In 1969, when Milton Acorn’s I’ve Tasted My Blood was passed over for the Governor General’s Award, a group of writers decided to honour him with the title, The People’s Poet. In subsequent years, this accolade was bestowed on writers such as Brian Bartlett and Sharon McCartney, but I’m not sure whether the tradition still endures. If it does, my candidate for the honour is Billeh Nickerson, probably for his body of work, but specifically for his latest book, Duct-Taped Roses.
Like Acorn, Nickerson writes in the vernacular. The result is poetry that’s accessible without needing to run to Mr. Google for ‘translation’ of unnecessary twenty-dollar words. But that doesn’t devalue the work in any way; the poems reverberate with honesty about nearly every aspect of day-to-day life.
For someone not yet fifty, he’s seen a lot of his friends and acquaintances die, and gives us poems written to the memory of many of them. Yet despite what some might consider an extremely sad motivation for writing a poem, nearly all of these pieces are filled with light and happy recollections, many of them overtly sexual – and beautiful, as these closing lines to one of these small elegies:
So many of us have met men
who could steal our hearts,
but so few like you
who’d give them back
Nickerson is to my mind (with full disclosure: I am cis-female, boringly heterosexual) one of the most honest and straightforward of writers to have taken up the banner of chronicling their queerness. No apologies, just a matter-of-factness – something Milton Acorn may well have had trouble with, as he, of a much different generation and mindset was not known for being open-hearted about homosexuality – but that’s not what we’re here about.
Much of Duct-Taped Roses is a paean to the poet’s father, specifically a series of prose poems in the section called “Skies”. Although Nickerson’s father was a commercial pilot who flew 727s, his early career included time as a bush pilot on Canada’s east coast, when he apparently used duct tape to reinforce parts of his plane. Thus, the offering inferred by the book’s title. And roses indeed are what Billeh the son offers in thanks to his father.
A piece I found particularly memorable is one where he marvels at the fact that his dad had an earlier and “more direct connection to the AIDS crisis in those first years than I did.” When asked about the disease “…and its impact on his airline, JeanEduardoPierreMarcTim rolls off his tongue with a natural flow, like one long mellifluous name, a list of the flight attendants he worked with who died during the plague’s first wave.” And as if that isn’t enough for one page to hold, Nickerson goes on with this:
“We’ve never once talked about my gayness. When I came out on a Christmas Eve, he seemed nonchalant, as if it were intermittent turbulence.
We still love you, he said, and he has never mentioned it since.”
But it wouldn’t be fair to let you think this book is inhabited only by ghosts. The imagination of Billeh Nickerson is a force to behold – that and his attention to the details of memory, especially as exhibited in the long poem to the town where he grew up, Langley, BC. Among those crazily sparkling recollections are these:
“I remember neighbourhood kids throwing their pennies into my Mr. Turtle Pool after I convinced them it doubled as a wishing well…
and thinking the first condom I saw on the nearby nature trails was a deflated balloon…
and thinking the yellow shell on the Shell oil sign was a giant piece of cheese, then marvelling that
the giant piece of cheese was shaped like a shell.”
His mind is a wonder, and lucky for us, he’s put so many wonderful thoughts from it onto these pages. These poems radiate tenderness, and I, in turn, can only feel a similar tenderness for the man who wrote them – a man who writes not only for
…boys who grew up misunderstood
for being as much sugar and spice
as snakes and snails and puppy dog tails
but who writes for all of us, “stuck here on the ground” ensnared in the human condition. And when he says, “I love when airplanes tow banners across the sky…No matter how commercial or clichéd, those messages make me smile,” I confess such thoughts make me smile too. Just as so many of these poems make me shake my head in wonder, they make me wish for a plane with a banner proclaiming, “Billeh Nickerson Wins the People’s Poet Award.” That, while maybe trailing some “giant smoky hearts.”
Billeh Nickerson is the author of six books, including Artificial Cherry, which was nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award. He a past Editor of both Event and Prism International, and co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets. He lives and works in Vancouver where he is the co-chair of the Creative Writing department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
- Publisher : Book*hug Press (April 15 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 112 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771666900
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771666909
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Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC, in a neighbourhood not all that far or different from where Billeh Nickerson spent his growing up years. There’s even a clothesline attached to a cedar tree where she still hangs laundry on bright sunny days.