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otter

Coping with Emotions and Otters
Dina Del Bucchia
Talon Books, 2013

 Review by Michelle Barker

Dina Del Bucchia’s debut poetry collection, Coping with Emotions and Otters, is a delightful and poignant satire of our narcissistic and celebrity-obsessed culture. Del Bucchia has a radar for the ridiculous: our propensity to deify celebrities (even if they’re otters), our love of navel-gazing, our desire for transformation in ten easy steps.

The collection is presented in two sections. The first, Emotional Outlets, is organized as a self-help compendium, complete with self-tests, affirmations, ‘sad libs’ and testimonials. Del Bucchia turns the tables on the giant self-help industry. Yes, we get the requisite instructions on how to be happy, but we also find out how to be jealous, how to make anger work in our favour, and how to make our shame blossom.

Del Bucchia’s approach is playful on many levels. She experiments with structure, and is not afraid to incorporate sidebars and YouTube commentaries. She also plays with the reader. Many of the poems are funny. In “How to be Angry,” she advises: “Weave in/ and out of the car-pool lane,/ cut off buses…./ Your regular spot/ is available, but a squirrel died there./ Back in quickly.”

If this book was only funny though, it would become tiresome. It isn’t. There is beautiful and moving writing in these pages. The prose poems in particular hit home. In “Registry,” the narrator hunts down her old boyfriends in gift registries and then imagines their fiancées based on the gift choices they’ve made. This one is about jealousy: “If she chooses Cuisinart over Kitchen Aid, she must have rounded nails. If she prefers Jamie Oliver to Gordon Ramsay, there is no way she likes it rough.” The pain is in the details.

The second section, Creature Comforts, shifts gears from self-obsession to our culture’s obsession with celebrities. In this case, it’s the hand-holding otters Nyac and Milo from the Vancouver Aquarium who became famous through YouTube . “Before social media, you were a nobody,” Del Bucchia writes. And now look: “…plush toys, mugs/…a TV movie starring/ Jennifer Love Hewitt….” Del Bucchia’s weaving of media remarks into the poems highlights our tendency to worship just about anything.

I was grateful that Del Bucchia widened the net in Creature Comforts to explore human interaction with other creatures. In the poem “Spider,” a spider in the narrator’s bathroom “…looks homemade, crafted/ in art therapy. Eight toothpicks/ snapped, hot-glued/ to a hollow bead of glass.” The cold reality is that the spider won’t last past the following morning because its web is too close to the light bulb and the narrator always leaves the bathroom light on.

An interesting dynamic emerges: while we are turning our creatures into miniature versions of ourselves, we also forget that we, too, are creatures.

The danger in a book such as this is that it will date itself – and yet that is the danger built into all poetry that functions as social commentary. Poets who are not afraid to speak out are valuable to our culture. Their outward-facing perspective forces the reader to look inward, where the view might not be so attractive.

This is a focussed collection with, of course, a fabulous title. Del Bucchia’s author photo also bears mention because of the way she mimics the picture of the otter above her. There is a lot of serious commentary in these pages – but she seems to want to remind us that it’s okay to lighten up.

Michelle Barker’s short fiction has been published in several literary reviews including Grain, Freefall, and The Fiddlehead. Her poetry was included in the 2011 Best Canadian Poetry anthology and in 2012 Leaf Press published her chapbook, “Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii.” Her first novel, The Beggar King, came out in 2013 with Thistledown Press. She lives in Penticton, BC, and is completing her MFA in creative writing at UBC’s optional-residency program.