Another bit of work slipping into the pleasure reading for the year, but John Terpstra’s Brilliant Falls would have been on this list anyways had I owned it when I made the list. Terpstra is a Hamilton-based poet who has consistently and unfairly flown under the radar of Canadian poetry`s landscape for a long time now. I`m not totally sure why this is, but it might be partly because he has taken a rather unconventional path to poetry. Where many Canadian poets are employed by universities or colleges to pay their bills, Terpstra is a self-employed cabinetmaker. This career is reflected in his poetic output with Naked Trees being a reflection of his own relationship to urban trees while numerous other poems take up trees and wood. The other reason that Terpstra might be passed over is because of his Christian overtones and imagery. His own relationship to the church and faith is explored in Skin Boat: Acts of Faith and Other Navigations, a work of non-fiction published in a beautiful edition by Gaspereau Press. Regardless, Brilliant Falls is a strong collection of poems by a mature poet who knows his voice and craft.
While many poetry collections lack a strong sense of connection across their length, this is not the case with Brilliant Falls. Human mortality is featured in many of the poems with a sequence of six poems, in particular, that reflect on death and its meaning for those who go on living. This is, in no small part, because Terpstra`s own parents have died in the last number of years and poems like “Driving Home Christmas” and “Emptying the House” reflect directly on these experiences. “Driving Home Christmas” is one of the strongest poems in the collection as Terpstra works his way through his father’s death near Christmas Day and the annual depression he undergoes at this time of year now. I particularly like how he skillfully weaves mortality with the Christian meaning of Christmas which celebrates the birth of God. What I think I like most of all is his honesty – it is clear that Terpstra struggled to write through these lines and I appreciate this. Reflecting on the lack of people at his father’s funeral, Terpstra writes
” … The place should have been packed,
but it was Christmas Eve, people were busy or away,
and it’s not as though the place was empty, but that I
expected more, and didn’t know I expected more
until the building didn’t fill to the rafters,
and the sky didn’t open to angels. Singing.”
The lack of crowd contrasts with the speaker’s own sense of death while Terpstra also alludes to the familiar Christmas annunciation story with angels announcing Christ’s birth. My favorite poem in the collection is “Topographies of Easter,” the poem from which the book’s title comes. Terpstra’s Falling into Place, a work of creative non-fiction exploring Hamilton’s geography, is a personal favorite and in “Topographies of Easter” Terpstra looks again at the Hamilton landscape. He describes Hamilton’s landscape as:
” … this body that is broken
by time and season and violence too deep
for us to wonder at the source, broken
into beauty that lures our present rambling
and leads us to the edge of this escarpment”
I love the way Terpstra recognizes the enormity of geological forces; forces which dwarf the human ability to manipulate the world. But I also love the way that Terpstra captures the rugged beauty of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological feature that lures us forward. I’ll admit that I am biased towards Terpstra because of my own religious views and the fact that I live in Hamilton. However, I do think that his poetry is well worth the time.
I highly recommend Brilliant Falls for any fans of Canadian poetry.
Terpstra, John. Brilliant Falls Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2013. Print.