Recently, I was reading a series of articles in The National Post that asked a group of poets in the lead up to this year’s Griffin Prize if there is such a thing as a “perfect poem.” At the time the question struck me as a little daft, but then I read John Terpstra’s 2003 collection Disarmament and had second thoughts. His piece “Planetary Lives” may never achieve poetic immortality, but it nonetheless stopped me in my tracks to marvel at its perfections. The poem, which deals with trajectory, memory and the revolving nature of life, is perfect - perfect in the way that a figure skating routine can be perfect: where there is no perceptible gap between what is intended and what is achieved, where beauty and technical skill are one, and where the landing at the end is nailed – nailed – without the slightest whiff on a stumble.
Disarmament goes against the poetic grain in a number of delightful and refreshing ways. Terpstra has no qualm with eschewing concision for the sake of expansiveness: several of this book’s best poems do not rely on one singularly distilled image or motif, but rather on a succession of lengthy, cascading images that build to an understated but no less powerful crescendo. There are many deeply specific or personal narrative poems in the collection, such as “Jaws” and “The Easy Part”, but these are never told simply as stories with line breaks included. Terpstra is forever looking for the poetic rhythm to stories, the muscular ways that experience can reveal itself to us in moments of reflection.
The other unabashed aspect of this collection is its religiosity. At a time when atheism and a fascination with the secular, natural world are making inroads in Canadian poetry, it was neat to read a book that dared to take poetry back to its religious roots, to help illuminate the supernatural for the mortal. Several of Terpstra’s poems, including “Humus”, “Logos” and “How It All Goes Around” begin with the same line: “In the church where we go to now”, which can speak to the ever-fluctuating nature of one’s spirituality. The last poem in the book, a lengthy piece in four parts, brings a contemporary rendering to the origins of Christian faith, to “a benevolence/ beyond my imagination.” While I don't share the collection's fascinations in the regard, I was still willing to follow them wherever they led me.
Terpstra’s poems are skillful and yet beautiful, brave and willing to take their risks happily. His work will indeed leave you disarmed, in all the good ways.