“Who’s there?” Bernardo asks as Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins. The opening passage of Joe Denham’s Regeneration Machine inhabits that same sort of night, as the ghost of Nevin Sample makes a visitation. From the publisher’s cover copy, we learn that Sample robbed a bank in Deep Cove, B.C., at gunpoint, then fled to Cates Park, where he shot himself in the head. Denham was Sample’s close friend, and becomes his mirror self in the living world. In this dramatic-monologue/elegy, every aspect of poetic craft is weighted: the elegant flow of lines in stream of consciousness; nods to Auden, Eliot, and Ginsberg; pop-culture references; the attentive use of symbol and refrain; the seamless use of vernacular speech. Deliberation infuses every element of this existential wrangle.
Regeneration Machine is what I long for in poetry: sustained, careful aesthetic consideration, human emotion, and specificity of experience. So much of today’s contemporary writing is reduced to trite flippancy, a sort of game of linguistic acrobatics with no substance, a one-trick pony. Here, Denham’s writing eschews that fad in favour of true craftsmanship and connectivity. We see the struggle of man against circumstance for the purpose of finding meaning, appreciating love, and carrying on with no certain answers – the age-old questions of fraught existence.
This is not to deny that Denham is meticulous with rhythm and verse. He leaves much for the reader to consider in careful constructions of call and response:
come flat out and say here I can’t carry the discrepancy
between the discomfort and beauty with dignity?
To Bernardo, Shakespeare’s Francisco responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” Denham writes, “This is life you could have lived, the one / I’ve created and carried through the years, a sort of penance /
its furthering maintenance.”
Regeneration Machine is a keeper.