Aiken Drum


140 pages
ISBN 1-55447-014-5
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Peter Sanger’s poetry is both wide-ranging and highly allusive. His
shorter poems often focus on a particular object—as in “Fossil
Fern,” “Decanter,” and “Chinese Plate”—and provide elegant,
sensitive meditations on the “thisness” of each. If one shares his
intellectual wavelength, these poems can be excitingly revealing; if
not, they may appear frustratingly elusive.

But there is another side to Sanger’s work, hinted at by the
Punch-like figure illustrated but not identified in Wesley Bates’s
engraving on the title page. He represents various lord-of-misrule
figures that seem to fascinate Sanger. Aiken Drum, for instance, is a
mysterious figure from Scottish nursery rhyme, and is the subject of a
hauntingly rhythmic poem. The longest and most ambitious poem in the
book, “Abatos,” revives interest in a resourceful but dubious
character in Maritime history (or legend?) who went under the name of
More Smith or Moon or Bond or Newman, and became notorious as a thief
with the ability to escape Houdini-like from any prison in the early
19th century. Aiken Drum is supposed to have “lived in the moon,” as
an epigraph reminds us, and More Smith used “Moon” as an alias. The
illustration is by Wesley Bates; the original book about More Smith, The
Mysterious Stranger (1817), was by Walter Bates. A coincidence? Perhaps,
but both are typically intriguing.

These poems may not be rewarding for all tastes. But they are the work
of a serious and dedicated poet who is not afraid to display both
erudite learning and unfashionable independent tastes (“Elegy for the
Great Auks” ends with a reference to Kafka’s notebooks, “To
Clytie” implies admiration for the minor Romantic poet Thomas Moore).
Fortunately, Sanger provides notes as a guide for the reader.


Sanger, Peter., “Aiken Drum,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,