Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin (1950-2007) was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, and raised in Hinton, Alberta, before moving to Vancouver in his late teens. He was a founding editor of the original Vancouver Review in the 1990s. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004.

So reads the biographical blurb on the back of his second book, Stardust (New Star, 2007), a collection of literary and personal essays, winner of the 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.

Stardust was recommended to me by T.F. Rigelhof as part of the intereview I did with him, following the publication of Hooked on Canadian Books (Cormorant, 2010). I asked him about the paucity of general, non-academic responses to Canadian literature, and he pointed to Stardust as an exception worth seeking out.

So I did, and I agree.

Stardust includes 20 essays, many of which were previous published in Books in Canada, the Vancouver Review, the Tyee website and the Dooney's Cafe website.

Serafin spent most of his working life employed by Canada Post, but it is clear from the memoirish pieces here that he was engaged with books from his earliest days and long nursed an aspiration to write. It is also clear, however, that the post office did more than help pay the bills; with his colleagues, he found a community that fostered, shaped, and encouraged a critical response to the world. The post office kept life "real," and it is against this reality that many of Serafin's judgements are tested.

One curious essay about William Henry Drummond's "Habitant Poems," for example, begins: "One afternoon about ten years ago I was talking to the five-ton driver at Postal Station D in Vancouver. We started talking about writing."

From there, Serafin conducts an analysis of a now obscure 19th century Canadian poet. Obscure? Talking to colleagues around the postal depot, Serafin finds a half-dozen people who remembered the poet and in general his questions "received enthusiastic responses."

This is not how literary essays usually begin (grounded in working class labour), but Serafin uses his working life to enhance the credibility of his criticism -- and to contextualize his critical approach. Drummond wrote about working people, and Serafin engages this faded poetry with lively analysis. More lively than I think the poetry deserves, frankly. It was racist and wooden when it was written, and it remains so now.

Serafin argues, however:

A true national literature isn't just a sequence of masterpieces. It is a spectrum of things ... The truth of our past is the most exciting thing about it. And like other exciting things it will sometimes embarrass and even shame us. Drummond is part of that truth.

Other essays I'd recommend:
  • "A Chest of Drawers." About Michel Tremblay.
  • "Wearing a Mask." About Roland Barthes.
  • "Stardust." About the Sixties and Marcel Proust.
  • "Stan Persky's Enormous Reasonableness." About, well, Stan Persky's enormous reasonableness.
  • "The Crosses." About West Coast Native masks.
  • "Dead on the Shelf." About literary magazines.
  • "Avant-Garde Mentalities." About Steve McCaffery.
  • "Long Tall Sally." About Don DeLillo.
  • "Vermeer's Patch." About Northrop Frye.

Serafin's thought is brightly unsystematic. He delights in Roland Barthes, defends Northrop Frye, explains how reflections on First Nations masks helped ground his throughts about the importance of the local, links Prousts memories about the girls during World War I to late-1960s fashion, outlines his awe of DeLillo's Underworld, engages Steve McCaffery in detailed analysis, revels in memories about the vulgar in Michel Tremblay's work, and provides a portrait of a man he clearly admired, Stan Persky.

Other essays in the book were autobiographical in nature and didn't interest me as much.

What did interest me were thoughts like the following:
  • "Vulgar" comes from a Latin word meaning "of the people." But English Canadian writing is almost never "of the people," even linguistically. (Think of the difference between most Canadian novels and Trailer Park Boys.)
  • And it was the same with Barthes. Because his "I," so completely turned outward, never marked the inner anxiety of an individual, it didn't awaken my own anxiety. Instead I turned to Barthes for the same reason I turned to Scientific American and The New Yorker ... for a powerful feeling of order, a domestication of the world.
  • Vanity was Cohen's element, just as a black leather sportscoat was his favoured dress, and the consequent staging of this personality that I now sense everywhere in his work meant that an infatuated intelligence instead of an alert one was the order of the day so far as his readers were concerned.
  • I know that the comforting presence at our sides isn't Marchand; it is Frye. He understands our need for wonder, for the excessive, unprecedented image in which the true surrealistic face of existence breaks through. He knows what literature is for.

The Marchand in that last quotation is, of course, Philip Marchand, whom Serafin calls a "disciple of John Metcalf." Yes, another reverberation of these battle lines.

Serafin's intelligence shines through in these essays. He is a presence too late encountered, though his influence remains pulsing, important, and keen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sina Queyras

by Sina Queyras
Book Thug, 2009

Unleashed is an edited record of the Lemon Hound blog between 2004 and 2008. Sina Queyras, says The Canadian Encyclopedia, is a:

poet, editor, teacher, web blogger (b at Thompson, Man 1963). Sina Queyras is the award-winning author of 4 books of poetry and one book of nonfiction, and is the editor of an anthology of contemporary Canadian experimental writing. Her writing explores the limits of individual expression and sensual experience in a landscape that is densely marked by politics and ideology. Through her critical writing, reviews and web commentary Queyras has worked diligently to create an encouraging and challenging environment for writers, especially Canadian women writers.

