A few months ago, the big debate over the ethics of writing negative book reviews ramped up again. I can think of many good reasons for writing a negative review. One is to offset the excessive and often specious congratulations of other reviewers. Darryl Whetter’s debut book of poetry, Origins (Palimpsest, 2012), has thus far received two reviews that I have read, one inQuill and Quire and the other in The Chronicle Herald. Both are chock-full of praise. To be sure, aspects of Whetter’s collection are fairly praiseworthy. Some of his poems are quite musical, and many contain a bit of insight as well. Yet they’re also marked by strained metaphors, inaccuracies, and a limiting binary logic that leads their speaker, with apparent pretentiousness, to cast what I feel are unfair judgments. I’ll try to balance out the unabashed enthusiasm for Origins by dealing with its more disappointing aspects.
Origins takes evolution as its subject, including the sociocultural environment surrounding the discovery of both the idea of evolution and its supporting materials (fossils). The poems deal with various facets of it, from the discovery of highly significant fossils at Joggins, Nova Scotia (the geographical centerpiece of the book) to the contemporary usage of fossil fuels. By the book’s end, the proverbial horse Origins rides has been more than sufficiently beaten. While in keeping with Whetter’s espoused environmentalism, it doesn’t help that a number of ideas are recycled within the book. For example, the notion that evolution killed off God is grossly overstated: in one poem, “each fossilized dinosaur bone [is] a bright / bullet into God,” while in another Charles Darwin is characterized as “God’s assassin.” My complaint here is not so much about the repetitiveness, which is tolerable, but the fact that the idea reappears without being handled thoughtfully in either poem. The same is true regarding how the importance of Joggins has apparently been overlooked within Nova Scotia. “Fossils” ends with:
Joggins for years just a billboard
and a staircase, billion-kissed fossils
pilfered by the bucketful while
local school kids
of Johnny Appleseed
Meanwhile, in “Meetings,” the speaker blames what he sees as Joggins’ inadequate recognition on
Three levels of government
content to treat the origin
of all life on land
with a staircase and a billboard
It’s one thing for the two poems to make similar points with a similar lack of depth, but then it’s another to use the exact same image; the reversal of “a billboard / and a staircase” to “a staircase and a billboard” makes little difference. I find redundancies like this irksome, especially when they amount to so little.
Whetter’s book is also quite boring, if you already know the basic story it describes, because it mostly consists of what could be considered “informative poetry.” Think of a textbook written in free verse. The textbook quality of Origins is perhaps hinted at in its epigraph, a quotation from Stephen Jay Gould, the eminent scientist and writer, about how fossils consist of both a part (the fossilized remains) and a counterpart (the impression left by those remains). Whetter then uses “The Part” and “The Counterpart” as the titles for his collection’s two sections. The former deals with the history of evolution and the discovery of fossils, while the latter focuses to a greater extent on what impression these remainders of the past have had on contemporary life.
This is all very clever, but the part-counterpart matter is then seemingly used to support a binary logic employed in a number of the poems. For instance, the opening one, “Joggins, Nova Scotia,” discusses how essentially the same rock exists at both Joggins and Morocco, the rock long ago having been split between the two contemporary locations. The poem then ends with the couplet, “dislodging single fossils on one beach, / whole books on another.” The division here rings untrue because both shores exude fossils, and books have been written about both locations. Even worse, the poem is self-congratulatory: it suggests we recognize that Whetter’s is one of those “whole books” dislodged from the cliffs of Joggins. Another binarized poem, “Water or Air,” begins by noting how
amphibians, those bisexuals,
can do water or air
but most of us
turn corners, take one road
or another, fork our way
through the binaries
This is promising as a start, but then the poem devolves into a list of binaries that make little genuine sense. A few examples: “you read what amazes you or / The Stone Angel / The Book of Negroes,” but whatever the literary merits of these two books, surely they amaze a number of readers; and “fiction or non,” but who reads only one or the other? This either/or approach lacks nuance and supports a judgmental attitude: “you reduce, reuse and only then recycle or / Hey, me,” as though even the most environmentally conscious among us don’t struggle with an overblown sense of our own self-importance. To my mind, a central aim of the poetic project is to see beyond binaries—to see the beautiful in the ugly, for example, and to deconstruct the oversimplified option of merely one or the other. The binary logic apparent in a number of the poems creates an air of snootiness that I find irritating.
