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Civil and Civic

by Jonathan Bennett

There’s nothing terribly civil about the title poem in Jonathan Bennett’s second collection, which describes a political protest that tumbles headlong into anarchic violence when the “blunt harm of a brick” is thrown at riot police. The “brick in flight is like a dove,” a nameless “you” shrieks in rapturous approval, a boy is trampled by the crowd, and cars are burned. Everything is caught on video. The poem culminates in a frankly surreal fashion with the bronze statue of a general running his sword through a protester.

It’s a marvellous poem, and only one of many instances in which Bennett examines the tension between individual or collective will and the modern impositions (technological, institutional) of civil society transformed by late capitalism. A mourner in “Who Will Serve Nanaimo Bars at the Funeral,” is prodded out of a moment of quiet reverence and reflection by a hip-mounted cellphone; the voter in “How Ridings Swing” is influenced by a politician’s rhetorical manipulation of shared cultural landmarks such as “Tims” and “hockey fundraisers”; a company vice-president in “A Vice President Spends Time with Her Children” builds a campfire, “not to chant into and shriek around but // to better light portable hand held screens.” “Key Messages II: For the Release of a Report” highlights bureaucratic impotence by parodying the language of a non-profit: a “national, community-based / association of volunteer umbrella / organizations forming a multi-sectoral / advisory group.”

There is far more to Bennett’s poetry than this anti-establishment bent, but even in poems not overtly concerned with the rapaciousness of modern society, its influence is apparent. In “Still Life with Infant,” a touching scene of domesticity is interrupted when the speaker’s child “shrieks in Spanish // from the other room, joining Dora / the explorer in Nickelodeon song.” The daughter in “Big Bang” is learning so much so fast that she has become “an economic bubble.”

Bennett’s artistry lies in his ability to create poems that shatter complacency with bricks of loaded language.