All of which is not to say that D.C. Reid’s latest book of poems What It Means to be Human is unworthy of an audience. Far from it. His book is at least as deserving as other “difficult” books of poetry on store shelves these days. The degree of difficulty is another matter. Not only is Reid’s book obliquely associative and imagistic, eschewing direct metaphor in favour of symbols, it’s all wrapped within the loose frame of a novel. The reader is constrained both to pierce Reid’s fragmented poetic language and piece together the strands of plot and character: Mary, unhappy in her relationship with her husband has an affair with his brother, Avie, who in turn has an incestuous relationship with their daughter Chloe.
Eyes swim from eyelids to ask the question, what?, and o?, and,
yes, I am here, familiar
The ceiling then seen in double sight
for I am trapped by my head too full of your hair,
the small of your back. My hand so close and…pointless, for you
belong to yourself
and me, too, though I don’t want me
Landscape her shoulder, heave of mountain ranges of blanket
across the bent up knees, the valley, the flat beyond
Only the black iron keeping watch at the end of the bed, the
curlicue lion-head on the post around which night conspires
Do clothes lose their lives when thrown off? Do they gag on hooks?
For the reader willing to painstakingly assemble the clues from one poem to the next the story in What It Means to be Human does eventually emerge. The difficulty is that too often the effort to follow the story interferes with our appreciation of the poetry – good poetry, as it turns out, as in this poem voiced by Mary, the mother, “Think of the reason a person doesn’t blink”:
When we might for a second be fearful, standing in the dark,
waiting for the baby to breathe
and knowing it will,
yet in flight between the lighted door way,
gold pouring around
In the moment between thought and its intention, a paler form of
the breath and you
left still, hand on the knob.
These are the internal landscapes that make up the uneventful
existence that time, as has been observed, lies
and death. A great beast might lie upon its heart.Few devices are as under developed and over interpreted as enjambed and fragmented lines, here executed with more skill than usual (i.e. through indents and line breaks that replicate the act of breathing and recreate the suspense necessary to the poem’s intent). The images are also very strong, but Reid manages something equally important in this poem and the one before: he finds the human moment, imbues it with emotion, passion or compassion, and then completes the moment with a resonating thought (the great beast or darkness that lies at the heart of life) or a question (how can we reconcile guilt and desire when life is largely meaningless?).
Like Tim Lilburn’s work, the metabolic rate of Reid’s poems is pitched very high, the effort to meld the poetry’s imagery and the narrative prodigious. The challenge remains how to convince readers to meet the writer half way by putting in the work necessary to unravel the story and understand the poetry. The answer might have been to forgo the story altogether (the least original or interesting part of the book) and to settle instead for that synthesis and cohesion we normally look for when considering a book of poems as a whole. Reid is too good a poet for us to require more of him than this.
(What It Means to be Human, Ekstasis Editions, 2009, paper, 127 pp. $21.95)