CANADIAN AUTHORS often approach the subject of North American rural life with a kind of hard-boiled fervour. As if, hidden from the pampered literati's gaze, a seething world of suppressed lust, brutish force, and bean-and-biscuit suppers lingers behind our cities, waiting to curl our hair. Landscape being metaphor in our national agenda, the hapless denizens of our less forgiving climates should probably expect to become literary props, or at least Primal Forces.
Nevertheless, I don't know what all the fuss is about. My own memories of "life in the bush" are more at home with diocesan bingo than Deliverance. Our town could have used a few Primal Forces. Luckily, Mark Henderson's first book of poems, Sheets of Glass, promises to reconstruct for me the cruel rural tableau I somehow missed.
Small-town life in Sheets of Glass is unabashedly desperate, and as direct in its impact as a car accident. In Henderson's Black Fundy village there are only two possible states of mind: quiet, seething rage, or violent, irrational rage. Anything less than operatic in emotion is effectively shamed into line by a whining chorus of liberal angst. The book smugly asks the privileged "poetry audience" to reconstruct a worn (and limiting) CanLit contract - an unspoken agreement that allows us do-gooders to empathize with hysterical "harshness-of-rural-life" themes while we thank God we don't have to live "there" ourselves.
Sheets of Glass is peppered with a grainy, National Film Board-style earnestness towards its subjects. "Dysfunctional" doesn't begin to describe the local colour. It's as if the entire province had stopped taking its anti-psychotics:
He came home to find
his son-in-law had stove in
the four sides of his one-room house...
With the same crowbar,
he beat his son-in-law,
breaking his ribs and his back.
("Saturday afternoon 3")
Such "regionalist" typecasting is stretched to the point of breaking in the series "Seven Poems For John" - a step-by-step processing of self-indulgent guilt that projects the idiot savant "John" onto a muck-smeared screen of titillating othemess. Obviously, there is something compelling about a spectacle, but the (,poor souls" that people the melodrama of Henderson's ersatz New Brunswick never stray from their stage(d) personae:
I try to pull other images
of John's parents out of my head
like pictures from a family album,
but they are all drab, oppressive.
Their clothes are always gray or black,
heavy. Their shoes,
even his mother's
large and unattractive, sturdy,
Ennui sleeps in the water like an existential fluoridation project, and no stonefaced fisherman is left unturned:
When he jigs a dogfish caught in the weir
he holds her down with a boot
and rips her swollen white belly open
for being what she is...
Of course, when The People aren't busy exemplifying the cruelties of life, they provide charming porch-door dramas that remind us of the resilience of whimsy:
her children behind her,
youngest to oldest,
children like stairsteps,
1 find it hard to completely disagree with the hand-wringing sensibility that informs this collection, despite its cloying tone - life is tough, after all. However, it is ultimately the marked distance between poem and subject that makes the poems glisten with condescension and sentimentality.
The lives of the rural underclass may not be "news," but they are hardly as formulaic as the embroidered standards that hang on this collection's parlour walls. These "sheets of glass" need a finer cut, and a little less transparency.