by John Terpstra
ISBN: 1894031733

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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

to relate
but this:"

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."

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