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Jesse Patrick Ferguson, Mr. Sapiens
Hamilton: Wolsak & Wynn, 2014.

Jesse Patrick Ferguson’s third poetry collection, Mr. Sapiens, is a determinedly random miscellany of poems (topics include migraine, drones, Tim Hortons, a mangled bicycle, the butterfly effect, the ultrasound of a son, to name a few). There is some appeal in this, as you can read out of order, grazing as you will, and most readers will find something to enjoy, whether it’s the whimsical mapping of human physiology onto the frame of an abandoned bicycle or an ekphrastic take on Bernini or Klimt. And many of the poems contain a charming quirky humour combined with darker elegy. Take, for example, “Grave Rubbing”:

Just grave robbing with different tools —
they come for the kindred dead,
these pilgrims tramping through rows
of white crosses for long-lost blood
relations, or else hunting down Byron’s
or Keats’s granite slab to squeeze
poetry from stone.

Or consider “Migraine” which consists of a dialogue between “Migraine” and “Sufferer” in which the Sufferer aptly refers to the Migraine as “Headache’s crazy twin kept chained/in a dark corner of the occipital lobe.”

But this tendency toward the random also left me with a longing for some ordering of the miscellany, perhaps by theme. For example, the strongest poems in this collection address, however obliquely, Canadian military engagement overseas and our species’ general tendency toward inhumanity. One such poem is “Boots on the Ground,” which makes good use of repetition, irony, clichéd slogans, and metonymy to explore the life of a soldier overseas:

The boots on the ground cultivate blisters
with the care of Afghani poppy farmers.
The boots on the ground would kill
for a large double-double.

There is a nice transfer here of the cultivated blisters on the feet of soldiers to the blood red poppies, with the inevitable associations of the poppy as symbol of the war dead. Language slides; soldiers trained to kill would also “kill/for a large double-double.” The poem continues with the insistent metonym of “boots on the ground” for soldier, this marching repetition thereby underscoring a certain dehumanizing portrayal by government and media:

Fodder for newsfeeds, they make or break
political futures back home;
they make for compelling figures.
The boots on the ground are government-issued
yet have issues with their government. After all,
the boots on the ground are all they can be.

Poems such as “Boots on the Ground,” along with “For the Fighter Pilot Made Redundant by Unmanned Drones,” “This Poem Permanently Removes Hunger” and the title poem “Mr. Sapiens” begin to address a deeper theme of human capacity for violence and suffering. This theme often manifests in surreal and anonymous circumstances, such as the piloting of military drones as simulacrum of video gaming, or the importing of Canadian culture in the form of a Tim Hortons flown into the Afghanistan desert (“dragged out the tail end of a C-130 Hercules/and opened for business.”) Yet these thematically-connected poems are seeded seemingly at random throughout the book and this left me wondering how much stronger this collection might have been if such poems had been placed together, with an explicit structure to amplify their resonance.

 

Kim Trainor‘s first poetry collection, Karyotype, has just appeared with Brick Books.

 

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