Leslie Timmins Reviews Three New Poetry Collections for EVENT 48/3
Lesley Timmins Reviews:
John Wall Barger, The Mean Game, Palimpsest Press, 2019
Lindsay Bird, Boom Time, Gaspereau Press, 2019
Matthew Walsh, These are not the potatoes of my youth, Goose Lane Editions, 2019
Social isolation, exclusion and the power of human connection are explored with unexpected humour in three new poetry collections.
In The Mean Game, poet John Wall Barger is a brilliant improv artist, inhabiting multiple personas and voices and showing off a comic, compassionate inventiveness that reminds me of the great satirical writers Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Jonathan Swift.
In Barger’s poem, ‘At the Front,’ people are trained in ‘patriotic camps’ to ‘slay the savage Abbieannians/before they slayed us.’ Repeated in the poem, the enemy’s name elicits laughter: Just how savage can the Abbieannians be? Yet as the people march through dense smoke at the front, their ‘weapons [are] drawn, as taught.’ Face-to-face across trenches, however, when the friendly enemy waves to the people, ‘We laid our guns down/& sat with them in the grass/beside a river/that cried like a human.` Exposing the absurd tropes of war, the poem allows a powerful truth: humans’ desire not to kill each other.
Like many of Barger’s apparent subjects, war in ‘At the Front’ can represent any number of misconceptions about the Other. In ‘The Stiltwalkers,’ an imperialist speaks as no imperialist would—candidly:
We arrived on horseback. The locals
pooled around us, faces kind & open.
They brought us parrots, balls of cotton.
We poisoned the water. Burned the temples.
They had been rich in materials.
We designed their poverty from scratch.
Introduced a law: the feet of each local
would be severed & upon each stump
a tall wooden stilt be sewn.
Somehow the locals drive the marauders away. The one imperialist remains, hobbling on stilts to blend in, and witnesses miraculous adaptations: the locals ‘have grown eloquent/in walking. Running faster than we ever could./…Their young born/stilted.’ In envy he watches the adults dance on their stilts, ‘lope like puppets/& never fall. Women gyrate in a ring around the bonfire./Behind, the men jump, ever higher, calling for love./Women catch them.’ As they spin, they ‘sing in a collective low/moan the joy of their dark hearts like gods.’
As an allegory of healing and resistance, ‘The Stiltwalkers’ is astonishing. The people’s uplifted view is the grace of a wound shared, allowing a natural connection within a community of those who do not hide their wounds in shame, but integrate them. And who is excluded from this communal joy? He who inflicts the wound, masks his true self and takes no responsibility.
The Other situated in oneself wields considerable power in ‘Deus Ex Machina,’ in which a man called Viktor is consumed by addiction. Viktor once manufactured illegal drugs and now lurches around his room high and haunted by the ‘Buried bodies’ who took those drugs. When the god-machine of the title appears, it descends through the roof as a beast with ‘brick hide, guard tower eyes,/barbwire wings…scooping Viktor up.’ This beast has the physical attributes of a prison where Viktor might answer for his crimes and recover from addiction.
Almost every poem has a different speaker: human, animal, oppressed, oppressor, child or adult. This constantly destabilizes my expectations, requiring a creative participation that ultimately widens my empathic range. And although Barger’s protagonists are mostly unable to undo the damage they do, or receive justice for the damage done to them, he suggests that when humans are loved, it’s a deus ex machina unlike any other.
The singularity of Lindsay Bird’s bold, unsentimental first collection, Boom Time, derives not from multiple personas, but from the indelible presence of the poet and the work life she describes in isolated camps serving Alberta’s oil patch: ‘We stumble off the bus/in our new boots to see/what eats grass and what eats us.’ Bird’s droll humour in ‘First Day in Fort Mac’ shifts from a joking fear of wild animals to the visceral threat of gender violence from a grabby, drunk-driving superintendent and another worker who writes a threatening note and calls her ‘bitch’ for not being able to ‘take/a compliment.’
