Dark, Loud, and from a Place of Love: JC Bouchard’s Borderline Definitions // John Nyman

John Nyman writes about how he integrates the experience of hearing works from Bouchard's Borderline Definitions in a live setting with his enjoyment of the poetry itself.

For many chapbook authors (myself included), it is rare to encounter a reader who hasn’t heard the book’s contents recited at a live event, usually with a familiar cast of local literary scenesters dotting the audience. A signed copy is often also a souvenir, bringing its reader back to a spatio-temporal experience not entirely encompassed by language. Nonetheless, the idea of actually showing up at a literary reading can seem completely foreign to the spectral figure of the book reviewer. When we write about literature, we typically present ourselves as readers first—and attendees never.In the guise of such a reviewer, I’d say that JC Bouchard’s most recent chapbook pulses with visceral description—“Skin, bone, miniscule knuckle-fucks” (“I Have a Fist”)—and abrupt insights—“On certain days the sun is a closed fist” (“Knots”); “Never be ashamed of what you willingly devour” (“Last Hour”)—juxtaposing them in a delicate montage of feeling. On their surface, Bouchard’s poems take up a well-worn tradition of terse, declarative, every-line-is-capitalized Poetry. But on a subtler level—that is, when I find myself inside the poems and their worlds—they disclose an experience in-between memory and body, challenging how we identify ourselves in the midst of natural decay.In truth, though, I have no choice but to be inside Bouchard’s poems; as an attendee and actual body in space, I’ve found myself immersed in the sonic and affective aura of his readings many times before. The two of us cross paths far too often in a certain dark, loud pocket of Toronto’s literary landscape, and Borderline Definitions’ launch event (held in the aptly decrepit back room of The Ossington this past fall) felt like a consummation of that scene.As with any organic community, the scene’s boundaries are ambiguous. To me, its roots are in the anarchistic and notably rambunctious poetry/performance art open mic series The Sophisticated Boom Boom and Outrageous (both now defunct), as well as the DIY poetry tours Worst Case Ontario and GO Big Then GO Home, both of which featured Bouchard. In any case, the peculiar energy cultivated by these readings and their descendants has proved an ideal home for Bouchard’s performance style, which combines his persona’s gruff sincerity with thunderous, even confrontational recitation.At the chapbook launch, Bouchard and his opening readers worked the room at full force, provoking both raucous laughter and a strangely evocative species of discomfort. Sometimes the audience, spurred by edgy or obscure lines, would unleash vicious bouts of heckling (at least some of which came from my direction). At other times, though, we would shout jokes, echoes of particularly memorable lines, or explosions of praise. Approaching his reading’s climax, Bouchard stumbled onto a folding chair and proclaimed that all his writing—even the most explicitly hateful—comes from a place of love. (If none of these descriptions seem to make any sense … well, I guess you had to be there.)On one hand, the text of Borderline Definitions will forever remind me of its launch. (A mutual friend recently asked me if I hear JC’s voice when I read the poems … and I have to admit I do.) On the other hand, Bouchard and his colleagues’ performative art—you might call it a kind of mood curation—isn’t strictly bound to the writing it uses as its vehicle. It would be a grave mistake to say that Borderline Definitions replicates the poetic style or aesthetic of its scene because, really, there is no such thing. These readings feature a profound diversity of creators whose works, interests, and ideas share few, if any common centres. (I often like to think that what binds us together most is simply the fact that we all show up, when we could be doing anything else.)Still, Bouchard does accomplish something that speaks to how poetry feels in a room full of fidgety misfits: instead of a series of research topics, set pieces, or all-encompassing one-liners, Borderline Definitions elaborates a texture of thought and emotion, immersing me in a life (his, but also ours) that’s open on both ends. It is a lived experience of reading, of being read, of being. As Bouchard writes in the collection’s title poem:

It is my greatest hope to neverbe forgottenIt is simultaneously my greatest hopeto be a broken spider web

Understanding Bouchard’s context—the scene I’ve been articulating here—is neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee toward understanding his poems; ultimately, you’ll read them however you read them. But I do think community helps us cope with the anguish that comes with that openness, where finding a sense of self that’s both unique and communicable can seem all but impossible. And though I’m obviously partial, I think Bouchard’s poetry speaks to that anguish, too. In “I Have a Fist,” he writes:

And I have a fistFeeling the carpet for bits of stone and glassI learn how to speak with rebellionCarvings in plastic tonguesAbsolution

In here, there are powerful, even crippling sensations—sensations we live and die with, struggling to give them voice. But out there, the languages of poetry seem boundless. We come as we are and say what we will.

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