“He says, ‘Boy, looks like you’ve been getting by remembering which brick is which,’ and he hands you a card.
Embossed, Another Religion. Its icon: you somewhere else, but looking the same. He reads the motto aloud, ‘Conveniences present themselves.’” – from “Aspirant”
There’s an anecdote Jeff Blackman likes to tell during readings about a conservative friend of his, who tells him that leftists have respect and concern for everyone except for people on the right. It’s an insight that might be dismissed as a right winger’s persecution complex, but it reminds us of an important truth: that empathy cannot be conditional.
As the title of his recent Apt.9 chapbook So Long as the People are People indicates, Blackman’s is a social poetry, concerned with the idea that what exists between people is people. Throughout, he juxtaposes observations on navigating married life with the frustrations of political dialogue, how each involves “grappling with the truth” that the other “is no mere reply to my voice.” Empathy requires attention, a sort of work. Without it, those who are different from us cease in our eyes to be people, and if they are not people then we aren’t either. “First consider the old meaning of making love, its object consensus,” Blackman writes in “How to Kiss the Prime Minister,” a poem which conflates the uncertainty of sexual approach with that of crossing political lines, finding in the demonized leader a simple, human creature with “lips as soft as your grandfather’s.”
So Long as the People are People is also quite sociable in its references to friends and local peers; “Song for David Currie” riffs on the acerbic Ottawa comedian’s signature deadpan, while “Monogamy” is a game stab at Marilyn Irwin’s hinting, phoneme-chained minimalism. The most significant presence, however, is his wife Kate, who acts as anchor and anvil for the bulk of the poems here. “Wedded,” a domestic idyll about shared accommodations, looks almost like two separate poems spooning into one, a nice formal nod to the intermingling which plays out throughout the chapbook.
There are a few lesser poems here that feel undercooked, but on the whole, So Long as the People are People finds Blackman in fine form. This is an Apt. 9 production, so if you’ve picked up one of their books before, you’ll know what to expect. The design and typesetting is typically elegant and tasteful. Publisher Cameron Anstee usually prints in editions of 50 copies which seem inevitably to sell out rather quickly; one hopes he’ll consider larger runs now that his press is becoming so well-established. In the meantime, So Long as the People are People is available from the Apt. 9 Etsy shop, so grab it while supplies last.
Here’s a recording of Blackman reading “Two Virgins Ago” from the late, lamented Moose and Pussy’s ORAL issue. A slightly modified version also appears in So Long as the People Are People.