Besides feeling snobbish at times, several of the poems display inaccuracies. One of a handful of poems in the collection that are based in personal experience, “My Reel Mower, 58 km from Joggins,” hovers between two simplistic poles: gas-guzzlers and environmentalists. It begins by describing reel mowers as “two stroke guillotines / in a suburban / reign of Suburbans.” I’m immediately suspicious of the poem, having read enough of the book by page 58 to be wary of its judgmental nature, and having lived long enough in Nova Scotia to know that while pick-up trucks are the norm, you rarely see anyone driving a Suburban. What is the point of this hyperbole except to overstate the binary? In contrast to the “engineless reel / mower […] / a green evolutionary splinter,” the speaker positions “the moron mowers” as “carbon pirates.” Reading the “moron mowers” as metonymically linked to the so-called morons who use them places Whetter’s environmentalist-speaker in a holier-than-thou position, where he, so preciously, “can hear the damp / crumple of the cut / grass fall.” While I fully support his use of a reel mower, one might ask if even this goes far enough; it is better for the environment, of course, to have no lawn at all. I say this simply to point out that no matter how much we do for the environment, few of us have much cause for self-congratulations. I’m bothered by how the poem celebrates the environmentalism of its speaker while simply yet slyly slandering the general population.
Darryl Whetter: “an air of snootiness”
Another poem based on personal experience is “Privileged Young Men Who Hate Creativity.” The speaker starts by asking why these young men who “despise art, literature, / thought and hard work” would take “CRWR 2000,” a full-year creative writing class. The most stereotypically obvious answer is they think it’s a bird course. But instead of hearing about the challenges the instructor faces in this situation, or how it is and what it means that the students are so privileged, all we get is a pile of hyper-sexualized ridicule heaped not only on the young men but also on “the Karens and Rachels [who] seek / permit and enable / these replay barbarians.” Considering that the speaker (university professor Whetter?) earlier refers to the privileged male students as “frat boys and date rapists,” are we to read the poem as condemning these young women for permitting and enabling their own date rape? The poem is surprisingly sleazy, insulting but shallowly so, an especial example of the pompous attitude that crops up too regularly in Origins.
These poems have little to be arrogant about; they’re rife with weak or empty poeticisms. “On the Origin of the Origin,” a poem that deals with “the big change” (evolution), ends like this: “that cowering, ecstatic / amphibian rut / sliding into veins // of eternal rock.” Really? You would expect a poem that takes evolution exclusively as its subject, to acknowledge that rock is not eternal at all, that it is formed and deformed by the forces of nature. Similarly, in “Signed Inheritance: A Drumheller Glosa,” a poem dealing with dinosaurs, the reader is told that “no museum could survive without these dumb shows / of predation.” But there are, obviously, many museums that don’t have anything to do with dinosaurs or fossils. As for the metaphors, some are passable, granted, but what about describing the K-T boundary line (which appears in sedimentary rock, revealing the period in time when a large asteroid struck Earth) as “the very / visible panty line of dinosaur extinction”? It’s clearly associative, but to no apparent end other than to make annihilation look vaguely sexy. Such laxness in terms of the poems’ language and ideas appears in a number of places, devaluing the collection, even as a textbook.
Frankly, if Whetter’s poems were more accomplished in form and content, their uppity judgments and other pretentious moments would be more forgivable, and the compliments of other reviewers would be more understandable. But this is not the case. There are a few good poems, to be sure, such as “Country Dog,” and other decent ones, but, overall, Origins is not a book I would recommend.