Balance Act, Ken Cormier's first book, is a collection of poems and
stories reveling in the inescapable grit and absurdity of human life.
His characters are simple, ordinary people rendered complex by the
quirks, compulsions, or complexes they have adopted in order to deal
with and survive in the world.
Something in the tone or feel of Balance Act reminds me of Hemingway,
the Nick Adams stories in particular. There is a certain
understatement to the voice, a world-weariness of the characters, that
is similar to Hemingway - but it's a Hemingway informed by the
disjointed absurdity of Wallace Stevens and the suburban nightmares of
Cormier's poems and stories are united by something of a packrat
theme; packrat mentality: a fascination with things. In some pieces
this is blatant, as in the poem 'Putting Hats On Babies' which is
simply forty-some lines listing things done with and to babies:
"Dressing up babies / Turning babies upside-down / Talking to babies /
putting babies in commercials / Putting hats on babies". In other
pieces, this fascination with objects is less obviously apparent, but
still evident, particularly in various character's everyday rituals.
In 'Isn't That Sweet', the opening paragraph is a list of the things
the main character, Rita, does every Wednesday. Without this certain
ritualized chain of events, it wouldn't be Wednesday for Rita. In
other stories, 'Secret' or 'Christmas With Grandma', it's family
get-togethers - Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners - which always
happen more or less the same and however freakish one's relatives
might be one can take solace in that sameness.
Cormier seems to be fascinated with the idea that plain ordinary
objects can somehow be anything but ordinary; that an inanimate thing
can be not only miraculous but the key to retaining one's sanity. In
the poem 'We are still all want and need' is the line, "We see
subjects where there are no objects". We are able to take something as
mundane as a hat and make it symbolic; we are able to elevate simple
things to godlike status; we are able to invest meaning, whole belief
systems, in illusions: "My god / drinks too much / coffee. / Swears
he's going / to quit smoking, / someday. / He got duct-taped / to a
plywood cross - / cried so hard / they had to say sorry / and let him
down" ('In His Image').
Generally, I found that the prose pieces in Balance Act more
enjoyable than the poems. It may have been that he was more playful
with the prose, tending towards more highbrow themes, so to speak, in
verse. Or it may have been that the rhythm of his writing - Cormier is
also a drummer and rhythm is apparent in his writing - felt more
natural in prose than verse. Overall, though, Balance Act, at times
bizarrely funny, at other times bleak and melancholy, is an intriguing
Aidan Baker is a Toronto-based writer and musician who has published
internationally in such magazines as Intangible, Stanzas and The
Columbia Review. His poetry was featured in The Danforth Review #2.