The simple pleasures

By Amy Reiswig, December 2012

Reality and imagination collide in Lorna Crozier’s latest book.

Dictionary: object of such adoration that a woman wraps her legs around it wishing she could say “My son, the dictionary.” Maintainer of comforting, “unbudgeable order,” it makes you younger, like a kid again, yet can also help one on to death like “the double-volumed Oxford that suicidal lexicographers rope around their waists before they walk into the ocean.” 

I have that weighty Oxford, and will never see it the same way again because Victoria poet Lorna Crozier’s new work The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things (Greystone, August 2012) celebrates words like “dictionary”—and the everyday objects and ideas they denote—as playplaces, opportunities for allusive, associative, and imaginative mindwork that recasts the mundane world of what we think we know (even the seemingly staid reliability of a dictionary) into a fun, unpredictable world we have yet to really see. And it’s a world that we, with Crozier’s guidance, are encouraged to help create. 

The Book of Marvels is structured like a dictionary, with 85 compact alphabetical entries from “Air” to “Zipper” describing objects like bed, bicycle, ceiling, coffee pot, gum, ice, linoleum, needle, scissors, towel, and yo-yo as well as parts of the body (heart, navel, tooth, vagina) and other non-concrete but still familiar words such as but, happiness, and no. 

I say “entry”—rather than essay or poem—because while Crozier’s 40-year and 15-book poetry career has earned her much national and international renown (she has won a Governor General’s, a National Magazine Award, and two honorary doctorates among other accomplishments), this book’s genre is somewhat undetermined, even by its author.

Written as short paragraphs, but some having been previously published in poetry journals, are they poems, prose poems, straight-up prose? “Doorknob” winning the Earle Birney Poetry Prize (Prism international, 2010) suggests poetry. But in Crozier’s lexical playground, nothing is restrictively defined. “Maybe part short lyrical essay, part prose poem, part meditation,” she suggests on a rainy Saturday morning, her cheerful red boots echoing the rain-saturated fall colours outside her living room’s wall of windows. “I don’t really know. I love the cross-genre that the book is.”

Crozier suggests that paragraphs, rather than conventional poetic lines, make the text somehow more accessible and welcoming, but the book is also a bit like entering a fun house or the catalogue for a collection of everyday curiosities curated by P.T. Barnum, where you never quite know what to take at face value. Some entries are fairly straightforward “thinking-seeing” reflections on familiar objects, such as a description of an ear lobe as “a smidgen of dough flattened by a baker’s thumb.” Others involve play that is verbal (“Bowl” mentions “hollowed-out homonyms that grow on trees”) and visual: clothes hangers are said to “slide along dowels on a cryptic punctuation mark: ?????????????”. And still other entries are completely imaginative stories that could be called tall tales in tiny packages. 

For example, “The Midnight News” asserts that “The ghosts of larks baked in pies in Paris are batting into the heads of sleepers.” And “Nose: A Story” recounts the tale of a wolf-boy in King Louis’ court whose son becomes a rose gardener and parfumerie owner but flees to “a raft off the rocks of Gibraltar, where the scents were few and those that reached him had been wrung out by the wind.” 

These read like dreams, and as a result one cannot help wondering about all sections smacking of fact. For instance, “Jell-O” claims “it was the builder of the first American steam-powered locomotive, Peter Cooper, who filed the patent,” and that the main street in LeRoy, New York, home to the only Jell-O museum on record, “boasts a Jell-O brick road.” Fact or fiction? I’m not telling. “I like confusing, destabilizing the reader,” Crozier laughs. 

Therefore, despite the tease of dictionary-like order, this book does not offer definitions but redefinitions in which Crozier’s witty, sensitive, and acrobatic mind explores and explodes meaning. As she writes in “Hinge,” “hinge one word to another and see what suddenly swings open, like a gate meant to keep wild horses from the house.”

“I wanted to stay true to an object’s ordinariness,” she explains, “but what else is it? I ended up pulling from my magpie mind all kinds of things. I wanted it to be a place where reality and imagination collide.” 

The book’s marvels are therefore not just what happens on the page but what happens in the reader: the processes Crozier encourages. For once you have read a few pieces and become attuned to her limber, lively mindview, you can’t help but start to join in the fun. For instance, I turn the page from “But” to “Button” and find myself mentally moving from “Unbutton has been the undoing of many marriages” to the infamous Cold War big red button, herald of nuclear apocalypse she doesn’t mention but which threatens to undo us all. And as you turn to a new title—a familiar word—you too may find yourself free associating before even glancing at Crozier’s words. Luring us into her game is part of how Crozier plays on the whole concept of objectivity. “We just can’t do it,” she asserts with a grin: “We always filter things through ourselves.”

In this way, Crozier’s book is not just about language but about perception. And as we deal with December’s inevitable marketing maelstrom distractions, such a book becomes a timely reminder to pay attention to what’s around us, to our own processes of seeing and thinking, and to the marvels lying sleeping in our own brains ready to be activated by renewed vision and playful mind. 

Amy Reiswig is a writer, editor and musician with a renewed vision of the unknown knowns.