canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by John Terpstra
Gaspereau Press, 2003

Reviewed by Gilbert Purdy

John Terpstra is a poet, cabinet-maker and bicyclist who lives in Hamilton, Ontario. He has a wife and daughter about whom he writes frequently and with love. He also seems to be an Anglican who has lapsed into a world-as-cathedral inter-denominationalism. This describes a rich and textured life: twice over, a craftsman; a family man; jaunts through the countryside on ole dependable; jaunts through the experiences of life astride the sense of meaning that comes from a spiritual perspective.

Terpstra’s recent volume of poetry, Disarmament, makes all of this clear yet again. It is a mix of new poems and poems collected from previous chapbooks. They exhibit a continuity, nonetheless. This continuity extends to other features, also telling. There are very few references in the poems to attach them to the dominant culture of their times. There are a few scattered references to cars and fewer to movies – a single reference each to a CAT-scan, a radar screen and a hearing aid. The poem “Planetary Lives” refers freely to spacecraft. Virtually every other object in the poems fits as well in the 19th as the 21st century.

Not that the poet is a Luddite. It is not possible to be a Luddite any longer. Even as a cabinet-maker/poet he is in constant contact with “the machinery of life,” and its products, as the above list implies. It does, however, express a point of view. The machinery of life is so pervasive it does not need to appear in the poems. Still more to the point, it is so pervasive that it needs not to appear in the poems.

“In this connection,” as Edmund Wilson wrote, in Axel’s Castle, his book on the Symbolist Movement,
it is illuminating to consider the explanation of the Romantic Movement given by A. N. Whitehead in his “Science and the Modern World.” The Romantic Movement, Whitehead says, was really a reaction against scientific ideas, or rather against mechanistic ideas to which certain scientific discoveries gave rise.
This is a fair assessment. Although Byron and Shelley, for example, invested in and greatly admired the inventions of the industrial world, their poetry was devoid of any mention of it. Wordsworth abhorred industrialization on every level. A hundred years later, the poet Robert Frost had almost as little use for it.

In the poem “Logos” Terpstra writes:
the unceasing prayers of the people reshape
the results of the CAT-scan
in one person’s immediate future.
It is one of the more common moments in a book that avoids common pitfalls and it is particularly revealing for the fact. The machine threatens us with a set of absolutely intransigent rules – a set of alien rules that has taken over control of our life itself, and, therefore, is inhuman.

Terpstra’s Romanticism is frankly neo-Populist. There is the further step, from traditional Romanticism, of rejecting the medieval exilque reus nascitur omnis homo [Every man is born into exile]. He speaks to the desire to belong, to feel connected, even submerged. This is why, in neo-Populism there can be no heroes. It is what protects it from one of the more pronounced excesses of mainstream confessional poetry: the narcissism of the self as hero (or anti-hero, it’s all the same).

While he rejects the exilque, however, he embraces the religion for which it was once so central. (This is just the opposite of the traditional Romantics, who embraced the exilque, but rejected Christianity. Secular neo-Populists, as it were, reject both.) The point of Disarmament is that those who “belong” are the faithful – the true Christians. In the poem “Beach” (and in other poems in the volume) categories are described under which the members of the true church may be grouped:
In the church where we go now…
People in low chairs line the shore,
observe the unmoving line of the horizon,
the motion of waves, the slow motions of the sky,
looking for signs, signs, signs –
though really not looking for anything at all.
Their present situation is quite sufficient.
The rhythm and eternal Love of water drew them here,
where the land ends and their faith stretches beyond limit
and is quite sufficient.
The book is an act of bravery in this respect. Christianity, of any description, is déclassé virtually throughout the “serious” poetry world.

This “rhythm and eternal Love of water” is recognizably the “oceanic feeling” which Freud declared was the earliest traceable origin of all religion. He declared religion an illusion and placed it over and against science: “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science can not give us we can get elsewhere.” One does not have to be a Romantic to realize that this is a frightening thought or Freud to realize that the vast oceanic feeling has a very serious downside.

We find ourselves back at man vs. science. Man can not escape science. The day when that was possible has long past. He can not even want to escape it: its cars, movies, CAT-scans, much more. But he can not help but want to escape the inhuman rules that it brings with it – the cause-and-effect that has taken over his life. Science replies that we are only just now discovering what “human” truly means. Man has always been under absolute control of cause-and-effect. Nothing has changed except that he knows it now. The soul and God have always been an illusion – part of a grand system of wish fulfillment.

Man has his weapons, though: faith and love. Neither is scientifically verifiable. With a perfect faith, then, they are perfectly unassailable. Without such a faith – and the day has long past when man can escape his dependence on science – science demands what from its perspective is only just: a finding that neither is real. Each is a chemical equation.

John Terpstra’s Disarmament is a very human book. It is filled with a world of people all of whom are exceptional for just being themselves. They all are engaged in a great prayer of the people. They love orange sunsets that are not refractions of light but simply orange sunsets “beautiful, changing and complete.” [Italics added.] All that they do – all of the world which they inhabit – is art:
Their present situation is quite sufficient.
The rhythm and eternal Love of water drew them here,…
They are the people of God not in spite of the fact that they can’t do the math, as it were, but because they can’t. Because they can’t, they have been able to remain connected.

