January 21, 2020

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Humour, anguish collide in poetry debut

Thomas King is best known as a novelist, author of the Governor General’s Award-winning The Back of the Turtle, the Canadian classics Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, and a series of mysteries first published under the name Hartley GoodWeather and now reprinted under King’s own name.

King’s first book of poetry is 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin. The "familiar ruin" of its title seems to refer to North America, a land taken over by colonizers who reduced it to ruins. However, the title also seems to refer to the speaker of the 77 poems, a man ruined by his life in that land.

"In this place, / all promises are bruises / in good suits," writes King in one poem. Another finds the speaker announcing that, "Today I plan to get out of bed. // But there is no hope."

This idea that we live in a time beyond hope for any worthwhile future runs through the poems. King circles and returns again and again to this refrain of total despair in a landscape ruined by ecological disaster.

"In Alberta / the sour gas wells / rise out of the land / like candles on a cake. // Make a wish. Blow them out."

But this speaker knows by now, after many birthdays, that wishes don’t come true.

Although underscored by anguish, in King’s poems (like his novels) humour runs deep. Unlike in his novels, however, the jokes are often the worst parts of these poems.

"Adam was just a joke / the Otters made up / to annoy the Ducks" falls flat, whereas the same basic approach (via Indigenous appropriation of colonizer mythology) works brilliantly in King’s fiction.

Most of the poems are minimalist, conversational in tone and brutally stark. They are numbered rather than titled and also read as a sequence, with progressions of the same ideas and repetitions of some of the language, and with the same sad, worn-out speaker. For the most part, the poems grip and hold.

They mostly stand on their own, but also build on one another. When they try to amuse, the poems seem slight and loose, but otherwise, they clasp and cut.

"I can still see the stars at night," King writes, "but there is no hope." King revels in that sort of juxtaposition, putting beauty beside terror and horror next to humour, often with great skill.

One poem personifies a "missile platform" floating through space. Bored, the war satellite wonders "how hard it would be / to bring down a star."

This theme — that our technology has outpaced our ability to control it, and that we have set in motion systems that will discard us as they develop — runs through the collection and connects to ecological concerns.

"There are no good jobs in the slaughterhouse," after all. The place is a system, like the country is a system.

It has one purpose. It equalizes everyone inside, in due time.

Jonathan Ball’s first book, Ex Machina, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and is available free at jonathanball.com/freebook.

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