Shades of Grey: Three Recent Books of Poetry

A Review Essay

Xiphoid Process

by Kevin Connolly

House of Anansi Press, 2017

88 pp.; $19.95 (paperback)

Octopus

by Patrick Warner

Biblioasis, 2016

64 pp.; $18.95 (paperback)

The Duende of Tetherball

by Tim Bowling

Nightwood Editions, 2016

96 pp.; $18.95 (paperback)

 

Xiphoid Process takes its title from a strange but also familiar body part, the little spur of cartilage at the bottom centre of our ribcage. It grows more inflexible as we age, making it appropriate for a book by a fifty-something author. The title also works because Connolly’s poems are studded with—many are composed entirely of—strange and familiar little bits. There’s a twist in the other word of the title, too, for the xiphoid “process” is not a method or technique in the usual sense of the word, but rather a process in the older sense: a procession, a protuberance, a sticking out. The book’s existence is announced, but its meaning is held in reserve, just as the function of the xiphoid process in the human body (as a connective nexus) is nowhere near as apparent as its mere (and sometimes alarming) presence in our chest.

Connolly’s poems are rarely about something or set somewhere, but instead follow a rapid sequence of associations and dissociations that accumulate in a non-linear way. If there is a detectable theme, it is approached obliquely via multiple false starts. Like improvised music or non-representational painting, these poems can seem random. But they are not random, and the best of them attain a new kind of coherence and achieve startling effects. Although this style has been around since John Ashbery began publishing, and was prefigured by modernists like Eliot and Stevens, Connolly has made it his own. He is not an experimental poet in the sense of breaking the basic rules of grammar, syntax or typography, nor does he engage (as far as I can see) in procedural devices or severe constraints to generate text. Instead he plays a wide variety of disorienting and reorienting games involving voice, tone and structure. 

The book is in four parts, but its strength lies in the opening and closing sections, where Connolly’s characteristic poems are gathered. Part II is an erasure work based on Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which reduces it to something like a long Connolly poem. Part III of the book is a section of found poems and seems out of place at first. Connolly’s intention, though, may be to remind us that vernacular language is abused daily to hurt or deceive, and fails daily to be eloquent or to resolve anything. By contrast, however unfamiliar we may find the use of language that this poet offers us, it is more welcome than overheard viciousness or banality. 

The music in Xiphoid Process is dominated not by rhyme and other auditory devices, but by a rhetorical rhythm, a constant switching of referents and registers. Connolly jumps from the authorial to the mock-authorial, from sincere to parodic, from pop song quotes to skewed punch lines to groaner puns. He also seems to have captured a good many of those oddball gems that arise spontaneously in animated conversation but are usually forgotten by morning. “Stray line delivered over beers,” as he says in “That Old Something.”

The paradoxical result is not cacophony, but a steady, syncopated flow in which lapses, splices and absurdisms are part of a careful preservation of proportion and tone. An amused coolness is maintained, even as our interpretive impulses are yanked from under us:

 

Interpretation: that’s where the problems start.

Can you think of a more apt metaphor for our distress?

 

There is a concern for communication here, but a concern that acknowledges a “distress” at the very idea of meaning. And while a discursive through-line is seldom established, there is a percussive music to the impacts on our interpretive faculties. A regulated mixture of opinion and joke, assertion and irony, confession and insult keeps us willing to read on.

The scraps in the crazy quilt that is Xiphoid Process are very often lifted from other texts, primarily those of contemporary and late-boomer pop and literary culture, but also from Connolly’s own oeuvre. The first line above, for example, from the poem “Revolver,” is taken from a different poem in his previous book entitled Revolver. This recycling and self-recycling is nearly obsessive in Xiphoid Process, one more reason to think that the real topic of the poems is writing itself, or rather its near impossibility. There are, on this topic, some fearless utterances, such as “And death shall have no dominion. Blah blah blah fucking blah.” 

Some of the most memorable of Connolly’s lines—he knows it, too, for a few are repeated within the book—have the formal structure of a truism, but the ring of the absurd: “It’s not the height of the fall, but the cut of the prat,” for example. Comedy rules in this motto, and throughout Xiphoid Process. While he proclaims in the opening poem that “I’m in the mood for a little philosophy,” there is nothing here that we would recognize as such. And it’s a typical Connolly move to make use realize we’re glad for it. The opening poems do seem to be attempting—and failing—to find some grounding for sustained discourse, for a subject position to speak from and a stable object to represent. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard come in for quick and very flip mentions. The guiding impulse, though, is the carnivalesque, not the philosophical: “Keep your dance of all and nothing, slapstick trumps everything.” Connolly is not shy of creating a kind of poetic slapstick out of the masters, either: “In the room the fat men come and go, / talking of Ida Lupino.”

When the stand-up-comedy-influenced, controlled non sequitur style works for Connolly—and it works often—there is a high energy drive to the verse that captures a mind open to all intrusions, free of the need to be serious, and yet in search of something new to say and an audience for it. In “Fooled Again,” multiple allusions to lyrics from The Who are combined with a coyly confessional paean to a humble bedroom, a bedroom favoured because “I have made love in this room. / Some days it was with myself.” The reader is caught out, and lured in, with “It’s not your place to judge,” and the room is argued to be “prettier” than any in the Bible, “more flexible” than any in the Kama Sutra and “hotter” than any in the Koran. Along the way there is a characterization of the Irish as both “poetic” and “slaves” and a discussion of the insidious effect of the recent NASA fly-by of Pluto. The poem, as many do in this book, ricochets off at a tangent at the very end. After quoting an American songwriter in the penultimate line, “I will leave this room better than I found it,” Connolly bows out with a modest anti-climax: “A thought from another poet I now share with you.” Does he know that Joe Pernice was paraphrasing Boy Scouts founder Baden-Powell? Who knows. The total effect is disarming, appealing, surprising and—the reader senses with certainty—unlike any poem they’ve ever read.

When Connolly breaks with this chatty, collagist and consciously anti-discursive style he runs the risk of revealing too much of his agenda—or in lyric terms we might say too much of himself. Any poetic practice reveals the poet to some extent, but Connolly’s avoidance of the personal approach is everywhere evident, from his erasure of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to just “Song” in Part II of the book, to his devoting Part III entirely to found poems, to his avoidance of reference (though I’m sure there are in-jokes) to near or dear ones despite the dedication: “This one is for my friends.”

The poem “Hipster on a Fixie” is unique in Xiphoid Process for treating a single identifiable, mundane topic. While it may provide some readers—perhaps even some “hipsters”—with a knowing laugh among the more challenging puzzlement of the other poems, it also indulges a common inner-city peeve in prosaic, almost predictable, language:

 

Hipster, the simplicity of your one-gear ride is an apt

metaphor for what mostly goes on between your ears.

Your 100-mile vegan diet might make sense if you

could cook…

 

The tongue-in-cheek uplift at the end (“we’ll pedal out into the green mess of June as brothers”) does not negate the insults that come before, and feels like one of the very clichés that the author is elsewhere at pains to mash up.

Similarly, but without the laughs, there is an unusual discursive passage in the penultimate poem in the book, “The Limit.” Sandwiched between riffs on the plight of monarch butterflies, the demise of the band the Eagles and the long winless streak of the Chicago Cubs we have this chunk:

 

The Navajo know Shiprock as the holiest of places.

Wreck of the great bird that brought the People

crashing to the earth. Still, it’s fucked up now: you can

see it from the highway. Nightmare of empties and chip bags

in the ditches; tumbleweed against barbed wire…

 

Whether or not the words are sampled from elsewhere—perhaps overheard at a rest stop on the interstate?—the passage reads very much like authorial opinion, especially with the word “nightmare” thrown in. As an instance in a list of misfortunes, it feels disproportionate. Because the reference lies outside the current social media feed, outside late-boomer culture and even outside Canadian geography, a bit of descriptive setup is included. This alone flags the passage as emphatic, but there’s also the point being made. In a more measured poem like “Fooled Again” the cultural references are exorbitant, even edgy, but in different ways. They are either owned by the author, like Irishness, or iconic and neutral enough for light treatment, like the Bible, the Kama Sutra, even the Koran. This Shiprock passage, by contrast, is particular, serious, and evaluative, in addition to being wordier. Reading it I had to ask questions that would not have come up had the poet just said “litter at Shiprock.” Can litter at the roadside, however deeply piled, really “fuck up” a holy place, especially a holy place that is an entire mountain? And is this fucked-up-ness a judgment that an outsider has any right to make? 

The author, perhaps, has calculated this offence and anticipated my indignation and readerly judginess. The final line of “The Limit” returns to butterflies—not the saving of them, but rather the pinning of them: “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” Connolly, surely, means the entomologist, not the butterfly, as butterflies are dead when mounted. Or perhaps he means the politically correct reader, over-Googling everything. Ouch.

Most poems in this collection do not leave me feeling so pinned, or pained. Many are entertaining in the extreme, and bring on the sort of giddiness you get on a fast, jerky ride at the midway, where the pop music is loud and familiar and the theme is barely perceivable between unexpected jolts to the system. 

 

* * *

 

In a recent review praising Shoshanna Wingate’s Radio Weather for seriousness and realism, Patrick Warner laments, “the wash of contemporary poems, many of which read as non sequitur followed by non sequitur.” He may not know Connolly’s work, but with such a statement he positions himself as a very different sort of poet. And on the surface, they are worlds apart. Warner’s poetry in Octopus is always about something—though not necessarily an obvious something—and uses sustained discourse in verse form as its main mode of communication. There is no bricolage of samples and campy borrowings, no evasion of linear constructs. Sometimes Warner’s topic is a peeve, as in the poem “Taste,” about his ambivalence toward raw shellfish (“tiny snot gut / of smoky orange sin”), sometimes it’s a grand abstraction, as in the pair of poems “The Philosophy of Yes” and “The Philosophy of No.” Yet there is always a complexity to his poems that belies their focus on identifiable subjects. Some of the best poems are poems in search of a subject, or in pursuit of a very fraught or fleeting insight.

Warner likes to look at both sides of things. Even in “Taste,” his distaste is balanced with open-mindedness, and he ends with a description of that state where you’re “not sure whether you should / upchuck or find a way to be enlightened.” Similarly, his poem “Meat Puppet” explores both the horror and the joy of meat eating, opening with the inhumane harvest of shark fins—“the shark sinks, / knitting billowing sleeves of red pink” then homing in on the personal with “I rattle / in dark, all covered in sweat, feel the terrible fear / of the beasts as they run the slaughterhouse gauntlet” and even going as far as to allude to political horrors: “babushkas with bundles herded at gunpoint.” In the course of ten five-line stanzas the author travels full circle from giving up meat entirely—in part because it is aligned with “the strongman fisting his dummy, the people”—and finding instead “peace in my mind with the herd,” only to discover shortly afterward that “something of heft and substance is missing,” at which point he lapses back into the omnivore life. 

The last stanza of “Meat Puppet” is a good example of Warner’s use of repeated slant end rhyme for a longer breath and concluding emphasis, following stanzas (and the first line here) where sharp internal rhyme has kept the pace:

 

with each mastication I am more a nation,

with each chewed bolus I swallow my pleasure.

And whatever guilt or shame I might feel

is complex and simple as textures and flavours:

as the thought that I could rise above nature.

 

This is also a good example of Warner’s skill with ambiguous endings. Is a “nation” really a good thing for an individual to be? And is that irony in the last phrase, exposing the hubris of the predator? The phrase “complex and simple” from the penultimate line describes many of the most successful poems in Octopus

Often Warner’s poems risk—and some directly court—cold-bloodedness. Even in “Meat Puppet,” while we’re willing to suppose that Warner tried vegetarianism at some point, the poem he has written about it feels more like an exercise in forensics than a personal story. It’s as if he’s showing that he can take both sides of a troubling debate and argue each with poetic gusto.

Despite his fondness for rhetorical play there is a darkly serious quality to Warner’s Octopus that is as strong as the comic tendency in Connolly’s Xiphoid Process. The eponymous opening poem is a dream poem, one of the best I’ve read for capturing the narrative absurdity and emotional coherence of dream structure. It moves toward nightmare, not gratification. Indeed, the octopus, though it makes a very brief cameo as itself in the poem about oysters, is present in the book primarily as a figure of dread—both mortal and political—rather than an actual creature. 

Many of the poems capture the aura of depression and yet distance the risk of it. There is the beautiful, frightening poem “Anne Sexton,” for example, that obliquely praises her poetics by a sort of sympathetic channelling, but ultimately judges her and pulls back hard at the idea of suicide:

 

The streets are empty, still, sacramental

the decision, long fraught, is finally taken.

Open your mouth and swallow that handful;

sleep in the truth until you awaken.

 

Some truths, Warner seems to say, may need to be repressed, or at least be subjected to mediation, in the struggle for psychological survival. In the original version the poem “Octopus” printed in the Manchester Review, one of the lines wisely omitted for this edition (because it tells what already is showing) reads: “This is my truth, wrapped up in a lie.”

Accordingly, there are many poems in Octopus that indulge in exaggeration or duplicity. “The Old,” a poem dedicated to “the old everywhere” but also to “systems which save us from the bother / of soiling our hands with adult diapers” ends with the shocking hyperbole “Let’s eliminate the old entirely.” We know the author doesn’t “mean it,” but those of us who have provided or arranged elder care or contemplated our own incapacity know exactly what he means. There are more generous treatments of the author’s parents in other poems, but there’s also one where the author regrets, while “the paddles make his chest rise and fall,” that “no one thought to sign a DNR”—a Do Not Resuscitate order—for his father. 

Another of Warner’s distancing tricks is to turn his poem over to a second voice, putting the reader in the same position as the author, listening to an opinion not quite that of the poet, whether spoken by a surreal cardiologist in “Fatberg,” or an engine mechanic who also seems to know about poetics in “Choke.” The latter poem ends with a statement that Warner is able simultaneously to make and emphatically disown via this device: “… at its core a dubious notion: / The heart of hearts knows all there is to know.”

As with Connolly—and Bowling, too—it’s a sign of the risks Warner takes that some of his poems don’t work. Different poems will misfire for different readers, but one of my least favourite poems in Octopus is “Some Corn.” Another nugget of rejected wisdom—but for some readers still a “poetic” state of mind—appears at the end of the poem, attributed to the observed character, not the observing poet. A hung-over, or more accurately, still high youth emerges from a field of corn, “Her every thought / a non sequitur, making her feel at one / with the wonder-jammed oneness of the world.” What is described at first as “a low animal… / … brushing stalks with its flanks” turns out to be “[s]ome debutante, eyes out on stalks.” An easy pun, and an easy, curmudgeonly slam. The personification of corn along the way doesn’t disguise the ill will. “Some Corn” is a poem where Warner’s devices get the better of him, or cancel each other out perhaps. By way of mixed metaphor and imaginative projection we get more than we want of the author as contrarian observer, and little about the person or event—or more accurately caricature or cliché—he observes.

 

* * *

 

Bowling has published significantly more than our other two poets, and I generally agree with the high praise he has received. But after spending time with Connolly’s and Warner’s poetry, I can’t turn to The Duende of Tetherball without thinking that Bowling’s mode is as artificial as theirs, but simply does not employ the formal or estranging devices that make artificiality evident. I mean artificial in a good way, of course, and it would not be news to Bowling, I’m sure, to be told his poems are closely crafted rather than simply inspired. Not a strict rhymer or stanza maker, Bowling is nonetheless a musical poet, as seen in the opening lines from “Advice to a Young Male Poet”

 

Auto shop. They were hoisting by winch

a 351 Cleveland engine block

out of some grade twelve’s

two-tone Mustang rag-top.

I was half my gender away

across the oil-puddled parking lot

...

 

At the end of the poem Bowling recoups the metaphor of the car engine as an inky typewriter—“my hands slick / from the oily block”—and re-masculinizes the poet’s trade. The gender roles may be standard, but the metaphor feels both dynamic and new.

Like Connolly and Warner, the speaker of a Bowling poem does find ways to undercut himself, to remind the reader to be skeptical. The difference is that Bowling is relentlessly himself as he does so. The authenticity of the poet’s voice is never put in question, however humbly he may speak. This is true even in the longer poem, written partly in prose, called “Our Animal Solitude” where Bowling experiments with a third-person “ordinary woman of late middle years” who hits a deer on the road and is pinned with it in her car while it dies. But the poem is bracketed by first-person commentary, and her experience is rendered in Bowling’s poetic idiom—“one eyeball glistening like an ocean mussel / as the car fills with a tide of blood smell….”

Everybody has nostalgia for at least some aspect of their childhood, and that nostalgia is Bowling’s favourite terrain. His salmon gothic strikes a chord with a wide variety of readers, many of whom never caught a fish, much less caught one commercially. As he says in “British Columbia,” a poem named for the province of his youth and the setting for his “death of childhood”:

 

and me running,

who has no god, and never will

unless it is those years

I turn back on and take in my arms

 

Intimately linked to Bowling’s childhood theme is the theme of death—the fear of it, the mystery of it, the presence of it in salmon fishing, but also the universality of it. He’s our best middle-aged male poet at this sort of somber reflection. The contours of the journey he takes us on become familiar, even in the span of one book, as he returns to this pair of themes almost obsessively. In practice, though, the familiarity becomes a virtue. Bowling’s persona is a friendly one, neither chummy nor forbidding, and the journeys he takes us on require a steady presence.

A poem without a salmon reference, but demonstrative of several of Bowling’s characteristic moves and one or two new ones, is “Whatever You Do,” about communicating, or trying to, with his elderly mother. The poem’s refrain is “don't write a letter to your mother,” and although we never get an explicit reason why, we do sense the difficulty:

 

Do anything else. Anything.

Correct the comma splices and fragments

in a stack of thirty-seven undergraduate papers

Transfer your vinyl LPs to CDs

to digital back to vinyl

 

The Duende of Tetherball—even the title is funny—contains more poems with a humourous element than I’m used to finding in Bowling’s work, which is a good thing. Poems like “Whatever You Do” provide a counterbalance to the more sustained seriousness of many others. The poem also displays a gymnastic reflexivity. In the lines below he second-guesses in a moment of near self-loathing what his inner critic, or an unsympathetic reader, might think:

 

The age demands that you do something better

than hang from the monkey bars

of some useless haunting childhood hour

that no one else can ever really understand

now that you do not have a father.

 

The last line is a surprising twist in a poem about failing to communicate with one’s mother. We are reminded that for Bowling it is the father, the fisherman, whose loss is first and most definitive. 

The possible death of his mother leads the poet to thoughts of his own death instead, and by way of a subtle jump-cut we are shifted to a time when his mother has actually passed. The females, we find, can take care of the females as 

 

you’ll gape and mutter like a little boy

when your wife informs you that your daughter 

has bled for the first time

in the month your mother breathed for the last. 

 

The poem ends with a sentimental flourish—Bowling is not shy with these—offered up in what appears to be an alternative to reaching out to an elderly parent. The versatile second person feels a consolation for being neglected by their adult offspring, and the consolation is as valid for the speaker as for his aging mother:

 

your eyes full, not with pain – no –

but with every singular inessential

second you had with your children as children in your life.

 

The humour of the poem has fallen away by this point, although Bowling may want us to smile at the way he has turned the tables from the guilty child to the tearful parent without ever having written that letter.

Sentimental may be the right word for the ending of this poem, but it is not quite the right word for Bowling’s characteristic sort of rhetorical extreme. Existential is more accurate. Like Warner, Bowling can be gripped by the horror of the slaughterhouse of human mortality. In “School” he builds on a dream image of bearing heavy, hinged chalkboard wings that whisper, “You are small. / You are not free,” until he feels

 

… the vice

as the steer enters the stockyard

the Munch hands fly to my skull

 

This latter bit of visual shorthand almost wrecks the poem for me. I see the Munch painting, yes, but in that painting it seems to me the raised hands are all but welded in place. With the mention of hands flying I can’t help seeing Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone as well. If this is a calculated reference, it’s an odd one, and makes it harder to muster the seriousness that the final words seem to require:

 

in my trembling hand

the chalk that writes the truth

on the air

and breaks.

 

The completion of the metaphor of the chalkboard with the image of breaking chalk is elegant. The implication that poetic truth cannot be conveyed in poetry seems shopworn, and feels incorrect somehow, in view of the poet’s many successes in creating truth-telling poems, including this one.

The employment of iconic images, like Munch’s The Scream, is something Bowling does in other poems as well, as in the title poem “The Duende of Tetherball,” where he arranges a series of diverse vehicles for a single tenor:

 

the monk setting fire to his flesh

to free his people

the grandmother chained to a Douglas Fir

to save a saw-whet owl’s song

the writer of twenties noir

soldered to the keys of his Underwood

inspired by Joyce – useless.

 

Although I struggle to see these three on the same plane, all are symbolic as well as physical activities, and Bowling’s cry of “useless” (an anagram for Ulysses?) is ironic. He sees himself in the same company, both as solo tetherball player and as poet. 

The poem is a study in multiple metaphors, an apt strategy for a poem in pursuit of something as elusive as duende. Bowling employs a kind of sideways associative motion, from tetherball to scarecrow to dreaded school clock

 

            … stalled in the hours

like our fathers’ tractors in the muddied

potato fields so like their fathers’ Passchendaele

they weren’t alike at all.

 

Moving from a childhood memory to a national mythology in a very few lines is ambitious. The tetherball obligingly disappears under such baggage. But it bounces back, both in fact and in the poem, and we “get up from our stalled tractors / to punch above our weight.” The metaphorical juggling works not only because the poet is trying to get at something vague and ubiquitous—courage, perhaps?—but also because the images are drawn from the mainstream of media images, just like the national mythology being evoked. The poem “Classical,” by contrast, with its clumsy handling of “totem” and “sweat lodge vapour” in another broad cultural metaphor, is less successful.

 

* * * 

 

All three of these poets are men in their late fifties, and indeed were born within 24 months of each other. I’m happy to say that they put no great stress on the theme of ageing, or in Bowling’s case (he had a middle-aged streak even as a young poet) no greater stress than usual. And when they do touch on the theme, it’s not by subjecting us to personal details of balding or weight gain or declining virility. Nonetheless, readers of their cohort—like myself—will find companionship here. 

Bowling opens “In Autumn” with the lines “Geese are tearing like roof tiles off a scoured-pan sky. / And I am afraid to die.” In an anecdote that follows, he reveals almost too honestly the degree of his preoccupation as it creeps into an innocent game of “I Spy.” “[S]omething that is … mortal.” // “… Daddy, it’s you!” ” Toward the end of the poem, the reader is addressed directly as Bowling relates a driving-and-crying episode, in itself a winning turn that reminds us confessional poetry still has reserves of intimacy to explore:

 

my two hands, 

stranger, just like yours,

starfish on the margins blurred

relentlessly with tears.

 

If we “strangers” are his confreres, why were his own children not also correct answers in “I Spy”? Because Bowling, however much he is the Poet, is a family man first, and is content with the way that chosen role constrains his vision. If he is weeping, alone behind the wheel, for his children’s mortality—and that is entirely for the reader to infer—he is careful not to actually involve them in his fears at the dinner table. Accordingly, a different poem titled “Midlife, With Children” begins “One responsibility now: existence.”

Connolly is more irritated by the approach of death than awestruck. The first line of the title poem “Xiphoid Process” is “To hell with equanimity, I fucking hated turning fifty.” Rather than formulate a new poetic motto to deal with death, he simply quotes himself from an earlier book: “What lives over bone is fragile, doomed really.” He explains that “I’m repeating myself, / but what else is there to do?” The poem moves toward a commitment to hedonism, or at least optimism: “It’s peaks-only from this point forward; we’ll run roughshod over the interstices.” And “Killer Parties,” the last poem in the book, ends with a resigned observation on an abstracted death: “Still… finitude.”

 

… That species of

dread is the burden of Homo sapiens;

and maybe a very few smart dolphins.

All else just stops.

 

There is a hard-nosed courage here, despite the final species-centric joke. Connolly’s glib nihilism is less vulnerable than Bowling’s tears, perhaps, but it’s no less convincing.

Warner’s Octopus is perhaps the least occupied of our three books with the author’s increasing years. And yet there is a shadow of mortality throughout. One of the virtues of writing in form is that emotional energy can be channelled away from direct expression and toward external pattern—stored, as it were. For the reader this channelling can work in reverse, and a poem can unpack itself with surprising suddenness. At one pole of the mortality arc is Warner’s touching memory in “Five Years Old” of counting, while looking out the window of a dreary school, to the fifth identical house from the end of a row, to find his home. Told at a grammatical distance in the third person, it is as if the child is entering the symbolic order by identifying with, and reiterating on his fingers, a number. The form of the poem is also a sort of enumeration and captures this defining constraint:

 

He is counting back from five on one hand,

to his council house, fifth from the end,

touching the tip of each finger in turn,

counting backwards from five to confirm.

 

Form itself, the regular metre and the slant aabb rhyme, seems to be helping protect the child from fear.

At the other pole—embodied death rather than embodied youth—the final poem in Warner’s book is a peculiar retelling of the Garden of Eden story, in which a mundane progression, rather than the usual sharp moral threshold, leads from comfort and plenty to the realization of death. Oddly enough, it is an unrhymed poem, though the quatrain stanzas have their music:

 

Our swollen nascent senses awakened

to pears and grapes that everywhere hung,

distended from tree and vine; to rabbits

that could be dispatched with a stick;

 

The unspecific “we” of the poem (so that they might be any or all of us and not just two?) simply travel outward and discover in a house made of bones “our own huddled forms, / woven through with trumpet vine, / silver hair still clinging to our skulls.” Narrative, too, can give form to our fears.

Warner’s most age-conscious poem is one I’ve already mentioned, the wonderfully bizarre “Fatberg.” The doctor’s explanation, and the poem, ends with the following prognosis:

 

                                                … Euphoria

will follow as you take on the news

that you have suffered for years

from the self-inflicted curse which

thinking about has made worse:

 

you are not the centre of the universe.

 

Some might say this is a man’s lesson to learn. Regardless, our fifties are perhaps the last decade in which to learn it with any grace.

Published online May 21 2019.

Brent Raycroft’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Arc, CV2, Vallum, Queen’s Quarterly, The Broken City, and elsewhere, including The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry: Tenth Anniversary Edition. A single-poem chapbook, The Subtleties of Divine Creatures was published by Thee Hellbox Press in 2014. In 2016 he self-published his short epic Sydenham to celebrate Canada 175. He lives north of Kingston, Ontario.