The North End Poems by Michael Knox
ECW Press, 2009
Reviewed by Carolyn Tripp
North End Poems by Michael Knox follows a Golden-Horseshoe, blue-collar type in the throes of an arduous lifestyle. The main character of this poetic series, Nick Macfarlane, is accustomed to rough days and rougher nights courtesy of bars, buddies, and the tough broads bred in a harsh, working-class town.
A Hamilton native and astute observer, Knox seems to have his characters down to a tee; the coked-up bartenders, the girl-hungry factory workers, and the barroom brawls are all described in frank language, retaining veracity to the lives he portrays.
But there’s something amiss every time I turn a page in what might otherwise be described as an enthralling slice of a surprisingly abrasive Ontarian middle-class existence. While personal experience often can (and certainly, often does) dictate and add authenticity to the action, this does not automatically lend itself to the quality of the end result. In other words, just because someone has experienced this or that doesn’t mean they necessarily have the desirable amount of eloquent syntax to pull off an intriguing plot from cover to cover. In many cases, this means that the scribe has simply experienced a lot of things that they feel needs to be committed to paper. A beautiful, realized tome doesn’t always follow suit.
Unfortunately, Knox’s impressive combination of boxing and what must be a wealth of knowledge about the Golden Horseshoe does not stave off the employment of cliché-ridden passages about these tough lives, making the collection fall short of what might have otherwise been an enthralling volume.
Derisory entries such as “…the architecture of our lives” of “Summer Words,” or “…the garden tool sparkled/in my hand/like a weapon” of “Helen” are examples of how Knox doesn’t effectively weed out the “Familiar, But Obvious” category. Stronger, relatable pieces like “Hangover, Ricky” are more challenging while retaining accessibility. They avoid stock phrases and preserve a situation’s veracity and bleak unpleasantness.
Fortunately consistent throughout this collection is the extent to which Knox understands the complexity of his characters. Clearly researched and acutely observed, he serves up stark depictions of his cast, from astute, vegetarian college girls to barmaids whose faces wear the battle scars of poor judgment and decades-long addictions.
The employment of occasionally formulaic prose shouldn’t distract from the intrigue of these multifaceted depictions, even if the sting of strong poetic verse isn’t always there.