The anthology is Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea Books, 2005).

See also her Wikipedia entry, an interview with her about Unleashed, an interview with her in The National Post, her Desk Space interview, a questionless interview with her at OpenBook Toronto, and a Q&A with her from UCalgary.

Reviews of Unleashed have appeared online at:
(Apologies if I've missed any other helpful links.)

What do I think of Unleashed?

First, I like it. I like it a lot. Among other things, it got me thinking about the paucity of critical, non-academic responses to contemporary Canadian literature. The top reason I like this book is its illustration of a mind engaged with literature (and other aesthetic questions, e.g., visual art) in a plain-spoken yet complex way. There is also a self-consciousness about the critical aparatus being applied and a persistent questioning of perspective (i.e., there is no naive "objectivity" here). I wish, wish, wish there were more books like this.

More critically, let's examine what we have here. As noted above, Unleashed is a book made up of blog posts. Like most blogs, the entries tell the story of their author. Events happen in linear time (2004-2008). The book, however, is static. So we are confronted immediately by questions of form.

Reading a book based on a blog, one asks, what difference does form make? Is there a difference? Following McLuhan (the medium is the message), yes, there is a difference. Form determines content. The book and the blog are not equivalent, and yet they are related.

I'm not reviewing the blog. I'm reviewing the book. The blog is a subject within the book. To be or not to be, is the blog's question. The central question of the narrative of the book (Camus-like in its insistence) is whether or not to murder the blog. "To blog or not to blog" is the subject of the post dated September 3, 2005. "Winding down" is the subject on November 22, 2006: "After much consideration, I've finally chosen a date to pull the plug on ths adventure." And yet the blog survived, and continues still.

Can a blog answer questions about its own survival? Does the book enable a necessary distance about which questions of persistence of meaning and nuance can be more critically considered?

The book closes open-endedly. Its final entry dissolves into a run of "comments." The conversation continues, the form of this open-ended book says. (Though the book really closes with an essay on the art of the open-ended blog.) The book does have a hard ending (it runs out of pages), but the author's emphasis on and prioritizing of open-ended process is unambiguous.

Some, of course, may find in this approach a weakness. The book's arguments are fragmented, episodic, non-linear, and yet clear themes can be discerned.

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes Queyras has worked diligently to create an encouraging and challenging environment for writers, especially Canadian women writers. In her September 3, 2005 post ("To blog or not to blog"), Queyras credits a friend with suggesting her blog is "a place to praise and inform." She then says this is "a combination of things I can get behind."

And get behind them she does. So committed is she to this mission, the blog survives multiple attempts to murder it. Like a contemporary Gertrude Stein, Queyras becomes the patron of a lively salon (one that at times puts so much pressure on her to maintain it that she contemplates killing it; one that also clearly sustains her as she shares the lively fortunes of her mind).

The reference to Stein is intentional. Stein and Virginnia Woolf appear to be Queyras's patron saints, and continuing their female-determined deep engagement with Modernism and art seems one of her prime motivations. "Female-determined" is an awkward phrase I just made up. What does it mean? In part, it connotes that Queyras distances herself from "feminism." Her post on October 17, 2006, is titled "Why I'm not discussing feminism," and it starts like this:

Wondering what happens when men speak is a lifetime occupation. All over the globe women with their heads in between their knees, wondering. This is an occupation. This is wondering. How do men weep? Is it like thinking? When men think is there a little pause before speaking? Why have they not changed the world, men? How many years of thinking and still there are so many problems. Maybe it's time to give up on them? After all, men are only half of the population. Troublesome as they may be. This is why I'm not discussing feminism. This is what it leads to.

Then she continues:

There sill be no discussing feminism here. Anyone who wants to discuss feminism should go and read about feminism. Reading about feminism is a way into feminism. Imagining being a woman is another way into feminism. Imagining then, is feminism. Thinking is also feminism. So, there will be no arguing about feminism. After all, what is feminism? Feminism is doing. Feminism is being and doing. Talking about being and doing is a way to keep women from doing. Really, women need to be doing and not thinking of ways to explain to men what it is to be a woman. ...

Who is invested in having women not doing? Suddenly everywhere people are thinking. Wow, that is what doing is. And now there is a lot of doing. ...

Still, if everyone is doing then men therefore are women if they are thinking and women are men if they are doing and everyone is feminist if they are seeing. So if looking then feminist. If looking is seeing. If you look and what you look at looks back, not you looking back, then feminist. Naturally things are more complicated than they seem, and naturally, quite naturally, it is time for tea.

Got it?

