Good literature often gets equated with difficult literature. We expects good books to do us violence, to twist and torque, excavate and eviscerate, and to change us in a kind of merciless way, by blowtorch or chisel. We expect the mind of the author to be something between a tool and a weapon. Very rarely is good literature equated with humour, joy and ease. And yet, Susan Holbrook takes this uncommon tactic with Joy Is So Exhausting, and the results are unquestionably excellent. Rather than carving out brains into a new and sharper shape, she startles us into transforming spontaneously, hiccuping and laughing our way through poetic transfiguration. Lori A. May’s review of this book does an excellent job of exploring her humour with both wonder and intelligence, acknowledging the labour of happiness that Holbrook has created while giggling along.
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Joy is exhausting. A pleasant demeanor and a gushing attitude can downright wipe a person out, and thus the title of Susan Holbrook’s second collection is a perfect comfort for those willing to admit happiness is hard work. Reading these poems is like hearing one’s thoughts aloud or, at times, not unlike the dialogue between lifelong friends over coffee, kvetching about life’s oddities, relating to one another’s idiosyncrasies. With Joy Is So Exhausting, Holbrook gives us humour, bluntness, shrugs of shoulders, and — yes — joy.
There is a great deal of humour revealed in Holbrook’s collection. In “Editing the Erotica Issue,” the visual cues and louder-than-the-page lines of dialogue take the reader behind the scenes, into the creases of the poem, to imagine the role of editor for a collection where writers-in-the-making beg for inclusion and quick-witted lines disrobe what may be behind closed doors. “Her skirt had a stuffed look, which could only mean she was wearing ruffled / panties.” Appearing early in the collection, this poem cues readers to the word play and imagination that follows.
In what appears to be an intimate confession of devotional love, “To Chocolate” reveals a love affair the reader should most certainly treat as serious, rather than comic. The narration dismisses those who believe chocolate is “some sort of cliché,” and offers every sort of experiential example of why chocolate heals, elevates, and even returns affection. With the personification of chocolate, Holbrook writes, “nobody will / ever love you the way I do” after much conviction has been demonstrated, so much so that the reader has little choice but to acknowledge the power of chocolate’s embrace.
Holbrook’s voice really shines through in “Good Egg Bad Seed,” a long poem that reads like prose, or a speech somewhat reminiscent of Vonnegut’s commencement address. “There are people who only cry in private and people who only cry in public” is the first line of a nine page poem built upon comparisons and contrasts so true to life, so full of social truisms you have likely thought to yourself on more than one occasion, the reading will come off like a memory — it will seem familiar, intimate, and yet not the least bit trite. Holbrook’s offering is simply honest, at times joyful, and at times blunt with the observation that there are essentially two kinds of people in life: “You say ‘I love you’ or you say ‘I love you too.'”
It is such keenness for social dynamics where Holbrook won me over with “Memoirs of a Canada Council Visiting Writers Hostess.” Rife with tongue-in-cheek observation and brazen finger pointing, anyone who has ever attended a large-scale poetry reading will inhale this poem’s truth and willingly nod along in a been-there-survived-that agreement. Drawing us into the audience, placing us in the uncomfortable, stiff chair, Holbrook passes the spotlight from one iconic poet to the next. We learn about the poet “who drank water looking at the ceiling” and we remember the poet “who kept reminding us he had been ‘much anthologized’ as if / ‘anthologized’ meant ‘knighted.'” And, for those of us who have witnessed every beat in the countdown tick of the clock at a too-long reading event, Holbrook reminds us of that scene-specific feeling:
The one who said ‘I’ll be reading for approximately forty minutes’ and then
read for two hours and forty minutes, interpreting every thank-god-it’s-
over smattering of claps as encouragement to continue, the only exit
door tantalizingly behind her, her animated head obscuring the glow-
ing letters variously, EXI, XIT, IT, EX.
While Holbrook occasionally pokes fun at The Poet, and sometimes poetry itself, by no means is she picking on her art. Rather, everything is fair game for fun in this collection of comedy, satire, truth, and joy.
Just as the book title suggests, joy can be exhausting but we take the bad with the good, the exhaustion with the elation, as the joy we seek is simply worth it. The audience who sat for nearly three hours at a poetry reading did so by choice; they wanted to be there, just… maybe not for three hours. But, as the poem “Good Egg Bad Seed” reminds us, there is a counteraction for every action. With every joy there is pain. With Holbrook’s second collection, the poet offers us a great deal of poetic joy to counteract familiar, worldly pains.
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Lori A. May writes across the genres in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She edits, teaches, and travels as a frequent guest speaker–all the while drinking copious amounts of coffee. Canadian by birth and disposition, Lori now lives and writes in Michigan.
Lori A. May’s review of Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook originally appeared in Northern Poetry Review in 2011.