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Two from Anvil
reviewed by Ryan Pastorchik

Escape from Wreck City
John Creary


Bad Engine
Michael Dennis


Jack Kerouac once offered Allen Ginsberg thirty beliefs and techniques on writing and these have circulated through the writing community ever since. I imagine the result should look something like Escape from Wreck City. This collection of poems rarely slows to a jog and keeps the reader off balance and on edge by cycling visions of beauty, dirty clothes, lusty hearts, tender fatherhood, and drugs. Not one poem is satisfied by a single reading.

Creary’s work moves like a Ukrainian boxer; you are looking right at it as it sneaks out of vision then rings your ears. “The Great Northern Poem” leads the march with a sprinting depiction of something just beyond an outreached hand. Its hustling hop between nouns and images has a sense of purpose paradoxically stitched with non-sequiturs that results in an oddly inspiring piece of language. As with many of Creary’s poems, I walk away smiling, wondering what trick was just pulled on me.

Creary’s debut collection reveals a comfort with variety. There is a clear default to couplets, but his poems frequently move into creative structures that allow for playful interpretations of the language. “Nitpicking and Cantankerous Quarrelling” is a bantering, relatable dialogue between an assumedly married couple. The poem is formatted into two columns, each one representing the jabs of a spouse. Read left to right, top to bottom, the poem is a belt-fed argument with spittle on the lips. Read top to bottom, column one then column two, the poem becomes a pair of boiling internal thoughts punctuated by love.

Comparatively, the narrative organization of “The Boy and the Bottomless Lake” leads to a rare pause in the racing pace of Creary’s style (especially welcome after his relentless, raucous section III). Creary positions us further away from the subject of the poem and we watch the lonely isolation of a youth, friendly with the woods, his imagination, and not much else. The control and restraint shown here acknowledge the full tool belt with which Creary is building.

Juggled in the collection are celebrations of Creary’s son. “September Eleventh Zygote” speaks to the birth of Nolan and the movements of a new father’s mind. The stanzas shift quickly without ever letting go of the image of a father looking at his newborn child: “Hello, Little Little. Welcome.” Creary speeds through the visions of delivery, the severing of the cord, and moves into descending testicles, cutting teeth, and shared scotch. After the flood of images that burst the dam upon looking at the newborn child, Creary returns to the full-hearted hopefulness of a new parent.

Throughout Escape from Wreck City there is an edgy, dangerous youthfulness that reminds me of scenes from Burroughs’ Junky or Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. “Blemish” is an unsettling example of this. IA clichéd vision of a parents-on-vacation house party, it’s complete with refrigerator lawn ornaments, vomit, and the desperate, “emasculated host” watching in horror. Drugs, sex, and dirt under the fingernails are no strangers in Escape from Wreck City. Along with images of skateboards, happenstance duffle bag tourism, and backyard bonfires, the collection forms a Beat spirit mixed with paternal reflections and linguistic experimentation.

Creary’s poetry reminds me of a time when being a poet could make you a celebrity, when it was cool to have literature in your back pocket. A time before technoliteracy and thumb-led conversations were the way stories were told, when people interacted with one another using eye contact and built stories around movement and action. The collection is exhausting in its pace and, at times, feels like the lubricated ramblings of a mad man, but it also screams with spirit and fight and feels like the first guest to a party that is going to get loud.

* * *

In his guest foreword, Stuart Ross claims that Dennis “lives, breathes and perhaps smokes poetry.” This could be an understatement. The collection is loaded. It binds over 100 poems from 17 previous collections and 21 newly published pieces. Bad Engine is a thorough introduction to Dennis’ work. He’s an honest poet. I read “my mother and I sat waiting for death” with my pencil ready, scribbled in the margins, reread the poem and realized that the words were what the message was. Sure, there was more to it than simply what was on the page, but there was no attempted trickery, no fraudulent lines, no hidden hoax aimed at deception or mysterious secrecy. Dennis has memories to share, stories to tell, and poetry to write and he isn’t hiding it behind anything. It was exciting to be able to pick any page in a book, read the poem, feel intimately aware of the vision, and leave with a scene rolling on my eyelids.

This honesty is sometimes startling. Dennis shares painful memories of an abusive uncle that aren’t concealed or curtained. They are right there and so available that your organs flip in fear and anger. “where memories are made” is an example of this. Dennis sets you up with a swaying first stanza and then pins you to the ground before you’ve drawn a breath. As you struggle to right yourself, you can’t help but notice that, not only is the poem raw and blunt in its content, it is so finely crafted that it is hard to turn away from. Like the memory it is pointing its finger at, the poem is haunting.

Throughout Bad Engine, Dennis’ poems constantly remind us that every single thing can be magic. “breakfast in bed” offers a song of love and a glimpse of Venus through the heating of milk and juicing of oranges. Dennis doesn’t hunt for things worth writing about; he has found a way to make all things worthy.

In a similar way, this collection equalizes everything. Death becomes an event not unlike tying your shoes, not unlike love. This isn’t to say that Dennis doesn’t celebrate love or honour death. Instead, his work carries a similar sentiment to Siddhartha: “The world is not imperfect. No, it is perfect at every moment…all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them…” Despite this equalization, or maybe because of it, Bad Engine carries a feeling of optimism. Dennis covers racism, abuse, death, loss, insignificance, and the absurdity of humans throughout the collection and still leaves me in wonder at the poet’s ability to delight in the world around him. Things that would not warrant mention to a stranger on the bus have been captured, displayed, and made memorable in Dennis’ poetry.

Bad Engine is a collection of poems that takes a road trip through car crashes, wide-eyed memories, thrashing and thriving relationships, and the song of everyday. Michael Dennis reminds us that there are incredible, interesting, awful things happening all around and he is happy to watch and write about them as they enter his sightlines.

Ryan Pastorchik is working on his master’s degree at SFU while teaching English and Trades in the Fraser Valley.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 23.