Philosophy and nostalgia make a disastrous combo. In On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood, the volume that unbelievably – even in the context of other bizarre winners of major poetry awards in Canada throughout the years – scored Richard Harrison a Gov Gen victory, the narrator has the demeanor and voice of one who nonchalantly and inoffensively sidles alongside you in a long line-up and proceeds to spill his guts about his past, unaware or (worse) unconcerned that you’ve pegged him as a verbose bore, however sincere, within the first twenty seconds.
These poems are interminable. Length is relative. Most entries are only one to two full pages, but the narrative development is static, the details bland, the images disperse, the conclusions obvious. It all makes you pray the line-up in front of you starts moving again, or for the self-immersed rambler to catch the eye of a more promising sounding board. Three poems in, the reader is confronted by “Gone”, possibly the worst published poem I’ve read this century. It has a plethora of faults, including, but not limited to: bald prose (“When the groom’s mother died on the way to the wedding in San Diego,/it became a wedding from an American novel.”); cliches (“Everything fell into place”); ugly syntax and ugly common phrasing (“setting the whole thing up”); hysterical, false similes (“a song stuck in your head is/your mind reaching for poetry like a drowning mouth reaching for air”); and false spiritual wisdom combined with poor grammar (“you never know how beautiful air, or light, or life are until you must gasp.”).
There are brief passages of skill and verve here and there, lightning flashes that, even in their surprise, throw into dramatic relief the depth of the surrounding darkness: “She had looked for sweets/the colours of childhood comfort/and instead received bad-bread green and disinfectant yellow,/and a kind of teal that almost glowed/like a seabird in an oil spill.” from “Colour Code”. While waiting twelve poems till the next flash, you’ll get the quality of, “sleeping with your mouth open/the way the open mouth is pretty/on someone caught thinking/the nothing they are thinking/between their thoughts.” I don’t know, perhaps the latter is supposed to gain something from the downstairs line indents (which I can’t reproduce here), but then we’re elevating poems into successes completely dependent upon their spatial positioning, that fraudulent line of assertion from Olson and his many acolytes.
The back bio tells us that Mr. Harrison has been a creative writing instructor since 1995.