Sunday, June 5, 2011
by Daniel Jones
The Brave Never Write Poetry
by Daniel Jones
Coach House Press, 1985 (reissued 2011)
by Daniel Jones
Three O’Clock Press, 2011 (Rush Hour Revisions, 1998)
I missed Daniel Jones and I miss him. I feel self-conscious saying that, knowing that he killed himself and, thus, there are those who miss him in a more-real way than I do.
What I mean is, I never met him. Never saw him read. Never heard of him until I reviewed his short story collection, The People One Knows for ID Magazine in February 1995. By then he was already gone, and I discovered he’d been the editor of Paragraph, a magazine I read (though, apparently, inattentively).
My review is posted below. I remember approaching it as if Jones were still alive. I didn’t mention his death in the review. I wanted the review to be about the book, not him. I liked the book, though how much I liked it doesn’t come across in the review, it seems to me now. I continue to recommend it highly (though it’s difficult to find).
At the time, I thought, “This is the type of book that people should be writing.” But I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was. Lo, all these years later, I am much more aware of how rarely Canadian writers attempt to articulate the sharp moment of the evolving present.
And how hard it is to do so.
The People One Knows articulates a world that I felt very much a part of (call it post-punk ennui, or whatever), which is why I miss Jones. He was able to write things that resonated with me. Wrote things that I wished I had written. Wrote in a way that I was trying to write, before I was able to realize it. So I am, of course, curious what else he would have done, but, sadly, there is no more.
What we have now, instead, lucky for us, is two reissued Jones titles: The Brave Never Write Poetry and 1978. One poetry collection, one novel.
The poetry collection is legendary. I have heard about it repeatedly, seen poems from it spray painted on walls and sidewalks around Toronto, but never actually viewed a copy of the bloody thing. So, hooray to Coach House (and Kevin Connolly), for bringing it back. The poems are as sharp and controversial as ever. They are also strangely reassuring. Yes, life was like that. Someone else saw it, too.
Jones was a powerful figure for his generation. This year, he’d be 52. He was never a “major” writer in his lifetime, but his ambition and his connections and contributions are major enough to have remained of interest. I have used the term “post-punk ennui” above, but a more reflective examination of Jones’ era (and his role in it) is long over-due.
Any curious PhD candidates out there might want to start with the National Library and Archives Canada collection on the author.
From “The Brave Never Write Poetry”:
The brave ride streetcars to jobs
early in the morning, have traffic accidents,
rob banks. The brave have children, relationships,
mortgages. The brave never write these things
down in notebooks. The brave die & they are
[Review first published in ID Magazine, Feb 2-15, 1995 issue]
Toronto Stories: The People One Knows
by Daniel Jones
Drug addicts. Alcoholics. Freaks. Failed artists. Aging punks. This book presents an evocative vision of the underside of Toronto in the 1990s.
Nine of the 10 linked stories that make up this collection, which is titled after a line from one of Hemingway’s poems, are told in the first person. In these nine stories, the narrator, a thirtysomething writer, poet and writing instructor (much like the author) introduces the people who surround him.
We meet Lee, a teenage junky, who house-sits the narrator’s cats when he goes to Montreal for New Year’s with his girlfriend. We meet Richard, who dropped out of the army to be a sculptor. Richard points a rifle at the CN Tower and asks the narrator to dare him to pull the trigger. We meet Assa, an ex-girlfriend with a deformity.
The characters are unflinchingly real in their weaknesses. They want to do the right thing, but often don’t know what that is, or find that they haven’t the strength to follow through. For example, after one of his writing classes the narrator finds himself on the subway with one of his students. She tells him that she’s not getting along with the instructor of one of her classes. She posits that this is because he doesn’t like the way she looks. The narrator wants to reassure the student that she’s attractive, but he doesn’t. Instead, he resents having to decide whether his student is attractive. He would rather stay uninvolved.
Still, these characters are not whiners. The overriding emotion in this book is regret, not a shallow sense of injustice. The narrator often looks back on the by-gone days when he was “cruel” or “an alcoholic, though I didn’t know it at the time” and wishes that he had done better. You get the feeling one or two bouts of rage at the world might have done him good.
The narrator’s lack of self-esteem is one of the book’s weaknesses. One episode of naval gazing could have been overlooked, but the scene is repeated in at least three stories.
A second criticism stems from the best story in the collection, “The Poet’s Wife.” Strangely enough, it belongs in a different collection. The author’s ironic awareness shines brighter and digs deeper her than in the other stories, but the shift to the third-person voice creates an awkward dissonance.
It’s a good read, though. In a very funny twist, the story features Jones, once the editor of Paragraph: The Canadian Fiction Review, in a cameo as himself, alongside two of Canada’s other literary lights, Barbara Gowdy and Brian Fawcett.
The book is written with an eye for realism often missed from the contemporary literary scene. Jones provides facts and images, but little interpretation and zero political claims. His sparse writing style suggests Hemingway’s influence extends beyond the title. Like Papa, Jones doesn’t tell us more than we need to know.
Toronto Stories provides a look at a side of Generation X that Douglas Coupland could never capture. The people Jones knew aren’t struggling to put back together their suburban dreams. They are struggling for something more universal. Call it purpose, relief, or redemption, Jones’ characters are looking for ways to integrate the pain of their pasts with the hope they hold out for the future. This theme has long been grist for the literary mill. Jones works with it well.