Nathan Dueck, he’ll (St. John’s NL: Pedlar Press, 2014). 90 pages, $20.00.
Nathan Dueck’s he’ll forces dual modes of patience and playfulness on the reader. This is a book for which the descriptor “complex” does not even begin to come close. he’ll creates its own parameters within which it can be defined; this is part of Dueck’s gift. It’s also what will make he’ll resistant to all but those readers willing to spelunk through pits and caves of language, where meaning comes clear only in brief flashes before returning to obfuscation and darkness.
he’ll is Dueck’s second book, published a decade after 2003’s king’s(mère), an interpretation of the life of Canada’s tenth prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Dueck lives and teaches in Calgary, AB, but was born in Winkler, MB—a fact that is important for he’ll, because this book emits from Manitoba, and takes as its prime locale a Mennonite village located near the Rat River (a fictional village, eponymously named “Rat River”).
he’ll is constructed in fragments, like a collage; it is long-form poetry built with whiffs of memoir and fiction, and with puns, recipes, transcripts, and intriguingly redacted documents. Translated plaut-deitsch and vowel sounds, bolded and repeated, litter and line its pages.
At he’ll’s core is the story of Roman Dyck, a disabled postman for Rat River who once served—we learn in dribs and drabs—in the Korean War. His corpse is found behind the post office, along with a jumble of undelivered letters. “Nada,” an official—of what?—is sent to investigate, but his record of events is also, ultimately, virtually indecipherable to the powers-that-be, and yields nothing beyond a second, equally confusing, set of documents: “Frankly, the assignment became a crying shame, for Nada submitted a report rife with errors.”
Dueck has masterful control over language: he’ll is as much about play as it is about mystery, or identity, or even plaut-deitsch. Dueck’s wordplay is witty and erudite, but self-conscious, laden with awareness of the underlying seriousness both of his fictional subject’s life and death, and Roman’s all-too-real Mennonite roots and cultural history. On display here are a smattering of Mennonite keywords: pacifism, dogma, conscience, sauerkraut. One can almost hear the laundry whipping in the wind.
Dueck’s use of language explores linkages between hotspots of meaning, and finds patterns that have as much to do with chance as they do with any real connection. he’ll constantly seems to volley between irresistible punning and serious transliteration of Mennonite cultural history.
But if Dueck cares about using Mennonite norms to build new constructions of meaning, his tone seesaws between the compassionate and the clinical. One poem, entitled “NOTE TENSIONS BETWEEN LANGUAGES YOU HEAR, READ, AND SPEAK RE: CITATION,” begins, “in other words, liturgy. / Allergy, / ally”. Later, the poem continues: “to get the gist / speak in jest.” And further:
I am G-d
But the routes he’ll takes are not always sarcastic. Roman’s death is also somehow, mysteriously, mourned:
Path is a path is a
path is a path.
These poems, or so poet Robert Kroetsch wrote of the collection, “expose an irony of connection and omission: Mennonites relate to each other—to their ethnicity, to their religion—with a colloquial discourse that isolates them from outsiders.” The overall effect of he’ll is one of alienation: through omissions, elisions, redactions, the reader is sometimes deliberately misled about the truth of Roman Dyck’s life and death, but the characters of he’ll seem no more privy to that truth than the reader. The Mennonite community may read this collection with pleasure, but its mysteries are not designed to ever fully come to light.
Dueck is a preternaturally self-aware writer, and he’ll has “a built-in shit detector,” to borrow a line from Hemingway. If there is shit in he’ll, it is intentionally deployed. By the same mechanism, he’ll is protected against the criticism that it is “hard to understand.” he’ll understands itself; omissions are intentional.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer and critic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Globe & Mail, The Winnipeg Review, PANK magazine, The Rusty Toque, Full Stop and The Humber Literary Review.