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Disarmament

by John Terpstra

The bleak, hopeful town of Hamilton, Ontario – with its steel mills and slowly resurgent parklands – finds an apt poet laureate in John Terpstra. His seventh collection, Disarmament, focuses mainly on the city’s landscapes and people, with Caribbean resorts, dreams, and Biblical stories getting airtime, too. Terpstra’s liturgical language extracts divinity from its all-too-earthly subjects, though his rhythmical, processional diction occasionally bogs down in the wealth of its own detail.

The most successful poems in Disarmament offer pared-down parables that subtly comment on the real world. In “Jaws,” a wry voice (full of sprightly syntax) interrogates the horror movie genre for its metaphysical significance: “People, I’m sorry./I didn’t know until I sailed into your quiet cove/how big the vessel is/ of this anxiety.” In “Conviction,” a woman peeling an orange is described as though she were holding the world in the palm of her hand. And in “The Easy Part,” the dismantling of a garage becomes a heartbreaking symbol for the sudden death of a friend.

My favourite poem in the collection is “The River.” In trim, six-line stanzas Terpstra describes a wild west cliché – a man on horseback trying to cross a wide river – that eventually reveals itself as a dream, delicately tinged with allegory: “he couldn’t take his stuff along –/the boxes covered in white canvas tied down with rope,/that had materialized out of the corner of his eye./If he wanted to cross he’d have to leave it all behind.” As with most of Terpstra’s verses, the language is strangely beautiful for its apparent simplicity, and the resolution anchors the poem’s significance without weighing it down or forcing a single meaning upon the reader: “He was happy with his dream,/and felt honoured by it./What troubles him now, if trouble/is the word, is how the dream repeats.”

Terpstra’s religious sensibility comes through everywhere, but where the poems turn on incidents in the real world his Biblical locutions tend to act as solvents, softening the corners of situations that ought to be tangible and solid. But this is a minor criticism. Terpstra is a carpenter by trade, and judging by these poems his cabinets are careful, cunning constructions that contain meaningful contents.