USEREVIEW 128: Doomscroll Poetics
John Nyman parts the clouds and parses the pareidolia in this traditional review of ryan fitzpatrick’s latest poetry collection Sunny Ways (Invisible Publishing, 2023).
ISBN: 978-1-77843-018-3 |104 pp | $21.95 CAD / $16.95 USD | BUY Here
‘Field Guide,’ the long poem that makes up the majority of ryan fitzpatrick’s most recent collection, Sunny Ways, begins:
If I promised you a guide
to life in the twenty-first century
I’m sorry I failed you
And, oh boy, is this a sign of things to come. Casually self-deprecating, cripplingly deadpan and cynical to the point of despair, fitzpatrick’s writing is a record of fighting the noblest of fights — humanity’s fight for our future — and losing miserably. Extraordinarily perceptive, yet relatable to over-thinkers everywhere, Sunny Ways offers solidarity in a seemingly impossible struggle: to reconcile the banalities of everyday life in Canada with our collective responsibility for the ongoing destruction of our planet.
In line with the irony of its title, Sunny Ways probably isn’t a book that’ll make you feel good. Nonetheless, its merits are extensive. Distilling the enigmatic minimalism of fitzpatrick’s previous collection, Coast Mountain Foot (Talonbooks, 2021), with the intense self-reflexivity of his chapbook Dang Me (above/ground press, 2020), Sunny Ways achieves a near-constant mood of global anxiety that should be familiar to anyone following contemporary politics with a leftist or climate-conscious lens. Bolstered by a library of citations (both real and provocatively fabricated) and fitzpatrick’s sharp attention to everyday affects, the book conveys a state of mind that resonates beyond the genre of poetry. Though the work could be described as a poetics of process, it’s less about the process of writing than of thinking about what it means to live in the contemporary moment.
Key to Sunny Ways’ profundity is fitzpatrick’s unique style, which feeds on certain syntactical structures’ capacity to convey anxiety. Consider this passage:
can you write about something
without also creating a desire for it
or does writing the poem
add a critical distance
allowing you to reflect
on your own reflection
after it seems to disappear
in the funhouse mirror
Though its lines maintain a roughly equal breath unit throughout, Sunny Ways eschews the sense of closure typical of more consistent poetic forms. Instead, fitzpatrick deploys endless prepositions (“on,” “after,” “in”), conjunctions (“or”) and dependent clauses (“allowing …”) to sustain a punctuation-less run-on that lasts for the entire 80+ pages of ‘Field Guide.’ The poem’s chain of reasoning could come to a satisfying close at almost any line, but it never does. Instead, the reader is left anxiously anticipating a conclusion (whether syntactical or semantic) that’s forever out of reach.
In many cases, this continual qualification or hedging is more reminiscent of political speechcraft than page-bound poetry, especially since much of Sunny Ways takes on a decidedly nonfictional tone. This effect is most prominent in the book’s 13-page opener, ‘Hibernia Mon Amour,’ which uses a ubiquitous “no… but…” framework to hammer out a discursive disco ball of perceptions, distortions and deflections pertaining mostly to the Albertan climate and economy:
no there isn’t a natural process cheap enough for
real estate but
no these cedars are way too sensitive to
changes in light but
no that junk shot fired into the leak made for
great media strategy but
no I’ve never betrayed my CEO but
Blatantly rhetorical, but without clearly endorsing a single perspective, ‘Hibernia Mon Amour’ artfully portrays a society arguing with itself.
The voice of ‘Field Guide,’ in contrast, is much more personal, centring an unfixed “you” that slides between self-reflection and an indictment of local and national leadership. fitzpatrick’s ‘Reading Guide’ to the book (available on Invisible Publishing’s website) describes ‘Field Guide’ as a “poetic essay”; for my part, I often found myself reading the poem as I would a critical theory text, noting topics and positions more often than the shapes of words and lines. Nonetheless, Sunny Ways is also devilishly tricky to quote from, since any conclusive-seeming sentence is deeply coloured — or even undone — by the lines before and after. Though fitzpatrick invites us to do so, approaching Sunny Ways with an eye for rational judgement most often leads to a numbing, nervous ambivalence, similar to analysis paralysis. “[L]ike a gun shot into the air repeatedly,” fitzpatrick’s lines suggest urgency of purpose without a discernible direction. They unfurl like a doomscroll, as if we’re constantly falling forward into the next complication.
