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Trouble Sleeping

by Phil Hall

Phil Hall describes his latest work as a haiban, “a Japanese form of interwoven journey-prose and poetry,” which he uses to explore his troubled childhood in Rokeby, situated in northeastern Ontario. Trouble Sleeping evokes the desperate “resignedness of the rural poor on the edge of the Canadian Shield in the ancient Fifties.” The landscape is bleak, shaped by poverty, boredom, unharnessed anger, and physical and sexual abuse. Hall is driven to recall past events, to write “this sacred text” as remedy for the brutality and pain of his youth. The collection is marked by a restrained rage that threatens to erupt on every page.

Across the volume, the writing is spare, appropriate to the stark and barren lives Hall describes. The prose sections serve almost as gloss to the poems. Narrative provides the necessary detail and a context in which to read the poetry, with its focus on the dark beauty of language distilled on the page, in crafted and measured responses to the cruelty of daily life.

Trouble Sleeping is a tour de force. Hall writes with maturity about a damaging childhood and youth, when he felt himself to be an outsider in his family and his village. The collection excavates layers of emotion, probing the residual anger and terror that remain with the speaker – “my body still feeds on what it needs to get rid of” – and the hardness of life in Rokeby at mid-20th century. Its stultifying atmosphere and the fear Rokeby still elicits in the speaker resonate for the reader, as does Hall’s lament for childhood when he “gave up human pride / for the tilt & pucker / of animal fear – am still awash / & bitter.” The speaker seeks to let go of the pain; publication of Trouble Sleeping may prove the welcome anodyne.