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by Ken Babstock

Born in Newfoundland and raised in the Ottawa Valley, Toronto resident Ken Babstock revisits these regions, and the more general region of human nature, in a debut collection of poems as highly accomplished technically as they are harsh and uncompromising thematically.

As its title suggests, Mean is not for the faint of heart or thought; it is a precise, unflinching exploration of a primal world in which violence always bristles just below the surface. Drunken fistfights, vehicle accidents, domestic abuse, suicide, the ugliness of small-town life, the raw unprettiness of nature: Babstock writes with a painful clarity about these things, combining an impressive ear for language with a refreshing lack of pretension to create a fully convincing poetic universe.

Writing out of both urban and rural experiences, he frames his anti-romantic sensibilities within traditional metres and forms. The result is poetry at once freshly contemporary and tightly controlled. Few poets, for instance, have written successful sonnets about hockey violence and child abuse.

More impressively, Mean’s strongest poems reveal a philosophical bent that raises them far above the merely sensational. “Resigned to a Quiet Life” is an intriguing and eerie meditation on the concepts of self and solitude, while “Steady,” a wonderfully generous and unorthodox love-poem, possesses a maturity that belies the poet’s years. “Camping at Glendalough,” “Crab,” “Waiting on a Transplant,” “Sawteeth,” “Bonavista,” and “Favourite Player” also stand out for their engaging blend of hard-won emotion and incisive imagery.

Whether he’s writing about codfishing, carpentry, or animals, Babstock employs the same intensity of language and contemplation, giving his work a depth that repeatedly transcends its shock-value subject matter.

But Mean is not without flaws. Most seriously, several pieces (especially the sequence entitled “Head Injury Card”) remain too interior, obscure worlds that the poet has not brought effectively to life for his reader. More rarely, Babstock’s clear vision dulls, resulting in some gratuitous, inexact imagery (see “The Expected” and “The Gate”).

These flaws, however, do not greatly diminish the poet’s achievement. Vividly realized, deeply felt, and unremittingly honest, Mean is an excellent debut.