Dennis E. Bolen's Black Liquor captures West Coast working class life

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Black Liquor
By Dennis E. Bolen. Caitlin, 128 pp, softcover

Homesickness-induced nostalgia—this review was written from a long sojourn in Burma, which hasn’t ended yet—is not the ideal mental state from which to approach a book of poems about one’s old stomping grounds. But when a poet manages to capture the sights, smells, and sounds of a particular time or place—as Dennis E. Bolen does for 1970s Vancouver Island, to gritty and often erotic effect in Black Liquor—then one’s own nostalgia becomes something to enjoy debunking.

The chemical/industrial breakdown of Bolen’s definition of “black liquor” nicely sets up the dynamics of sociopolitical and domestic toxicity and inebriation, the soul-crushing emptiness of the unexamined suburban life (and yet the inspirations of love and natural beauty within the same landscape), that the poet explores throughout.

The “Growing Up Industrial” poems span the passage from innocence to pseudo-worldliness in the pre–New Age machoscape of West Coast working class life. From the carefree unknowingness of adolescent obtuseness in “Rootbeer” (“We’d ride bikes/Go to the beach/Caddy over aboriginal golf ground/where skulls were unearthed yearly/by schoolboys oblivious/to ancient strife”) to the occupational hazards of “Greenchain Canticle” and “Forest Town Slumber”, Bolen paints a vivid portrait of an Island culture, economy, and mindset from which escape seemed impossible. Pity the distracted coworker who “rammed a hand/at the end of a two-by-six”: “Rubber mitt when pulled/wine bottle pour/black on the staging floor.…While I shudder and pull lumber/thinking of split finger/how it looks like food…” (“Elephant and Temple”).

In the section “Federal Parole Officer, 1977-2000”, the poems draw from Bolen’s professional experience to lament society’s casualties. At a hotel bar in “Vancouver Black Liquor”, there’s a urinal conversation with a well-endowed parolee who later shows up dead in an underground parking lot. There’s a hint of homoeroticism here, but also a more essential truth about trust and compassion between two men on opposite sides of the law. In “Alcatrazim”, Bolen adopts an earthy, inmate patois to lampoon the slumming chic radical: “Drank in the bars and spoke to cheap women/pretended you had cool/Took them to the Legion of Honour Museum/place I read about one time in a brochure/picture of The Thinker thinkin in the garden/Yeah right and never comin ta any conclusion/so put-on even Row-din couldn’t help ya”.

From rough justice on the Island to the piss-stained ugliness of dissolute Lower Mainland life, Black Liquor nicely skewers the gentle hypocrisies of postwar, Pacific Northwest optimism. Bolen’s verse sucks the marrow of postmodern disillusionment with tenderness and irony—but without nostalgia.

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