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Ken Babstock
Ken Babstock

Review: Poetry

Brainy, beautiful, brilliant. That's Ken Babstock's verse Add to ...

The title of Babstock's fourth book, Methodist Hatchet, resonates throughout, from a figurative hatchet cutting the book in two to the enigmatic title poem. Whether he's writing about David Foster Wallace, the Donkey Sanctuary, or an afternoon in St. John's, the operating principle in this book is not unlike the palindrome, which can feel like a yo-yo, winding out and snapping back. Or, coming back to the hatchet metaphor, like a portrait, a moment, an idea, or object, cut in two and looked at from an otherwise impossible perspective. The method is often the message.

I can't go on, I'll go on, Beckett said. And that's also at play here. Look, look again. Listen, listen again. What anchors the reader is sound. As with Babstock's earlier collections, the poems in Methodist Hatchet live at the level of the syllable as much as the turn of the phrase: “Joe Sakic,/ and a dull ache…”, “ID chips like cysts,” “done in love, in lieu,” “sponge-cluster,” “Stall Creeper.” The ratio of linguistic play packed in per syllable is high throughout. The vocabulary is lush, peppered with Canadian gems such as Moosonee and Tecumseh, but also Chekhov, Zizus and PVC. The divergent sounds and many appearances of the letters x, y and z, creates the sensation of chewing gravel.

There's no slack in a Babstock poem; willful meandering, yes. Methodist Hatchet volleys sound and meaning over a vast intellectual and physical field. Like a good illusionist, the poet says, Look this way, and then transforms the image before it settles: “The pastoral dusted with icing sugar,” “a passion play of flip flops,” “fraternizing with anemone.”

Consider a list of titles: Carolinian (Crosscut with Sound), Wesleyan Kettle, Que Syria, Syria, Nottawasaga, Merganser and Minnow, but also St. Anselm and Goods in Transit, Brief Coherence or Fending Off the Conservatism in Adorno. While the name Adorno, referring to the influential German social theorist, might intimidate the non-theoretically minded, not to worry, as with much of Methodist Hatchet, the poem is slant and playful, everything rooted in dailiness, in the familiar. The poem moves associatively from “Eastern” to “Weston,” from bread to brioche, from Saint Augustine to Marie Antoinette, to the current “four-pound cow pat” of bread to the logical question, “What class are we?”

There are historical tensions in the critical discourse of the poetry world between proponents of either lyric or non-lyric modes, as if they are, or could be, polar opposites: the sung and unsung, the whole or the fragment. But, as Babstock illustrates, one need not trade bite for beauty or sound for meaning or relevance. The poems, on balance, are beautifully direct. Attendant. Here is the opening of As Marginalia in John Clare's The Rural Muse:

I wasn't finished. From as far back as I can recall having heard a voice in my skull I've wanted to die, or change, or die changing.

The poem traces the ways in which a person – the poet, John Clare, or a reader of Clare one assumes – yearns to see clearly, even to the last moments of life, to come to terms with one's surroundings, as much as one's thoughts. The mind always making sense, “narrating nightmares of scale,” noticing the “Slug of little light,” mourning the moon “penned in,” and in the end, the room transforms “Reeds curtain, where land abuts lake,/ if such limits exist, if ducks aren't taken/ by pike mid-thought.”

Some describe lyric as a lone voice speaking directly (and clearly) to the reader. Others might say it is a voice as high on language as it is on sound and rhythm, as piercing in its intellectual pursuit as its emotional. But what about a voice that negotiates the fragmentary nature of self and world in every line? That turns formal constraints into pun and play? Methodist Hatchet is as precise as it is expansive, as complex as it is companionable. It refuses to look away from the unstable nature of self and world and word. That is why Babstock is one of the most exciting lyric poets writing today.

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