Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: More to Keep Us Warm, by Jacob Scheier

Religion, faith and observance loom large over More to Keep Us Warm, Jacob Scheier’s debut collection of  poetry which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2008 (under, it can be noted, a stiff wind of controversy: two of the judges were mentioned on Scheier’s acknowledgement’s page and yet failed to recuse themselves). From the cover depicting a stain glass window to poems with titles like “My Religious Upbringing,” How to Wrestle an Angel,” and “Christmas,” the poems in this collection unravel spirituality in a secular world, shining a light over religiosity’s strengths and solaces but also its failures and shortcomings.

“My Religious Upbringing” captures an representative sample of the themes you will find in this collection. Here we see a narrator torn between the homes of his presumably divorced parents: the mother’s house recognizes both Christmas and Hanukkah, while his father’s house has no items to mark either (or any) holiday whatsoever:

“Why can’t we have …
… at least a candle tree?” I pleaded.
He looked down at me, paused for effect,
and in his most serious voice,
which was very, very serious, said:
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”

In this poem we see the collision of religious artifacts and the cool realities of an atheistic world, leaving the narrator caught in between, baffled and yet somehow self aware.

It’s an occurrence that repeats itself several times over More to Keep Us Warm. We even spot it in poems that don’t necessarily have spirituality at their core, such as “I’m not here for Sushi” (“I no longer know what it is a man and woman speak about/ over dinner, only that there is a law/ about loving or hating fully” ) or “North America,” (with its allusions to Jesus, Buddha and Jerry Springer), poems that hint at the infinite, and the inexplicable, even when capturing elements of the mundane world.

The poem that stood out the most for me was “Kaddash for 1956,”  a piece that implies the Jewish faith from its very title and yet comes to speak of much, much more. Here, Scheier uncorks his muse and lets it rip over everything from Ginsberg’s Howl to the foibles of publishing in Canada’s little journals. The poem is at times vulgar, luminous and comic. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it is a small masterpiece.

Not every piece in More to Keep Us Warm worked for me but overall I found this collection poised, clear-headed and gripping. A strong debut worthy of its accolades, no matter the dark cloud they found themselves under.      

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