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Book Reviews

The Bindery

by Shane Rhodes

Ottawa-based poet Shane Rhodes’ third collection is a difficult book to criticize in terms of its particulars. The writing is very polished and there are few glaring false steps. But a maxim from Longinus comes to mind: “A flawed sublimity is better than a flawless mediocrity.” There simply isn’t very much in this collection that is gripping, and since this is a longish book of poems, it makes for a sluggish read.

The problem is a lack of authorial engagement. The second section, a suite of mainly prose poems about Mexico and Argentina, is particularly problematic in this regard. One definitely gets the sense that the author has, as he writes, “studied Mexican history,” but one also can’t forget that he “is a tourist here.” The travel poem is a well-worn genre of contemporary CanLit, and Rhodes does little to enliven it.

This arm’s-length distance is a problem when it comes to form as well. On one hand, Rhodes is to be congratulated for not taking sides in the tedious avant-garde-vs.-traditional-lyric battle; he has poems that could easily fit into either category and poems that straddle the boundary, poems in prose and poems in lines. But for this reviewer, it’s far better to be committed to one way of doing things than to be non-committal in several disparate modes.

The book’s title sequence consists of 99 fragments (quotes, aphorisms, snippets of verse) that feel like nothing so much as the highlights of the author’s scrapbook. Indeed, the book as a whole has the feel of clippings picked off the bindery floor and assembled.

Ultimately, this collection feels more like the work of a reader than a writer, which perhaps explains why the most successful poems are explicit homages to Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Christopher Smart. Rhodes’ work, however, doesn’t make a strong argument for reading him instead of these others.