Friday, December 19, 2008

The Book of Job

"Where have you been?" asked Crow.
I couldn’t lie so I told him.
A jet flew overhead.
Crow stared high into the blueness long after the plane had left.
He said, "I asked you a question."
"And I answered it." I was mad at him and he was mad at me. He wasn’t known for his patience. I’d had enough.
He tried to sweet-talk me.
"Please," he said. "Please, Prince. Tell me again."
I wasn’t having any of his sugar but I couldn’t lie.
"I have been abroad," I said. "Wandering the earth."
Crow smiled. What I told him he already knew. He’d heard the rumour I’d been shacked up with Jennifer, locked in her attic playpen, stirring her stew all the time I’d been away. "I’ve been overrun by love!" he wanted me to say. But I hadn’t been with Jennifer. Not in body or dreams.
"If not Jennifer, who?" asked Crow.
"Not who, where?"
"Abroad. Across the earth I have wandered."
"The Wanderer," said Crow. He’d expected me to tell him more. When he wanted to he could squawk right loud. It had been so long since I heard him squawk I’d forgotten he could move the earth and wind. The earth and wind shook with his noise. He started to tap his beak up and down. I thought he was going to launch into song.
But he didn’t sing.
"Tell me your story, Prince. Start at the end and don’t stop until you get to the beginning."
"Haven’t you got things backwards, Crow?"
"Sing. Sing in the way I said."
I didn’t feel like fighting, so I took my orders from him.

The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love.

"Stop!" yelled Crow.
I knew what was bothering him. It bothered me, too, but I couldn’t lie.
A feeling greater than love.
"Stop!" yelled Crow.
He flew at me, beat his wings against my face.
"You have been gone too long," he said. "You have lost your mind."
"No, Crow."
"You sing ridiculous things."
"I cannot lie, Crow."
"You need medicine. You need a thousand days in a dark cave."
"No, Crow." I wanted to hug him. We had history, me and him.
He’s the one who sent me away. It started in Saskatchewan with a cherry-red Chevy. A convertible. Miles of road, prairie, sky. My hair loose over my eyes, loose in the wind. I had a woman in Winnipeg waiting for me. I had Led Zeppelin full-blast loud in the tape deck. My throat hurt from singing over the engine. I hadn’t seen another car in over three hours when suddenly there was Crow. In the middle of the highway. I thought he would take off and fly over the car — look down on me, soaring, and we’d scream like Robert Plant together — but he just stood there and I had to swerve. I jumped out of the car, ran back.
"Crow! What are you doing?"
"Same as you. Came out of the void. Waiting to return."
"I mean on this road!"
"This road is a good place to die."
His talon reached into his feathers and pulled out tobacco.
"Smoke with me."
He walked off the road, onto the land. He hopped onto a boulder, turned to face me. "Got a light?"
In the car I found some matches.
"That’s a buffalo you’re sitting on," I said.
"I know it," said Crow. He once said he’d eaten buffalo with Poundmaker but he’d only told that story twice. Once to me. Once to a girl named Pauline in Sault Ste. Marie. He told me one night after we’d drank six bottles of whiskey. He told me because he’d told Pauline. He told her to stop her from jumping off a bridge. She was seventeen and Crow was in love with her. It’s been a long time since then. She has three kids now, two ex-husbands. Crow hovered over her house all last winter. Her kids set out bowls of Cheerios. She watched him out of the window but she didn’t come outside.
Since the beginning of time Crow has been out of love for only seven days.
Once I asked Crow, "How many children do you have?" The ground shook for a fortnight.
"You are all my children," said Crow finally. The ground had stopped shaking. Crow stood slyly grinning amidst rubble, smoke, flames.
"Didn’t you know?" he asked.
"You’re a hit with the ladies, aren’t you?"
"Ka." He leapt into the sky, unhappy. I didn’t see him again until I nearly ran him down on the highway.

The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love.

