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Coke Machine Glow

by Gordon Downie

Can’t we just ignore the fact that Gord Downie is the frontman for Canada’s most popular rock band and review his debut collection of poetry as an autonomous artistic endeavour entirely separate from his musical career?

No, we can’t.

The book, which contains both poems and song lyrics, bears the same title and cover design as Downie’s new solo album, which, perhaps unfairly, demotes the book to the trashy rank of marketing tie-in, on par with souvenir T-shirts and concert posters, or at best, the extended, collectible edition of the liner notes.

The very difficult question we have to ask is this: if Gord Downie were not already a celebrity, would Coke Machine Glow have been published at all? My answer is: not likely … at least not as is.

On the whole, the poems in Coke Machine Glow are lyrically, structurally, and stylistically weak, rife with clichés like, “I know it’s June because there are children laughing” (from “Summer On”), and occasionally garnished with exhausted rhymes like “you gotta get to know your cage–/the stress points, corrosion’s rage” (from “San Leonardo”). Some poems are merely cleverish and dispassionate, like “Art vs. Commerce,” “Road Diet,” “New Orleans,” and “TV,” all of which the book would have been better off without. I even have to wonder how many of these poems are actually stillborn song lyrics recycled, however unsuccessfully, as poetry.

All of this is a considerable disappointment given Downie’s track record. Songs like “Thirty-eight Years Old,” “Wheat Kings,” and “Nautical Disaster” have inspired a new generation of Canadian poets, myself included, by demonstrating how relevant, contemporary narratives can be rendered in provocative yet accessible verse. But song writing and poetry have evolved from similar roots into vastly different art forms with their own inherent possibilities and limitations, and the elements that make Downie’s songs so engaging have not been adequately translated into standalone verse.

Even his best poems, the elegantly understated “Granddad” weighing in at number one, allow us only a faint glimpse into Downie’s lyrical powers.