That Shouldn’t Be Funny, But Is

For Your Safety Please Hold On by Kayla Czaga - Review by Claire Kelly

Nightwood Editions - $18.95

It is International Women’s Day. I am sitting down to write this review, which is my debut to reviewing. My own book, a debut, will be released this month, making me a debut female poet, writing about a debut book, for a journal called Debutantes. Kayla Czaga’s For Your Safety Please Hold On is a brilliant debut, with verbs that knock my proverbial socks off, with humour that has weight and movement, like a rhino barrelling at you that stops and winks. The humour is not fluffy; again, like a rhino, it is humour with a thick skin and with a horn that can gore you to the quick.

The first time I sat down to write this review, I was in the Edmonton Airport on the way to my uncle’s funeral. I was waiting for the cheapest last-minute flight, which wasn’t very cheap at all. Like Kayla Czaga’s father, my uncle was a European immigrant and a character unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. I see facets of him in these poems: in the gambler and in the love for his wife. I am moved by these facets. I was in an airport gate lounge, trying not to cry. Everything is temporary, will cease, even this long wait for a long flight.

Like Kayla Czaga’s father, my uncle was a European immigrant and a character unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.

There is so much temporality in Czaga’s work. Bodies are fragile and come to an end: “Mother’s kidneys fail us,” she writes in “Biography Of My Father.” A loved one standing in front of you will one day not be standing in front of you, or sitting: “He sat in his burgundy recliner … gradually predeceasing himself” (“The Grandfather”). There is also much medical talk, which I notice probably because I’m reading this so close to my uncle’s death, after weeks and months of news about doctors and hospitals coming from my mother’s practical voice.

Czaga writes, in “Funny”:

Father, you

are not yet dead, though doctors keep removing bits

of you. Soon you’ll carry me around, a few floaters in a jar,

you shout through the phone. That shouldn’t be funny,

but is….

There is another facet I hit on. Kayla Czaga’s writing is ruthlessly funny. Like my uncle mishearing a doctor’s question asked in English and telling my mum randomly, “You can have my liver.” What to say to such an offal offer?

Humour in Czaga’s writing has movement because it is necessary for survival. In the spaces when the reader’s mind is midair, humour – and darkness – lives, like here, in the poem “Wildest Dreams” as her lines pivot:

In airports, the escalators go

despondent when people aren’t on them,

slow. If only we had been designed

with as much focus. I wanted to help

animals and then someone explained

‘put down’ to me. I wanted a horse

as big as my imagined Nebraska,

cantering.

Taking an escalator through death to Nebraska, cantering. I’m a fan of this hopping around. Of not letting readers settle like sediment in expensive wine. This is poetry that requires agility.

The daughter’s position is one of never quite knowing. She must do the precise, finicky work, stitching, sewing—work that is usually considered women’s work—to attempt to know.

Positions. I am thinking of what it means to be a young woman, a young relative: daughter, granddaughter, niece. What power and limitation, what vantage points are given and taken away by these positions. The first two sections of Czaga’s book lyrically question familial arrangements. We access her relatives, their archetypal frames and specific details. We meet Czaga’s dad rendered strikingly, with his “Russian moustache” and memories of him “holding a rubber chicken.” Equally important, if not more so, we receive glimpses of the daughter’s desire to know her father:

In this city where so many beggars look like you, I am

stitching what I know about you into poems, sewing you

together before you die” (“Funny”)

The daughter’s position is one of never quite knowing. She must do the precise, finicky work, stitching, sewing—work that is usually considered women’s work—to attempt to know. All the while knowing that full knowledge is impossible: “Hockey / will be the last thing I understand about my father” (“Hockey”). In positioning herself as witness to her father and his complications, both physical and emotional, we see in her positioning the isolation of each individual, any of us, in relation (mind the pun) to whom they want to know.

While in the first two sections there is distance and inevitable gone-ness, the section titled “For Play” confronts the violence of childhood, both witnessed and partaken in. This violence is immediate and these poems cry out in haunting repetitions. They are not elegies, entirely, or are elegies sprung from a place too close for catharsis, like here in “For Play” and “Some Girls”: “A girl is game with how many licks / gets to her centre”; “What did / he mean, that girl is asking for it”; “A girl never wants to woman”; “a few boys set fire to their shorts ; “some girls murdered Barbies and some Barbies deserved it.” With each repetition the poems splinter girl and boy a little more until each contains multitudes...

They are not elegies, entirely, or are elegies sprung from a place too close for catharsis.

An exceptional book of poetry gives you many doorways; Czaga’s grants doorways of daughters and childhood and family, of pain, loss, and laughter. In this review I have not even written about the second half of the book. This month has been a rollercoaster, not a fun one, one that does not have enough padding around the head area. It has been a month of pummelling. Since I started this review, three or so weeks ago, my father and my partner’s father passed away, and my ability to delve into poetry and return with anything to pass onto others has temporarily shrunk. I am feeling too many feelings too strongly. But it may suffice to tell you that reading Czaga’s poems has always made me work harder on my own. To attempt what is impossible: to look at the people in my life more closely, especially since they and I will not be around forever, to try and understand where we differ and to evoke where we are close more thoroughly, more empathetically.