Poets routinely mine childhood for their books―especially debut poets. Kevin Spenst’s first book, Jabbering With Bing Bong (Anvil Press, 2015), contained some of that kind of material without being a full-scale operation. Yet Jabbering was the second book Spenst wrote that was lucky enough to find publication first. I know this because I read a chapbook-sized version of Ignite many years ago and rejected it for publication at Frog Hollow Press because I did not think it worked hard enough as a poetic (as opposed to biographical) text.
Happily, I report that Ignite has transformed into the book I always wanted to read while remaining a poetic caring-for and remembering-of Abraham, Spenst’s father, who suffered from schizophrenia. It has grown into a complexly structured and powerfully emotional text that expresses loss, bafflement, and sudden-seeing in ways that could serve as a handbook for any poet looking for compassionate methods to understand their past by rendering that past as art.
Spenst carefully deploys Mennonite iconography and cultural artefacts in order to enrich his poetic enterprise. For example, one of the texts’ epigraphs is from Menno poet Patrick Friesen: “and it’s not his clearing and it’s not yours yet this is / where you have come from to claim your ghosts.” Running through the texts are invocations of religion not as critique but rather as the primary language of the poet’s father, who suffered from religious delusions as an expression of his illness. Or, in Spenst’s hands, a man who simply was amidst these delusions, who interacted with others according to what he believed which, within his Mennonite culture, seemed not at odds with shared belief but were disruptive because of their intense expression. Rather than condemn faith, Spenst instead renovates the English language to accommodate Menno-ness, writing adapted poems that seem based somehow on an original text of Abram’s (as in “Abe,” “Abram,” and “Smallest of Theories”). Such poems are replete with biblical-ese, technology, and paranoia and read as statements of novel belief. They strike me as loving co-creations for a man who, as Spenst says in “Ghost on Meds,” had “delusions of being a father” and whom Ignite is meant to represent “in some flesh” in order to “hold a goodbye, say / I’m sorry like it means something.”
The book is brainy in other ways. Not only is the text a poetic biography of Abe, it is also the story of Abe within Kevin’s larger family. The poems that depict Abe and family display a simultaneous disconnection―in “Smallest of Theories” the narrator describes his home as a place “where there is / no wholeness of hugs, understanding of eye contact, wisdom / of how are you?”―and connection, the connection coming from the living moment of the poem in which Abram is conjured from the past and made animate. Ignite is also about Abe’s interactions with doctors (typically introduced with a quote from charts) but the poems refuse to be simple antipsychiatry attacks upon power. Excerpts from the charts overhang alternative accounts of Abe’s life, a strategy that casts the excerpts as strange, as Abe sometimes was, but also as flat in affect as he could sometimes be. Finally, Ignite’s fascinating Vispo elements (like “My Father, the Physicist”) materially represent other ways of seeing. Their rootedness in Abram’s medical chart skew data into an alternate sensory form. In other words, the Vispo serves a narrative purpose through non-narrative means.
I recommend anyone interested in the history of psychiatry, medical humanities, Menno studies, and good poetry read this book.
Shane Neilson is a poet, physician, and Vanier Scholar at McMaster University. He will publish Margin of Interest: Essays on the English Language Poetry of the Maritimes with PQL in Spring 2018 and Constructive Negativity: Prize Culture, Evaluation, and Disability with Palimpsest in Fall 2018. In 2017 he won a Mitchell Prize and the Walrus Poetry Prize.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.