“In the church where we go now”, the poet writes, in the poem “Art”:
there is no grand agenda.
A thin line is stretched or strung,
neighbor to neighbor,
between the beauty of this world
and the obvious daily misery that exists next door.
Among the faithful there is no grand agenda. There can be no grand agenda if there is to be true submersion. Such things are a tincture of science – imply calculation and control. The faithful are all connected. They all equally just are.

In “Humus”, the finest poem in the volume,
…it is not for our perfections
that we are loved,
or the perfection of our gifts,
but only that we are, all, made
for this conversation, going on,…
This poet writes a strong prayer. It even comes with a nice line-break at “made”. But the implication here is that true religion comes with the disclaimer: “No effort required.”

All of what has been quoted from Disarmament, thus far, is from the third of the book’s six sections. The poems grouped there are easily the best in the volume. Well-written, thought provoking, often engaging, they address issues that touch us to the core and include a hopefulness that we would like to share.

The poems around them are illustrative, though they do not seem to have originally been intended as illustrations. The daughter that Terpstra writes so often about is a pregnant teenager. Her dad doesn’t take it too well at first but comes to peace with it – presumably recalling that all that is belongs. The sundering grief of a friend is recalled:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxHarder is
the work of love in monstrous vacancies
the heart had never planned to open to.
There are trips to England, Cuba and, the Caribbean. In the poem “Oral Pleasures”, there is a celebration of the sweets and cheeses of Holland. In “Three Stones: Port-au-Prince”:
A man sits bent over a treadle sewing machine
in the shade of a sheet of corrugated steel
intensely focussed on a point, still
and moving, where his fingers have gathered
like a small crowd around a faucet.
Generally there is no great joy and no great devastation. The tones are muted. Everybody gets their fair share of sensitivity and respect.

But in the world that is not disarmed – not “poetic” – the young will get pregnant, crash the family car, overextend their credit cards. Widows will enter an exile we can only relieve, at least for a time. Those sunbathers will ostracize the newcomer from Edmonton for some reason too inconsequential to accord with their belonging. A cabana boy will rifle their belongings and the beach be filled with curses. It is also important to remember that, had they been in the position to do so, virtually every bather – virtually every member of the at-large people’s prayer – would have grabbed the power and the money and be doing their tanning in Monte Carlo. None of us – connected as we may feel -- is doing much thinking about the third-world laborers who have to work for miniscule wages in order for us to have our beach chairs at a price that satisfies our sense of proportion and leaves us at ease to reflect upon our oneness.

Because of our technologies, and all they imply, John Terpstra’s daughter presumably had excellent pre-natal care. Widows generally have warm and lighted homes to retreat into and heal. They may choose to see therapists. We all generally have cars, televisions, washing machines, etc. The sunbathers will call the police on the telephone in order to report the theft of their property. The police will enter the report in a computer, call information in on the radio. And on it goes. So much so, ironically enough – and so much beyond our comprehension – that science itself can only seem to be just one more manifestation of the vast, undifferentiated oceanic feeling.

To be plucked out of the Great All by the machine is like being delivered from the womb. It is painful and frightening. To be lost by the machine is death: another painful and frightening experience. The prospect of either, involves an overwhelming sense of anxiety. When the machine is just one more manifestation of the oceanic feeling, all is well, harmonious – however tenuously so.

The prayers of the people – the poet makes clear throughout the book – do not necessarily occur in a formal church. They are not necessarily even prayers per se. They can occur at a small group protest, among the bathers at a beach, in the sharing of poetry. They are prayers for uncritical acceptance, sympathetic vibration, a quiet mind, the return to a cyclical way of thinking. But if we are all part of the prayer – part of the conversation – then rejection, conflict, dissonance and linear thinking are also part of it.

In the great ocean, there is soon the need of the old religion: the wrought physics of internalized authority. The churches which are called upon to provide it will be run by imperfect men and women. There will be agendas and politics. Love will seem impossibly difficult. In the end they may achieve a disappointingly imperfect and unromantic success – but an important one.

In at least one of those churches there will be a special person with a name perhaps something like “John Terpstra”. He (or she) will be disturbed at much of what he sees. He will be the kind of special person who will not be able to fob it all off as something he doesn’t have the time for. He will be a simple man with a strong back to do work for his church and a love of the peace that can sometimes prevail there. While he goes about his simple tasks he will think the stuff of poems – humble, sensitive, loving poems that argue for a great embrace – and we who read them will wonder why it can’t be so.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation, has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket, Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); XS; Eclectica; The Danforth Review (Can.); Elimae; Thunder Sandwich; Cosmoetica; and Polyphony. He accepts poetry, poetry-related and topical nonfiction books for review at: Gilbert Wesley Purdy, P. O. Box 5952, Lake Worth, FL 33466-5952. Queries to






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