A REVIEW OF DINA DEL BUCCHIA'S
COPING WITH EMOTIONS AND OTTERS
BY LORI GARRISON
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 5 | November 15, 2013
Reading Dina Del Bucchia's collection of poetry Coping with Emotions and Otters (Talonbooks) is like having lunch with your funny-but-creepy uncle; even when he makes you laugh and picks up the cheque, you always leave feeling a little unsettled and not really sure why you came. Broken into two sections--Emotional Outlets and Creature Comforts--Del Bucchia's book mixes parody and poetry in a way that is clever and fresh but unfortunately awkward and often repetitive.
The first three-quarters of the collection, Coping with Emotions and Otters, apparently aims at teaching the reader to embrace/accept/roll around in the filth of their own emotional misanthropy. Written in a mixture of poetry and prose, Del Bucchia lays out step-by-step instructions on a variety of emotional conundrums such as how to “not let your own happiness fail you again, as it has so many times before” (41), and how to, “make your anger the best anger yet ... the most useful, awesome in the world” (27). These frank, often funny instructions--which really do feel and read as if they were torn from the cheapest, cheesiest, most improve-your-life-now guide from the latest all-knowing Hollywood guru--are coupled with a layout and design which immediately bring to mind any For Dummies book you've ever read, lending a feeling of authentic “hokiness” to the work. The “guide” is cleverly and realistically structured, even complete with “testimonials” from past readers and little symbols representing various emotions: a crying face, for example, for sadness, a cracked egg for shame, a martini glass for happiness (my personal favourite). If someone were to tear the cover off and hand it to you on the street, you might be hard-pressed to tell that Coping with Emotions and Otters was not a genuine self-help book, if not one that gives questionable advice.
And yet, for all the thought put into the design, layout and feel of the work, the poetry itself is often disappointing. Many poems fall flat, with awkward line breaks and poor rhythm. Regardless of whether or not this is a stylistic choice, it makes the work cumbersome and awkward to read. This lumpy, unmusical style is continuous throughout much of the book, so much so that poems are almost undifferentiable from each other; they could just as easily be lain together, side by side, somewhat as one long run-on work, really in any particular order, without much loss to the overall work itself. Some readers may find this rambling, semi-coherent, text-image based style pleasant--fans of bp nichol or Allan Ginsberg for example--but readers who care for a more substance-oriented or lyrical approach to poetry may be put off. Del Bucchia often attempts to shock/pique the interest of/offend readers with word juxtapositions--“soft lighting/ Wi-Fi connection, rat poison,” (42), or “lost dreams, catalogue clippings, soggy matchbooks and expired condoms,” (15)--but because both the style and technique of the poems are all so similar, this quickly loses its effectiveness. Readers who attempt to work through the book all in one go or over the course of a few days may find themselves bored.
The problem of repetitiveness in Coping with Emotions and Otters is especially noticeable because it is so thin; poems are universally short, with few pieces longer than a single page (there are a few exceptions to this in the second half of the work). This often works in Del Bucchia's favour, because the quirky, self-abasing humour which pervades many of her poems would be lost in longer pieces. Some poems are as short as a single line, which can be highly effective if well-crafted, as in poem #7 of the chapter How to be Angry, which simply reads, “Ruin a sunset.” It is succinct yet poignant in its implications. Conversely, if used sloppily, as in poem #5 of How to be Jealous, which reads, “Betray a dolphin,” it feels like a cheat. What does the double-crossing of marine mammals have to do with jealously?
Further problems abound in the second half of the book, Creature Comforts, mainly stemming from the fact that the two halves have absolutely nothing to do with each other. They could--and perhaps should--be placed in totally different collections. While the first section was designed as a parody of a self-help book, the second part focuses on celebrity and internet culture through the lens of the famous “hand-holding otters”--Nyac and Milo--of the Vancouver aquarium. The text explores the internet popularity of the animals in the modern era of video pod-casting and instant news–and indeed, a quick Google search for 'Nyac and Milo' results in hundreds of video hits. Here, Del Bucchia is on to something, as her topic is both unusual, her prose and poetry better-formed. Her integration of real commentary pulled from watchers of Milo and Nyac videos lends a sort of uncomfortable whimsy--akin to reading an old love letter you wrote in high school--to poems such as "Celebrity Otter Milo". This section of the work contains, in terms of content and quality, some of the best poems of the collection, such as "Celebrity Otters Nyac and Milo", which features the two adorable mustelids chowing down on a peacock to Del Bucchia's well-toned and thoughtful verse, “Whiskered cheeks/adorned with jewel toned tufts, / chest plates heaped with navy/ morsels teeth stained red/ lipstick,” (98). Unfortunately, Creature Comforts suffers from the some of the same issues as the first half of the work, and pieces of scrap remain side-by-side in the text next to genuine gems. The prose piece "Celebrity Otters: US" feels cheap, hacked and overly-simplified, simply repeating the lines, “They eat. They fuck,” (101) and variants thereof numerous times. While the point of the poem, given away for free in the first line, “Otters are just like us!” (101) is obvious. Very little artistry or care has been taken in its delivery, which may leave readers feeling spoon-fed. Furthermore, there is the problem of timeliness in the work. Nyac died in 2008 and Milo died in 2012 of lymphoma. It's now 2013. By 2014–or 2015, or 2016 or 2020–who is going to remember Milo and Nyac? Will these poems have any sense (or value) without having to refer to Google?
Creature Comforts then dissolves into a series of animal-related (mostly) poems that have nothing to do with the ones that came before them, which is a little confusing, given that everything prior to that in both sections of the work had at least a loose continuity to it. Oddly, these ending pieces contain some of the more interesting and well-crafted poems in the entire collection, such as "The Girl with the Chinese Character-She-Thinks-Means-Dragon-Tattoo" and "BULL," which opens with the attention-grabbing line, “I've been listening to him make a lusty ruckus for weeks,” (105). Unfortunately, their placement at the end of the work and their irrelevance to everything that came before it makes them feel slap-dash, thrown in as an afterthought, and perhaps not as able to be seriously received or appreciated for the funny-sad, kitschy style which Del Bucchia excels at.
Overall, the work is amusing and pleasant, although at times repetitive and more reliant on gimmicks than on substance. Given that the title itself--Coping with Emotions and Otters--is clearly meant to be an attention-grab; however, this isn't surprising. Readers looking for stylistically challenging and cerebral work will be left wanting more, but readers looking for something on the lighter side will enjoy Del Bucchia's funny, parodic, and at-times insightful book. While there are some decided stylistic failings in some of the works, Del Bucchia's poetry over all is genuine, funny, emotional, and, when she hits it just right, poignant without resorting to dramatics. The poems themselves, however, are certainly not destined to be “timeless;” due to their reliance on the context of self-help and internet culture they cannot stand on their own; if you removed one, at random, from any place in the first half of the work, and showed it to a reader without a contextual explanation, it would be substantially less powerful and almost totally meaningless. While Del Bucchia has some interesting things to say about the contemporary human condition and pop culture, it feels somehow unfinished and hasty. Her work has the mouth-feel of an under-baked muffin--a couple more minutes in the oven, and this would have been perfect.
LORI GARRISON'S work has appeared previously in Bywords Quarterly, Qwerty Magazine and the previous issue of The Rusty Toque. Lori currently lives in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where she is bunkering down for winter with her dog Herman, a bottle of scotch, and a 1930's .410 Savage shotgun.