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A review of The Reinvention of the Human Hand
(McClelland & Stewart, CANADA, 2010)
by Paul Vermeersch
"A poet finds his purpose?"
A review of The Mirabelles
(Picador, London, UK, 2010)
by Annie Freud
"Marrying Strange Men?"
Paul Vermeersch's previous book of poetry, Between the Walls, explored the fragile and testy relationship between humans and animals as they try to co-exist in a cramped modern city. In his latest book The Reinvention of the Human Hand, Vermeersch confirms man has will stop at nothing to sustain his superiority – and ego. Operating under the guise of 'science', man greedily cuts the heart from a baboon to preserve a newborn child's life,
snips parts from
"a dogs mouth, a monkeys paw" to replace a human hand.
The theme of man's greed and dominance of the world is the word but Vermeersch is using his critical eye to lament a deeper societal concern as we watch these events unfold – no longer in the field or pond or garden - but on television, and do nothing. As he writes in 'Ode to Amoebe Proteus':
"Even the tiniest crumb you take
with the whole of yourself, enveloping it,
creating a hollow place inside of you..."
What sets this off from Vermeersch's previous work is that the writing does not showcase the characterization of The Fat Kid, nor is it heavily infused with rural images such as in Paul's standout debut Burn. Instead Vermeersch's new writing is a voice of a truck stuck in third gear going up a hill. In that sense you know that you will remember this journey, in fact it will be hard to forget it.
Though Vermeersch is based in Toronto, there is something European about this book and given the wars and brutality endured in Europe during The First and Second World Wars it is not surprising that Paul's subjects - human, or animal - are themselves casualties of human cruelty. Some, such as the the disfigured side show freak, the Elephant Man are given human voice as Joseph Merrick endures indignities in Victorian London. Vermeersch sees him as:
"God's likeness smashed in mankind's fragile glass."
There is something of Timothy Findley's The Wars in this book as well as the dense narrative of Cormac McCarthy in dark novels such as Suttree. The standout passage for me is also the unexpected and this signals an exciting new turn for Vermeersch: a cunning wit lurking in the trenches. Again developing on the European theme and two ancestors who have survived the mustard gas of World War One, Vermeersch writes in 'ALTARPIECE WITH FALSE TEETH AND PARKINSON'S DISEASE (for Margaret Vermeersch and Leopold 'Paul' Courvreur in memoriam') how the furius newly married couple emerge from a sea of Belgian muck and remark:
"And who's that in the shadows?
A grotesque little imp in a beige tunic and jodpurs
milking the infected, swollen udder of the cow!"
Reinvention of the Human Hand is a subtle follow up to Between the Walls both parts of the same beast. What takes the narrative further and makes this a better book is Paul's understanding of the pathos and tension of man's resignation of what he has done to himself and to those who share his close quarters.
I leave the last words to the poet himself.
"Will it go unnoticed, the human race in its widowhood, its trophy wife gone?"
It is difficult to say but in a world such as this:
"The idea is not to feel. The idea is to forget."
Annie Freud continues where she left off in Best Man that Ever Was, her debut full collection with Picador, which won the Glen Dimplex Literary award in Ireland. Though the exuberance for words has not diminished, Freud has included poems which are perhaps less ambitious, more condensed vignettes of her life so far. This works well as the arrangement of her expressions are better distilled and poems about simple life events leave a strong and subtle resonance such as in this poem about a Christmas Pheasant:
Christmas Poem (for May)
He went shooting,
shot a partridge
took it round
to his girlfriend
who wasn't in
so he pushed it
through the letterbox
would be all right.
There are flourishes but no real pretension; Freud uses words, expressions, clever phonetics and seduces with her love of language; she paints a portrait of a night out or encounter. My first experience with Annie's work was in a book which was passed to me by a fellow poet, also reviewed. I saw the painters eye immediately. However this lushness and seduction are most apparent when Freud turns to, perhaps her favourite topic, men.
"O, these men, these men. I felt it was the cry of all women
all over the world in their mystification at this other sex
who behave so inexplicably, yet somehow are so necessary,
unwieldy as they may be."
Each poem is an encouter, a day out with a wise friend – whom doesn't miss a tack.
"I don't know what to say about you.
There is nothing to say about you,
except that you are in my mind,
I was delighted to read this book even more so when my mother snatched it from the table and started reading a passage from it. This thought occured to me and I hope I can articulate it. The reason poetry matters is that poetry unlocks doors and opens windows into lives lived. If you happen to see a person on the tube, perhaps an old lady turning to step up onto a bus as it is leaving you might forget that this person has lived a whole life and has a whole list of people whom she shares equally complex and wonderfully human relationships with. It is how we unlock these doors into these worlds that is the poets skill. I think Annie Freud understands this.
I leave it to the poet, enigmatically, to sign off:
'The book you meant to write about your life
would have been called Marrying Strange Men."