Toward More Feeling

  • Matthew Walsh
    These are not the potatoes of my youth. icehouse poetry
  • Domenica Martinello
    All Day I Dream about Sirens. Coach House Books
  • Ben Ladouceur
    Mad Long Emotion. Coach House Books
Reviewed by Neil Surkan

Three daring new poetry collections get behind Ange Mlinko’s argument, in Marvelous Things Overheard (2014), that “we life-forms are evolving / only toward more feeling.”

Wry, musical, and charismatic, Domenica Martinello’s debut, All Day I Dream about Sirens, creates a chorus of voices—ventriloquized Greek goddesses, byssus seamstresses, pop characters, and more—that are as alluring as they are devastating. Reading ADIDAS feels like leaning in to smell a bouquet only to realize it’s made of carnivorous plants. One would be hard pressed to find another collection that so brazenly interplays intimation and condemnation, melody and cacophony, and the effect is intoxicating. “What a blessing to be broken and showing,” one voice whispers; “I don’t know if you’ve heard but / I have a needle for a tongue,” spits another. By the end of the collection, the world has cracked open, like the split between “Syllo” and “gism” in one of the many poems titled “Refrain on the Rocks.” But from the split, from these poems’ constant fluctuation between corroboration and contradiction, a “new” tenderness arises:

new rules

so newly familiar

until tenderness

is new

yes new

a new kind

that no one

can ever take

away from us.

Or maybe not: in the very next poem, it is undercut by “faux tenderness / sniffed and followed like a sentence.” Nothing definitively is as it seems in this collection, which, excitingly, demands more subtlety from us.

With poems that are as technically cunning as they are unabashedly intimate, Ben Ladouceur’s sophomore collection, Mad Long Emotion, threads the seams between the digital and the carnal, the private and the public, as he prods the limits we set, and the ambiguities we endure, to reveal our desires and our bodies to one another from behind “embankment[s] of pixels.” The book’s first section comprises a series of hybrid sonnets in which every line is end-stopped, so that the poems become stacks of curt sentences that fluctuate between ecstasy and tentativeness: “I am on my second coffee and a bus and I love the whole world. / Even the quadrants that want me aflame,” or “The vulnerable eon forgotten in an effort to move forward forever. / How do we tell a gill from a wound?” But right after that, Ladouceur pivots into a section of evocative, looser poems that gain momentum from evolving diction and bold conceits. Take, for instance, the visceral ars poetica “Colostomy,” which blurs the line “where the insides end and the world / begins,” as the speaker ruminates on his insatiable love of poetry that his “body has no need for / and would sooner evict.” The book’s third section, a long poem of equal parts blank space and language, continues to seek connection, as the speaker “struggles with silences” while telling his beloved “something about his body”: namely, that it opens more than it resolves.

Compared to Mad Long Emotion, Matthew Walsh’s debut, These are not the potatoes of my youth, favours a more predictable, consistent speaker, but one with a compelling, original voice. In poems that are equal parts heart-tingling and hilarious, Walsh harvests family history and tales of queer friendship to create a tangled root system of relations. Since theirs is a world that, on “Google Earth,” looks “connected like veins,” these poems are reminiscent of David McFadden’s Gypsy Guitar (1987). However, Walsh’s predilection for radical enjambments vaults the poems into a register all their own, as interruptions make room for multiple meanings and glaring contradictions: “I was not ready for the abuse // of intimacy”; “I had parts / of myself I did not know were part of myself”; “hands covered in Magic / Baking Powder.” The personal stories that frame these memory poems are peculiar and moving, often developing characters across numerous discrete lyrics that coax us toward more ambiguous, more ambivalent perspectives on what it means to love and, most poignantly, to forgive. See how, for example, in the remarkable coming-out poem “Individual Cats,” Walsh’s speaker slyly, sweetly recalls how their mother

. . . loves

to keep clementines in the closet to ripen up which is so good


in the poem I am making over. We came out together

from the Superstore and I turned and said I am gay


which was scary comical ’cause she had so much fruit

on her hands, now, literally, for real.

Precarious moments like this accrue and then snarl together, strange and fragile as potato eyes.

This review “Toward More Feeling” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 20 Jul. 2020. Web.

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