Cover notes for Maurice Mierau’s first collection explain that the author has spent much of his working life in the computer field – this book could as easily be called The Computer Field, with its tension between the technological and the natural – and that he doesn’t believe technology is improving people’s lives. Many of his poems make a reverent plea for the organic life, even biography, that lie beneath the layers of human invention and weakness. Mierau’s language is often stark, eschewing metaphor and ambiguity; words act simply as “neutral communication vehicles,” as he writes in “The brotherhood,” “like police cars, harmless in themselves.” However, his language here encases, or compresses, the singular grief of human life. Indeed, the poems often seem coded, near aphoristic puzzles, nuts to be cracked for the howl inside. Although I was repelled at first by the dispassionate surface, interpreting it as male reductionism – and gratuitous descriptions of rape, use the term vagina dentata (ugh!) and macho lines like “you still hate stronger than/ anything/ stronger than you wanted any woman” (“What you can’t write about”) continue to exclude me –it was in fact the sheer modernity of expression and indoor loneliness I shield from. In lieu of beauty, creativity, flight, these poems offer loss, commentary, hard thought: Mierau, a former technical writer and Winnipegger with Mennonite family, runs forward as a startling hybrid: Christopher Dewdney bearing the champion, Patrick Friesen, on his shoulders.
The book’s opening section, Family and Others, presents “My mother at 25,” grouped with aunts and uncles against a backdrop of a 1950s white clapboard church.
They are all in tears, except my mother
at 25 she looks straight at whoever’s
holding the camera, her dress lifts
with the wind, barely, she sees me.
For this section more than the other two, Mierau’s introductory comment matters: “There are facts in these poems and stories. Some of them have been written down before,” he announces, before teasingly confession: “Some are true.” The point is, of course, that identity is built on the questions about history.
We are also, Mierau “proves” with portraits of those in religious history and hard times, in love and dying, the sum of others. Mierau honours simple lives with rhyme and circularity, and redeems meager family memories by giving them font; this book uses various fonts and styles in quoting the Bible, a personal dairy and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as well as numerous parentheses and indentation for Mierau’s constant postmodern considerations (“What we want to believe is something else” (“Why this version is unbelievable”)), apologies (“I made up the smoke on his breath” (“Version 2, Alzheimer’s”)) and questions (“why was Grandmother’s diary always about/ the weather?”) (“Version 3, Grandma’s dairy”)).
The book’s second section, Murders, uncovers war, from breakfast at a concentration camp to Uncle Joe stripping love letters from the the fresh corpses of Russian soldiers in his search for military intelligence. While acknowledging the pervasiveness of violence in our lives – “I was born during the placement of intermediate range missiles in Cuba” (“Returning to the scene”) –Mierau also observes conscientious objection and martyrdom through the stories of sixteenth-century Mennonites Hans Haslibach, Leonhard Keyser, and George Bauman, whose refusals to renounce their faith were blessed by miracle and freedom. Of Bauman, he writes, in “Revenge stories”:
he sang on his way to the death place,
happy, and when his shoes stuck in the village mud
he sang like the last bird left after the flood,
he kicked off his shoes and ran for courage, for joy.
In a later section Mierau will distinguish between natural silence – “the impossible beautiful/ unplayable note” (“The pain problem”) and the silence of the unarticulated, which can be overcome. In Murders, Mierau considers why we are stuck in our silence about violence:
There were many things we didn’t
say when the war was overwhelmed
the only thing was getting to
a new world, surviving
Prozac, high speed Internet.
(“Why this version is unbelievable”)
Ending with Music, the book’s final selection, offers searing, unsentimental poems address to people – friends, the wife of a lover, Lenny Breau – who have died, often through suicide. It includes the extraordinary “The pain problem” and the moving “Suite for Michael.” In it, a poem called “The Economy of Feeling” opens: “How come death isn’t listed on NASDAQ/…/ why is there no bull market economy of feeling? And concludes with the realization
it’s always the survivors
crawling like auditors
asking hard questions,
figuring out why losses always
end up staggering.
Popular culture – technological, corporate – won’t relieve us of our burdens. Instead, the poet, though long distracted by lyricism, may find the way, if she or he keeps to the task. After all, Mierau proposes in “The brotherhood,” “truth is a narrow bed, easily measured.”