British Columbia author Tanja Bartel’s debut collection, Everyone at This Party, delves into a person’s relationship to their environment, their peers, and themselves in a seemingly cynical and yet humorous, honest, and lighthearted way. Many poems centre around location: this party, a sawmill town, a subdivision, and more. Bartel describes what is outside of us in order to reveal the insecurities, fears, privilege, love and sadness within us.
The first and title poem “Everyone at This Party” opens with, “Look around. /Everyone at this party is someone’s horrible childbirth story.” This is not a happy image to frame the entire collection, but it’s certainly funny. I have been to this party and I have had this thought, even if it may not be true. The next poem, “Current Phobia One: Atychiphobia” accomplishes the same thing. Tanja Bartel is not attempting to feed her readers anything other than her truth, and this includes pessimism, fear of failure, and parking “in Drop-off Only/when [her] heels [are] too high.” The first two poems in the collection level her with us. Often we place authors and poets on a pedestal, and Tanja Bartel does not let us do this with her. What makes the collection great is how grimy and true it is. More than grimy and true, though, it’s funny. It doesn’t bring you down. The first line of the collection lets readers know that this book is tongue-in-cheek, but discusses nothing we haven’t seen in the world around us. I wrote “lol” in the margins of many of her poems.
The poem “Smiley Face” is relevant to today’s necessary focus on the Black Lives Matter Movement. Bartel recognizes her privilege and her place in the larger socio-political environment. As she floated in her mother’s womb, “Governor George Wallace squawked,/ ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” The poem goes on to paint the political climate of America, 1963, and ends with Harvey Ball, the creator of the popular yellow smiley face: “He and I both survived, thrived. Smiled./ So yellow. So happy” (14). Bartel frames the poem with her own privileged experience of surviving and of being “happy.” She frames and concludes the poem with what she knows while drawing attention to, and utilizing, larger political issues that remain relevant today.
I did not relate to or agree with every poem in the collection, though. I found myself feeling defensive while reading the poem “Sawmill Town,” for I know plenty of sawmill towns where their inhabitants are literate and parents do care for their children, but, while this is true, it may not be true of the sawmill town she writes of. The use of imagery in the collection cannot go unnoticed, whether I agree with the overall depiction or not. Bartel does not simply list the problems with the town, she paints them for us: “the highway to this town is lumped with roadkill.” The “Sawmill Town” may not be real like a sawmill town I know, but the images together create a fleshed out and vivid enough Sawmill Town that is real and believable somewhere.
Bartel’s talent for imagery is especially poignant in the poem “Love History,” which is entirely images. No specific stories are shared, but readers understand:
A yellow kind of walking. Dancing on lust’s suds. Something
creamy at the end of a scarlet bed of coals. Skirt held up against
The first stanza of the poem creates that same feeling of intense attraction that we all feel at the beginning of a relationship, and as the poem unfolds the images change so that readers feel the same come-down the narrator feels as her relationship ends.
Stylistically, the “Current Phobia” poems stand out because the whole collection feels like it is about fear and insecurity, about the things that can go wrong in one’s life and how these shape us. “Love History” does not end happy, and neither do most of the poems in the collection. The difference is that in the “Current Phobia” poems, these fears are spelled out for us:
allodoxaphobia, fear of opinions.
A class discussion is me talking; yet,
acousticophobia, fear of noise, includes my voice (“Current Phobia Three: Gerascophobia” 43).
The “Current Phobia” series stands out because it is no different than the rest of the collection in many ways. These fears appear everywhere, and that is true to life. No matter how far into the environment and community Bartel takes us, she always returns to the individual, to internal struggles, to images that illicit feelings we all know and are truthfully uncomfortable with.
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- Paperback: 80 pages
- Publisher: icehouse poetry
- Language: English
- ISBN-13: 978-1773101255