Long Monologues

Reviewed by Carl Watts

Spending a long time making any kind of art comes with the assumption that one has an identifiable style or voice. But poetry, with its oft-described processual nature, might call this seemingly common-sense observation into question. What do we expect a long run as a poet to sound like? Like a voice we’ve always known? A voice that ages expectedly? Or develops unexpectedly, turning back on itself, modulating in innovative permutations?


John Terpstra, who has published many books of poetry and nonfiction, has his recurring themes: nature, spirituality, and place, the latter often being his home of Hamilton, Ontario. These themes have at times defined his work more than form or genre: 1990’s Naked Trees, republished by Wolsak and Wynn in 2012, has been classified as poetry but, with its brief prose ruminations on the life of its subjects, is almost unrecognizable as such. Wild Hope: Prayers & Poems draws on Terpstra’s common interests, but it also features a formal awareness that isn’t always evident in his work:


You are with us

your soil, your black loam

and compost

your bud and shoot

they comfort us


Paradoxically, the constraint of the prayer format allows Terpstra tighten his language and use sonic devices to greater effect than in a book like Naked Trees, in which language is free to spread shapelessly, as if on purely descriptive terms.


From the first page, the format is also an access point into issues both timeless and contemporary: “The kind of world we live in / is fraught / with where and when the next outbreak / will occur.” Frequently, Terpstra gets directly into the topical:


We pray for our own children

and others

for whom even a small house

these days

is so far out-of-reach


that it may as well be a very big house[.]


The immediacy might seem almost tasteless if we think of poetry as some exalted form. But it makes perfect sense given the quotidian, present-oriented prayer format.


One doesn’t find this kind of tension in Ken Norris’ South China Sea. The book provides another iteration of its author’s signature poetics: sometimes confessional, frequently aphoristic free verse. Subtitled “A Poet’s Autobiography,” the book forgoes “the props of conventional narrative” (as the back-cover copy puts it) in its telling of the speaker-author’s peregrinations, instead jumbling together vignettes from North America, Asia, and the Pacific. The strategy subverts chronology and closure, privileging the arbitrariness of memory. “Chicken Curry—Fiji, 1980,” for example, moves swiftly from the animal’s death to the observation that


It’s one of those meals

you certainly feel strange about,

the connection so direct.

What you order results

in an immediate death. (45)


Still, at more than 250 poems spread over 180 pages, one wonders what kind of organizational logic could be applied at all; in terms of style and subject matter, many poems are interchangeable. Some resemble those in chapbook Hawaiian Sunrise (also published in 2021), which seem at once more playful and tightly wound. But most are content to plot themselves in an autobiographical haze, unfolding quickly even as they mess around with temporal coordinates, like in “1984—Montreal, 1984”:


Everything changed in 1984.

My daughter was born in 1984.

I started dating my ex-wife in 1984.

Charlotte told me the sexual revolution was over

in 1984, and I didn’t believe her,

and I don’t believe her now. (16)


It all hangs together in its superficiality; there are poems about having “travelled through” over a dozen languages “long since forgotten. // Mastering none, a few words of many / clinging to me” (57). This superficiality highlights memory’s failings, but it exists on a formal level as well: most poems are very short, this one running up against the next on the verso, that one meandering only a short distance down the recto. There’s little attention to form or sound; the speaker in one “never understood / writers who spoke / of how difficult the work was” (18); another seems bemused by bpNichol’s practice of rendering a poem “this way / or this way or this way / or this way or this way.” (66). There’s a gentle pulsing in the collection’s familiarity, but one wonders how South China Sea might have looked if its author had varied his own approach.


David O’Meara’s Masses on Radar, meanwhile, is built from a visualization and temporalization of the lyric voice at middle age—according to the press sheet, an experience of being “equidistant from the past and future” that can be rendered also as the lyric subject’s detecting “encroachments” from its central vantage point. Its opening poem features a compelling reflection on perception, language, and, ultimately, narrative:


Our earliest memories are hearsay, or Mom’s, the one

reliable witness. Most begin at floor level, before

grammar: table legs, linoleum, toddler push toy


stalled at the carpet trim. (16)


A dispersed-sonnet format, with stanzas of three, four, four, and three lines, recurs throughout the book, interspersed with more sprawling poems with more white space. The effect is a cautious and controlled navigation of uncertainty.


“Vigour,” which ends by complaining that “our domestic AI” is “no Rutger Hauer, soon to be laughed at but grimly / muttering I’ve seen cat hair you people wouldn’t believe / into the dustbin of, like, literally, the kitchen”(21), makes comedy out of the conceit. But things also get grim, like in “I Walk Dripping from a Sea Journey on the Highway across America in Tears to the Door of Your Cottage in the Western Night,” where these cultural signifiers edge beyond generations and culture wars into the bleakness of the Anthropocene:


The end caps we use for beer steins,

the flare-stacks our tiki torches.

I am post-millennial, post-X, -Y, -Zed,

post-economy, post–black

rhino and – polar bear. I’m now

and only here to party. (52)


Such moments add to O’Meara’s engagements with time and advancing age by wondering whether the cyclical nature of these things may now itself be in decay. Similarly, Masses on Radar drifts as much as twists itself up, knowing its voice and yet looking elsewhere as its author’s cumulative monologue extends just past his comfort zone.

This review “Long Monologues” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Sep. 2022. Web.

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