Reviewing poetry is a tricky matter. Unlike a work of prose fiction, you can’t usually judge the work based on an author’s ability to create believable characters, write a plot or any of the other yardsticks you’d use to measure a novel’s worth. While any piece of writing’s impact will vary from reader to reader, poetry is by far the most subjective.
Not only will different people react in radically different ways to the same poem, an individual’s reactions to a poem can change depending on the mood they’re in or how they are feeling on a particular day. However that’s not to say there aren’t ways to evaluate a poet’s abilities.
For most poetry the key is remembering not to intellectualize the process but to assess the work based on the reactions it triggers. Do you have an emotional or intellectual reaction, or both, to the work? Why was the poet successful, or unsuccessful, in eliciting either reaction from you?
There are poets who use imagery, draw pictures with their words, in an attempt to express something and there are poets who use words as building blocks in order to create an overall feeling or mood. Then there are those rare individuals who manage to integrate both techniques. Images and words together form a type of collage of emotions and ideas on the page. Sometimes the results are a confused mess communicating nothing.
In the hands of a skilled poet though, you end up with a poem with the ability to communicate with nearly everyone. In his latest collection of poetry, On Edge, currently available through Dark Matter Press, Kingston, Ontario Canada poet Bob MacKenzie, shows his mastery of both form and content with a series of thought-provoking and soul-stirring poems.
Do not be fooled by the volume’s slimness, 16 poems in 33 pages, as its physical size in no way reflects what resides within the covers. In fact, given the intensity of the pieces and the subject matter they deal with, its the perfect length, Any more would have been too much to ask a reader to digest.
For MacKenzie has delved into territory that not only isn’t often the subject of poetry but which most people don’t even like to acknowledge as a fact of life in our society. Abuse, specifically the abuse children suffer at the hands of the adults supposedly responsible for protecting them from the cares of the world. MacKenzie’s poems aren’t content with focusing on the descent into darkness suffered by those on the receiving end, he also looks into the heart of darkness at the other end of the equation. For in order for there to be a victim there has to be someone who causes the pain.
There’s nothing graphic about these poems, except maybe for the rawness of the emotions expressed in them, and perhaps they would have been less disturbing if there were some hint of deviant behaviour. For, and this is awful to say, we have become somewhat inured to stories involving the degradation of our fellow human beings, be they children or adult, and have learned how to shield ourselves from feeling their pain.
What MacKenzie gives us is something far more difficult to deal with. In poems like “The Sacred Heart” and “Stigmata,” we witness the pain of a parent watching their child’s slow descent into darkness from the injuries they suffered at the hands of another. Though these poems, and others, are told from the view point of the parent seeing their child, MacKenzie ensures we are well aware this is merely a reflection of the greater damage – what has happened to the child.
“I can only love you/only stand and hold you/until the pain is gone/until it comes again/and fills me with your pain”. (“Stigmata”)
In “Saint Joan” MacKenzie turns his sights on the self-righteous individuals who down through the ages have sat in judgement on what they don’t understand and made decisions based on rumours, gossip, hearsay and their own personal agendas. From late in the 19nth century until today, people like these have been taking children away from their parents without thought or regard to what happens to either party.
“You know you are the saviour of little children/absolved in whatever you do by your own faith/you know you are the saviour of little children/you know you much destroy all who stand in your way”.
Here MacKenzie not only creates an archetypical picture of what kind of person would be capable of ripping families apart; through the words he’s employed in describing her, he also stirs an emotional reaction in the reader and shows their so called good intentions for what they really are.
One would think from the description of the poems I’ve offered, and the subject matter, that On Edge would be both uniformly dark and depressing to read. However, MacKenzie is not just digging a pit for us to fall into. Nor is he one of these poets who enjoys wallowing in the dank end of the emotional pool for the effect it will have on his readers.
There are clues this is not the case even before one begins to read the poems themselves. First, in his dedicating the book to those who “have dared to fight back against the intractable night” and second in his inclusion of this quote from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, “Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”.
While the rays of light might not be on obvious display in each poem, MacKenzie is too gifted a poet to give into cliche or compromise his writing by offering a happy ending to appease delicate sensibilities, they are there for those willing to look for it. Each poem, with a few exceptions, is infused with love for its subject.
This is love that is heartbreaking in its hope and unconditional acceptance of the person under attack; love that is the cornerstone of our unknown narrator’s belief in their loved one’s ability to come through the darkness they’re experiencing and live to see the light again. The two longest poems in the book, “The Girl” and “Edge”, each in their own way, are reminders the dark does not have be the only option.
In the first he builds a picture of a girl being smothered by darkness and how it feels all encompassing. Yet even in this instance the night must end eventually and no matter how lost we might feel the day will come again. Although the ray of hope MacKenzie offers is thin, only appearing in the last stanza of the five page poem, it is enough for us to believe there is a way out.
“Edge” is a different matter, as it deals with the way we perceive the world. It would be easy to look around, especially as a poet or any type of artist, and obsess on the darkness we see and feel in everything. Standing on the edge as witnesses we feel the hurts of the world and have no illusions of the cruelties the world is capable of delivering upon individuals.
“I’ve lived too long too near the edge/stood too close to where it happens/seen what I should not have seen/and hear it all and hear it still/in living dreams I can not escape”.
While it is easier to talk about the ills of the world, and by extension to write about it (Why do you think people like Stephen King sell so many books? Darkness is popular), our eyes and senses play tricks on us, preventing us from seeing the light which gives birth to the shadows. MacKenzie, in this poem and others, makes sure to remind us, one way or another, shadows can not exist without light. In amongst the play of words and imagery that have gone into creating the darkness and shadows in each poem there exists one strand of light woven into each one’s fabric.
Having personally walked through the type of darkness MacKenzie describes in his poetry I know all too well how unremitting and relentless it can appear. Yet, no matter what we are going through the world continues on as it always has, filled with its miracles and mysteries that are a wonder and a joy.
While the poems in this book don’t shy away from the dark, they’re not in love with it either. Light is all around us, we just need to want to see it. These poems may break your heart on occasion, but you won’t be allowed to forget there’s more to the world than depression and darkness. There might not be any easy route out from the shadows, and MacKenzie doesn’t pretend otherwise, but the path does exist.
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