I would paraphrase the above as follows. Women shouldn't be so concerned with what is "holding them back" that they remove themselves from the role of producer of art, producer of criticism, producer of literature, etc. Also, one should look at art/literature/reality with self-awareness, so that the Self and Other are not confused. Especially in criticism, one should avoid the risk of colonializing the art object and projecting onto it meaning and connotations that it doesn't itself intend or hold. Such an approach, is feminism, but because feminism has become loaded with so much ideological baggage (and is subject to enormous waves of public and critical discourse), let's leave that term aside and focus on something simple. Doing. Making and discussing art. But let's discuss and do this in complicated ways that acknowlege the influence of gender (where appropriate).

In her mission, Queyras's pole stars are Stein and Woolf for their "female-determined deep engagement with Modernism and art." (I hope I've now explained myself.) Readers will not be surprised, therefore, that the entries in Unleashed engage the work of writers and visual artists. Most of the writers/artists are women, but not all. On April 23, 2007, for example, she blogged about a Jeff Wall show at the MoMA.
I'm going to become more specific now, because there's a point I want to make clear. There are hints of it in the above, but it's been nuanced in a way that could easily be missed. The point is about ordering, the making of hierarchies. Queyras is not interested in canon-making. Her blog is "a place to praise and inform." But that doesn't mean she is uncritical and without judgement. She is, however, not an "evaluative critic."

I don't want to re-hash recent debates about the role of literary critics here, but let's summarize. On one hand, some critics (mostly men) believe critics should sift and order literary works and sit in judgement over writers who need smacking down for their errors. One example is a quotation by Frederick Philip Grove (from 1929) that Nigel Beale repeated favourably in a recent issue of Canadian Notes of Queries (#79):

Literary criticism - or the body of critics - should be to the writer what the Roman senate was to the Roman general in the field: an unseen presence sitting sternly in judgment over his blunders; but also voting him a triumph if he did his duty well.

Other Canadian critics who fit this school include Carmine Starnino, David Solway, Philip Marchand, John Metcalf, and, um, Elvis Stojko.

In short, Queyras disagrees with Grove's suggested approach. At one point, she suggests that lover's quarrels are better left in the bedroom. This is a not-so-subtle reference to Starnino's sometimes incendiary and controversial book of essays and reviews (2004). This reference disappointed me. It was a rare moment of turning away, a shutting down of dialogue, and a missed opportunity. Queyras, to her credit, however, later engaged the question (not in the book, on the blog) about how the Self ought to approach the Other; I mean, how the critic ought to approach the work, in a series of interviews on her blog with literary reviewers (yours truly among them).

Is this ordering and canon-making really a male/female thing?

Gosh. All I'm gonna say is Queyras wonders repeatedly where are the other female critics. On August 9, 2008, for example, in an entry called "Make the world your salon," she writes:

This goes out to the women who read Lemon Hound and other blogs. Those who don't comment, don't enter into public discourse. What would it take to make the world your salon? To be as comfortable with one's opinion at a conference table, or weblog, or site otherwise filled with experts (all men, of course, with endless commentary designed to undermine your place at said table) as one is sitting across from friends in one's living room, a cup of tea and endless streams of commentary about everything from the design of the cup in hand to the possibilities of poetry as political tools? ...

What if Susan Sontag had blogged? What if Gertrude Stein or Mina Loy had blogged?

Make the world your salon.

There's that metaphor again: blog as salon.

[Incidentally, Jane Smiley said similar comments about "playing the game" in the New York Times (2006), quoted here by me.]

From Lemon Hound, June 4, 2007:

Further, I hazard say that there are few women who have the power of chronicaling literature, ordering it, as the Bersteins, Sillimans, Wahs, Olsons, Duncans, Creeleys, Lehmans, Geddes, Patersons, etc., of the world do. To be fair, many women I've spoken to have said that such ordering, such canonizing, is not something they are interested in doing... so why whine? Still, it's the world we live in and so at least acknowledge the terms and conditions.

These terms and conditions, Queyras, points out include such statistics as:
[I found that last link by going to the Lemon Hound blog; i.e., it wasn't in the book.]

So, feminism, as a term, may be spurned, but feminism as a corrector is in full force. I also find feminism in a cute story (November 26, 2007) that Queyras tells about "one of the most inspiring people I've ever heard of," a man with a head injury who could no longer work who started taking daily walks in Toronto's Don Valley. He noticed garbage. He picked it up. He started recording what he was doing. He talked to others. They got organized. And the Don Valley revitalization program began.

So ... don't talk about it. Do it. That's feminism.

(On November 27, 2005, writing about why she hasn't killed the blog, she says the "most important" reason she hasn't pulled the plug is the "question of gender," i.e., "there are not enough women engaged in the discussion of poetry and poetics. Over and over again the voices seem to be male, shouting about this or that school or lineage .... Where, one might ask, are the women?")

