100 pages
ISBN 1-894031-73-3
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.


John Terpstra is a thoughtful, sincere, deeply Christian poet. This is
his seventh book of verse, and although he is not well known in
fashionable literary circles, he has been heard widely: his marvellous
poem “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” (The Church Not Built by Hands,
1997), in which the Nativity is seen as taking place, now, in Aklavik,
Gaspé, Flin Flon, etc., has been read several times recently on CBC
during the Christmas season.

The poems in Disarmament are written in a clear, unpretentious, and by
no means “poetic” style. Terpstra gains his effects not by a
resonant use of language but by a boldness of spiritual imagination.
Thus a series of poems begin with the words “In the church we go to
now ...” but the church in question is not a literal building but the
secular world (modern, yet also the world of Blake’s “Experience”)
which we inhabit at all times. The poet quietly observes the scenes
around him, neither celebrating nor condemning but acutely aware not
only of “the beauty of this world / and the obvious daily misery that
exists next door” but of “the two edges of truth / being drawn
through our lives.”

Similarly, the final poem, “Two Couples, Four Voices,” retells the
interlinked stories in Luke’s gospel of Elizabeth and Zacharias, and
Mary and Joseph, but the allusions and idiom are modern. Joseph, aware
that “the child Christ / was already creating a visible bulge” in
his bride-to-be, asks: “What will be the social fall-out?” Later,
the narrator wonders about Mary: “if she knew how the story ended ...
/ would she still wish to carry through to full-term?” And the
grotesque elements in the aging Elizabeth’s situation are stressed:
“She was a bulbous, billowing old vessel of flesh. / She was
Sarah-the-second-time-round ... / and she was not laughing.” As in
“The Little Towns of Bethlehem,” the Christmas story is constantly
repeating itself in the here and now.

Unlike so much pious Christian verse, this is serious religious poetry,
the work of a true craftsman.


Terpstra, John., “Disarmament,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/17830.