||A Review of: Disarmament
by Jeffery Donaldson
John Terpstra's Disarmament is a marvellous and moving collection
of poem cycles assembled from a decade of work. Terpstra, like
Murray too, works his magic by accumulation. Neither poet is
inclined to offer sudden chess-board blitzes of revelation (queen
to bishop three, checkmate), but instead work by analogy with musical
forms, whose effects are cumulative. There is a certain kind of
musical development where the original motif, not stated at the
outset or made explicit, comes clear to mind only as you hear more
and more of the variations that play upon it.
But Terpstra's work comes at its revelations through the side kitchen
door. His own larger-than-life prophets preside here over a homespun
landscape-giants sitting across the Hamilton escarpment-and his
doomsday Jeremiads effect a more local scenery: "The war is
never elsewhere. / The seeds of conflict float down on parachutes,
/ its roots fun deep as dandelions / in the front lawn of the
military museum." And here, Terpstra does use an "I".
In fact, his dominant speaking voice is a fully developed and
historicized personality, one who has been to places, actual places,
has thought about them and likes to share what he thinks. We develop
such a strong sense of his character and feel that it escapes the
sentimentalities of any run-of-the-mill Tuesday-afternoon-at-the-laundry
poetic voicings. I always respond quickly to Terpstra's humility,
his cabinet-maker's quiet, his forsaking of guile and design in how
he handles a thing, his warmth. He shows a readiness at last to put
things simply in easeful conversation; he would prefer not to
"make things up" if he can help it, the kind of natural,
friendly prophecy we find in, say, Don Coles. My favourite poem in
Disarmament, an elegy called "The Easy Part", is as moving
and thoughtful a reflection as I can remember on how our own worlds
can come to an end and what we do in response (where here the pulling
down of a garage meshes with the death of a neighbour's son):
"A friend and neighbour's yard is one big open
space now. We plan to fill it, soon,
with studs and rafters, true to the other's memory.
That's the easy part. Harder is
the work of love in monstrous vacancies
that heart had never planned to open to.
We wish that we could build you something there,
to house the jagged pieces, the emptied air."
A coming to an end, the razing of a world, the sense of an
after-clearing. But what impresses me here is the response to that
emptiness, the desire to house the emptied air, enclose it again,
not leave it open or in the apocalyptic sense uncovered. Terpstra's
often specifically religious perspective is decidedly more hopeful
than Murray's. Terpstra will invoke the healing influence explicitly:
"Tonight we lie awake, / and invite the spirit come brood over
our twenty-six storeys, / the storied conflicts of a tired world.
/ To tuck us under wing, all. / Come, love, / disarm us."
Whereas Murray's response to the threat of a released emptiness is
more cryptic, counter-logical, purposefully dumbfounding:
"Let us itemize each other's duties and present them
in clear plastic bindings. Let us stage
hand-puppet shows, create charts and graphs
so the idiotic and managerial among us might
finally understand. Let us write gibberish
and surrender it to the control-freak intellectuals
to edit and puzzle over. Send out your winged
messengers with nothing but screams
in their scroll cases, break out your leadless pencils,
your invisible ink that only works in the dark.
What else is there
In Terpstra, there is a laying down of arms-in the poem's own
humility-a putting aside the weapons of self-defence and
self-justification that we inevitably press into battle when the
end is near. For Terpstra, we intuit in the end a place of prophecy
where the self is as near to vanishing as it dares to be. One might
begin there. "Apocalypse," Northrop Frye wrote, "is
how the world looks when the ego has disappeared."