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Asa Boxer, Skullduggery
Montreal: Signal Editions – Véhicule Press, 2011.

Asa Boxer’s second book is a collection of unabashed, raucous, and occasionally raunchy mimicry. Not only does Boxer confront some of the biggest personages, myths, and motifs of the Western canon, but he slips his name in alongside them: the “The Boxer Primer” introduces a sequence on imagined firearms, such as “The Coleridge Porlock” and “The Browning Colt .45.” “Dear Asa,” the collection’s first poem, launches directly into audacious vocal play, as Boxer addresses his persona in the voice of God. The imaginative vocal blending culminates in “Primer to the New World,” a section that applies the fantastical travel narrative of the Middle Ages to a provincially categorized Canada: “Myrrh blisters from tree trunks / in the royal forests of Newfoundland”; apparently, we can find “the Well of Youth at Thunder Bay.” Stylistically, Boxer also builds a playful fusion; long sentences judder through tight tercets and quatrains, and rhyme is pervasive but irregular, fluctuating between internal and end-stopped, perfect and slanted: “Owl, wise anatomist, studies / the tissues, then spits the gist: / the shag and bone of what exists” (“Night Shift”). The tension between conversational phrasing and strict stanza structures is reinforced by the incongruous rhythms often produced through internal rhyme: the titular skulldugger trips us up, cackling. There is perhaps an over-reliance on naming, in poems such as “The Pomegranate” a verse play, in which many Greek gods are invoked not for narrative or imagistic heft, but simply to point at the myth (it is also unclear what makes this poem a “Play,” apart from its name, for dialogue is in quotation marks, and it is structurally identical to the other tercet poems). Much of the fun in the “Primer to a New World” poems is the slapping of place names onto the poetic frame, which does little to serve the place itself, or the poetic content. This irony between place and content hinges on an enjoyable predictability, much like “The Coleridge Porlock,” which ends in “knock, knock, knock, you start / with a shock that burns away the dream.” But the most compelling poems in this final section, among them “Prester John’s Seduction,” are those that move beyond the tricks of incongruous naming and fanciful description, and into psychological narrative. Boxer puts on the trappings of the skuldugger, the cheat, which is itself a deception, an act by a poet profoundly interested in how truth arises from mimicry. There are moments of sincerity and sentimentality among the playfulness and irreverence, but the focus of the book is in the amalgamation between the imagined, the appropriated, and the true, creating a comedy that is alternately overt and subtle, and that leaves the reader teetering, not sure who or what to trust—but, as we’re told in “An Old Skulldugger’s Testament,” perhaps the joke’s on us: “what you choose to trust // is circumstantial.”

 

Lise Gaston’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in journals across Canada, most recently The Fiddlehead and Matrix Magazine. She lives in Montreal.

 

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