Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch

A lot of people talk about Paul Vermeersch behind his back. I’ve seen them do it. I’ll be hanging out in the clatter of some literary event here in Toronto and inevitably meet poets who have been edited by Paul in his capacity as the poetry editor at Insomniac Press. They’ll speak about him in almost hushed tones, as if they’re afraid he’ll overhear them from his place at the other side of the bar. I nearly have to lean in to catch the gossip they spread about him. The rumors are almost universally the same: that if you’re an up-and-coming poet, there is no better editor to have in your corner and to go to the mat for your work. There is no better editor to help you shape a group of seemingly disparate poems into a strong, cohesive collection of verse. Discussing such things, these poets seem almost embarrassed – not at how brilliant Paul is, but rather at how adept his skills are at helping others see the brilliance in themselves.

So I came to Paul’s freshly released collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, wondering if he can do for his own work what he has reportedly done for so many others’. I had heard him read a number of these poems at various events here in Toronto and knew they were strong as individual pieces. But it wasn’t until I had read the collection in full that I realized exactly what we’re dealing with here. The Reinvention of the Human is, quite simply, a powerhouse book of poetry, an astonishing feat for a poet who has not yet turned forty. The unifying vision is that of the animal in man and man in the animal. The book examines our human relationships with and interpretations of the rest of the animal world, and draws connections between our so-called rational actions and the more primordial impulses to which we are also subject.

There is a deep, abiding love for animals in this book, and Paul does a phenomenal job contemplating their inner worlds. In poems like “Ape,” “Sorrow for Frogsong” and “Dogstar,” he either speaks to or for the beasts he has imagined, often as an elegy for their embattled situations, a result of their subjugation to the human hand. He also explores the boundaries of what that human hand is capable of, the edges of man’s consciousness, reason and even physicality. Many of the poems are a reflection in both senses of the word: a contemplation on man’s place in the animal world and also a refraction back from the animals themselves.

One can’t help but notice a sad, almost pessimistic air to much of the collection, but Paul mitigates this lugubriousness with lines of pure eloquence. In “Boys who Envy Werewolves”, we get a glimpse into the minds of young men prone to violence, an unblinking assessment of their inner consciousness:

The boys who envy werewolves do not
want to change. They only want the freedom
to be the monsters they know they are,
harbingers of the justice that seethes
inside them, the storm of bile unleashed…

Of course, not all of the poems are so dark. My favourite was the more lighthearted “Three Anthropomorphic Studies,” in which Paul provides a poetic rendering of three characters from Looney Tunes – Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny. I was impressed not only with how well these pieces fit into the overall vision for the book but also at the sheer craft shown in creating them. Paul resists the urge to give in to camp or cheap humour in these poems. I did chuckle reading them, but it was more at how skillfully he lays a seriousness atop these absurd cartoon worlds. From “2. Call Me Coyote”:

I’ll come for you again today refreshed,
with birdseed loaded with buckshot
and a magnet that could rip the very iron
from your blood. I’ll grease my heels
and slide like light toward my prize,
unencumbered and missile-swift,
with dead-eye aim and avarice.

The Reinvention of the Human Hand does what every good collection of poetry should: it gives you a new, enriching perspective on what it means to be human. Paul has taken his profound love of animals and used it to teach us something fundamental about ourselves. I’ll definitely be chatting this collection up with other bookish types that I see around Toronto’s literary events. And I may not even wait until Paul’s gone to the bar and out of earshot before I do it.

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