Maybe you see what upset Crow?
I knew what was bothering him. It bothered me, too, but I couldn’t lie.
A feeling greater than love.
That day beside the highway became a night. As the stars appeared we cast our light into the universe. Told stories. Crow in Paris boxing with Hemingway. Crow in Berlin, sprinting against Owens for the gold. Crow with Muddy Waters in Chicago, playing the blues. Crow high, following glacier trails. High over clouds in thin air. Below: Beaver dams, canoes, fallen trees, open land. Mackenzie agitating for rebellion. Horse buggies, two lanes widen into four. Crow in the beginning. Emptiness, the void. The bang. The emptiness filling with matter. Rivers of stars falling like tear drops. Rolling galaxies like continents splitting into solar systems, comets, planets. The earth cooling green and blue. Crow seeing Crow in his first tree. Crow seeing Crow laugh, the world shaking. The sky opening. Flowers budding loud as oceans. Crow sees the tower, the pin that holds the city to the lake. The tower shines. The suburbs rise over the horizon.
"Crow, do you know the meaning of love?" Hummingbird once asked him.
Ain’t nothin’ but pain in your heart.
"Oh, no," said Butterfly.
Crow chased her from Algonquin to Costa Rica.
Crow on the roadside. Left wing dragging. A line of dust stirred loose. Crow limps, claws a trail forward. Pauses. A dust cloud rises. A transport. Wheels shake, rocks fly. Crow stoops. Waits. Leaps. A flash of black across the windshield. Brakes scream. The air fills with smoke. The truck swerves. Crow spins higher, higher. The truck disappears. Crow laughs like thunder and the sun drains fire, burning holes in the sky.
Crow craves coffee. Crow wants to take in a hockey game. See the girls on Queen Street. Crow wants to have his bell rung. Crow wanting the new fashions, the new sounds. Digital toys. Monica. Crow wanting Monica, Monica not wanting Crow. There was always Angela. There was always Katrina. There was always Margaret.
It was three in the morning when Crow told me about Rachel. "Her love is the biggest I’ve ever seen," he said.
I should’ve paid more attention. I closed my eyes.
"Listen, Prince. Her love’s the baddest."
I could still hear him but he’d started to fade.
"It’s the best," said Crow.
I was so tired, everything turned a shade of purple.
"Prince, are you paying attention?"
I wasn’t. He came to the important part.
"This girl’s more than the others. This girl — "
I fell asleep.
Half an hour later Crow was still talking.
"Prince! Prince!"
I stood up suddenly. I was ready to fight.
"Prince! Prince!" he said. "I waited on this highway so I could tell you about the limits of love! So I could take you to the outer reaches of the universe! So I could tell you about the capacities of the heart! Quantum physics is nothing besides this, man! Einstein was a third grade dropout! What I have to say will take you through the bend in space-time! You must listen with a still heart! You must listen with a cool, open soul! Ready yourself for a tidal wave of knowledge!"
"Give me a break," I said.
I dropped to the ground, fell onto my back. I closed my eyes. Opened them again.
Crow stood on my chest, shaking his head.
"I have a challenge. You must accept it or I will poke your eyes out."
He leaned toward me, placed his beak on my right eyelid and pressed gently. I didn’t need the reminder. I’d never seen him like this. He was a fury and an iceberg.
"What will it be?" he asked.
"What is the challenge?"
"Do you accept?"
"What is it?"
He told me: Rachel would love him forever. Of this he was sure. I was challenged to dissuade her from loving him. Until I answered this challenge I was cursed.

The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love. A voice we all know speaks to each of us and we laugh. Massive waves of laughter crumble the land, flood the oceans, fill the empty spaces. The difference between big and small diminishes. The difference between here and there disappears. The difference between now and then is erased.
Then POP!
The whole thing starts again.

