In his long-anticipated first collection of poems, Mean (House of Anansi Press, 86 pages, $19.95 paper), Toronto's Ken Babstock has everything: love, hate, hope. He plies the importance of friends and family loyalty. He speaks of those things, like the heart, that can be broken. And he manifests a technical mastery that seems rare for one so young.
where a friend sings elegies
for a biker who cocked a rifle
opened his chest like a long vowel
Many of Babstock's pieces are written as fragments, without specific beginnings or endings, but rather with places that start, and then stop-a temporal image lifted out of the rest of the world. This flash works both as strength and weakness, depending on the piece, for what works in one doesn't in another, but when it does, it does oh so well.
work and drink and
sweat through unbridled dreams of the mean.
("Deck. It's a Deck.")
There is a darkness, an awareness of loss and cruelty, in Babstock's writing, and a sincere and moving emotional depth. His narrative eye has seen many things but still holds out for hope.
The mere appearance of beauty's
not beauty, but it's reliable.
Just finish. Get paid.
At night, above, you'll redeem or undo what
your hands have made.
Poems such as "Gotlieb's Column" have an unfinished air; there is even an inside joke that I, as a reader, just never got. (Perhaps I should read The Globe and Mail more regularly...) The "Head Injury Card" series, brilliant in concept-the short, sharp bursts can be magnificent-is hit-and-miss in reality. But it is poems such as "School Bus Broadsided by Patrol Car", the image-laden "On Self-Love, or/When I Caught My Love in My Hand", and the pointed "Father Thorne's Bad Saturday" that truly strike a chord, show all of Babstock's powers. As poor Father Thorne realizes what is happening, and turns around to see this innocent local boy pointing a gun at his chest, he narrates,
wouldn't come to my lips,
just dropped the
willow switch I'd been topping buttercups with
and swallowed what spit I had left.