But what is fitzpatrick so worried about? Sunny Ways explicitly targets a well-known ideological complex: capitalism, colonialism, extractivism, climate disaster, climate change denialism and fitzpatrick’s own complicity in all of the above — particularly as a Calgarian and settler Canadian. Dealing with these topics is both essential and exhausting, a combination whose discomfiture is on full display in Sunny Ways. Still, fitzpatrick’s attention to detail helps his musings feel both fresh and multifaceted. For example, his pessimistic stance toward the ultimate value of poetry (“but anything else is more effective / than the affective potential of writing”) is nuanced by his meticulous discussion of how ‘Field Guide’ “substantively reworks” a nearly 10-year-old unpublished manuscript on extinct species, which fitzpatrick quotes from at length.
Despite its structural reliance on non sequiturs, ‘Field Guide’ is also shot through with recurring images whose meanings deepen with each iteration. These include:
- metaphorical permutations of hot and cold
- the “sapling”
sapling growing through the sidewalk
how are you living in the twenty-first century
- the “song” or “melody” of either sustainable or extractive living
- the “straw”
how do you live in the twenty-first century
taking a sip of San Pellegrino
through a straw you just banned
because a straw is a kind of pipeline
you can ban without letting go of something
Fitzpatrick’s criss-crossing between figurative and literal meanings also indicates a broader theme of Sunny Ways: the seemingly unbridgeable gap between abstract ideation and local, concrete realities. Sometimes this disparity features in fitzpatrick’s poetic language, as in the following passage, where abstract modifiers are paired with brazenly material nouns:
all this individualist silt
all this governing muck
all this presiding bitumen
Elsewhere, the distance between theory and practice becomes palpable in fitzpatrick’s depictions of the everyday:
you know that you know
a lot about history
and its panoramic scale
so you yell across the table
for someone to pass the gravy
Cumulatively, passages like these serve to amplify Sunny Ways’ sense of discordance between macro- and microcosmic understandings of the world. And this discordance, in turn, becomes yet another source of anxiety throughout the book, mirroring a kind of existential angst that’s flourished in the late Anthropocene. To state the trouble briefly,
No we don’t ever get to see the impact of our
lives in aggregate but
When it comes to the big picture, Sunny Ways isn’t entirely inconclusive, although its thesis is less a solution than a knot: as long as we follow fitzpatrick’s reasoning, we find ourselves caught between our moral responsibility for climate disaster and our relative lack of influence over the economic and political mechanisms with the power to do something about it. As fitzpatrick suggests plainly in the book’s notes, “I’ve tried to grapple with the complex systems that make conviction difficult and complicity frictionless. […] No one wants to be responsible for the end times; everyone needs to find ways to pay their rent.” In verse, he draws out the contradiction this way:
but who is the crisis
just look at your paycheque
signed in the name of crisis
didn’t crisis pay your rent
didn’t crisis spring for groceries
These insights are significant and deeply felt, yet Sunny Ways is also much more than a book of ideas. Stylistically, it’s unique among poetry collections in achieving a tone reminiscent of the documentary cringe comedy of TV shows like How To with John Wilson or Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal. On one hand, fitzpatrick’s absurd and hopeless scenarios test his readers’ tolerance for frustration. On the other, he strikes a morbidly fascinating balance between his speakers’ ethical failings and their unmistakable sincerity and tenderness. But where Wilson and Fielder rely on the larger-than-life settings of New York and Los Angeles to lend their productions a degree of ironic distance, fitzpatrick’s Canadian locales feel too familiar to simply laugh off. Further, the dominance of his poetic voice over every aspect of Sunny Ways (an effect that’s formally impossible in film media) makes the book’s cynicism claustrophobically difficult to disarm.
All told, fitzpatrick’s intense awareness of the feelings generated by poetry demonstrates that he doesn’t take the medium for granted, nor does he merely pursue beauty or brilliance under its sign. Instead, his poetics represents a radical attempt to align modes of reading and writing with those of thinking and living in a pervasive contemporary moment. As a result, Sunny Ways is bleak, sheepish, indecisive and sometimes a little annoying. Disturbingly, it’s also a force to be reckoned with.