"You will be cursed," Crow said. "Cursed to wander the earth."
He was gone when I woke.
I had a woman waiting in Winnipeg and a car parked by the highway.
I forgot what Crow said to me.
I forgot about Rachel.
I forgot I’d heard Crow curse.
"Wheels, give me speed!" I said. I turned the ignition.
Wendy! I thought. That was my woman’s name. Wendy, I’m the morning sun on my way to you!
"Damn that bird," I said as I rushed across the prairie, the air turning dusty.
Then dustier.
Then just dust. A sandstorm.
As I crossed the Manitoba border the engine seized. The car rolled to a stop. I curled into a ball on the back seat and tried to keep my ears clean of the Saharan winds.
Sixteen inches of sand lay piled around the car.
But I’d forgotten the curse.
"Crow," I thought. "You trickster."
I was more hungry for Wendy than ever. I wanted her lips on mine, her arms around me. I could feel my loneliness spread, a thousand ninjas beating me from my shoulders to my knees.
Still I didn’t remember the curse.
I started to walk.
I stuck out my thumb.
A farmer in a tractor pulled over.
Years later I would say, "That’s when I started to wander."
"Strange storm, that," the farmer said. "Never seen the likes of it before. You?"
His name was Ezekiel and he claimed to have wrestled angels. He dropped me at a truck stop ten miles down the road. I ordered a coffee and dropped a quarter in the payphone to call Wendy.
"Baby!" I said. "Sugar plum! Sweet cheeks! Bella!"
At the sound of my voice she hung up.
I tried again. She let the phone ring.
I tried once more. No answer.
I sat down at the counter and made eyes at the waitress. She had a nametag. Doris. The farmer was gone. By now my loneliness had spread from the rims of my toes to the tips of my ears.
I said, "Tell me something, Doris."
"Like what?"
"Anything, Doris. Anything."
Doris was about thirty. She had knowledge, something special. Everyone does. I wanted to discover hers.
"Won’t she talk to you?" Doris asked.
"Your baby sweet cheeks on the phone."
"You must have done something wrong."
"Why do you say that?"
"A woman knows."
I was no saint, sure. But I’d been right true to Wendy.
I decided on a different tack.
"Married, Doris?"
"Been there, done that."
"Recommend it?"
"Works for some."
"He do you wrong?"
"We all have faults."
"His worse than yours?"
"Seemed so."
"I’ve had a few."
"Any lately?"
"None I care to confess."
"What are you doing later, Doris?"
"Got plans for me?"
"Can you take me down the highway to my car?"
"What’s your name, Jim?"
"No, Prince. I won’t take you to your car."
I felt a great and sudden need to sleep.
"Do you have a backroom here, Doris? Somewhere I could catch a nap?"
I didn’t wait for an answer. My head bounced off the counter. I collapsed onto the floor. Asleep.

Then POP!
The whole thing starts over again.
Crow flies out of the void. Coughs up blood. A river starts to flow. Crow flies, scratching at the void. The void tears, buckles, breaks into fragments. The fragments spin into planets, stars, comets. Crow looks for a place to land. His wings are tired. The void is a big place. He’s flown from one end of eternity to the other. He sees a blue dot in the void and flies towards it. It’s far away. He flies and flies and still it remains a small blue dot. As he’s flying Crow closes his eyes and tries to sleep. He falls through space and wakes with a headache. He’s on the blue planet. Earth. He doesn’t know how to leave.

I won’t tell you everything that happened next.
Eventually I got back to my car and found it stripped. A local mechanic told me he’d take what was left off my hands. It was the only deal going, so I took it.
My loneliness and lust had inverted. Became a cavern in my chest. I thumbed my way to Wendy’s. My key wouldn’t work. I knocked. A man answered. A man six foot eight, three hundred pounds. He offered to separate my head from my torso. I left the neighbourhood with a hollow feeling in my heart and a hole above my left eye that took thirteen stitches to close.
I went from Winnipeg south to Texas. A patch of bad luck was all I thought I had. I’d done some ranching in the past, when I was feeling down. It had a way of setting me right. But this time I suffered three snake bites in two days.
"You gotta go now," my friend Billy said. He owned the ranch and could recognize a curse.
I wasn’t convinced.
I kept to the southern route. I signed onto a freighter crew in Panama. I’d once sailed with Blackbeard. Felt at home in the ocean swells. But three days at sea and I turned a dozen shades of green. The US Navy picked me up and threw me in quarantine. The doctors thought I had the Ebola virus, bird flu or a previously unrecorded water bug. My conditions cleared on the way to Florida. The doctors wanted me locked away but my lawyers disagreed. I promised to report to the nearest hospital if I as much as sneezed.
I got a job in New Orleans bar. It was Mardi Gras weeknights and the Super Bowl on weekends. I bought a used saxophone and jammed with a quartet every night until three. Damn, that bird, I thought one night as I hit a high note. Crow, you don’t know what you’re missing. A week later the city was under six feet of water and I evacuated to a refugee camp in Georgia. It was here — so late, so late — that I started to get a clue.
"You’re cursed," said the woman beside me in the breakfast line.
"Excuse me?"
A wrinkled mass of ebony skin waved a bony finger at me. "You heard me."
"Yes, I did, my sister," I said.
"And you know what I’m talking about."
Damn, that bird. Cursed, I am. Cursed to wander the earth.

