________________ CM . . . . Volume VI Number 19 . . . . May 26, 2000

cover Controlled Burn.

Maury Wrubleski.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 1999.
63 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 1-895449-99-5.

Grades 10 and up/Ages 15 and up.
Review by Terry Vatrt.

***1/2 /4


If I tell you this book of poetry is rooted in life on the Canadian prairies and written by a middle- aged white, male high school teacher, I can imagine the rolling of eyes heavenward and the sighs, and the facetious, "How interesting."
Don't let this brief description scare you off Controlled Burn. There's a lot more to this first book by emerging author Maury Wrubleski than might at first appear. Repeated readings uncovered humour, artful manipulation of style, compassion, and a skilled use of rhythm and language.

Okay, okay, I'll fess up right from the start. I grew up on a [hobby] farm and did some teaching out in the rural areas of Manitoba, and I have family living on the prairies of Saskatchewan and in the foothills of Alberta. I liked this book. I like all the concrete references to country living from "credit union rain gauges" to "wedding dances...pungent with cabbage and kielbasa."

This collection is not, however, a sentimental rehash of "poor white boy growing up on the prairie." The poet offers the reader much more than distinctly rural, distinctly Canadian, references. The subject matter may be familiar, but the treatment of it is fresh and honest. Not sentimental, nor cliched, the poems speak compassionately of the human condition. The unspoken emotion and the tension felt when visiting an old friend who is dying is palpable in this excerpt from "Wishlist" [p.33]:


I wanted to hear your standard salutation, the snort and
     "Well, what you don't see when you don't have a gun"
instead of the shaky drum roll rake-rap of your fingers on the bar
     top and a leathery cough.

Along with the honesty and compassion, there is humour and wit in these poems. One of my favorites is "Centrepiece" [p. 62] which describes a wedding celebration. The following lines are but an excerpt:


The uncles trowel the last of the cheesecake into themselves
marvel at the money still to be made out west, inspired by the
roughhewn rustic opulence
thinking now about seconds, hungry like a pack of voyeurs who've
just discovered a window-wide keyhole

Wrubleski has considerable skill with language. He describes a deer moving at daybreak, wandering into town "thoughtless as a corpse."

Many, if not most, of the poems beg to be read aloud. This mouthful is from a section of the poem "Cone & Drum "[p. 40] called "home":


subtext: stable
                      where the heart is
wanna bop the drum better dream about the timing
    work on the rhythm say to hell with the rhyming
the this
and the that that that of
the underground sprinkler nozzle popping up a pressure

The musicality in Wrubleski's work is no more evident than in "Del T. and the Age of Jazz" [p 26]. Not surprisingly, it has been reworked as a Globe Theatre [Regina] production. This narrative poem illustrates the best in Wrubleski's writing; firmly rooted in the physical, his deft use of language, humour and rhythm leads the reader to unique observations and possible insights about life. Kinda like listening to jazz.

My only reservation [and it's a tiny one] deals with Wrubleski's sparing use of completely appropriate, but raw, edge language. There are a few instances when words totally familiar to students, but, nonetheless, outside standard textbook vocabulary are employed. Consider yourself forewarned.

I recommend Controlled Burn for Grades 10 - 12. Besides just reading aloud and savouring these poems [which I heartily encourage!], this collection could be used for a variety of learning activities.

Some of the poems, like "Del T. and the Age of Jazz,' lend themselves to oral and/or dramatic presentations. In "A Pair of Boots," the narrator claims "...in that great spirit of poetry, we've agreed to communally defy convention." Students could be challenged to find examples of defiance both in structure and content of the poems. Interesting discussion possibilities abound. The poems, "Controlled Burn," "Kid with the Swastika" and "Bridge at St. Louis," could be examined, and the ideas around "controlled" and "uncontrolled" burn be explored.

As well as useful in a high school classroom, Controlled Burn would be a worthy addition to any library collection.

Highly Recommended.

Terry Vatrt is a teacher on leave of absence from the Winnipeg School Division #1, Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364