The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series,

McGill-Queen’s University Press | 2022


they come flying out from under your expectations / and once opened it is rain / and thinking a sandbar / always inventing a different script / never where you left it

This dream book of kaleidoscopic, holographic, mutagenic poems is haunted by the loops, aporias, and entanglements of time – memory, forgetting, oblivion, fortune telling, eternal (or not) returns, timelessness (however that may manifest), beginnings and endings (if indeed there are such things), and other spectral speculations where the intimate and the outward might exchange places.

With imagery both striking and nuanced, and language rich and strange, Brian Henderson encounters a hummingbird, a barred owl, a flood, a trapdoor, a table of contents, an empty rowboat, a nonexistent river, a room made of crystal, a heap of broken furniture, ecocatastrophe, and political debacle in mesmerizing poems that celebrate the strange and vertiginous musics of a kind of memory-ness invoked by the irretrievable.

These poems ask how the future can exist in the now, the now in the past. What is a future? How might we recognize one? And although the now may be completely empty, what are the selves we seem to become? In the archeology of now, unfinishing asks who we might have been – and who we might yet be.


Is it possible that only Divinity can say, “My Creation is complete,” or that a martyred Messiah can say, “It is finished”?  For the rest of us—too finite—are we ever finishing whatever?  Our unfinishing is that we—“made out of air and waves”—must insistently decay, dissolve, evaporate, even in the act of making.  Brian Henderson meditates on the metaphysics of imagining, of making, so that “falling … becomes flight”; “the light married to the darkness” is our true parentage; migration becomes “the geese hauling the boat of the moon / out of the trees where it’s been sleeping”; and just when “we begin / to get inside things they turn inside out….”  Yeah, whatever we can figure out—in our continuous unfinishing—is always a figure 8, a steady loop-the-loop in a Vorticist or Yeatsian “gyre.”  That’s the instress of this odyssey of crashing angels and shadows falling, crushed by the burden of light.  Henderson reminds me of Rilke and then of John Thompson, out on the Tantramar, both poets unfinishing their art, and Henderson reading what the charred-black ink permits: “a fleet of crows / silently dipping their black oars in air.”  Always is the poet unfinishing, but what he lets us glimpse of Beauty is—like Paradise—enough.

-George Elliott Clarke, 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada (2016-2017),

author of Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir

unfinishing is an amazing exercise in attention. Henderson moves with palpable acuity through a metaphysical wrecking yard of time and dream, of images, memories and sensations, not simply as themselves but as hieroglyphs of a spiritual address. The sunyata of these poems opens the rusted-out doors of perception to ask us what we thought we knew and what we can possibly know.

-Fred Wah, author of Music at the Heart of Thinking

In unfinishing, we encounter poems thinking through things—not thinking about them but through and with them—poems immersed in and arising from a world unfinished not because it has been left unmade or will at some unspecified point in time be completed, but a world unfinished in the sense of its being in the process of constant change and transformation—hence, unfinishing because process is event, is happening, is not a state. Each being, including the perceiving mind and the self, is simultaneously what it is and what it is not because each is on its way to becoming something (and somewhere) else, all the while participating in the being of others. This is a world in which “you can move both forward / and backward / in a single motion / trying to find out how to be here.” The logic of stasis holds no place in these poems. Henderson employs the languages of science and philosophy—Eastern and Western—to trace the mind’s engagement with a world composed of time, memory, mortality, and, ultimately, compassion and love. These are the qualities of which “the fabric of knowing” and the fabric of these poems is woven.

-Randy Lundy, author of Field Notes for the Self and Blackbird Song.

“unfinishing” is a work of caring intelligence and scrupulous craft. In Henderson’s hands the things of this world flare, they crash in spanking-new image and metaphor; and the fine rhythms of something else, or something more, take us by surprise.

-Dennis Cooley, author of Irene and Gibbous Moon

Sample Poems:

anicca a jan-ken

made out of paper made
……………………………out of stone
of rock scissors made out of paper
of shredded time stored in me
memory and counter-memory
made out of
……………………………lightning flicker
yellow-shafted red-headed rose-breasted
……………………………water clock
made out of storm cloud
the afterthought of thunder
of a garden gate banging in the wind
out of a shroud neck-bruise
nighthawks swifts
……………………………passenger pigeons
of anguish loss failed attention lists
out of elemental joy
the shadow of a falcon’s streaming flight
out of accidents apocrypha dream residue
……………………………out of ever again
out of scissors
paper vibrational sand
…………………………… unmoored stone boats
raft of floating doors
because what’s inside you
……………………………is outside you
a place
where you can move both forward
and backward
……………………………in a single motion
trying to find out how to be here
made out of air and waves
the many kinds of winged people
……………………………out of
the candelabra descending
straight out of the wall
its horizontal flames
paper scissor rock
made out of truth and consequences
the singing bowl of these poems
……………………………resting on their edges
having come a long way in the night
made out of


in the dark room

a word


extends all the way
to the river

and time
that has no scale

is alive in the room

when a moment
plunges into you

it might send you
to where long smoke plumes of snow
ghost off distant cedars

or to where an abandoned rowboat drifts
downstream in the dusk
oars unshipped

or clatter to the floor
in a heap of broken furniture

you would like to be
at the centre of your own life
but there is no such thing
or at least there’s no evidence for it or
you’re not wearing the right equipment

so you are looking deep into that room

at a sky
with moonlit cloud fishhooks
where remembered things
are imagined

by the currents of the forgotten

and you want to understand something
to hold it longer
than a few seconds or

what luxury


but everything

brightens and goes out

as you step into the offworld


this is where it all begins
you could be the one who pretended to be who you were
blink don’t blink
and found out differently
be prepared

fast forward crashes

into the kairos of the evening’s absolute stillness
the flip-side of elm leaves flooded with yellow-shafted flicker-light

you could find both star and instar
all 22 novels in fact
you could detonate singular moments of lift-off

but truths are reversible
your life a palindrome
dromedary in a land where water runs uphill
so thirst might not be your first obligation

you might be an edge runner
in the sleep of the moment where the moment
of your awakening flows
in fact some of these moments
have no moments
because it might not even be you

on the other hand
maybe it’s where words reach out to try to understand you
answering the phone in the negative just for some levitation

the tiny fire of hummingbird suspended in mid air
hello hello hello looking you in the face
assessing your capacity for high speed comprehension
what does the real life look like

because all answers can only be incomplete

photograph at evening looking west out to sea

into blue grey flying
green white dyes of
streaking sea-sky

and through smooth
soft grey-blue
wash of cantaloupe flushed sky-sea

in this streaming and
stillness at once of
movement and this moment blurring
all the washes of time flashed
streaking silhouettes
wings narrowly
keeling into wind

two seabirds

travelling as if


heading somewhere


and everywhere they have been

and everywhere
they are going

is with them