Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems


155 pages
ISBN 1-55447-026-9
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.


A poet by inclination, John Terpstra is of Dutch ancestry, a carpenter,
a local historian, a family man, and a convinced Christian. All of these
are reflected in the volumes from which these selected poems are drawn.
His Dutch origins are explored in Forty Days and Forty Nights (1987),
which relives his parents’ wartime experiences and their coming to
Canada. Prose poems (a form I usually dislike, but it works here) from
Naked Trees (1990) reveals a carpenter’s awareness of trees and wood.
Captain Kintail (1992) is a narrative evocation of a church retreat,
both humorous and thought-provoking. The Church Not Made with Hands
(1997) concentrates on the local relevance of sacred story in “The
Little Towns of Bethlehem.” And “Flames of Affection, Tongues of
Flame” meditates on the rise of Hamilton, his home city, in ways that
connect with his impressive prose account, Falling into Place (2002).
The last two volumes from which selections are made, Devil’s Punch
Bowl (1998) and Disarmament (2003), further blend the interests and
preoccupations already established.

Terpstra wrote a master’s thesis on the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones,
and, although his subject matter is very different, one can see
Jones’s influence in the rhetorical structure of many of these poems,
and in the eloquent mixing of Dutch (rather than Jones’s Welsh) into
his English. Moreover, there is a similar ease in the blend of the
exalted religious and the boldly colloquial in dialogue situations as
well as a comparable mastery of the modulations of free verse. As a
result, Terpstra, though in no way pretentious, is never afraid of
ambitious effects.

The book proceeds in a conventional chronological way. His first book,
Scrabbling for Repose and Other Poems (1982), was promising but lacked
the clarity and interconnectedness of the more mature work. In order to
get on to Terpstra’s wavelength, readers might do well to start with
Forty Days and Forty Nights. Once they acclimatize to his approach and
style they will be richly rewarded. His is undoubtedly a distinctive
voice to be reckoned with.


Terpstra, John., “Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,