That Light Feeling Under Your Feet by Kayla Geitzler
That Light Feeling Under Your Feet by Kayla Geitzler, NeWest Press, 94 pages, $19.95
Kayla Geitzler’s debut poetry collection, That Light Feeling Under Your Feet, will take you on the ocean, but these are not your grandmother’s travel poems—unless Granny is a socialist rabble-rouser and cross-cultural defender of the working class (please tell me about her if she is).
Geitzler’s collection starts with the entry page from her seaman’s passbook (called a “monster booklet” in the original Dutch) from her time aboard megaships. From port to sea to exotic destination, Geitzler then doles out anthropological and sociopolitical takes, each poem a small survival pack of wry humour and brutal insights.
Like a Carl Sandburg of the seas, Geitzler uses lyric poetry to hone in on the intricate details of the working class and the culturally exploited, from the taste of survival biscuits to the creative historical lies told to naive but monied tourists.
Geitzler adeptly suggest how today’s luxury ships not only reproduce but caricature or exacerbate the same class, gender, and race inequalities and dangers of home, as in “Food and Beverage Manager”:
self-defence class doesn’t teach how the weight and pain of him presses the breath out of
No and Stop: instead listen—to the engine’s steady chug, the Indonesians singing
the intoxicated melody of my national anthem;
The book’s first half, “Saturnalia of the Seas,” looks closely at the lives of crews and passengers aboard this floating, permanently festive city. Geitzler has a gift for combining clear description with resonating assonance.
Using a broad range of structured poetics, she offers vignettes of the everyday moral, sexual, and class struggles she saw as a “shop girl” selling souvenirs to the wealthy, elderly, lonely, or far from home, sometimes in trying circumstances: “Four days of the guests from hell: vomit in the stairwells, riots over / souvenir maracas and 3XL T-shirts; stewards and bar staff weeping.”
The book’s second half, “The Nether Ships,” takes us further ashore, on field trips along the Amazon, into Victoria, and through Alaskan history. Alas, Geitzler’s poetry becomes more arduous as she progressively incorporates more opaque language and regional terminology. It’s an effective trick to give readers the sense of being left outside of secret cultural understandings, personal agendas, or corporate strategies. But if, like me, you have limited patience for obscurity, it’s a trick you may get bored with well before the book ends.
Overall, That Light Feeling’s poems feel sturdy and true, even when the world and lives they describe are far from it. The stories they tell will make you want to rail at class and gender norms, and at the cultural and economic expectations we place on ourselves and each other, even when given a chance to resist.
One thing they won’t make you want to do is take a cruise.
In only 130 remarkable pages, Thúy has expanded sentences into stories and woven poems into passages, each with their own beginning, middle, and end. In one breathtaking passage, Thúy skilfully likens Vi’s blossoming romance to a mysterious flower: “He compared me to the rare udumbara flowers, which the
Buddhists said appeared only once every three thousand years, whereas in fact they hid by the hundreds beneath the skin of their fruits. Sometimes they escaped to blossom a lead, on a wire fence, or in my entire body after our first kiss.”
Thúy integrates Vi’s story beautifully within her family dynamic and global history. While her family wants a settled and secure life in Quebec, Vi seeks adventure and romance: “My brothers and my mother were not happy to receive the pieces of the [Berlin] Wall I brought back. In their eyes, they were proof of my escapade with Tân, which represented a lack of respect for my ancestors, my culture, and all the struggles and sacrifices of my mother.” She is unwilling to get married and live a traditional life, thus she is a disappointment to her family—though she doesn’t internalize this fact.
The novel’s greatest achievement is subtlety in statement; there is trauma without the story being drenched in pain, there is feminism without a political lecture, and there is immigrant struggle without the model minority narrative. She has daringly written about the ordeal of coming to Canada without framing Vi as a victim or a victor.
While Vi’s education in translation and law and her career as a lawyer follow a respectable path and serve as an arc in the story, she is still a disappointment to her mother who wanted her to be a doctor. However, this tension doesn’t dominate the narrative, nor does it consume Vi’s consciousness. She is interested in neither conforming nor creating waves, a breakthrough in storytelling about the first-generation experience. And after reading this book twice, I still don’t want to put it down.