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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Book Review: John Yamrus They Never Told Me This Would Happen . Epic Rites Press, 2012 (53 pages).

This is a smaller collection of poetry than John Yamrus’s two previous excellent Epic Rites Press books Doing Cartwheels On Doomsday Afternoon (2010) and Can’t Stop Now! (2011). It features forty-four minimalistic poems. The free verse is carefully sliced to the bone and what remains are clean, clear lines. The poems are at the cutting-edge of experimentation in what might be termed literary reductionism & Yamrus adopts many forms, including anecdotal narratives, portraits, micropoems and aphorisms to homerun his ideas.

The striking cover photograph by the Canadian poet R.L. Raymond features a close-up of a hangman’s rope over a pine beam. This is an apt metaphor as Yamrus often explores death in a wry, ironic way. His message is that death is an inevitable part of life and needs to be confronted head-on. The title They Never Told Me This Would Happen is ironic in that the naïve speaker cannot see his own death coming. 

In the opening poem of the collection ‘think about it’ the speaker asks the reader to imagine ‘if everything in your life// was perfect.’ He concludes matter-of-factly ‘don’t let them fool you…/ god knew what he was doing// when he created/ death.’ Yamrus reminds us of our fallibilities & our mortality- that many things in life will not go as we have planned, despite our best efforts. In ‘pancreatic cancer’ as in Hamlet death is seen as the great leveler and in the micropoem ‘if’ he grimly suggests it ‘is only a/ matter of time’. In ‘the’ he makes his intensions clear. We need to ‘look/ death/ square/ in/ the/ eye// and/ stare/ that/ mother/ down.’

In the collection Yamrus also revisits many of his other well-trodden themes- his professional career as a writer, dogs, his relationship with his wife and Bukowski. 

Yamrus presents himself as a rebel poet, as a writer who is comfortable in what he does. He expresses a disdain for open mic nights and in ‘they stopped’ asks an unidentified reader not to send him his/her poetry, he’d rather ‘run/ the vacuum.’ In ‘the facebook poets’ he derisively puts the boot into the self-congratulatory antics of internet typists who have the audacity to call ‘each other poets.’ 

The best poem in which Yamrus explicitly comments on his poetics is ‘he asked me’ in which a reader asks him when he knows a poem is ‘done’. He tells him: ‘i told him/ that I write it all down.//…and/ start cutting.// i keep cutting/ till i hit bone,// and/ when i do,// there’s your poem.’

he asked me

how do i write a poem, and
when do i know
that it's done.

that was a
fair enough question,

so i gave him
a fair enough answer.

i told him
that i write it all down.

i write it all

start cutting.

i keep cutting
till i hit 

when i do,

there's your poem.

(reprinted with the author's permission)

My favourite poems in the collection are probably the short portrait poems such as ‘Tanya loved’, ‘Old Clarkie’, ‘she’ and ‘Les Ismore’. Yamrus presents us with the barest of thumb-nail sketches. It’s up to us as readers to fill in the details or to draw comparisons of people who have inhabited our own lives.

This is an impressive book of pared down poems. No one can cut the guts out of language and leave things bare but accessible like Yamrus.  He is the antithesis of circumlocution. The older he gets the less meat appears on his probvervial bone.

If you are unfamiliar with John Yamrus’s writing I recommend you start with Doing Cartwheels On Doomsday Afternoon (2010) because of the sheer size and scope of the book. Buy it on Amazon here:

For more information about John Yamrus and his books check out his website: