Brock, David James. Ten-Headed Alien. Hamilton: Buckrider Books, 2018. (ISBN # 978 1 928088 55 4). 93 pp.
As a reader, you might come to David James Brock’s second collection of poems, Ten-Headed Aliens, feeling a bit discombobulated at first. You don’t just ‘read’ the poems, but need to read and then re-read, spelunking about in your mind for mythic, pop culture, literary, political, theatrical, musical, and cinematic allusions. You need to sink in, let yourself steep in the poems a bit, before they begin to slowly unswirl and reveal themselves to you.
Divided into three sections, Prog I, Grunge, and Prog II: Ten-Headed Alien, this collection is reminiscent of the way in which a jellyfish might move through the water: the poems seem to expand, then shrink, then expand again, moving with the current or any slight ripple. Just when you think you’ve sorted it out, the jellyfish moves again, and you’re trying to find a place to anchor yourself. Some might find this frustrating, but I found it fascinating. There’s a layering in the work, throughout all three sections, that invites the reader to take an active part in how the poems unveil themselves. There’s a dissonance here that unsettles, but which is, at the same time, also terribly seductive. Reading Ten-Headed Alien becomes a collaborative effort between the reader and the text, a cerebral challenge, and then a reward when you complete the book and want to return to the beginning—to begin again, anew.
In the pacing of the stanzas and in the almost frantically styled enjambment of the lines, there is an underlying frisson of anxiety that weaves itself through the book. Brock is very good at wielding allusions to prog rock, art, theatre, literature, music, and then equally clever at pulling in the reader, then spinning them out again in a kind of mad, Tim Burton-esque sort of waltz. In the first poem, “Tell Me What to Do (Now that I’m Awake),” the poet sets the pace for the work. He uses repetition and echo throughout, linking images to one another with a deft hand. “Tell me where to watch tonight’s moon set from a sober white cliff” slides cleverly into the next line, “Waxing. Waning. Gibbous. Billy Gibbons.” You feel almost as if you are following him through the book, as if he’s leading you forward, encouraging, but also challenging you to take part. You simply can’t be a bystander when you read this poetry; it engages on many levels, most of which are cerebral at first, but then deeply emotional underneath.
Loss shows up in “balloon Balloon BALLOON,” reveals itself in a countdown that is reflected in the structure of the stanzas. The character of ‘robot’ is embedded in this piece, but there’s something so not robotic about the final few lines: “She reads loss as blue balloons on the moon, planted by the astronaut/who didn’t make it home./She reads loss as a field of blue looking for wind./Loss as a lonely spaceman on moon prairie, singing anthems of/one-way trips.” There’s such great beauty here, in the imagery, and in the way the poignant tone catches you off guard as Brock juxtaposes the notion of a robot with an emotion. It’s sharply crafted, zinging with contrast.
Mythological references abound. You’ll find Narcissus and Echo hanging out in a bar in “Narcissus, Shiny Bar, Echo.” Just when you think it might get a bit heavy, Brock uses humour to lighten it all. He describes the two in a quirky vignette: “The bar top/is scuffed from similar moments of self-reflection--/knocked on by rings and watches, carved by Camaro keys.” Then, it’s followed up with these haunting lines: “Somehow the past always divines an empty stool in/a dark bar,” and later, the poem completes itself with the idea that “a mirror between them breaks by new roots,/and a trunk thrust up through bottles and dust.” Well-known myths shapeshift, remake themselves in postmodern ways that are quirky and whimsical, but then pull you back into some kind of beauty.
In “Someone is Always Telling You Not to Worry,” a too busy head and anxiety make themselves known: “It happens anyway, these worries. Asteroids miss/the Earth by parsecs sometimes. Predictions/for the end of the world are fifty-fifty.” It’s that dry wit of a voice that offers a bit of humour and levity to the collection. It’s that voice that lightens and brightens when things might seem to get a bit weighty.
The final, titular section is complex and impressive in its scope. Poetic sequences may or may not always work. This one does. The ten heads of an imagined alien are reflections of voice, trees, oceans, fresh water, beauty, war, thought, emotion, action, and diplomacy. They are paired with constellation poems. There’s a conversational weaving and braiding between pieces here. Everything seems, at first, rooted in myth and origin, and then finds itself shattered in a future that is painted in bleak shades. There are ruins, and a sad knowledge that so much has been needlessly lost. The whole section feels like a heart ache at the end, but then you know you need to read it again. For me, that means that Ten Headed Alien is a good collection, that Brock has woven a complex tapestry which offers a sense of great depth and fulfilment if you enter into it as an active reader (and lover) of poetry.
Kim Fahner was the fourth poet laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury (2016-18), and also the first woman to be appointed to the role. Kim has published four volumes of poetry, including her latest, Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press, 2017). Her play, Sparrows Over Slag, had a staged reading at PlaySmelter New Work Theatre Festival (in collaboration with Pat the Dog Theatre Creation), in May 2018 at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. She is currently working on her second novel and completing a play-in-progress. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and PEN Canada. She blogs at The Republic of Poetry at kimfahner.wordpress.com. Her website is www.kimfahner.com