Side Effects May Include Strangers By Dominik Parisien

I have to admit I was not prepared for how exquisite the first poem “Let Us For A Moment Call This Pain By Other Words” is in Dominik Parisien’s debut poetry collection Side Effects May Include Strangers out with McGill-Queen’s University Press. It is the kind of poem that, for a poet when you read it, it gives you an immediate sense of satisfaction, and also tendrils of envy which for me marks the quality of an excellent poem. It is the kind of poem that for a young poet with a first book says I have arrived: 

Ask, How many roses does the hammer weigh 
when it bears down on your skull?
Does the sword seem toothed like a toddler’s smile 
or sharp as your first ice skates?
On a scale of anglerfish to northern lights 
how bright are the flashes in your head?
When I touch this, here, which constellations 
light the sky behind your eyes?
Would you say that pulsing is the flicker of a satellite 
or the stubborn heartbeat of a newborn chick?
Ask, Can we for a moment make of beauty 
the measure of our pain? and I will answer.

Honestly, I wish I wrote that opening couplet. It shows immediately the strength of Parisien’s image-making which is on display all over this poetry collection as he likens migraines “to a failed ice pick lobotomy” and a body “to lightning in a bottle” and the wish to channel his pain to “television’s technicolour range in language”.  

“Parisien adds to a growing body of disability poetics in Canada and he chooses a plethora of forms and approaches to make himself heard.”

Parisien adds to a growing body of disability poetics in Canada and he chooses a plethora of forms and approaches to make himself heard as he writes in “To A Chronically Pained Body”, “Pain made metaphor is pain made real”. 

As with most first books, some poems feel slighter than others as you get a sense of the young poet experimenting with smaller lyrics, and then attempting longer, more dexterous pieces like the excellent poem “Concussion” with its accretion of detail and image and feeling. However, many of the smaller poems are quite wonderful like his poem “Card Game With Disabled Friend” which made me read it over several times to discover how it works:

Death was at the table 
because of course 
it always is. We were in that moment 
no more or less aware of it 
than you. What else is there to say 
except that we were 
young & old & maybe pained 
or that we played & breathed 
& were.

Parisien’s poetry collection covers lots of ground from suicidal ideation to MRIs to faith healers to personal relationships as the poems weave and weft their myriad themes through four separate sections. Yet, for me, Parisien is at his best when he is building startling images that hint at both illness and pleasure like in his poem “Watch For That Horizon”: 

You gave us pebbles from the seashore, driftwood pale & 
We peeled the flesh from our fingers, broke the bones off 
at the knuckles, set your stones in one by one, 
wore driftwood gloves to hold them together.
We carry the weight of salt in our hands. Our fingers ache 
for warm shores.
We kissed your forehead goodbye. The skin like a plastic 
water bottle.
You drifted out to sea 
on a raft of our bones.

The ending of “Watch For That Horizon” is dramatic and arresting, and has a freshness to the language that makes me very excited to see how Parisien will progress as a young poet exploring disability poetics in this country. 

It is clear chronic pain has taken its pound of flesh from Dominik Parisien in his debut collection Side Effects May Include Strangers out with McGill-Queen’s University Press, but if the poems do not actually remedy the way pain can make us feel other, even to ourselves, they do the next best thing: they remind us in rich haunting imagery that, “We are all subjects of pain, its pen & paper, & are each read & worth reading”.

About the author: Dominik Parisien is a writer, editor, and poet and the author of the chapbook We, Old Young Ones. He lives in Toronto.

  • McGill-Queen’s University Press
  • 96 Pages
  • ISBN 9780228003571
  • October 2020

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Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of six collections of poems with Deepfake Serenade from Nightwood Editions forthcoming in Fall 2021. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, GRIFFEL, American Poetry Journal, Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.