Friday, June 3, 2022

Ben Robinson : Twelve and a Half Parentheticals: On Mikko Harvey’s “Sugar Water”





Sugar Water

(a pie made by hand)
(an idea about loneliness)
(a pattern in the dirt

made by a horse’s steps)
(the accident that is

not accidental)
(the lake waves

resembling tiny
melting mountains)

(she asked, what did I
love more, structures

or her?)
(the hummingbird addicted

to the sugar water
we feed him)

raccoon carcass

up-close resembling
abstract artwork)

(the particular bitterness
of oversteeped

(what I thought

was love was just
a shade of purple paint)

(a scene from seven years ago
all covered in moss now)

(the sky reflected
in a knife

on a vinyl tablecloth
at a picnic)

(a child balancing
a basketball on her fingertip

then laughing
as it falls

“Sugar Water,” as well as Let the World Have You more generally, seem to present Mikko Harvey coming to terms with being a poet for the long haul. A single book of poetry is excusable, but a second starts a habit.

This poem consists of twelve and a half parentheticals including images, ideas, patterns, paradoxes, resemblances, and structures. Tucked away in their brackets, this list of ingredients forms a recipe for a certain kind of observational poem. In it, Harvey seems to be thinking through the ethics of representation and the dangers of aestheticizing disaster, whether there might be more prudent uses of time amidst the various crises. Is it enough to point the reader back to the warming earth by noting that the waves resemble “melting mountains?” Should the speaker’s love of structures be abandoned in favour of the possibility of a more tangible love with “her?”

We first encounter the titular sugar water as a gift to a hummingbird. We really encounter it first in the title, then a second time with the hummingbird and then, at the end of the poem, I found myself returning to the title again with its meaning altered by the reading of the poem (like a good title can). The speaker keeps us at a distance from the sugar water at first; it is something that “we” give to a hummingbird, but its consumption is only observed, not participated in directly. By framing the poem with this image, the whole pursuit of the poem comes into question, as something perhaps pleasurable but artificial, lacking in nutrition (it’s not clear who the hummingbird is here: speaker, reader, or poet).

Harvey’s first book, Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit, was populated with a variety of surprising beasts and this collection is similarly charactered. We begin the poem with a horse (or at least its steps), move on to the hummingbird, and then discover a raccoon carcass “resembling/ abstract artwork.” Again, a certain kind of poetic looking is being contested – what to make of the gaze that makes art out of a corpse? In an earlier poem in this collection, it is the container ships, those engines of global capitalism, that are rendered aesthetic objects by remove: “the geometry soothing/ when viewed from a distance.” Whether from near or far, the risk of aestheticization seems to be ever-present, at least for those of us who “love structures.”

We close the poem with a young Atlas, twirling the world of the basketball on their finger and laughing unconcerned as it plummets. Perhaps there is still some hope though. Harvey leaves a door open, the last parenthetical unclosed. The end could simply be a matter of striking the final key and closing off the poem for good, or perhaps there is some turn yet to be revealed – outstretched arms waiting in the grass below, a gleeful retriever bounding over with its mouth open wide.






Ben Robinson is a poet, musician and librarian. His most recent publication is Without Form from The Blasted Tree and knife | fork | book. The Book of Benjamin is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in the fall of 2023. He has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. You can find him online at

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