The Mechanical Bird

June 25, 2009

420Asa Boxer
Signal Editions, 2007

Asa Boxer’s award winning The Mechanical Bird plays with the inconsistency of appearance and reality, poking beneath the surface of the world to get to where truth bends, and imagination starts. His poems rely heavily on imagery as well as imagination, and their success is in the writer’s ability to transform ordinary objects and words into enchanted ones.

The book opens with one of the most vivid poems in the collection, The Map. Here Boxer explores beauty and whimsy in the folding pages of a map, teasing our desire to situate our surroundings, and explore unknown paths simultaneously. The language and imagery is playful, and coaxes the reader into the traveler’s imagination – “Each turn and fold makes an origami creature of the world” – we see each delicate shape unfold as the lyrical arrangement and shuffling of words create a film-like progression in the mind’s eye. The endless possibilities of the world are captured gracefully here through the permutations of the map. And the reader, along with the traveler, retrains his eyes and prepares himself for the journey that is to come.

In the following poems animals and inanimate objects are stirred into a dreamy, enchanted existence where their interactions and nuances bring charm to the poetic voice. Boxer dedicates pages to drawing out the dream world of a polar bear and cat, attaching philosophical pondering to things like the slowness of a turtles gait, and using the language of love to describe a lamb being swallowed by a snake. In Maledicta, he curses animals, people, nature, and, finally, the universe for the misery and destruction brought upon the earth, interesting, as the curses only serve to sentence the world to more harm. In one good line he humorously curses the lovers, that they may “have more children than they can afford”.

Less whimsical and more serious poems, such as Terror in Jerusalem, and In Hitler’s Holy Land, prove that Boxer can move away from lighter material and offer something profound in his turn. This, however, is not always a strength. Take for example, Amad. A piece that comments on class and injustice, it builds on the idea of stardom in the cinematic sense – an unreachable universe for a man of low rank. The poet sympathizes with Amad, destined to a life of menial labor, despite his movie star looks. Unfortunately, the tone of this poem veers into the zone dominated by televised UNICEF adverts and Sunday school teachers. We know the effect he’s going for quite well, and even the least jaded readers are likely to feel their strings being manipulated. To top it off, the poem culminates in a series of rhetorical questions, including a very big one about love. I’d like to say it’s an interesting concept, but mostly it just reminds me of the pseudo-humanitarian lot I went to CEGEP with. Such subject matter must be handled with utmost care!

In short, Boxer’s writing is strongest when it sheds its sobriety and dips into the enchanted world so many of his characters dwell in. When the playful and the free-spirited come out, the poet loosens his tongue, straps on his thinking cap, and takes the reader for a ride. At such moments one discovers delight in the darndest of corners: the clockwork heart of a chugging train, a supermarket lobster in his tank, a little white lie. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009.