Jon Paul Fiorentino Plays With Words, Feelings

Grim hymns. Photo Marisa Grizenko and Graphic Alex Manley

“Shh,” writes Jon Paul Fiorentino in Indexical Elegies, his new volume of poetry. “There are / poets trying to die.”

The quote comes near the beginning of the tome’s titular poem, and it neatly captures Fiorentino’s capacity to paint a sarcastic, almost self-deprecating smirk on top of a serious subject without giving over fully to either.

The 34-year-old Concordia creative writing professor, who will be celebrating the book’s release with a launch party at Copacabana restaurant on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 9 p.m., has a gem on his hands. Indexical Elegies is a winter wonderland of worry, meaning, affection, missed connections, prairie expanses, and more worry. It is hard to read it and not be tied up in its sparseness, its coldness, its bitter wryisms, or even its bizarre love/hate relationship with menthol cigarettes.

The centerpiece and raison d’être of the collection, “Indexical Elegies,” an elegy for Montreal poet Robert Allen, Fiorentino’s friend and mentor who passed away in 2006, stretches for 27 pages. It feels like a city in winter—all its inhabitants, unnamed or almost, hiding from the cold in their apartments, alone and separate, full of sadnesses, memories, and brief, foggy exhalations of happiness. It is beautiful, though Fiorentino calls it “the hardest thing I have ever had to write.”

“Elegy,” he notes, “is a very complicated kind of poetry, and it deserves a treatment that is somehow complex.” In that spirit, “Elegies,” according to the writer, “both honours and betrays” what Robert Allen taught him.

Despite the elegiac nature of the poem, there are more than a few instances where Fiorentino almost cheekily plays with the reader’s expectations, using words that visually resemble each other, juxtaposing words like “comely” and “comedy,” tweaking words to produce new meanings to phrases, as in “hysterical narrative,” and so forth.

“I believe in rigorous play,” Fiorentino says. “I believe in poetry that gives the reader a sense of permission to participate in the text.” Though, as Fiorentino notes, even with other poems that are generally darker in tone, that sense of play means that the poems are not without “some cheeky, fun moments.”

Indeed there are more than a few instances where the volume’s contents bring together two opposites. Sadness co-exists with humour, and the literary lays down with the crass.

Fiorentino also blends more straightforward poetry with short bursts of word soup. He notes, “that’s how archives work. Some documents are harder to parse,” and others are “hard to take because of their directness.”

This directness—particularly with regards to “acute” pain—is an asset to the poetry with regards to the reader, but Fiorentino admits it can be difficult for the author. At one point he writes of “Stash[ing] pain/in a volume of poetry/Where no one could possibly/find it,” at once a deft twist on the trope of writing as setting free, and a sly comment on the state of poetry sales today. Since he runs Snare Books, a small, Concordia-based press, in addition to teaching and writing, Fiorentino is well placed to comment on the situation.

Nevertheless, he has “no illusions about where poetry is in the publishing ecosystem. Generally,” he points out, “publications distributed by the Department of Transportation outsell poetry books in Canada.”

Which is more tragic than anything you’ll find in his poems, really.

Indexical Elegies
Jon Paul Fiorentino
Coach House Books
88 pp $16.95

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 05, published September 14, 2010.