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Review of A Broken Bowl
From Glen Downie , Event, Vol. 27, no 1 - spring 1998

Critical Distance

Patricia Young, What I Rememer from My Time on Earth, House of Anansi, 1997

Heather Spears, The Panum Poems, Ekstasis Editions, 1996

Dionne Brand, Land to Light On, McClelland & Stewart, 1997

Patrick Friesen, A Broken Bowl, Brick Books, 1997

Each of these four poets has established a certain ‘critical distance’ to comment on the big picture without losing sigh to the human…

In his book-length poem A Broken Bowl, Patrick Friesen also pulls back to critical distance to view his former home, Winnipeg – he now lives in Vancouver – and the last days of the century. Full of terse lines and jagged images suggesting brokenness and depleted resources, both social and personal, it’s a book of almost unrelenting despair, in which everything appears sick, dying, murderous, or insane:

there’s a brain tumour in the house
a lung in the microwave

The walls are crawling with melanoma
it’s Sunday every day

someone throw me a cobalt bomb
someone feed my x-ray

A river is ‘a filthy transfusion it’s what the doctor ordered a last disease’; homeless men sleep in doorways of Winnipeg’s trendy Osborne Village shops, ‘scum by name/ …shit no one wants to step in.’ The statue of Riel is ‘writing’; the nearby riverbank is ‘a filthy place, all shit, used condoms, punctured lysol cans, and the smell of rotting flesh.’

But the sickness is everywhere: ‘inarticulate rage/ stilettos in the nursery/ bombs for cocktail hour.” Someone ‘ is buying bullets with an unemployment cheque/ shooting rats and listening to them squeal.’ Suicide is described as ‘the only question left/ the person/ or the race.’ Snipers lean from windows, bodies float by in the river, and we hear only ‘the braying of loud lies from governments.’ Naturally, the civic mood is ugly: ‘someone with a kitchen knife/ is looking for the government’ but everyone’s guilty: ‘we are a trivial people brutish and blind/ …we worship everything nothing is sacred.’

Despair also colours a series of italicized persona pieces about love and the law, justice and truth. The voice might be that of cynicism personified:

I am the law of the land the liturgy of wealth and power…and I am the other law that turns on the law tooth and claw and the law of human rage in its tatters and torn shoes the law of serf and slave of the poor and the damaged…the law that passes understanding the law of the cornered rat and the insane child beneath the bridge…I am the law that strings up the tyrant and becomes the new one…everywhere I am the law everywhere and I favour none all will die beneath the law judged judged judged.

Friesen’s Bible-based Mennonite upbringing is resonant here. In the language’s tone and rhythm, and its emphasis on judgement.

Though never naively cheery, Friesen has certainly written in more celebratory moods that this. I wanted more explanation for why, this time round, he so consistently views the world through shit-coloured glasses. Only belatedly does he question the eye of the beholder: ‘the word grows sadder every day/ or is that me?” A few clues point to ‘the treachery the restlessness of hearts’:

it is impossible to be good
only shame and desolation move in the world
only betrayal and rage

thoughts in your car as you speed down highway 59 past
ile des chenes worries and anxieties love having packed
its bags once again no job in sight and your body shriv-
elling toward old man.

Though too many specific clues to Friesen’s cynicism might have led the poem off in other directions, I think Friesen could have taken that risk; after all, the bleak end of a sick century didn’t just arrive since his last book. These reservations aside, there is much that is fine in A Broken Bowl, a powerful lamentation and perhaps also a necessary catharsis.

GLEN DOWNIE is a frequent reviewer for Event. His books include An X-Ray of Longing (Polestar, 1987), Heartland (Mosaic, 1990), and The Angel of Irrational Numbers (Press Porcepic, 1991).  He also co-edited the work-writing anthology More Than Our Jobs (Pulp, 1991). He lives in Toronto.

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