By the third line of the first poem in My Heart is a Rose Manhattan, Nikki Reimer writes that her new work, this work, “is grief.” It is a grief that she will acknowledge again in the closing lines of that poem when she apologizes for both her grief and her new work. Work is, of course, carrying multiple meanings here, offering both a regret for the painful labour of grieving and an ironic apology for the poem and the book that reader has before them. And while the poems collected in My Heart is a Rose Manhattan are deeply marked by trauma and its attendant emotions, the playful wit displayed in the smeared meaning of that apology is perhaps the most important part of that complicated network. Grieving, as Reimer alludes to, is not an end unto itself, but rather labour and, when understood as labour, provides a space for agency and action. My Heart is a Rose Manhattan is a work marked by trauma, but it isn’t elegiac. Instead, through Reimer’s devastating wit and sharp poetic sensibilities, it confronts the traumas that inform it and moves not towards escape, but rather synthesis.
The traumas of the text are both specific and general, personal and public. Reimer makes it clear throughout that the separation or compartmentalization of these traumas is a false dichotomy. The private pain and crisis of the speaker is necessarily in conversation with the violence and loss of the world around them. This is, of course, not a shocking revelation, nor is it presented as such, but the book excels at presenting the way the dialectic relationship between these two forms of trauma doesn’t resolve but rather accelerates. The poem “I feel like I’ve reached peak Nikki Reimer,” where the primary focus of the poem is, as the title would suggest, on the personal and the tension and noise of anxiety, opens by declaring, “Nothing matters./ They’re shooting people in the streets every day.” This opening works to undercut the concerns of the rest of the poem—the persistent call of Facebook, the disappointing banality of the “middle,” the impermanence of material existence—because these anxieties are relatively small in the face of the continuing violence and injustices visible in the world. However, this is clearly a manifestation of the anxiety that the poem wrestles with. The idea that the state of the world, that some bigger and more important crisis beyond the self, renders personal pain and worry meaningless feeds the fire and compounds the anxiety because there are people who have it worse and things that matter more. The poem, like much of the work in the book, is specific in the way that trauma tends to be—the reader may not be experiencing anxiety or if they are it will look different from Reimer’s; they may not be experiencing the loss of a family member to disease; they may not be in the middle of trauma the way My Heart is a Rose Manhattan is—but it’s the specificity of the trauma, grief and pain Reimer shares that allows the reader to connect with the book and find solidarity.
The ability to find comfort through shared trauma is crucial to the work of the book, and without Reimer’s wit that comfort would be elusive. Nikki Reimer’s poems can be laugh out loud funny, especially when they hit just the right nerve. In one example, Reimer is offering a critique of public art meant to foster civic pride—think statues of horses, moose and the like—and in the middle dense cluster of images writes, “we need robot velociraptors.” It’s an arresting line, beautiful and absurd. Juxtaposed with a later line about the need for “provisions to assist adults who are suffering intolerably as a result of a grievous… medical condition,” that absurdity serves the same purpose as Jonathan Swift’s culinary concerns in A Modest Proposal. This satirical edge is difficult to do well and is something that My Heart is a Rose Manhattan accomplishes consistently. Reimer’s use of humour and satire does not offer an escape from the trauma that animates the book, nor does it negate it. As example of the robot Velociraptors show, it is tied to it. Interestingly though, suggests the complexity of emotion associated with the work of grieving. Sometimes things are so absurd that there is no other choice but to laugh.
It is doubtful that Nikki Reimer fully anticipated the world in which I read this book, the one in which I would recommend that you read it. The way My Heart is a Rose Manhattan navigates trauma with a sharp wit and ability to communicate the complicated feelings that accompany it, that it is a book that doesn’t achieve a resolution but an understanding make it well suited for the contemporary moment. The book is rich, it is complicated, it demonstrates incredible skill, and it rewards the reader.
My Heart is A Rose Manhattan
by Nikki Reimer
Talonbooks, 2019. 101 pp. $16.99
Dr. Ryan J. Cox has a BA and MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. He has also earned a PhD in English Literature from the University of Minnesota. His writing has appeared in Canadian Literature, English Studies in Canada, Arc Poetry Magazine, Carousel, and The Windsor Review.