by MADELINE BASSNETT
LONDON REVIEWS OTTAWA
Bad Engine: New + Selected Poems
[Vancouver: Anvil, 2017, $28.00]
Dividing the Wayside
[Kingsville: Palimpsest, 2018, SALE PRICE: $15.16]
We, Old Young Ones
[Victoria: Frog Hollow, 2019, $14.00]
If Ottawa poets Michael Dennis, Jenny Haysom, and Dominik Parisien are a representative trio, then they might reveal the city’s poetic breadth. Dennis’s plain-spoken occasional poetry, Haysom’s lyric and formal achievements, and Parisien’s blunt yet beautiful metaphors of pain seem at first to have little to do with each other. But a closer reading suggests that all three poets share an interest in exposing and exploring the limits and potential of language as a medium of transformation.
Dominik Parisien’s Frog Hollow chapbook, We, Old Young Ones, is an extended meditation on illness and the dis / abilities of age and youth. Central to this work is Parisien’s investigation of the language of pain. Turning to metaphor, Parisien shows us how language inescapably and repeatedly falls short. His first poem, “Let us for a moment call this pain by other words,” takes up the challenge, beginning with a question that transforms medical measurements: “How many roses does the hammer weigh / when it bears down on your skull?” As the poem reworks and rethinks clinical language, it turns to “anglerfish,” “northern lights,” and “the stubborn heartbeat of a newborn chick” as references for physical experience. Taking control over pain by taking control over language, this poem paradoxically shows us the impossibility of fully communicating physical sensation, even as it does exactly what the last lines ask of us: “Can we for a moment make of beauty / the measure of our pain?” This question hovers over the entire collection, but it’s the final poem, “Picture book of pain,” that most directly responds to it. This poem begins with a chastising voice: “Child, your body is not only metaphor.” But this seemingly more experienced and authoritative speaker does nothing but return us to metaphor. Even the “older forms” of description (“hammer, fire, anvil”) that the speaker asks us to “conjure” are metaphors, and the “picture book” language that follows goes even further: “could we call this ache a cactus, a chinchilla ….?” Concluding by accepting the interplay of metaphor and imagination, the speaker instructs the child to “Learn the words and then / invent your own.”
This final line seems an ironic move, as Parisien has been pursuing the work of invention and transformation throughout. The poem “you are (b)rain weather” begins with the “failed ice pick lobotomy” of a migraine, ironically suggesting that perhaps it can be cured “as long as something / violently becomes something / else.” The transformation here seems almost gentle, as the speaker “become[s] the rain.” But the violence—of language, of bodily experience—needed to re-establish identity and subjective experience becomes especially tangible in “After convulsing in public,” a poem depicting a body without agency, defenceless, and dependent on the touch of strangers. Parisien contrasts this dependence with the freedom to choose:
Sex is then the privilege of choosing
who participates in the choreography
of my limbs. My partner’s hands
become a knife, carving other fingers from my skin
to help me shape myself again.
The disturbing image of a knife carving the speaker’s body, which is already on display in its vulnerability, seems one of defiance, claiming the right to control both pain and identity while also showing us how identity is forged through pain. A similar relationship, here between dis / ability and identity, is stunningly represented in “A mask is not a face.” In this poem, “My skinless daughter is sewing / a mask from broad-winged butterflies.” The girl, a hybrid creature, lures butterflies into her mouth, trapping them to be sewn into the mask. This mask of metamorphosis seems in part an object of protection for a skinless child, but is also a deceit, a disguise, a means of reshaping narratives through metaphor.
Michael Dennis’s Bad Engine doesn’t share Parisien’s expansive interest in metaphor, but it does reveal the power of poetry to enact the small, mundane transformations of the everyday. Dennis’s work, which includes recent poems alongside selections from seventeen of his previously published collections, relies on direct, even simple language, but his poems are crafted (and crafty) in their ability to startle us into discomfort, recognition, and delight. These are wide-ranging poems that look at love and relationships, sex and desire, aging and death, and childhood abuse. They’re gritty poems, taking place in jail, on the road, in taxis and motels. They’re also wryly funny: “it wasn’t my first reading,” which takes place in a “woman-friendly porn palace,” sees the speaker distracted by “dildos of every length, thickness, and colour / all of them reminding me of my shortcomings.” The audience is incongruously framed by “harnesses and belts and sex swings / lined up behind them like piñatas / waiting for the party to start.” But embedded in this anecdote is another one: the sex shop used to be a laundromat that the speaker frequented “from time to time.” Although he remembers the space fondly, recalling the books he’d read during “those warm hours,” the owner, he tells us, was “a deeply disturbed / and angry man,” who lends an overlay of violence to an otherwise cozy scene.
