What Your Hands Have Done. Nightwood Editions
The Book of Sensations. University of Calgary Press
The latest collection by Sheri-D Wilson could just as well be titled The Sensation of Books, since so much of it is given to ecstatic proclamations (and variations thereof) of her love of books. But her true love is synonymy. A reader’s arrival at the end of a good book is “a eucatastrophe / or a dyscatastrophe”; the smell of old books provides “exotic intoxication / biblical-stench blooms” in their “volumes of folio olfaction”; the compulsive case is diagnosed as that of “bibliophilic bibliobibuli / a bibliophagist bookworm / bibliophile literarian.”
In an age of conspicuous fetishism, this showy sort of mania is the equivalent of a streaker running through a strip bar. Wilson’s unapologetic commitment to rhapsody, which means having no fear of embarrassment or redundancy, makes me wonder what kind of Facebook user Walt Whitman might have been. From its title onwards, a poem like “Drones Kill” demonstrates how the message stays at the centre and the “poetics” is the elaboration, the repetition, the rhymes and wordplay that keep it there:
I guard the deep ID of my inner id
amid invisible lines on a neon grid
buzzing overhead, severing the sky
aerial robots with the bloodshot eye
of Sauron, of so long, of no long good-byes
of another apple-less piece of Miss American pie
The Tolkien invocation is indicative of the book’s enthusiasm for witchcraft, blended to no great surprise with “Scandalous Women” and “Forest Bathing” (two other titles). Behind the repeated call “back to the fire within” may be heard a tambourine and perhaps the backfiring of a magic bus.
Altogether less ethereal is Chris Bailey’s first book, What Your Hands Have Done. These are narrative poems, many of them told in the second person, which is always a risk and is here symptomatic of a general effort to efface the lyrical “I.” “A Slow Process,” the book’s longest poem, which recounts the death and funeral of “Grammie” in twenty-three vignettes, does have a first-person narrator, if only because the miniature epiphanies need him. Here he is at the coffin: “Someone says, / She looks so good. Dad agrees. I look at her once / more. It’s the lips. They never get the lips right.” And here he is at the poem’s end, interrupted by a three-year-old girl: “Then she wants a hug. / I don’t want to let her go.” Pathos, curtain.
The ostensibly lapidary, even workingman’s sense of language in these poems (which can be enjoyably ironic: “I even shave sometimes”) is sometimes punctuated by hesitation. In “Bachelor Party Blues,” the thesaurus takes the wheel as the narrator tries to “get a hooker / to dance for the groom-to-be” but he finds himself unable to “procure an escort” (italicized because this is the foreign language of negotiation) and so complains: “in a city / of thousands and nary a harlot to be had.” If “dance” thereafter seems all that much more a euphemism, the tonal differences between those nouns seem curiously obscured.
And sure, it’s clear sailing to melancholy prose from here.