A Review of Darrell Epp's Sinners Dance
Review by Bernadette Rule
Sinners Dance, Darrell Epp's third book of poetry, was originally conceived of as an exploration of Epp's Mennonite heritage, but the poems took him in other directions, and he let them. This is because Epp is interested in "the poem as a document of its own creation, a celebration of the creative process itself". Therefore each poem is a sort of map outlining a journey, from its starting point of inspiration, to its landing point or conclusion.
With this in mind, the opening line of the first poem “Balloon, Balloon” — “and guess what? i did see her again, years later,” — must be read as a continuation of a narrative, presumably that of Epp's last book After Hours. The setting of the latter is a post-apocalyptic Canada in which the narrator struggles to survive and find meaning.
Sinners Dance places the reader in a pre-apocalyptic world, clearly recognizable as our own. (Whether the apocalypse is looming or has already taken place is not the point.) Here, the narrator struggles to find a way out of the landslide of pop culture details that distract him from any serious observation, let alone any serious action, as he continues to waste his life.
Epp's insistence on flattening the poems into lower case ironically capitalizes the narrator's inability to ascribe more value to one thing than to another. In this way these poems highlight one of the great problems of our age: the hoarder's need to amass everything in case it might be important.
when the cruise ship started sinking i was busy:
stamping out random forest fires, raging against
the dark, giving the finger to f-18 hornets
on their way to the air show, spinning a web,
digging a hole, filling the spare room with
clutter just to dull the echo (“Women and Children First”)
There is wit in Epp's writing, but the overall view of life is bleak, the guardians of our civilization blind, the maps deceiving. And Hamilton artist Gord Pullar's illustrations match the narrator's post-modern tone of witty despair perfectly.
It is worth noting that the title, Sinners Dance, has neither an apostrophe nor a comma. Either one would change its meaning. Instead it stands as a complete sentence, a declarative statement: Sinners dance. That's what they (we...) do. This, perhaps more than any other aspect of the book, holds a clue to the Mennonite heritage Epp meant to explore when he began. The narrator must make choices, yet he is trapped in a time and place in which he feels powerless. According to the cover art, innocence is pitted against corruption here, and the devil is the emcee of the show. So where is God? Will the narrator find the focus and the strength to take a stand against mankind's destruction of the garden? Does it matter? Does anything matter?
Spoiler Alert: here is the final poem in the collection, in its entirety:
i'll tell you everything i know, don't worry,
this won't take very long, ten minutes tops.
then we're outta here. the sun is shining.
no, not here, here it's night, and cold,
but the sun is shining somewhere.
somewhere the sun is shining. this chair
is solid. solid as it gets, i mean
it's made of atoms, and atoms are mainly
just nothing at all. particles in an empty
field. sorry. boy meets girl, how's that?
boy loses girl. girl comes back, but not
quite all the way. a stranger rides into
town. the son defies the father, the seed
becomes a tree, even genocidal
tyrants were cute once, go ask their
mothers. hollywood is no place for
kids. nobody's perfect. judge not, lest
ye be judged. love thy neighbour--
i kill a fly, i feel guilty for days.
once i saw a ufo. my heart was
pounding. my hands were steady.
the moon is pulling away from us
at an alarming rate. the days are
getting longer. i mean shorter.
i mean, can i go now?
Bernadette Rule has had seven collections of poetry published, most recently Earth Day in Leith Churchyard: Poems in Search of Tom Thomson, from Seraphim Editions. Her work has won the Eden Mills Poetry Prize, the Short Works Prize for Poetry, and the Short Works Prize for Creative Non-Fiction. She was also a nominee for the 2017 Hamilton Arts Award for Writing.