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Write On Ottawa: Great poems and lousy junk

By Rob Thomas on May 13, 2015

I am a war poem monger.  I love the inherent tension of war poems.  I don’t mean the patriotic stuff.  I mean war poems that are blistering and authentic.  I love the way violent and traumatic experiences can strain poetic language to the breaking point.  I love poems that struggle to assemble the inexpressible into words.

This is the voyeuristic fix I expected from Matt Jones’ chapbook White Flowers and Landmines.  It is exactly what the title seems to promise.  But Jones is one coy bastard.  In addition to a former literature student and sailor, and a veteran of Canada’s war in Afghanistan.  (The chapbook does contain many of poems of this kind, but more on that later.)

I didn’t wade into his collection cold.  I had already read and been impressed by a couple of his poems.

His poem Intervention, for example, appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine in 2013.  The poem describes a massive warship powering northward before its voyage is interrupted by a playful pod of dolphins.  The war machine churns to a stop.  The crew gather above deck to marvel and squint in “the unfamiliar light”.  It struck me as a wonderfully balanced, narrative poem that builds description toward a jolt in the bottom end of the last stanza.  My thought, at the time, was literally: “Wow, what a perfectly realized poem.”

Long story short: I was prepared to be impressed.  Very impressed.  But, initially, I  was very disappointed with the chapbook.  I felt blindsided by poems like My Junk is a Force For Good (an ode to the author’s sexual equipment) and Pig of the Port (apparently a reference to a practice wherein sailors try to have sex with the least attractive person in the immediate locale).

I might be humourless.  I might be prudish.  I might like my scotch with water.  But these poems turned me off.  Luckily, a magnificent interview in ottawater 11, conducted by Amanda Earl, convinced me to give Jones another shot.

In terms of raw and blistering war poems, Bomb Lake, Family Reunion and Gallows Humour more than exceed expectations.  And poems such as Intervention, which is included, are a pleasure to read (and reread).  I Remember, for example, describes sailing up a fjord and likens the retreating glacier to a shrinking god: “a living thing, collapsing/ under its own weight, dying/ and constantly giving birth.”

I still think Jones’ junk is lousy.  But his non-junk is certainly a force for good.