Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: The Reinvention of the Human Hand by Paul Vermeersch

Poetry Review
Andrew MacDonald

The Reinvention of the Human Hand
by Paul Vermeersch
Tonronto, ON: McClleland & Stewart, 2010
88 pp. $ 18.99

Toronto-based poet and former Lampert Award nominee Paul Vermeersch returns with The Reinvention of the Human Hand, a book of 38 pitch-perfect poems that test the boundaries between man and beast. The collection follows The Fad Kid, Burn, and Between the Walls, showcasing Vermeersch’s trademark wit and an artisan’s talent for crafting thought-provoking poems from the most unexpected of materials.

In “The Painted Beasts of Lascaux,” the “Yellow ochre horses” painted on cave walls may predate starships and the centaurs of our imagination, but they sing the primordial song “that’s been snarled in your heart – breaking it, / trying to pound its way free – for your entire life.” Meanwhile, an ostensibly benign encounter with the natural world in “A Scorpion in Alcohol” introduces “a venom so subtle, it lingers / and threatens to ruin you still,” the realization that the realm of the bestial might just be closer than we think.

Time and again, Vermeersch asks us to re-examine where we place ourselves in relation to the natural world. Not surprisingly, a number of poems hinge on our relationship to primates. In “Twenty-one Days with a Baboon Heart,” for example, an ape – the most striking of “our primordial reflections” – gives up its heart to fix an ailing human infant. More Orwell than medical miracle, the transplant brings with it the spectral presence of an animalistic “fear what we cannot know.” Though the poem appears to end rhetorically – “how long / do you suppose she survived with their terror?” – Vermeersch cleverly embeds the answer in the poem’s title. A longer piece, “Ape,” suggests that the aforementioned terror might be of our own making. Broken into three sections, the poem addresses mankind’s exploitation of its nearest link, concluding with actual dialogue between Michael, an ape capable of speaking sign language, and researchers eager to learn the fate of Michael’s mother. From Michael’s harrowing account, you almost wish they hadn’t asked.

Like much of the collection, “Ape” confronts its reader with some heady, deeply troubling philosophical questions about what it means to be human. Which is not to suggest that Vermeersch can’t make us laugh; comedy has its place in the collection, but only at the service of provoking more self-analysis. “Last of the Blondes,” a clever riff on recessive genetics, asks Ingrid, the world’s sole natural blonde, if her birth will be “co-opted / by governments and syndicates?” Will she become “their Golden Child, their Chosen One, their Brand?” We laugh at the absurdity of Ingrid’s celebrity status. Laugh, that is, until our flaxen-haired Everywoman’s dissolution into legend leaves us wondering what—existentially, biologically, and culturally—a world without blondes would mean. Another poem, “Three Anthropomorphic Studies,” features a familiar trio of Warner Bros. cartoon characters consumed by an almost existential despair. Here again, the gap between man and beast dissolves.

At times Vermeersch seems to laud the natural world, envying the way it has “mastered the arts of giving and taking,” (a doozy of a line from “Ode to Amoebus Proteus”), while poems like “In the Glorious Absence of Gods” and “Boys Who Envy Werewolves” point to the disastrous consequences in store for those who ignore their primeval selves.

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that the poems may cohere a bit too much, offering slightly different takes on a thesis that Vermeersch has no trouble proving in a single go. But that is a minor quibble. Both a swan song to our shared primordial past and an examination of how the animal within thrives in spite of, or perhaps in retaliation to, our best efforts to subdue it, The Reinvention of the Human Hand might very well be the year’s most astute meditation on human nature and its lingering past.

(Originally published in MTLS)

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