canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Balance Act: Poems & Stories
by Ken Cormier
Insomniac Press, 2000

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

Balance Act, Ken Cormier's first book, is a collection of poems and stories reveling in the inescapable grit and absurdity of human life. His characters are simple, ordinary people rendered complex by the quirks, compulsions, or complexes they have adopted in order to deal with and survive in the world.

Something in the tone or feel of Balance Act reminds me of Hemingway, the Nick Adams stories in particular. There is a certain understatement to the voice, a world-weariness of the characters, that is similar to Hemingway - but it's a Hemingway informed by the disjointed absurdity of Wallace Stevens and the suburban nightmares of David Lynch.

Cormier's poems and stories are united by something of a packrat theme; packrat mentality: a fascination with things. In some pieces this is blatant, as in the poem 'Putting Hats On Babies' which is simply forty-some lines listing things done with and to babies: "Dressing up babies / Turning babies upside-down / Talking to babies / putting babies in commercials / Putting hats on babies". In other pieces, this fascination with objects is less obviously apparent, but still evident, particularly in various character's everyday rituals.

In 'Isn't That Sweet', the opening paragraph is a list of the things the main character, Rita, does every Wednesday. Without this certain ritualized chain of events, it wouldn't be Wednesday for Rita. In other stories, 'Secret' or 'Christmas With Grandma', it's family get-togethers - Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners - which always happen more or less the same and however freakish one's relatives might be one can take solace in that sameness.

Cormier seems to be fascinated with the idea that plain ordinary objects can somehow be anything but ordinary; that an inanimate thing can be not only miraculous but the key to retaining one's sanity. In the poem 'We are still all want and need' is the line, "We see subjects where there are no objects". We are able to take something as mundane as a hat and make it symbolic; we are able to elevate simple things to godlike status; we are able to invest meaning, whole belief systems, in illusions: "My god / drinks too much / coffee. / Swears he's going / to quit smoking, / someday. / He got duct-taped / to a plywood cross - / cried so hard / they had to say sorry / and let him down" ('In His Image').

Generally, I found that the prose pieces in Balance Act more enjoyable than the poems. It may have been that he was more playful with the prose, tending towards more highbrow themes, so to speak, in verse. Or it may have been that the rhythm of his writing - Cormier is also a drummer and rhythm is apparent in his writing - felt more natural in prose than verse. Overall, though, Balance Act, at times bizarrely funny, at other times bleak and melancholy, is an intriguing collection.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto-based writer and musician who has published internationally in such magazines as Intangible, Stanzas and The Columbia Review. His poetry was earlier featured in The Danforth Review.







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