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A Stillness of Strangers:
Ewan Whyte's Entertainment

Ewan Whyte, Entertainment
Ottawa: Exile Editions, 2015.

Ewan Whyte’s first volume of poetry, Entrainment, demonstrates masterful craftsmanship and maturity. It contains 28 poems, some of which span a couple of lines (“Graffiti for the Palatine”) while others run for as long as four pages (“Guiraut Riquier: The Last Troubadour”). The collection as a whole is tightly knit, yet without a systematic philosophy. Itʼs poetry for the sake of poetry, or so it seems at first glance. Though well planned and meticulously chiselled, it rolls along like a train to nowhere.

What lights up the pages of Whyteʼs book is his personality, his attitude and idiosyncratic style, his razor-sharp concision, biting irony and humour. In fact, Ewan succeeds as an original poet by way of humour. He creates a comic effect by exaggerating the distance between ourselves and others while at the same time presenting a common ground. Characters overlaid with Quixotic humour include the writer himself. But there is something more going on, the idea that the commonplace is worthy of poetry, and full of beauty and symbolism, too.

Most significantly, the poet reveals how we confront ourselves through others, that is, through strangers. In “Landscape from the Back of a Train” Whyte writes:

Unrecoverables spouting madness
Things outside us that are somehow not so far away as that.

Here he draws attention to the deep connection between internal and external reality. In poems such as “On Trying to Sit Alone on a Bus or the Medusa of Caravaggio (For Hisako),” Whyte provides us with a rare insight into human nature through his reactions to a stranger he encounters on a train:

A self-possessed gaze into a firing squad will get me
Some solitude. I notice on the edge of my blurred stare,

A hideous passenger hovering between the two remaining
Seats; I wish I could instantly drool to affirm my solitude;

After a minute’s indecision he sits beside me;
I can smell alcohol through the stench of his body odour.

He is a transsexual incorporation of the Medusa of Caravaggio
His blonde dreadlocks flopping around his shoulders…

In five minutes, he is in an open mouthed snore…

Dramatic portrayals like these are unforgettable. Other memorable impressions include “Bag Jesus on a Dirt Road,” where the new saviour wears plastic bags, preaching on a mound of garbage, or “Street Preacher on an Overpass” where:

in accidental parody of his modelled hero,
he pauses now and then, perhaps trying to think

of something profound to say, before he
continues with his garbled “TV preacher” style epithets–

but it is just the gesture of his elevated form
in space which is the essence of a monumental

religious act.

Inventiveness, resistance and pithy original impressions illuminate Whyteʼs poetry, as does the uncanny resemblance between the profane and the sacred (“Youʼre about as hot as Jesus in lingerie”), between ourselves and others.

The Huygens entrainment phenomenon refers to the seventeenth-century Dutch physicist’s observation that two pendulum clocks would fall “into synchrony” when hung on the same wall. For Whyte, Entrainment is a poetry of awareness and impression, resistance, sardonic irony and edge which envisions how things normally separate from one another are actually subtly related. When taken to the extreme as it is in Whyteʼs book, this subtle relation becomes comical, while providing insight and transparency with respect to the poetʼs role in society as a bridge between the one and the many, or oneself and the other. In the poetʼs experience, distance is nearness. Despite peopleʼs incommensurable differences, weʼre all parts of the same person and the best way to imagine our integration within the larger whole is to see ourselves confronted by what we fear most on the very same page.

Originally from Toronto, Canada, David Swartz has resided in Lisbon, Portugal since 2013, where he teaches English at the New University of Lisbon.

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