Elegizing Dad

by Kayla Czaga

Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2024
$21.99 / 9781487012601

Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore


Kayla Czaga’s third collection of poetry, Midway, delights with poems that include surprises, poignant memories, and bleak humour. The poems of the Victoria poet (Dunk Tank) are all heartbreakingly honest and showcase a writer who has dared to plunge into emotional depths incited by messages in bottles and the magical properties of ordinary things.

Many of the poems have been previously published including “Coho,” a poem I’ve read over and over again. It’s a fine example of the poignancy, quirkiness, and in this case divination, that Czaga crafts into a poem.

The speaker chooses a book from the shelf–a “fish book”–and flips it open to see what is revealed. Coho is the fish that appears and it conjures a memory of the speaker’s father.

“Coho” becomes a child’s elegy to a parent. It unpacks a memory of the two fishing together, reeling in something “living / and tiny, like an infant’s filthy sock.” The speaker continues:

My father knelt down at the river’s edge
to unhook it. Cupping it in his palms,
he said, “I dunno. Might not make it.”
Each syllable came out with a little cloud.

A feeling “wears my father’s face” in “Coho,” while earlier in “Pho Fish,” 

The saddest creature on earth
bobs in a foggy tank

in that Vietnamese restaurant
on the corner of Main & 33rd.
He–maybe not he, though
I think of the fish that way–

has my father’s face, his exact
features, but the colouring’s

Author Kayla Czaga

Czaga’s fish are no ordinary fish and objects, usually considered commonplace, are imbued with wonder such as “The Hairbrush,” Midway’s first poem in which “my dead father’s hairbrush” was “a /giant cocoon / at the end of a lacquered branch. / Inside it a butterfly had been / knitting wings for sixty-six years.”

“My mother” is part of this poem which ends, “Here, she said, handing it to me, / Go grow yourself a new dad.”

In “Winning,” popsicles that father and child enjoyed also summon his love of gambling and competition:

Dozens of boxes of popsicles
so that he could construct a catapult
for a town competition Our mouths were blue,
orange, purple, red with his hunger to win.

The poem describes other forms of competition at a casino or Texas Hold’em, and: “After he died, I found a stack of Lotto Max / half an inch thick. Posthumously he won / seventeen dollars and a free play. / Otherwise his wallet was empty.”

While the speaker may never “grow” a new father, she creates poems in a new state as a bereaved daughter. “Painkiller” is an anaphora with the repeated phrase: “I put his ashes” throughout. It begins:

I put his ashes on the dog beach
I put his ashes on my bookshelf
I paid a company to put his ashes
inside a glass paperweight…

The end of the poem’s bleak humour leans towards gruesome:

I put his ashes onto a plate so I could
transfer them into an empty Advil bottle
Daddict Dadvil I put my dad’s ashes
into my mouth and swallowed.

Another anaphora is a poem titled “Rules for Living” that builds on a repeated phrase: “When you visit your father in the underworld.” Each line that follows is included in the next stanza like a clever “Twelve Days of Christmas” in ten stanzas. The Kayla Czaga rendition advises “do not” in front of actions such as “do not take a / candy from the crystal bowl on his coffee table, and do not watch / reruns of reruns of Law & Order.”

“The Power of Love,” a poem of several fascinating parts, is named for the song of that title and includes memories of “my father and me” as well as “my father’s ashes” and “daddy issues.” It’s an inventive poem with different locales (South Africa, Southern Ontario, Las Vegas, Portland, and Parksville) and the figure of a wife—

She who will meet me anywhere,
and even used up her Air Miles
to fly to London
and stand with me in rooms
of art and hold my hand.

We can be grateful that there’s someone to hold the hand of the speaker, who gets to look “at the Kandinsky” at the Tate Modern in London and whose poem 

it was invited to speak inside
an Anne Carson poem
and given a bus ticket
to Hades, a decent per diem.

In “Dear Brenda,” the poet imagines a bottle washed up on the beach. Inside are “my father’s false teeth.” “Dear Brenda” is the note in the second bottle and in the third, a note “meant for me alone.” Later in the poem, we’re given the message: “It told me my dad was sorry for going away.”

About halfway through the book, “The Midway,” describes a “small bottle” and some features of a midway such as clown cars, a Ferris wheel, and a shelf of prizes to be won like “the hugest blue elephant.” The father appears different there—

Impossibly, for once, he had no problems, nothing wrong –

no pain, no insomnia, no mortgage, no shame, the midway
had arrived for my father, so he could just drink
(finally there was a small bottle)
and not be wrong inside impossible problems.

“I’m done with happiness” is the message of “I Long to Hear.” “I’m chopping / up my vision board for kindling,” the speaker declares. At the end:

I drunk-dial sadness to tell her that I love her,
that it’s her I’ve loved all along, her voice
I long to hear, reminding me I’m going to die too
as she slides her midnight-cold toes up my shins.

In “Self-Portrait with Pizza Pop,” a preceding poem, the speaker is thirty-one as she reflects back on herself at various ages. Entering this apparently comic poem is more complex than at first meets the eye. The current sadness is not new, nor is the anger of a younger age which “is just deflected shame and pities us both.” The speaker becomes ever-younger towards the end of the poem as if to disappear into someone new. Following the “three-toned chime” of the microwave:

The spell is broken. By the time school lets out
the sky will be dark as the inside of a Pizza Pop.
I will walk home alone. I will microwave dinner.

The evening will be moonless, starless
beneath the quiet dough of clouds.

Czaga blends grief’s range of emotions masterfully in Midway. The poet’s poems have become messages in bottles. As they’re revealed to her, we readers also enter a world of elegies in a dawning, unexpected light.


Mary Ann Moore

Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer, and writing mentor who lives on the unceded lands of the Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo. Her full-length book of poetry is Fishing for Mermaids (Leaf Press, 2014) and she has a new chapbook of poems called Mending (house of appleton). Moore leads writing circles and has two writing resources: Writing to Map Your Spiritual Journey (International Association for Journal Writing) and Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice (Flying Mermaids Studio). She writes a blog here. [Editor’s note: Mary Ann Moore has also reviewed books by Christine Lowther, Jude Neale and Nicholas Jennings, Yvonne Blomer and DC Reid, Marita Dachsel and Nancy Lee (eds.) Lisa Ahier, with Susan Musgrave, Stephen Collis (ed.), Maria Coffey, Lorna Crozier, Katherine Palmer Gordon, and Donna McCart Sharkey & Arleen Paré for BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
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Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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