Throwback: The Better Part of Some Time by Mike Madill

A book of poetry is not a novel, but sometimes individual poems can seem like twenty- to thirty-line chapters, proceeding along a definite narrative arc, and bringing narrator and reader on a journey full of incidents across space and time toward transformation. Some poets, such as Barry Dempster, seem to specialize in such miniature novels. Dempster also happens to be Mike Madill’s poetic mentor, and the influence of the master is wonderfully apparent in Madill’s The Better Part of Some Time. The two poets have a similar sensibility, and especially a similar approach to personal history and the meticulous delineation of human situations.

The Better Part of Some Time was a winner of the 2021 Don Gutteridge Award (full disclosure: I had a book place second in the 2024 iteration), and in it we find poems about missed opportunities, expectations as often defeated as realized, and tiny revelations and epiphanies amidst the difficulty of fulfilling family obligations. But these are not poems of filial anguish. In fact, Madill strikes boldly out into what is for me unvisited territory: the strongest poems in this book deal with family dynamics from the perspective of positive parental relationships. In particular, Madill describes a good rapport with his father, and the results are refreshing. I desperately want to know that out there are men who can admit to loving, and being loved by, their fathers. Who can learn positive lessons from their parents. Who find joy in the presence of family.

In fact, Madill strikes boldly out into what is for me unvisited territory: the strongest poems in this book deal with family dynamics from the perspective of positive parental relationships.

And there is considerable joy in this book, especially in how Madill revels in detail. “In Dry Dock” eschews metaphor and simile in order to name and describe things as precisely as possible. The poem promises us a boat trip, but we just know from the sheer weight of detail in the piece that the trip will never happen, as Grandad “fritters away the day / in the garage, rummaging around / for that certain wrench”. So much space has been devoted to describing the grandparents’ house, yard, and habits, that we have no choice but to remain landlocked. But there is so much incident in this piece about going nowhere that we don’t realize till we’ve read it that we have gone on a journey. It is a journey through Madill’s relationship with his grandparents; the day it spans can pass for a lifetime; and though the territory it covers may only be the environs of a house, that house exists in the landscape of childhood memory—which is as far away from wherever you happen to be as McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

It is a journey through Madill’s relationship with his grandparents; the day it spans can pass for a lifetime; and though the territory it covers may only be the environs of a house, that house exists in the landscape of childhood memory—which is as far away from wherever you happen to be as McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

My favourite piece, and arguably one of the strongest, is “Alive”, which is as summative an account of the death in hospital of a loved one (Madill’s father) as you are likely to encounter. An entire relationship is depicted in its 25 lines. It asks what we owe the dying, and what they owe us—for who hasn’t conceived of death as a two-way debt never to be repaid? Do the dying owe us, or is it that our sense of completion and closure is foiled?

I want you back, so I 
can punch you, kiss you.
Your empty chair
now everything
I’ll never master.

There is ample scope for regret, but Madill does not lose himself in it. For as he says in the same poem, “[d]ying / is the last chance to be ourselves”.

Carefully and meticulously wrought, alternately economical or generous where needed, The Better Part of Some Time is an auspicious début and makes an excellent and sorely needed pendentive to the already ample literature of family dysfunction. Unhappy families may each be unhappy in their own way, but that doesn’t mean the opposite necessarily applies.

Mike Madill‘s poems have been published across Canada, including in The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, Event, Existere, The Fiddlehead, Freefall, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, untethered, Vallum, White Wall Review and The Windsor Review.

He was shortlisted for Freefall’s 2019-20 Poetry Contest, and an Honourable Mention in the inaugural 2021-22 Don Gutteridge Poetry Award Contest earned him publication of his debut collection, The Better Part of Some Time.

When not writing, Mike pursues freelance editing, and has also taken turns as a social worker, computer analyst and home contractor. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from York University.

Publisher: Wet Ink Books (May 4, 2022)
Paperback 6″ x 9″ | 96 pages
ISBN: 9781989786642

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Richard-Yves Sitoski is a songwriter and performance poet, and was the 2019-2023 Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, on the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. His poems have appeared in Arc, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, Train, CAROUSEL, and elsewhere. He is co-editor, with Penn Kemp, of Poems in Response to Peril: An Anthology in Support of Ukraine (profits from which went to displaced Ukrainian cultural workers). His one-person fringe show, Butterfly Tongue, has played to sold-out houses. He is a 2021 Best of the Net nominee, the recipient of the 2021 John Newlove Award, and the second place winner of the 2022 Don Gutteridge Award. His most recent works are the chapbook How to Be Human and the full-length of collection Wait, What?.