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

Unidentified Poetic Object

Unidentified Poetic Object

Brick Books 2019

Goodreads | Amazon |

Unidentified Poetic Object has been longlisted for the Raymond Souster Award from the League of Canadian Poets.

Writing is like dream thinking in zones of undecidability; words rub up against each other – words phrases, stanzas, events – where they collide they produce fields of indeterminacy, of hybridity.

They refuse easy detection, recognition, want to evade by always being on the point of morphing, their being is in phase space.

The writing I’m after now is a kind of attempt to stay in the virtual, the not yet, the yet to come. I think it’s how we see things as they verge and come into being before they are identified, before they have identity.

Or maybe the poems are zombie poems existing in that space between the living and the dead; or across both; they flow transversally (Deleuze) through subject and object. In these days of increasing constraint they are looking for a way out.

At any rate we’re forced to see these whatever- they-are things as things w/o predetermined use. Or w/o merely human use. Playful objects, haunted objects, objects w/o addresses. Vagabond objects. Partisan objects. The world is not a human world; humans are in it. And these small perturbations also live here.

Because you can only experience one thought or feeling at a time this exposure of undecidability is a clamour of the possible.

I find it a useful practice for freeing up my viewing, my perceiving of the world. We all tend to get locked into our perceptions and understandings and then living and life don’t seem to be on the same page. I put a lot of different things on the same page. Just to see. What might happen. Because things are always (as William James has said) things-in-the-making. And isn’t this where hope lives?

Quill and Quire Review of Unidentified Poetic Object

Bruce Whiteman’s review of Unidentified Poetic Object in the Toronto Star.

Sample Poems:

The One About The Non-Givenness of Things

Everything seemed fine until a minute ago a small fragment
Of one of your memories seems to have slivered
Itself into my skin oh that’s not you everyone
Seems to be speaking another language politics
Misrepresenting its own truth laundering flashbang
Pronouncements squid ink black cohosh lighting
Up the shade a moment of perpetuity as
Different from eternity assuming of course we
Could agree on definitions the awkward grace
Of vultures dialling in their dihedrals the sky
With its many coloured ribbons where clouds effortlessly
Age let’s agree at least there are moments of
Suspension shrunk nearly to human
Comprehension lipogramic centrifuges contact
Cement hudson eight one four eight four
The Cisco Kid the interpretation of breathing redside
Dace where each thing can open the world
Well if not shouldn’t there be

This Is a Photograph of You

on the beach where the swash zone
is luminous timecurves sliding bittersweet saffron
ivory alizarin goldenrod ghost white cherry blossom
polished and tarnished silver up to your feet
your back to the lightwaves and wavelengths
of the sea the sunset a fast squadron of black
skimmers skimming wave tops

You are looking into the eye of the camera
into me into the night I have turned my back to
to look at you

You are almost shadow
head tipped slightly to the right
you hold your right elbow with your left hand
legs apart left knee bent in mid dance hair blown across
your eyes shadowed by the coming night

You have caught a timecurve
in a gesture I love
and draw everything through the eye
of the needle of itself
including our being here many times before

Being is longing
and though nothing really belongs to us
you answer that just like this
as if we were dreaming
a world beyond whose shimmer and shadow
we have no need to see

About [OR]

About [OR]

TalonBooks 2014.

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[OR] is an extraordinary book, brilliant from the first particle trace to the last. A luminous meditative transcendence links it all together, playing deep chords in both mind and flesh. The fluency of time and space created by these poems carries the reader beyond the named into gnosis. Henderson’s language is often just out of reach, which is perfect, drawing the reader deeper into his world by understanding its implications.”

–Don Domanski

Codes are hidden everywhere. Messages sliding though the atmosphere slipping into microwave towers, handheld devices, nervous systems, brains, retinas, barcodes, alarms, antimissile missile systems, the antennae of DNA (Sheldrake may have been right all along!), the traces of virtual particles, the Chauvet cave drawings, your Twitter account. Each broaches a transformative version of its own transduction. The buck never stops. And the future might already have happened. What does this mean? That everything we do is a déja-vu? It’s been documented (Benjamin Libbet) that perception happens before we know it. Maybe it’s no wonder that my new manuscript uses tropes from spy thrillers and code breakers. In it, someone may have been murdered, or moved to another dimension (perhaps the poet?). Along the way some rather strange perturbations occur to narrative and its others: memory, (prosthetic memory), dream, reportage, code (of course), a little history of the future, déja-vu, paramnesia, the virtual – versions, evasions and alternatives. Each poem gets read a few times, its code deciphered or ciphered back up. Some of the poems decay, or after the fact, are pre. Each reader reads his or her own poem and encodes it for another. What communication crosses out, these poems try to find.

Talonbooks, 2014

Sample Poems:

Once in Tangiers (or Maybe Arenal?)

