Reviewed by Laura Cameron
We Are Not the Bereaved. Frog Hollow Press, 2012.
Commentary on a Non-Existent Self-Portrait. Frog Hollow Press, 2012.
In We Are Not the Bereaved and Commentary on a Non-Existent Self-Portrait, Jesse Eckerlin and Katie Jordon respond sensitively, eloquently, and vigorously to the world around them. Both poets are masters of their medium: both employ lexicons as varied and surprising as they are perfectly appropriate, both conjure images with grace and care, and both sculpt their lines and verses with delicate attention to metre and sound. Their poems are intelligent and provocative. Among the garbage-heap treasures in “What They Forgot to Compost,” one of Eckerlin’s speakers finds “The Oxford English Dictionary its infallible linguistic larvae / spread fertile over the heavy set tracks of dominator” (22). Both poets, in these debut chapbook collections, nurture that verbal potential into something beautiful and wise.
If Samuel Taylor Coleridge did indeed believe that poetry is composed of “the best words in their best order,” then he would have been very impressed by We Are Not the Bereaved. Eckerlin assembles rich, succulent, tasty words – like “Alkalized,” “taper,” “rotund,” “penchant” – and strings them together into evocative and delicious lines that demand to be spoken aloud: “alkalized endeavours aim / to taper your thunder, / dismiss your rotund blotch / as a penchant for mischief,” he remarks to a “Substandard rose” in “(sic)sore,” before advising the flower to “flail a hopeful torso sans excuses / […] give yourself up to the diuretic wind” (28). With this wealth of “best words” at his fingertips, Eckerlin unfurls roses and fields and abandoned houses and shorelines and northern landscapes with musical precision. He understands how to manipulate the pace of a line so that its energy rises and falls; listen, for example, as “these hours of intention are crimes of conviction / merely postponed or denied. // brief misapprehension leaves you nothing to grasp at / save straws demoted to glib ordeals” (“Choice Swill” 36). The rhythm of the words speaks conviction and denial, grasping and glibness.
Sometimes, behind all of Eckerlin’s technical expertise, it can be difficult to detect who the speakers are and what they want to say. Some poems (“What They Inherited” or “Driftwood,” for instance) are built around detached little aphorisms that are too abstract to be effective, such as “Tragedy is comedy for those who have / a short attention span” (15) or “What was it? To is to fro as fro is to to?” (24). His best and most mature poems (including “How to Repossess a House,” “Apologia/Emergency,” and “Deadlock”) have something concrete and concise to say, and let the saying of it dazzle. In “For an Arctic Tern,” he calls up “a pseudo tundra with errant pines / tossed about like so much salad – / […] a yogurty landscape hemmed in / by the glare of a moon askew as / a defective hourglass,” simply, as so many good poems do, “to reassure” his listener’s “skittering / skip-a-beat-heart / that the Northern Lights / are indeed / real” (21).
While Katie Jordon often shares Eckerlin’s linguistic virtuosity, Commentary on a Non-Existent Self-Portrait is concerned primarily with rich and tangled lines of response. Jordon’s book is divided into two very different sections. The first responds ekphrastically to portraits by Gustav Klimt: almost all of the poems share titles with his paintings. Klimt’s iconic “The Kiss” is “hung at the head of your bed / in your twenties” (13), witness to the love-making and dreaming that happens there. The figures in “Goldfish” are in a car, driving along “the basin of the Ottawa River” where “the rain came at them like a rolled up newspaper // or Mum’s wooden spoon” (21). The melancholy “Fritza Riedler,” who “sympathizes with the ones who still read / Austen, virgins with hopeful, yellow teeth,” gets a backstory: she “had a boy for seven nervous days” before he “vanished one morning after her spill” (20). The “Girl from Tanagra” speaks about the experience of being painted by Klimt and then scrutinized by critics: “I am his first femme fatale. The critics tell me / he painted me nude before painting my tunic, / my gold bracelets like rings of a cypress. // I do not remember the dressing” (17). In this first half of her book, Jordon establishes a lively and thoughtful dialogue that challenges the positions of viewers and viewed, where a speaker such as the Girl from Tanagra can address her “Voyeur, seeking the sun dial / of my breasts, the yawn of my paint-slick crotch” (17).
The second section of Commentary on a Non-Existent Self-Portrait, “The Treatment Diaries,” is, as Jordon explains in her Notes, “a rendition of George Jordon’s [her father’s] daily recordings during his battle with Multiple Myeloma” (45). In “Prologue II,” the speaker imagines “peer[ing] into” her father’s “empty coat sleeves // like they were telescopes” (31) leading her back into some truth of him, of his body. This is what the poet does in the seven poems that follow, peering into a man’s struggle and treatment as his bones and blood betray him. The voice in these poems is by turns angry (“Some Achilles buggers the syringe and spilt. I spilt. // Don’t cry over spilt milk, cry over spilt EPREX, // BONE MARROW” ), tired (“Like the trick of kindling, try lifting slow / mornings, snow. […] The wife says you are / restless, a fireplace sputtering, blood-tanked” ), and resigned (“Drugs have stopped // working, me and Jesus will know horse pills for a week” ) as the Multiple Myeloma becomes routine: “Wash and dress and walk the dog, light a fire, get tired and recover. / Double up on marrow, then sleep. / Start again…” (35). The emotion is honest, well-rendered, and touching.
Although both parts of Jordon’s chapbook record responses and provide “commentaries” on selves that no longer exist or self-portraits that never did, the mode and stance of each section is quite distinctive. The little volume could have been (or grown into) two separate collections rather than one. The imagination that animates the Klimt poems is palpable, the writing is nimble and compact, and the images are bright and bold, so that the plainer, more straightforward pieces in the second section shine less brightly in comparison. If “The Treatment Diaries” were on their own and not held up next to the golds and crimsons of Klimt’s portraits, they would tell their own story more forcefully.
We Are Not the Bereaved and Commentary on a Non-Existent Self-Portrait, both beautifully printed by Frog Hollow Press with colour illustrations by Joshua Bastien and Hayden Menzies, are striking volumes, brimming with the energy of fresh ideas, images, and sounds. Both Jesse Eckerlin and Katie Jordon have the poet’s ability to listen to the world, to notice when “stars / shine hard enough to be heard, // a high-pitched gleam” (Jordon, “Elopement, 1982” 28). Perhaps most compelling of all is the faith that they share in the existence and persistence of poetry everywhere. “Even if disembodied orbs / turn out to be lampposts / & primordial rocks cuddling / clods of steaming turds,” writes Eckerlin in “Apologia/Emergency,” “you can always count on / granite bevelled packs / of jet black wolves / to howl at what strains / to be a semblance of moon” (37).
At press time: Laura Cameron is a PhD candidate at McGill University, where she studies Canadian literature and modernist poetry. Her dissertation focuses on periods of “poetic silence” in the careers of writers including P.K. Page, Phyllis Webb, and Leonard Cohen.
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