Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Burning House, by Richard Lemm

This is the first of three books I received review copies for from Wolsak and Wynn after the Hamilton-based publisher blurbed my blog on its website back in August. I chose Richard Lemm’s poetry collection Burning House to read first because I feel a certain geographic connection to its author – he lives, writes and teaches in my home province of Prince Edward Island. I also heard very nice things about Lemm from my good buddy Trevor J. Adams, who enlisted his help in compiling the poetry contingent for Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books.

Burning House was not my first exposure to Lemm’s verse. I actually encountered three poems of his in the anthology Crossing Lines: Poets who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era, which I read earlier this year. (See my full review of it.) Two of those poems are reprinted in slightly different versions (and one with an entirely different title) in Burning House, and they typify Lemm’s poetic approach: strong, controlled lines and descriptions that bloom with recognition in the reader’s brain. One of those poems, “Hendrix of Arabia”, is a favourite of mine from Burning House. It opens with a sharp, imaginative description of Jimi Hendrix (“Rainbow scarves, peacock shirt, gypsy/ trousers, Robin Hood boots …) and then places him, fantastically, in heart of the Iraq War. The poem weaves in delightful allusions to some of Hendrix’s best-known lyrics, even as it presents Baghdad in the grip of sectarian slaughter. I love the image, “To escort him … past women in the foxholes of their veils.”

War and U.S. imperialism are huge preoccupations for Lemm, which makes sense considering that he came to Canada from Seattle during the height of America’s aggression in Vietnam. The ‘burning house’ behind this collection could be seen as America itself – a place Lemm may have once considered a loving home but is now engulfed in the flaming obsessions of conflict and conquest. It’s a dual image that the poet balances well – memories of idyllic childhood counterbalanced with all that is wrong with modern-day America. I must admit: at first blush I was tempted to see the images in the former category as what someone of my generation might call PBBN (Pointless Baby Boomer Nostalgia); but Lemm proves himself too talented, too multifarious to give in to such maudlin temptations. Each reminiscence in Burning House contributes to and enriches the broader, unifying themes that hold the collection together.

Plus, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this book, too. I absolutely love it when Lemm embraces his more whimsical side, in poems like “Retribution” (told from the perspective of one of Hannibal’s elephants), “In the Vincent Price Room, Journey’s End” (a poem about an undertakers’ convention in Charlottetown) and, of course, “Hendrix in Arabia.” These poems do a great job of lightening the collection’s mood without undermining its broader, headier themes.

When it comes to Richard Lemm and his poetry, America’s loss is Canada’s gain. With Burning House, he solidifies his place among Acorn, Helwig, MacDonald and Steinfeld as one of PEI’s strongest poetic voices.

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