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The Hayflick Limit, by Matthew Tierney, Coach House, 84 pages, $16.95

Poetry can be written with the potage of blood, sweat and tears. It survives less well on adrenaline and testosterone. Ted Hughes, the most hardboiled and virile of poets, made his poetry as quiet and sweet as a mouse. This is what we see in poets of all proportions, who are good: a marked sense of proportion.

Because poetry is by its nature excessive. Poetry must justify itself at every turn and instance: where the greatest style is the unmentioned one and unobservable in single phenomena. One needs a whole constellation of feeling; the agitation to action must be measured. I fear that smart, keen poetry in The Hayflick Limit does not veer anywhere close to Matthew Tierney's self-abolishing limit.

Tierney is a poet weaned on a television culture and movies. Not because the first poem of The Hayflick Limit , his second collection, is called Whereabouts of a Couch Potato , but for the method that the poem unfolds and that is constant throughout.

The method is difficult to articulate specifically, but at its best, in poems like Unweighting the Bow , the poet entitles us to share in a kaleidoscopic vision of rare proportions through his reordering and distorting of the cascading bombardment of images that we have come to know as reality.

At its worst, in poems like Sound Bite , the poems falter to unknown depths of utter inanity and spoonerism.

The method, to give some conception of it, derives from a chain of associations, floating on the wing of one word-picture to the next. It can seem a big-bobbling-head world of iconography. And there is an elementary quality to the method that is not lacking in charm, but that can also seem to thrust full rein into the clutches of the superego. The function works best when the impulse is controlled or tenored to a clear centre, as in Autobiography , my favourite poem in the collection:

Being is miscible. Into the vast pool

a scruple of present, our inner alchemist

calibrating elements at hand until

a transmuted thought fogs the beaker.

Memory. Base notes of a perfume fill

the just-emptied elevator, a voice falls

out of range - the dial stops, collapses

to one frequency, a deciphered emotion

that trips the wire.

I have not quoted the entire poem, but these lines suffice as some of the freshest, most vibrant and most poignant lines in Tierney's corpus. Here the hyper-receptive gifts of the poet affix his verve to palpable self-awareness and consequently bless us with an inescapable vision.

The poem is also an essential keynote for understanding where these poems function at their best: when the poet is able to build a subtle tension between the competing metaphorical value(s) of the images that are colliding in the poem.

This tension is seen in the poem Theory of Everything , which finds difficulty maintaining a mastered tone of voice, but offers appreciable moments of innovation and bright awareness. Lines such as "while God looks on, right of centre, greatly/ exaggerated," or, "Michael Jordan skywalking towards the basket," are clever, witty and superior divestments that are matched by the high pitch of the ingenious parataxis that follow: "Radiohead's third album? OK// but Mozart's Requiem is written in the script/ and we're still mapping the human brain,// its blips and dark seas, unravellings, the lucid/ dream of a life lived. That we only use 10 per cent/ makes for good copy, bad Einstein." Some of this might taste saccharine on first read, but I think it all goes off brilliantly.

Most of the time, though, in this overly weighty and ill-managed collection, the extent of the poet's voice is rarely given full burst. We yearn less for the poetry of petty thrills and the whirl of wackiness and pantomime, and more for the high jinks of rhyme that are sure to make Tierney's colour achieve an even brighter hue and cry.

Jason Rotstein reviews regularly for the LRC, Canadian Literature and The Globe and Mail.

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