We Are Not the Bereaved by Jesse Eckerlin
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the Fisher Rare Book Library’s exhibition on Canadian small presses, “Another Way of Making Books.” One of the presses on display was Victoria, B.C.’s Frog Hollow Press. Frog Hollow does limited edition runs of high-quality books while remaining affordable. This is no small task given that, as FHP informs, their focus on limited editions excludes them from Canada Arts Council and provincial grants. They’ve also published a book of poetry by Jesse Eckerlin, a former partner in Montreal’s Argo Bookshop. He’s also published both reviews and interviews in The Puritan. We Are Not the Bereaved is Eckerlin’s debut book of poetry.
The artwork is done by Joshua Bastien and features moody and purplish-sepia images of farm country, clouds, and hills. Rural life is an important theme for Eckerlin. In “On the Dark Squares Only,” the land is a board game with no one left around who knows how to play it, except for the backwater hicks and storied eccentrics who cling like moss from another century to modern P.E.I.
Eckerlin’s We Are Not the Bereaved has a lot to do with an out-of-fashion rural Canada, but thankfully brings a different kind of imagination to the landscape. If nothing else, his countrysides have a lot more people in them than many other flower-and-tree cataloguers tend to include. The characters waiting to be read in We Are Not the Bereaved range from “moonshiners & cowherds” and “Three-Fingered Sally” to Lew Welch and draft dodgers.
“On the Dark Squares Only” is a poem that pits two romances against each other: the romance of the land and the romance of the city, and Eckerlin’s preference reveals itself early. As much as the empty storefronts of Morell, P.E.I. offer opportunity to the island youth in this poem, it is “Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto” that “will desiccate them soon.” What those youth discover in “What They Finally Discovered” is apparently lifeless and mechanized by routine, full of “cafés & bistros frequented out of habit” and people “imbibed and flirting, sharpshooting the shit,” and “championing bumph [they] were decrying in private.”
Though “On the Dark Squares Only” suggests that the land is a thing out of bounds for those generations infected with urbanity, that particular poem seems to be a coming-to-grips with how a certain rural lifestyle has aged out of accessibility. The rest of the book is not as hesitant to celebrate the landscape, even if it is addressed consciously to the skeptical. Perhaps the most frank and powerful moment in the collection is “For an Arctic Tern,” where Eckerlin writes:
I would set my 35 dollar
secondhand magnesium snowshoes
just to reassure your skittery
that the Northern Lights
There is something in this world Eckerlin finds beautiful and, if “For an Arctic Tern” is any indication, he is out to convince at least someone that it isn’t a fraud.
Outside of the Canadian terrain, that beautiful thing in the world seems to require salvaging. “What They Inherited” and “What they Forgot to Compost” paint a world of junk and scrap heaps out of which he creates a peculiarly rural music. “What They Inherited” is a particularly good example, as it plays on what might be the most Canadian of all vowel sounds: “kerosene, fabric softener, & brood / toque on a maul handle on a canoe.”
Eckerlin does us the favour of including an aesthetic credo in “Shipbreaking,” about a film he would like to make, which would end on a vision of “structures sutured & sewn together / a cauterized parcel returned express to sender.” Eckerlin’s verse is cobbled together out of a forgotten shed full of garbage, and he is only a little bashful that it’s plaid and smells like mothballs.
I started off reserved about We Are Not the Bereaved. It seemed too rural and conventional, but sonic innovations like these and a consistent return to the bizarre junk of life in the north make it stand out from all those other poetry books about water and rocks.