In his new chapbook, Brood, Ottawa poet Rob Thomas defamiliarizes the ordinary and makes us view the seemingly mundane. By “telling it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised, he provokes readers’ thoughts.
The cover photo by Ellen Moran, showing a child-sized person in a grotesque mask, holding hands with a larger figure in a gorilla or Yeti suit, suggests that the poetry inside won’t be a sentimental look at parenting.
About half of the poems were previously published in literary magazines, an indication of their merit. Several capture the weird side of looking after young children in public places. “Yin and Yang”, about a trip to the animal barn of the Agricultural Museum, presents a bull named “Goody”, who ought to be named “Jabba”: “his hooves – stubby, improbable – peek out beneath his girth like hoarded relics.” A sign announces the arrival of “Yin and Yang” – “vigorous siblings who share a sign but no longer share the enclosure.”
In another incident, the speaker of the poem is taking his two preschoolers on a city bus where they encounter “that stranger we warn our kids about,” who says, “hey, kids, want to see something special”? This poem captures the constant watchfulness and tension involved in taking children out of the safety of home.
Another poem, “where it counts”, is about the repetitiveness of housework, and ends with the speaker’s choice to take time out and “lie on the floor/let the brood wash over you/the baby slather you with syrupy kisses/the 2-year old knee you where it counts.”
The six poems in Thomas’s “missing children” sequence are drawn from folk tales about disappearing children. “Ruby” makes us reconsider the familiar tale of Little Red Riding Hood, by showing a police officer interviewing a mother about her vanished daughter. The child’s father “is in forestry.” The parents told the little girl to “keep to the road.” When the constable says, “And this wolf. Could you give us a description?”, the idea of blaming an animal for the disappearance suddenly seems farfetched, and one wonders who the actual wolf is.
In “covered tracks”, missing twins “gorge themselves in the marzipan kitchen and rehearse their story”, while the constable, who has followed a breadcrumb trail, decides to “question the hag.” (Recognize Hansel and Gretel?)
In “that golden girl”, an ursine family is looking at a missing girl’s image on a milk carton. The parents talk about her visit to their home, while Baby Bear “levers a hunk of gristle from his teeth with a claw.” Again, in ominously succinct poems about Snow White and the Pied Piper, Thomas amuses us with his cleverness while sending shivers down our spines.
In “cereal killers”, the speaker, perhaps a child, or someone close to children, finds cereals threatening and adopts a tough-guy approach: “We have the Rice Krispies just where we want them. we’re gonna make’em talk.” The poem ends with the image of a “horrendous” tiger with a “frosty grin.”
Anyone who has spent time with young children has experienced the roller-coaster of joy, uneasiness, frustration and pleasure that is involved. Thomas captures this feeling in Brood – a good choice of title, since readers will brood about these poems and go back and re-read them.
Brood is published by Bywords and can be purchased for $6 at their website. ISBN 978-0-9810417-6.