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Burn

by Paul Vermeersch

Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch is a raconteur, a guy who writes poems about childhood terrors and screw-ups in love, about girls with metal in their tongues and boys with shotguns in their mouths. A guy whose poems read as though he’s standing in the middle of a room, gesturing expansively.

And Burn, Vermeersch’s debut collection, covers a broad sweep of his hand. There is the disquietude of rural life in poems such as “Things Like This Happen Everyday,” which captures the mounting terror of a family lying on the front lawn in front of their rural home: “they weren’t holding hands / but lying wherever they happened to fall.” There’s his taste for confession and, when it comes to old lovers, an edgy intensity: “Me on the balcony, / her on the floor below / daring me to spit / into her open mouth” (“Megan on Fernwood Avenue”). There’s his dredging of schoolyard torments – imagined self-immolation as revenge on a bully in “The Burning Boy” – balanced with tender homages to his parents and grandparents.

Vermeersch can tell a story in an unadorned, refreshingly forthright voice, but the sweep of his hand misses something critical: many of these poems stop short without a satisfactory payoff, leaving the reader without a sharp closing image or a resonant moment that lifts the poem off the page. There are startling images in these miniature gothic tales, but one has the sense that Vermeersch is holding back – that he’d rather be a nice guy than remove the top of your head; that he’s writing for an audience at a poetry reading, and his grandmother just might be sitting there in the dark.

His is a promising talent – undeniably honest, and with an urge to tell simple, age-old stories (and with Al Purdy gone, we need more poets of his ilk waiting in the wings), but one wishes some of these poems were a little more focused, the stories a little more pointed. Such a bold voice needn’t be so tame.