JM Francheteau’s A Pack Of Lies (Dog Bites Cameron Books, 2013)
There are a few things that are not important to this review of JM Francheteau‘s A Pack Of Lies: 1) the order of the poems in the chapbook; 2) the ability to read the poems without hearing Francheteau’s voice reciting them in various alcohol-soaked venues; and, 3) the completion of a numbered summarization of the book. As a collection, Francheteau’s debut poetry chapbook is meant to be an assembly of tall tales and meditations that does not progress in any direction, but develops like a conversation with a (slightly drunk and white-trash) story-teller who drawls on into the night with a twinkle in his eye that insists the lesson in his ramblings may be a bit deeper than you think. Francheteau crafts this voice with such precision and subtlety that, even if a narrative presents a buffoonish cast of characters, you can never be exactly certain that you are completely smarter or better than a poem’s speaker.
There is a fine line between intelligence and foolishness in A Pack Of Lies. Or it might be ignorance and experience. Or it might also be inexperience and a different kind of inexperience. Take, for example, the speaker in “James, who was pale and American,” and his recollection of his friendship with the poem’s title character. In the formation of the poem’s speaker, he remembers the influence of someone with different—and seemingly, though falsely, larger—intelligence than him:
James knew things I didn’t, like what an American
was, and why being one meant you had to go sit
in the coatroom while “O Canada” wheezed each morning.
I had a strange name and a mushroom cut, and believed him.
Francheteau fills A Pack Of Lies with these types of characters: people who appear more knowledgeable than others, or who can easily lie to cover up where their knowledge is lacking. It is inevitable that there are things that we, as people, are going to miss in our lifetime, but Francheteau’s characters want to know, see, and experience it all. Even the speaker in “For Robert Kroetsch, From Whom I Have Stolen” pretends—though he acknowledges that he has “never met Robert Kroetsch”—that he can still address the renowned Canadian poet and somehow have his words heard. This begs the readers to ask themselves, what is so bad about a lie that we tell ourselves? If we believe tall tales and staged wrestling matches, why can’t we also believe that we can meet dead historical figures, or that we will each be remembered long after we die? Though he may not believe it himself, Francheteau seems to want to believe that “pissing [his] name in this snowbank / [won’t] be all the mark [he] leave[s] here.”
Although I argue that it is this existential question that stitches together A Pack Of Lies, Francheteau’s strength in this collection is surely in his narrative poems rather than his meditative moments. Although the tongue-in-cheek sentiment of the poem glued to the back cover of the chapbook-box—”To the Person Considering Buying this Book at the Rummage Sale”—proves that Francheteau can carry his humour over from his narrative pieces to his addresses, pieces such as “Advice for Brood II” and “Albedo” stand out as almost incomplete narration. These pieces see Francheteau’s manipulation of an internal monologue, or an unspoken address, into a curious meditations on the existence of the things or people outside of the speaker’s own mind:
that smudge on my window so long ago
was some trace of your body,
of your being
that’s what I like to imagine,
from time to time.
Here, the speaker of “Albedo” recalls a series of memories that he is unsure about, simply because they are not his memories, just presumptions of possibilities for a life of a woman (the speaker’s sister?), who left and disappeared out of the speaker’s ability to follow her existence: “Maybe that change bought you a Greyhound / into the ventricles of America”. To say that this poem is solely about connection might be a half-truth; just as we are unable to know everything or be everywhere, Francheteau’s speakers face this daunting experience that, regardless of our connections with one another, there is truthfully little about our family and our friends—and especially celebrities—that we can know with certainty.
As a book-object that will outlive its author (and most of its references), Dave Currie and Lara Wlodarczyk at Dog Bites Cameron Books designed a chapbook that doesn’t look like a chapbook for poems that don’t always insist themselves as poetry. Bound in a cardboard box with loose-leaf pages containing each poem, there is no numbering or binding to direct the reader in an order. This, along with the insert of a web-link and download code for audio files of Francheteau reading his poems, insist that this collection requires a more tactile and/or aural engagement. There is something performative about the poems that is emphasized by these unique features to Francheteau’s book. Though difficult to get ahold of, A Pack Of Lies is a beautiful read, though you should be warned that existential crises are not welcome.