Dennis’s poems specialize in these turns and contrasts, giving us a sense not just of transformation but of layering, of histories that exist within the present. If Parisien unpacks for us the violence of metaphor, then Dennis is concerned to expose temporality as both nested and relational. The first poem of the collection, “my mother and I sat waiting for death” recalls sitting “on the kitchen chairs / my father had upholstered / when my baby sister Judy was born,” bringing a happier past into a present when “most of my mother was tired / and ready.” Dennis unsettles the linearity of time, preparing us for a type of eternal present that appears in the last few lines:
… the sun set and then rose
just like every other day
somewhere a cloud, some rain
another place flowers
Part of what Dennis seems to be saying is that our personal tragedies, large as they may seem, sink into inconsequentiality amid the Earth’s cycles and the sadly unrelenting patterns of human behaviour and experience. The poem “coyotes,” for instance, begins in blind anger: “when he first heard / his uncle / had raped his mother / he almost lost his mind.” Working towards a type of resolution (although it is more like resignation) the poem transforms personal history into a shared and pervasive trauma:
we can change little
coyotes dwell in the darkness
of every city in the land
Other poems, such as “the snore,” layer history more fondly. This poem, which addresses the snoring of “my wife of twenty years” isn’t a complaint, as we might expect. Instead, it’s a love poem, in which the snores are “the love sighs of the secure” and “a code deciphered over two decades / of sharing a pillow.” It’s only because of the layered history the couple shares that snoring can evolve into something the speaker can love. Dennis returns to these small, personal, and often domestic moments of transformation again and again: the smell of an orange in bed prefigures an intimate exchange (“breakfast in bed”); a man decides not to shoot his wife and her lover as he sits watching them from the window (“the deer rifle”); the speaker brings his sister back to life by washing the blood off her after a car accident (“at the hospital”). These moments are fleeting, complex, and troubling, but tender and necessary as well. As the closing lines of “the little woman” tell us:
the world [is] equally in love
with us and the blackflies
and the brown stone
and the white sand.
The exceptionality of human lives, the language we use to try to hold on to the moments that reveal us at our most human, also reveal us at our most vulnerable within a world that unfolds despite us.
Concerned, like Parisien, with bodily transformations, and like Dennis, with evoking the transformative layers and currents of history, Jenny Haysom’s accomplished first collection, Dividing a Wayside, gives us a poet whose ear is closely attuned to the nuances of language and form. The first section inhabits the body, its inevitable process of aging marked by the voices of lover, mother, and child, and by poems such as “The Mite,” which focus on the body’s slow, even gentle, physical degradation. Inspired by John Donne’s “The Flea,” “The Mite” gives us the wonderful image of “our cells / bursting and twinkling then dwindling / like confetti.” As in Dennis’s “the snore,” the couple in question has been together for “more than twenty years,” and their imagined cellular mingling (“dust” a “dual diminishing”) within the body of the mite is a sign of increased intimacy and a metonymy for the couple’s long relationship and their shared experience of aging. Haysom reflects on this gradual, everyday alteration of our bodies in other poems as well. There’s the metamorphosis of pregnancy, which contains two bodies in one: “I knew you: / cupped in my belly” (“Memento”); of age: “I’ll never make the top forty / under forty” (“Happy Birthday”); of puberty and life-threatening accident: “a girl … kissed by a boy / who suffered a near-fatal brain injury” (“A Chain Reaction”). But what Haysom also reminds us (like Dennis), is that we hold these histories within us, that we are the mites to our own historical confetti.
Haysom’s interest in physical and lifecycle changes extends to an investigation of the ways in which language and poetry facilitate these transformations. Her opening poem, “Unfastened,” begins with the image of “A Roman fibula”: “not a bone / fluted with earth, but an ancient instrument // of closure.” Contemplating the “function” of attachment, the poem ends with what appears to be regret: “If only there were // such utility in poetry.” Yet the title belies this final expression of longing; it is rather the unfastenedness of language that allows us to transform, to join two unrelated things: pain and beauty; snoring and a love sigh; a bone and a brooch. These ideas of un/fastening seem particularly relevant to the second section of Haysom’s collection, an homage to Emily Dickinson. Here, Haysom adopts Dickinson’s language and style—that unmistakable dash, those remarkable slant rhymes—to commemorate the American poet and her poetics. Yet this also marks Haysom’s own transformation, as we see in “Under Influence,” where the speaker is “deluged” and engulfed by the “cool / vault of her [i.e. Dickinson’s] thoughts.” These formal and metaphorical transformations don’t, of course, turn the poet into a modern Dickinson. Rather, Haysom shows us that the relationships of influence and creation are themselves a kind of unfastening. The final, ekphrastic, poem of this section, “Toward the Blue Peninsula,” reveals the nested patterns of influence by responding to an artist’s box created by Joseph Cornell, itself a response to Dickinson’s 405. Haysom’s poem is less about Cornell’s box or Dickinson’s poem than it is about what happens when we inhabit the spaces others have occupied:
What we have instead
is space visited; a passing-through
to blue distances—archived.
Like a thought in an empty room.
Or a room—emptied—
so we can think.
Giving us her own empty room in her poem, she invites us to “Come in,” to participate in these nested transformations which, unfastened from their original purposes, gain new resonances and purpose.
In the final section of Dividing the Wayside, Haysom continues to explore, through a type of ekphrasis, the influence of reportage (“Reporting,” “Spin-off”); of other authors (“Stones” (Virginia Woolf), “Invitation to Elizabeth Bishop”); and of the natural world. She also continues to contemplate the movements of transformation. “Unearthed” recounts the discovery of a cicada’s husk-like carapace alongside its newly altered body, a “green / compression—its folded wings / tightly creased as origami.” The description itself is a kind of careful (un)folding, nudging old and new bodies up against each other, a nudging that seems to encapsulate Haysom’s poetics. But this notion of nudging seems to reflect an aspect of Parisien’s and Dennis’s poetics as well. Age and youth nudge up against each other in Parisien’s “Old young man” who is “too young / to be so ill”; past, present, and future rub together in Dennis’s “goodbye,” where former lovers have nostalgic sex on the hood of a car while “the horizon / … stretches / all the way to the future.” Although I know that these nudges, these metaphorical and temporal transformations, aren’t unique to Ottawa poets, I can’t help but imagine the shape-shifting world of Canada’s political capital as having a paradoxical influence on these poetic approaches that refuse to obscure the processes, sources, and violence of change.