Dominique Bernier-Cormier’s Ear Impresses in Debut Collection
Goose Lane Editions
With its icehouse poetry imprint, Fredericton’s Goose Lane Editions is fast becoming one of my favourite poetry publishers in Canada. In addition to special projects like The Witch of the Inner Wood, a selection of M Travis Lane’s long poems (2016) and the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan (2017), it has recently released a number of impressive debuts, including Stevie Howell’s eclectic and engrossing [Sharps] (2014) and Kevin Shaw’s exquisitely composed Smaller Hours (2017).
It seems fitting that Correspondent, Dominique Bernier-Cormier’s first collection, should be part of this imprint. Comprising three main sections, a prologue and an epilogue, the book showcases the poet’s facility with both free verse and prose poems. The three central sections provide lyric narrative accounts of three crises from recent world history: “Kursk” sketches the sinking of a Russian submarine in August 2000; “Massoud” depicts the assassination of Afghan political leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001; and “Nord-Ost” represents the hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre in October 2003. These events are known to Bernier-Cormier through the work of his father, a CBC/Radio Canada correspondent.
These sections contain the book’s prose poems, while the prologue and epilogue are written in free verse. The prologue is a bilingual poem in English and French that announces the book’s themes of communication and the limits of human language. Across the three prose sections, Bernier-Cormier will come back to this poem’s central message, the recognition that not all human language successfully transmits meaning, and that not all communication of meaning happens via the spoken word. “[M]es doigts sur le piano parlant mieux le Russe [sic] que ma bouche” the speaker says here in French, recalling his childhood in Russia—“My fingers on the piano speaking Russian better than my mouth”.
The prose poems provide a narrative coherence within the book’s sections while allowing the author to explore the range of his stylistic talents. The sections are polyphonic—written from the perspective of the poet as well as those caught within the depicted tragedies—and multilingual, with brief passages in French and Russian. (I can’t comment on the Russian but the French passages are unfortunately marred by the occasional spelling mistake.) They feature text from other sources—notes from the captain of the Kursk, a Facebook post by Massoud’s son and a documentary on the Moscow theatre hostage crisis—interspersed in the poems and indicated by bold and italic characters.
In relating these tragedies, the poet returns to his initial musings on language and communication. So in “Kursk” are the men in the sinking submarine shown punching “rescue signals in Morse code against the walls”, their attempts to reach the outside falling short: “They take turns punching, so the sentence never ends, the wave never breaks. Trying to write on the outside of the ship, their steel fists rising out like Braille. So in a hundred years, tourists will dive to the wreck and run their gloved hands softly along the hull, reading their silent screams.”
Bernier-Cormier’s ear is impressive. He balances short, clipped sentences and fragments with more complex sentences to create a smooth cadence. There is the occasional subtle half rhyme, as in the “Nord-Ost” sequence: “An NTV journalist breaks from the line, lifts the police tape. A cameraman and a doctor walk with him. White coat blowing in the wind, wet stethoscope around his neck. Cameras follow them. The city holds its breath”.
As this passage shows, the poet also has a talent for vivid description, though he does not shy away from figurative language. A particularly evocative metaphor comes in the section “Massoud,” where the poet represents his father conducting interviews: “Behind doors my father can’t open, women lift the blue skies of their veils and tell Tania about their lives”. Here Bernier-Cormier juxtaposes a literal enclosure—the women’s houses where his father is not permitted—with a figurative opening up of narrative.
Correspondent is a book of re-casting and re-telling stories. In the collection’s end matter the poet acknowledges the limits of his perspective and the creative liberties he took in the project. While his tone is deferential, almost apologetic, I am not wholly convinced that these stories are for Bernier-Cormier to tell. Nevertheless, his poetic skill is undeniable and I am intrigued by what he has to say about human communication and the inevitable failings of our languages.