Reviewed by Jonathan Ball

Jesse Patrick Ferguson
Freehand Books, 2009
96 pages, $16.95

Harmonics surprised me. I thought I knew Ferguson’s work, from my time editing dandelion, where I published his visual poetry, some of which I used for one of the journal’s more eye-catching covers. When a friend at Freehand said she had acquired his first book of poetry, I assumed too much. I assumed the book would contain a sizeable amount of visual poetry, alongside unconventional pieces that would bear the influence of experimentalist work. But the book is quite conventional. It consists of typical lyrical poems, notable not for any formal innovation but for the assurance with which Ferguson writes.

At his best, Ferguson offers up odd, complicated images in stanzas that seem like they were started by Don McKay and finished by David McGimpsey (or vice versa). In “Dirge,” an elegy in which the speaker mourns the death of his dog Bear, Ferguson writes:

O alacritous cruncher of spare pigeon heads
tireless yapper of backyard hours,
O nimble-toothed and debonair bane of bumblebees,
O Bear, unhibernating trumper of your namesake,
O why can’t a poet instead make a Frisbee
of his self-indulgent O’s: something into which
the dearly departed could sink teeth?

The move from a heightened, almost parodic poetic language (the elegiac tone in full combat dress) into a self-aware, almost silly wish is clever and playful: playful like ol’ Bear used to be (thus we remain in an elegy, rather than packing up and moving into some less earnest form). The second stanza is typical fare, but then Ferguson ends with another image that flirts with both fancy and sentimentality. Remembering how in summers he would use a wire brush to remove the dog’s shedding hair, the speaker marvels at pulling off

[… e]nough clumps
to form another dog who would bay at the rising wind
and take off after something I couldn’t see
but which was no doubt terrified.

Although the image of a dog “bay[ing] at the rising wind” is dull and worn, there is something wonderful about the speaker looking at the brushed-out hair and thinking about how he might construct another dog (it’s a quasi-surreal, almost Pythonesque image), even as this thought is suffused with melancholy. It’s almost a wish, that Bear might be returned to life in such a dreamlike manner. The poem ends with a strange, rich ambivalence (the dread of a thing tracked down by its death, here personified in the dog even as it is the dog’s death that is mourned).

Constructing these dense, braided images is Ferguson’s specialty. When he succeeds, he soars. When he fails, Ferguson just seems awkward and pretentious, like he’s trying too hard to impress somebody, as in the poem “Hex”:

To the youth blaring
chest thumping beats
from a big subwoofer
in his insolent trunk:

May a separate plague descend
upon each of your deafened ears,
may your underused cerebrum rattle
like the loose license plate
of your worse-for-wear ’97 Geo.

It’s a one-note joke, this poem, and the shifts in diction and tone just don’t delight as they do in other poems, where the “patches of scrub” in a landscape seem placed by “some god” not in the painterly manner of a thousand landscape poems but “strategically to tweak / the feng shui.” Ferguson’s dexterity transforms even this poem — “Eastern Ontario Pastoral” — into a worthwhile read, despite its otherwise overwrought approach to a worn-out subject.

Don McKay edited Harmonics, and it shows. There’s a lot of McKay here, when sometimes there should be more Ferguson. In “Cappuccinos for the Planet” Ferguson writes:

The prophet’s DVD has sold out,
and his tour tickets are prohibitively dear.
In Kensington market you score a bootleg,
watch it in the living room with the lights out.

And in an archway across the street
a pair of pretty red lips insinuates smoke rings
into the closing dusk.

The first two lines are fresh, funny and the beginning of a smart comment on the absurdity of cheap religious affirmation in the face of the environmental and consumerist nightmares evoked in the poem’s earlier passages. But then the poet introduces “you” — scourge of so many poems — to no plain purpose, and segues into a normative, “poetic” image, and the speaker ends by joining a throng in “thinking very hard about snow.”

There’s an echo of the poem’s early lines here (it opens with “round-the-clock coverage / of a gaunt polar bear swimming / for an ice shelf,” but the external, outward-looking drive of the poem is arrested and turned inward for a pseudo-epiphanic effect. When McKay tries this trick, he makes it work, more often than not, because his poems always wanted to go inside, whereas Ferguson’s poems set outward but then retreat.

On the whole, the poems succeed, and are tight and well-crafted. They’re strong poems, and this is a strong debut. Against my expectations, the book’s single visual poem — “Mama” — is its weakest. An “e” rises and elongates over a cluster of smaller “e’s” like Giger’s Alien might hover over an egg sac. Perhaps because there are no other visual poems, it just seems out of place, even more so because of its macabre tone.

My complaints are minor, in the end: Jesse Patrick Ferguson has written a compelling debut that presages good things for the future. His poems surprise and delight even though they might fall flat on occasion. I’d like to see a second book from Ferguson with a wider range of material, one that’s less assured and more willing to take risks. In the meantime, I’ll read Harmonics over again, and recommend the same.

Jonathan Ball is the author of Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009) and the forthcoming Clockfire (Coach House, 2010). He is the former editor of dandelion. He lives online at www.jonathanball.com.

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