Skin in the touch tropics, sap-dipped
fingertips, secret garden fevered
with fruit, the RKO tower in the near distance
broadcasting sparks, sealight
in my veins, in the library,
caved-in cupola music.
I can taste the words,
the opera of the said, the yet-to-be
said – there is too much
to learn, each line of light
another kind of tanager, another
kind of newscast in the iridescent
air, side-slipping the tunings
along the dial — Mr. Tessla,
don’t let me down now
in the listening static –
each chromomeme alive with juice
I lick from the shallow pool
beneath her acromial process.



Brick Books 

Finalist for the Canadian Author’s Association Award for Poetry, 2012

Goodreads | Amazon |

In [Henderson’s] work we realize, over and over again, that each of the mind’s worlds speaks a secret language, which it is the poet’s task to discover and translate.In Sharawadji, this includes not only such worlds as those created by the surreal paintings of Jacek Yerka, but the intense, re-humanizing experience of loss and grief.

Tim Lilburn writes, “Sharawadji begins with a series of smart, sinuous portraits of placeless, post-apocalytic locales. These poems seem to grow from sensuous interior observation; their phantasms, appearing ‘haloed and blown, in their fizzing solders,’ are strange yet unsettlingly familiar. Throughout this collection, Henderson conjures alternate worlds – they resemble the peculiar kingdoms in Sufi visionary recitals – that are enticing, disarming and uprooting”

“Brian Henderson is one of the most innovative poets writing in Canada today.  Sharawadji is his greatest achievement so far . . . He is a master at distilling lived experiences down to their linguistic and emotional essences. . . What he has created on these pages has my deep and lasting gratitude.” —Don Domanski

“Poetry for the soul – Brian Henderson dazzles with Sharawadji.” – Quentin Mills-Fenn, Uptown magazine, Winnipeg

Sharawadji is an exceptionally original, linguistically kinetic exploration contain[ing] stunning imagery, metaphors and language. Tracking imaginative possibilities anchored by a profoundly engaged heart and mind, Henderson’s is a rare voice.” ~ Judges for the Canadian Authors Association Award

Sharawdji Backgrounder​

Right now I’m thinking of poems as sensation generating events that rather than concentrate on either on the referencing process, on the narrative or its speaker, the signified or signifier, the phoneme, or any of the traditional corporeal aspects of the poem, concentrate instead on the incorporeal, the phantasms and microphantasms that the body of a poem can project, on its ghosts, ever so fleetingly. What Brian Massumi calls the virtual. Pre-reference. Pre-narrative. Events that characterize emergent and self-organizing systems that happen in far-from-equilibrium conditions. “Dissipative structures,” to take a phrase from Prigogine, that throw off possible-narratives, or possible-nodes of awareness. Something like this (wish me luck; I’ll need it):


In the fragile moment of the letter that
calls out your name, in the lift up over sounding
of the medicine quill, tincture at wrist
blue under yellow shaft of flicker
under owl wing sonata, green
ink, copper wall window, colour of
endangered hush. Walk in here, she said, and she
meant by way of the colours, which deepened
as you heard them, bone white, bone yellow, bone
black, coloratura, an insignia embossed
in beaten gold, every door its own
paradise animal, its own eye.


On waking this morning the tear, the rent — the shattering blue tocsin in the smoke grey sky, that first appeared a week ago, ripping its way to the top of the tower, has splattered blue exclamations through me, making me like one of the dreamed-up ones, blotted by brightness, while the smudged orange rubble fires on the horizon continue to mark the perimeter. And now the silencing device in my throat is giving me trouble. Spiked like a pollen grain and injected into the voice box, it swells there, pining it shut from the inside. And naturally any writing devices — mechanical, electronic, chemical, genetic — are not permitted. The fuel marauders and suicide detonators might be anywhere, and they live on information, of which they must be starved. Splattering is everywhere. So I’ve horded the old newspapers where messages a scrap of light can now find on a shadowed page — spangled bracelets of tiny instruments, areolae of fierce blue — direct, my needless to say illegal, research into emergent thought vessels, this voiceless voice you might be hearing inside your head.

The Sea, the Valley and the Temple City

Clear creamy sky, sky traces of fuchsia cloud over the nearly horizonless sea I wake to, the fine underslum of the godway, looking straight into the music where we cannot be, awaiting a ticket, the dive of the pliosaur armies, the moment the sea is higher than the valley, dropping away from the sea, the very waking edge of ocean, the rift valley a thousand feet below where the river is lazily thinking to itself. The ocean to itself does not fall but the river spills into it so far away at the foot of the cliff the spiralling city is carved from. The ocean does not fall, as if it were held in a fairy tale and something is required of me. Torqued hive of fossil home dreamed from the shores of sleep, rising from the sea, older than sharks, older than shadow excavated by water, the nearly drowned tower, whose ghost language I’m at the foot of.