The Politics of Knives, Jonathan Ball, 95 pgs, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $17.95
Jonathan Ball teaches English, film and writing at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. This is his third book and second poetry collection. He’s also directed two short films. The visual sensibility and the way events unfold on film, are on full display in this collection, whether it’s Kafka’s K turning into a camera, or a poem about Hitchcock’s Psycho.
The Politics of Knives opens with a sequence of poems on the violence of the muse: “’If I must be a muse,’ she said, / ‘then I will be terror.’” The title poem contains blacked out words on almost every line, as in a censored document. It’s intriguing, because we want to know what’s being omitted, but there’s not enough substance to build an idea of what’s actually going on, so it loses effectiveness.
On the surface, “He Paints the Room Red” is a prose poem (or short story, the distinction is blurry here), about a video recording of a man painting a room. At first descriptive, the narrator intrudes, self-consciously: “…Does he mean to approximate a breeze? Description bleeds into narrative, implies intention.” Throughout the poem, the reader’s mounting awareness of what’s being done — and how — turns a straight account into something meta-fictional, with the poet, the painter, and the reader all engaging in the creation of the text being read. It’s self-consciously voyeuristic, right down to the poem’s (almost inevitable) gruesome end. It’s skillfully done, and it’s easily the most disturbing poem in the collection.
These nine poems document violence in a variety of forms, but with so few concrete actors, the knife’s edge is dulled, as it’s not always clear what’s at stake. (Nico Mara-McKay)