Monday, August 27, 2018

Paul Vermeersch, Self Defence for the Brave and Happy


Observe the formalities. Call them
by name. Mister Bogeyman. Lord
of the Flies. Civility disarms them.
Band together. They want you torn—
from the breast, from the page. Burn
candles. Use nightlights. One in each
corner. Let them do nothing in secret.
Look under the bed. Is it you, El Cucuy?
Or Slenderman? The act of naming
conjures forth, but it also holds in place.
Call them out: Son of the Dragon, White
Worm, and Troll. Speak each name, but
do not let them write these in your sleep.
Their signature is a row of fangs.

Toronto poet and editor Paul Vermeersch’s sixth trade poetry collection is Self Defence for the Brave and Happy (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2018), a playful sequence of narratives blending classic imagery of spacemen, rockets and missiles with an updated fear of the impending apocalypse, and what just might come next. Some of Vermeersch’s poems explore the eventual failures of those incredible potentials of science and imagination, as he writes in the first section of the two-part poem “IMMORTALITY,” that includes:

Tell the geniuses they are failures.
Tell them they are not loved—
they must work harder,
think better—and then
our shoes will make us faster,
and our colonies will glow with bioelectric joy,
and we will live forever, attending
to the woods of our salvation on tiny, gifted lips.

While the collection might begin in some rather dark places, Vermeersch’s use of humour, pop culture, surrealism and collage work to disarm the increasing anxieties surrounding the darkest possibilities of humanity’s demise. The poems that make up Self Defence for the Brave and Happy respond to climate change to the failures of science, wholescale self-destruction and an array of violence. Poems such as “DON’T WAIT FOR THE WOODSMAN,” “ON BEING WRONG” and “THE FAILURE OF THE HUMAN BODY AS AN ART FORM” even work as short poem-shaped essays – a fascinating counterpoint to the visual poems contained within – composed on the failures of expectation, writing on stories, existence and decision-making, adding to a collection as a whole that engages in twisting and shifting expectation and perspective. As he writes to close the poem “BLUE LOBSTER”:

But let us not enumerate our differences.
I have tasted you and you have
tasted me. You dwell. I come yonder
the drainpipe. It is a conduit
from where my place is still unclear
to where you live so clearly,
but that is not a difference, per se.
Just call me Mr. Not Necessarily.

Between the lyric narratives, essay-poems and visual pieces, I’m intrigued by the broadening of Vermeersch’s structural scope, and how everything contained fits so nicely together.

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