Civilian casualties; poverty, protocol, and joy in Trailer Park Shakes by Justene Dion-Glowa
(Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2022, $22.95, 96 pages)
Review by Tara McGowan-Ross
Trailer Park Shakes is a lot of things, and in being a lot of things contains a lot of things to like. It’s working-class writing, in the classical, economic-theory sense: this is not the writing of a suburban expatriate who just learned the word “kyriarchy” in their MFA. This is not even the explicitly Marxist poetry of writers like Joe Wallace, Avery Lake, or Brendan Joyce—it expresses, in fact, the violent ways capitalism robs the most economically vulnerable of the material requirements for organizing (From “The Slow Creeping Feeling that Everything Will Not be Okay”: “rebellion quelled by the almighty dollar / I’m too busy / I gotta go to work / I got a family to feed”). The work is Indigenous (one of the best poems in the collection is “shoovreu”, named for the Michif word for deer), the work is queer (“Crush(ed),” “Mixed Signals,” “she,” “Aces”), and the work is from a civilian casualty of the war on drugs. Dion-Glowa has the scars to prove it.
It’s the sort of book that would appeal to both a seasoned poetry-enjoyer and an uninitiated normal person—an absolutely necessary genre of poetry, a sort of ambassadorship which makes all poets look less annoying by association. I interpreted the work to be an attempt at self-authorship by way of narrative memoir. I also took it as a request to be understood. I guess most books are.
The book is broken up into three parts, which I understood as three separate comings-of-age, or a coming of age in three acts. We move through selfhood-generating experiences, both personal and systemic, to an adult perspective which contends with the limits and joys of that selfhood. We then move to a contextualization of selfhood inside of larger structures—namely: family, spirituality, time, and duty.
The second part is written in a very different voice than the first and third, as if it was from a different speaker altogether. The poems there are contemporary and snarky. They are the kind of spoken-word adjacent poems that kill at readings, but I find the transition jarring. The tone shift feels like an attempt at levity from the intensity of the first and third movements, which deal largely with one overdose death and another incarceration. While there is a stylistic shift in these poems, which moves in the direction of humour, they lack the openness and warmth of the adjacent sections. The effect is not, ultimately, levity. I wonder if I would have found the work more successful, overall, if it had been.
The poems in Trailer Park Shakes often suffer from a lack of restraint. There is a common misconception that a poem needs every line to be a high-octane emotional hit. Every concept explored in Trailer Park Shakes should be there—these concepts could be explored in the same amount of time and space, and be stronger, if more attention was given to the dynamics of how they work as a whole. Like a symphony. As they are, the concepts in the book feel crowded. They repeat more than they have to. This may have to do with the process of how connected work is modified from independent pieces to how they work as a collection.
Dion-Glowa is clearly capable of restraint, because there are numerous examples of restraint being exercised. The payoff is perhaps most obvious in “That Snapchat Filter Makes Me Look Like a Dead Man.” Short and to the point, the poem lulls the reader into a sense of security before devastating us with the final line. There is excellent interplay between the title and the text of the work. The lack of concept-overcrowding allows the poem’s central tragedy effective space to ring, like a bell in a graveyard.
Another of Dion-Glowa’s best assets is their talent for clear-eyed observations on the nature of poverty and its afterlives. Perhaps the most brilliant example of Dion-Glowa’s judicious insight is in “The Norm,” when they remark on the look of neighbours involved with the law: “squad cars packed to overflowing with the kids I grew up with. / Fully grown but somehow / not quite.” This poem contains so much—frustration at the choices made by the people in the cop car, as well as a compassionate understanding of which conditions lead them there, which are conditions of failure much larger than personal choices. In other jewels from the collection like “n8v aunties”, “Claim Laid,” and others, Dion-Glowa writes out of a generative ocean of pain, marries that pain with protocol, class solidarity, devotion, and duty, and ends up with a set of obligations. It’s precisely the complex way they process what they must do with these obligations—both with joy and great difficulty—which makes the work so beautiful.
Tara McGowan-Ross is an urban Mi’kmaw, multidisciplinary artist, and writer. She is the author of poetry collections Girth and Scorpion Season, as well as Nothing Will be Different, which was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for nonfiction. Her work has been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry, Letters from Montreal, and Anthologie de la poésie actuelle des femmes au Québec. She lives in Montréal.