A review of Bulletproof by Wolfgang Carstens

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Wolfgang Carstens
Grey Borders Books
Jan 2017, $5 CDN

It’s pretty hard to ignore a poetry book that opens with a poem dedicated to ‎Motörhead’s recently deceased Lemmy. The punchy start sets the tone that follows in this 28 page chapbook (21 poems).  The book begins with a series of odes to people who died. The writing is spare, easy to follow, and often uses striking metaphors, such as an image of Lemmy body surfing an “ocean of worms/back into the ether.” The book has a few very cool illustrations by Swedish artist Janne Karlsson, who collaborated with Carstens on his graphic novel Only the Dead. Canadian singer Gordon Downie also makes an appearance (though he is still alive), along with a father, pet dog, friends, and above all, the self – also alive, but careening towards death, as we all are. Like Only the Dead, Bulletproof is all about mortality, and the poems develop like a verse novel as they attempt to come to grips with the inevitable that waits for us all. There isn’t just the sharp yank of the end, but also the descent into disease, regret, fear, and pain.  It may sound pretty grim, but despite the morbidity, the poems are never maudlin. In fact, they’re almost cheery, in a black sort of way, effectively giving the middle finger to death. How very Lemmy, though he wasn’t immortal after all:

my doctors
have already given me an expiration date.
but tonight,
with a bottle of Patrón, a full pack of cigarettes, and a song in my heart,
i swear to fucking Christ i ain’t never gonna die. (20, “in the past five years”)

This isn’t to say that the book isn’t suffused with sorrow or that death is in anyway celebrated. Love ones were taken for granted, loneliness and grief abound, and the dog that got put down should have been walked more:

i could think about
was how she whimpered with joy
i pulled her leash
from the drawer.
should have walked her
more often.

But overall, the book is positive, and even has a bit of self-improvement – call it a tip for life – and very good advice it is too:

it’s not rocket science.
all you have to do is make every day
count (25)

The book ends with a kind of triumph. Death may always get the final word, but the partying  continues:

celebrate the fact
that i’m dead and you’re not.

The poems are very direct, easy-to-read and pack the kind of wallop that comes from a repeated reminder of what’s coming – perhaps the only certainty we have. Bulletproof is a short, punchy and powerful collection of poems. Carstens looks death in its blackest eye, with anger, sorrow, and humour, and emerges victorious.