Two or Three Guitars, Selected Poems by John Terpstra
Reviewed by C Durning Carroll
Two or Three Guitars is John Terpstra’s seventh book of poems. The Governor-General nominated writer has moved far along enough in his career for this latest book to be a “selected poems” that lets his readers look back on a twenty-five year career that began with Scrabbling for Repose back in 1982.
These poems show an abiding interest in certain themes: travel, religion, history, and nature. Travels, both of the ordinary sort and of the kind driven by the need for emigration are featured here. In Terpstra’s poems journeying often appears as a sign of dislocation. “If we were at Niagara now / we could see where this business begins,” he proclaims in the opening poem “Blondin on a Tightrope.” Much of the difficulty and interest in these poems lies in the fact that we are never quite at Niagara. In the separation between what the physical body can do and what the imagination can experience comes the source of much of Terpstra’s versifying.
Endings in Terpstra’s poems arrive with much the same sentiment as beginnings. In the last poem of the collection, “How It All Goes Around” Terpstra dreams that “I would ride the single drop on the windshield, in the / downspout, / jump the last few inches / and slip between the particles of earth.” Though in both works Terpstra is driving along a road, he would prefer “the highway blasted through,” as a way to get to authentic existence. Travel, like existence itself, is endlessly cyclical; one goes somewhere only to return to one’s starting point.
Immigration too is a form of travel, but one driven by powerful economic circumstances. Even as this kind of journeying remains consciously chosen, its dislocations are far more powerful than those made by ordinary travel. In “Forty Days and Forty Nights” Terpstra assumes the voice of a Dutch immigrant coming to Quebec and he narrates that character’s frustrations upon discovering that Canada is not the promised land he had hoped for: “… two days later I drove / the coal truck from my second job, and dumped / a one-ton load down the basement chute / of the wrong house / and the next week / wasn’t paid, but shovelled those lumps of black / back through the window, until I couldn’t breathe.” Terpstra finds rich veins of material in the gritty realities of physical work and the ways backbreaking labor shows up the gap between real life and the world of dreams.
God and the angels are forces that for Terpstra constitute holiness not only because of the miracles they do, but because they can witness multiple events simultaneously, something we limited humans cannot hope to achieve. In “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” the poet imagines a nativity scene unfolding in dozens of little towns across northern Canada. The poem, with its crazy quilt of place names like Aklavik, Tignish, Esther, Picture Butte, and Pickle Lake becomes a mental travelogue of those small and usually forgotten places where people still live and miracles, like the birth of children, can still happen. One lovely thing about all these works is that Terptstra’s sentiments always seem authentic; his are poems of genuine feeling and real tenderness.
In the poem “Hypotheses” Terpstra moves in a potentially rich direction by connecting his observations about nature with a grander idea about how we think and see the world. “The location and number of stars is determined by / the trajectory of individual branch tips, each of which bears / responsibility for a single pin-prick of light.” A few lines later he admits: “These are, of course, preposterous hypotheses, and it is / likely that only those willing to admit to an uncommon / empathy with trees would ever admit them.” Perhaps so, but in giving an intentionality to nature Terpstra puts forward the very powerful idea that feeling the natural world as beautiful proves something. Terpstra’s point here is that maybe spirit and science are not as different as we tend to believe. Poetry, despite its poor current reputation in popular culture, can provide us with a way of synthesizing two of the most powerful forces of contemporary society — religion and science. In “Hypotheses” Terpstra’s language comes tantalizingly close to achieving this.
Lest we take this idea of the connected universe too far, however, Terpstra reminds us that risk is everywhere, both from people and from the forces of the natural world. In a fashion typical for him, “The Devil’s Punch Bowl” combines these physical and emotional dangers as a way of trying to keep us alive to the idea that a feeling of total connection also opens us to threats from everywhere. “How cold the wind feels / on all our open wounds” he reminds us. “I know what rocks awake / and men can do, now / There is no true protection. / Forgive me.” In this awareness of the harm we do and have done to us, Terpstra performs one the basic jobs of the good writer — promoting sympathy for the world, whether that world is natural or of human. His final wish for forgiveness shows a poignant sense that we humans are inevitably responsible both for the pain we can’t seem to help causing others, and the ways in which we harm nature by not seeing the harm we do. If being human means having power both to love and to hurt, then asking for forgiveness is the clearest testament of our humanity, for it externalizes the fact that we have hurt and been hurt by causing pain.
Two or Three Guitars provides a rich selection of the poetry of a peculiarly Canadian writer — one who takes what is best in this country: tolerance, sympathy, a powerful sense of humanity, and combines these qualities with a deep appreciation for the natural world to make a music that seems to rise from a hidden place, but that we nonetheless recognize as a tune we have long known and understood.