Butcher's Block

By Deanna Fong, illustrations by Bilyana Ilievska
Pistol Press, November 30, 2007, 14.95

Deanna Fong’s first collection of poetry reads like a delicately prepared menu. Fong offers three courses — From Skins to Bones, Exploration and Hearts — each of which makes use of common linguistic, emotive and narrative ingredients.

From Skins to Bones opens with a poem called "Five Foods for Sexual Deviants." Here, Fong channels Lorna Crozier’s The Garden Going On Without Us in an exploration of the sensual in food. She writes of Parmesan, that stone-faced cheese: "Pungent and potent, / this grainy unpasteurized patriarch / only yearns to be shaved." The poems in From Skins to Bones are thick with rhythm and description. In "Europa," Fong writes of Breasola: "Carmine, raw and cruel, / for the playful torture / of a peppercorn wedged / between teeth and tender gums; / its tenderness derived from / a long marination in bitterness." These poems are meant to be felt in the mouth. They’re meant to be tasted.

The poems in Exploration are meaty, full of blood and sweat. They come as confessions. The speaker in the poem "Portrait of the Author’s Youth, as Told Through a Brief History of Canadian Punk Houses" is coy and quick with their observations, presumably fuelled by punk-rock vigour and typical punk-rock brevity. Of The Institute of Punk Rock Music (Edmonton, 2000), Fong writes: "Life’s fucking dandy! / We only eat soy cheese and / quote Propagandhi." The speaker fesses up in the final stanza: "A windowless room / with mattress on bare floorboards / keeps winter at bay." Deanna Fong has an eye and a tongue for meaningful detail. The poems in Exploration are laden with it. In "Edmonton," she evokes a place and a time through a list that includes turnstiles, overpasses under bridges, the guts of crushed cars. The section ends with a declaration in the final stanza of "Oyster Bay": "We gather these shards / of history, / hoard them in wet mounds, / and bury ourselves in them, or / up to the ankle, at least."

Hearts opens with a pair of letters. "Letter from Robodad – 02/05/97" is cold and business-like. It sets up the enormous emotional impact of the response, "Letter to Robodad — March 14th 1997." Here, Fong gut-punches: "When you didn’t come back / she took up sewing. / Sewed extra pockets into all / my jackets and sweaters, / secret pockets in / the hems of my T-shirts and / cuffs of my pants. Neckties. / She said these were reliquaries for the heart."

A fine menu doesn’t necessarily make for a good meal. The measure of food is how it feels in your mouth and in your stomach once you’ve finished eating. In "Bilyana," the speaker promises: "There will be no more plain cucumber relish! / Let us make honeyed mango-cilantro chutneys, / watermelon-mint pickles and banana jam." The real accomplishment of Deanna Fong’s Butcher’s Block is its mélange, its ambitious, creative and ultimately satisfying mix of literary flavours.–Ben Hart

Ben Hart is a northern boy in a very southern place. This review was first published in Ricepaper Magazine.