canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Wishbone Dance (new and selected medical poems)
by Glen Downie
Wolsak and Wynn, 1999.

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Glen Downie, the recently-appointed Poet-in-Residence of the Medical Humanities at Dalhousie University in Halifax NS, has published three books of poetry preceding this current collection, namely An X-Ray of Longing (1987, Polestar Press), Heartland (1990, Mosaic Press) and The Angel of Irrational Numbers (1991 Porcepic Books), in which the author selects the transcendent poems of his previous medical counseling work and intersperses them with new ones.

Downie has in the past toiled at innumerable menial tasks, as his book cover and introduction will have you know; he has also obtained a Social Work degree and thereby gained access to the medical word which he, on occasion, eloquently observes. Working in various hospitals in a counseling capacity, most notably (in term of this book's column inches) at a cancer clinic, Downie has the opportunity to document the greatest human struggle: the mortal threat of illness. An interesting perspective, one that challenges the poet to write words that define observations which he has the opportunity to capture correctly.

Approaching the unparaphrasability of truly observant, insightful poetry, Downie chronicles vignettes of sickness in his poems, written with a measure of empathy and the mysteriousness of the good poet: knowing he can't approximate another's experience, he dramatizes as facts allow, and only then ensnares us with observed truth.

In a poem appearing early, "Worker Classification: Material Handler", Downie declares himself as a member of the working class:

We work in the world you and I handling
coal chandeliers razor blades hamburger
whatever they ask us to carry sort shovel

From this declared vantage point he then deftly links his blue-collar experience to the white coat happenings of his medical work:

Pat cuts off a cancerous breast-
the day's work has begun how does it feel
when a severed breast slips off into your hand?

In this vein many of his poems convey themselves. He states, "I see this as poet, and now I'll comment on it". It's fortunate for the reader that his comments are often worthwhile, as with the conclusion of the same poem:

This is the way the world works: you build a house
As I tear one down we need each other
Hands must be full of something

As described his poems are liked to the tactile manual experience, a style which recommends this collection highly: we're blessed with an eloquent labourer, one who's magically been deposited into a poetic frontier.

Unfortunately, several of the poems are hindered by missteps. Asking rhetorical questions in verse is perilous, an exercise prone to didactic lecture. The poet should show, not tell (or ask), and when Downie asks the reader directly about one bad thing or another, he invites bathos when compared to his otherwise evocative, lithe poetry. For example, in "Diagnosis: Heart Failure" he asks the following easy, awkward questions:

Complaints in all her systems (listen
to her chest The fussy old sweet
heart's congested) Can you cough up love?
Can you produce anything for us?

Wishbone Dance is arranged in several sections based on his experiences in the health care realm. Many of the poems comprised in the random "Learning Curve Journal" component of the book are woefully smallish- a few lines long, they and add nothing to their context. When they do have some basis in their poetic surroundings, they suffer from obviousness. The second learning curve journal poem announces its series' failure, transcribed here in its entirety:

They introduce you to the water
by throwing you
in the deep end

Welcome to the life
Welcome to the work

A near-death experience
followed by another
& another
& another

Characteristically redundant, clumsy, and indicative of a series consisting of weird, unrelated and jarring poetic lines that conjure only frustration at the poet's unevenness; one moment eliciting a gasp at a particular phrasing, he follows with a groan from his audience, imperfectly presenting what is better left omitted. That's true also with a few of the other poems in the book. They grapple with sentimentality and loss, but they promise much.

Several poems demand comment; these are the aforementioned gasps which persist after one reads them, so aptly they deliver their meaning. Found in the first ten pages of the book is "Louise". Initially describing an incident at a nursing station where the staff comment early in the poem about an elderly patient with the mind of a child, likely via Alzheimer's disease, saying "Shoot me if I get like that", Downie delivers:

Let go now
Before hospital policy changes
& nurses patrol the wards with
guns in their hands
Tracking down their own echoes:
Shoot me if I get like that

It's in images like this that the poet succeeds, using the poetic turnaround of dimes, where the reader is led one way and then brutally deflected the next in an unexpected manner. When Downie decides to do this, he does it admirably, and like few contemporary Canadian poets. In this collection, it's apparent that a distinguished poet has declared himself for quantification, for refutation. There exist worthwhile poems here, a handful that defy comment.

Wolsak and Wynn were right to publish this collection; several of the poems are prodigious exhibits of meaning, quoting life in distilled form and pummelling us with the import of their poetic cargo. Downie succeeds often here, and so exclusively that is should become required reading for all health professions, but also for everyone else: in death and in sickness, Downie treads the words we're afraid to hear, the words which approximate illness as much as poetry can. Life breathes and stops in his poems; readers are left to discern their human truth, their significance.

Shane Neilson is a Nova Scotian poet who has published recently in Queen's Quarterly, The Canadian Forum, and Pottersfield Portfolio. He is one of TDR's poetry editors.







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