He’s on the blue planet. Trapped. He starts walking. His wings hurt. He’ll never fly again, he’s sure of it. He stops beside a pool of water. He drink, his first. He walks into the water. He doesn’t float. He walks out of the water. Okay he’ll fly again. He’s hungry now. And something else: Lonely. He doesn’t know it yet. He’s never known another being. He’s never felt incomplete. In the beginning was Crow and the void, and the void was with Crow and the void was Crow. Now there’s Crow and the blue planet, Crow and water, Crow and sky. Suddenly: Crow and the first woman. She swims through the water. She sees him on the shore and smiles. Smiles! Crow jumps ten feet in the air! Flaps his wings! He’s flying!

Since the void split all the women Crow has loved have been echoes of the first. She had no name. If you’re tempted to name her, call her Eve. Mother of Life. Sustainer of Dreams. Down through the millennia Crow kept looking for another like her. Cleopatra came close. So did Napoleon’s Josephine. Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Marilyn Monroe weren’t far off. Mary Magdalene had many approximate talents, as did Mae West. Crow once said that Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina had tempted him with passions he’d thought he’d lost in the shadows of early time. I knew what he was referring to — the days of his lovenest with Eve. Lover of Eternity. Mistress of the Four Corners of the Universe.
When I remembered Crow’s curse I knew what I had to do. Find Rachel. Wander the earth. The first thing I did was make a deal with Raven. Raven was no friend of Crow. I found Raven at the Banff Springs Hotel.
"Raven, I need help."
"Where have you been? Everyone’s talking about you."
"Wandering the earth," I said. I couldn’t lie.
"Ha, ha."
"What’s so funny?"
Raven laughed again. His sense of humour was even stranger than Crow’s.
"Be serious for a minute," I said.
"I know what you want. Everyone knows."
"A little sunshine. A little paradise."
"I need to find Rachel."
Raven nodded. "I’m all over it." He knew exactly where she was.
I thought Tahiti. Bali. California. Somewhere hot, with lots of sun.
She wasn’t where I expected.
She was in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.
I stared at Raven. "Where?"

The blue planet goes around and around. Around the sun. Around the solar system. Around its axis. Crow goes around the blue planet. He sits atop a rhinoceros on the African plain. Not such a bad little planet, he thinks. He hears drums beating. He starts to dance.

