Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Terrible Beauty: The Poetry of Paul Vermeersch

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Paul vermeersch, the Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010).

In poetry circles a longstanding debate -- beyond the ceaseless squabbling over the competing merits of lyrical, narrative, concrete, experimental and spoken word poetry or adherence to any of the various schools -- is "What is poetry?" and, more pointedly: "What is good poetry?"

I am not a poet and (after having made several serious attempts to study it) have come to conclude that I neither know nor really understand poetry. In large part this is because I cannot accept American poet-librarian Archibald MacLeish's famous injunction in "Ars Poetica" that "a poem should not mean / but be" -- a perspective that has in direct and subtle ways transformed contemporary poetry.

Being and meaning are not opposed, of course -- a point the phenomenological tradition in philosophy has made abundantly clear. Contemporary poetics (and here I am thinking in particular of the application of critical cultural theory, especially feminist and post-colonial thought, to the interpretation of literary texts) has further reinforced the existence of intricate intersection between (personal as well as social) being and (cultural and especially political) meaning.

Despite the significance and complexity of these connections, actual poetry -- and here I am not going to name names, mainly because the list would be very long and it's more efficient to offend people as a group rather than individually -- seems determined to obscure meaning in its ceaseless quest to capture some facet of being so personal and yet so profound that audiences are left squinting slantwise at the text, reading between the lines and engaging in varied other physical and metaphysical contortions in a desperate bid to get at whatever it is the poet is trying to say. More often, readers simply give up, unable to penetrate the mixture of personal references, nods to literary mentors or rivals and social in-jokes that comprise the bulk of the text.

And then there is the poetry of Paul Vermeersch.

Paul Vermeersch has had a long and instructive apprenticeship as a poet. His first published poems began appearing regularly in respected poetry journals in the late 1990s, around the time he founded the I.V. Lounge reading series in Toronto. For about a decade Paul has been the poetry editor with Insomniac Press. During this period he has published four trade collections: Burn (ECW, 2000), The Fat Kid (ECW, 2002), Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005) and The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010).

In each collection there is a measurable, and pleasurable, improvement in his craft. Over time Vermeersch's poems grow tighter, even more terse. Many of his early poems are descriptive, seemingly autobiographical. They find meaning in prosaic, if pointed events: the death of a dog, a kid who shoots himself with his uncle's gun, the psychological consequences of childhood obesity. These poems are fascinating and often powerfully written, a kind of southwestern Ontario Gothic that reads like a poetic counterpoint to the stories of Alice Munro.

Between the Walls seems to represent a transitional stage. Many of the poems are urban ones, layering their often painful insights atop an exhaust-filled, noisome landscape of overheated intersections and fire escapes. "The Lights Keep Changing," for example, is a poem about a pigeon who,

undistinguished from the million others
roosting quietly in the city's details
is startled by the sudden noise of traffic

and clipped by a passing car. Blinded and with its broken wing dangling, the pigeon staggers in the street until it is obliterated by a passing truck and "nothing comes to a halt / but one grey bird, and the lights keep changing."

Another poem, "Girl on a Talk Show (Her Amphibian)" articulates the evolutionary monstrosity of an ambivalent pregnancy: "the lungfish plumps / into legfish, into mammal, growing larger in the amniotic / bath."

It is this evolutionary metaphor that seems to signal the shift in Vermeersch's poetry from evocative realism toward the more explicitly philosophical preoccupations of his current work. And it is in his most recent collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, that Vermeersch begins to lay out the moral landscape that characterizes his newest poems.

"The Painted Beasts of Lascaux," referencing the Paleolithic paintings discovered in a French cave in 1940, is a poem about the evolution of metaphor itself. As Vermeersch notes, "These yellow ochre horses / were born too long before they could be anything / but horses."

At the same time, other poems, about scorpion bites, amoebas, dogs and gods and babies with baboon hearts, invite us to ask what good metaphors have done us in the ensuing millennia.

"Ape," a poem about gorillas hunted for bushmeat or housed in research facilities, begs these progenitors to speak to us plainly, to talk through the confusion sown in legend, science and religion, about what the descent of man has brought us to:

Tell us, Ape, in your own words, why did the young men
come to the forest?
Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth.
And how did it sound to Ape?
Cry, sharp-noise loud!
And how did they look to Ape?
Bad think-trouble look-face,
And what has become of Ape's mother?
Cut/neck, lip (girl) hole.

the poem ends, ominously with "Come quick. Come now. The family is gathering" -- this beseeching request for presence and understanding an ironic counterpoint to humanity's unique capacity to destroy not only our future but even our own ancestry.

In an interview with Open Book: Toronto, Vermeersch suggested that his poems are "not overly theoretical," a bit of an evasion when read against Vermeersch's admission that his current work is "very much influenced by contemporary notions of post-humanism and transhumanism as well as older notions of primitivism."

What Vermeersch does best in his current work is ultimately a theoretical -- or at least highly conceptual -- project. By exposing the tensions that stretch not only between individuals but between cultures, species and even epochs -- Vermeersch shows us one way to navigate that difficult pathway between being and meaning.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page