John MacKenzie

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A Review of John MacKenzie's Letters I Didn't Write
By Justin Kerr

Published in The Argosy

For anyone with an interest in poetry, here is a book worth the read. John MacKenzie's Letters I Didn't Write immediately grabs the reader with its conciseness and its poignancy. MacKenzie seems to derive much of his creative power from his solid use of peculiar yet striking similes, a strong sense of rhythm (most noticeably in his dedicatory "Hank" poems at the beginning of the collection), as well as his use of repetition and consistency of tone.

MacKenzie was born in P.E.I., and after years of writing poetry and traveling across the nation he has settled down in Charlottetown, which is his home base for writing and publishing poetry. Writing since he was 19 years old, and crediting his intuitive grasp of verse and rhythm to his devote Christian upbringing with the King James Bible, MacKenzie has created a unique poetic persona which is all his own. However troublesome the idea of reading a conservatively educated poet may seem to a largely liberal student body, don't let your preconceptions taint your interest in this talented Canadian poet. From what I have read there is no evangelical motive to his verse and, although his poetry is very inward-looking, there appear to be few or no religious projections. Instead MacKenzie is exploring a much more deeply-rooted human anxiety.

The title alone speaks to something I think we all share. Letters I Didn't Write focuses on plans unfulfilled, anxieties that lie fixed in the past, and, at the heart of the collection, the tragedy of a life cut short in the middle of its creative youth. MacKenzie draws inspiration from the Spanish poet/matador Federico Garcia Lorca who died an untimely death from fatal injury in his last bullfight.
MacKenzie's collection is also influenced by the tumultuous life and mysterious death of singer/songwriter and country music legend Hank Williams. Williams, at 29 years old, having won several prestigious music awards, achieved countless chart-topping singles, and after having defeated a long addiction to alcohol, died in the back of a limousine on the way to a performance. Although background knowledge of the lives of these people is not necessary for the enjoyment of MacKenzie's poetry, it certainly allows the reader to catch the many allusions MacKenzie includes in his "Hank" poems, which evokes certain emotions, images, or tones important in interpreting the deeper meanings within the verse.

When asked about his thoughts on Canadian Literature and its creators, MacKenzie writes, "I suppose my only complaint about "Canlit-makers" would be -- and this is a gross generalization -- that the ongoing arguments between writers about regionalism, provincialism etc, ignore the fact that an inward-looking literature -- by which I mean something which can be described as "Canlit" and held up as a goal to be striven towards -- is in itself a regional and provincial literature. Limiting oneself as a writer or as a reader to what is produced in one's own country is, in my opinion, stupid, arrogant, cowardly, and, worst of all, counter-productive to writing..."

From this perspective on Canadian Literature, one can see that MacKenzie is striving to write something that resonates beyond Canada, and is looking for a deeper, and more global truth. I'm not sure what the final conclusion is in this collection, or if indeed the poetry actually goes beyond reflection, but I will say that MacKenzie does hold merit in the field of poetry. He has set his goals high and strives for deep meaning in his writing. His variety of imagery and simile present the reader with a familiar world and re-creates it in a beautiful way. He evokes the youthful spirits of life cut short and celebrates their colorful legacies with rhythmic verse and a dark, mournful tone.

Regret in things lost, forgotten, or simply put aside is something we have all experienced, it is something we are constantly re-living in our minds; we frequently find ourselves wishing for a chance to do something over again. MacKenzie calls on us to realize that this is not something isolated in ourselves, and that it is something we are each still able to change. After all, the collection itself is a testament that, although there may be things you have left undone; papers you didn't write, things you didn't say; there is yet time to reanimate these hopes and goals and see them through to the end.

If MacKenzie's other published works, Sledgehammer and Shaken by Physics, are anything like Letters I Didn't Write, they will not let you down. It's Can Lit. Check it out!