"We must wait until Crow’s out of town," I said to Raven. "We’ll need room to operate."
"Count on it."
He told me Crow sat on a wire above Rachel’s house. He swung in the wind and waited for her to come outside. Day after day.
"I’ve never seen him like this," Raven said.
"How hard can it be?"
I didn’t want Crow to know I was coming, to think his curse had worked. I didn’t want him to know I’d ever been there. I wanted him to think Rachel dumped him by choice. That would be my trick on Crow. That he thought Rachel’s love silenced on its own.
"We need a plan," I said.
"I know," said Raven.
We were on the hotel patio, looking over the lake. Blue mountains all around us, jagged, tossed with rocks like crumbs on a cake. Behind me someone spoke German. Someone Japanese. Earlier I’d seen two girls in tennis shorts and now I heard them giggling, scolding a child who talked of avalanches.
"I’ll be back in half an hour," Raven said. "Meet me in your room."
I ordered a martini. Shaken, not stirred.
The waitress didn’t smile. She said, "I get that a lot."
"You do?"
"Licensed to kill, right?"
She had long legs and a short skirt.
I said, "Double-owe-seven." I tried to catch her eye and wink.
But she turned away. Quickly.
Cursed, that was me.
I felt myself being erased, the void returning.
Half an hour later I opened the door to my hotel balcony. Raven flew in with a leather satchel. He had photographs, maps, a notepad full of details of Crow’s movements, when he flew east over the trees, north over the ocean, sat on the wire and swayed in the wind, waiting for Rachel.
"Raven," I said. "This is great!"
Raven pointed to a sealed envelope. I picked it up.
Raven flapped his wings, rose into the air. Said, "I’ll be back tomorrow. Same time." He disappeared over my balcony.
Damn birds, I thought. I didn’t understand them. I wanted Crow to love me again — but also I didn’t. I didn’t care for his love and I was hungry for it. I wanted the curse lifted. I wanted to start over. I wanted the perfect emptiness of the void. I opened the envelope. It was a photograph of Rachel.
She wasn’t what I expected.
The more I looked at her the more she seemed to fade away. This was the one who loved Crow with a love greater than Olympus? With a love like the end of the world? With a love that shook him more than the love of the first woman?
The photograph was of her face. A close up, slightly over-exposed. Her cheeks were full and wore scars of acne and age. Her lips were thin, chapped, her hair pulled back. Her eyes shone with the strength of grandmothers. They were black, deeper than any I’d seen. They held my attention and I knew Crow was right. She would love him forever. She was all love. For everything and everyone. Was that it? Was that the limit?
I tried to remember what Crow had told me. What had I missed? Why had he cursed me? What did I need to bring back to him? How could I break the spell?
I lay down on my hotel bed, fell asleep.

Crow high, high, high, like a shooting star. Like a rocket. Crow standing on my chest, his beak on my eyelid. We never feel more complete than when we are about to be dismembered. The end. A great sunset. The deepest red. A feeling greater than love.

The next day I was on the highway east out of Banff at dawn. My opportunity was slim. Though I was cursed, I wasn’t out of luck. I was going to the place where no one could find me. Saskatchewan. The land of sky. The place in the continent that was like an ocean. To the rock that had once been a buffalo. To wait for Crow. To absolve myself of the curse. To share with him a story I knew he didn’t know.
Then POP! The whole thing starts over again.
I knew he would come. I had to be there when it happened. I knew what he would ask me. "Where have you been?" He would stare high into the blueness. I wouldn’t lie. "I have been abroad."
"Wandering the earth."
That’s how it would start. It would go on from there.

(c) Michael Bryson, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Harold Hoefle

Harold Hoefle's debut novel is The Mountain Clinic (Oberon, 2008). It's the story of Walter Schwende, whose Austrian-born father disappears in 1966, when Walter is seven and living in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

The novel compresses the next 30 years into seven brief chapters. Walter's father is believed dead, though no body is ever found. His abandoned car is found with his clothes stacked on the front seat by Lake Ontario. He is presumed to have drowned, but there are reasons for him to have picked up and vanished also: his business is failing, he owes money, he's a proud Austrian for whom the shame of a collapsed life is worse than disappearing into the ether.

The father-son relationship is the heart of this novel, even though half of that partnership is largely represented as an absense.

The absent father is, of course, a powerful archetype. Google "absent fathers" and you get sites like this one. Robert Bly made waves a decade ago with Iron John (Vintage, 1992). Subtitled "A Book About Men," Bly's "mythopoetic" argument focused on reorienting men to their primal masculinity: their relationship with the archetypal father.

The Mountain Clinic isn't that sort of book.

Walter lost his father, but he doesn't seek psychoanalysis. He seeks adventure. He goes to Vancouver, where he goes an welfare and lives with two divorced Czech emigres. He goes to the North West Territories, where he takes a security guard job at a mill. He goes to Nicaragua, where he doesn't exactly fight the contras, but he wants to.

In the end, he becomes an English teacher in Montreal, where he asks his students to "get into father-thinking mode" by writing their reflections on that topic. One student writes:

my dad
will the radiation work
will he die
will he live
whats going to happen
when will I see him again
I miss him
why does this happen to him

Meanwhile, Walter is reading the "Occurance Report" he obtained from the Toronto Police about his missing father. He reads some information that suggests his father might not have died in 1966. Then he goes to Austria for his grandfather's 100th birthday.

I first read this book about 10 years ago when it was a collection of short stories in manuscript. (I declare that I am ineligible to nominate it for a literary prize.) I have just finished reading it between bound covers, and my mind rattles with echos of moments and complete stories that the author has removed from the final product.

The back cover indicates the novel includes an episode of Walter in post-revolution Romania. It doesn't. A late change removed that chapter.

Readers will be curious that all of the chapters are written in the first person: six in the voice of Walter, one in the voice of a Nicaraguan revolutionary. Why this shift in perspective? What did the author intend? It made me think of Milan Kundera's perspective shifting games. I'm curious to read what others think of this gambit.

The absent "post-revolution Romania" story is also suggestive. Walter is an idealist: an early-1980s Communist, actually. The Czechs in Vancouver abuse him for his beliefs. The lumberjacks in the NWTs have no time for political abstractions. Walter in Nicaragua is called "Flaco" (flaky?), and the revolutionary who tells that story (after the revolution has collapsed) reminds Walter that Lenin called people like him "useful idiots."

But Walter is no idiot. He is a searcher. For his father? Yes. But ultimately what he is searching for is something more important. Himself.

"Why don't you have a girlfriend?" his mother asks.

He answers: "It's not that easy."

I will end by identifying The Mountain Clinic as an example of diaspora literature: the Austrian diaspora. A Google search failed to reveal much of interest on this topic, which was surprising (isn't everything available online?).

The racist attitude of Torontians towards German-speaking immigrants in the 1950s might seem like a faint memory today. But unwelcoming attitudes create pain wherever they pervade. However much hate Hitler reasonably deserved.

This pain is personified in Hoefle's novel in the seven-year-old Walter. His creation is worthy of pity ... and much praise.


See also an interview with the author (from The Danforth Review)

Andrew Steinmetz

Andrew Steinmetz's new book, Eva's Threepenny Theatre (Gaspereau, 2008), tells the story of his great-aunt, who appeared in the workshop version of Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" in the 1930s, before fleeing the Nazis.

A mixture of fiction and memoir, Steinmetz's "novel" explores the intersection of history, family, identify and artistic creation.

See also Steinmetz's website [] and an interview I recently conducted with the author.

The title implies that Eva's life can be best understood through a Brechtian lens. The following quote from Wikipedia might help explain that point:

Collective and collaborative working methods were inherent to Brecht's approach, as Fredric Jameson (among others) stresses. Jameson describes the creator of the work not as Brecht the individual, but rather as 'Brecht': a collective subject that "certainly seemed to have a distinctive style (the one we now call 'Brechtian') but was no longer personal in the bourgeois or individualistic sense."
As Steinmetz ably illustrates, through interviews with Eva and fictional reconstructions of different eras of her life (of which there were many), "Eva" was reborn as a character on many different stages. Her identify was shaped, influenced and manipulated by multiple strong personalities: from her father and brother, to Brecht, to her husband and lovers, to Hitler.

Who was Eva? This novel lovingly explores that question. It is the depth and quality of the exploration (not any implied answer) which makes this book a rewarding (but not easy) read.

It is conventional, in this Oprah-heightened reading enviornment, for memoirs to be powered by redemptive themes. James Frey's A Million Little Pieces may be the best known example. A criminal and drug addict, Frey turned his life around and wrote about it, but like Farley Mowat he didn't like the facts interfere with a good story. Or a good commercial theme, more to the point.

Eva's Three Penny Theatre doesn't explore redemption. It is a better book because it avoids this Christian, post-Freudiean cliche. Television talk shows may "make good TV" by providing simple solutions ("conflicts wrapped up with a bow in 24 minutes or less!"), but literature serves itself best when it avoids this commercial imperative.

I am tempted to write that literature should complicate simplicities, but then ... isn't that a simplicity?

What I do know, is that Steinmetz's exploration of his family's history, and the way he has chosen to frame those stories, reveals a depth of humanity that would have failed to come through if he'd sought the simple theme: all's well that ends well.

There are loose ends in this book. There are narrative fragments that fit poorly with others. But the whole is strong ... and stronger because of these discontinuities.

