May 9, 2015

Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie


Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything. Fifty years as a poet is almost unimaginable. Yet that's just what Canadian poet Agapé: Heaven & Earth, through his own Dark Matter Press, an anthology culled from the span of his career.

Of course there are many people who can claim to have written poetry for an extended period of time, but what really matters is what they have written and is it worth reading. Now some might say that judging poetry is a subjective thing. The old "I know what I like" argument. However, when examining an artist's body of work from an extended period of time, there are objective standards it can be judged against. It's all very well and good to say, well I like this or that poem, but when looking at a retrospective covering this span of years guidelines for its appreciation must be established.

First, and most importantly, is there a noticeable evolution in their work? Do they experiment with style, content and form, or do they just latch onto one approach and never change. Now, experimentation for the sake of experimentation can only take you so far. Content and a poet's ability to use words in order to communicate sensation, emotion or thought are just as important. Some poets are able to stay within one style their whole career because their command of language is such what they say is more important than how they say it.
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MacKenzie is one of those rare poets who is able to combine an adroitness with language and the ability to work in different styles effectively and seemingly effortlessly. While the poems in this volume aren't arranged chronologically, so there's no way of knowing how his style has evolved over the years, a simple examination of the writing shows his diversity. Everything from the formalized structure of haiku to long, prose like, free form verse can be found within the covers of Agapé.

It's in one of the former you get a brief insight into this poet's rather ironic sense of humour. The third poem into the book reads, "never my forte/these brief delicate flowers:/Japanese poems". Here he not only chaffs at the constraints of a highly structured format, but he also shows the self awareness to make fun of his own predilections. Mackenzie is definitely a proponent of allowing words the freedom to breath and create their own atmosphere instead of binding them up within the walls of structure. However, as he proves in this collection, it's not because he can't write a sonnet or a haiku, but that he'd prefer not to.

Instead of arranging the poems in the order they were produced throughout his career, MacKenzie and his editors, Nancy Wills and Faye Batchelor, have elected to gather them by theme or subject. What you quickly come to understand is no matter which point in his life a poem was written, this is a person who is very aware of the world around and his poetry is a reflection of that sensitivity. While the natural world is integral to his work, he is not blind to the human experience in all its pain and glory.

MacKenzie is not shy about telling us how he feels on any given subject either. He won't couch an idea or sentiment in a pretty phrase or obscure aphorism in order to soften its impact or protect a reader's sensibilities. He has no compunctions about directing a spotlight directly into the dark corners of human behaviour. At the same time he doesn't hesitate to celebrate the sublime beauty of a mountain scape at sunrise or the wonder of coming face to face with the wild.

However, that doesn't mean his poems don't have a lyricism to them. MacKenzie's use of language is wonderful. The words roll off the page and tumble around inside your brain until they gradually take shape. They bounce off each other forming thoughts and images which take up residence in your imagination and stimulate your mind and soul. Some of the poems might awe you, some might frighten you, but they can't fail to move you in some way.
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Mackenzie is not just a poet, he's a novelist, songwriter, photographer and illustrator as well. Being a multidisciplinary artist means he's open to more modes of expression than most artists. Perhaps this is why he's not fallen into the habit of letting conventions confine his poetry. Some might not appreciate his approach because, "it doesn't sound like poetry", but that's missing the point. Poetry is an expression of the human heart and soul - messy and chaotic places to begin with - so the expectation poems should fit some preconceived notion of structure and form is ridiculous.

Agapé: Heaven & Earth is a wonderful collection of poetry spanning fifty years of inspired creativity. If you've never read or heard of MacKenzie's poetry in the past, this would be the ideal collection for you to purchase. Even if you're familiar with his work it does a fine job of putting his career in perspective. As I said earlier, it is a remarkable achievement to do anything for fifty years; to be as innovative, creative and inspired a poet as MacKenzie has for that time span is astounding.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie - Celebrating Fifty Years Of Poetry<)



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