Flux is everything a significant debut should be--the arrival of a fresh, confident voice with an extraordinary range of form, direction and style.
From a sequence that captures the art and vocabulary of commercial fishing with careful precision, Denham bursts into a free-flowing and varied narrative based on the angst-ridden and picaresque life of a hitchhiking, cigarette-scrounging West Coast university student. Between these poles, Flux draws on Denham's broad palette of expression to evoke the various shades of urban life: house fires, street life, garbage strikes, disturbing and life-affirming revelations of young love, and friends and relatives possessed by drugs, child abuse and suicide.
All of this leads to "Two Waters," Denham's brilliant long poem painstakingly laying out the natural beauty and geography of the small coastal town he grew up in and its transformation into "Memories rippling/ On the periphery of vision between clean new buildings . . . Stripmalls. Traffic. Suburbia's/ Low-swell panic moving in . . ."
About the author
Joe Denham is the author of Flux (Nightwood Editions, 2003), Windstorm (Nightwood Editions, 2009), and The Year of Broken Glass (Nightwood Editions, 2011) His most recent poetry collection, Regeneration Machine (Nightwood Editions, 2015) was the winner of the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets (Nightwood Editions, 2004). He is currently at work on a sequel to Windstorm, and is preparing to release his first album of songs, Lost at Sea, in the spring of 2017. He lives with his wife and two children in Halfmoon Bay, BC.
Excerpt: Flux (by (author) Joe Denham)
I etch ephemeral sketches in flat, black water,
swirling the pike pole like a sparkler wand,
the steel spear tip igniting fairy-dust krill
as we drift in to haul up our catch.
An industrial gramophone, the hauler
churns a music of creak and moan
over the rumbling whine of diesel
and hydraulics, the echo of our exhaustion.
We sit astride the gunwale, hunched
and awing at the swooping arc of green
the line bends below the surface,
tugging the boat over the set -
till traps stream like marine comets
emerging from the depths in a burst of glow
and morphing back to bare utility
whatever beauty we've begun to imagine.
Black mesh torn by the rock shelf's clinging
resistance, its gnarled-tooth gnawing, this trap's
become a sieve all but octopus, Dungeness
and dogfish slip through. Between
strings I take the mending needle
spooled with green twine, stitch
the gaps the way my skipper sealed
the gash in his own palm
when a hook embedded in the line
hauled through his hand and ripped it open.
Everything out here is sharp-edged,
broken. Half our time working with holes
we've no time to mend. I take
each spare moment to tie frayed ends:
reef for tension, knot the twine,
and cinch down tight.
It was December. I'd never seen a sub-zero winter.
I must have been struck by the absence of green,
spindly trees thrusting branches of nothing
up towards thin overcast: a mirror
image of the snowed plain, trackless, without frame.
I can't say why it was I left the contour
of my huddled family watching father
lift a frozen coyote from steel jaws
and wandered into that veiled expanse -
Nor do I recall the crack as frail ice splintered beneath my feet,
or the gust of awareness that rises when life turns
just the plow of my quickened legs through the snow, crust
rasping against my knees,
and the chorus of cleft voices rising to the fore
calling me back to the familiar shore.
"Joe Denham displays similar precision in the sequence "Night Haul, Morning Set," a pitch-perfect suite of sixteen sixteen-line poems about his time as a commercial fisherman on the West Coast. Like Trower, Denham exploits the specialized vocabulary of his trade to its fullest potential, his poems stocked with terms like "hauler," "set," "pike pole," "davit" and more; terms obscure to the layman but which need no explanation because they are props in vividly realized scenes. And like Babstock, Denham presents the sometimes bleak plight of the worker obliquely, drawing subtle lines of connection between the life of prey and predator. In one poem, rain gear is "[s]tiff as a crustacean's carapace"; in another oneiric piece, the speaker "crawl[s] the sea floor, crustaceous" and is then violently hauled up to the surface; in another, the poet reflects on his subordinate role in the piscine economy while gutting a squid:
I bring the glinting blade down and
cut the blue-grey guts away, catch
my reflection in the steel-shaft
mirror: guilt-wracked, gut-sick
for two bucks a pound, fish feed,
tako sushi on Robson Street.
