Exhibit is a disorienting yet beautiful book. A collage of found poetry assembled from sources as diverse as child psychology textbooks, a Three Stooges autobiography and hours of research in the provincial archives, Paul Zits’s third poetry collection is based on a real 1926 rural Alberta murder trial. But the book is more interested in exploding the identities of its characters than in any simple historical retelling.
The book begins with the facts, delivered in a wall-to-wall concrete slab of text called Exhibit A. In 1926 Margaret McPhail stood trial for the murder of her brother Alex. The siblings lived outside of Drumheller, in two shacks right next to each other. Margaret maintained her innocence throughout her trial, claiming her brother died by suicide. But Alex McPhail suffered bullet wounds to both his head and his chest, casting doubt on this narrative. Exhibit does not deliver a verdict on Margaret’s guilt or innocence, but instead explores the chaotic emotional experiences of both siblings, answering procedural interrogation with surreal and disturbing flights of fantasy. The book drifts loosely between three perspectives—the loopy voices of Margaret and Alex, and the clinical voice of the investigators and court officials who are processing the case.
Zits delights in a kind of sensuous body horror—where pain and discomfort are beautifully described with rainbow-tinted metaphor. Alex’s body is made of glass, and then of candy. His heartbeat ticks like a watch; his thoughts boil over like a teakettle. His hair is electrified, his mouth and lungs filled with cotton. We can read these passages as a metaphor for mental illness—and a possible explanation for his suicide. But Margaret has her own bizarreries, throwing up rainbows and pulling ninja darts and ripe plantains and business cards out of her brother’s dreams. Is she the one who snapped, and killed her brother?
Throughout all of these dreamlike passages, Zits achieves a kind of linguistic chiaroscuro, filtering dark images through bright language and vice versa. The factual questions of the investigators are stymied by Margaret’s beautiful but frustrating answers—many filled with a healthy dose of anachronism, since much of the found text comes from more modern sources. The result is a book where the reader’s questions are also frustrated and we are left to draw our own conclusions from a parade of surreal scenes. Reading Exhibit is akin to looking into a kaleidoscope. The book is chock full of gorgeous, unsettling images that tumble by in fragmentary, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it splendour. It’s up to the reader to assemble the narrative with all the pieces Zits has provided—and to decide whether or not this journey without a destination was a satisfying experience.
—Bruce Cinnamon is author of The Melting Queen (NeWest).