canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Adam Getty
Nightwood Editions, 2003

House Built of Rain
by Russell Thornton
Harbour Publishing, 2003

Reviewed by Tom Henihan

The poems in Reconciliation are not divined but willed into existence and as a result fail to triumph over their own abject subject matter. This collection is brutally earnest and for all his efforts to give them working-class grit, Adam Getty, is not above trying to endear himself to the reader or tipping his hard-hat to political correctness.

But sentimentality is the driving force in this collection and the poem "The Old German Woman" takes this simpering tone to a ridiculous degree, blatantly patronising its subject:

When she has sold the bees the family will eat well,
will look up at the clear blue skies with contented bellies,
and remember the (her) slightly tilted hat with a smile.

The poem "In Your Voice" is a perfect example of the kind of maudlin association that every poet should learn to avoid:

XXXXXXXXAre we any different
from the carpenters who never
find themselves a home to live in?

But "Torn" takes this maudlin self-endearing excess to its ultimate. It opens with these curious lines:

Put this poem aside, this wretched
spasm of words: they mean nothing.

and goes on to make this shameless statement:

I don’t care about myself – I have an ascetic
nature: but please, give something
to these others.

There is also this anthem, "Coming Home," where the poet rolls up his sleeves and delivers this declaration:

xxxxxxxxxxWe’re saying,
xxxxxC’mon you fuckers,
we’re better than you, bring it on,
without any idea of just who
you fuckers are.


Another shortcoming with Reconciliation is that the lines have no measure or musicality. Getty should realise, along with so many others, that clipped prose is not poetry. Though this fact has been reiterated over and over again it continues to fall on deaf ears. Of course the deaf ears are more than likely the problem in the first instance.

Getty, always writes in anticipation of the readers response. It is essential that a poet be unconsciously surprised or startled by his or her creation but should resist creating in anticipation of surprising others. Most of the poems in this collect were written with the audience in mind and possess the cloying feeling that the poet desperately wishes to be admired and liked. To paraphrase Yeats: talking to yourself is poetry, talking to others is rhetoric.

There is also a lot of descriptive writing in Reconciliation but there is no synthesis of emotion and landscape and therefore it lacks the transformative qualities of fully realized poetic imagery. The emphatic voice, the cry among the smoke stacks, the them and us of working class woes, delivers up one strident cliché after another.

Reconciliation is in many ways a well intentioned work. However, it is also self-conscious and strident and its preoccupation’s are so passé that the book leaves the lingering impression of a blunt instrument.


In contrast to Reconciliation, Russell Thornton’s collection House Built of Rain has a lighter touch and a longer reach. Sometimes he also crosses the line on sentimentality but for the most part manages to keep his balance.

In this collection there are lines and images that resonate with perfect pitch and

many of these poems are beautifully rendered reflections on the poets family which are courageously poignant and affectionate. However, some of these family poems remain within the realm of personal anecdote, failing to raise the particular to the universal.

There are times also when he steals the mystery away from an image or a concept by working it too much. A good example of this is "Solstice Mist":

A mist
has been moving through here for days, arriving
and arriving as though through a sieve.

"As though through a sieve" nails the image down to firmly instead of letting it "arrive and arrive" and there are other instances where the poet not trusting enough in his images compromises them with over qualification.

Some of these poems suffer from being too long. There is an abundance of detail that packs on too much ballast and the poetic associations take so long in coming that they seem predictable by the time they arrive. Thornton often gives himself the latitude of a prose writer instead of using the process of poetic distillation to arrive sooner at the heart of the matter.

The final poem in the collection "Lanes" is a beautiful metaphor for the misadventures, the tangents we go off on, and our chance encounters, but these divergence’s upon reflection connect the main thoroughfares of our lives and are profoundly revealing.

That packed dirt lane in Magdalena, Sonora, where I turned
and was lost for a long moment in the sun, then faced
someone so beautiful she was God, and whether a child
or a very old woman or a young woman, I couldn’t tell.

To remember is to see inside oneself for the length of a life
lanes that will have always become empty of anyone.
It is to be an empty lane seeing an empty lane,
an emptiness remembering an emptiness.

Thornton is an astute observer and more importantly an empathic witness who finds the fissure in a given moment or scene where the drama, sadness and rapture are exposed. He is a talented poet who needs to trust his talent a little more and make some bold choices about what to leave out of a poem.

Tom Henihan was born in Limerick City, Ireland and immigrated to Canada in 1982. He has lived between southern Alberta and Vancouver Island for the past 17 years. He has read his work at many of the major venues across Canada and been a resident at the Leighton Artists studios at the Banff Centre for the arts in 1995, 1997 and 1998.

Henihan's first collection of poetry Between the Streets was published in 1992. His second book A Mortar of Seeds published by Ekstasis Editions was nominated for a Writers Guild of Alberta Award in 1998. In 2002, he published a hand-printed limited edition Almost Forgotten with Frog Hollow Press. His fourth collection A Further Exile was published in fall 2002, also with Ekstasis Editions. Subsequent to the publication of Almost Forgotten, he became poetry editor with Frog Hollow Press.







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