Book Review: Poetry is Useless

BOOKS_PoetryIsUselessPoetry is Useless
Anders Nilsen, 224 pgs, Drawn & Quarterly, drawnandquarterly.com, $37.95 

It’s useful for adults to take most of life for granted. If we proceeded as though the nature of chairs were indeterminate, we’d be all morning waiting for a seat at Denny’s. Poetry asks questions as a child does: playfully, atomically curious, even of the concrete, obvious and fundamental; even of itself. Unsurprisingly, few suffering from poetry get much done, or eat well.

The utility of the artist’s life is up for debate in Poetry is Useless, the latest collection from Minneapolis cartoonist Anders Nilsen (Big Questions, The Rage of Poseidon). Assembled from nearly ten years of sketchbooks, there’s a sense here of spying on the artist’s day to day as he doodles, tries out one-liners and bats around the themes that animate his graphic novels.

But Nilsen turns this voyeuristic quality inside out. Like his early Monologues, many pages consist of hastily scrawled panel grids with a blank figure that addresses the reader (you) with bleak but genuine humour. As a result, the book feels oddly companionable. I read through it over the course of a week whenever I could steal a minute, and it overlaid my life like an acetate transparency: a meditation on breathing during my smoke break, an ironic parable about a lonely hoarder while jammed in a crowded bus. There’s nothing mystical in these links, only the sympathies that form naturally when someone shares their daily experiences with you.

Nilsen’s rare gift, which has made his body of work arguably the most compelling of any cartoonist of his generation, is how comfortably he contains his multitudes: elusive meta-gamesmanship and raw, zine-like confession; crude offhand sketches and richly detailed, pointillist studies; blistering satire and a poetic embrace of “the dirt the water the air / God communism penicillin / the flowers you planted in the yard, your favourite chair / … everything everything everything.” Poetry is Useless takes as its model life, and within that structure, everything is useful and useless and is. (JM Francheteau)

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