One of the most subversive pleasures of the fantasy genre is that it lends readers room to imagine alternative storylines between its constructed worlds. For every canonical narrative, there are endless adaptations, boundless realms of fan fiction, and many profit-ordained sequels or spin-offs. Occasionally, these narrative backchannels and undercurrents can dissolve the boundaries between our lives and our projections, between what’s permanent and what’s ephemeral, submerging us briefly into a sense of unexpected possibility.
In her latest poetry collection, Renaissance Normcore, Canadian poet Adéle Barclay does just that, by offering a striking interpretation of The Little Mermaid in the poem “MELODRAMA/lust for life.” She suggests that the fairy tale is about a lesbian dominant-submissive relationship, where “Ariel gives herself to Ursula willingly.” And from here, she proceeds to carve out the memory of an instance where this same dynamic has manifested in her past:
and when Daddy stabbed
their left hand shucking oysters
with a stolen knife
I pulled them into the ocean
so they could slip
their right fist inside me
The eroticism in this scene—queer, ethereal, laced with violence—recurs throughout the collection, which is deeply concerned with understanding how both physical and emotional affection can be complicating, satiating, or both. In “Open relationship with the fire in my body that keeps me up at night,” Barclay describes how doubt and uncertainty can unexpectedly warp the heart: “I unlearn trust like a sheet / sneaks off a corner of my bed / while my partner sleeps soundly.” In “Open relationship with the ocean,” she considers how desire can turn us unbearably desperate: “I am a bell / that won’t stop ringing / until you dampen me with fists.” And in “How many feelings do you feel in a day,” she contemplates how these competing impulses can make us contradict ourselves:
I always start to feel jagged
and have to leave for weeks
let separation become desire
get drunk on the swing
from distant to intimate
Barclay folds awe for both the terrestrial and the celestial—the earth, the sun, the stars, and most of all the boundless blue of the ocean—into nearly every poem in Renaissance Normcore. At times, I identified the speaker as an inverse of Disney’s Ariel, repeatedly expressing a deep longing not to stand on solid ground, but to leap from it and dive into the sea. As readers, we’re introduced to the ocean before we read a single word of the collection. It features prominently on the cover of the collection, where large crests offer a vase up to the moon. For Barclay, the ocean’s powers are manifold. It can overwhelm, quench, cleanse. In “Borderlines,” she writes:
I swim a choppy length
to prove something to someone
on the shore like the flowers
in H.D.’s Sea Garden.
(In H.D.’s poetry, floral imagery is often used to challenge strictures which confine femininity.)
In “Cardinal signs just wanna have fun,” Barclay is writing to a lover whose body she isn’t familiar with yet. Between the lines, she’s serenading the ocean, too. She writes between fucking and cleaning up:
my favorite sensation
is immersion in water
and this makes me you
want to set me on fire
See also: “I want to eat all of the ocean.”
In one of my favorite poems from the collection, “We all want marshmallows,” the poet and a lover fall asleep on a peninsula, surrounded by water:
all night because the voice that whispers
you’re safe needed to let go
and when it did I felt my boundaries
dissolve into waves and wind
In Barclay’s world, the ocean is always burbling with uncertainty and unknown—which is arguably the cost of freedom. Just ask Ariel.
One of the defining qualities of Renaissance Normcore is its striking sense of place. Reading through it doubled as a sublime journey across Canada: from Vancouver, to the Gulf islands off the coast of British Columbia, to Toronto, to Barclay’s rural Ontario hometown—transported by bicycle and train and airline loyalty programs and memory. In “How to enforce boundaries with physical geography,” Barclay describes the crushing quality of Montreal’s bitter cold months with such accuracy, where I felt a physical and psychic sting: “autumn knocks a dent / into her depression / that winter packs with ice.” Canada is a country of wide-open spaces, and Barclay uses that distance to emphasize how physical separation makes us feel powerless and sorrowful in our longing. In “Open relationship with the sun,” another favorite of mine, she writes:
this woozy feeling
more like confusion
over time zones
and how it’s snowing
in the mountains
as thirty-degree temperatures
smother the coast
While love and intimacy are the primary focus of Renaissance Normcore, shadows of trauma and existential dread flicker throughout. There’s a portrait of the speaker’s father where memories of abuse emerge gradually and hauntingly. Through childhood flashbacks, the patriarchal figure emerges as an overpowering force who exerts control over the most minute freedoms in the speaker’s life—like what she orders off a menu, and what kind of bathing suit she wears—along with the most consequential, too. In “Burn it all down with water,” Barclay writes:
I used to study biology
because my father
forbade me from pursuing
literature, moving to Montreal,
being gay, eventually
I accomplished all three
it’s okay now
a lot of my poems
refer to salt, the only residue
Salt—the speaker’s only remains, after she dives into the ocean and sets herself free of the past.
The aforementioned existential dread surfaces most visibly in “Peacock against the cold edit of reality TV.” Barclay drily observes the trappings of her place in the socioeconomic architecture of modern life that ensnares most millennials. She needs money so that she can pay for Spotify and can listen to music so that life might feel less “death-like.” Meanwhile, Queer Eye is streaming on Netflix—a show whose implicit message, beneath its veneer of sentimentality and social progressiveness, is that pleasure, comfort, and wellbeing are wholly dependent on economic means.
Barclay imbues these poems with vividness, and she also adorns them with a wry sense of humor. In “Dear Sara 7,” a memorable line sums up all of the conflicting forces within a resigned person: “sometimes I am a sexy hole and sometimes / a sad hole.” In the prose poem, “How old were you when you were first threatened with libel,” Barclay recalls a collection of jokes which she’d written and shared in middle school about her teachers—most notably a creep who “had a black belt, he was the one who taught the girls self-defence. I had suggested that maybe he enjoyed teaching us self-defence a little too much.” She was subsequently suspended.
Barclay’s sarcastic inflections are reminiscent of Patricia Lockwood, particularly in the collection’s opener. Titled “You don’t have to choose but you do,” the speaker imagines Henry Miller sending Anaïs Nin dick pics on Facebook Messenger, which I suspect is an homage to Lockwood’s memorable poem about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman exchanging “tit-pics.”
For a poetry collection that dwells mostly on degrees of intimacy with other people and with the larger world, Renaissance Normcore ultimately cultivates a sense of closeness between the reader and Barclay herself—stemming in large part from the sense that there’s a private playlist humming away in the background of the collection. Musical references ring clearly from every corner of these pages. Barclay conjures the familiar signposts of contemporary pop, from the sprightly buoyancy of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” to the indelible melody of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” The effect is simultaneously akin to infringing on someone’s solitude—like overhearing them sing in the shower, or recognizing a faint melody leaking out from their headphones—but also akin to rejoicing with a stranger over shared pleasures.
In Renaissance Normcore, Barclay creates the mythic space for this exact kind of communion. It’s a fantastic place she builds, tucked between the folds of imagination, deep under the surface of the ocean, in a world whose bounds she’s reimagined to contain her own.