Review: Impossible Books (The Carleton Installment) by Stephen Brockwell

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 24 May 2011]

Impossible Books (the Carleton Installment)

Stephen Brockwell

Ottawa: above/ground press, August 2010.

Stephen Brockwell’s “Impossible Books project” (this above/ground book is its second installment) is an ongoing series of individual poems that are presented as excerpts from imagined “impossible” books. The impossible books of this installment range from Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children, to the Evangelical Handbook for Engineers, to Metonymies: Poems by Objects Owned by Illustrious People, and Pindaric Odes to the Objects of Science, among others. This brief collection of ten poems is imaginative and surprising on every page.

“Animal Crackers,” from Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children, is ripe with the pride, violence, and fierce control of image and language that are recognized now as markers of Stephen Harper’s Canadian Government (a newly-majority Government since the publication of this book):

Shrikes impale mice on barbed wire.

Weaning calved keen.

Wild male chimps murder babies.

Silverbacks preen.

The political edge of many of these poems is unsurprising from Brockwell, who co-edited Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament with Stuart Ross during Stephen Harper’s second prorogation of Parliament. The sorts of biting, angry, but smart and focused critiques offered in these poems are vital today, and will be increasingly so over the next four years of Harper’s current majority.

Another recognizable bent in Brockwell’s work is his interest in interrogating the seemingly cold language and images of science for available (and potential) emotional currency:

At least one molecule of you in me

passed through the body of some great person,

in the urine of Josef Stalin, say,

on an October morning in his youth;

it may be one I am passing on now

as a drop of saliva flies from my tongue

over this paper. (from Pindaric Odes to the Objects of Science)

 Where language overlaps with the body is a fruitful site for Brockwell:

It is after all a word,

the tongue on the teeth,

the open mouth,

the teeth biting the lips,

until they bleed. (from The Love Poems of ____, Serial Killer)

At these intersections (language/body, language/science), Brockwell points at a handful of the small manners in which people are connected physically, if inadvertently.

The two most exciting poems here, to my ear, come from The Archives of Ministry of Spiritual Ascendance, in the form of two applications for the position of God. In these two poems the reader is offered modest acts of growth and selflessness mixed with fatigue:

1027-3F, December 12, 2024

Dear Ministry of Spiritual Ascendance,

I believe I should be accepted for God

because I have never eaten meat.

I cultivated tomatoes at my window

from a pack of ancient seeds.

I nurtured them to the size

of vitamins with water I filtered

from the rain. That Saturday morning

I prayed for the Sun as I am sure

so many do every day but I prayed

for others not for myself

and the Sun appeared for at least

one minute through the smog.

All my life I have shared the gifts I have received.

But I am so tired – please accept this

application for God.

The success of this book rests in its brevity. None of the “jokes” overstay their welcome, with only one or two poems from each “Impossible Book” presented. These are serious poems that rise above the humour and novelty of their initial idea(s). The first installment of the series was given at the Olive Reading Series in December 2007. I’ve not seen that chapbook, but I imagine in hope that Brockwell is sitting on further installments that we may be lucky enough to see in print someday.

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