Beauty in the Brokenness: A Review of Geoff Inverarity’s All the Broken Things

All the Broken Things
Geoff Inverarity
Anvil Press
2021, 128 pp., $18.00

Galiano Island writer Geoff Inverarity’s website describes him as someone who “writes poetry for people who don’t usually like poetry (and for those who usually do).” When I first encountered Inverarity’s work in Geist magazine, I was hooked by its paradoxical combination of depth and accessibility, qualities I would ascribe to much of his poetry. In All the Broken Things, his first published collection, Inverarity explores a wide array of brokenness, including grief, war, the climate crisis, the lack of respect accorded to a sessional lecturer, and our suppressed knowledge of the omnipresence of death.

We all come to grief sooner or later, which is part of the appeal of the opening poem. Inverarity uses extended personification to show how grief is like living with a malevolent visitor:

Grief’s a bastard
Turns up no notice on the doorstep whenever
moves in
doesn’t shower
doesn’t shave
won’t do dishes.

The language is plain and direct. The choice to omit punctuation causes the details to topple over one another, both reflecting the speaker’s chaotic state of mind and making the lines musical. Grief keeps the speaker constant company, until one day, it doesn’t:

Gets old acts distant suddenly doesn’t call for weeks
then comes over with too much whisky and
a bag of crappy skunkweed
just to keep you on your toes. 

As time passes for the speaker, grief is increasingly absent, but it reappears with a vengeance, loath to let go: “Jumps you in an alley after a movie / and while he’s beating you says / we must keep working on this relationship." Although we would like grief to pack its bags and go, we simply learn to live with its gradually less frequent visits.

Of course, grief is possible only where there is love. The collection includes several poems that read like down-to-earth elegies. “My Mother’s Haunting” is a prose piece—and not a prose poem, as I first thought—and so is an interesting inclusion in a poetry collection. After his mother’s death, the speaker views her behaviour through a sympathetic lens. He interprets her penchant for packing clean sheets and towels in plastic bags, labelled with the date of their last wash, as her attempt to control the devastating vagaries of existence: “She kept those spectres of anarchy away as best she could, their reality scarred into her being by the stalking horror of having lived in the midst of global warfare.” The speaker alludes to his own carelessness toward his mother when she was living: “I took the dust sheets off the furniture in the bedroom I had used far less often that she would have liked." But the speaker doesn’t wallow in his own guilt; rather, he focuses on what her life might have been like lived from the inside. We all want to be understood, and this is perhaps a final gift the speaker gives his mother.

Inverarity also explores the complexity of family bonds in “Still Life, with Scissors,” which is the title of one of his short films. The title evokes the paradox of a still life portrait: still life as in the genre of painting—dead, motionless—but also still as in life continuing. I encountered the poem first. His skill with voice is evoked in the opening lines: “After my mother died / I went out looking like that.” We can hear the speaker’s mother telling him just that over the years, along with admonishments not to put his “feet up on the furniture” and to “put [his] clothes away.” In the second half of the poem, he takes “the good scissors” from the kitchen and goes outside: “Still looking like that, / I took a deep breath / and began to run.” I felt both the speaker’s relief at being released from his mother’s strictures and his loss at no longer having her to anchor him. This too is a tribute, I think, in its own strange way.

But the speaker doesn’t wallow in his own guilt; rather, he focuses on what her life might have been like lived from the inside. We all want to be understood, and this is perhaps a final gift the speaker gives his mother.

However, after I’d read the poem, I watched the film. This time, the protagonist is a 13-year-old girl whose mother has just died. This prompted me to go back to the poem, and it was only then that I noticed the speaker’s fingers described as “miniature,” suggesting a young age. Watching the film has made me view the speaker’s relationship with her mother as less conflicted. The speaker’s “complaints” about the mother’s admonishments appear simply ironic, more like the speaker feels that the mother’s rebukes would now be welcomed if only she were still living. Both the film and the poem end with the protagonist grabbing the scissors from the kitchen and running outside in an attempt to simultaneously flee the reality of her mother’s death and to assert her own life.

Death also lurks in “Grandad, Like a Huge Ear,” which seems to reference Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” In Whitman’s poem, the speaker’s father is on a ship; in Inverarity’s poem, the speaker’s grandfather is on an airplane. The grandfather’s weakening heart is personified as the captain of the airplane, the flight being the trajectory of a life. The poem explores the ever-present threat of death that we collectively ignore when we’re passengers in an airplane, just like we ignore it throughout our lives. Our denial of death is such that the second stanza shocks us, even though we know it’s true: “This is your captain speaking. / In case of an emergency, / there are no exits." The poem concludes with the grandfather in fetal position; he

curls in
curls in
seeking to become
as a shell. 

The repetition of “curls in” emphatically suggests the self-protective “crash position” we’re instructed to assume in a flight emergency. The grandfather’s actions also seem like those of a child seeking perfection in an attempt to ward off a bully, who we know will prevail in the end.

