Kayla Czaga’s debut collection, For Your Safety Please Hold On, is an earnest affair that exemplifies the good and bad of debut collections. An MFA graduate from UBC, Czaga’s work approaches family and girlhood from an outsider’s perspective, and the decisions she makes are often interesting, if not a little too precious. Individually, the poems offer increasingly diminishing returns, and yet together they form a tapestry that carefully examines what it means to be part of a family and what it means to be a young woman. In part the issue is tone, which is nearly identical in every piece. The cases where it shows the cracks in her work, however, should be overlooked instead for the poems in which her choices show great promise.
Beyond a doubt, the most interesting choice Czaga makes comes right out the gate in the first section, titled ‘Mother and Father.’ The poems make mention of Czaga’s mother’s deathly illness, and yet the focus of almost every piece here is her father, a Hungarian immigrant who fled to Canada as a boy. While the decision can be looked at as the young poet’s inability to cope with death, the move proves to be a wise one, allowing the section to eschew grief in favor of focusing on the love for her one living parent, and how she navigates accepting and denying his decline and inevitable death. In “Biography of my Father,” Czaga lets us see her father the way she knows him, painting an image of his essence as both a man and parent. Here, we learn he inked his own name onto his arm and “spent 1970 in Stanley Park, without teeth.” His teeth make appearances throughout this section, disappearing in 1970 and reappearing as dentures after meeting Kayla’s mother and wishing to appear more becoming. They serve as almost a kind of currency, wherein their absence signifies loss. In “Funny,” for example, Czaga sees an elderly man on the bus without teeth, the image stoking ruminations on small ways she disappointed her father, regrets, apprehensions, as the poem swirls all of these things into an ending where Czaga remembers having run away from him and into the forest. The last line adjusts the path of the poem, stealthily invigorating it with life and possibility as she confesses “I drank river water; I flipped over dead fish with a stick.”
The second section is a stretch, and arguably unnecessary. Stuck between ‘Mother & Father’ and ‘For Play,’ the section struggles to find its footing in the way it connects to the collection as a whole. Being a reader of similar age and writing pursuits, it’s understandable to me that Czaga would like to focus on family in order to both let her preoccupations go and begin to form deeper relationships with members and unearth deeper truths in writing. Ultimately though, she proves to be a poet afraid to get into the darkness and hatreds that shape her views on her family, which is disappointing and leads to the section feeling aimless, waffling as it does to no real poignancy or honest point. It’s easy to read into it that Czaga knew this going in, but either lacked better work or assumed it would read better once they were placed in a collection, as the poems begin as detailed caricatures and never quite figure out how to transcend their limits. Here too, despite their aimlessness, each work showcases Czaga’s patience and eye for detail. In “The Drunk Uncle,” Czaga begins by going through a laundry list of typical descriptors of the troubled, silly uncle. Midway through, however, she hits upon the lines “Unexpected/ best friend of the religious aunt, he pecks her/ cheek as they hobble the two-step.” Afterward, the poem breaks open, getting over it itself in time to make room for the underpinning sadness of the uncle to shine through. It’s not the line work but the timing of lines that marks Czaga’s talent. “The Drunk Uncle” needs to go through the motions and seem rote to set up the reader to be surprised, just like one of the subject’s jokes or stories. Even in a section that struggles to make something of itself, she still manages to create powerful scenes when hitting upon the right subject. The self-assured poems hit hardest specifically due to her age. Again, maybe it’s finding the collection relatable in terms of subject matter and wanting to discuss it, but in a collection full of flittering uncertainty, written by someone in the middle of the decade in which flittering uncertainty is part of the emotional landscape, the poems that show confidence are those that highlight Czaga’s gifts best.
As the collection moves forward, Czaga begins to show her range. If the poems concerning her father seem like they’re probing an unasked question, those focusing on childhood and girlhood practically assemble a search party. In “William Cook,” Czaga steps back into the memory of a young boy accidentally killing a small bird. There’s a roadblock of end words and beginnings that force a slow reading, and the environmental details give it a cinematic quality, the impression of being an upturned hidden memory. Here, just as in “The Drunk Uncle,” William Cook begins his life in the poem amid a chorus of exposition. He rides his bike, acts tough, roughhouses, and romps around as the quintessential second grade boy. Here, the exposition doesn’t lead to a point that smacks the reader in the face, but rather it mixes into a small, life changing event in a child’s life: the experience of death for the first time. Cook goes from being a kinetic force of boyishness to the blubbering, unwitting killer of a robin. Interestingly, the poem seems intent on solving how this occurred. It’s as if, even now, Czaga doesn’t understand what happened in between Cook being deified as “the biggest, the most jeans/ ripped,” and him choking up and urging “Ma, don’t be/ so mad“ while the bird lays dead in his hands. Ultimately, Czaga doesn’t press further, and instead leaves it to the reader to interpret the clues. This decision, surprisingly, doesn’t play as being too clever or the decision of a lazy writer. In truth, when considering what decisions work best in terms of suiting the work, the open-endedness of these poems is the most honest, in my opinion, as it speaks to the uncertainty of those small bursts of adulthood/reality seeping and budding up through the chalkboard-covered sidewalks of our childhood. There might be answers present, clear indicators, but in reflecting on adolescence, hard life lessons seem to pass through like rain storms.
The collection’s shortcomings ultimately stem from a lack of real experience. There’s a story that goes Lucy Brock-Broido confided in Stanley Kunitz that she feared she was out of poems after the release of her debut collection, A Hunger. His advice, as the story goes, was to “Get out there and fucking live.” Beside the poems concerning her father, setting aside her interesting play with language and syntax that give a wonky eyed sense of “the immigrant voice,” the most notable thing about Czaga is that she’s aware of these first awkward steps and addresses them in a piece that pulls no punches, coddles no starry-eyed naivety of the twenty something. in “May Contain Traces” Czaga harkens back to a memory of a boy with peanut allergies being rescued by an aid with an EpiPen. She moves through the introduction of the allergic boy, dead bees in China, and the unhealthy North American diet. Unlike other poems throughout, this work finds its poignancy by the seeming plainness of the language, how it doesn’t begin “like a poem.” The middle of the poem is the most careful with language, and begins to open up the poem with phrases like “My produce, hauled north for two weeks/ from California, reeks of truck stop-/this apple could actually be a candle,” do most of the heavy lifting and elevate the diction just so. Gravity comes from bringing up these three topics again, as Czaga uses them to highlight her own ignorance, both in terms of global issues and life experience. She ends by saying that she wishes she “could live quietly in China, painting fruit/ onto trees, thinking of the preservatives/ sprinkled into me, thinking isn’t it lovely/ how someone wants to preserve me?” This confrontation of her limits, this clever structuring of an attempt to take herself to task is what makes Czaga someone to stick with, and someone to believe in come her next collection. As twentysomethings, we have our small dreams of what constitutes a life worthy of our skills and sensibilities. With this collection behind her, Czaga is in a better place to build towards that and recognize what risks did and didn’t pay off the first time around. As someone working on building toward a collection-hoping it will be every bit as uniquely me as Czaga’s debut- I, for one, am rooting for her.