canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Paul Vermeersch
ECW Press, 2000

Reviewed by Robert Pierre Tomas 

This is a terrible admission for a poet and reviewer to make - books of poetry are notoriously difficult to read cover to cover. You can easily start them, scan them, pick your favourites and dwell on them, but unlike a potboiler novel, poetry usually resists the linear, beginning-to-end treatment. In fact, the last time I read a book of poetry from first to last page was years ago, still in high school. Cutting classes for the first time in my straight A's, well behaved academic career of a nerd, I hid from the PTA patrols in the public library. The Complete Poems of John Keats was the first book of poetry I read cover to cover. Burn by Paul Vermeersch is the second. 

Not that I compare Vermeersch to Keats - it's not my job to make comparisons of that magnitude. But between the covers of Burn resides a very confident, highly compelling and at times mesmerizing first collection of poetry from the young writer. Poets, or at least good poets, have a special kind of memory. It's not the linear, "and then...." memory of boring storytellers. Plot is merely incidental, a key that unlocks a deeper, emotional memory of the moment. That is how Vermeersch remembers things. There are events, to be sure, tragic, funny or common, but what really matters is how the poet felt when they took place. 

Part one of Burn, "the days dogs die", is my personal favourite. It is a stunning tour-de-force, recounting the scattered shards of early childhood. There is nothing childish about the emotions of Paul Vermeersch - the searing intensity of his vignettes sending unwanted shivers down the spine. The world around him is abounding with tragedy - as felt through the magnifying lens of the boy's sensitivity. Yet there is no sentimentality here. Arms get cut off by farm implements, legs amputated due to diabetes, schoolmates commit suicides and dogs die. All felt intensely, never to be forgotten, yet with no cheap tears of sentimentality. Instead, the memories remain vivid, as if it happened yesterday. That's Vermeersch's poetry at its best - like a piece of amber, with the insect perfectly preserved inside. Memory crystallized. 

Part two, "days without hearing a sound" is less satisfying if only because the poet searches for new ways of expressing himself, and the familiar crispness of images is gone. Dealing with family history in poetry is always difficult, for it invites the narrative, a secret if sworn enemy of intensity. The memories sound hollow, as if written from second-hand accounts; the language still flames occasionally, but does not sear. Part three, "those days you could still speak my name", is different again. No doubt inspired by the late Al Purdy (a favourite of mine and for a while "across-the-lake" cottage neighbour), whose influence Vermeersch gratefully acknowledges, this section is full of very Purdy-esque, swaggering bravado, peppered with words like "fuckin" and "shit". Not for the shock value, mind you, instead because of the sheer angular power of these words. 

Still, I prefer Vermeersch using his own unique voice, present in all those poems, including the closing one, "Burn". Paul Vermeersch is a very confident and, need I say it, accomplished poet. His poetry has an uncanny internal rhythm, strong and organic. Almost sheepishly, I would occasionally check the external structure, only to confirm my suspicion of it not betraying any secrets of the internal pulse. The poems are one heck of a read, if at times their intensity prevents the reader from turning the pages too quickly. 

Burn, an exciting and highly polished collection of poetry by Paul Vermeersch, will find its spot on my bookshelf. Right next to John Keats.

Robert Pierre Tomas's poetry has appeared in The Danforth Review.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.