Two Channels, One Present

Reviewed by Neil Surkan

Both Kevin Shaw’s debut poetry collection, Smaller Hours, and Jay Ritchie’s latest, Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie, expand the boundaries of the Canadian lyric poem with hearteningly sensitive portrayals of masculinity in relation to desire, friendship, and community. However, while the two take up similar subject matter in their respective books, they present radically divergent approaches to form which, in turn, showcase different facets of the urgent conversations about gender, power, and perspective that have taken centre stage in Canadian literature this past year.

Smaller Hours highlights Kevin Shaw’s love of persistent metres and symmetrical stanzas, but he renovates the book’s more traditional approach to form by populating his poems with vivid vignettes of gay relationships and queer(ed) history. Meticulous and controlled, many poems in the collection read like verbal dioramas: disparate elements are brought into an evocative, bewildering harmony. A line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” gets transplanted in “Throwback,” into a meditation on baseball, aging, and father-son relationships; in the sonnet “Harris Park,” lines from one of Andrew Marvell’s Mower Poems mesh with “bottles, tampons, condoms, needles” to turn the park into an erotic palimpsest of past and present. Indeed, bars and parks appear frequently in Smaller Hours—important spots where queer desire hid in plain sight—but place and history often combine in less familiar ways at other points in the book. In “Occlusion Effect,” for instance, the speaker’s memory of trying on his mother’s jewellery as a boy is counterpointed with a frank treatment of the serial killer Herb Baumeister, who preyed on young gay men until his own son “discovered the first skull in the woods.” Set in Pinery Provincial Park—both a place the speaker visited when he was young and the place Baumeister fled to in order to commit suicide—the two foci, counterpointed, echo together across a pair of sweeping, heavily enjambed stanzas begun with the same haunting opening sentence: “I kept the memory of my body’s discovery, a stone glassed against adolescence.” As time zones blur in the poem, new, ominous chords reverberate.

In Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie, Jay Ritchie avoids consistent rhyme and rhythm to focus instead on breaking lines in the places that will elicit the most surprise. As a result, this collection blooms when read aloud. These poems zigzag down the page like sprinting through a corn maze—with pop culture paraphernalia and industrial appliances piled in the corners. Throughout the book, the speaker often doubles as a “promoter” and swims in currents of currency and “fluoridated tap water” in an opportunistic, “everlasting present.” However, Ritchie underpins the punning, sleight-of-hand enjambments that energize these poems with unsettling observations and grave intimations, like “I am afraid / to know the bottom of a body / of water. Anybody.” Thus, when the speakers stop eluding us and meditate, confess, or sneer with gut-wrenching frankness, the tone shifts from whimsical to mystical and reveals, at the core of this collection, a “fragile and heavy . . . hum.” One of the most captivating poems in the book, “Upcycle,” veers between the speaker’s “surge[s] of love” and hopelessness “like an inner tube at a pool party / nostalgic for asphalt” before imagining the “palpable spectra” of Montreal going on without him in it. Linking “teenage” Taoism, fast food, futile job hunts, and anxious whispers, “Upcycle” captures the unpredictable sensory onslaught of our contemporary moment. It also affirms a poignant relationship between comedy and philosophy, tricks and truths.

This review “Two Channels, One Present” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 167-168.

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