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Review: The subtle power of Damian Rogers’s Dear Leader and Ben Ladouceur’s Otter

Dear Leader

By Damian Rogers

Coach House Books, 82 pages, $17.95

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Otter

By Ben Ladouceur

Coach House Books, 79 pages, $17.95

Like the image on its cover – a mass of colour billowing outward from a single, staring eye – Damian Rogers's Dear Leader is both beautiful and eerie.

The book's epigraph comes from a Joanne Kyger poem: "promise me the company/of the dark, oh the passing/smell, the shimmer of evil oh/it grows like a snake/moves like the strongest/most beautiful dream in the world." There's darkness shimmering around the edges of every poem in Dear Leader, like broken glass around a crime scene, and the way it builds through the book is an accomplishment that shows Rogers has grown a great deal since her first collection, 2009's Paper Radio.

That book was impressive – Rogers's voice, a strong and highly engaging blend of surreal imagery and sharp wit, came through clear in its pages – but it still felt like a first collection; a talented poet trying on different subjects for size. In Dear Leader, coherence is a crucial part of the project. This is the coolest kind of maturity a poet can achieve: taking what's unique about their voice and focusing it to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The book comprises four sections, and it's in tracking the relationships between them that we can best understand the success of the book as a whole. The poems in "One" are all songs about paranoia; their speakers recount their dreams, unscrew their lightbulbs, tin-foil over their windows and "hide inside/the city" (From the Windows the Alley), though it offers no relief (from Storm: "we live in/the arteries/of a large/ugly animal/and I saw/it move"). In "Two," that paranoia grows into something more tangible – a sense of grief and loss, with a distrust of institutions that grows alongside it as the speaker loses her mother to a "facility," and to something that may be mental illness or death. By the time we get to the book's third section, death is such an explicit concern that the first poem (Poets in the Public Domain) is just a list, darkly funny in its frankness: "Asylum./Drank to death./Jumped off an ocean liner." Then, just a few pages later, there's 52 Notes for the Products of Conception, a heart-shredding long poem about losing a child. These are poems about the control death has over the realm of the living, but comparing them to the ones at the beginning of the book, you can see this theme's subtle crescendo; death and loss and fear are present, controlling forces all the way through the book – but as the book progresses, Rogers turns the volume up higher and higher.

This subtle, rising line is what makes the book's fourth section so powerful. The poems in "Four" share thematic and structural DNA with their predecessors in the collection – a strong voice, a speaker who's as engaging as she is potentially unreliable, themes of power and control and sex and gender and death – but here they're arranged around a new, sinister context. The "Leader" in Dear Leader is the head of a cult, and the poems here address him, directly and indirectly, over and over again. As the section progresses, a narrative emerges: The speaker, in thrall to the "Leader," is unravelling, unreliable and devoted; "men, they turn you into a vessel, rowing farther away with every stroke//But the Leader, he cleans my hair with his feet." (The Pain of Childbirth Is Nothing Compared to the Pain I Felt When You Poisoned Me.)

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Dear Leader's most impressive trick, as a text, is in how it builds the same way a single poem does – and the "Dear Leader" poems are its turn, the moment when you can feel the ground shifting under your feet. The speaker in this section sounds so much like the one in the preceding poems that reading it mimics, uncannily, the feeling of watching someone you actually know disappear into a state of disordered thinking you can't save them from; a familiar voice rearranged into something new and sinister. The darkness that's been snaking through the book finally blooms to the surface, takes control of the whole thing. It's an appropriate climax for a book that's as powerful as it is frightening.

There's a different kind of subtle power moving through Ben Ladouceur's Otter. It's Ladouceur's first collection, but in terms of ease, playfulness and the O'Hara-esque way it blends formal rigour with a consistently inviting voice, it could just as easily be his 10th. Ladouceur writes deftly about sex and love and friendship and queerness, about history and memory and distance, in lines that are so rich with imagery and unique turns of phrase that it's hard to isolate single examples. How about these lines, from Brown Study – "I'd feel your body's resin/on my fingers, hours after, like ink/from a squid I had battled./Now our bodies/form the kind of isobar the moon//finds iffy/and turns its rays away from"? I picked those lines almost at random – every poem in this book is full of moments that are intricately constructed.

The book's back-cover copy says Otter "shares spaces with men;" but really, these poems' most impressive quality is how evenly everything in them shares space with everything else – such as the poem Gran Vals, where a beautiful, cloud-filled sky is "violet and matte like a belly smeared in lube," and a text message whose second half never comes through becomes a formal device.

One of the easiest ways to kill the magic in a poem is to be too coy about mixing concrete detail and abstract imagery, or "high" and "low" diction. The power in Ladouceur's work is in the way he steadfastly refuses to do this; every image, moment and person in these poems is given equal weight, and the way he works them together is both seamless and skillful.

Emma Healey's poetry column appears monthly.

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