Writing 'the gaps between what really happens:' Phobic, by Triny Finlay
Phobic. Triny Finlay. Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2006. ISBN 1554470331
In the first words of Phobic, Triny Finlay's latest collection of poems, we are posed with a psychological challenge: "how to not be obsessed with progress // The fear of panic for no precise reason." From these first lines we are given a clue of Finlay's poetic reach, her ability to take the isolation of a particular, Phobic state and translate it into a cultural concern, a universal panic. In Phobic, fear is a subtle, insidious, part of everyday life. It is inside dreams and our inability to order dinner from a menu, in the baby names we weigh and choose. The phobia Finlay writes about is institutionalized, inside language and expression, a way of seeing the world, learned as early and unquestionably as penmanship, our first careful attempts at putting words to a page "using a finger as measure, / then our eyes."
In Phobic Finlay subverts typical notions of progress by writing the reality that takes place inside "the gaps between what really happens." The poems are a dissection of moments, a hyper-awareness of environment, the ritualistic study of a waiting-room clockface and its magnified second hand. Finlay writes the split of a moment into its own dimension, resisting, in some way, modern notions of time, what she cleverly refers to as "the mathematician's advances." The future is seen as something broken, unreliable, to be "breathed in particles." Fear is in the waiting, in the anticipation of particular moments: a tracker stalking his target, a player strategizing in the game of clue, the suspicious van that always follows, and as the narrator reminds us, "[t]he following is key." The poems hover in moments that for one reason or another have become halted, that exist somewhat outside of the action, moments that are composed of, "[a]lways the Shangaan tracker raised at the front of the jeep in a jump seat and the others chilled and still and ready."
Phobic pulls the reader inside the metaphorical waiting room, in the tension of what is to come, stuck on "the next move." The poems anticipate, fret, hunt for movement. In "Of What Passes Between," we are given a type of Phobic paralysis where the poem writes the unevent, what happens in the invisible moment of decision before dinner is ordered, the "stories we couldn't hear," "that cruel elephant" in the room. It is in this waiting, in these gaps, where reality happens. The antithesis of progress is in the unresolved, in a dimension of time that moves ahead with an anti-progression: "eight-thirty came and went, the baby / fell asleep on my shoulder, and we ate nothing."
Finlay presents a phobia that is the productivity of a culture cut-off from itself, a world that plays out like the constructed reality of a "Truman Show." The poet transcends the particular into the universal by showing us a fear of inheritance, something we are not only bound to, but that we participate in, unconsciously, and pass on: "Think of the son who built bridges / but dreamt of swallowing the sea // whose motor skills crumbled whose heart / lost pace // His hands are my hands." The notion of inheritance is subtlety yet precisely, rendered through the ominous use of "the son" who is at once grandfather, father, grandson and child. Along with notions of inheritance is the cruel irony of hope, the steadiness of a bridge arching over a drowning. And that both this hope and fear belongs to the past and present, the hands of the drowned and the hands of the living.
The cultural phobia Finlay suggests in this work is subtle, but potent. In "Of Being So Careful," notions of being bound to fear are supported not just in subject, but in linguistic play. Here cultural identity, particularly in regards to domesticity, economics and marriage, is embedded in language: "we are tied to it, tied / to apron strings / purse strings / rings on our fingers." The "rings" in "strings" subtly, beautifully resonates the oppressive learnings strung through the language of a patriarchal culture.
However, these poems are not without hope. There is a cathartic element to the work, as if naming the fear will relinquish it. In a meditative style, the book is a list of phobias: "Of What is Cut or Negative," "Of the One Who Got Away," "Of That Primal Sameness." In "Of the Thaw That Winter You Went Crazy" the narrator finds ultimate hope in words: "as if words might steer you away from the cracking, from slipping between the boards, or drowning."
The poems also have a very distinct cinematic element to them, "synchronizing our focus" on that which has been edited out for gentler viewing. Reading like little films of the discarded cuts, the poems are at once personal and removed, inside and out, watched and lived, resulting in the sense of an existential panic attack. There is a polyphony going on, an "other" witnessing voice of an editor in the background who has cut out "the wreckage," the therapist's moralistic monotone "(describe a typical day, describe any medications, palpitations, indications)", or time itself chanting "your age now / your age now."
But this objective, often clinical tone to the work does not at all sacrifice heart. The poems move forcefully, confidently, with an honesty that has the power to transform phobias into prayer, fear into change. Change is suggested in glimpses, in the recurring presence of a baby. Whether waiting for a name that "(they) sing from the feet / up, testing buoyancy" or sleeping "strapped / to (a) burgeoning chest," or even when referred to in the past "[a]fter the bliss of the baby came the flies," the presence of a newborn fills the work with a quiet hope.
What Finlay pulls off in this slim collection holds the weight of a full-length book. Finlay's Phobic is as haunting as it is hopeful. In a world infatuated with technology and materialism, speed and progress, Finlay teaches us how to liberate ourselves from fear by breaking open its pixelated moments: "because we have all been pinned for exhibition / or reduced to a single pixel-point, trapped / in a room." So, "how to not be obsessed with progress?" Clearly, Finlay has found the answer in the asking itself: write poetry.
Published by Gaspereau Press' The Devil's Whim Occasional Chapbook Series, Phobic is issued in a numbered edition of 250 copies at the exceptionally-low price of $4.95. This small collection is handsomely wrapped in a thick stock cover with the title and author's name blocked in magnified pixels.