A Feed Dog Book, Anvil Press, 2019
Reviewed by Kim Hunter
Mark Laba’s Inflatable Life is a collection of 35 poems pondering everything from Edgar Allan Poe to skeet shooting to TV variety shows he watched as a child, most now forgotten in the vault of broadcast history. Consequently, The Inflatable Life, features singing, dancing, drama, comedy, and commentary on gritty pulp fiction, “Borscht Belt” humour, ventriloquism, and comic books, so that the poems collectively present a kind of Jewish vaudeville both surreal and lyrical.
The poems seem ideally suited to the odd media moment we live in and are captured in Laba’s characteristic shock-and-awe, often baffling style. They are absurd, hilarious, troubling, philosophical, nostalgic, and disarming simultaneously. Jacket quotes call them a “semiotic funhouse,” “gear-crashing shifts from the sublime to the ridiculous,” and the cover features a one-eyed bird sitting on a steampunk train engine – surreal is certainly the order of the day.
Inflatable Life is a short book of 35 poems, his second book of poetry since Dummy Spit,published in 2002. In the interim 18 years, he has published one chapbook, Tusk-a-loos’a in 2017, to complement two others published in the 80s—Movies in The Insect Temple and The Mack Bolan Poems—and Africa: A Tale of Moscow with Stuart Ross in 1979 when active in the small press scene in Toronto. He has also appeared in two anthologies: Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (2005) and Our Days in Vaudeville (2013). Laba teaches applied communication for social issues, digital and popular culture, media design for social change, advocacy, media education, and civic engagement at SFU’s School of Communication. He lives in Vancouver.
The first poem in the collection, “Phil’s Wall Emporium,” is a four-stanza 18-line piece about Laba’s admiration of wall units in which he describes talking to other people about Edgar Allan Poe’s work: “‘Did you know that Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story/about a guy who kills someone and then hides/the body behind his wall unit….”
Laba references another writer in “The Wallace Steven’s Hit Parade,” divided into four parts: Gutterball of Bathsheba, The Bananas of Dr. Horst, Four Ways of Looking at an Alligator, and The Emperor of the Ice Cream Truck. He likewise alludes to John Keats and his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in “Vomiting into a Grecian Urn,” in which a puppet projectile vomits into one. Laba is irreverent and disruptive here, as he is in most poems in this collection.
In the last two lines of the last poem, “Skeet Shooting,” he briefly elevates the craft above sport by saying: “Because, after all, this isn’t poetry,/it’s a shooting gallery.” Earlier in the same piece he compares poetry to cooking a meal and eating it: “I put some language in a bag/and shook it up with crushed breadcrumbs.”
He returns to the subject of food n “Cold Meat City”: “while toasted marshmallows/ whacked against an oak door” and in “Tennis Lessons for the Homeless”: “It takes three ingredients/to make a perfect beef stew:/beef, potatoes and jaundice.”
Laba has a video on YouTube in which he pretends he and his emotional support ventriloquist dummy, Mr. Puscle, are being held hostage by inflatable toys (the only visible one in the video is a pink ostrich) with the ring-shaped body wrapped around the poet reading lines from the book. Here are charming, odd, irreverent, bizzare, and outlandish poems for readers who appreciate surrealism and Brussel sprouts, but which may grow on others who don’t have a taste for either.