Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems by John Terpstra

A Selected Poems is a celebration of a poet’s career, a summa of their achievement; but it is also something much more democratic, for it offers the reader, heretofore unfamiliar with the mid- or late-career poet (Terpstra is the former), a crash course. I myself have seen the odd Terpstra chapbook over the years, the occasional publication in a periodical, and for purely professional reasons (I double as a doctor) I read his touching prose memoir The Boys, a book which described the life and inevitable demise of his wife’s three brothers to muscular dystrophy. The image of the poet which I had cultivated was a genial guy, a gentle ironist (no savage Swiftian stuff), a versatile poet who could go long in line length, but who could also hem things short. In my estimation, Terpstra was a very comfortable poet, one who wore well, though there wasn’t anything I could recall, a perfect poem or two, that I instantly thought of when his name came again to my attention. But I figured that was probably due to my pathetically limited exposure, and I turned to Two or Three Guitars hopeful that my limited appreciation would be rehabilitated.

And it was. Let me first say that I respect Terpstra’s selection ethic. This is not an omnium gatherum of scrabbled bits and epigrams, of doggerel and failure; Terpstra carefully chose which poems he wanted to include. This is a kind of reverse generosity that is too infrequent in Canadian poetry nowadays (think of Christopher Wiseman, whom I reviewed on this site, or Don McKay’s bloated opus, which Zach Wells took on, also on this site).  It’s a trick more mature poets out there could learn. The mathematics: one of Terpstra’s six books has a low of six poems included; the maximum is ten.  Thus all of the poems that Terpstra included had to be competitive, had to perform; by being so hard on himself, he chooses the best ambassadors, and as a consequence he improves his reception.

Which is where I come in. Terpstra mostly avoids the lyric, preferring anecdote. He is very careful about his phrasing; he really wants you to pause after a line break, which is just as it should be. If his poems could be described in a word, it’d be quiet: no pomp or circumstance, but just good, honest observation mixed in with insight (and especially closing insights) carried off in a way that’s not quite workmanlike, for there is an intelligence here, an artifice, that would be slandered if I called it such. Yet there’s also no pyrotechnics, no power chord. The best metaphor I can think of is buttoned-down, but only in the way an Armani suit is buttoned-down. And the real accomplishment is that the same style is in evidence in poem after poem, and I still don’t crave a split seam. The poems are longish, the anecdotes take their time in unraveling, but good time is made.

If I had to complain, perhaps only for the sake of complaining, I’d say that Terpstra overdoes it a little with the natural world. Tree, temperature, weather, water, etc; they’re stock characters in Terpstra’s poetry, suggesting an old bag of metaphor he keeps reaching into. He’s right when, in “Hypotheses,” he writes

These are, of course, preposterous hypotheses, and it is
likely that only those who are willing to admit to an uncommon
empathy with trees would ever entertain them.

More compromisingly, his anecdotes could use some punching up: the wisdom he tacks on at the end of poems; for example, the parting shot of “Quantification,” where he writes

Outside the car the trees are taking back
their buds, and all the world is stretching
wider in between and all the world is homelike
      resistable as spring


might have used some help earlier on in this detail-heavy poem. One rather wishes, after much straightforward exposition, that a little more wisdom was leavened into the poems. I appreciate the juxtaposition of “homelike” and “alien,” I like the idea of comparing Spring and the world; there’s something mysterious at work there, something poetic. I just wish there were more of it. But do I also wish there were more verbal ruckus, more rhyme concatenation? Well, that would be to wish Terpstra to become the kind of poet he is not, and his stateliness more than redeems his overweening control, for a Terpstra poem is cohesive, it progresses to a point, usually at the end of the poem, where some notion is put forward, often beautifully. So to suggest that Terpstra should unbutton himself seems to fault him for what he does well.

All of this is not to say that there’s no life in a Terpstra poem beyond barometers and plant biology. There’s music, there’s conversation, there’s love, dancing, music, sports, travel, wildlife, history, elegy, and much more. From the perspective of a reader, and not a reviewer, I would (and will) recommend this book to friends just for sheer enjoyment, for the anecdotes are interesting in and of themselves. Terpstra does some interesting things with his poems, but then he also does some interesting things. Yet, beyond a sheer content perspective, what about the nature of the poetic endeavor? What about an overall judgment? There’s a definite intelligence at work, a canniness; the reader climbs a sturdy scaffolding to get to the top (a conclusion). But what’s most interesting about a Selected in the final analysis is not what’s in it, or what’s not in it. It’s about evolution — how that poetic intelligence progresses, matures. Do the poems change? Do the poems get souped-up or more spare, are there any new tricks?

If anything, Terpstra becomes more confessional as time passes. He toys with longer line lengths, and flirts (but does not completely go over) with lyric. His poems get longer, but do not get flabby (in fact, it I could offer Terpstra a challenge, it would be to write a lyric, and to do so briefly, if only to show versatility) and it’s a matter of special achievement that this is so, because the usual formula in Canadian poetry is to underwrite the long poem, to overstuff, to fill. Terpstra’s most comfortable at moving towards his inevitable conclusions, and it’s a delight to report that he gets better from book to book.

I do have one serious reservation, however. There is no signature poem in this volume, no anthem. A poet has to have something to be known by, and this was suggested initially by the fact that I knew Terpstra, had read Terpstra, but could recall no Terpstra. Admittedly, the long form does not help him in this regard; something short and snappy would be more digestible. But even his long poems, which deserve to be known, just don’t have that otherness, that trademark idiosyncrasy, that mandate possessed by a poet writing as no one else does. Reading Terpstra, I don’t get the sense that he’s writing something that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Which is to say: I think Terpstra good, I’d even nominate him as the best long-poem poet in the country. But there’s a reason I didn’t quote much from Two or Three Guitars in this review: It’s because there’s not much to quote in isolation. Terpstra’s poems are wholes, and as such aren’t amenable to selection. Here’s one taken at random, to give you an idea:

It may as well have been for forty days
and nights that we were on the long Atlantic.
Two by two, with children most of us
we packed out bags, walked the gangway, waved
and leaning on a deckrail watched the sea rise
up behind us, top the dikes and take the lives
of loved ones…
(“Forty Days and Forty Nights” 33)

Or how about this:

A sapling is no more than a tapered tube, a two-by-two. Six feet
up from the ground it projects awkward-looking sticks left and
right that end in bursts of leaf, bigger than expected. The leaves
themselves seeming oversized, out of proportion to the skinny
(“Adolescence” 59)

As anecdote or data they set a scene, but are hardly memorable, and can be thought of as functional only, and therefore don’t do justice to a poet who is saying something through an entire poem, and not part by part. Terpstra ambles, but calculatedly; one has to see the whole finessing performance – especially the end credits — to appreciate it fully.

The end? I doubt it. Tersptra has gotten better with age; he’s focused on what he’s good at; and he’s collected together a very good book. I suspect that, given another decade or two, we’ll be treated to another of these Selecteds. I’m sure his signature will be on it.