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Poetry Canadian

Between the Walls

by (author) Paul Vermeersch

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Mar 2005
Canadian, General, Places
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2005
    List Price

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Paul Vermeersch examines the forces that divide us and isolate us as individuals in both the natural and man-made worlds, at the moments when those worlds intersect, and in the places where we live and work. During a violent row between teenage boys, a starling explodes like a hand grenade. A clutter of inbred cats plays out the rise and fall of mankind in a secluded country barn. While driving his girlfriend home, a young man is forced to alter the course of his future by the sudden appearance of a plague of toads. And in the harrowing final sequence, we are taken on a tour through a fragile city verging on its own ruin. As fantastic as they are visceral, these poems shed new light on our darkest corners and take us deep between the walls, those that are thrust up before us as well as those of our own making.

About the author

Paul Vermeersch is the author of three collections of poetry: The Fat Kid, Burn (a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award) and, most recently, Between the Walls. He is also the editor of the anthology The I.V. Lounge Reader. His next collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, is forthcoming in 2010. His poetry has been published widely in literary journals and magazines. He lives in Toronto, where he works as a teacher and serves as poetry editor for Insomniac Press. He is a long-time reader and admirer of the work of Al Purdy.

Paul Vermeersch's profile page

Excerpt: Between the Walls (by (author) Paul Vermeersch)


Man to man.

If only I knew more about the human heart,
I could fuel its fire or stamp it out
completely. If only I knew more
about songbirds, I could tell you
exactly what is singing there unseen
in that tree across the street – that song
has been, so far, the best part of my day,
a song as old as our four-chambered hearts,
older maybe, a melody composed a million
years ago and never altered – surely
musical genius thrived before the wheel,
before our weapons and our calculus,
and when we’re gone that song
will continue in the trees and will not change.

But we know that song, too. We were born
with its notes and rests transcribed
in the cells of our own warm blood
and we’ve sung it more or less
unsuccessfully in a hundred-­odd cities
between us, lone birds in full throat,
joyous and unheard. And we’ve fallen
silent, sullen, drunk, when our song
has failed too often. But not that bird
across the street – he will not drown
his sorrows, because he has none.
He will sing until his lady comes or,
in her place, his death, always proud, always
singing, and you know as well as I do
what he does not feel: the bitterness
of solitude, and you also understand
there are times when, if I could catch him,
I would break his neck and end it
so he will not have to sing his song alone.

A Word About the Poem By Paul Vermeersch
When I was writing the poems in my book Between the Walls, I had the feeling--though I took little notice of it at the time--that I was writing a “city” book. It seemed to me I was tackling, for the most part, themes and subject matter that evoked an urban environment: litter-filled alleys, busy streets, upscale neighbourhoods encircling a rundown core, sprawl and development at the city’s edge, etc.

It’s interesting how often writers can surprise themselves. When the book was completed, I was struck by how much of the natural world was present in the collection. Birds and animals inhabit the poems as much as humans do.

Often, the animals in my poems represent human emotional states, or else stand in counterpoint to human flaws and characteristics. This poem, “He Will Not Drown His Sorrows,” is a good example. I wrote it for a close friend who at the time had been complaining about his lousy, if non-existent, love life. I felt, in order to commiserate completely with my friend, I needed an external target at which to direct a hapless single person’s Valentine’s Day acrimony. A witless bird who persistently sings his song, ever sweetly and beautifully, even when there is no hope of attracting a mate, seemed perfect.

My friend enjoyed the poem, and though I can’t claim it helped him get out of his dating slump, I’m happy to say he is now engaged to be married.

How the Poem Works By A. F. Moritz

The first thing likely to strike a reader about Paul Vermeersch's "He Will Not Drown His Sorrows" is the incisive, pungently contemporary voice that speaks it. This voice is of our moment not only in the casual yet dartingly swiftness of its movement from one experience and feeling to another, but especially in its basic tone. The tone is complex, but encompasses a sense of dislocation from society, a certain dread, a controlled bitterness, and an assumed self-mastery in which menacingly violent, even self-destructive emotions sometimes approach the surface. Vermeersch leaves the nature of the sorrows undefined, which emphasizes the painful concreteness he has given to the speaker's contemplation of the way in which sorrow itself, frequently repeated in perhaps many forms, has been an almost unmanageable constant in his life.

But the second thing a reader might notice is how much of the English classics there is in this very current poem. For example, it is like a dark rewriting of the "Ode to a Nightingale." Like Keats's nightingale, Vermeersch's bird sings in a way that reminds us of human sorrow, but which is free of sorrow, and thus seems to offer a release, an alternative ... until we return into ourselves. Vermeersch's tone and ideas are different, of course, but still the similarities are striking, and the poem develops some of its power from this grapple with Keats. Similarly, the racy versification, seemingly so conversational, on closer inspection is always within hailing distance of traditional metrics, and at points discloses a strictly classical fingering of the syllables. For example, note how both stanzas end with a resonant pentameter, each equipped with a little anapestic skip in the first foot. Here again, the allusion to the "classic", with its dominant ideal of calm and balance, adds tension and contrast to the contemporary mood, and contributes much to the beauty of the poem's central emotional revelation.

A.F. Moritz's poetry has recently won the 2005 ReLit Award (for Night Street Repairs, and the Bess Hokin Award of Poetry magazine and the Stover Award of the Southwest Review.

Editorial Reviews

“Vermeersh is one of Canada’s best young poets.… [The poems in Between the Walls] explore the tension between the natural world and the artifice of our society, and the collision between the public sphere and the secret corners of our private lives.”
–Vancouver Province
“Vermeersch transcends time and self through luminous turns of language and singular states of mind.”
Canadian Literature

“Vermeersch illustrates his true skills in the delicate simplicity of words. He is at the bright beginning of a long career.”
Broken Pencil

“The poems are sharply observed and pitch-perfect.… both warped, and wise.”
Toronto Star