GUERNICA EDITIONS (Toronto) has published my latest collection of poetry:
Sightlines (ISBN 978-1-77183-133-8
"This collection is truly global in scope and universal in perspective. From a bog near Ottawa to the lagoons of Venice, from a chamber concert in anOntario barn to a blind beggar in Mexico, from the infinities of interstellar space to the birth of a grandson – Henry Beissel celebrates the world in allits richness, mysteries and ecstasies, without ever flinching from its contradictions and torments, and offers exciting sightlines on the human condition".
Here is a sample poem:
Times of War
missiles can no more blow up the human spirit
tanks can crush an idea.
the weapons of the impotent,
wouldn't trade one line of true poetry
thousand of them. The blood flowers
in a poem
while bombs can only spill it.
can shatter glass and shred the flesh
cannot silence the song in a people's heart.
missiles fly on imagination's wings ‑
poems aimed to explode in the heart
the violence of love and compassion.
flatter princes to think the sword mightier
pen, but we have the last word.
poet pioneers paths of freedom
places on the future's mouth a brotherhood kiss
rage of a rainstorm that makes the desert bloom.
every man, woman and child wears a helmet
hammer from a metal harder than any steel ‑
of their faith in creation.
tear a person limb from limb
cannot sever a song from the listening heart,
your missiles long rust in scrapyards
tears will have watered the desert
yesterday's laughter blossom into tomorrow's love.
enemy this: Yes,
still writing poems, and if your grenades
our hands, we'll sing them into the future.
 This was my reply to
a poem by a princess-poet from Kuwait who rhapsodied the war effort (against
Iran) at the El-Mirbed Festival in Baghdad (1986) by declaring that this was no
time for poetry and that she’d trade a hundred poets for one soldier. I wrote
the poem overnight and it was read the next day in English & in Arabic – to
the consternation of the many army officers in the audience.
Here is a review of Sightlines:
A Shelf Called Essential
by John B. Lee
On rare occasions one reads a Canadian poetry book as
fine as Henry Beissel’s Sightlines, an important book engaging important
themes, a book that might take its place upon a shelf called essential. Some of those essentials have earned their
place because they are a first of their kind, or because they have historical
significance in the literary development of this nation. I think here of titles by Crawford, Lampman,
and Knister to name a few. More
recently, there are those books that are something of an apotheosis. Al Purdy’s
Caribou Horses, Margaret Avison’s The Dumbfounding, and other relatively
early-in-life titles by Irving Layton, P.K. Page, Raymond Souster, and Alden
Nowlan, to name a few. (I shall refrain
from citing more recent examples to avoid the ego wars that might
erupt were I to do so.) That said there
are those late-in-life achievements that rival the accomplishments of
individual poets in the full vigor of youth.
Margaret Avison’s Concrete and Wild Carrot come to mind. Here is a serious poet for serious readers
doing some of the best writing of her life in her mid to late eighties. And octogenarian Henry Beissel’s Sightlines seems a worthy companion
to that late-in-life masterpiece.
There are those poets indulging in intellectual
gamesmanship to the eternal fascination of readers who prize the mind over all
else that seem to get the attention of the media and academics. Like birthday sparklers and party favours,
the fizzle and bang of experimental language and brilliant performance soon
enough fade and rarely, if ever, go deep.
How might we place any of the practitioners of this sort of stage over
page wordplay on the same shelf as Shakespeare or Keats, Dickinson or Heaney, Oliver or Frost? In the words of Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz,
“There must be a middle place between abstraction and childishness where
one can talk seriouslyaboutserious things.” And Henry Beissel fills the bill. He is serious without being solemn, he is
deep without being sententious, and he is profound without the needless
obscurity that often mars bad poetry, that muddies its waters to make them look
deep. In the closing lines of his
closing poem, his cri de coeur is the
sort of clear water drawn from the deep wells that might slake the thirst of
human yearning shared by all in every age of humanity. In his final poem, “Starry Nights,” he
Hold me, love, hold me in a
that we may know we are not
in this thundering
silence. We are such stuff
as stars are made of and
for better and for worse,
their fate. Let us, love,
be their most exquisite
Here we have a blending of literary allusion, familiar
phrase, simple rhetoric, and original coinage making a new argument from an
old, thereby connecting an ekphrastic contemplation of Van Gogh’s painting with
the large theme of individual incarnation and cosmic dust. And this poem is no exception to the other
brilliant poems written about life as a human being on this troubled
planet: “Threescore and ten, and still
learning/ That fragile nature has it over ageless art,/ Still learning it is
the simple things/ That cheer and nourish the human heart.” (closing lines from “Threescore and Ten/ And
I cannot praise this book too much. Beissel is a poet who tackles the big themes
and he does not shy away from the dark and horrible deeds of humanity. His own childhood in Nazi Germany, coming of
age in a nation descended into madness and the crippling horrors of human
cruelty qualify him to write with poignancy about “three mounds/ of shoes /
– as in Auschwitz/ of skulls/ – as in Cambodia/ of ashes/ – as in Hiroshima.”
And yet never to descend into existential despair or hopelessness concluding
this poem “Dialogue with a Polish Poet” with these lines “Sometimes the imagination
opens a door/ behind which an infinite space/ full of stars and voices waiting/
and you know if/ you ever cross the threshold/ you will fall and fall/
forever.” This falling reminds me of
Emily Dickinson’s lines “I broke a plank of reason/ and struck a world at every
plunge.” They are not lines of despair
and the hopeless void or the bottomless abyss.
The previous verse gives context to this ‘falling’ where he assures the
reader “My dreams aren’t all nightmares. / I remember them in my poems – /
those solitudes I share/ with friends dead and alive,/ those spaces I outgrow/
as I learn to occupy them.”
Beissel’s book is a book for readers who want to think,
to contemplate, to feel, to experience, to imagine, to dream, to
remember, to forgive, to celebrate, to cherish music, poetry, art and
nature. The book begins with a series of
descriptive long line lyrical observations of the natural world that are among
the best of their kind I have read in a very long while. The opening lines of the first poem set the
stage for things to come. “I’ve watched
the news and walk down the lane/ into the forest where the rain’s voice is
still green/ as August.”
I say read this book.
It is a fine book. It is, dare I
say, an essential book. It belongs on
the shelf called essential. In
his epigram, Beissel writes “In the mind’s theatre sightlines determine where
and who you are.” Henry Beissel writes
“Tell the enemy this: Yes,/ We’re still writing poems, and if your grenades/
blow off our hands, we’ll sing them into the future.” And this book sings on and into the future.
To order your copy, send $25 ($20 + $5 P&H) to Henry Beissel, 34 Woodview
Crescent, Ottawa, Ont., K1B 3A9.
John B. Lee is Poet
Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity and Poet Laureate of Norfolk
County for life.