John Terpstra,
Two or Three Guitars
(Gaspereau, 2006)

John Terpstra is a rarity in poetry: an established poet who is not connected with the academy. Rather than inhabit an ivory tower by teaching in a university, Terpstra lives in the world; he makes his living as a furniture maker. This fact appears to give him a wider range than many contemporary poets; he doesn't write with one eye cast over his shoulder to see who is looking on approvingly. His poems aren't promotion applications.. No, Terpstra is his own man.

Two or Three Guitars, which collects poems from seven previous books, shows the man's range very well. The book opens with an account of the daredevil Blondin's 1859 crossing of Niagara Falls on a tightrope and introduces two of his themes: the power of nature and the colossal blend of foolishness and heroism that is humankind. Terpstra's poems are about who we are and what we do. He is a poet of daily life, writing, from a somewhat spiritual perspective, about the construction of houses, taking the family to church, and wood -- wood in all of its forms, from trees to furniture. Maybe that's the furniture maker in him.

One section of this collection is devoted to work from a book called Naked Trees, which is a selection of prose poems about (wait for it) trees. The poems, which have titles such as "Gravity," "Adolescence" and "Indifference," describe the inner characteristics of trees. When you first wade in, you'll find all of the preconceptions you've carried all these years surfacing and you'll wonder what the man is doing. At one point, my notes read that he was personifying trees and I could not for the life of me understand why. Soon, though, I found myself caught up, so that I was looking at the trees outside my window as poetic and magical things.

Terpstra is a personal poet. His life, his family and his background are all subjects of his poetry The work has a simplicity of surface. "Flames of Affection, Tongues of Flame," for example, begins:

I walked to the end of Dundurn Street,
to the quiet hind of a busy road,
where the bus loops. I walked
to the foot of the encampment and looked
up, way, way up, at all these stairs.

Only when you reach the second page of the poem do you find the poem's deeper concerns:

How is it we can barely talk to each other anymore?

By then, you're interested in this guy. He feels real to you, as though you may have had a beer with him in the bar last night, so you're on board for the whole journey.

Terpstra is a poet of quiet moments. He writes about daily life, love, the history of his home town, walking, thinking and feeling. A rich spiritual vein runs throughout his work and he gives the occasional nod to miracles. In all, what he puts in these pages is good stuff and it's nice to have it all in one volume.

by Michael Scott Cain
10 February 2007

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