Henry Beissel - "Words point to what cannot be said."
Summer 2016

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:

Manifesto in Times of War[1]
 
Tell the enemy this:
that missiles can no more blow up the human spirit
than tanks can crush an idea.
Guns are the weapons of the impotent,
and I wouldn't trade one line of true poetry
for a thousand of them. The blood flowers
in a poem while bombs can only spill it.
Shrapnel can shatter glass and shred the flesh
but it cannot silence the song in a people's heart.
                       
Tell the enemy this:
that our missiles fly on imagination's wings ‑
they're poems aimed to explode in the heart
with all the violence of love and compassion.
It may flatter princes to think the sword mightier
than the pen, but we have the last word.
The true poet pioneers paths of freedom
and places on the future's mouth a brotherhood kiss
with the rage of a rainstorm that makes the desert bloom.
           
Tell the enemy this:
that every man, woman and child wears a helmet
poets hammer from a metal harder than any steel ‑
the metal of their faith in creation.
You can tear a person limb from limb
but you cannot sever a song from the listening heart,
and when your missiles long rust in scrapyards
today's tears will have watered the desert
to make yesterday's laughter blossom into tomorrow's love.
 
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.
                               
                                          *
[1]          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 writes:
 
Hold me, love, hold me in a tight embrace
that we may know we are not alone
in this thundering silence.  We are such stuff
as stars are made of and must share,
for better and for worse, their fate.  Let us, love,
be their most exquisite consummation.
 
            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 Still Learning.”)    
 
            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.
 
 
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