Mathew Henderson’s The Lease is a quick like. The content—Oil Field work—and the approach—lyrical but straight-ahead—easily combine to catch the reader’s attention. Add to this the book’s ability to approach the topic of oil from a mostly ignored perspective—that of the worker—and it’s small wonder the New York Times picked The Lease as one of its “Books of the Times.”
There’s also the fact that good things happen when you get interviewed by The Puritan (Dionne Brand and Ken Babstock both won the Griffin after their interviews; might Matthew Tierney, who was interviewed with Henderson in the new Puritan, be next?), but we really can’t take all the credit here. Henderson just landed on something he could run with, and as the list of reviews coupled with positive adjectives on the Coach House Books website attests, the critics have agreed.
But not all. There’s one review on CH’s list that is not coupled with an adjective, and that’s Shane Neilson’s in the Winnipeg Review. He simply “assessed” the book, and not entirely positively. He likes much of it, but he also voices some concerns I’ve heard expressed in private: that the book is short, has only one tonal register, and is at times repetitive. Neilson suggests it might have worked better if condensed into one sequence of a larger book.
I can see where he’s coming from. I’m generally disappointed by the small scope of a lot of “collections” that seem more like glorified chapbooks. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the 50-odd page book, if that book is meant to be 50-odd pages. I wouldn’t have wanted to see Henderson stretch the book over its natural limit, or to see him tag on a bunch of non-related poems and ruin the perfectly sealed continuity of The Lease. Neilson thinks even at its current length the book is padded, but it seems to me to have found its ideal length. If it does repeat at times, that just serves to drive home the repetitive nature of the work it describes.
Still, I wish some of those who weren’t the book’s biggest fans would’ve chimed in (am I missing a review here? Let me know if so). The positivity surrounding the book has officially become repetitive, and it would have been nice if the real concerns over the book would have been more widely distributed. I don’t think they would have changed my assessment, but by challenging it they could have made it deeper. Perhaps they would have helped put the book in a more proper perspective: as a very good first book that benefits greatly from its modesty.
That said, it’s awesome to see Mathew in the NYTimes. Nice work.