The Emperor of Kennings: Peter Richardson’s Bit Parts for Fools

Bit Parts For Fools
Peter Richardson. Bit Parts For Fools. Fredericton, NB: Icehouse Poetry, 2013.
~Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch


It’s not every day that a book of poems saunters in through the door, talking out of one side of its mouth like Ralph Gustafson and through the other like Wallace Stevens—but this is that day. Gustafson perfected a poetry in which the grammar was laid down with the precision of a Bach cantata. It wasn’t the sound of the words with which he was playing, but the musculature of his sentences. He drew from Stevens, who used stacks of phrases nestled within commas for much the same effect. Stevens also contributed the trick of replacing strings of thought with near-nonsensical formulations that open like the kennings of a modernist Beowulf: “The Palm at the End of the Mind,” for instance, or “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Richardson earns his place in this lineage by good old Stevensian foolery drawn through the eye of Gustafson’s grammatical needle.

An example is the neologism “the exercise of opening a rabbit hutch door in your chest” for that old-fashioned word “breathing” (“Sunrise Excision”). Another is the shift off to the side of the mind, to observe it while thinking, in “…does it matter? You have a rented horse” (“A Midwife’s Late Sabbatical”). The question of whether it is a “real” rented horse is absurd. It is a celebration of rented horses and the whole, unwritable concept of “rented horse” that Richardson squeezes in through the sheer joy of the music of words merging with the music of the energy they ride. In other words, it is a celebration of the joy of poetry itself.

Most poems in the book delight in this way, on their way to or from the everyday world: not quite as philosophically focussed as Stevens’s and never as cryptically metrical as Gustafson’s. Richardson’s poems celebrate, instead, a world, generations later, in which their consciousnesses, so nearly inscrutable in their time, have become everyday “reality.” He replaces their world of abstractions and deductions with a universality of playfulness. In the hands of other contemporary Quebec poets in this tradition, this marriage often leads to refined celebrations of metrical form. Richardson is no slouch at form, but his celebration is more the celebration of the power of naming than of purer tapestries of sound. Many of his poems are built from series of linked, extended noun phrases introduced with flourishes of prepositions and a few simple verbs that work like stage directions. The more active verbs are tightly joined to the nouns and turn each one into a bit part or story. In others, fantastical imaginings—such as “the body […] waits till […] its flyweight rider / has fallen asleep to pictures / of itself in emperor’s clothes” (“Solace”)—take the place of concrete abstraction. Such extended replacement of thought with presence leads at times to puzzling endings, such as “declaring what your body has produced sweet as the plunder / of bees nesting in crags of dirty syringes” (“Sunrise Excision”). But, hey, that’s just Richardson riffing with both mystery and aptness again.


Harold Rhenisch is the author of “The Spoken World” (Hagios), the forthcoming collection of ghazals “Two Minds” (Frontenac House) and 10 other volumes of poetry. He blogs daily at



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