canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Heather Haley
Anvil Press, 2003

The Birdhouse, Or
by Jamie Dopp
Ekstasis Editions, 2002

Radio & Other Miracles
by Terrance Cox
Signature Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Eric Barstad

I seldom like being hit over the head with anything – frying pans, golf clubs, poems. Alternately, I suffer a similar displeasure when poems seem intentionally to soar over me, not caring ever to look down, nor to let me experience them fully for what they are. There are some beautiful moments in Heather Haley's first collection, Sideways, but more often than not the poems fall into one of these two extremes, either pummelling readers with obvious “insights” or excluding them with the many inside jokes and private references.

Undeniably, Sideways, at times, has a kind of infective, energetic quality to it:
The Great Northwest,
like a ramshackle farm,
a compound of backbiting,
inbreeding, dog fighting mutations,
strays, nags and illegals
neatly harpooned
upon syringes of lethal dope. (“The Great Northwest” 13)
But even here one of the major problems of the book arises: the almost continuous use of cliché and caricature (instead of authentic and concrete details) used to flesh out the poems. Many of the pieces seem to eschew the quotidian for a more sensational and shallow “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” approach (which isn't to say that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll aren't “real,” but that they aren't handled so here). Sideways is more Hollywood blockbuster than engaging documentary.

There are times, however, when the poems become so lucid and full of meaning that one can't help but wonder how the author could write any other way. For example, “Europa” and its unsentimental yet fierce longing, or the way “Maternal Instincts” implies a narrative from its collage of captured moments. But, in the end, a handful of poems can't hold up an entire collection.


Jamie Dopp's The Birdhouse, Or is, for the most part, an entirely different reading experience than Sideways. Accessible, fresh, and conversational, the book delves into the poet's everyday life, illustrating for the reader the profundity of simple existence:

I used to be ironic about my grandmother,
my colleagues, the way they seemed
to be trying to make themselves indispensable
(my grandmother, half-blind and past eighty,
on a church visit to comfort
“the old people”) until I realized

busyness like that is not about
claiming special value, or even expertise, but
only about creating the illusion that
something in this world requires
your attention. (“The Garden” 60)

The first three sections of the book are very strong, creating narratives that are honest, moving, and often revelatory. The first, “The Birdhouse, Or,” is about family, fatherhood, and belly buttons. Ranging between comical and contemplative, the poems in this part of the book examine the grand and minute details of a father building a birdhouse with his two small sons:
You are surprised and not surprised by the way
these moments come,
the four of you on the porch like that,
the birdhouse not only looking like a birdhouse but actually one. (“The Birdhouse, Or” 35)
The second section, “Limes,” is a quintet of poems that all refer to limes and the memories they conjure up for the poet: of past romantic relationships, of a bitter and “bourgeois” youth, of high school rivalries.

Finally, “Ed's Red Car” is an elegiac section that centres around the memory of the poet's late neighbour Ed, the red car he gave the author as his final gift, and how “death doesn't change anyone”:
And afterwards, after the fear and sadness, I was also
much the same, no great new insights,
just my usual pipe dreams and virtues and neuroses
tempered only by a deepened humility
before the wonder and fragility of life. (“Death Doesn't Change Anyone” 63)
All three of these opening sections are a delight to read.

Where the book falls short, however, is in the final two sections: the often too self-reflexive “Teaching Dreams” and the punnily titled and perplexing “Arse Poetica.” Perhaps too many years as a university student and then as an English lecturer have jaded me towards poems about teaching and English courses; or maybe it was a former prof, who would scrawl “BORING!” in big green letters across the top of any story about writing or having to do with being a student. I'm not sure of the cause, but I do know that these poems are far less interesting than the ones that precede them.

“Arse Poetica,” on the other hand, while certainly not boring, is simply too much of a self-indulgent poetic exercise, and it mars an otherwise enjoyable book. The “arse” of the title ends up being the reader, as Dopp takes him/her on what the back of the book generously calls “a dazzling and dizzying tour de force.” And certainly it is dizzying, though not much else, which is too bad, considering the strength of the rest of the collection.


The poems of Terrance Cox's Radio & Other Miracles are, like most of those in Dopp's book, honest and rooted in the soil of the poet's own life. These pieces, all connected in some way by the ever-present motifs of radio and music, recall times long (and not so long) gone, often moving between astonishment (at the transcendent power of a short-wave radio on a clear night or at a new-found ability to communicate across vast distances), nostalgia (for a schottische in the backwoods of Quebec or for Billie Holiday's “delicious lick of lip”), and tribute (of an uncle who “could stickhandle like a devil” or of musicians such as Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk).

Radio & Other Miracles explores a history that is at once personal and shared. Relating to the reader tales of his youth and adulthood, Cox also re-imagines popular history (the days of humankind's first tentative travels into space, Bob Marley's death, and the first appearance of The Beatles on American TV), pondering – sometimes in celebration, sometimes in lament – the humanity that both unites and divides us:

In revels of a Saturday
& Sunday's pop-tune praise,
great rifts heal & close
Babel was never built

We are, these nanoseconds,
sisters & brothers
blessedly one species. (“Saturday Night in the Central Region” 56)
What makes the book somewhat less enjoyable, however, is the way Cox drops definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an) from his sentences – almost like static interfering with the clarity and continuity of a radio's signal (and just as annoying). It is a technique that can be quite intrusive, never allowing the reader to become fully absorbed into the moving and extremely detailed narratives the poet creates. Yet, once you get used to Cox's style, the book, especially for a first collection, is certainly worth many readings.

Eric Barstad currently lives and writes in Ottawa. His first book, A Gloss on Our Painted Gods, was published by Frontenac House in April 2003. His home on the Web is






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