A review of Hurt Thyself by Andrew Steinmetz
Published on March 1, 2006
McGill-Queen's University Press
The epigraph of Andrew Steinmetz’s Hurt Thyself
comes from Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.” For writers, the first rule is, “Do not bore.” Steinmetz often breaks that rule. His most interesting poems come in the first section, with explorations of marital love-not pre- or post- marital but just plain wedded love. That seems a good challenge: married love is traditionally blander than the other varieties: “what can be done with marital sex,” Steinmetz asks. But the case is hard to make. Is stepping on a wife’s fallen black bra and feeling that the underwire is like an animal trap really dramatic? Or erotic? The best poem is one about dressing rather than undressing the spouse, a neat erotic turn on the situation more usually found in sexy poetry, and there’s a good one, “Lunch Date,” about what is more coarsely called a nooner. Steinmetz is able to dramatize some of the antagonisms and blocked communications of a long-term relationship, saving his work from sentimentality. But we’re a long way from the intensity of Robert Lowell’s great poem with the title from Chaucer; “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage.” There are some disturbing moments, certainly: one poem speaks of “a necklace of red teeth / marks about your shoulder” and another talks about the possibility that vigorous sex has “busted” a spouse’s ovary. But these rough gestures don’t substitute for inwardness.
Subsequent sections of the book are mild to the point of dullness. No conjugal traumas. Steinmetz writes a poem about the Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data found in books and devotes five pages to a poem about his love of libraries. He also has several poems in the familiar Canadian tourist genre. They lack conviction but doggedly download their guidebook details. “Parthenon Galleries,” an eleven-page description of the Elgin Marbles, is less interesting than the British Museum Guide to the sculptures. The citation of Keats in the poem reminds us that the English poet wrote a fourteen-line masterpiece on the Elgin Marbles. In “Postcards: The Ring of Brodgar, 2400 BC,” Steinmetz devotes five pages to a Neolithic henge in Orkney and doesn’t get much beyond the statistics: dates, estimated man-hours of construction.
Steinmetz’s own publication data on the cataloging page of his book says that Hurt Thyself is printed on paper that is acid-free and ancient rainforest-free. It’s good that no trees were destroyed specifically for this book, but will it last for centuries? Is the archival paper necessary? Keats is imperishable, most poetry is not. mRb
Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.