A finalist for the Alfred G. Baily Prize and winner of the Lush Triumphant Award for Poetry, Ignite is a collection of elegiac and experimental poetry powder-kegged with questions about one man’s lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. Born into a strict Mennonite family, Abe Spenst’s mental illness spanned three decades in and out of mental institutions where he underwent electric shock treatment and coma-induced insulin therapy. Merging memory and medical records, Kevin Spenst recreates his father’s life through a cuckoo’s nest of styles that both stand as witness and waltz to the interplay between memory, emotion and all our forms of becoming.
“…with a fearless layering of voice, “Ignite” is upfront and unswerving. A novel-esque torrent tracing a troubling history of illness—part confrontation and part chronicle—this collection is daring with its dark narrative. Here is a willingness for, and enviable strength in, extending poetic range. “Ignite” heals and ascends. There are books that need to be written and this is one of them. This is a collection which gives more and more with every read.”
– Sandra Ridley (judge for the Alfred G. Baily prize)
“Ignite is a chemical reaction just like hope is a chemical reaction. Kevin Spenst is a chemical reaction just like the blaze of DNA, blooming through familial inflorescence, is a chemical reaction. The core of these gloriously white hot poems will, to paraphrase one, abstract you to bricks because here in these pages is the hardcopy of the sweetest epistemological blues.”
– Wayde Compton, author of The Outer Harbour
by Carys Cragg for Matrix Magazine |READ ONLINE
Kevin Spenst’s most recent collection of poems, Ignite, is a mapping of the body, the terrain of schizophrenia, and relationship between father and son. “Weighted with ancestors / as numerous as the stars,” this collection splits itself in three: part paternal biography, part memoir, and part historical survey and analysis of a century of mental illness. Ignite is a re-membering and reconstruction of a life lived. Elegiacal from the outset, “but only if I see you in some flesh / can I hold a goodbye, say / I’m sorry like it means something,” expect to be devastated yet enlightened, heart-broken and concerned. Through careful rumination, telling and re-telling, Spenst honours the boy inside of him, his father no longer alongside him, and the reader in their journey to understand.
It is through Spenst’s masterful poetic technique that the tone of the collection and subject matter is set. Through his experimental form, we hear his voice moving us along, permitting entrance into chaos, complexity, and commonplace. Point of view initially positions readers close, embodying that of Spenst’s father — “you wonder where new / ends and you begin” or “there’s no difference between your / arms and the trees of this park, your / torso and the centre of the earth, your tears / and that lake” — and then then loosens its grip for the remaining poems. Metaphors and references abound — religious and cultural, neurological and psychiatric — carrying us through its complex web and attempts to explain, “he is entangled in bar- / bed wire theories of why / biological, chemical, social.” Why, indeed. Corresponding images help us see the dendrite forests, rock quarries, and particles of self — “Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Charm, Strange” — where intersecting images — “mandalas circle discs down” — help us understand the layers he wants us to see.
Rhyme is used sparingly, and sounds pleasingly, making the ruminations of “(In the Middle of the B&E)” all the more impactful. “I once climbed all trees and walls of that shady kingdom / surveyed traffic into the distance of down-the-road / fell asleep in the basement bedroom to the traffic’s hum.” Sounds read strong, as said aloud in “Body Made Mantra:” “stamp the brain- / stem directions for breaths to be blessed and heart-beats / to synch with hellos and goodbyes.” Alliteration pushes the point home: “he slips off his belt … sighs / strikes my backside straight.” Where diction is concerned, readers won’t mind having their English to German or Mennonite translator close by because it brings us closer, into the world Spenst creates.
Ultimately, this collection asks: who gets to tell the story of mental illness, what it means, and who it makes us become? Will it be the fields and notes of religion and neuropsychiatry or will it be the forest of literature, one that describes, explores, holds up, and shines a light, desiring the human condition to be known? As “Etiology of a Heartbeat” reminds us, “Progress is such an easy illusion.” Ignite is an observation of a father lost, long before his actual death, and a lifetime seeking to comprehend. As Spenst wonders and wanders through, he bears witness. In doing so, he asks his readers to do the same. As he begins, “I could hold ignorance aloft / as my new religion. A vestment / of small furs. I too could / have a story no one understands.”
Artwork by Jason McLean