Surreal, absurdist, satirical, playful and yet, at times, deeply serious is how York English Professor Priscila Uppal (BA Hons. ’97, PhD ’04) describes Traumatology, her latest collection of poetry officially launching on Wednesday.
A poet and novelist, Uppal will read from Traumatology (Exile Editions, 2010) during the launch on March 24 at 8pm at the Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton St. (at Henderson Avenue) in Toronto. Refreshments will be provided, along with a cash bar and cash book table. Everyone is welcome.
Traumatology, Uppal’s sixth major collection of poetry, is a look at today’s modern physical, mental and spiritual notions of health from the traditional to the contemporary and the sublime to the ridiculous.
Uppal says people exert a lot of physical and mental energy in the contemplation of what is healthy from the first decision of the day – what to eat for breakfast – to being mindful of getting the proper amount of sleep at day’s end. Words like protein and antioxidants bombard the senses.
“I think as a society we are incredibly obsessed with ideas of health,” says Uppal, who is just completing a stint as the Canadian Athletes Now Fund poet-in-residence during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. "First Dr. Phil was supposed to fix us, now it’s Dr. Oz and the genetic and biological, instead of the psychological." Health has become part of pop culture.
“Even how we talk about it, the language we use – can we be cured, can we be fixed, can we be healed – is interesting,” says Uppal. For that reason, “some of the poems are playful; others are very deeply serious about how we deal with the sudden loss of someone. As a poet, it is fascinating material. What is the language saying, what are the symbols and metaphors? Much of the collection is like renaissance poetry of allegory.”
Left: Priscila Uppal
Two of the poems on the lighter side are “My Stomach Files a Lawsuit”, a playful, satirical look at the sins of eating, and “The Wheel of Blame”, where there is a host of external things to blame depending on the spin of the wheel, including biochemical imbalances and unresolved oedipal conflict. And “Restraining Order” has the soul forbidden to be near the brain. But Uppal also turns a serious eye to hysteria, fear and suffering. It’s a global concern. “The real struggle is knowing what to do with suffering and whether it has any meaning,” she says.
These questions around mental, physical and spiritual health have often come to visit Uppal. Part of this fascination comes from working as a pharmaceutical assistant in a drug dispensary department, from the age of 13 to 21, where she would decipher medical prescriptions and type them into a computer. Here she witnessed drug abuse by patients, as well as a willingness of the medical profession to overprescribe rather than addressing the underlying problems. “I honestly draw from that period a lot in my writing.”
That’s not the only period in her life that Uppal pulled from in writing the poems for Traumatology. At the age of two, her father had a boating accident that left him a quadriplegic. Six years later, her mother ran off. Her father, she says, is in the collection indirectly, her mother a little more. Friends, acquaintances, people she meets on the bus, perhaps, “they all make their guest appearance or cameo, bring something to the work, an anecdote or a symbol,” she says.
In her twenties, Uppal went to find her mother in Brazil. Does the poem “My Mother is One Crazy Bitch” capture some of the electrical storm of feeling brought about by the experience? Yes. “…At the checkout desks of my subconscious I am writing postcards to all dead mothers out there, all dead daughters who never had a chance to meet in this life. I collect their tears the way I have been hoping to collect my thoughts. Unknown grief is sweeter, I write…”
The two times Uppal travelled to Brazil to meet her mother – “I think I draw from a lot in mother figures I write” – will also be part of a memoir and a play that she is currently working on.
Uppal is also the author of the poetry collections Ontological Necessities (Exile Editions, 2006), Confessions of a Fertility Expert (Exile Editions, 1999) and Pretending to Die (Exile Press, 2001), and of the novels To Whom it May Concern (Doubleday Canada, 2008) and The Divine Economy of Salvation (Doubleday Canada, 2002). She is the editor of The Exile Book of Canadian Sports Stories (Exile Editions, 2009) and The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World (Exile Editions, 2009).
Ontological Necessities was shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize.
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer