New Poems by Teen Idol Paul Vermeersch
The first living Canadian poet that ever fascinated me wasn’t Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, or even my fellow Montreal-native Leonard Cohen ; it was Paul Vermeersch. The year was 2007 and I was a bright-eyed 16-year-old. It was a time before I knew how to frame poetry as ‘contemporary’ or ‘lyrical’ or as anything other than straight verse. My boyfriend was taking an acting class where he was assigned a poem and asked to translate its emotional resonance into some sort of performance piece, and I was asked to take a look.
The poem was “Lambs,” from Vermeersch’s third collection Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005). The image of the fleecy lamb is overworked symbolic territory but Vermeersch renders it newly physical and self-revelatory despite the poem’s brevity. A person, presumably a child, kneels at a fence and reaches out to touch the lambs. “Nothing that you’ve lived through,” the speaker narrates darkly, “has prepared you to believe in harmlessness.” The use of ‘you’ implies the reader, too, is now “criminal,” no longer innocent in the face of “such surrender, such lack of want.” I’d never read anything so startlingly incisive and melancholic, especially not from a Canadian writer barely pushing 30. Poetry, as a rule, is generally uncool in public high schools, at least the ones I attended—especially Canadian poetry, portrayed as all rolling prairies and gruff but open-hearted fishermen.
Lacking the sufficient experience with the form, and unable to truly appreciate the poem’s deeper dimensions, I settled for reading it aloud to myself obsessively. Then I got an English degree.
Vermeersch recently released his fifth collection of poetry, Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something with ECW Press in Toronto on September 25. The Steady was dense with a veritable whos-who of the Toronto writing scene. Now a senior editor at Wolsak and Wynn, Vermeersch has always been an active and engaged member of the literary community. A former poetry editor for Insomniac Press, Vermeersch founded the celebrated I.V. Lounge Reading Series (1998-2003), now operating as the Pivot Reading Series, and edited The I.V. Lounge Reader. The solid turnout at the event proved a telling testament to the space Vermeersch fills within Toronto’s literary community.
As the night wore on, however, I grew impatient at the latent posturing of the pre-reading “build-up,” wondering if there would even be a performance. I’d heard that Vermeersch was a powerful reader and was looking forward to hearing him, despite having read his rant from a few years ago bemoaning slam, spoken word, and other performance-heavy poetic genres (a position he still, apparently, holds).
When Vermeersch finally took the stage, though, it was to an appreciative and engaged crowd. A confident, but subdued reader, Vermeersch commands a room without the need for much flourish. He read from a number of poems, including the collection’s opening suite called “Magog,” after Ted Hughs’s “Gog,” providing just the right amount of context for each. Hughs’ “Gog,” for example, references a biblical prophecy that tells of a horrible scourge that’ll arrive before the Last Judgement. Beginning his collection with “Magog” lends Don’t Let It End This Way with an air of dust settling on some new sort of post-civilization language. The effect of Vermeersch’s brief contextualization provided a dazzling orientation within disorientation, complex and cerebral. With the art references, architectural language, philosophical musings, literary hat tips, and found text, a multi-genre work like Tell Them I Said Something is a book that I’m compelled to read with an open window to Google. The preamble before each poem was a necessary reference point for listeners to engage with each poem more meaningfully
But Vermeersch has not lost the raw, emotive incisiveness that first shook me in “Lambs.” His last poem of the night, called “The Unseen World,” treats us to the perspective of Helen Keller; the poem based on her actual reaction to the ‘view’ atop the Empire State Building. Vermeersch asked the audience to close their eyes for this reading, and everyone complied, making it a special closing to the evening. An eye or two in the room even seemed a little moist as the hush lifted and the music came back on
Though I now have enough of a framework to appreciate veterans like Hughs, my appetite for contemporary poetry, with its subversions and reappropriations, has only sharpened. Like my ritualistic repeating of “Lambs” over and over to myself as a teenager, I admit that I’ve always invested a somewhat whimsical faith in the shamanistic qualities of poetry. Translating the emotional resonance of anything into simple, coherent lines is a daunting task, even with an English degree. While the Academy led me to Atwood, Ondaatje, and Cohen, I am happy to return—with a little context—to Vermeersch.