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Big Breath of a Wish

by Richard Harrison

It’s rare to find a book of poetry that ought to be recommended to new parents. Yet for such readers Big Breath of a Wish, by Calgary poet Richard Harrison (nominated for Best Poetry Book in this year’s Alberta Book Awards), will be filled with shocks of recognition. The 54 poems gathered in Harrison’s fourth book retrace the first year of fatherhood. It’s appropriate that the economy and supple rhythmic pulse of the writing often prompt rereading aloud; these are intensely attentive and rewarding poems about entering language, listening, and learning to hear.

The opening poem, “Birth Day: The Video,” describes the crisis of silence that compels a final desperate push to complete daughter Emma’s birth: “She was born because they lost the sound of her heart.” Addressing Emma directly, as he does in so many of these poems, Harrison writes: “May this always be a gift we give; we could not wait to hear you.”

Readers do in fact “hear” Emma. Transcribed preverbal utterances pepper the writing, forming titles such as “B’da,” “tDha,” and “Lul.” Only rarely do the poems suggest fatherly indulgence. Instead, unguarded emotion, cerebral reflections, and quiet humour come together in poems that leap from the clammy realities of neonatal nurture to echoes of the two famous Jacques, Derrida and Lacan (in “Derridad” or “Oral Stage: Outside In”).

In his previous book, Fathers Never Leave You (1987), Harrison explored themes of fatherhood and male mythologies. These familiar subjects are now sized up from a fresh perspective in poems like “Heroic Proportion,” a meditation on fathers, comic-book superheroes, and masculine fantasy. The book’s faded-peach cover design creates a homey gift shop impression that fails to suggest the sophistication of intellect, emotion, and craft within.