by Ken Babstock
Reviewed by Jill Owens
Methodist Hatchet, Ken Babstock's fourth book of poetry, is extraordinary. Babstock is one of Canada's premier poets, and, if you've never read him before (as I hadn't), this new collection of poems will astonish, challenge, and rattle you. His language is dense, knotted, intense; his lines are breathtakingly impressive soundscapes. In subject and image, his poems are an uncanny blend of the timeless and antiquated with the hyper-contemporary (references to the latter include Hoarders, "Cincinnati divorcees spilling/ out of leopard print," the Tasty Chicken House, and This American Life). Babstock is a gorgeous, disturbing, funny, bleak poet, and I hope this book introduces him to a much larger audience in America.
The poems are definitely secular -- in the title poem, Babstock describes "having// lapsed since, if that's sayable, like/ falling off porch steps into a hedge." But there's a kind of grace -- not redemption, but perhaps the dubious grace of acuity -- that pervades. He has an occasional sort of awed and reverent fascination with "the grim sight of a motherboard/ re-purposed as a Frisbee," the "gnarled bulge of a years-old scar/ midway up," or "disarticulated/ feet washing ashore in the Nike carapaces/ like hermit crabs adjusting to habitat loss." (As he also says, "Like the gulls,/ you can smell it, and know there's detritus/ afloat worth thieving.") But there is no real difference between those bleaker images and the more usual marvel of the underwater world in "Bathynaut":
...It's all clown fish
at x leagues, near-nerveless bioluminescent
tubes, their eyes on stalks,
jaws afflicted with
cartoonish mandibular gigantism.
These are not the easiest poems to read, and it's difficult to read very many in one sitting. (Babstock may be one of Billy Collins
's polar opposites.) But there's a youthfulness, an almost quirky spitefulness in Babstock's tone which is incredibly refreshing, and his lines are so forceful, so effortful
-- every syllable is a strike. He wrenches language into beauty. Lines like "...I'd become evening,/ the illogic and armour of liquor" and stanzas like this one:
...a woman stood pressing her kids' heads
to her hip as if waiting for glue to dry,
her bloated luggage stonehenged on my verge
of charred lawn...
remind us of what such effort can achieve.