Monday, September 23, 2019

Geoffrey Nilson on Lynn Crosbie

The first time I heard the name Lynn Crosbie, it was the subject of derision.

It was 1997 and Crosbie had just published Paul’s Case, her true-crime theoretical fiction about two of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Much like in the present, journalists and television pundits across the country swarmed with endless editorials calling for swift punishment, not the least of which included banning the book, litigation for defamation, and the incarceration of the author. Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star even threatened to assault Crosbie given the opportunity.

This was the kind of conservative whinging reserved for that era’s crown prince of shock rock, Marilyn Manson (Antichrist Superstar had been released the year prior). I was sixteen then and not so secretly coveted anything that could define me as counter-culture and piss off my parents. So I searched for Paul’s Case, to no avail. But the hook was in. Any writer that could cause that much shit was definitely a writer I wanted to be reading.

Not often in those days could news of a Toronto small press title reach the far coastal suburbs of my birth, but then again, Lynn Crosbie is no ordinary writer. Since 1997, her work has had a way of finding me. Like when I scored a copy of Queen Rat in a bookstore while on vacation in Nelson, BC. Like in 2012, while driving a squealing delivery van for a warehouse job I hated, when Crosbie appeared on CBC Radio talking with Shelagh Rogers about her roman à clef Life Is About Losing Everything.

Looking back, though I didn’t know it at the time, I can credit that interview with changing my direction. Within the year I had gone back to school and rebooted my desire to be a writer of the kind of literature I had always gravitated towards, that which delves into the inexorable reality that “the world isn’t a happy, beautiful place.”[1]

It’s tough to compact the full influence of Crosbie’s writing on my own. More than the example of writing dark content or the ubiquity of pop culture allusion, the constant attention to poetic language and rhythm in everything she writes is a compositional way I aspire to. Just take this example from her latest novel Chicken:

“Her face is a Turner of purple storms cut with black ships, with a sluice of red dawn; Ruskin scurrying to write it, in the distance.”

You could pen a dissertation on this one sentence. Vowel sounds bounce off each other, image and colour collide in metrical units; an ocean of ships and of time stretches to the horizon, the moment travelling back through Victorian art critics and Romantic painters all in the second of observation. Because Crosbie is a poet even when she is not writing poetry. I recently described her style to a friend by saying: some stories go from A to B to C right on until the end, but Crosbie goes from A to H to some form of punctuation to B to X and, given the circumstances the characters find themselves, might not ever make it to the end of the alphabet.

But I don’t believe making it to the end is the point. Neither life nor the poem can be contained by the covers of a book. Through abuse, death, fame, murder, suicide, drug addiction, and unspeakable acts of violence, her characters and the speakers of her poems have faith that what makes their realities worth everything is the fact that they loved, and that love was what got them through the worst of what the world had on offer. As Crosbie wrote in The Corpses of the Future:

“My father taught me to love people I do not know; to feel—

That punch in the solar plexus you take when
the strongest person you know says, Wait for me and his words are loaded

With over seventy years of bravery, and what it costs.”

Geoffrey Nilson is a writer, editor, visual artist, and the founder of poetry micropress, pagefiftyone. The author of four poetry chapbooks, his work has appeared widely in magazines and periodicals such as Coast Mountain Culture, PRISM international, Event, Poetry is Dead, subTerrain, The Capilano Review, CV2, The Rusty Toque, Lemon Hound, Qwerty, and the Glasgow Review of Books. 

[1] “Life Is About Losing Everything” author Lynn Crosbie (Interview), The Next Chapter (Season 2012, Episode 300067478), CBC Radio,


  1. Geoffrey, thank you for this. Lynn Crosbie's art and skill at conveying the emotional and the ethical are without parallel in this country.