by Michael Kenyon
London, ON: Brick Books, 2015
136 pages, $20
Astatine, Michael Kenyon’s latest collection of poetry, contains meticulously crafted poems by a writer who takes chances and wins. A rare chemical element that has never been seen in its elemental form (Kenyon provides a definition at the beginning of the book), astatine is an apt symbol for the mutability and mystery of life that these poems explore.
This volume has four parts, and in them Kenyon demonstrates a preoccupation with form, something a bit unusual these days. While the poems are not conventional fixed forms, they are written forms that are fixed for their purpose; to my mind that indicates a commitment to poetry and a deep knowledge of it. Two techniques frequently appear and work extremely well, given the subject: repetition and juxtaposition. “Above New Westminster” uses both elegantly:
You arrive by chance and by design
on this hillside, retired and planning
fall, winter, deciding not to plan,
all around you in flux while you are still;
then all else still and you are in flux
The constant in life is change, and Kenyon employs this motif while searching for a meaning that can be fixed. Perhaps the constant is the search?
Several poems deal with marriage and family. Some refer to a wife, some to a son. Some are about a critically ill father. In “Stoma,” the speaker says, “My dad’s colon purses its ruby lips” and the indignity of coping with body waste is levelling and humanizing. Hospitals make their way into a number of poems, and death is present. In one of the most powerful and disturbing poems, “Red,” the speaker talks to a loved one who is gravely ill:
One last time your body resisted
waking while I watched the morning’s long white
veins ride forward across the thin blanket,
and saw your eyes glitter, your wrists open.
The pain expressed in this poem is overwhelming.
Kenyon is a professional counsellor with practices in Vancouver and on Pender island, so the focus on human problems is that of a person who likely spends his days trying to help people with serious problems. And he must spend much time on ferries, so it’s no surprise that water and boats are part of the fabric of many of the poems. Waves capture the sense of movement, change, and inevitability found in much of this book.
A strong destabilizing technique (at least for me) is the inclusion of Italian in many poems. The vowel-laden language adds beauty, and Kenyon has helpfully added a translation at the end of the book of the many Italian lines. Some readers may find it awkward to flip back and forth, but I like the enforced slowness of reading.
So in quatrains, tercets, couplets, iambic pentameter, prose poems and much more, Kenyon tackles both ordinary life and literature over time. “Reading Middlemarch” is perhaps my favourite in the collection as that’s one of my favourite novels, but it would be hard to choose. (It’s also set on Vancouver Island, where I live.) Another contender is “Library,” which does what Kenyon often does—yokes the manmade with nature: “blown nests for words that can’t walk / to the mall or access the Internet . . . .” Kenyon moves swiftly and easily among various levels of culture and diction. In “Aeneas”, for example, he slyly combines mythology with well, a less lofty aspect of life: “The Cumae waved / their burning scrolls / lit serious farts.” You have to laugh.
The juxtaposition abounds in many ways throughout the book. Reading these poems is a mental and an emotional exercise in the world of words. And Kenyon’s words place us right back in the tangible world. It’s the magic of poetry.
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