Some folks construct their poems in loose assemblages of varying sizes and shapes (guilty, Your Honour). Others pour their poems into premade structures. The sonnet is a classic example of aesthetic restraint. Russell Carisse’s BRICKWORKS (Frog Hollow Press, 2021) testifies to the longevity of the sonnet form and to Canadian poetry’s vital contribution to experimentation. Carisse builds sonnets that are near-perfect blocks, or brick walls. He holds fast to a few rules: 14 lines; 10 syllables (most of the time); justified margins to maintain that square shape. However, the great riot of activity within these lovely brick walls foreshadows their spectacular collapse.
Upon a quick glance, you’ll probably notice all the contracted words: “Forward t’ spacing out distance f’r entrance” (“Flemish Bond.1.Worskite”); “Itself ’nce pressure built becomes th’ product” (“Flemish Bond.2.Dopey Drones”); “Wrappers b’ck up having enjoyed all th’r grub” (“Monk Bond.6.Waxed Paper”). One theory: Under the duress of manual labour, it becomes difficult at times to form full words. Abbreviated jargon (e.g., “fo’c’sle” for “forecastle,” referring to the forward section of a ship’s upper deck) is, after all, a feature of just about any “worksite.” Another theory: These abbreviated words are the equivalent of chiselling off parts of bricks to fit them into a confined structure. This technique—of chiselling and fitting—might be an example of what Carisse calls “brickwork syllabics.” For Carisse, words are bricks, which can be stacked on top of each other—the air functioning as the mortar that binds them. Though the sonnet/brick wall is a tight structure (14 lines, fairly consistent pentameter), within it there’s a jumble of materials, people, and plant life.
Carisse does an effective job of bringing
a worksite to life for us:
The raucous music of the various work tasks is audible through heavy vowels (“above in bundles,” “slumping mud”) and sharp, percussive consonants (“Duration struck, punch at the clock”). And it’s accomplished in a nearly breathless single sentence. Carisse seems to be exploring the irony—or simply the tension?—of imposing order on a loose assemblage of organic matter, of squeezing this pulsing life into solid, immobile blocks.
But in the end the “blocks” are not separate from “life”: there is a mingling of the two, as “blood knuckle / Drops on stone, bricks and mortared right in.” Moreover, the “machine”—the technology we use or the structures in which we live and move—cannot be sustained without the human agent: “Whom else, to sustain pulse / Within machined carapace, would beetle / Wretched onto earthen berm between, but folks?” (“Random Stone.4.But Folks?”)
The chapbook, then, is very much a joyous celebration of the body as both mechanism of “labour” and foil to capitalist-imposed structures and schedules.
Alongside the bricks and humans exists other organic life. Garden
“walls” are human-made—but they cannot sustain the garden “works” that
thrive (and writhe) within:
The garden in literary tradition evokes genteel order and design: another example of the human desire to place boundaries around nature, to organize it into a clock-driven schedule. But these efforts are all for naught in Carisse’s garden: herbs and vegetables and fruit and legumes and gourds run riot, while bricks flake and crumble.
Like the chapbook’s cover—which features a small tree sprouted at the base of a painted brick wall—the interior of BRICKWORKS celebrates the organic matter that occasionally erupts out of these human-made structures.
Adam Lawrence’s poetry has recently appeared in Train: A Poetry Journal, SurVision Magazine, and FreeFall Magazine. Additional publications (poems, reviews) are forthcoming in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Vastarien: A Literary Journal, and Carousel Magazine. Adam works as a freelance copyeditor and writer in Florenceville-Bristol, NB.
 Russell Carisse, Twitter, 10:14 a.m., Nov 22, 2021, https://twitter.com/russellcarisse/status/1462786673666891777.
 The actual titles of the sonnets (“Flemish Bond,” “English Bond,” etc.) refer to types of bricks and brick-bonds.