REVIEW: Keith Inman’s “The War Poems”

We Live Small Lives, review by John B. Lee, Poet Laureate of Brantford, Poet Laureate of Norfolk County


The War Poems by poet Keith Inman is an amazing book.  I have to say it is one of the best books of poems I’ve read in quite some time.  It is brilliant!

I think that Marty Gervais at Black Moss Press should receive the Order of Canada for his contribution to People’s Poetry in this country.  He continues to publish the best and freshest poetry books in the genre.

Inman’s phrasing is so original, and yet never needlessly obscure.  Consider “under the bar lamps/ was one long guzzle/ of memories,” “bundle of bones/ shuffling along the hard echo/ of the back hall,”  “hands twelved at the mouth,” WOW!! ” The soft breath of bullets/ whistling through the soft reeds/ of our beliefs,” wow, again.

This is one manure-rich loam of a book.  Deep and wide and fertile, and I love the profanity.  It comes in rare and absolutely essential tinctures, and is sometimes hilarious as in the poem “Fukyeusal” ending with the final words of a doomed protagonist “The curve/ of tank caught him/ from behind, rolled his knee up past/ his head, his eyes squeezed out as he hissed, /‘Fffuuuukkkyyeeeuuusssaaalll.’”  You may ask how is this black humour hilarious?  In this pathetic era of political correctness, a touch of shaudenfreude goes a long way to making amends for the guardians of good taste.  Read the poem and see if you don’t suffer the same mixed emotions concerning the fate of this victim of an industrial accident,  “hated … to a man” by his fellow workers.”

The image, “stormed out of the house/ his pipe puffing like a smouldering saxophone.” is an image so vivid and original and so entirely Keith Inman’s individual voice it makes this reader wish it were his own to coin.

The phrase “We live small lives,” would have been a great alternate title for this fine book.  It is certainly an affirmation of the quotidian events of ordinary lives set against the sweeping events of history.

Inman weaves through 200 years of public history and private lives, almost to the day, as he sets the lives of ordinary people against a backdrop of war, and popular culture.  Each poem begins with an italicized epigrammatic summation of the world in a particular year.  Here is one example taken from the poem “Grace:”

1917: U.S. declares war; 35,000 Americans had already joined Canadian Exposition Forces; Mata Hari executed as spy; Germans starve; T.S. Eliot publishes “Prufrock;” Charlie Chaplin’s salary reaches a million a year; Halifax Nova Scotia, leveled by boat blast

The poem that follows from this involves the private life of an individual woman who occupies the day, as we all do, simply doing the things we do to survive an ordinary, and often dull existence against a backdrop of war.  For her, “The house slid/ into heat … the breathless/ day pressed down, the static/ buzz of cicadas singing/ of death marching/ toward an obscured sun.”

I highly recommend this book to readers who hunger for poetry that sings.  Inman’s poetry is a rare combination of the dull routine of common life of ordinary people laboring to survive and the absolutely fresh phrasing that lifts those lives and sees the poetry in everything.  Though we may sometimes simply wish to stand “screaming at heaven,” we also have the capacity for grace, as is evident in the lines “David was quiet/ then asked the cop if he knew/ where the wind comes from in the morning when you’re out/ fishing and the lake ruffles over/ right as the sun comes up.”  And the book ends on an ironic, though optimistic note that rings a familiar bell in the mind of every student of Canadian poetry, “’Was it a lark?  Did you see?/ I’m sure it was a lark.’”

The War Poems

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