Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell’s Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books is structured on a unique principle: the collection’s eleven sections are presented as fragments from other found volumes, each of which has an unlikely theme, perspective or provenance. For example, a selection from one of the non-existent volumes, Cantos of the 1%, presents poems centred on the experiences of the wealthy and privileged, while The Archives of the Ministry of Spiritual Ascendance’s epistolary poems address a government bureau regulating entrance into heaven. This concept creates engaging variety in the collection. Undoubtedly some readers will prefer certain sections to others, but each pulls its weight.
Also interspersed throughout the volume, at the end of each section, comes a poem featuring Karikura—Brockwell’s fictional “poser Sherpa” who combines elements of the Classical muse, the Native American shaman, and the Eastern mystic. He also features in Brockwell’s previous collection, The Real Made Up, and Karikura’s influence on the poet seems as productive as ever. This “faux shaman” serves as a balancing influence when the poet tends toward hyper-rationalism or cynicism, for example in the closing poem of Fragments: “Brockwell, set aside your cynicism for a moment. / Put your Blackberry in your pocket.”
Overall, this collection is engaging both in content and craft. Followers of Brockwell’s work will see here his usual refreshing sense of wonder at the richness of life and the mysteries of science. Take for example the Pindaric ode “Water”; it explores the cycling of water molecules over time through various life forms: “At least one molecule of you in me / passed through the body of some great person, / in the urine of Josef Stalin, say.” And “Various Hypotheses on the Body” contemplates whether a human head can “blink / after decapitation / in response to loud shouts.” Fragments displays the open-minded curiosity of a “certified geek,” a poet eager to explore the arcana of science, but one who maintains a sense of humour even when science suggests the insignificance of “our / brief tenure here” on earth (“Carbon”). Yet, though they tackle some pretty heavy topics like war, corruption and environmental destruction, thankfully these poems avoid pontification.
Brockwell’s Fragments are also often surprising in their images, metaphors and sound. For example, the poem “Whip Lightning” metaphorically equates the scar left behind by a lightning strike to one left by
. . . a good flogging
by nine cat o’ nine tails
with nine cat o’ nine tails
at their tips and so on,
red and inflamed like that but beautiful.
The poems are enriched by sonic devices such as internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, as in “Brown Mackerel Tabby”: “She dabs my chin with cotton swabs / of declawed front paws, one for each / never-conceived kitten of a litter.” Indeed, this richness of sound allows the reader to enjoy a poem even when some of the scientific subject matter is esoteric, as in the selection from Pindaric Odes to Elementary Substances.
Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Fragments is that it’s easy to imagine enjoying the complete (fictional) works from which Brockwell has excerpted these small selections.
Jesse Patrick Ferguson is a Canadian poet and musician. His next collection of poetry is forthcoming with Buckrider Books, the new imprint of Wolsak and Wynn, in fall 2014.
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