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Jay Ritchie, Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2017.

With his debut collection of lyric poems, Jay Ritchie firmly plants himself in the ever-blossoming terrain of Anglo-Montreal poets. In their uncertain but affectionate grasp of the polis (its sidewalks, bagel shops, and shimmering populace), the poems in Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie are themselves personifications of the commonplace, as the winking narrator unscrews another dépanneur wine by the fountain spray in Parc Jarry.

The opening poem, “What Lispector Did with the Rose,” reveals the poet’s contemporary and modern influences, inevitably calling to mind the work of Laura Broadbent (whose second collection, In on the Great Joke, includes a fictional, posthumous interview with Clarice Lispector) and the self-declared “male genius” of Gertrude Stein (whose “A rose is a rose is a rose” forever changed the clichéd love object).

At its most profound, Ritchie’s book appears to spout a tongue-in-cheek new-age wisdom: “Going outside is the only way // to have anything interesting to say / about interior design.”

These lines arrive in the midst of a poem titled “Town of Mount Royal,” in which the lyric speaker struggles to articulate something about the essence of a day in the city. The struggle is enacted through references to everyday objects—a “laundry machine” and “the New Balance / shoe”—as well as language lifted from contemporary discourse, as in the poem’s self-deflating final line, “I can’t even.” In this mix of the profound and the ordinary, Ritchie unearths the small miracles of urban life:

Years later,

you buy that yellow
coat. It changes
the way I breathe.

In a remarkable synchronicity of form and content, the line breaks also change the way the reader breathes. Saying these lines aloud, the possibility on which each clause will end seems nearly infinite

One of the most arresting poems of the book comes near its end. “Softcover” is a love poem to a beloved as well as to literature itself, specifically that of Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin. The poem describes the quiet tension that can settle over a relationship, diving into the complicated and knotted anger with lines of self-reflection and tender affection. When the speaker reads a sentence from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room aloud to the beloved, his glancing treatment of love and pain infuses the poem’s title, “Softcover,” with greater resonance. Even in turmoil, these lovers treat each other gently, tending to the simmering anger with care and kindness.

The final lines of the title poem, “Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie,” achieve a spiritual rhythm through their insistent anaphora, as the speaker considers “how there are omens if I want them, / how fragile and heavy the hum.” Those final descriptors—fragile and heavy—sum up the book’s central persona, who appears ready to break down under the accumulation of each new sensory experience. As an order, the title’s “Cheer Up” doesn’t exactly succeed, but it is a pleasant thing to be moping around Montreal streets with the perpetually melancholy Ritchie.

 

Jessica MacEachern is an English literature PhD candidate at the Université de Montréal. Her poetry has previously appeared in?Canthius,?PRISM, and?CV2. You can read her article, ““The Feminist Poet Re-Creates the Soundscape: The Excessive Noise of Lisa Robertson and Rachel Zolf,” in the latest issue of Studies in Canadian Literature.

 

ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.

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