Trembling Men

How to Dance in This Rarefied Air gathers collected and new poems from Sri Lankan Canadian poet Rienzi Crusz. A veteran at ninety-one years old and with twelve poetry collections, Crusz writes carefully crafted lyrics that mix jarring and joyful images from Sri Lanka and Waterloo, as in these lines:

I broke all the rules—
The sun chattering in my teeth,
my hair on fire
the smell of elephant
body and brain listening all the while
to the mad and searing order of words.

Crusz’s metaphors repeat and collect meaning—ravens and elephants; ice, snow, and parkas; bone and blood; and the “undivided ground” where the immigrant is both “here” and “there.” The ultimate metaphor in the book, however, is the poem itself. In Crusz’s expansive poetics, the poem is not only “the heart raw and public” or a “new way / of looking at the world,” but also the song of “the flushing toilet, the garbage / grumbling in the can,” an elephant rolling over, a wasp egg hatching, “the mangled poem of my body,” and the flawed poem of a life.

The poetics and politics of the “Sun-Man” writing in the “landscape of ice” are compelling, yet I am also bothered by these poems that converse with a long list of all-male authors and too easily cast women as Madonna or muse. Crusz’s men are inflected with difference—they are “shaking,” “nowhere,” “naked,” “opposite,” “faltering,” and “immigrant” men. He writes that words do not have “weathervane meanings” but instead shift and “tremble” in their contexts, and in the end, I am uncertain about how to comment on the trembling masculinism of this startling and memorable collection.

Masculinism is evoked and critiqued differently in Shane Rhodes’ Dead White Men, in which he crafts poems from historical texts written by European explorers and scientists on colonial expeditions to what is now the Canadian North (and also to Australia, Tahiti, Norway, Hawaii, and elsewhere). The poem “Dead White Men” functions as a kind of introduction, where, incorporating as many words as possible that contain man or men, Rhodes lays out both a critique (“This is men, dormant in their element”) and a poetics (“I shell poems from prose and give them home”). Yet when Rhodes’ speaker describes his sources as “all white, all men,” but not all dead, he recalls that he is also a white man. Subtitles to the poems that follow—“after Alexander Mackenzie”—speak to sources but also inheritances of white supremacist, colonial power. The men whose writing Rhodes samples range from familiar (Martin Frobisher, James Cook) to famous (Jacques Cartier, Galileo), and Rhodes’ procedural, combinatory, and erasure poetics are smart and heartbreaking, especially in the white men’s encounters with “savages” and the poems about Indigenous people transported back to Europe as curiosities and slaves. With its manipulated images of statues, innovative poetics, and tête-bêche format that confuses front and back, beginning and end, past and present, the book turns power on its head, like an upside-down elephant.

This review “Trembling Men” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 137-138.

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