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A Society of Dead Poets:
Nicola Vulpe's Insult to the Brain

Nicola Vulpe, Insult to the Brain
Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2019.

From religious texts to fiction to true crime, death, dying, and the possibilities of what comes after have been written about throughout history. And though fascination with death is not unique to writers, they are perhaps uniquely qualified to address it, at least in an entertaining and thoughtful way. Nicola Vulpe does just that in his new collection of poems, Insult to the Brain. Described on the front cover as an “altogether unreliable account” of Vulpe’s “conversations with poets, mostly about dying, but also about other matters great and small,” this collection is a unique ode to poets, their lives, and poetry itself.

Vulpe begins his collection with an introduction that sets the rules for this particular project. First, he has written only of poets he knows, most of whom are dead (there are a few near the end of the collection who have yet to pass). Second, the poems must have remained worthwhile in his eyes even with the passing of time. The effect of this curation is a tight, thematically resonant collection that includes poems inspired by a wide array of poets.

The poets represented hail from across the globe and include big names like Sylvia Plath and Pablo Neruda alongside lesser known poets. In his introduction, Vulpe admits the list of poets isn’t as diverse as it could be. Still, even with potentially missing poets, a list of those included seems like it could easily make up an entire syllabus—dead poets of the last century.

Despite the impressive catalogue of poets, it is not strictly necessary to have read their works to appreciate Vulpe’s poems about them. His vivid imagery, careful use of repetition, and ability to create smooth rhythms is entertaining in itself. However, just as understanding any literary allusion allows for greater understanding of a piece of writing, there’s certainly something to be gained from knowing a bit about the poets whom Vulpe takes as subjects.

Vulpe does provide names, birth and death years, and cause of death as context. Of course, there are many different causes of death, but it’s interesting to see how many poets included here met their ends by unnatural means. A number were executed, hanged, or assassinated. This raises questions about the inherent dangers of writing poetry and how the stories about writers interact with the stories they’ve written.

While a single poet (and their death) acts as the inspiration or subject matter of each poem, the speaker of the poems varies. Some poems are written as the poet in question, some are written from the perspective of a friend or acquaintance. Life and Death themselves may also be found as speakers. This mix of perspectives can be perplexing. A reader isn’t always sure what to expect, but neither is anyone when it comes to death. Furthermore, not knowing who the speaker is right away can make a reader feel as if they’ve been dropped in the midst of a conversation, which is fitting.

There’s a good variety in tone as well. From the pleading “Friend, Take From Me This War” to the resignation in “Estadio Chile” to the dark humour of “You’ll Do, Said Death,” Vulpe captures the many reactions of those faced with life’s end. There’s thoughtfulness, humour, wisdom, and even a few surprises in this collection, but what shines through it all is an abiding love and respect for poets, poetry, and language.