Book Reviews

To Compel Forgiveness and Forgive

by Margaryta Golovchenko | Contributing Writer

The Suicide’s Son
James Arthur
Vehicule Press, 2019

In his seminal 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried declares that “[t]he shape is the object […] what secures the wholeness of the object is the singleness of the shape.” It’s an attempt to work against the literalist use of the term “objecthood” and its increasingly antithetical relationship to art. That question of objecthood and “the condition of non-art,” as described by Fried, is revived in James Arthur’s new collection, The Suicide’s Son. For Arthur, the individual is seen as an object by contemporary society, from the way trauma is addressed and often dismissed, to how politics and tragic events can feel like theatrical miniatures when retold by media. The Suicide’s Son is interested in moments and places that present

human history
with all context sheared away, as if
there were no context, or as if the context
had been destroyed. As if no context
were the context, and the only context
there could be.

The structure of The Suicide’s Son mimics the process of getting lost in thought, moving organically from nostalgia to observation to questioning. It is fitting that the personal narrative of the collection’s single speaker is told through flashes into the past followed by leaps into the present that still somehow remain stuck in a moment long gone. There is a sense that the collection is a way for Arthur to work against the idea of a closed loop and the sense that we are shaped by—and thus entrenched in—the circumstances in which we’ve grown up, whether these are personal, familiar circumstances or broader societal ones. The pulsing heart of the collection, then, can be found in the opening lines of “School for Boys,” which not only give the collection its title but also act as the force against which the speaker of the collection struggles:

. . . The son
of the suicide
becomes a suicide. His own son
becomes a drunk. You’re not meant
to be unhappy,
you think, so it must be something
that you’ve done;
there must be a reason why you are
the way you are.

From Frankenstein’s monster to the Big Bad Wolf to Chaucer’s stories to Hearst Castle, Arthur collects and curates a 21st century Wunderkammer over the course of The Suicide’s Son. He gathers together the real and the fictional based not on their so-called objective value for society and history, but for the role they’ve played in shaping the who the speaker has become over the course of his life. He reminds readers that loss has a greater influence on the individual than the desire to possess or exert control, as in the somber poem, “Goodnight Moon,” where the speaker admits to his child that

For me, beginnings and endings
are getting hard to tell apart. There was another child
your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading
teaching you to read — who we threw away
when he or she was smaller than a watermelon seed.

This brings the question of objecthood to one of the most asked of questions: What is the role of poetry? Is it an object? If so, how does it behave as an object? If not, what is its function? Arthur answers these questions in “Eloquence,” stating, “I want things from poetry // that it could never give: / power to undo, to mend. To compel forgiveness / and forgive.” Taken as a whole, The Suicide’s Son is a collection through which the journeys of both the speaker and the reader are akin to a trip to a museum or art gallery, where the familiar Do Not Touch finds its counterpart in the way moments can feel inaccessible, as in “In Al Purdy’s House,” where the speaker states: “I know better than to make myself at home / in a house that isn’t mine.” The abrupt ending of “Roar,” therefore, feels especially fitting, suspending the collection in a state of limbo that serves as a reminder that what happens next will be unpredictable—and possibly endless: “Dragonflies, butterflies. They / skitter across the air —”

Margaryta Golovchenko is a settler-immigrant, poet, and critic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, Canada. A reviewer for Anomaly and The Town Crier, she is currently completing an MA in art history and curatorial studies at York University.