Inverarity uses imagery and metaphor sparingly but effectively. In another tribute-poem titled “That Was the Night (Doug “Doc” Randle 1928–2013),” the subject of the poem, “just a skinny kid from Calgary,” escapes home, and “he skims over the dead wheat fields / hard as a gravestone a blur beneath him." Arriving in a large, eastern city, “[h]e knows where he is / feels the deep grace note rumble / of the subway beneath the magic city.” He revels in his new life in a basement night club as “the fat guy on the piano showers him / with notes like confetti.”  Inverarity’s rendering of a salmon in “The Afterlife of Lobsters” is breath-taking: salmon move in a pen, “muscular as a tongue.” My impression is that Inverarity is a storyteller, first and foremost, and I’m inclined toward narrative poetry. However, occasionally I wish the narrative were pared down a little, not to the point of obscurity, but to allow the imagery and metaphor to shoulder more of the weight of the poem.

In addition to the “elegy” poems, some poems borrow from other written forms. “The Sessional Lecturer’s Lament” is a lesson plan gone wrong. It critiques the underfunded state of post-secondary education and the consequent rise in precarious teaching work, beginning with the opening stanza:

Labouring without dignity
walk in a classroom
sort of. 

Hands function as a motif that holds the poem together. The speaker’s hands are

… soft
full of dubious values.

[He] [i]ndicate[s] smears on palms:
ink from broken printer.

Black ink
on pink hands. 

The lesson warmup continues with the lecturer’s “Morning Joke” about “academics, getting hands dirty, blah, blah, blah.” The speaker despairs that neither his work nor the truth and beauty of literature is valued in a neoliberal education system. The lecturer’s

[a]udience remains dubious.
Knows inkstains when it sees them.
Knows that’s not
real dirt.

As a result of his demoralization, the speaker struggles to find meaning in “the inkstains of Others,” but the students are interested only in what is going to “be on the exam.” The poem ends with the devastating question, presumably from the students, “So why can’t you get a real job?”

“City Dining by Jason Tanner” is another “hermit-crab poem,” in this case, suggesting a restaurant review. The poem opens with the speaker browsing the menu as he waits for his partner, savouring the description of the food and sipping a glass of wine:

An Oregon Chardonnay proves significant,
golden, fruity, a flirtation of oak in its past.
I am aware of harmonies of melon,
pineapple, gooseberries, unexpected lush asparagus.

But the poem takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of his partner, who prosaically

… demands
roasted yam soup,
mineral water, then falls deathly silent.

She informs him that she is seeing someone else. The line “[t]he lamb oozes pink” renders the gut-punch the speaker feels. He loses his composure and screams “FUCK DESSERT!" prompting his partner to leave and the waiter to accompany him out through the kitchen. The final line suggests the way a blow can come out of nowhere: “Vieni Qui. Dinner for two, without wine, around $150. Reservations recommended”—“reservations” as in being wary, since things can go off the rails in the blink of an eye.

Inverarity leavens this sombre collection with humour. One of my favourite poems is “The Woman Who Talks to Her Dog at the Beach,” which opens with “The Woman Who Talks to Her Dog at the Beach / favours the Socratic method: ‘Where’s your stick?’ … ‘Would you like a treat?’” Later in the poem, in an unexpected switch of perspective, the dog itself takes up the narrative and addresses its owner:

"I have rolled over and plunged myself
again and again into the rime-cold ocean
at your behest.

“Yet still you ask the same question:
'Who is a Good Dog?’”

This poem, too, explores the complications and heartbreak of the world, but concludes that “there is great comfort in companionship, / in the simple love of dogs.” Perhaps humour and companionship are what gets us through.

This poem, too, explores the complications and heartbreak of the world, but concludes that 'there is great comfort in companionship, / in the simple love of dogs.'

Comfort and hope are also possibilities offered by the struggle to make meaning out of our existence. In “The Possibilities of Fire,” the speaker recounts the pleasure in human connection derived from a shared woodworking project:

On days like these,
with the sun drawing steam from the cedars,
everything makes a little sense at least.
There’s a delight in knowing
we can see lines then step
across them,
knowing how much closer
we can come to one another
down at the old marble-hard rings
of the bucked maple,
driving a wedge between us.

Yet there is a tension between the two people approaching each other even as the chopped wood comes between them.

In the final quarter of the book, Inverarity digresses from his straightforward narrative style, and the theme of brokenness reaches a peak of intensity. He introduces the suite of poems “The Mars Variations” as “an atemporal fractal narrative … [that could] be read in any order, shuffled like cards.” Mars, of course, is the god of war, and many of the poems deal with the vicious Siege of Drogheda by British colonial powers under Cromwell in Ireland in 1649.

As readers lift their heads from this bloodbath, the collection ends on a note of hope. “Author’s Epilogue: One Day” describes a state of apparent, if unlikely, perfection, with problems solved and chores finished:

One day the gutters will be clean …
The last five pounds are lost, and the bloodwork came back negative …
The car waits, shining, bodywork finally fixed, serviced on schedule,
tires correctly inflated, fluids replete,
ready for any journey.

One day, all the broken things will be mended.

The collection’s subject matter is sombre, but Inverarity renders the beauty, love, meaning, humour, and hope that we lean on as we move through this broken world. May he soon publish a second collection!

About the author

Janet Pollock Millar is a writer and educator living on lək̓ʷəŋən territory in Victoria, BC. Her work has appeared in publications including Herizons, Prairie Fire, This Magazine, Pangyrus, and The Malahat Review. She works in the Writing Centre at Camosun College.