Leon Rooke is the Governor General’s award winning author of a number of novels and story collections. Hot Poppies is his first book of poetry and it is certainly an intriguing late addition to his repertoire. I should add that I have not had a chance to read much of Rooke’s fiction; therefore, I will be unable to compare this collection to his previous works. However, because they are Rooke’s first published poems, it is important to read them based on their own merits rather than in comparison to his earlier prose.
The first poem establishes the unusual characters that occupy Rooke’s world, such as the women who are “marooned on a thousand dark isles” to discover “they’d been impregnated by the same dark man” (“Everything from Her Mouth” 11). His strength as a writer lies in his ability to create characters familiar to the reader, but who are also odd and unique.
This collection is rife with surrealism, humour, and popular culture, with poems that include public figures such as Princess Di, Martha Stewart, President Bush, and the most unlikely muse, Britney Spears. Rooke is a writer who does not see high-culture and popular-culture as being in opposition; he embraces both, writing about Lassie on one page:
The Not-Lassie dogs
used to talk about this among themselves,
how to recognize who the bad man was
and how to slobber at the bad man’s
sleeve without the real Lassie telling them
how disgusting the whole thing was.
(“A Bleak Situation” 20)
and Heidegger on the next: “Being is the unbeing being unspun/ was how Heidegger saw the matter” (“Phenomenologists” 21).
Despite the originality of the collection, it is sometimes difficult for Rooke’s poetry to make a deep emotional connection with the reader. In the poem “Jasper Johns,” contemporary artist Jasper Johns and experimental musician John Cage go in search of a blue dog in caves occupied by musicians and painters:
Jasper Johns followed the trail
of the blue dog, coming at last
to a cave so low in a wall of caves
not even John Cage could stand up.
(“Jasper Johns” 16)
The abstract nature of some of the themes as well as the lack of context in some of the sections (such as in “After-Dinner Speeches at (Lord) B.‘s House”) make it difficult sometimes to grasp what Rooke is trying to convey to the reader. Still, it is fitting that Rooke chose figures like Jasper Johns and John Cage to write about because perhaps he noticed his surrealistic poetry shares a kinship with the avant-garde artistic styles of those artists.
Rooke’s surreal flourishes and sense of humour are reminiscent of American Surrealist James Tate. In fact, Tate’s work is directly addressed in two of Rooke’s poems: “Continuation of the James Tate Poem ‘The Condemned Man’” and “Continuation of the James Tate Poem ‘Peggy in the Twilight.’” This nod to Tate is an important detail because, while readers who enjoy traditional lyric verse may find the surrealism in Hot Poppies difficult and pointless, those who love experimentation with language and images will find much to appreciate.