Eva lives! Long live Eva!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Farley Mowat

Farley Mowat is nearly ninety, but he's the most exciting thing in Canada, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Kristof challenged his readers to name something interesting about Canada (he couldn't come up with anything). Then he hit on an idea:

Something really exciting about Canada just dawned on me last night, as I was reading Farley Mowat’s book, “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be,” to my 11-year-old daughter. It’s Farley Mowat. He is such a wonderful, evocative writer — an exciting one, even — and he even manages to make Saskatoon exciting.
I'm astonished, mostly, that Mowat has contemporary 11-year-old readers.

I tried to get a copy of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be for my nephew and niece last year, and in the end concluded that it had gone out of print. (I ended up buying a new paperback of Owls in the Family, only to find out they had it already....)

Of course, Mowat has a new book out: Otherwise (M&S , 2008). And he's the feature of a large profile in today's Globe and Mail.

But the most exciting about Canada? Has Kristof not heard about the poetry crisis?

"Never let the facts interfere with the truth," Mowat tells the Globe. He is a booming voice from an age of Canada that is gone. At times, he has been a brilliant storyteller. He isn't unserious, but even he acknowledges it has been a long time since he carried any cultural weight.

Is Kristof joking? He doesn't appear to be, except that his December 5, 2008 column is silly, yes. He praised Canada for "sensational work promoting micronutrients like iodine," and Canadians complained because he also called us "boring."

WTF, he asks? Is that so bad?

I don't think so (some of the comments in reply are just hilarious).

But it's low to place Farley Mowat are the head of "something exciting" about Canada. One staggers to know where to begin the rebuttal.

Suggesting Kristof read Rawi Hage might be a good place to start.

There are innumerable others.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Attack of the Neo-Dadaists

Last week, I sat in on an occupational therapy assessment session of my eight-year-old step-son. It was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways.

Afterwards, I realized that I'd been thinking about learning disabilities as a "brain thing." There is something neurologically distressed, which can affect emotional capacity, cognitive function and academic results.

But it is now clear to me that my step-son has a physical disability (as well). His struggle with some simple physical tests was illuminating.

I'm surprised, though, at how surprised I was, because I've known all along that "fine motor skills" are something that he can experience trouble with.

The extent of the trouble astonished me.

Also last week was parent/teacher night. My step-son is in grade three, and according to his report card he is a middling student. He is, however, happy, which is more important.

Last year, his teacher gave him better marks, but he was terribly unhappy.

As parents, we encourage happy over unhappy - and file the report card under irrelevant.

What is relevant is the Independent Educational Plan (IEP) that we helped his teacher draft early in the school year. This plan provides direction to the teacher about how to support our son's learning needs.

For example, his non-verbal learning disability means (among other things) that he has a weak working memory. So he has trouble putting together a sequence of instructions: do A, then B, then C.

His teacher gives him two questions to complete. When he's done those, he goes back to her and gets two more questions. His learning is more more incremental than that of neurologically normal children.

If he is expected to process information at the rate of neurologically normal children, he overloads and becomes emotionally distressed. If his environment is modified (slowed down, mostly), he is able to learn just about anything.

Getting the balance right is the most important - and challenging.

In the months ahead, we will all be learning more about occupational therapy - and how to help our son overcome the physical challenges that also act as barriers to best results.

Why is this blog posting called "Attack of the Neo-Dadaists"?

Because I've been thinking about my previous post on "Professional Poets," and I wanted to say again that there are more important things in life than who serves of literary award juries.

But I wanted to go further, too.

Because ... yes, the jury process can be improved.

And ... yes, something doesn't seem right about this year's GG jury for poetry.

And ... yes, Di Brandt's comment about "neo-Dadaist ... circles in Toronto" is obscure and oddly beautiful.

But have you read the recent report of the provincial auditor on the state of special education in Ontario?

My step-son loves to read. His teacher says he's a great reader, and we agree.

His report card mark in this area was "C".

Why? He struggles with context. He struggles with interpretation. He struggles with organizing his thoughts into coherent arguments. He struggles with putting together the big picture.

He loves stories. He loves violence. He loves jokes.

In graduate school vernacular, he is a naive reader. And that is okay; he's only eight; we have time to help him figure out how to make the connections he needs to make to find "meaning."

