There have been a lot of reviews of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet, and they’re a pretty mixed bag, swinging from gushing praise to befuddled admiration to downright animosity. And that makes sense. Babstock’s fourth collection is a challenging, confident work that pulls no punches and makes no apologies for deliberately breaking new ground. Seldom emotionally engaging, often obscure, and almost always difficult, Methodist Hatchet is much like going to a dinner party and being placed beside some intelligent and perceptive eccentric, who is waving his hands in frenetic sways and raising his voice in unpredictable bouts of callous observation. The room is incapable of reaching a consensus on whether or not he’s making sense, or if they like him; the only thing that’s clear is that everyone at the table is leaning in, listening to his every word.
Babstock’s first collection, Mean, won the Atlantic Poetry Prize, and was filled with meaningful, emotionally satisfying poems. Over the years, however, Babstock has been intently sharpening his language and poetic devices, and, by his own account, has moved from linear meaning to precarious, metaphorical or aural association. “I’m one of those people that has sort of invested everything in sound, except that meaning won’t leave me alone,” he said, in an interview about the collection with The National Post.
The musicality in Methodist Hatchet is by far its strongest suit, with inflections and a tempo that are wonderfully playful and absorbing. “Carolinian (Crosscut with Sound)” begins with an agglomeration:
Colander, canopy, colander. Contrivance
of green light-spots we’re leoparded by.
Wild grape ampersand.
Joining land with how we see the land, walk softly
over the mudded impress shod horses
their dung looks fungal, very ‘forest floor’.
The form and structure of the poems vary radically, experimentally, as does the subject matter. Über-contemporary themes (videogames, new science, commercialism) give way, abruptly, to more traditional treatises (homages to poets of personal influence; death, art, posterity). Yet there is always something distinctly Babstock throughout. Besides the aforementioned baton-waving, almost spoken-word rhythm, there is also a familiar, wry tone, that is markedly overboard and self-assured, with a smattering of dirty words, and a plethora of contemporary references and allusions.
Back at the dinner party, the eccentric guest is now standing, breathless, frantic, and seems to be describing some kind of dreamscape, with a cadence and linguistic dexterity that is undeniably mesmerizing. Some of it you understand—the beautiful and the terrifying, the sensations of vertigo and anxiety. But most of it you don’t. If you can get beyond that, and allow yourself a manic and jarring voyage into a fascinating psyche, where sound takes precedent and creates its own fragmented meaning—if you can allow yourself to just hold on to the musicality and rich, imaginative language, then it’s a wonderful ride.
Mark Lavorato is the author of three novels. His first collection of poetry, Wayworn Wooden Floors, is forthcoming from the Porcupine’s Quill.