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Earnestly into the Future:
Paul Vermeersch's Self Defence for the Brave and Happy

Paul Vermeersch, Self Defence for the Brave and Happy
Toronto: ECW Press, 2018.

The self defence tips in Self Defence for the Brave and Happy range from the obviously absurd to the useful―from “if you drown, report it” to “Tell yourself that you are beautiful.” But for the most part they are fiercely double-edged, like the book as a whole: “Keep your hands in the air or go for the eyes, depending.”

As the Quill and Quire rightly observes: “Gone is the flat-footed earnestness which sometimes troubled [Paul] Vermeersch’s earlier work.” Earnestness, thankfully, is not easily banished from a writer’s style. In Self Defence for the Brave and Happy, it not so much “replaced by canny pop acceleration,” as the reviewer suggests, as it is sublimated into formal and stylistic features that convey a radical openness toward the future.

The near absence of any authorial speech that is not undercut by irony is part of a broader attack on traditional lyric and traditional narrative, implicit in Vermeersch’s post-modern style and more directly expressed in poems such as “The Modern Novel” and the final section “Leviathan,” where contradictory futures range from post-human desolation to trans-human transcendence. The collection explodes stereotypes of both science fiction and future history, especially the false dichotomy of utopia and dystopia.

There are many strong poems here, and effects within and between them that are quite dazzling. These effects make statements more earnestly than authorial or first-person interjections could.

Take the transition from the first to the second section. “The Country of Previous Enthusiasms” explores multiple aspects of a radically altered future. Every poem is spoken by a plural “we.” “The Imaginary World is Preparing for a Revolution >” enacts the failure of language itself, due to human neglect and the “abdication” of space exploration and the imaginative impulse that fuelled it. Greater-than symbols intrude as we lose our “knack for punctuation.” The wit is bitter: “all our similes will be like failed similes.” The only “I” in this section appears in “Without Architecture” and seems intended as a take-down of the modernist lyric persona:

… the heretic and prodigy who said:
I can make a cathedral of my condition and worship there.

The section ends with a dire post-mortem from the prophets of doom, yet another “we.”

In the second section, “Don’t Wait for the Woodsman,” we eventually encounter a more optimistic tone, but it opens counterintuitively with “Grendel’s Mother.” This is a remarkably scary poem, but also touching and tender. Suddenly we have a first person speaker: a monster’s mother. The emotional appeal of “my son” is disarming. And it reminds us of the cliché whereby we ask what sort of world we will leave our children. Readers are left with the realization that the future is our problem, not our children’s. We have no idea what future generations will face, or become.

I’m sure the next time I read Self Defence for the Brave and Happy I’ll take a different path through its rhetoric. I could follow the Canada versus America theme set out in the first poem, in which we quietly take over our collapsing neighbour. Or I might just attune myself to the buzz of pop-cultural allusions―allusions more likely to be to Talking Heads lyrics or Roger Zelazny stories than any of the “Star” franchises. In fact, retro space-camp―prominent in the book’s publicity and design―is surprisingly subdued in the text.

The title poem, though, does bristle with “plastic laser guns.”

 

Brent Raycroft’s poetry has appeared in Arc, CV2, The Broken City, Queen’s Quarterly, The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry: Tenth Anniversary Edition and elsewhere. The Subtleties of Divine Creatures, a single-poem chapbook, was published by Thee Hellbox Press in 2014, and in 2016 he self-published his short epic Sydenham to celebrate Canada 175. He lives north of Kingston, Ontario.

 

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