These poems display a wealth of dramatic tension, metaphorical vaulting, verbal dexterity and formal wherewithal. They present work not as a cardboard template for ideological grandstanding, but as a complex and fully realized verbal world."
-Zach Wells, Maisonneuve Magazine
<i>Maisonneuve</i> Magazine Full Review
"With a lyric intensity refreshingly free of pop pyrotechnics Joe Denham's poems pull compelling music from work, love and grief. Immersed in urban and rural angst, in natural splendour and a desperate resource economy, his resources are self-awareness, imagistic integrity and an emerging grace note of personal responsibility, of sympathy, a premonition of homecoming."
"Joe Denham is just what the insular Canadian poetry world needed - an unheralded talent. Not since Ken Babstock has such a poet arrived..." -Shane Neilson, Arc
"A refreshing debut from a new and energetic poet. Denham writes compellingly about his experiences in the bush and on the beach, mending nets and hauling traps. Poems for those who've been there. A sparkling new voice on the west coast."
"A book seems almost an inappropriate medium for these poems. They are too accessible, too real to be relegated to a bookshelf. . . ."
-The Martlet (University of Victoria)
"'Night Haul, Morning Set'... demonstrates the success of writing in which choices are made with an eye and ear driven by literary fidelity to what one perceives or experiences. The tangible quality of the work done here lends itself to rich word deposits, which Denham uses to his, and the reader's, advantage... The poems strive to convey vivid and meaningful--and hence memorable--images, such as the men on the boat as musicians waiting on cue; of the music in the boat's 'industrial gramophone'; of the tight-fit on the ship, as one is 'bent into the boat's cramped belly.'"
-Jennifer Varkonyi, Books in Canada
Books in Canada
"Joe Denham has been deservedly praised for his technical competence and his first-hand testimony to manual labour, and in Flux he makes fierce music out of prawn fishing... Denham displays integrity and respect in his engagement with the mountains and waters of the West Coast. His work has been favourably compared with the work of Patrick Lane... Denham is a thoughtful and articulate witness reporting from the frontlines of the crisis, and his talent forces us to listen."
-warren heiti, Canadian Literature
"Joe Denham writes about the sea in a manner at once lyrical and refreshingly unromantic... There's a pull here between natural and artificial landscape that gives this collection a real spark."
-Chris Knight, Canadian Book Review Annual
Canadian Book Review Annual
"Less sentimental than the work of Brad Cran but not as hard-knuckled as that of Ken Babstock, Denham is nevertheless a manly man poet, with tales of broken guitars, boyhood scraps and middle-of-the-night sex, plus a few well-placed pieces of profanity."
-Emily Schultz, Broken Pencil
". . . roughly hewn cadences of work and pain, an all-pervading awareness of mortality, and a quiet sense of the sacred. . . One can hear faint echoes of Purdy and Patrick Lane in the tight, muscular voice, while such poems as "Dowsing" echo with Seamus Heaney. Yet Denham's voice remains his own."
-Rob Wiersema, Quill and Quire
Quill and Quire
". . . salt-seared philosophies and sharp images colliding."
-Robert Moore, Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg Free Press
"These poems display a wealth of dramatic tension, metaphorical vaulting, verbal dexterity and formal wherewithal. They present work not as a cardboard template for ideological grandstanding, but as a complex and fully realized verbal world."
-Zach Wells, Maisonneuve Magazine
"Denham writes of the hydraulic details of work, memory's second-guesses and aching knots, the itch of passing time, out of a solitude both fragile and resolute. His poems live here in a state of heads-up--wide awake, eyes open."
"A new direction for Canadian poetry . . . Denham is wonderful. Denham's protean, sonically incisive language--with its on-the-go speed--requires from us a broader notion of 'experimental' . . . [David] O'Meara and Denham are now central players in a generation whose collective achievements promise to add to the stock of Canadian poetry's available poetic modes. What they now need--and deserve--is readers."
-Carmine Starnino, Globe and Mail
Globe and Mail