by AMY LeBLANC
WHERE WE ARE COMING FROM
AND WHERE WE ARE HEADED:
CALGARY REVIEWS LONDON
there is no minor violence just as there is no negligible cough during an aria
[Victoria: Frog Hollow Press, 2019, $15.00]
[Toronto: Anstruther Press, 2019, $10.00]
Under the Gamma Camera
[Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2019, $21.95]
there is no minor violence just as there is no negligible cough during an aria is the second chapbook from London, Ontario poet Kevin Heslop. His first chapbook, CON/TIG/U/US was published by The Blasted Tree in 2018. While this work was praised for its sparse, tiny poems, this second chapbook has a strong and singular solo voice animating the violences we often overlook, whether these are inflicted by us or upon us. A Heslop poem might consider the daily violence of fly swatting, two million Iraqis killed in the name of ethnic cleansing, the burning of Notre Dame, the snapping jaws of a screen door, among many others.
As the title asserts, there are no minor violences but there are also no minor poems in this collection. The chapbook opens with “forward” which gives the reader room to breathe in its thoughtful white space. According to the poem’s conceit, a thought slips off the artist’s fingertip and down the page to land and pool at the wrist. The scarcity and specificity of its images show that this is a collection to read with a fine-tooth comb for fear of missing what might reside in that white space. Continuing on, “the rub of time” poses questions about temporality and the nature of cycles: the daily routines of the classroom, the lunar cycle, twisting linens, swinging pendulums, and cab drivers. As these cycles and the title suggests, time rubs clean the earth clean of our trespasses, which we will inevitably repeat.
One of the most breathtaking poems in the chapbook is “yesterday, today” which continues asking questions about time but in a slightly different way than the rest of the chapbook. While Heslop’s other poems are sparse even if they are deployed in prose form, this poem is written in full sentences, possibly to document atrocities that have been committed against innocent peoples. The poem spans generations as it opens with the present speaker reading Robert Hass (also the author of the epigraph), soon reaching back to the Second World War to recall the innocence and simplicity of childhood and “small boys in checked shirts and pomaded hair, clutching the promise of a little pocket money.” This material is juxtaposed with the fact that mass military rifles are under development. The conceit of counting remains constant throughout the poem: rifles built, bodies killed, bodies displaced and relocated. The poem shifts between the violent past and the violent present to unsettle the reader, but also to remind us simultaneously where we are coming from and where we are headed. The speaker asks “where are you?” but we are displaced by Heslop’s elegant and carefully chosen words until we know that we are in the poem and nowhere else. Heslop’s voice and register are engaging enough that we wouldn’t dare interrupt, let alone cough during the aria.
Incubation Chamber is the first chapbook from London based David Barrick. Anstruther Press’s choice of blood-red end papers perfectly serve as a warning of what’s to come in Barrick’s dreamscapes that combine horror, stream of consciousness narration, and the heavy lethargy of sleep. The first poem in the collection is “Recurring Dream #19” which instantly places the reader in a fantasy realm where a doe caws like a bird, the speaker might be a fawn, and an alternative ‘if you teach a man to fish…’ allegory is produced. The disembodied voice that teaches the lesson says, “Oh darling, you never were my son” and the poem ends as if we are abruptly woken up. We are constantly lulled into a dream, serenaded by atmosphere, and woken up, only to be dropped into another dream on the next page.
Barrick uses a sequence of recurring dreams to set the tone for this collection. The dream poems are titled Recurring Dream 19, 25, 24, 51, 64, 66, and 91 in that order. The space between the numbers functions in a similar way to white space; it leaves just enough open to draw us in and keep us. The recurring dreams are sepia toned, eerie, and atmospheric with lines like “the Maid of the Mist burns on beneath the tantrum deluge beneath my missing feet” and “I raise them and feel the absent bones where skull was attached, where neck and chest and legs would extend. I feel them growing in my hands.” According to dream logic, even the illogical makes sense and the lurid is expected. Recurring dreams are unsettling at the best of times, but writing them down makes them reality, and it is in this discomfort that Barrick contrives lasting and powerful poems. Even the poems that aren’t dreams are subdued in sleep and soaking in incubation chambers. For example, “Proportional” introduces a fablesque voice with rabbit bones picked clean, a fox curled up after a meal looking up at daylight through a pinhole like waking from a dream. These sepia toned poems are equal parts mesmerizing and unsettling, soothing and hair-raising. Barrick’s work is done when the reader awakens from the dream and discovers that they want to read more. Or hear more: with careful internal rhymes, smart rhythm, and repetition, this chapbook is one to be read again and again with close attention to different elements each time.
