Review by Rachel Kendall

Blood Pudding Press
2011
20 pages
$7.00 at http://www.etsy.com/shop/BloodPuddingPress?ref=pr_shop_more
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At first glance Margaret Bashaar's poetry might seem like the self-obsessed, blood-stained angst that splatters the pages of so many twenty-something writers. There's a lot of imagery pertaining to a need to be heard, a mouth full of needles, a mouth full of seeds - the typical unconscious yearnings of the poet. But read on, read further, and you realize there are messages here, secrets to prize from a stubborn clam "when she is soggy and her mouth is caving in." Not only this, but the writing is good. It's better than good, it's gritty, it's clever and it's exhilarating at times.

"She imagines sometimes that shards of her slice
through the knot of his lips at her chest and neck,
that she shrugs him off like a stone."
(Claire Visits the Old Hotel)

The collection itself is a curiosity cabinet full of insects, skeletons, stuffed animals, summer fruit... madness, ghosts, metamorphosis, bondage. And there are mirrors in this cabinet. Mirrors that reveal and distort and multiply the madness.

"secret stairwells and open doors and closed doors and doors
through which she could see two sets of feet
tangled in a bed she never slept in."
(The Unmaking)

And the cabinet itself is a hotel, the Grand Midway. And in room 27, something happened, at the rotten end of a hot summer. Something that's created an obxxxx (snake eating itself) because it's a memory that surfaces over and over. Whatever that thing was, and we are never sure what is fallacy, allegory or psychosomatic symptom, it continues to haunt her.

There are maybe five 'characters' in this collection, though only three of them have a voice. Most of the poems are written from the perspective of Mary and Claire (two characters? Two facets of a single identity? Doppelgangers?), but the hotel's proprietor also has a voice, and a persistent presence, while the hotel itself has perhaps the strongest, silent, presence of all. The characters waver. They fluctuate a little, becoming one another, transforming.

"Fingers dusted with pollen, she drew her hands
over the black painted hotel walls,
across her mouth. She could never separate
these dark rooms from the summer
and summer went to hell
with its honey wine and monkey breeding."
(Claire Visits the Old Hotel)

It often seems the hotel's proprietor and the hotel itself are one and the same, holding her down, inside, between:

"They will not choke her with their vines
or pull her up through their roots, but her mother
still says she sees Claire in bondage,
fingers tied together and ankles in shackles
when she's got a mouth full of flesh."
(Out of the Garden)

Or with that invisible thread that pulls body and mind taut. She is held because she cannot leave:
"Her lover told her she was in his walls."
(The Leaving of It)

She does leave (I say 'she' to refer to narrator, whether it is Claire or Mary). She leaves and leaves and leaves, but she always returns. And in this way, the hotel will always have its hold on her. It's the self-perpetuating hell, the anxiety dream, the troubled psyche that won't let you cut the ties to whatever happened in that room, once and for all. And this constant return is a constant attempt at an exorcism, to rid herself of the rotten fruit of that summer, to shake the memories from her hair.

"and he is in her periphery when she
Plucks hairs from her head
One at a time and bites off the roots.
She swears it's like sinking her
Teeth into raw meat."
(Trichotillomania)

It's the connective tissue, this need to slough off the demons, the memories. It's what holds this collection together. There is talk of a ghost in these poems. The hotel is said to be haunted. And the narrator often runs to the graveyard (sometimes a cemetery filled with headstones that become waves in a rocky sea; sometimes a metal graveyard with husks of train cars. Is this little girl ghost an apparition, a memory, a projection? Questions, questions.

"Naked mud-covered with a rat in her mouth
she was made a monster here by Ouija boards and
Holy men"
(Claire Visits the Old Hotel)

There are three images in this collection. Not printed on the pages. Loose photographs that flutter to the floor like dead leaves when you open the pages. They're beautiful little photos - coloured, sepia, black and white - that add a certain intensity to the words. Kevin Ross is the man behind them. Margret Bashaar in front. And the Grand Midway Hotel the setting.

I end this review with a smile, because I think I have the answers; I think I cracked the code. But what if, after all, Bashaar had no secrets to disclose, that there were no hidden messages? Well that's ok too because if poetry makes me think, makes me question, makes me seek answers, it's doing its job.

"We will hold up the sky with our limbs,
longer than all the lines that etch themselves
across our faces, longer than any ice age or the stem
of any Jurassic plant that once floated
across the floor of the ocean,"
(Meditation on Ichthyosaurus at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA)