let us not think of them as barbarians. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
The Dark Set: New Tenderman Poems. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Devil in the Woods. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
These poets each consider maleness, vulnerability, ecology, and their heritage: a tendency all three of these books have in common.
Peter Midgley’s let us not think of them as barbarians features an afterword by Juliane Okot Bitek in which she claims that the weakness in this collection “may be the attempt to translate.” She’s right. The preface on the background to the genocide of Namibians by Germans in 1904-1908 and the copious endnotes distract from the essential thrum of the poems themselves. Regardless, through the haunting presence of “dragfoot,” a creature “with his clanging bells and his necklace of bullets gathered from war,” we become witness to the bloody decimations of a people but, more importantly, to Midgley, the way the land and dance enables them to transcend. The lower-case typography and Midgley’s simple diction can make his potent repetitions feel a world apart. In these intellectualizing times, such poetry can cut to the somatic core of why we make art. With what can seem too naive an approach at times, Midgley’s work still announces triumph over trauma. Vitality needs to be emphasized and accreted; in the enlargement of the musics of an alternate consciousness, the ecstatic can often be a risk when it’s set against a homogenized poetics. Midgley dares difference: “en jy en jy en jy” or “yii! the anguish! / eh! the heart-stopped breath!” This book offers a necessary paean to an often-forgotten tragedy.
For Tim Bowling, the term “Tenderman” is a touchstone, a being he first introduced in his 2011 collection and who returns here as the problematized, archaic, always-relevant, archetypal working man of the waterways, a self who straddles the worlds of resource culture and the troubled masculinities and economies of our society. The lyrics in this sequel are continually wrenching, steeped in homages to both literary predecessors and the working men of the Fraser River. Every piece contains an address to the Tenderman with whom Bowling associates himself and from whom he also detaches himself. This symbolic and tangible figure is excavated, questioned, and adored under the aegis of subject matter from Prince Rupert to his son’s Magic: The Gathering playing card, from Michael Caine to Pliny to The Incredible Hulk to selfies. The book is rife with closures, including the last cannery in Steveston. Yet, there is value to working with your hands, in the elements. How does Bowling seek to reconcile these opposing tensions? “Open Mic on the Government Wharf,” for instance, features the river itself giving voice to the realities of now, uttering the introduction: “[M]y name’s the Fraser River. I was born in the mountains east / of here. Everyone is killing me.” The titular piece may be the most potent though. With a tone and cadence reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers, Bowling enacts an elegy to the Tenderman and his era, crooning:
I miss you, and it—
the whole Ferris wheel of blood and brine and light,
the way our sweat dried on our skin as the glossy film dried on the fish
we caught and hucked onto the packer’s deck [. . .]
Even the river knows we’ve reached the end [. . .]
Tenderman, cold friend, are you there? Were we ever there?
Tenderman is a fierce and wry interrogation of maleness, labour, the land.
Devil in the Woods by D. A. Lockhart doesn’t have a dragfoot or a Tenderman anchoring his collection, but he does create a structural rhythm, alternating between Hugo-esque epistles and prayers both to harness and to release the wild humour of his pieces. Rampantly allusive but lacking endnotes, the book contains letters to every Canadian icon from k. d. lang to Pierre Berton, and prayers for the return of an annual James Bond marathon alongside an invocation of Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim contest. The work confronts encounter and rupture between colonial and Indigenous cultures, amidst First Nations history and the signifiers of “rez identity.” The tone is jovial, colloquial but tinged with sorrow and the occasional poeticism, as in the epistle to Peter Gzowski that concludes: “I’m waiting on the loons and hoping you’re finding your / arctic dreams.” Although there’s more lyricism in the prayers, the letters are rife with head-nodding moments the “Letter to Gerussi from Cobourg Beach, ON”:
we’ve already thrown more plastic and cigarette
butts into the ocean than in nineteen seasons of the Beachcombers. Yet we yearn for the glamour
that comes with being bigger than we believe we are.
The contrast between Timbits and ritual speaks to textures of endurance, uttering truths, chuckling, and surmounting, as all these poets do, tough transitions of time.
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