9x11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x, and Eleven. New Star Books
Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy. ECW Press
Where poetry and prose collide, enhance, water down, diminish, or transform each other is always an interesting intersection to query. Some writers’ books seem to exist almost solely to question the validity of such distinctions in genre. In Canada, I think of rob mclennan, say, or the writer at hand, Michael Turner, whose latest publication, 9×11, often enacts itself neither wholly poetically nor prosaically, leaving it to the reader to determine whether this lack of generic distinction leads to a sense of dissatisfaction or jubilation. Turner, although not an official “member,” has long echoed the ethos and aesthetics of Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing, a mode of composition that seeks to attain the abstract architectonic, the desensorized, the erasure of categories—an “anti-writing” writing in which content is flattened out by avant-garde approaches to the materiality of language. As one line in Turner’s book admits: “Not the story of a bird but its form.” And there are a range of structures (as I would prefer to call them) in this collection: numbered triptychs on living in small spaces (a definite Vancouver dilemma), skinny bottom-of-the-page lines à la Nicole Brossard, unabashed prose pieces on the politics of real estate and Baudelaire, a few typical lyrics, meditations on the letter “O,” and vague slices of words jarred asleep by rhymes and inversions (“carved is art”).
Although important commentary on our global and fearful times rivers beneath these pieces, the boredom factor runs high. Very little compels in a literary sense, to wit, aurality, energy, diction, and unforgettable narrations. Yet, the initial sequence’s reductions to the numerical in relation to the housing crisis in my hometown is sadly relatable stuff: “We have been notified that our rent is going up. . . . Nine times eleven is ninety-nine, ninety-nine times four is what I once paid in rent.” And the prose poems (or mini-essays) with the titles “Directions” and “Skyscrapers” actually evoke sensory details to vivify their stances/stories: “cereal eaten with rice milk and berries,” “a hybrid whose exterior is happily romantic but whose interior is rational, modern,” or “the poem’s margins, filling them with birdsong, confetti, or / more recently, bodies from a burning tower.” These are powerful moments, but their instances, in sum, are all too rare. However, Turner does end with a punchy colloquial burst—“OMG! A heart that is large and getting larger!”—that gives this reader the hope that perhaps he is heading (back?) in a direction that more memorably fuses his vital post-9/11 concerns with a more reckless intensity of language.
Paul Vermeersch’s Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy is fortunately, mostly, from a very different campground in the CanPo national park. Vermeersch is a poet who calls upon myth, robotics, space travel, nursery rhymes, pop culture, and other detrital allusiveness to construct his visual formalities, which teem with innovative envisionings. Intelligent poetry, yes, made even smarter by its adherence to recognizable grammatical structures, solid forms, and vivid imagery, and never thus veering into the incomprehensible. Looking ahead to the brave new apocalypse of the Third Millennium, Vermeersch, as in his startling collection The Reinvention of the Human Hand from 2010, uses cut-up poetic pastiches, erasures, art works, and, most potently, his facility with a future-thinking imagination that, at its finest, moves and stirs the desire to preserve.
Lines that etched a particular path through my dystopian heart include: “A life has its borders. If we need to, we can cross them / behind closed eyes: to the Peach Tree, to the Blood. / But first we must invent the wheel or the saddle or the nation” (from “Without Transportation”); “It could be that you have the wrong hands, or the wrong face. / It is not your imagination. You do” (“On Being Wrong”); and “But great proliferator /I am rare. Blue so. I visit you in traps . . . I bring you flakes, epithelia / from the island” (“Blue Lobster”). The phenomenal piece “Extinction Schedule” pairs the loss of species with certain human events, from the invention of the rodeo to the formation of the Beatles, and contains the gut-wrenching loveliness of these lines:
Within a generation, they will take their place
among the sumacs and moonseeds,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And further down the road, the little octopodes
will inhabit crude shelters above the tide line,
aggregate of stones and paste of algae
The elided nursery rhymes and chopped-up modernisms in other sections of this collection are merely asides, to my mind, when set against such vigorous resistances as these lyrics, whose weird euphonies are crafted to be recited in both end and forever times.