Otters, Emotions, and Self-Help

I hate self-help books. Something about the chapter titles and the snappy lists makes my teeth feel plaque-y. I swear there’s something inimitably vile about self-help gurus; with politicians, for example, at least everyone knows they’re not really there to help. So I must admit that Dina Del Bucchia’s Coping with Emotions and Otters, which is modeled only semi-satirically after the modern pop-psych how-to cash grab, was volatile territory from the get-go.

Luckily, Del Bucchia has a point to make. Or, at least, honest stories to tell.

The collection’s got personality. The speaker is strong and consistent; if the voice is not Del Bucchia herself, she has crafted a remarkably tangible personality to guide us, one whose insight and humour are not independent of hurt or bitterness. The jokes, and their sharpness, seem borne half out of sharp wit and half out of underlying injury – like most of the best humour, they come from unfunny emotions. It’s the palpability of the voice that allows us to imagine its occasional stress, the slight wobble in tone on a word that should be easy. The words feel sincere, comfortably so, because we trust that in which we can see weakness.

Coping with Emotions and Otters is, in a way, a genuine self-help tome. It vividly explains how to express emotions with cheerful disregard for whether or not those expressions are “healthy” – create a signature scent, it suggests, with pollen, black pepper, paint chips, and rain.

The first half of the book is divided, self-help style, into lessons on particular emotions – “How to Be…” jealous, ashamed, angry, and so on. Happiness is there, too, the one “positive” emotion amongst the rest, and it’s testament to the book’s attitude that some of the fiercest satire rests in this section. We’re told how to plan for happiness:

Make a down payment
on a storage unit. Keep
your possessions at home, shop
for sturdy wood frames,
a top-of-the-line toaster oven,
Egyptian cotton, whimsical
Bunnykins dishware, a hammock.

 The poem ends perfunctorily with divorce. Otters can be nasty, sometimes mischievously but sometimes plainly. At times, what might in isolation be sly riffs on the soul-suck of consumerism and the identity-crush of celebrity worship is stretched into horrendousness. Del Bucchia’s portrait of manufactured identity may work too well; her connotative efficiency turns her skewer to a bludgeon packing the immense weight of everyday marketing. It’s the pressure of a year’s worth of glossy magazines, market-driven movies, and Photoshopped models distilled into a few words.

It’s probably what people call “sassy,” but at times it veers into unpleasant or exhausting.

Not that it need be, but Otters isn’t everyone poetry, it’s 21st century North American middle-upper-middle-class poetry. Some of its emotion is timeless,  probably the knowledge base necessary to apprehend that emotion is not. There is a difference in a woman’s sexual desires, I learned, based on her preference for either Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver. Like the psychology it imitates, this is pop poetry, and it leans on our culture in detail. Egyptian cotton, indeed.

The book is at its most touching with its eponymous otters. In a series of poems addressed to otters at the Vancouver Aquarium, including but not limited to Nyac the otter, viral-video star of a bygone YouTube era (you know, back in 2007). Though the series addresses celebrity worship and the quick-fade passion of the viral age, there is a tenderness to its treatment of the animals that greatly assuages the intermittent severity of the book’s first half. The collection’s foray into environmental poetry, a topic which is flirted with and suggested by its focus on consumerism, but solidifies only near the end of the book, is particularly effective, if perhaps underdeveloped in the work as a whole.

As sincere as it is, Del Bucchia’s poetry springs from a particularly spiritually empty sub-culture, and though its emotion feels genuine, it also often feels constrained by the exact systems and modes of thought that it ridicules. There is real poetry in the discussion of Coach purses and dryer sheets, and in a way that’s its own little miracle, like plant struggling up through the concrete sidewalk.

Just keep in mind that it’s not all as warm and fuzzy as otters holding hands.