Poetry Review by Zachery Cooper

Evelyn Lau, Pineapple Express (Vancouver: Anvil, 2020). Paperbound, 105 pp., $18.

Pineapple ExpressDepression and psychological disorders are interior, so deeply rooting themselves in the mind, body, and spirit as to be invisible. In her eighth poetry collection, Pineapple Express, Evelyn Lau makes the invisible— depression, aging and loss, moods, medications and their side effects—visible. Until I went through cycles of addiction‐related depression, I thought of depression as a secluded and isolated condition, the affected person rarely seeing the light of day and held up in a dark, ominous space. The speaker in Lau’s poems illuminates the people walking through their days despite “the perma‐dark of November, grey latex sea, / sideways drizzle. Christmas looming / like a starved beast on the horizon.”

Pineapple Express is comprised of six sections, each named after a poem: “Family Day,” “Earthworms,” “Pineapple Express,” “Antiobsessional,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “You Are Here.” While depression is a common thread woven throughout the collection, I enjoy the way each section contains exclusive themes. For example, in “Mid‐Autumn Festival,” from the first section, where family and their influence on someone is a strong theme, the speaker reflects on how complicated love and emotional exchanges can be between children and parents in Chinese families:

But even if love was never said,
even if they called you fat little pig,
they kept nothing for themselves.
Drank mug after mug of hot water

to trick their stomachs into fullness
while feeding you mounds of rice
piled with pork and pickled vegetables,
bowls of congee studded with century egg,
pastries swollen with red bean seed and lotus seed. 

Later, in the title section, the speaker in “Cakewalk” tries to find anything colourful to hold onto, because “survival depends on finding caches of colour” in the long, slow winter months in a city. Then there’s this encounter: “Winter here is a cakewalk, says the man / from Alberta, and you remember that burning— / the torching of lips and ears, your legs / raw scarlet hams in the cold. Here it’s just / months of grey. The landscape stainless steel.” The comparison reveals a simple truth: everywhere in Canada winter is arduous. However, this section isn’t about Canada’s long winters, but the staleness someone feels while on medication: how each day blends into the next, like the cold, stainless‐steel landscape that never ends, similar to Canada’s slow winter months.

At first, Pineapple Express carries heavy undertones of grief. In the speaker’s world, “there is a glaze over everything, as if all / the objects in [her] vision had been dipped in lacquer.” Despite the pervasive grey imagery, something beautiful shines in this shaded world: the language Lau employs. And when readers find a language that describes how they feel, the world seems a little smaller and, perhaps, people become a little more visible, even in a large city like Vancouver.

Also prevalent in the collection are wittily crafted questions, which act as an ending or are introduced earlier in a poem to shift the plot or turn a phrase. The questions are reminiscent of “the turn” after the second line of a haiku—“the turn” being a shift in tone, feeling, plot, or seasons. “January,” for example, ends on a question. The speaker, presumably a writer, laments the mental and physical fog that haunts that winter month and how they can feel a void where nothing seems to be missing. “These are the days of not writing. / January, the month of no words.” This poem feels like an escape room with walls slowly closing in on the reader and speaker as “wine tastes watered down, food / so flavourless I gnaw a hole // in the side of my mouth,” and “the fog again, / shrink‐wrapping trees and buildings, // erasing the bay.” When Lau gets the reader to this point of near erasure, nearly halfway into the poem, the walls seem to recede, and the scene feels less claustrophobic and unsavoury. Line by line, the speaker guides the reader through the fog with slow‐to‐illuminate phrases, like “it’s not the light, or lack of it. Small birds / rustle in the bare trees, // searching for winter berries,” before stating, “nothing’s missing. What’s not here?” Questions in other poems work in a similar way, as Lau’s poems invite the reader to probe the world around them like a philosopher always seeking new truths, experiences, and knowledge.

Pineapple Express feels like a series of doors, each leading to a room with another door and another room. Sometimes it’s daunting to move from one room to the next, since each invites intimate and emotionally tense scenes. At times, it may feel like “you are the smallest living thing in nature, / ladybug perched on a leaf, // close to nothingness,” as the speaker warns you about the side effects of medication (“Side Effects”). Or you may feel inclined to rub the soreness from your jaw after the speaker mentions in “Still Grinding” that “after forty years, your molars have begun / to crumble—rock to sand, stone to dust,” because your jaw too gyrates during those vivid memories embedded in dreams. But the speaker is there with you in every room, to help you pick up the small slivers of yourself you may find along the way. Lau’s collection marks an important contribution to contemporary literature on depression, surviving trauma, and grief, because when someone collects enough pieces, they start to see their self again.

—Zachery Cooper

As in The Malahat Review, 216, fall 2021