canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hurt Thyself
by Andrew Steinmetz
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

Steinmetz views the world, its art and society, with a sideways glance, laughter not far below the surface, but with serious language and intent, so that the reader is caught off-balance. His insights into relationships are sharply poignant, revealing that, in small actions, lies the strength of love.

In the first section he writes of marriage, and explores the simple act of zipping up a dress with clarity and depth:
I like dressing you. I like that
I am the one, the only one
you trust with these final attentions,
these flourishes and formal touches,
XXXXXXX … In this proximity

breathing is hectic. …

I stand behind you,
clean, loyal, fit, using just these hands …
I could whisper the all of it, these things I want
to share with you. They make me blush. (p.5/6)
He invests the action with the depth of the relationship, the trust involved, the intimacy implied, which is drawn out and explicit in ‘Lunch date’ ‘We hold each other/ and smile, reaching around/ back for bunches of anything.’

The occasional word seemingly out-of-place gives the reader a pull back to reality, nudges the poem slightly out of true, and re-inforces Steinmetz’ off-centre view of life. He depicts a borderguard on a train in 1989:
his own musculature

and emerges from
my sleep

XXXXXXX a totalnightmarian

in black leather
and the reader is drawn into the experience of seeing the borderguard, large, dark-clad, and frightening, with an economy of language and vivid impression.

In part Two he moves to a consideration of art with a barber who ‘flutters into rhyme./ In the salon, he knows what to cut/ and what to leave/ in quatrains on the floor.’ There are times when he works too hard at humour, as in ‘Literary terms’
Your eye rolls into tis own field
of vision, your head on writer’s block. …

Crying over spilt milk before any
milk spills, the absence of, objective correlative. (p.26)
while making the point that the reader or writer shouldn’t take themselves or art, even the gods of Olympus, too seriously. He pulls language, stretches it to new shapes, without losing its meaning. He can be funny, occasionally upsetting society’s view of the most ordinary actions, such as borrowing library books:
…Old fashioned, perhaps, but

I like my books to be library books. …
I unshackle them from their holding patterns, the grip of the
from the cold authority of the Library of Congess Classification
Left on the shelf, they exist as faceless, spine-crumpled entities in an alpha
numeric series. But in my hands, they’re incendiary, provocative …
The poem, ‘Confessions of a borrower’, pokes fun at the act of borrowing, but reinforces the wonder of the contents of a book ‘I can’t let them slip through my hands’, ‘these brief sketches of the artists contain the most economic,/ elegant, plot-driven prose written in our time.’. Here the poetry is direct, unequivocal, easy to follow.

The poems of relationship reveal a rich understanding; the emotions are carefully controlled and kept under wraps, but there to be noted, savoured, without ever breaking into sentimentality. They provide the strongest poems of this collection, the most memorable, set as rocks amidst the tide of humour and never overwhelmed by it.

Joanna M. Weston -- THE WILLOW-TREE GIRL for ages 7-11






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