Brian Brett spills blood, joy, potatoes, hormones

Brian Brett, the poet, novelist, farmer, and great bull of a man whose idea of a good time is to set his chest hair on fire with a cigarette lighter just to watch people react, was saying something about the constraints of Euclidean thinking, but he'd stopped to pick up a sopping deer hide from the ground beside his barn, and then slapped it down over an upturned canoe, and then he cocked an ear to the mist-laden sky, distracted by the honking from a phalanx of Canada geese. Then something in a field caught his eye.

"Ah shit, the horse knocked over my beehive again."

This is what spending a morning with Brian Brett is like. Surveying the world from the aerie of his small farm on Salt Spring Island, in the wooded hills above Cusheon Creek, Brett might be remarking upon Dana Gioia's seminal essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and the next minute he will be leaping through an articulate howl about the war the provincial government is waging upon British Columbia's small farmers. Then he'll be telling you about an important French novelist you've never heard of, and then he's lamenting the way the world is forgetting such exquisite pleasures as the taste of tripe, which comes from the lining of a cow's second stomach, although a sheep's stomach, or a pig's stomach, will also do.

Then he's preparing an absolutely terrific lunch of roast free-range chicken, with focaccia bread of the kind his mother used to make, with seasoned tomatoes, and by then we're finally talking about Uproar's Your Only Music (Exile Editions, $22.95), his most recent work. It's part memoir and part poetry collection, and it follows closely upon his brilliant "ethical mystery" novel, 2003's Coyote (Thistledown, $21.95).

The memoir's best bits come from Brett's Cockney-Italian immigrant family on Vancouver's East Side, and a boyhood spent racing around with his beloved one-legged father in the family's souped-up potato-bootlegging truck, almost always one step ahead of the Potato Marketing Board. Along the way, Brett loses his right index finger to an errant shotgun blast, but the real pain comes in during the horrific treatments he underwent to correct the exceedingly rare condition he was born with. It's called Kallman's syndrome, and it left him without male hormones.

The fact that Brian Brett was once a full-bore androgyne and looked like a teenage girl when he was in his late 20s is hard to square with the huge guy in the cowboy hat and logger's suspenders who writes an expansive and brilliant column for the Yukon News, teaches the From Gilgamesh to Eminem poetry course at Malaspina College, and still has time to raise an astonishing array of vegetables and ornamental willows, to slaughter his own pigs and cows, and to write all that poetry. But put all that in one piece and you get a voracious intellectual appetite and a growing body of work with lots of blood and rejoicing and pain and death and tenderness.

What you get is Brian Brett. Poet, farmer, citizen, human being.