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Cast from Bells

by Suzanne Hancock

Cast from Bells is Montreal-based poet Suzanne Hancock’s second collection. In it, she blends historical poems about bells – their forging, their transformation into weaponry, and the melting down of those weapons to cast them back into bells – with lyrical pieces about travel and the disintegration of a relationship. Hancock draws explicit and implied connections between these seemingly disparate topics, so that the bell becomes a governing metaphor for the book as a whole.

Which might be a neat trick, except that it is precisely what Hancock did in her first book, Another Name for Bridge. The repetition of the same structure five years later feels like something of a gimmick and gives the impression of a poet treading water instead of boldly swimming farther from shore.

This impression is reinforced by a great deal of lacklustre writing. There isn’t much clangingly bad in the book, but over the course of the collection, vagueness, abstraction, precious poeticisms, and shopworn tropes accumulate to deadening effect. Sorrow, regret, desire, memory, love, grief, sadness, and possibility each gets its turn, and the word “heart” is invoked no fewer than 15 times (including four times in a perfunctory villanelle). Hancock’s verse often reads like arbitrarily lineated prose and her research is often clumsily integrated.

These manifest flaws are all the more frustrating because Hancock is capable of writing sonorously, and there are wonderful aural moments scattered throughout the book, as when a freighter’s “low and purposeful moan shakes the shoulder of the morning / as snow fingers the ground.” A few individual poems stand out from the crowd, but given that this is clearly a book meant to be read front to back (the poems have no titles and there’s no table of contents), this isn’t enough to justify the sequence as a whole. Poet and editor Stuart Ross recently published a column bemoaning the ubiquity of “concept books”; a collection like this one is, unfortunately, perfect fodder for his argument.