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Digital Subscriptions > Quill & Quire > December 2017 > Matters of life and death

Matters of life and death

Joe Denham and Cornelia Hoogland deliver collections that reckon with existential questions and the nature of grief



Joe Denham

Nightwood Editions

Trailer Park Elegy

Cornelia Hoogland

Harbour Publishing

THEMATICALLY, JOE DENHAM’S fourth collection, Landfall, is a long question, a wrangle with the ontological realities of living at this time of degenerating species, and an interrogation of the meaning of otherness in an interconnected world. Like a Matryoshka doll, each consideration leads to a smaller consideration, until at the very core a reader discovers a figure similar to Kierkegaard, anguished and adrift: “Can we go then, without wilderness, within / windlessness, inside walls that won’t / let the world in?” Denham writes with his usual impeccable crafting of line and language, ringing with music and reminiscent of the modernist masters – that Eliot-esque first line, for example, mimicking the opening of “Prufrock.”

As with his earlier collections, Denham summons poetry to its highest calling as an elegant medium for profound expression. The words are the poet’s argument with the world. What are we when our gods have let us down? What are we when we are trapped in a universal ennui, “where it no longer matters your pleasure your panache your clever / wit and clarity. /Inside that gravity and levity we are all infinite, indefinite: less and / more. Infinitely.” The third section breaks with the long poem style of the other three sections and offers readers prose-poem vignettes, but Denham continues to sharply observe life’s horrific absurdity.

Denham’s acute understanding of cultural narcissism as destroyer renders nothing sacred and everything profane. He rummages the coffers of the Greek gods, Shakespeare, the Bible, Leonard Cohen, and CanLit to contemplate a busted “moral currency” where we are both capable of and devoid of forethought, but wholly responsible for this continuous drama: “Pro-me / the us, unwound. Sure, the unkind / uncomely masses we are.” Denham’s latest is a mindful, carefully crafted book and an argument with the predicament of living. It certainly cements his reputation as master craftsman.

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