Poetry Review by Chris Jennings

Patrick Warner, Perfection (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2013). Paperbound, 64 pp., $19.95.Perfection

The last poem in Perfection, “Thanksgiving,” turns on a marvellous change of focus and register at the end of a trio of lines. The speaker drifts into an awareness of how his particular life compares to Life. Insurance has just made it possible to buy medications (“two puffers, one steroid”) to help heal a child with a cough so violent it jerks her like a marionette and sends the family to the hospital: “I thought about this as I lay awake at some ungodly hour / next to my wife, our two children asleep downstairs / while all around us, invisible, lay the earthly poor.” The shift from colloquial to rhetorical language marks a moment where perspective snaps into accord with a broader reality, and it keys the quiet appreciation of health, family, and fortune that concludes the warmest poem in the book. It’s typical of this book that there is a gap between perception and reality, and that there is a medical dimension to that gap. This particular combination is an idea of perfection that Warner works for irony, and a black and sometimes morbid humour that makes the warmth of the final poem a surprising, satisfying conclusion to this collection.

Maybe a better description of the medical dimension of the book would be to say that the poems envision an adversarial relationship with the body. This would place the cluster of poems that approach anorexia, with its corrosive perception of perfection that wages war on the body, near the book’s core. Warner circles anorexia, assuming different perspectives on and different experiences of the disorder; he personifies it, speaks as a parent struggling with a daughter’s suffering, and describes the ridiculous but not quite comic trial of a chocolate chip pancake. Technique makes these poems uncomfortable as much as subject matter. The voice in “Anorexia” is unctuous and clever, almost self-satisfied with empty rhymes and full-line repetitions—a curious effect that seems to assign control of craft to the persona rather than the poet. “I spend most of my time not dying. / They spend most of their time trying. / These last two I plucked from Fred Seidel. / I could go on, in fact, I think I will, / my passion for girl flesh is inexhaustible.” The key stanza, the stanza that gives the book its title, though, depends on this illusion becoming briefly transparent and the rhyme dropping away except for a telling final couplet: “I am the heart of these stick figures, / don’t bother asking where I come from. / Look to the weak strain in your code. / Look to notions of perfection, / to where you fall short in execution.” That rhyme of perfection and execution (and perhaps a hint of “execution” as in a killing) makes the point of the poem in two words; the rest is visceral. “The Therapist” is equally effective with full stanza repetitions dramatizing the claustrophobia of iterative attempts to deal with an illness both mental and physical: “In just five minutes she gave us our narratives: / you were the smoother-over, the peacemaker, / while I was the perfectionist, and together / we had passed these traits to our daughter, / given her food for her eating disorder.” Both poems are sinister, use comic elements to rattle clichés, and are carefully constructed both intellectually and morally.

Warner doesn’t adopt the perspective of the anorexic, but several poems offer more banal, quotidian echoes of the experience of being at war with one’s body. (As a side note, this is an insightful way to write about a subject as difficult as anorexia without slipping into questions of voice appropriation.) “Ablutions of a Middle Aged Man” is almost Pope’s Belinda at her toilette—mock heroic next to the more serious anorexia poems. The speaker runs through the medical lingo of the minor slights of aging—psoriasis, rosacea, sensitivities to deodorants, “moobs”—and an ever-so-subtle hint of emasculation in the application of various creams and cures, then contrasts these softening rituals for the rough exterior with a stereotypical night of “no more than three pints” and maybe just one cigarette. “Pound of Flesh Bazaar” is the blason tradition crossed with the modern “meat market” metaphor—an anatomization and commercialization of the flesh. In Warner’s hands, rhyme is again the instrument of enforcing attention on the uncomfortable. This is practical craft; it runs through the entire book, reinforcing the central theme that corrosive ideas are, in some cases quite literally, a disease.

Warner’s poetic here often reminds me of Don Coles, whose sense of craft sometimes seems coldly objective: illuminating, but not warming. Subjects with great emotional potential are observed through a detached lens. When it works well, the poem contains an explosive punch and has the music and mechanics to set you up to release it. Warner does it consistently well, and when you come to a warm poem, like “Thanksgiving,” he does that well, too.

—Chris Jennings

As in The Malahat Review, 184, Autumn 2013, 91-94