canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Among Ruins
by Chris Doda
The Mansfield Press, 2001

The Fat Kid
by Paul Vermeersch
ECW Press, 2002

Reviewed by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

Writing this in April (2003) – tax season as well as Poetry Month – I may be reading too much between the lines, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that Chris Doda has at least one fudged return festering in his annals of guilt. Tax fraud is just one species of misdemeanour examined in Among Ruins, his first book of poetry. It’s the most benign, given that the others include torture, dismemberment and genocide.

This fever-pitched first collection is steeped about equally in mythology and Eliot, with corresponding servings of enervation and millennial anxiety. In the prophetic tradition, Doda laces his poems with what you might call oracular vernacular – dark skies and ice storms, soldiers, unfaithful lovers, "misshapen children," sinister scientists, shadows and men with hooded eyes. Sometimes his language is so richly macabre it defeats its purpose and becomes a screen that impairs a reader’s ability to see behind it, and there’s a certain strange alacrity to the way that he piles up bodies and historical crimes, gore and shudders – "Stillbirth Machine I and II" are stomach-turning and baffling – in a manner that suggests he sees some romance in it all. But in the end it serves to enhance the climate of unease that’s obviously his natural element.

As befits a poet of symbology and archetypes, the people in Doda’s poems are "he" and "she" (or "He" and "She"), "young mothers," "captain[s] of industry," "executioners," "Lazarus," "old women." He’s not concerned with their specificity, but with how they propel his narrative of disorder and decay. This can be ponderous when combined with a tendency to make the last line of each poem its weightiest, precluding chance interpretation. Here’s one example, from "Unnamed":

And asked really a simple question:
What is the meaning of this?
And was answered with a riddle

Of bullets through the heart.

But Doda’s work is leavened by humour, and by an eccentric imagination at its height in "In Praise of the Unabomber," a very funny twist on the stereotype of the lonely misfit poet. Not just funny, either, passing serious comment on media ethics, the dangers of zealotry in art and life, the nature of writing itself. Divided into sections with different formal constructs, it’s too complex to quote from here, but suggests an intensely curious writer conscious of his frailties and strengths, eager to explore both. I’d like to see his next book.

Paul Vermeersch

Read the TDR interview with Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch, author of The Fat Kid, is the anti-Doda, sturdily quotidian in his deliberate use of plain language, vernacular, advertising jargon, family shorthand – and romantic in his own way. In his first book, Burn, he staked a claim to the persona of people’s poet with a cast of characters from family life and private pantheon. One or two of the poems in Burn are lush, almost-pop ballads. Flushed with infatuation the poet suddenly offers a moment of self-deflating honesty that both pierces and anchors romance.

This time Vermeersch has gone the narrative route complete with hero, Calvin Little, negotiating the spikes of adolescence in suburbia. The Fat Kid is more programmatic than Burn; Vermeersch has a package to deliver and Little is his courier. It all starts ominously: "Something’s gone wrong in the suburbs…" as we follow Calvin (the eponymous fat kid), from birth through an embarrassed childhood ("Come See What’s on Sale Now at Sears"), to school (bullying, social torment), adolescence (more torment, culminating in an eating disorder) and in the final poem a semi-triumphal flight into adulthood.

Vermeersch is often heavy-handed (or, this being poetry, heavy-footed) and more than once he teeters into bathos, but there’s considerable verve and energy in his story of body image hell that’s familiar from narratives of girlhood but unusual as a portrait of the artist as a young man. As seems appropriate for an admirer of Al Purdy, Vermeersch frequently rescues himself from his worst excesses, jumping from over-the-top declamation to lines that are crisp, funny and true. Also like Purdy, he seems intent on constructing a charismatic persona that sometimes, at its most grandiose, lapses into self-caricature.

In the end, I’m not sure that the narrative scaffold benefits this book as much as Vermeersch intended. It forces him into stating and restating his main themes to sometimes numbing effect. I was kept engaged by his energy and that appealing self-deflation, and by lines such as:

Relax, there’s beer
in the fridge, neighbours on lawn chairs.
There’s nothing much to do. It’s getting dark,
no-one’s going anywhere.
Relax. ("Birth of a Fat Kid")


So much can fall away so quickly –
Mass, concerns, acres – it’s funny sometimes
How even the ground you walk on turns alien,
Distant as the littered bottom of a lake
With all its rusted and forgotten hulks,
The felonies and accidents long gone. ("Weightless")

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's first book of poetry, Learning Russian (Mansfield Press, 2000), was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. She used to write a monthly column on poetry for The National Post, has reviewed fiction for The Globe and Mail, and now writes freelance reviews of both poetry and fiction for The Post, Books in Canada, The Literary Review of Canada, and The Danforth Review, among others. Read the TDR interview with Diana.







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