The Art of Dying. Sarah Tolmie. McGill-Queens University Press. Montreal & Kingston·London·Chicago. 2018.
Before you read a word of Sarah Tolmie's transcendent The Art of Dying, you need to listen to Sir Ralph Stanley's harrowing rendition of his classic "O Death", which you can hear here:
If you're still standing you might be ready for what Sarah Tolmie has cooked up for us. Today's book of poetry sits in awe listening to Mr. Stanley bargain it all down and Tolmie has the same glaze of class and integrity. The same deathly grit.
The Art of Dying tackles death with a capital D. Tolmie takes on every experience death has to offer. If you listen closely enough you might even come to think that Sarah Tolmie loved death.
Tolmie has plenty to say to the "poets" and their lofty ideals, she knows full well that death is waiting for them too, and tells them so. There are eighty-nine numbered poems in The Art of Dying, Today's book of poetry had a field day because we could have shared, happily, any of them. Tolmie doesn't tolerate any weak siblings, she has no dead weight allowed.
Poets no longer rate so high
In the consolation industry.
We've been fools.
TV has usurped our role:
Zombies, vampires, doctors, priests
Tell us our deaths need not be.
Our friends spam us from the internet
With the final selfie that death photobombed.
Truth is becalmed.
The Art of Dying tickles the poetry funny bone with whimsy and some wacky rhymes, but it is all for amusement, to calm the dying, for giggles. Tolmie has laser vision, night-goggle vision, into our deepest fears, our deepest fear, the last one: death.
Sarah Tolmie runs a tight ship. Each of these untitled pronouncements rings precisely, clearly and then precariously, all taking on death, all dying.
It's not like of this comes as too much of a surprise for Today's book of poetry. Any of our regular readers will remember that Sarah Tolmie is a two-time Today's book of poetry star. The Art of Dying is Tolmie's third appearance here. Back in May of 2015 Today's book of poetry was delighted to write about Tolmie's Sonnets in a Blue Dress and Other Poems (Baseline Press, 2014). Then in November of the same year we were lucky enough to get our hands on Tolmie's Trio (McGill-Queens University Press, 2015). Both of those can be seen here:
Today's book of poetry has come to believe that Sarah Tolmie is as dependable a poet as you can imagine, we know that when we pick up a Sarah Tolmie book that it will be full of riches.
Michael Jackson had a Lazarus fail.
He always did thing on the grand scale,
Having himself euthanized nightly.
Finally it stuck.
The doc went out to smoke or make a call
And he never woke-up.
Widespread woe, tributes, lawsuits ensued
but one thing everybody knew
Was all his wealth did him no good.
This is counterintuitive
And makes us slightly pleased
At the death of celebrities.
Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took control of the morning reading and rolled out our copies of Trio and Sonnet in a Blue Dress and Other Poems to accompany The Art of Dying. Tomas and Frieda, two old friends of Today's book of poetry, dropped by this morning and of course Kathryn made them read as well. Tomas and Frieda added some spice and some enthusiasm to our core group. And of course whenever we have visitors the staff are inspired to reach for their better poetry selves.
Reading The Art of Dying is a little like skipping and hop-scotch: you read the first poem and get you a poetry smile/high going and then gravity, momentum, and other unseen forces of nature compel you forward. Curiosity kisses one side of your cheek and death kisses the other. This is Chef type burning.
Today's book of poetry would be remiss if we didn't mention the spectacular killer cover of The Art of Dying. David Drummond designed it and we are convinced he is a Devilchild. But the cover is hard-core cool and worthy of the fine poems enclosed within.
The present American horror show
May yet be remembered by a single poem.
People get tired of video.
I've seen this poem a dozen times
About just one guy who died.
Otherwise it's all the same.
Make no mistake that a news report,
Whatever that is in this day and age,
Whoever protests, whoever pays,
Lasts a single minute. Holinshed's lists
Of aristocrats who died for this and that
Come over slowly from Calais
On parchment strips, those will remain
While all things fade
From the digital consciousness.
Eric Garner. That was the name.
Let it be carried in the world mainframe
Until the canticle for Leibowitz.
As previously stated, Today's book of poetry is now an official Sarah Tolmie fan. With The Art of Dying Tolmie enters the rare "threepeat" territory on our pages.
Today's book of poetry now knows Tolmie is gold and burning. I guess we've known it all along.
ABOUT THE AUTHORSarah Tolmie is associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her poetry collection Trio was shortlisted for the 2016 Pat Lowther Memorial Award.
BLURB“There is astute compassion in discussions of assisted suicide, the fleeting life of an imaginary friend, and the confusion of hospital stays that deftly turn daily incidences into larger existential considerations … In these direct, personal brushes with death, Tolmie is at her most clear-sighted, stripping away the rubble of euphemism we use as a salve against the enigma of death.”
— Montreal Review of Books