First, I must express a little wince at being left off the list of poets who have shown “interest in these poems.” I think two reviews and the inclusion of a discussion of Vermeersch’s work in my essay on Elegiac Displacements & the Trans-Elegy in Contemporary Canadian Eco-Poems constitutes interest. But hey, I’m not from Toronto 😉
So, moving on as one must, how does one review not only a new and selected collection but one so determined to side-step, transcend and otherwise pooh-pooh the traditionally chronological approach to the genre? I think I’ll start by pasting in two of my prior elucidations of Vermeersch’s poems here and see if I still agree with them. The initial piece is from the above-mentioned essay:
“An even more powerful attempt at this unification process is Paul Vermeersch’s poem “Ape” from his 2010 book The Reinvention of the Human Hand. In three anaphoric segments, Vermeersch calls forth the ape in all its natural, commodified and brutalized guises, asking it to talk to us, to tell us what it has suffered and also, what it has rejoiced in. While mourning the fact that humans have slaughtered apes in “bushmeat trade & war zone” and tortured them in “research-centre sanctuaries with hoseable linoleum floors” (19-20), the speaker still asserts that these acts, though horrendous, do not have to mark a damning separation as in the one-sided conversation between Merwin and the grey whale from “For a Coming Extinction”. Instead, the poet calls humans and apes “family” and contrasts the “book” whose “black covers” hold, I imagine, all the world’s dark elegies, with the “stories” that can “make things closer,” their tales of balanced narration resorting to neither a “happily ever after” nor “the end is nigh” kinds of closure.”
Yes, “Ape” remains the most powerful poem Vermeersch has likely ever written, a Ginsburgian incantation, rawly emotional, vividly rupturing, a tripartite tragic yawp that remains major (as poems are but poets aren’t in the future’s sour dust).
And here’s another chunk of praiseful critique, this time from my review of Don’t Let it End Like This, Tell Them I Said Something (ECW 2014):
Vermeersch’s chorus of textual eidolons is manifestly inviting. From the first section of the initial long poem, “Magog,” the voices drag you in exquisitely. With questions, with the delectable contrasts between the flattened demotic of “blankety blank” and the rare slang of “gungy,” with the sonnet structure, with traceries of myth and with the tone of romantic eco-despair in the last four assonantly-singing lines: “We dreamt they loved us; all was clover./But we woke to a cough, and the rude birds,/silky and distant in their aerial world,/were clearing their throats for no one.” I also loved the shattered glosas in the section, The Toys of the Future Escape Me, the tangibly-garish Bernsteinian “prompts” like “Write the names of endangered species all over your body. Whenever a species goes extinct, surgically remove the corresponding body part,” and many of the multi-media centos in Rubble, especially #4 and #10 (stronger than many lyrics these days likely because they are composed of what is essentially “best of” lines). And his stunning, self-led elegy in three parts, “I became like a wooden Ark. The lives of animals filled me.” Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether poems are perceived as “self” or “other” produced. Not when they are as memorable as much of Vermeersch’s output.
Indeed, re-reading these poems in their new re-formed texts within this collection I continue to feel moved by many, but am still essentially distrustful of the cento form, as compelling an experiment as it is. However, in a sense, this book is a massive cento of all of Vermeersch’s influences, ghosts, memories, planetary spheres, nightmares, and other stinging flotsam & jetsam of a wildly discursive, diverging and deadly mind. I personally didn’t need the word-laden Tysdal essay (or at least it could have been positioned at the end where the reader could have reflected on it in the post-leisure of entering the poems freshly) nor all the heavy blurbs on the back. It’s time to release poems into the world free from these baggages and let them sing in their own selves. If I want to read a poet, I will, gushes be damned. I ached to carve each of these combinative books out and suspend them in their quivering ectoplasmic melodies and visions as if on a mobile, watching how they stir separately and en masse.
That said, the only pieces that didn’t click with me were from Vermeersch’s The Fat Kid (2002), mostly because they are quite prosy and their endings often clunk, but I can see where they fit on the foundation of his work. Given my fascination with ecology and extinct species, for me the collection really started to re-cling to my cortex in the booklet, “Creatures of Another Ark,” featuring pieces from The Re-invention of the Human Hand (2010). “Another Ark,” the kick-off poem, is truly stunning in its quatrains of what is not, featuring delectable diction such as sarcophagi, manticore, constellation, scanning resonantly in its anaphora and Lear-echoed ending: “It is not the ark that will save you and all that you love. /No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. It is another ark.” The titular intro poem in the booklet “Required Modifications for the Transhuman” with its oracular opening line: “The next Earth will require more of us,” its Latinate word, chromatophores, that chimes against the simple Anglo-Saxon of skin, and the startling visual of the speaker being in “salamander” while “you’ll be/in bright cuttlefish,” is also tremulous, as is the stirring I Became like a Wooden Ark The Lives of Animals filled me with its nostalgic pangs of the era, 1973, when “the Age of Wood was in decline.”
The Imaginary World is Now Available in your Choice of Two or Three Dimensions too contains a range of wham-bam poems like the Acorn-response “I Feel Love: HI-NRG” (the collection features many pieces “after” this or that poet or other influence, a wonderful and essential gesture when interspersed with other non-tribute based works). Again, Vermeersch is at his most vital when he draws on the vatic voice, a rarity in Can-Po, utilizing repetition, anaphora, and the potent directive line. “I feel love in the repetition. I feel love in the/repetition of the myth” as he states in the above piece. Three Anthropomorphic Studies with its Ashberyian mojo is truly mind-blowing in its melding of visions. I adore the discombobulating concluding lines of 1. Duck Season: “Flying cars shimmer in the sunrise below us/and the satellites are pulling at the seas;” 2. Call me Coyote’s delectable sounds in “the saguaros are too green/for the angular, never-setting sun” ;and 3. Rabbit Season with its promise to “perform a slow libidinous rumba for your/lonesome aching heart.” The collection concludes with an array of Vermeersch’s light verse of which I am particularly fond of Little Fatso with his Doomsday Machine.
Risky variety is crucial, and if more comminglings like this existed perhaps we could overcome our obsession with the “first book” and how all should both evolve for the writer’s skills as they publish text after text and, at the same time, how so often their literary “reputation” stales after two releases as, well they’ve had their fifteen seconds, and we’re onto the next one, if not even as readers, but as gold star givers. Snooze. The cover of this hardcover (wow, still amazed) is wonderfully bright and goofy with its cyborg/cyclopian bunny and I wish there were a few reproductions of Vermeersch’s fantastical art within, like those found in Gary Barwin’s recent New and Selected. Without doubt, as with with the concocted Paid Advertisements at the back, this collection will indeed gift you with “Fuller, Stronger, Active Cranial Tentacles in Just 5 Minutes!” 🙂