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Review in The Martlet (University of Victoria)

"Poet Denham is a killer with a conscience"

Poet and prawn fisherman Joe Denham grew up in Sechelt, a small coastal B.C. town scraping by on trees, gravel and the odd fish. It’s the type of place where you grow up thinking that pissing behind a hedge in daylight is not without its graces, as Denham demonstrates in “What Keeps Me Grinning,” a poem from his recently-released book Flux: “Shook off the piddle and zipped up /to turn and see What-The-Fuck-You-Doin’-Pissin’-On-My-Winter-Pansies-You-Little-Punk / staring me down from her kitchen window.” The pissing incident took place in Victoria where the refinements picked up in a small coastal town go unappreciated.

Flux begins with work poems, probably a good start for someone who quit creative writing at UVic to pull prawn traps. Unlike so many other writers, Denham resists the temptation to romanticize his work. This is a guy who tells of the dreariness and monotony of manual labour like it really is. In “Breakfast,” Denham writes, “A quick cup and smoke on deck with some Nice to see your smashed-asshole face this morning’, the toque /and flashlight on, and climb down /into the forty-below-Celsius hold. Bent into the boat’s cramped belly /cold air clasps our lungs in a metallic /vice crystallizes to ice upon inhale, /melts to mist with each exhale /as we load totes down through the hole’s /narrow mouth, feed it the frozen flesh /we caught and killed last night.” Of catching and killing an octopus Denham writes “I can’t help thinking sentience /of a four-year-old-child, can escape from a Mason jar, emotions /are displayed through shifting /skin colour.” This is a killer with a conscience.

Denham is even more uncomfortable with life on land, where he is forced to dwell on “his course load, weak kidneys, credit card . . . a $75 ticket for running a red light on his bicycle, that particular cop’s predisposition to asshole, his heart palpitations. . .” In other poems he dwells on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a childhood friend on skid row and the final moments of a friend who committed suicide—not the type of stuff you want to be thinking about before bed. Denham makes up for the depressing subject matter with a few memorable pieces that address subjects like having sex during an earthquake in “3 Point 0” and “branch-gun battles” in “Two Waters,” a masterful lament for the small town of his childhood.

Denham writes for common tastes. A book seems almost an inappropriate medium for these poems. They are too accessible, too real to be relegated to a bookshelf. They are better fit for airing on local radio, just after the weather report, or circulating around the kind of coffee shops where there’s one brew and a parking lot full of diesel trucks."
The Martlet (University of Victoria)