Madeline Bassnett is the author of is the author of two chapbooks, Elegies with Frog Hollow Press in 2011 and Pilgrimage in 2016 with Baseline Press. Under the Gamma Camera is her first full-length collection. The poems from Pilgrimage make up one of three titled sections within the collection: Tricks of the Light, Pilgrimage, and In Praise of Small Things. As one might expect from the title, this collection is a meditation on disease and illness, but not in the ways we might expect. It is neither self-serving as a manifesto nor is it blindly hopeful. Instead, Bassnett offers a calm portrait of the body experiencing illness, treatment, and remission in contradictory ways.
The first section, Tricks of the Light, has to do with sight and the way we see or are unable to see. The longest poem of the section is entitled “Panopticon” and I would argue that this poem introduces the themes that are explored in the rest of the collection. The Panopticon was a surveillance tactic brought into critical consciousness by Michel Foucault in the 1970s as a metaphor for power and surveillance. In this prison setup, prisoners cannot be sure when they are being watched, and so they assume that they are being watched constantly. The speaker in “Panopticon” is both watched and is the one watching the machinations of the hospital. Somehow, Bassnett’s speaker is at the centre of the panopticon looking out and unable to exert control, but they are also being watched with ice in their skin, forced to stay in one place. She writes about gamma rays, needles, and how “magnetic fields crackle […] keen vision pierces my insides out.” The medical scans can literally see through to the insides of the speaker, but the speaker cannot look back. The section ends with a poem entitled “Tomorrow, the future,” a nod to an uncertain future after diagnosis.
The second section, Pilgrimage, turns the tables to localize the body as the centre of the poems; the titles of the poems are either sins or virtues. In an act of ‘stripping’ introduced in the opening poem, the speaker “strip[s] down to movement” and there is a different slow stripping of hair from the scalp like a tree in autumn. The focus on the body— its limitations, pains, pleasures, imperfections, and scars — is presented as a pilgrimage for meaning. By juxtaposing sin and virtue, Bassnett creates a place where both can exist simultaneously in paired internal and external experiences. The last poem of the section is entitled “Redemption” and it signals the end of treatment, the “victory of this moment” but at the end of the journey, there is no massive, paradigm altering transformation for the speaker. There are only “the nurses and me, the empty chairs, the bell, its dwindling resonance” – the beginning of life in remission.
The final section, In Praise of Small Things, introduces life after treatment, the “hard work of dying still going on inside” that occurs in remission. In a mirror image of the first section, the longest poem addresses themes of dying, living, immortality, and nature. Each last line of a numbered section becomes integrated into the first line of the next, so that the poem as a whole is both cyclical and repetitive. In section 5, Bassnett mentions apoptosis: the death of cells that occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development. This death becomes entwined with life in these poems: a longing to live becomes a desire for immortality and a re-reckoning with death when the natural world around the poems begins to decay. Although this decay is a necessary and even beautiful process, the transition into fall signals another year where, “you’re caught in a molten time” between seasons, between phases of a life. One of Bassnett’s final questions is: where is the good death? Her collection leads us to contemplate ‘the good death’ through the speaker’s diagnosis, treatment, and remission. In true cyclical nature, readers will finish Bassnett’s collection and wish to start it again from the beginning.
Amy LeBlanc is an MA student in English Literature and creative writing at the University of Calgary and non-fiction editor at filling Station magazine. Amy’s debut poetry collection, I know something you don’t know, was published with Gordon Hill Press in Spring 2020. Pedlar Press will publish her short story collection Homebodies in 2021. Her novella Unlocking will be published by the University of Calgary Press in their Brave and Brilliant Series in 2022. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Room, PRISM International, and the Literary Review of Canada among others.