Mortality Comes Home, and Other Poems: Brilliant Falls

9781554471232_bAnother 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.


Murder and Intrigue in Hamilton!: Beach Strip

beach stripI have a confession to make: some of my work reading has snuck onto this list. Right now I’m running behind in my work, so I have had to re-jig my reading a little to allow me to start some research on my next dissertation chapter. I should have heeded E.’s warning that this would happen, but I did not.

Beach Strip is a crime/mystery novel set along Hamilton’s Beach Strip. This small strip of land juts out into Lake Ontario and is absolutely gorgeous. I have walked and cycled it many times and thoroughly enjoyed it, so it was fun to read a mystery novel set along it. Reynolds does a very good job evoking the rich historical and contemporary community that exists along the strip. This was definitely the highlight of the novel for me. I had known some of the area’s history, but Reynolds filled in a lot of gaps. In reviewing my notes after finishing the novel, it seems like the first 100 pages or so of the novel spends more time setting up the place than actually moving along the plot. I had no problems with this, but fans of the mystery genre might not appreciate this so much.

A quick note here about reading styles: I realized that I read differently when I’m doing research for my work than when I am reading for pleasure. I can read really quickly if it is for pleasure whereas research reading is much slower with an eye for any detail/image/theme that might be useful for my project. It’s like the difference between looking at a painting with the naked eye or with a magnifying glass. This is not to say I like one more than the other, just that they are different. Are there other reading styles beyond this? Does scanning a news story constitute a third kind of reading? What about reading advertisements on the bus or in the mall?

The central premise is the “suicide” of a police officer, Gabe, and the story of Josie, his wife, and her attempt to prove that he was actually murdered. There is plenty of police intrigue, most of which I wasn’t particularly interested in – it’s probably a genre thing. The story is told in first-person through Josie’s voice, and I appreciated the humor and depth Reynolds brought to the character. She seemed like the most complete character while some of the others seemed more like stock mystery characters – again probably a genre thing. The pacing was good and the thematic focus on the beach made it compelling.

I have never been a big reader of crime fiction and Beach Strip has not changed this fact. At moments I was getting into the “game,” if I can call it that, that crime/mystery novels play. I was trying to sleuth out who did it, but I realized that I did not really know the rules of the genre so found it tough going. I’m assuming that mystery novels never pull a deus ex machina move with the killer/culprit being someone that has not been introduced at some early point in the novel. I noticed a couple of important clues in the process of reading, items like a missing notebook, a character’s connection to a ring, and so on, but I never spent the time connecting the dots. I did think at one point I had it figured out, but the character I suspected was simply a false lead left by Reynolds (points to him for that). I feel like I could be convinced to read more crime fiction, but I think it will need a good argument/ a couple of novels to do so.

I would recommend this book to people already interested in crime/mystery fiction or to people who want to know more about Hamilton’s beach strip and are willing to read a murder mystery to do so.


Reynolds, John Lawrence. Beach Strip. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.