Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Bookworm Sez
Artificial Cherry by Billeh Nickerson
Arsenal Pulp Press, $14.95, 96 pages
A little of this and a little of that.
It’s the way conversation flows when you’re with a friend. You mosey from subject to subject, you touch upon a funny story which leads to another topic you can both gnaw on before you move to something totally different.
That’s a glue that holds you together. It’s the stuff of friendship. And in the new book Artificial Cherry by Billeh Nickerson, it’s several points to ponder.
In his travels, poet and spoken word artist Nickerson has seen it all. More or less.
He’s seen interesting things done with a glass eye, an object you almost never hear about unless it has to do with a certain actress. He’s seen buildings that have been gentrified, and remembered the particular reason why they resonated so well in his memories, struggling not to blurt the truth to his unsuspecting host. He’s been asked peculiar questions by a doctor in Montreal just before he “fell in love with the possibility of what a misplaced medical chart could offer my anatomy…” And he’s pondered the usefulness of thumbs (imagine hitchhiking without them).
His experiences haven’t all been odd: while apartment hunting, he noted the dirt and other objects left behind by previous tenants. He couldn’t ignore something so poignantly personal, though; something that “shadowed everything in its wake.”
And then there was the Pacific Northwest Elvis Festival, held on the “shores of Okanagan Lake ” in Canada and filled with fun and food. More than twenty Elvis impersonators gathered to entertain fans of the King. The most impressive thing about those fans, says Nickerson, was that they actually cleaned up after themselves.
In this book, Nickerson pens poems and short essays about these and other things. He writes about poetry that he couldn’t bear to read publicly in the days after 9/11 and that was uncomfortable, even years later. He wonders what would have happened if Mary had named Jesus something else (knowing, surely, that the name of a Montreal credit union would have to change, too). And he writes movingly of his grandfather’s dream of running with dogs, his grandmother’s dreams of dancing, and he hears the music to accompany both.
Though it’s brief—a little too brief, I thought—Artificial Cherry contains plenty: sass, silliness, a bit of the scandalous, wry observations, “irony,” laughs, absurdity, sadness, and observations that will make you stop and think.
Author Billeh Nickerson has a great eye for what most people don’t notice, in fact, and his poems bring those things to light. There’s really no theme to this book – just poems and very short musings on whatever Nickerson deems fit, which gives it a good browse-ability. No matter where you jump in, though, the rest of his work will beg to be read and you’ll happily oblige.
At well under 100 pages, this book won’t take you long to read… the first time. Past that, it’s something you’ll want to read again and (maybe) read aloud because “Artificial Cherry” is the real deal.
Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid by Kenneth McKenzie and Todd Harra
Citadel Press, $15.95, 256 pages
It comes after the walking-into-the-sunset shot in old movies, usually in florid script. You see it in books for children, more than for adults. It’s at the tail of short stories, tongue-in-cheek advertisements, sarcastic social media postings… and life.
And then what? What happens to your mortal remains when that’s all that remains? Take a peek at “Over Our Dead Bodies” by Kenneth McKenzie and Todd Harra, and you’ll get a general idea.
In your job, you basically know what to expect from day to day. Not so, if you’re an undertaker. When you care for the dead and their families, anything can happen – and McKenzie and Harra prove that well.
But first – a little history.
Take the label “undertaker,” for example. It initially had to do with the undertaking of proper burial but some 130 years ago, the National Funeral Directors Association officially changed the title to “funeral director.”
Back then, funeral directors and cabinet makers went hand-in-hand; someone had to make the coffins, so why not someone with woodworking skills? The business was then passed down through the family, with many an undertaker getting his (or her) start as a child, sweeping the parking lot, pulling weeds, or helping out inside.
But getting back to the main point: “no day is the same” for a funeral director. You can’t ever prepare yourself for a “Goat” to appear on someone’s last wishes. You can’t fail to be impressed at the timing of a husband and wife who die within hours of one another. You can’t remain unfazed by any coincidence, really, and you’ll never get over the death of your own mother, no matter how many mothers you’ve buried.
Still, funerals aren’t “doom and gloom and death and dying and tears and crying every day, all day.” Funny things happen, like a hearse caught in a snowstorm and a funeral rescued by a beat-up pickup. Like a jazz funeral that ended with a second chorus. Like superstitions, accidental love-matches, funeral crashers, and life stories that start with a piece of furniture and go full circle.
And speaking of life, the authors say, enjoy yours to the fullest “because you too will one day be pushing daisies.”
No pun intended, but my first impression of “Over Our Dead Bodies” was that it was a little stiff.
There’s quite a bit off-topic in the first few pages here—extraneous info that felt like a commercial—and because of that, it seems to take awhile for authors Kenneth McKenzie and Todd Harra to get to the body of their book. Once they do, however, we’re treated to the kinds of tales we’d normally beg to hear when we’d meet an undertaker at a cocktail party, as well as personal stories and a rambling (and quite fascinating) social history of death and funerals.
But fear not: this isn’t macabre stuff; it’s funny and poignant and, as you dig in, it’s very, very addicting. Once you’ve started Over our Dead Bodies, in fact, you’ll like it to The End.