here (68)

or a “Current in the Mass Brain,” where reality and metaphor mix. It begins: “car 5001 was first up the temporary track / all remaining cars were delivered on the CNR / Bell Line direct to the Davisville yard” (102), takes a detour to “light in the tunnel leading you on / like space in the cerebellum moon / a twitching of metal rabbits / fleeing of roads” and ends with

On the morning of March 30, 1954, a symbolic signal changed from red to amber to green and the first train of the first subway system in Canada pulled out of the Davisville station (103)

We end this journey “Brained & Greased” where, in this final poem, “token dull grey eyes // the turnstile maims every trip but this one” (130).

Properly, this book cannot be called a collection. That term implies individuality–each poem separate and distinct. In this case each poem is a part of a whole, melding into a distinct vision. Conception is at the level of the book, not the poem. And so it is at the level of the book that the assessment must be made, with the question “Upon completion, has the book left you with a distinct poetic impression?” The answer is affirmative. But, at the same time, one must not forget that it is the individual parts that contribute to this affirmation. Particularly in a book of this sort, the first poem contains a promise, creates an expectation. In the case of The SubWay that promise, that expectation was one of collage–a collapsing of impressions onto the flatness of the page. Evaluated from that perspective, The SubWay leaves the reader wanting. Certain techniques, such as the merging of words into one linguistic block through the removal of space and punctuation, are abandoned early on, as is the mixture of linguistic levels, as if the writer could not sustain his initial high energy level. It would be interesting to see what would develop should Quinn pursue another poetry book–but apparently he’s currently engaged in the writing of another novel.

John Herbert Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. He reviews poetry in Canada for Malahat Review, Arc, Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead and The Danforth Review, in the U.S. for Quarterly Conversations, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Big Bridge and Galatea Revisits, and in Australia for Jacket.


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