Birds and Neutrino Observatories

  • Matthew Tierney
    Midday at the Super-Kamiokande. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • David Alexander
    After the Hatching Oven. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neil Surkan

Matthew Tierney’s latest poetry collection and David Alexander’s full-length debut merge unconventional subject matter with brazen takes on poetic form. In turn, both books take the field of contemporary Canadian poetry for a walk on the wild side.

Tierney’s Midday at the Super-Kamiokande is a sequence of taut, allusive poems that pun and joke while delivering a strong dose of existential malaise. In a style reminiscent of Michael Robbins’ Alien vs. Predator, the poems flit between philosophy and pop culture: expect to encounter Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Plotinus in very close proximity to Hitchcock, Star Wars, and/or a near-death “fat Elvis.” However, because Tierney adds in unsettling personal intimations—on fatherhood, most frequently—these poems vibrate in a register all their own. At their best, they combine jolting rhythms, subtle rhymes, and propulsive enjambments with startling descriptions and sage-like aphorisms. Take this section from “People Plan,” for example, a poem set in the subway:

Can’t decipher whether
my fellow commuter, intent on his tablet,
is a proficient first-person shooter,
if I’m his equal.

 

Is there any measure more biblical
than a stone’s throw?

 

Underground,
what sunlight there is is refused us.
I’ve mixed feelings pointing out the obvious.
Either you understand my ambivalence

 

or you do not.
In the kingdom of conspiracies,
anyone could be a theorist.

Tierney’s speaker repeats, revises, and redirects at breakneck speed. Ecstatically snarky, Midday at the Super-Kamiokande alienates and amazes in turn, a futuristic machine that runs on charisma.

Alexander’s After the Hatching Oven is an entire book of poems about chickens. Equal parts reference companion, PETA-esque manifesto, and concept album, Alexander’s collection takes on the lowly chicken from all angles, then renders his findings into a multiplicity of forms: erasures, centos, prose poems, sonnets, even a hybrid villanelle. Intermittently funny, heart-wrenching, clever, and quirky, the book’s potpourri of forms is connected by inventive images and consistently exquisite line breaks. In the sonnet “Elegy”—a standout—Alexander stitches together sarcasm, outrage, and caring description as his speaker looks at an oven-ready roasting chicken. The poem beckons us toward an uneasy reckoning with what’s for dinner:

Here she lies, unknown, at rest
on a bed of rue and rosemary. Tenderly

 

trussed before cremation. She loved your
jokes about bacon, the winking way

 

you hawked her hand-drawn corpse. . . .

Since many of the poems in the book respond to the works of other poets, Alexander’s own poetic inspirations are clear: Ted Hughes, in particular, haunts the collection, with four of Alexander’s poems explicitly referencing or rewriting his. And although a few poems predictably repeat the formula of rewriting another poet’s work to make it about chickens—take “After bpNichol”: “A / cluck // A / click // A / chick // A / child // A / chill”—others are sure to intrigue: “Why I Am Not a Chicken,” written after Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” captures O’Hara’s exuberance but is unmistakably Alexander’s.



This review “Birds and Neutrino Observatories” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 104-105.

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