ANNICK MACASKILL Reviews
For Your Safety Please Hold On by Kayla Czaga
(Nightwood Editions, 2014)
[First published in BONE BOUQUET, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Spring 2015, Editor-in-chief Krystal Languell]
Kayla Czaga’s debut collection, For Your Safety Please Hold On, caps off her triumph in the Canadian literary scene over the past few years, including publications in journals across the country (Room, Contemporary Verse 2, ARC Poetry Magazine, and The Antigonish Review, among others), and several major poetry prizes. Divided into five sections, Mother and Father, The Family, For Play, For Your Safety Please Hold On, and Many Metaphorical Birds, Czaga’s book follows a thematic organization, while the tone remains relatively consistent. Her playful humor and love of puns, for example (though most present, unsurprisingly, in For Play), run throughout the book. Consider, for instance, a stanza from Many Metaphorical Birds, on the subject of philosophy and baristas:
Jeremy is Hegeling with a customer
over milk-fat percentages,
Adornoing his pastry case.
Here “Jeremy,” the barista who makes appearances throughout this book’s section, appears to interrupt the poet’s musings on life, death, meaning, and the divine. Punning on two notable philosophers, Hegel and Adorno, the speaker reveals her characteristic lightheartedness, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of the coffee shop as the place where her readings collide with her reality.
This mix of gravitas and humor runs throughout Czaga’s collection.
The book’s first sections, Mother and Father and The Family, contain poems around the stated subjects, in which she unravels an origin story that tells of a childhood in Western Canada marked by tragedy, laughter, and her Ukrainian background. The poet finds herself at odds with her father, but in the best, most poetic of ways. In “Another Poem about my Father,” the speaker writes:
I don’t get poetry either. Mostly I get cavities,
junk mail. Once, I got eleven hundred dollars
in small change from my father for Christmas.
He said, You’ve got to work for your money –
meaning you’ve got to haul it through six feet
of snow to the bank, Good luck, here’s a bag.
My father is more like a poem than most poems
Alongside her parents, the poet showcases a coterie of family members, identified in the poems’ titles, from “The Family” to “The Grandfather,” “The Grandmother,” “The Other Grandmother,” and even, “The Not-Grandfathers.” Despite this generalized presentation, there is something highly personal about these characters in the level of detail offered by the speaker, not to mention the frequent use of the second-person voice. Czaga frames her version of a coming-of-age story as a universal experience, the family’s quirks overshadowed only by the profound sense of intimacy that emerges:
Your other grandmother drank her husbands
under the coffee table. She slapped your cheeks
with stories, kissed you with myth, carried
on into all hours, carrying children on
both her hips and shoulders.
Czaga’s poetry suggests a fine balancing act, tackling sensitive and personal subjects like family tragedies and romantic love without veering off into sentimentality. Never maudlin, her poems have a certain understated quality, as in “That Great Burgandy-Upholstered [sic] Beacon of Dependability,” in the book’s fourth section. A modern ode on love, it considers the cautious hopefulness of an early but promising relationship:
You thank my landlady
for dinner and roll away into a night
that imperfectly intersects with my own, and I try
to stop imagining the ways we could fail
Besides the aforementioned humor and puns, her style is one of carefully manipulated plain language. Czaga has a knack for finding le mot juste, without picking words that call too much attention to themselves, like in the beginning of “The Family”:
The religious aunt lolls in a lawn chair, large and alone.
Her moustache twitches, as she dreams of the Lord’s
The strength of Czaga’s poetry comes first and foremost from her ability to see the remarkable in her everyday, and to share those remarkable moments simply, without overreaching for a cleverness that would obscure the beauty that is already there. Her simplicity is, in this way, deceptive, resulting in writing that doesn’t look like writing, and a book that reads like a whooshing bus ride, as in “William Cook”:
His daddy’s in the navy and mom’s skirts
shortening with another brother. But Bill
will always be the biggest, the most jeans
ripped. Always the shit disturber from way
For your safety, please hold on, indeed.
Annick MacAskill is a Canadian writer based in Toronto and London, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in The Steel Chisel, Contemporary Verse 2, Lemon Hound, and Arc. In 2014, she was longlisted for the CBC’s Canada Writes Poetry Prize and shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry.