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Paul Vermeersch. The Reinvention of the Human Hand.

Paul Vermeersch. The Reinvention of the Human Hand. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

It's rare a book of Canadian poetry attempts to navigate the interstices of science, art, apocalypse, human longing, invention, and depravity. It's rarer still to write a book, a poem, or even a line that stays in the mind for months after the reading. On both counts, Paul Vermeersch's The Reinvention of the Human Hand succeeds more than any book of Canadian poetry I have read or am likely to. It's impossible to write dispassionately about this book--it taps into the most primal and utterly human elements of ourselves--and our impact on the earth and its creatures--that I finished many poems feeling pierced and wrung out by truth and despair. Consider these lines from "Twenty-One Days With A Baboon Heart": "When we reached out in their direction / they reached back with long, slender hands / much stronger than our own ... When one of their hearts was fixed inside / an infant girl, in Orwell's year, how long do you suppose she survived with their terror?" Or, from "Ape," in which Vermeersch gives voice to Koko and Michael, two gorillas who, in a sanctuary, have learned sign language only to tell us of their mothers' deaths by poachers: "Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth. / And how did it sound to Ape? / Cry, sharp-noise loud! And how did they look to Ape? Bad think-trouble look-face. / And what has become of Ape's mother? Cut / neck, lip (girl) hole. It's hard not to turn from these poems without a dark sense of human complicity. I first read "Ape" months ago, and still the poem remains "a dog-faced shadow at the edge of [my] world." The book is most successful where it deals directly with these shadows through beasts, through longing, and through science--"The Painted Beasts of Lascaux," "The Formation of the Pack" and "A Photograph Of The Human Retina" are particularly resonant. "Dogstar," for Laika, the famous Russian dog sent into space in Sputnik, loses the opportunity to make a similar impact because the images don't seem to go far enough into darkness; the lines "The whole thing / is a ball" seem slightly too trite. (Marilyn Bowering's book-length rendering of Laika's journey, Calling All the World, is much more haunting.) Other poems, like "Old Punk," and "Ringtones" likewise don't carry the same depth, but their inclusion offers breathing room. A book with such strength as this should demand much of the reader; we shouldn't be let off the hook so easily. Still, The Reinvention of the Human Hand is a startling, profound, and carefully crafted must-read for any poet.

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Author:Leifso, Brenda
Publication:ARC Poetry Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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