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Book Reviews

Bloody Jack

by Dennis Cooley

Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack uses the story of Manitoba outlaw John Krafchenko as the launching pad for a playful and seemingly lawless exploration of poetry and language. First published in 1984, the book was an important part of the development of Canadian postmodern poetics, along with works by such writers as Daphne Marlatt, Robert Kroetsch, and Michael Ondaatje. Now the University of Alberta Press has restored the book to print. A brief, lucid introduction by Douglas Barbour places the book in context.

Compared to Ondaatje’s terse, cinematic The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Bloody Jack seems sprawling and inclusive. From the grisly vision of “god with his yellow teeth” to more joyful evocations of the flesh, Cooley’s whittled vernacular finds fresh language for the mix of fear and desire that Bloody Jack stirs. There are facetious turns as well: Cooley includes a crossword puzzle with clues taken from the story, and a “term quiz” for readers who may have begun to skim. Inevitably, the book has its down moments, such as some of the punning celebrations of Jack’s erotic power.

Though rooted in local history, Bloody Jack abandons all pretense of “capturing” itsslippery subject. Instead the devilishly seductive jail-breaker Krafchenko, who was allegedly silver-tongued in Bulgarian, Russian, German, Italian, and English, stands for the power, the limits and the sheer pleasure of words. Like the single unpredictable bullet whose bizarre trajectory makes Krafchenko a murderer in the poem “that fateful day,” words keep on swerving and surprising, condemning or liberating along the way.

The new text contains changes and additions, including a self-mocking reflection on the book’s republication. This injection of new blood makes the volume less a “republication” than the rebirth of a living and important piece of work.