Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu

The first surprise the reader encounters in Derek Beaulieu’s Surface Tension is the square shape of the book. As opposed to more traditional rectangular texts, Surface Tension slightly overflows the reader’s hand, filling in for a cellphone’s ubiquitous appendage. On the cover’s surface pastel mint patterns pool and stretch against their peach background. Some tooth-like striations comb and rake through the upper-right corner, inviting the reader to turn the page.

            Whereupon colour yields to black and white in the first design, “Kursiv,” dedicated to the memory of Jenni B. Baker. Cursive means running, and the designed letters run symmetrically across the page and through the alphabet. A and e, the vowels in Baker, are discernible, while a squiggle s from kursiv is slightly detached from the overall arabesque. An elongated d stretches from the centre where all is mirrored and doubled in cheerful symmetry.

            A cursory glance at the second page yields a couple of dots, repeated a, z crossed with f, and the elongated spinal d that curls to q. Thus we learn to reread the alphabet, combing through strands of letters. By the third poem, two question marks come into play, like inverted earrings in Spanish questions. Letters assemble, tilt, reverse course, and dance by page 12.

            The next sequence, “Performance Adjustment / Appeal Process,” changes shapes, letters, and choreography. Starting with a kind of art deco design, the poem performs, adjusts, appeals, and processes. Bottom O and T are inverted at the top, Q is evident near the middle; S, J, and B ascend the ladder. After a couple of pages the alphabet disappears in favour of floating shapes. Letters resume a page later, only to be followed by another flowing shape.

            After all of this shape shifting, an explanatory essay, “Madge, You’re Soaking in It,” covers a couple of pages. Beaulieu compares and contrasts his graphic art with advertising. He uses Letraset to create delicate, balanced, symmetrical poems and palindromes. The back-to-back reversals of palindromes create doppelgangers of the alphabet, a twinning and twining of surface tension and retention. Floating signifiers stick to the page but lift when the reader engages with the patterns of perception. This dialogic swerve belongs to a counter discourse that challenges centres of power and control. Madge is both image and imagination. Her name sends the reader to the dictionary (an arrangement of the alphabet) or to Google, where we are informed that it is a magpie or barn owl, yet another form of flight and sight.

            “Euphemia Asleep” is the next sequence of poems. Euphemisms are other ways of saying, and in the feminine form take us back to Madge, the owl who sleeps until awakened by surface tension. Recognizable letters are R A X E F A N J K P Z V G O I S T U. So we gradually advance through the alphabet to arrive at the next prose explanation, “Form is Never More than an Extension of Content.” Beaulieu explains his process: “The poems are further manipulated using photocopies to become liquid and languid, troubling poetic logic, perfection, and power narratives, they flow and gather, drip and congeal, sliding off the page.”

            We linger over Beaulieu’s languid language until we get to “Simple Symmetry” where more letters form, morph, and deform. After many pages of images, more words in “All That Signifies Can Be Sold”: “Poetry, like advertising, is anything you can get away with.” Surface Tension reminds the reader / viewer of the power of advertising, and deconstructs that solidity with flow as you go. Borges appears near the centre of the book: “Like logos for the corporate sponsors of Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, these poems use the particles of language to represent and promote goods and corporations just out of reach.” Out of reach, grasp, and read, Beaulieu’s Borges picks up the earlier “Ampersandance,” which couples Gary Barwin and Beaulieu.

            “Ampersandance” forms part of the conjunctive choreography and symmetry of Surface Tension, just as “Circuit,” “Circuit Breaker,” and “Page Break” highlight the rhythms of circuits and breaks in the book. The double entendre of “page break” matches the doubling of letters and language throughout. The page breaks from text to texture, thickening pools and grains of ink that stain and circulate. Breaking new ground, Surface Tension is a genre unto itself and the reader.

            In the beginning, in medias res, and in the sense of an ending: of the making of Derek Beaulieu’s poems there is no end. Engagement with the page is the dialogue not only between writer and reader but also between the image on the page and the paper itself. That rubbing relationship along the surface of the book, a tension between image and word, forces the reader to adjust lenses of expectation. Meaning and sound arise from colours and shapes, a thoughtful sheen from unsettling Letraset. Tension moulds dimension and the reader’s attention, as fragments overflow boundaries and binderies: two dimensions become three-dimensional. How to read a grammar of colour and an alphabet of shapes; how to connect cave drawings and spillage on a page. When the page is meant to be turned, what are the narration of numbers and the numbers of narration? When the vanishing point vanishes, perspective is called into question. How does the setting of Banff influence Beaulieu’s shaping of images? From margins to kerning, Coach House presses the pages and enters the process of bookmaking.

Derek Beaulieu is the author/editor of over twenty-five collections of poetry, prose, and criticism. His most recent volume of fiction, a, A Novel, was published by France’s Jean Boite Editions, his most recent volume of poetry, Surface Tension, is his third from Coach House Books. Beaulieu has exhibited his visual work across Canada, the United States, and Europe and has won multiple local and national awards for his teaching and dedication to students. Derek Beaulieu is the Director of Literary Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Banff’s 2022-2024 Poet Laureate.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Coach House Books (Sept. 6 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 136 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1552454509
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1552454503

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.