No Fire in Hell: JC Bouchard’s Portraits

JC BouchardPortraits
2014, In/Words Magazine and Press
28 pages, $7 (Buy)

jc bouchard portraits poetry

Whenever you look in the mirror
there is a post-it note that says
You are also a mirror. – from “Portraits”

The JC Bouchard in JC Bouchard’s poems, if you want to pin their I-persona(s) to the author’s identity like a pair of mittens to coatsleeves, is kind of a dick. He abandons a grandmother, leaves a street person to die, trolls impressionable punk kids and characterizes love as “wanting to drown you in the toilet bowl but never doing it”; how many fatal swirlies, I’m forced to wonder, has “Bouchard” delivered to those he does not love? The poems in Portraits, his debut chapbook with Ottawa’s In/Words, share a tungsten filament of bitterness. They glower like blackening lightbulbs.

It’s always worth considering how a young poet goes about the business of constructing a character, particularly a poet working in the “confessional” mode. Some approach poetic confession as a chance to create an idealized self; the Romantic, the sex goddess, the revolutionary, the zen guru. Others make the confessional a theatre for psychodrama, projecting themselves with their own (perceived) defects cranked all the way up. For the type whose own flaws have become an obsessive fixation, it can be a way to see them at a point of remove, to see if, exposed to beauty, they might even be redeemed.

I can’t and won’t conjecture on why Bouchard chooses this brackish persona in Portraits. Often, what comes out just comes out. What I will note is that many of the best poems here draw energy from a tension between the speaker’s dour cynicism and the way his  poetic vision gilds his experiences. It’s an awful kind of beauty to behold when even cruelty glimmers, and it must be wearying:

“My dog is dead on the carpet.
Good boy Jazz sleeps in the passing
fade of a snow chunk in the camp’s
backyard, fucked. The garbage bags
will keep
, you tell me. Keep what?

I don’t mean to scare you with my bark
little boy. It’s the booze & the sky
that do all the talking. But you don’t
know that yet. The ships you’ll see
on the school room cork boards
hold the only echo. The stench of ice
& flesh parts slightly over the glassy
waves. I’m sorry there’s no fire in hell.”

Often Bouchard works in what might be called a “poisoned pastoral” mode. In “Snow Geese,” a snapshot of a trip to Iceland, he leads off with a list of cancers caused by cigarettes (bladder, throat, lung and ass) while snapping photos of the local birds and smoking. The obvious irony masks a more subtle one, that no escape into nature will make a person anything other than themselves: “the stink in the air is worse / than a smoking room at The Cartier Place. / Fuck. I’ve been here before.” And similarly, from the tumbling, restlessly inventive “Bush Camp at Pear Lake”:

“A stink shimmied up the cracks of the floor boards
& the camp was a statue in a town square.
Mirrors everywhere. A slanged tongue. Cheek bones
smashed in. In the glib, bent noon, masters
of the moose, wild & big, hollered that they have enough
to eat. That land was gargantuan. I was there,
somewhere, a little bit fucked on a plane wing.
Going nowhere, but still somehow glad the engines
took the brunt of my hands, my weight on
the fuselage as the forest took me in & laughed.”

From experience I can report that these poems are often explosively funny onstage, but on the page they can’t wriggle away from their honesty so easily, the way a self-deprecating joke can become an admission when you write it down. If there’s a fault in Portraits, though, it’s that the poems sometimes land too heavily on the brutal side of brutal sensitivity. Lines like “I made kindling from your hip bone / on the inside” suggest he could write a hell of a sex poem if his muse weren’t misery, but for now it is, so he also reaches for “gurgling on balls like skinless apples dropped in sand.” But you live with these occasional moments of uneasiness (or even queasiness) because they give context to the rest of it; charming, minimalist sketches with titles like “Old Fashioned Doughnuts,” the delicately surreal “Arrays,” the sad, achingly good “Flightless.”

It’s a hard thing to reconcile being a good person with being a real person; most poets choose not to think about it. I appreciate JC Bouchard’s work in part because I don’t think that kind of safe, well-adjusted approach is in him as a writer. But more importantly, I appreciate it because it’s good. Portraits is the best chapbook In/Words has published in several years; buy it wherever In/Words books are sold or order direct from Bouchard.

JM’s JaM: Nap Eyes – No Fear of Hellfire

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