Review | Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, JonArno Lawson

9780889843547The text on the back cover refers to the world of poet JonArno Lawson as one “where sound rules supreme.” Sound is indeed the primary strength of the poems in this volume. The world he describes ranges from the fantastic where wolves live on the moon, to the mundane, where a boy is irritated at his friend’s absence. The poems in Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box are meant to be read aloud. The poems I liked best are those that are pure wordplay: “A budgie in a buggy had a buddy with a grudge; / a toucan in a moving van had given him a nudge. / He nudged him back and nipped him, / but the toucan wouldn’t budge.”

Playful as it sounds however, that poem also has a bit of a dark tone to it — a toucan and a budgie’s friend got into an altercation on the road. This darker tone runs through quite a few of the poems, hinting at perhaps more adult themes than the singsongy rhythms imply. Take for example the absolute horror of the following imagery: “It’s easy to injure a gingerbread man / and a gingerbread injury’s bound to expand / from a foot to a leg from a head to a hand / when you’re eating him, eating him, fast as you can.” I know fairy tales and nursery rhymes are more violent than we would have realized as kids, and I suppose the fanciful rhythms will delight kids even though parents will see the more somber subtext.

I did think some of the poems were trying too hard to be clever, with sly references that may make the adult reader pause, but that are too obvious in their attempt to elicit praise. Take for example the one about Sleeping Beauty: “After Sleeping Beauty woke, she never slept again; / she feared another fairy attack, / and that’s why Sleeping Beauty’s now / a beautiful insomniac.” Clever little turn of phrase in the last line, but self-consciously so. I just thought it sad, and not as fun to read out loud as some of his other poems.

Or take the one about the twins whose lives begin “with twice the force” and have fun with bunk beds and double decker rocking horses. Except “what can be doubled can just as well be cut in half,” which makes the twins “sober up at once, of course.” All I could think of was, so what?

Still, a lot of the poems are fun wordplay, and definitely best read out loud. The book itself is beautiful, classic Porcupine’s Quill with paper cuts by Alec Dempster that add a bit of a stark, classical feel to poems. Teachers and parents of young and elementary school children may best appreciate Lawson’s poetry.

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