Butcher’s Block

March 4, 2010

Deanna Fong

PistolPress, 2008

Deanna Fong’s Butcher’s Block is a slim but gripping collection of poetry by an emerging author with a gift for the one-two punch.

Part One, “From Skin to Bones,” opens strongly with the witty “Five Foods for Sexual Deviants”, with such sonorous kickers as “Whether one grunts and snuffles/ through soil and foliage, or/ snouts and nuzzles/ in the ruffles of undergarments”. A current of quiet violence runs through the section,  Such mundane details as the action of chopping beets (“A beet,/ shocked from blood loss,/ lies truncated on/ the wooden cutting board”) and the angle at which seed pods hang (“gesturing obscenely”) take on sinister undertones. Fong’s ability for poignant characterization comes in sketches here—the portrait of Croation boxer Mirko Filipović, whose farm work is contrasted with his later boxing career (“Crocop”), and the run-down of a Phoenician wife’s dinner preparations (“Europa”). Overall, “From Skin to Bones” maintains an almost surgical distance that befits its subject matter.

The second section, “The Exploration,” is a road trip in vignettes from a “Brief History of Canadian Punk Houses” through various locales across the country in which a fairly consistent first-person speaking voice emerges. Eclectic and spare, the “Punk Houses” and “Courtenay” are narrated through carefully chosen details. In one of the punk houses of the speaker’s youth, “Decadent Squalor (Montreal, 2004-2005)”, readers witness a contract typical of this poem between idealism and stark materiality: “We’re all led by the/ Spirit of Revolution./ Dishes go unwashed.” “Courtney” offers a tour through a single residence: “The living room:/ A symphony of water droplets fall from wet, black laundry”. Paradoxically, these poems are closer to the speaker while further from the bone. While the tone is not as uniformly punchy as it is in Part One and leans towards nostalgia on occasion, there are some deft sensual and linguistic moments, such as “Montreal”’s simultaneous hyperbolic inventiveness and commentary on the city and its weather: “It’s snowing sodium bicarbonate and it’s snowing cocaine./ …It’s snowing en Christ, en calisse, and en p’tit tabernacle.

Of all the sections, “Hearts” bears the flattest title and the greatest emotional depth. The precisely metered sonnet “Letter from Robodad-02/05/97” is followed by “Letter to Robodad-March 14th, 1997,” in which a mother’s grieving process—sewing and saving thimbles of blood collected from needle pricks—is described in spare lyric form by her son; the tonal shift is affecting. “Hearts” is filled with encounters between distant figures and family members, with the violence of “From Skin to Bones” recurring in the final poem, “To Bilyana,” a wide-ranging and unusual tribute to “platonic love [which] is the greatest of all loves”. The narrator’s youthful energy, where it emerges, propels us. Bilyana Ilievska’s black and white illustrations complement the tone of the poems. From them one gets the overall sense of a fragmented family, of people inhabiting the same spaces but evidently not touching. In some cases, the isolation is that of landscape, the fragmentation that of self.

Butcher’s Block is smooth but not comforting reading. While there is definite distance between its three sections, a verve persists throughout. Read it for its ability to distil moments of violence in mundane acts. Read it for its quirkiness and wit. Then lend your copy to your friends. Reviewed by Melanie Bell, 2010.