Black Liquor: Poems By Dennis E. Bolen. Caitlin Press, 2013; 128 pp; $16.95
Reviewed by Peter Babiak
Poetry, if it’s read outside classrooms, isn’t something most people like. Reading a poem isn’t just reading; it’s work. And the object of that labour can, to average minds, seem pretentious and self-involved, an unproofread mess of language that pretends to be, through its head-scratching words, all deep and momentous. Black Liquor is one of a handful of poetry books I can think of that are decidedly not like this.
This book, which reads like a memoir pared down to lyrical episodes tracing the contours of a distinctly West Coast working-class life, is social realism at its best. Youth, travel, romance, death, history, and, above all, the work of living. One of the works in Growing up Industrial, the first of five parts that structure the volume, is “Mr Rage,” about a WWII war vet who, in the speaker’s recollection of being in grade six in 1964, was “a haunted house on lurching legs.” Someday, he writes, “we would be at history’s displeasure/like him/Ragged and enflamed.” In “Green Canticle,” the only poem I know that makes a lumber mill a sublime object, nine years have passed. It’s 1973 and at work “We are/with callus and leather apron/resin souls/amid true boards travelling.” Bolen doesn’t mythologize labour, but a mythology of work is etched out in his deliberative syntax. And so part one is a series of trenchant memories few would consider worthy of tender poetry, as are The Great Wander, poised on moving away from Vancouver Island, Federal Parole Officer, about Bolen’s working life, Attractions, and Somme Wheat Field, the last part, an eerily melodic coda to a life and the remembrance of its past.
But structure isn’t everything. Poetry, like Northrop Frye once said, is “language used with the greatest possible intensity.” And Bolen, who writes with Proust’s hallowed sense of history and Chandler’s knack for sharp metaphors, is just so damn good with words that you find yourself stepping up your reading, transfixed by the effects of syntax and wondering at the remarkalbe things language can do in the quietest moments of a poem, even as you want to push further in the captivating narrative arc he’s built. Here’s an example from “On the Supposed Road,” an homage to Kerouac where the speaker unfolds a road trip but pauses, wistfully, on the immanent nostalgia of impermanent relationships: “and I knew in a certain moment/…There would come a regret/and the thing most piteous/is how soon it came.” And another from “Witness Statement”—which is hands-down my favourite because it reminds me of Al Purdy and is every bit as good—about a car accident near the Vancouver train station and a beautiful woman who witnesses it: “In me/or might/if time allowed/circumstance stood apart/from present necessity/or whatever/As long as she said something.” Yes, charming occurences happen to all of us but the attentive syntax, which stands out as Bolen’s signature technique, demonstrates that the thought such events produce is never quite so simple.
According to the book’s epigraph, “black liquor” is a “by-product of the kraft process”—how you get pulp from wood—and each of these poems is crafted with the exacting meticulousness of an industrial process of mechanical and chemical distilation. I know Bolen mostly as a writer of gritty stories, prose that renders urban ugliness so lyrically. His movement into poetry has only honed that ability. »