When I open a new book of poetry, I always have the sense that I am stepping into unknown territory. There’s a feeling of jittery excitement, of hesitation too—should I even be entering this place? What happens when you step inside a poem anyway? In this instance, the experience of reading Denham’s book is one that reminds me of Odysseus and his long and turbulent journey upon the seas miles and miles from his home of Ithaca. Like Odysseus Denham sails out of safe harbour into a wilderness of uncharted and ungenerous waters. Cognizant of his subject, he takes to the waters which will carry him through any storm he encounters.
In the section “Poor Man’s Rock,”—a reference to Bertrand W. Sinclair’s novel on the exploration of misuse of power—Denham writes of the far—reaching corruption in the fishing industry. The line blurs between the good and bad and it’s difficult to know where to take a stand. This section is written in elegiac couplets and mourns the loss of the earth’s commodities, but more than that, it grieves about the loss of the way humans now live. He writes of the destruction of the earth, and how people have become creatures, zombies, controlled by money hungry conglomerates and everything capitulates to corporate management. He speaks of hearing ‘the wind/coughing the in the alders’, and seeing mountainsides desertified/coniferous forest’, the corruption so sweeping it effects the very air we breathe. (12) The corruption presents a stillness, a desertion of good where even ‘all our words of descent lie impotent’. (15) The words people use to express their thoughts, their protests, to further change, are powerless. A feeling of hopelessness pervades this portion of the poem; ‘malignant neurons/in everything’s brain. Tomorrow’s refrain,’ the words suggesting that pollution is like a cancer so invasive that it changes the structure of the brain and thus the way people function. (19)
Under the passage entitled “Landfall,” the poet switches to prose. Though there appears to be a flattening out of structure, language persists and continues to fascinate and instruct. There is unrelenting rage that permeates this piece, the poet simplifying the story with repetition. It’s as if people are not getting it—the destruction of our planet—and need to be reminded again and again—‘When did everything become facsimiles and variations on smug stupidity?’ Denham emphasizes. (38)
In the third section, “Firestorm,” the poet reverts to verse form, his words of protest a rage now reaching a crescendo, and the words and phrases have become dangerous sparks that rise for recognition. Though the other flame, the light of the world, appears dim, the world grey and deserted. Denham assures is there is a light of hope in all of us. ‘We open our eyes to the given/day’ he says, ‘which is all we have and is burning/round and through’. (70)
Does the poet lose control? No, he tempers his rage and throws a challenge to the reader to pay attention, to hold fast and change the way of living because no matter how long the voyage takes, at least the poet will continue on. He leaves the poem open-ended, reminding anyone listening of ‘the future history/we share and face alone’. (70) What struck me about this book is the poet’s intensity, his faithfulness to his work, gleaning what he can from the waters whether it is sustenance for his family or food for thought for his reader.
Denham’s book is outrageously beautiful, and should be read more than once. It is the story of a man holding on, trying to salvage the precious, trying to reach something solid before everything falls away.
by Joe Denham
Nightwood Editions, 77pp, $18.95
Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.