Bird shows herself to be a determined survivor, yet the very funny poem ‘Celebrity Gossip with Charlie YahyahKeekoot’ tells how she and Charlie love spreading gossip, a liability in a small place. Mid-poem, she seems to turn the tables on herself: ‘For some reason in these rumours we’re often naked./It was Charlie passed out pantsless by the vending machines,/I take it all off, slowly, when the supervisor shuts the HR door.’ She ends with a note of bravado or defiance: ‘it’s true I snapped that marriage/like a sickly jack pine.’ In a poem set in New Brunswick, this defiance feels off-putting as she writes about a lost lover, ‘I’m heartbroken and he’s dead,’ then adds, ‘and/if you don’t know the circumstances/I’m not getting into it.’ Yet as the narrative goes on, it is actually this veering toward and away from vulnerability that exposes the raw heart.
There are many hazards to Bird’s work laying pipe, delineated at times in an ironic tone. The most insidious danger though is nameless, described in the innocent chime of Newfoundland dialect in the splendid prose poem ‘Phonse.’ ‘It’s not fog,’ Phonse declares. ‘Suppertime I takes my shower and sneezes out black. Rest of my crew does too. And the nosebleeds… Blood as thick as that fog, if that’s what you want to call it.’ ‘Phonse’ ends like this: mid-air.
In ‘Cubs of Love,’ the same effect seems like moral indifference. Bird describes lying in bed with a lover as they ‘listen/to the downstairs neighbour/beat his wife.’ Then her lover ‘lends [her] earplugs/for the night.’ The lovers go to sleep ‘wishing/they were bears, could/hibernate and wake to/the cubs of love.’ Is hibernation then a kind of numbness against the strain of living in an isolated camp, surrounded by a ruined landscape, doing dangerous and, some would say, ruinous work?
Notably, it’s when Bird is far away from camp on a holiday in Mexico that she sees the outline of her lover`s body and the dried salt on his cheek as ‘Something that looks a lot like love.’ She breaks the stanza to give lots of space to the poem’s beautiful last line about love, ‘the jagged breath of it.’
Matthew Walsh’s delightful These are not the potatoes of my youth also depends upon the singularity of the poet’s character, humour and voice, but finding the freedom to be that voice forms the narrative arc. In the first poem, ‘Downtown convos,’ Walsh walks around Vancouver recalling an encounter in which they refused to have sex without a condom. The poem is a coming-out to the reader, yet it is far more a declaration of survival:
Once at a bathhouse I was offered four hundred dollars to perform
bareback but that would have covered barely
the cost of preventative medicine which acts
to kill your body. I’ve been here too long to stop
interior-decorating this body which has had so many show-
off moments and greens and vegetables.
Note how the line break at ‘stop’ echoes ‘kill’ and underlines Walsh’s refusal ‘to perform/bareback’ or to take a harmful drug. Many of the poems’ lines are long-legged like these, with a run-on syntax suggesting the stride of a flâneur. Here the joy of movement stands for much more, as Walsh declares, ‘I keep walking because did I tell you no one believed in me/as a walker no one believed that I could walk until I did.’
Walsh’s humour flirts with poignancy while registering a concrete, particular imagination, one which serves the mission of poetry to make us feel beyond its formal choices, as in ‘Cringer’:
I’ve based my entire masculinity on He-Man
Master of the Universe’s green pet tiger,
Cringer. He had such a good character,
and I wore a mask like him, I breathed
in medicines for my lungs, for bronchitis.
My mother messed up my tiger hair, called
me Cringer. Dad had sort of closed the door
to me, for I was not athletic, like he. Cringer
was shy but in his mask he became confident.
For a boy guilty of ‘a depravity’ according to school, church and a rejecting father, the candid humour and genuine sweetness in this and other poems acquaint me more deeply with the brutality of exclusion. Walsh’s portrait of family life offers more and, thankfully, less of the same.
In ‘Garbage box with black loons,’ Walsh notes how their father liked building boxes for garbage bins and sheds because ‘he loved putting up/any kind of wall,’ yet momentarily at least, allows that ‘Dad may also/be a tourist of this town for he felt like he belonged/elsewhere.’ In ‘Individual cats,’ a poem about their mother, Walsh plays with the concepts of heteronormativity and coming out: ‘We were such tourists as she walked me down the aisle [of the Superstore]…./She looked for fruit for the fruitcake.’ Then ‘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.’ Even this poem, funny and appreciative of their loving mother, contains the comment, ‘What a constant battle.’
These poems track how a boy who is queer is damned for it, comes out during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, leaves home and finds their way to a sense of belonging as an adult. LikeJohn Wall Barger and Lindsay Bird, Matthew Walsh adds to our understanding of the human need for connection and the circumstances that allow or deny it.