Making meaning is what I once thought was the purpose of literature. Then I went to graduate school, where I learned (I'm oversimplifying) that neo-dadaists deny the possibility of meaning.

I just made that up.

I still don't know what neo-Dadaists are, but if Di Brandt wants to have a debate about the "important poetics of our time," I say: reality is challenging enough.

[What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.]


As yesterday was John Lennon's death day (1980), one final awkward plea: Just Gimme Some Truth.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Professional Poets

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators for a reason. They haven't yet settled on a common system of governance.

Reactions to the 2008 Governor General's Award for Poetry are beginning to resemble the current dysfunctional parliament in Ottawa.

Andre Alexis brought the issue to national attention in last Saturday's Globe and Mail.

Discussion at Bookninja is robust.

Zach Wells was an early catalyst.

The winning poet's editor has weighed in.

Summary is a kind of cliche, but here it goes.

Jacob Scheier's book More To Keep Us Warm (ECW, 2007) won the big prize. This isn't controversial. What is controversial is the past relatioship between one of the three jurors who awarded the prize and the prize-winning poet.

Di Brandt is the juror who has attracted the brunt of attention.

In his book, Scheier acknowledges Brandt's "ongoing advice, support and feedback in the process of writing this book." He also credits Brandt with co-translation of a Rilke poem, the first in the collection.

Should Brandt have excused herself from the jury? Should the Canada Council have dropped her?

These questions have been debated robustly elsewhere.

I am interested in two quotes from Brandt that Alexis included in his Globe and Mail piece. They are reportedly taken from an interview with Brandt by Quill and Quire.

Brandt: "If people want to debate anything, they should at least be having a discussion on the level of poetics."

Brandt: "There is a debate going on in Canada about what is the important poetics of our time, and I think that Jacob Scheier's book demonstrates a poetic clarity ... and spiritual engagement which is in some ways unconventional in the current, neo-Dadaist fashion in some circles in Toronto."

Alexis accused Brandt here of attempting to shift the discussion from the controversy about the award to "an argument about Toronto."

I'm not unsympathetic to this complaint.

However, let's try to have a discussion on the level of poetics. What is the important poetics of our time? Is there even such a thing?

Those debating the appropriate governance structure of literary juries aren't debating poetics. Neither are the politicians plotting power tricks in Ottawa worried about the status of contemporary ghazals.

I asked my wife if she'd heard anything about the GG2008 winner for poetry, and she said, "No. What about it?"

I got halfway through an explanation, and she asked me to stop. What did I want for supper?

(We live in Toronto -- and aren't neo-Dadaists, I promise you.)

I suspect that Brandt was earnest in her explanation. I first saw her read in 1987, and she was earnest then about the power of poetry and how it opened up new opportunities for spiritual engagement. From what I have seen of her career, she has remained consistent in seeking a special place for poetry in the world -- and a special place for a special kind of poetry (at least "special" as she sees it; poetry that is "spiritually engaged").

Is this anything less than trying to grab the remnants of Shelley's unacknowledged legislative reins? Is there a poetic connection between the 2008GG award and the changing of legislative power in Ottawa?

I jest, but only lightly.

It seems to me that poets like Brandt (poets of the spiritually charmed kind, I mean; and I don't mean this as a put-down) are partisan. They are yin to the politician's yang.

There is a debate going on in Canada, but it isn't about what is the important poetics of our time. It is about how to avoid falling into a 1930s-style economic disaster. That debate has become fiercely partisan in the past week, and it may bring down the Harper government.

If you are hard-core partisan, you don't consider that the other side has an equal argument. You try to destroy them, as Harper attempted to destroy the opposition parties with a mean-spirited economic statement that proposed revoking public support for political parties.

If you are partisan, you try to build a world that nurtures the supports you need -- your friends, connections, colleagues, like-minded institutions. Publish or perish. These are not only the rules of democratic governance ... they work for professional poetry, too. Or is that too cynical?

Given the events of this past week, I think not.


I have come to distrust idealists of all stripes. Bring me not a better world, just ham and cheese sandwich.

And a good book.

Pretty please.