Book Review

Emanating from the Montreal dives stained with Belle Gueule and the dépanneurs that populate Jason Freure’s collection Everyone Rides the Bus in a City of Losers, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear the songs of Minneapolis’s defiant screwups, The Replacements, belting out in the cold air: “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success / Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung.”

Paul Westerberg sang those lyrics in “Bastards of Young” back in the 1980s, but the chorus still echoes. As much as we cheer on success through Wheaties boxes or award shows, there’s a long, healthy tradition celebrating the quasi-mythological downward arc of the loser. We instinctively cheer for unpolished figures like Rocky and the Chicago Cubs, and gleefully sing along with Johnny Thunders crooning, “Baby I’m born to lose.”

Charting this particular topography of the down-and-out, Freure picks up the flip side of success and examines it through the specific locality of Montreal. He ventures underground into the metro and develops a poem for each stop on the Orange, Blue, Green, and Yellow lines for a total of seventy-three in the “station” series, as one could call it. Quite a few serve as quick, ephemeral sketches of the station stop, similar to Pound’s, “Petals on a wet, black bough.” from “In a Station of the Metro.”  The speaker here, though, is a far wearier one. From “Champ-de-Mars”: “Amor vacui paves the parking lot. / You can only move when history’s out of the way.”

While each metro stop is marked by its own poem, this collection should not be mistaken for a Lonely Planet guide to Montreal. There are no picnic spot suggestions on Mont Royal, nor tips for the best espresso after gazing upon the exterior of Notre-Dame Basilica. Instead, one might find the bustling activity of all-night convenience stores outside of McGill University, flâneurs loafing down Saint Denis Street, the hysterical pronouncements of hipsters at Le Cagibi, or odes to long-defunct DIY music venues. The collection represents the marginalia that you jot in the tourist book: that amazing indie vinyl store found after getting lost on Saint Catherine Street, not the top-rated restaurant you were originally after.

Many of the station poems present themselves as bon mots, as in “Outremont,” where the speaker casually observes, “You cannot truly resent the rich without any affection for Mies-van- / der-Rohe car ports.” Across the seventy-three station poems, there are bound to be a few that don’t land, or feel hastily sketched. The same is true for “Namur,” where the speaker states and moves on: “A proto-Sphinx without a question, an auroch’s head on a lion’s / body, expecting an answer all the same.”

Buffering these quips, though, are an additional forty-six poems scattered throughout that are, in general, more narrative in nature compared to the epiphanies-on-a-cocktail-napkin of the station series. In “No One Goes to Prince Arthur Anymore,” the narrator takes stock of the once popular strip of Greek restaurants, trying to pinpoint the inflection point of when cool became passé:

Is it because they can’t tell the Casa Grecque
from the Cabane Grecque?
Because they drown in buckets of oversalted feta,
or they have lost their ways through white tablecloths
and folded napkins returning from the restrooms?

Later in the poem, the narrator becomes more fatalistic:

Everyone knows there won’t be any turnaround.
Restaurants don’t resurrect themselves, not monsters like these.
They burn down two days before the last busboy is fired,
they burn down and they never come back.

This is not an ode to the ordinary in the vein of say, Sharon Olds, but rather an attempt to scribble the unwritten histories of places before they get burned down for the insurance payout. If the adage is correct that history is written by the victors, then Freure seems to be documenting the flip of that, no matter how Pyrrhic that may be of an endeavor.

There’s a similar arc in the poem “Friendship Cove,” named after the now-shuttered Griffintown DIY indie music venue. As the narrator says, “No one plays at Friendship Cove. / Cushfield and Wakeman wait for Graham Van Pelt’s last chorus to / rattle the aluminum.” Reading Everyone Rides the Bus in a City of Losers doesn’t require a classical education or knowledge of mythological allusions, though some patience helps as one unravels the tightly wound references to the hipster terroir of Montreal, or at least a passing knowledge of Canadian indie pop, like Graham Van Pelt’s Miracle Fortress. Here, the narrator provides an acerbic requiem for the space: the scene is dead. Long live the scene?

Freure’s poems in this collection, at times ironic, snarly, and rough-hewn, seem miles apart from the sparkling, contemplative work of Mark Doty. In fact, they are. Yet they share a similar interest in documenting, what Doty posed as, “an art / mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, / how good, before they disappear” in his poem “The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum.” Doty’s poem is, among other things, a meditation on the transience of life through the lens of the glass flowers (“And why did a god so invested in permanence / choose so fragile a medium, the last material / he might expect to last?”). Fruere on the other hand, seems more interested in the transience of under-the-radar, physical place than Doty’s existential question.

That works too—we need the Wildean gutter in order to see the stars, after all. In “Rue Dorion,” the narrator states, “You and I always shared one thing, though, and if it wasn’t always / art, / it was definitely always losing, / losing until the orchestra’s toned down to the last silly klezmer / chord. . . .” One can imagine the speaker as someone like Lester Bangs, sharing that the only currency in a bankrupt world is what you share when you’re uncool. It’s that great rhetorical flip side: What do we gain by losing, how can loss be marked?

“Everyone rides the bus in a city of losers” from “St-Michel,” and the title for this collection, can be traced back to a riff on an apocryphal statement from Margaret Thatcher. You could also slip a lyric by The Replacements again, this time from “Kiss Me on the Bus.” As Westerberg sings “On the bus, everyone’s looking forward,” the seats on the bus are arranged to go one way, so it’s a play on words—ironic and a little childish—but then again, so are The Replacements. While the narrator of these poems may prefer Les Deuxluxes to the ‘Mats, one could imagine them scribbling that quip down. Here the narrator rides public transportation, “looking forward,” while casting backward for beloved places that have long since disappeared, sitting with other riders in a collective experience, feeling entirely alone.

About the Reviewer

Dan Varley's essays and reviews have appeared in Mockingbird, The American Interest, and Colorado Review. He is working on a book of short stories and poems. He lives in Brooklyn and received his BA in English literature from Bowdoin College.