War. Pandemic. Environmental collapse. How is a poet supposed to make beauty out of all the ugliness? Edmonton poet Jason Purcell, in their debut poetry collection, Swollening, has found an answer—one as old as The Iliad or the Mahabharata. Look at the ugliness closely and with compassion.
Swollening is a serious, painful book about serious, painful things. The pain of isolation. The pain of sickness. The pain of decay. Like a lot of contemporary poets, Purcell takes their own personal history as the object of poetic inquiry. But, for the most part, they show little interest in turning the personal into a stand-in for the universal. There’s an impressive assumption in this book—Jason Purcell is interesting enough that people will read nearly 100 pages of verse about them.
So, are they? Yes, but. The things that make Purcell interesting are often treated in a way that creates distance between the reader and the poem. Sometimes that feels like a conscious choice to emphasize the speaker’s alienation from their body and feelings, as here: “Under the boundary of water a knowing pulses/ the skin. The condition of being made” (from “Bathing”).
Other poems, though, seem unclear without purpose. One of the risks of writing about personal history is that you can’t explain everything, but the impact of the poems is blunted if you don’t. Purcell handles the problem by including lines that sum up the emotional climate of the poem for the reader, as in these perfect lines: “the wound lifts/ exposing more of you/ than you knew there was” (from “Pain again”). But often the lines seem not to flow naturally from the rest of the poem.
Swollening may be “about” Purcell, but it’s far from solipsistic. The connections Purcell draws between personal illness and the climate emergency, for example, show someone keenly interested in the political implications of the personal. The book also has a rich seam of concern with gender and queerness as ideas. It’s common, especially in work from the first generation of self-consciously gay male writers in the 1960s through the 1980s, for writing about sexual orientation to be more or less writing about desire. Purcell, I’m thankful to say, doesn’t take this tack. “Queerness” as it’s used in their poems, along with “gender,” seems to denote something extraordinarily expansive and perhaps unknowable, functioning in the way “God” or “the human spirit” do in other types of writing.
Swollening is a book very much of its historical moment, and one that I suspect will find its readers largely among the young. But these poems have a lot to offer anyone who reads them the way Purcell writes—with curiosity, deep attention and love.
Alex Rettie is a long-time reviewer for Alberta Views.