Review: No Shelter

No Shelter
Henry Doyle, 90 pgs, Anvil Press,, $18

A refugee from nowhere: this is how Henry Doyle describes himself while standing with a group outside a city shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They are waiting for this refuge to open as sleeping bags are distributed from a van. The men the narrator waits with have been displaced, but not by a war we’ve heard much about. Doyle’s No Shelter is a plainspoken and authentic record of the grinding and unacknowledged quotidian battle with day labour, despair and displacement.

Doyle’s poems are gritty, realistic and uncompromising. The collection opens with an escape from a foster home that fails and the stumbling into an ironic and sustaining friendship with a white horse he had hoped to steal. It careens from there into true misadventure: a stretch in Ottawa’s notorious Innes Road Detention Centre, a stint rescuing bibles in a junkyard where an eyeless cat named Odin reigns as mascot, all before dipping a few toes into the murky hovels and dive-bars of 90s Toronto. Doyle eventually escapes to more hard labour and semi-homelessness in Vancouver with meat-and-potato madrigals like “Drunken Laundry Day with Charles Bukowski” and “Killing Me the Rest of the Way.” It is a brutal, revealing and carefully crafted tale of grit and survival. “The White Horse” and “Killing Me the Rest of the Way” in particular throw two ruthless left-hooks. There is, ultimately, no refuge, just ephemeral glimmers of art and peace.

Back at the shelter on Cordova Street, the “Refugees from Nowhere” have shuffled in with their fresh sleep sacks and found another temporary place: “We all look like plane crash victims / in zipper bags.” There is no shelter.