Daniel Zomparelli translates Vancouver’s Davie Street

Daniel Zomparelli. Davie Street Translations (Talonbooks 2012).

Talonbooks’ write-up of this collection of missives from a specific cultural niche of the city, explains that they are carried off in a number of jargons & ideolects, ‘with each poem “translating” another chapter in his documentary of gay male culture in Vancouver.’ The poems certainly take us deep into that culture, & they present themselves as deeply personal, ‘confessional’ in the sense that they offer themselves as statements from the author’s life (whether or not this is more or less fictional, a
trope, is deliberately left ambiguous). At the same time, the ‘translations’ are right up to date in the way they represent technology & social media as part of the common surround.

For many, this book will prove a heady introduction to gay culture, with all its (usual) ups & downs, the highs & lows of living the life. In this, it serves a non-literary function, as the many poems dedicated to specific people in this world indicate. Still, the question that arises for me is: how well does it work as poetry? A number of the pieces feel as if they would work as well as short prose takes (& there are pieces, like the ‘Alphabet’ sequence & the finale, ‘Tomorrow,’ that present themselves as such, very successfully, too (perhaps kinds of prose lend themselves best to a Wildean sarcasm & irony]).

There are references & allusions that probably mean more to Zomparelli’s community than to many readers but the poems don’t keep anyone out. Still, he is concerned to write to & for a certain group: the drag-queens, the druggies, the one-night stands, the boyfriends, the mentor-writers, all of whom he ventriloquizes or translates in various poems. After all, the highs & lows of love, nights out, drugs, are all things most of us know, at some level or other, & Zomparelli’s wit, at its best, will catch most readers’ attention. We all get ‘Apartment haunted by plastic ghosts.’ Or ‘I had a career in careerism until I lost it all when the precession hit.’ There’s also a lot of what can only be called verbal collages, full of both commercial & consumerist clichés & what I also suspect are clichés of gay lifestyle: they raise the intriguing question of just how much of a knife-edge irony dances on in this volume.

I find most interesting those poems that set up baffles, some kind of formal restraint, like the sentence structure in ‘If You Are’ or ‘If Vancouver,’ the latter one very long sentence constructed of ‘if’ phrases (‘…if you can’t pay your rent, if art, if nature, if I forgot my umbrella again, if we are the ownership of death, if you have ever lost a loved one to Labrador lululemon leprosy call Sarah McLachlan right now…’). Or the variations on the glosa Zomparelli plays on at various points, & the sequence of poems in which the first line of one stanza repeats the final line of the last one all the way to the return to the first line. Here, the formal aspects also seem to demand a greater discipline within the lines: everything moves with great force & rhythm.

In the end, Davie Street Translations offers a fascinating glimpse into ‘gay male culture in Vancouver,’ but with its tip of the hat to raucous poetry of various historical periods, &, in its most formally interesting poems, a dash of wit & deeper intents, it reaches for something more, & sometimes finds it.

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