Ekstasis Editions - January 26, 2006 - 1 Comment

The Birdhouse, Or

The Birdhouse, Or by Jamie Dopp

Reviewed by Eric Barstad

Jamie Dopp’s The Birdhouse, Or (Ekstasis Editions, 2002) is accessible, fresh, and conversational. The book delves into the poet’s everyday life, illustrating for the reader the profundity of simple existence:

I used to be ironic about my grandmother,
my colleagues, the way they seemed
to be trying to make themselves indispensable
(my grandmother, half-blind and past eighty,
on a church visit to comfort
“the old people”) until I realized

busyness like that is not about
claiming special value, or even expertise, but
only about creating the illusion that
something in this world requires
your attention. (“The Garden” 60)

The first three sections of the book are very strong, creating narratives that are honest, moving, and often revelatory. The first, “The Birdhouse, Or,” is about family, fatherhood, and belly buttons. Ranging between comical and contemplative, the poems in this part of the book examine the grand and minute details of a father building a birdhouse with his two small sons:

You are surprised and not surprised by the way
these moments come,
the four of you on the porch like that,
the birdhouse not only looking like a birdhouse but actually one. (“The Birdhouse, Or” 35)

The second section, “Limes,” is a quintet of poems that all refer to limes and the memories they conjure up for the poet: of past romantic relationships, of a bitter and “bourgeois” youth, of high school rivalries.

Finally, “Ed’s Red Car” is an elegiac section that centres around the memory of the poet’s late neighbour Ed, the red car he gave the author as his final gift, and how “death doesn’t change anyone”:

And afterwards, after the fear and sadness, I was also
much the same, no great new insights,
just my usual pipe dreams and virtues and neuroses
tempered only by a deepened humility
before the wonder and fragility of life. (“Death Doesn’t Change Anyone” 63)

All three of these opening sections are a delight to read.

Where the book falls short, however, is in the final two sections: the often too self-reflexive “Teaching Dreams” and the punnily titled and perplexing “Arse Poetica.” Perhaps too many years as a university student and then as an English lecturer have jaded me towards poems about teaching and English courses; or maybe it was a former prof, who would scrawl “BORING!” in big green letters across the top of any story about writing or having to do with being a student. I’m not sure of the cause, but I do know that these poems are far less interesting than the ones that precede them.

“Arse Poetica,” on the other hand, while certainly not boring, is simply too much of a self-indulgent poetic exercise, and it mars an otherwise enjoyable book. The “arse” of the title ends up being the reader, as Dopp takes him/her on what the back of the book generously calls “a dazzling and dizzying tour de force.” And certainly it is dizzying, though not much else, which is too bad, considering the strength of the rest of the collection.

Review previously published in the Danforth Review.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his wife Erin and their two cats—Finnegan and Pickles—in Brooks, Alberta.

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