If I didn’t Love the River: Poems by Robert Priest

One line summary? Hell yeah. Some poets show emotion, some language, other’s technique or flashes of insight and he has the whole spread.

The closest comparable I would have to this would be Deepfake Serenade by Chris Banks (Nightwood, 2021) and Immune to the Sacred by Stephen Brockwell (Mansfield Press, 2022). They have the same high intensity, eye for irreverent and formality of form and cultivated eye for poetic devices. 

“He [Priest] works at the level of philosophy and ideas, not sound and structure alone, and that’s what makes his poems so striking.”

Many poets have been trained to not be didactic and to avoid homilies. He’s too old for that nonsense. “I’m so old I have an inner adult,” he quips. (p.114)

Priest’s 2008 Reading the Bible Backwards struck me as considered, clever, smart, funny and serious. It was unpicking the knit of faith in his characteristic way of twisting and testing play and unpacking assumptions. The imagination exercise in that book was undoing the harms of the bible.

Between then, and here, River, was Previously Feared Darkness (ECW, 2013) which was more free verse than River, looser as a collection, complaining of beer belly and missed buses. That had a few pages of one word poems, and aphorisms including “Homophobia is a choice.”

In River there are several pages including, “Transphobia is a choice!” and “When we fight darkness with darkness it just gets darker.” The latter may best encapsulate the book. He adds levity to dark times but considered, outside the box, levity.

Justice runs through his River poems whether as succinctly as “injustice in justice” (p. 112) or “Why I see a therapist” (p.17-19) which starts “everything reminds me/of the Third Reich.” A knockout poem. What would be a more peaceful way to put that in keeping with the book’s drive for open dialogue, understanding and peace? A bright stellar memorable poem at each turn.

He works at the level of philosophy and ideas, not sound and structure alone, and that’s what makes his poems so striking. It’s not a poetry confined to the past, but imagining what could be such as, “Ideas for Genetic Engineering” (p. 54) What if “the only way to get our rocks off/is to end child poverty on earth.”

The books show a continuity. He had a section on what he called Meme splices . For example, replacing “irony” for “iron” in statements on iron, or “Christ”cheekily replacing “Crisis” in the 2013 book. It had a couple equivalents in method substituting “bomb“for “bond” in texts on bonds 2022, to great effect at making ideas strange and new.  What is our bond with war, with violence, with the military industrial complex we take as a given. The meme replacement of “Fat” for “Thought” was less successful I thought but perhaps because there are women worship poems that whole tongue in cheek struck me sourly. It calls up the whole ethos where fat is a curse, a sort of Dryden world where women are a foreign other object. As Mary Wollstonecraft would put it, I war not with patriarchy’s ashes, but his opinions.

In the 2013 collection he had “Two Millions and One (I Love You All)” a paean to women, and a decade later an equivalent “My Women Named Marsha Kirzner Thing” with a bed in every city. I wasn’t so sold on that continuation.

He also includes lyric love poems that are more personal and moving than I’ve read, such as “Between a Tender and a Tender Place”. A title which, incidentally, is playful, amusing and indicative of the call for less hard brutal spaces. “We slid in and out of being” (p.4) he writes in that in part which captures something difficult to catch, “I want to go back” (p. 6) is another memorable unabashed love poem.

It is interesting that he does something so classic as formal sonnets and aphorisms and some poems out of a postmodern toolbox. He plays with language, expectations, set phrases. This posture binds together poems of many themes, subjects and forms into a coherent whole. There’s a refrain in the book of creating and appreciating the good in the world.

He looks at the broader humanity past federal politics of the last book and religious bent to what is the human goal “This great mission to put a man in the horizon” (p.13)

There’s an optimistic undercurrent in the collection that wasn’t there in the last two. There’s of sense of imminent change. “We believed that silence was assent forever but—“ (p.102)

His last poem in the collection is “A Toast at Midnight” where he sends us back to our myriad lives with a benediction of renewal, (p. 119) “Here’s to the life we find/in what was left for dead.”

Robert Priest’s words have been debated in the legislature, posted on buses, quoted in the Farmers’ Almanac, and turned into a hit song. His book Reading the Bible Backwards peaked at number two on the Canadian poetry charts, outsold only by Leonard Cohen. He lives in Toronto, ON.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ a misFit book (Sept. 20 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 136 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770416943
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770416949

Pearl Pirie's WriteBulb is now available at the Apple store. A prompt app for iOS 15 and up gives writing achievement badges. Pirie’s 4th poetry collection was footlights (Radiant Press, 2020).  rain’s small gestures (Apt 9 Press, 2021), minimalist poems, won the 2022 Nelson Ball Prize. Forthcoming chapbooks from Catkin Press and Turret House. Find more at www.pearlpirie.com or at patreon.com/pearlpiriepoet