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The Sutler

by Michael Kenyon

B.C. writer Michael Kenyon is the author of three books of fiction. The Sutler is his second collection of poems, but his first work in verse, A Rack of Lamb is a book of prose poems. Unfortunately, most of the lineated poems in this new book read like they were written by a prose writer. Kenyon’s syntax and diction are generally prosy, his rhythm often halting and choppy, and his sense of structure on the level of line and stanza has an arbitrary feel.

Most of the poems in the first and, to a lesser extent, the third sections of the book are confessional in a way that is more uncomfortably private than compellingly personal. These are poems about the breakup of a relationship, with little to distinguish them from any number of other such sequences published in recent years. Kenyon also relies too heavily on pseudophilosophical wisdom and heavy rhetorical questions – “Waiting is full of loss, but what else is waiting for?” – to give his poems weight. Many poems have the odd strong line and arresting image – “A glossy crow/picks through the wrack, unfolds in sunshine” – but few are entirely successful.

Kenyon’s most powerful writing is in the long title poem, spoken in the voice of a man who collects belongings from corpses on a First World War battlefield and sells them back to live soldiers. Although this poem is afflicted with some of the technical flaws of the rest of the book, the longer narrative form and use of a deliberate persona give the prose writer more room to flex his imaginative and verbal muscles than he has in the cramped quarters of the short lyric. Similarly, the poem’s setting in a different place and time seems to help Kenyon achieve the artistic distance required to make his writing emotionally resonant rather than merely frankly confessional.