Like most poets, John Wing has a day job. His is a little more unique than most: more than two decades ago he relocated from Ontario to California to begin a career as a stand-up comedian, becoming rather successful—he’s racked up over 150 television appearances—though perhaps not quite a household name. I’ve long suspected that in the insular world of Canadian poetry there’s a resistance when (semi-) famous outsiders, particularly musicians or the odd Pope, tread on our hallowed turf. But unlike poetry dilettantes like Gord Downie or John Paul II, Wing is in it for the long haul, having produced six collections since 1998. Almost Somewhere Else finds Wing (he dropped the “Jr.” from both his books and his act awhile ago) in a reflective frame of mind. The opening of “Memory” might well serve as a microcosm for the whole book: “Everything is arranged / idiotically. Chance / runs this library. // My eyes are closed / but my memory isn’t tired. / He wants to play.” As such, while the subject matter ranges from western Canadian geography to catching bats to an elegy for fellow comedian Eric Tunney to a riff on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, the world-weary tone is fairly consistent. Wing writes of day-to-day life in free-verse colloquial language; his poems are generally short and easily digestible with an undercurrent of rueful sadness running throughout, though, unlike his comedy, they do not reduce situations to a punch line. Looking at his new passport photo, “so far from the face I know to be mine,” he fears that the authorities “will come to their senses / and bar me from everywhere.” In “Milestones” he ruminates that “age is a number that denotes experience, / respect, and a rapidly accumulating pile of junk,” and within the cycles of time the “night you fall in love will pass so slowly / you’ll relive it as it happens.” Poems often start with an observation that gives rise to a speculative flight of fancy. So, the sight of “Roman Ruins” leads to conjecture about the slaves who built them; thoughts of his wintery hometown lead to various childhood memories, “whispered / legends through unforgiven time”; or the improbable sight of a statue of Gandhi “In Saskatoon” makes him wonder if there is a reciprocal one of Diefenbaker in India. The book closes with a suite called “Sexual History” that recalls a youthful time when sex was as much about curiosity, the rush of excitement and discovery, as fulfillment: “before I knew much / but was confident / it was enough.” Wing’s early books sometimes read like a comedian writing poems, especially as the comic’s life featured prominently as subject matter, but Almost Somewhere Else reads like a poet writing poems; there’s a calm assurance here in the language and the casually miserable perspective never overstays its welcome.
Christopher Doda is the author of two poetry collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson. He is currently working on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.