Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Darkness and Light: Plan 99 and the Power of Poetry at the Manx Pub

The Manx Pub on Elgin Street is a beautiful space for a poetry reading, at once intimate and comforting. The Manx also holds a special place in the heart of Ottawa’s poetry community. Instead of the usual bar-side televisions, the Manx boasts large bookshelves stuffed with the works of those who have read at the pub. Changing displays of works by artists like Alootook Ipellie fill the walls. And, as poet Paul Vermeersch tells the packed audience on October 28, it’s the bar where he and his wife went on their first date. The Manx is more than a bar, more than a well-loved basement pub; it’s a metaphor for the poetry community in Ottawa as a whole. Here are familiar faces, but new faces, too—a room so packed that latecomers stand quietly in vestibule, or sit on the floor. This is the annual poetry night presented by Plan 99 in Ottawa, hosting Vermeersh as well as Deanna Young, Julie Bruck, and Hana Shafi.

 

Deanna Young takes the microphone first, reading from her newest collection Reunion. “Before I came tonight, I wasn’t sure what to read,” she says by way of introduction. “And Paul said, ‘Don’t worry—just shake it up.’ So I’m going to read poems I’ve never read before.” Young's voice has a soothing cadence, matched by the indelible rhythm of her poems—work which builds a tapestry of myth into and around everyday life. Her poems are brutally honest, refusing to shy away from bone-deep fear, blooming into vibrant imagery of damnation and salvation, transformation and stagnation, hope and murder. Life, she seems to say, is full of darkness; there are cruelties, both internal and external, which must be reconciled. “The shadows among us—How will we embrace them now?” she reads. Hanging on the wall behind her, one of Ipellie’s images frames a face reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno—a cavernous mouth split open in a laugh or a scream.

 

Julie Bruck reads next, and her poems, too, attempt to reconcile darkness with hope. The poems she selects are a series of portraits, as gentle as they are sorrowful. One piece is a confession of unkindness towards her mother, who suffers from dementia—a eulogy-in-progress not of her mother, but of their relationship. Another is a portrait of a young man in the wilderness asking her for directions, which, by the end of the poem, we are to understand, direct him in his quest for his own death. Other poems are more whimsical and sentimental but mourning, still, in their own way—odes to the twin fear and hope of raising a teenager, to outdated analogue technology and the lost, remembered sense of film winding or unwinding between the hands.

 

The last light of the day has long since been coaxed through the small windows of the bar by the time Hana Shafi begins to read, but the soft light of the bar gleams pleasantly up and off the warm copper tables. Shafi has a comforting energy, like the sort of person you feel you can tell anything, and the way she leans into the microphone makes the audience lean forward, too. It’s as though she’s about to give voice to a secret. In a way, Safi does reveal secrets—laying bare anxieties large and small, the sense that she both belongs and is rejected from her own skin, her own neighbourhood, her own art. “Who is going to love us?” one poem demands. “The severe women? The women made of thunder?” Shafi is anything but severe, but the thunder of her voice and her presence ripples through the room, her humour tempered by grief and rage.

 

Paul Vermeersch, the last reader of the night, is charming in a way that seems almost unreal—standing before a packed room in a teal blazer which somehow lends him both whimsy and gravitas. His poems, from his newest collection Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy, are intended, he says, “to offer a grim hope”—and so they do. He includes nursery rhymes redacted like government documents, fables which warn us away from darkness, from wilderness, from the unknown, and above all insist they transmit information designed to keep the reader safe from danger—whether that danger comes from within or without. “Only stories want us to live. The wolf lies in wait to devour us,” he says, gravely, as though for our own good. “The sun already wants to burn you. Do not provoke it.”

 

Taken together, these poets and poems remind us of the darkness of our times—murder, danger, violence, and anxiety. But they also remind us of kindness, of human connection, of the ways in which we can and do come together against the dark. Young, Bruck, Shafi, and Vermeersch are quick to frame their poems as cautionary tales—against cruelty, against hopelessness, and against terror. And yet the overall tone of the night convinces us, against all odds, that neither these poets nor their listeners are truly solitary in their quest for a better world. This conclusion alone is a worthy cause for hope.