The Essential Douglas LePan. Porcupine's Quill and
Mechanical Monkeys. Mosaic Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
The Haunted Hand. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
The three volumes reviewed here were written by poets of different generations, poets born respectively in 1949, 1972, and 1914. They are also stylistically and thematically distinctive. What they have in common, however, is an authenticity born of an uncompromising encounter through both the head and the heart with the world and its manifold challenges. These are poets who can appreciate and celebrate life’s better moments yet also cry alongside the crying.
Although I have not read The Haunted Hand in its original Governor General’s Award-winning French version, I have no reservations about the English translation by another GG winner. This book is characterized by intense, often overpowering emotions, as the aging narrator tries to come to terms with her guilt and helplessness in response to humanity’s unending barbarities, as well as fears of her potential complicity in such evil—hence the title’s allusion to the physicality of her own writing. It comprises three sections, all written in the second person (but sometimes significantly straining toward the first), each prefaced by an epigraph and separated into equal parts short-lined verse and prose poems. The first section recounts the narrator’s (your) guilt-ridden dilemma of euthanizing her cat. She knows it is necessary to do so, but compares herself hyperbolically nevertheless to rapists and murderers. These are soul-searching passages that ripple outward from the individual to the collective, folding back on themselves with the section’s concluding words: “Now you glimpse the day when you will confess it. When you will be strong enough to write I” (36). The succeeding sections build on the themes introduced in the first, as the narrator tries to process many disturbing thoughts, including sights of roadkill animals; horrifying social media messages of Indian girls raped and hanged; and remembrances of twenty-two poets and novelists dead by suicide or apparent suicide. She struggles with trying to be affirmative in the face of such grief—“You want to write yes, like Marie, like Molly, like all those who before you answered to love, even deprived of grace you want to write yes” (60)—eventually looping back to the first section’s conclusion: “One day you stopped writing I, you forget why” (99). The entire volume traces this struggle for the affirmation of the first person; if the poet has been addressing herself and scouring her own soul throughout, she is nevertheless both implicating and holding out hope for the reader as well in this shared tortured search for redemption.
The poems in Mechanical Monkeys also cry out against the absurdities and injustices of the world, but more with a sense of too many thoughts and not enough time to express them all. Darrell Epp has a deft way of managing his lexical hyperactivity by locking it down in single-page poems of normally twenty-four lines or fewer. The energy in these poems is relentless; the first line in each accelerates from zero to sixty within a dozen words and doesn’t let up until the finish, the brilliantly juxtaposed images whizzing by, often grabbing hold for good. Like Charlie Chaplin, who in his twentieth-century movies “is still and always / with baseless optimism striving / against modernity’s hammer” (78), Epp battles in his poems the many dehumanizing forces of the twenty-first century, from the industries of his home city Hamilton that pollute Lake Ontario to military drones that slaughter the innocent with the guilty. And like a Chaplin movie, many of these poems are infused with humour, sometimes wry and sometimes slapstick, but always in response to the manifold societal, political, and economic injustices against which he struggles. Despite the accounts of personal troubles, tragedies, and global atrocities that populate the poems, the verse resonates with a sense that we can be better than “mechanical monkeys / living on credit and voting survivors off the / island” (82)—that there is still a place, as the final poem suggests, for prayer, if not for ecstasy.
The Essential Douglas LePan, consisting of thirty-three representative poems, is John Barton’s gracious tribute to this much-anthologized twentieth-century man of letters, who died in 1998. Douglas LePan, one of Canada’s leading modernists, whose previous literary publications span almost fifty years, also had distinguished careers in the military, the diplomatic and public services, and academia. In his seventies he publicly came out as gay, which not only overtly shaped the subject matter of his later works but also enabled supplementary rereadings of his earlier ones. The present collection is well balanced with selections from each of his six poetic publications, featuring such standards as “A Country without a Mythology,” “The Net and the Sword,” and “The Green Man,” as well as a passage from the verse drama Macalister, or Dying in the Dark (1995) and two previously uncollected poems. LePan’s verse is characterized by a carefully measured dignity, stately but accessible syntax, and a profound attention to the shaping qualities of the elements of life on the development of human character, particularly the beauties of nature, the attractions of love, and the horrors of war. The poems especially demonstrate a keen sensitivity to the nuances of suffering without ever becoming maudlin. One of the best of these, “Elegy in the Romagna,” grows out of LePan’s own experiences as a gunner during the Italian campaign in the Second World War, where, in the midst of so much death and destruction the poet hopes
From our unravelled tissues,
To spin an intellectual thread, no more
Mercurial nor more pure than this so precious crew,
That mounting, mounting, breaking, respun, as thin
As starlight, perhaps at last might clasp the upper air
And there restore relation and identity. (37)
Whether or not this hope is always achieved, the twin virtues of compassion and courage manifested in much of LePan’s work serve to make the attempt worthwhile.
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