The Loosening Universe

Reviewed by Alex Assaly

In the early 1950s, Marshall McLuhan made his first attempt at assessing the technologies and mass media that characterized “the Electric Age.” McLuhan found that the violent and disorienting stimuli of modern life not only turned individuals helpless and exploitable, but also manipulated, shifted, and extended their natural psychic and sensory makeup. As “the Electric Age” has evolved into “the Digital Age,” McLuhan’s concern for modern life has become increasingly significant. These four collections of poetry look at the ways mind, body, creativity, and spirit function in response to the extremes of modernity. While some of their poems reveal a sensibility more willing to engage, others do their best to find equanimity amid the commotion of technology, hyperstimulation, and violence.

Jim Johnstone’s fifth collection of poetry, The Chemical Life, is an uncomfortable study of personal struggle and escapism. The opening poem sets the tone. The speaker, preparing to engage in sexual fantasy before the LCD screen of his computer, opens himself up to further fantasy as he imagines a drug-filled limousine ride that ends in a hedonistic underworld. Drugs, prescription and recreational, provide Johnstone with the most direct way “to feel less.” In “Alprazolam,” Xanax reduces the poem’s speaker to “an aggregate of instinct and force,” stifled by “pressure native / to a bomb.” Johnstone describes the Xanax trip in short and powerful lines, which, in spite of their clarity, force the reader into a disorienting speed-read. Inevitably, these moments of escape come at a price. In “The Chemical Life,” the women “uploaded on touch”—those who “pixelate” on the screen before him—become “bodies dumped / roadside before // they become women again.” The reader remains understanding, nevertheless, for Johnstone depicts a world that is dark and unwelcoming. While the speaker of “Venlafaxine” asks, “Are / we not more than the first word / or the last?” the speaker in “Vesica Piscis” suffers from the violence of a cruel and bullying father.

Darryl Whetter’s Search Box Bed is far less hesitant about embracing the extremes of modern stimulation. Although Whetter’s poetry shifts and slides in form, guided more by breath than by tradition, its topic remains focused. He rarely strays from exploring the relationship between poetry and a form of “love” warped by the rampant pornography of “the Digital Age.” In his hands, pornography is so totalizing that the Venus of Willendorf becomes Belladonna, Shakespeare the “all holes bard,” and yoga “sexercise.” Whetter’s poems are bearable only when they avoid the self-aggrandizing tone of someone convinced they have single-handedly unveiled the inner workings of the modern mind. In “Loves Kids and Animals,” for example, the speaker declares himself a “hacktivist of honesty,” apparently exposing the person behind a Facebook profile featuring photos of animals, kids, and outdoor activities to be a lover of “a slow munch and a naked cock / thicker than a drain pipe.” Still, Whetter describes the prurient sides of modern life with such heavy-handedness that poems about butt plugs, strap-ons, nipple clamps, and the other accoutrements of fetish sex are barely salvaged by an underlying sense that the pornographic contains a sort of radical politics. In “Take It like a,” the speaker encourages female readers to “peg him,” to use “tech,” to “turn the tables” on traditional sex roles.

Benjamin Hertwig’s debut collection, Slow War, represents the psychological, emotional, and sensory experiences of a modern soldier at various stages in his life and service. In the series of poems that opens the collection, a number of violent experiences—an altercation between two boys, an animal that must be killed after it is hit by a car, a hunting trip that ends with the speaker falling through the ice—are figured as moments of origination leading to the speaker’s decision to join the Canadian Armed Forces. When he reaches the theatre of war, the speaker analyzes his surroundings with intense and wide-eyed attention: “fireflare in the distance. full moon traces a slow parabola across the roof like running a finger through tabletop salt.” The clarity and naturalness of his lines, however, do not always stand up to the most extreme experiences of war. In “First Shot,” for example, lines disintegrate into fragments:

  a yellow taxi   follows         so
close                   you can see       eyewhite
as he talks
on the phone.
hands wave,        bites into an apple,
not looking like
a killer,
your order is to shoot.

The speaker’s return to Canada does little to put an end to the trauma. The heavy “baggage of war”—memories and a preoccupation with mortality—shrouds not only his mind, but also his relationships and his search for healing. At every stage of the soldier-speaker’s experience, Hertwig treats his subject with incredible sensitivity and nuance, making Slow War one of those rare debuts that reads as though it issued from the maturest of poetic minds.

E Martin Nolan’s Still Point is another debut of remarkable talent. Over the course of five sections, Nolan takes his readers to New Orleans, Detroit, and Toronto, as each city suffers from a different form of crisis. Whereas Johnstone’s, Whetter’s, and Hertwig’s speakers are noticeably shaped by their contact with violent stimuli, Nolan’s speaker is more detached and flâneur-like. In New Orleans, his speaker notices the scars that both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill have left on the city’s landscape. In Detroit, urban decay spans “a ripped poster” that adorns a “window’s plywood patch,” bark beetles destroying the city’s elm trees, and the inner city being pushed into the suburbs. One of the most memorable poems in Still Point is set in Toronto, where urban sprawl marks the landscape enough to entirely shift humanity’s relationship to nature:

I’ve seen more sunsets looking east
than I have looking west.

Both horizons are blocked from me
in my second-floor apartment.

Eastward, glass towers reflect
just one shade of western sky.

Behind the speaker’s near-objective observations seems to be a desire to establish a “still point” in the rapidly turning world that is modern life. For Nolan, such still points are rare, but not non-existent. Music periodically appears as such a point of stability, possessing a spirit opposed to modernity and the “oil tankers” that are nothing more than “riverboats without brass bands, / their drums filled with rhythmless crude.” Where “rhythm” provides respite for the speaker of the collection, it is in the rhythmic lines of Nolan’s verse that readers may find their own still points in this ever-loosening universe.

This review “The Loosening Universe” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 149-151.

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