So ... we've covered off how Queyras approaches her subject (what: visual art and literature), and we've covered off some of why. I want to end with who. If Lemon Hound is about praise, who is she singing about? In no particular order:
I've put links (where available) on the names above to (one of) the relevant posts (Queyras writes about many of these women more than once). My final summation follows. Random comments first.
  1. Queyras called Christakos "the most inventive 'domestic' poet I've ever encountered." I've written about Christakos here. I liked her. Queyras likes her, too. It's not the domesticity that she likes; it's the innovative word combinations.
  2. Domesticity, however, also comes up in Queyras's interview with Stephanie Fysh, a photographer. They speak about a series of photos Fysh took, using herself as subject. The photos were misinterpreted as commentary on domesticity. Fysh: "I don't want to have to photograph men in order to say something that isn't gender-specific."
  3. Queyras is very, very pleased with Lisa Robertson.
  4. Queyras's interest in photography often returns to questions about portraiture. Susan Sontag's On Photography is invoked. "But what Sontag didn't anticipate was the extent to which these technological advances in photography would turn our gaze upon ourselves."
  5. The entry that includes the quotation about Sontag is a rumination on narcissism. Interestingly, blogs are often little more than centres of narcissism. Web logs about ... trivialities. Lemon Hound is anything but.
  6. "Are you kidding me?" That's Zoe Strauss's reply when told about the 7% figure at the Tate Modern. "We're post-post-feminist, post, oh, we've made it. Like we're a Virginia Slims ad. Fuck you. (Just for the record, I'm a radical feminist, and I believe that we're still in the process of creating a feminist movement. I believe the idea that social movments are fixed or static is false, and we're as connected to Seneca Falls as much as we are to Tribe 8...)"
  7. A Hemingway quote I hadn't heard before (on Stein): "She used to talk to me about homosexuality and how it was fine in and for women and no good in men and I used to listen and learn and I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it."
  8. There is a hilarious and insightful entry about marginalia in Sharon Thesen's A Pair of Scissors. Queyras bought the book used in New York City and the margins were marked up by someone who had serious problems with the poems. The interplay between the poems, the riled critic, and Queyras is quite lovely, IMHO. Best to read in full, except it appears to have been removed from the blog (August 1, 2008).
  9. Then there's this quotation from Alice Notley: "You can fuck/ a visiting poet: you can be paraded before/ a visiting poet as fuckable but not fuck...." About which Queyras says: "Refreshingly honest in a poetic economy that is as much about 'fame' and 'fuckability' as anything else, though of course the poem itself is making fun of 'the poem' itself."
  10. April 24, 2008. Queyras comments on Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm (Yale U Press, 2007), also reviewed by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books (October 25, 2007).
Kimmelman's review begins with three framing paragraphs:

Janet Malcolm begins her remarkable work on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by recalling how, half a century or so ago, like many other pretentious young Americans feeling hemmed in by Eisenhower-era conformity, she gravitated to Toklas’s cookbook. Its carefree, worldly snobbishness “fit right in with our program of callow preciousness,” she writes. “We loved its waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice.”

Years later, coming again upon her old food-stained copy, she reads the chapter about life under the Nazis, which she hadn’t read before. Toklas recalls how she and Stein hid in an area of provincial eastern France called Bugey, where they kept a house in the town of Bilignin, discovered one summer day in 1924 on the way to visit Picasso. When the war broke out, they wheedled a military pass and drove to Paris, fetched winter clothes, then settled back in the countryside for the duration. Toklas’s tone is cheerful. Malcolm, who has made a career of not taking writers at their word, asks herself what Toklas must be hiding. Two Jewish Americans in occupied France, and she is reminiscing about “Restricted Veal Loaf”? Why no mention of their Jewishness, “never mind [their] lesbianism,” she asks.

And so begins a rich meditation, born from articles in The New Yorker, on a storied relationship in modern letters, which, not coincidentally, also leads Malcolm to contemplate the slippery and shifting nature of language. As much as any experimental twentieth-century writer in English, Stein made a point about getting to the deep truth of language, its fundamental nature, but she also manipulated words to mean things very different than they usually do. In life, it turns out, as in art.

Queyras, on the other hand, isn't convinced that Stein has a Nazi problem:

Not surprisingly, Janet Malcolm's project rests on the question of how Stein and Toklas managed to survive the Second World War in Nazi-occupied France. Compelling, yes. And one wonders, one does want more information. And we are given some information in the form of Bernard Faÿ a man with a complicated relationship to Stein, homosexual/Catholic and a collaborator under Vichy. Is this altogether surprising? Stein was conflicted politically, did not seem to want to bother with politics in a direct way, and there is more than one slant reference to unseemly connections in her own writing: one assumes that there were forces at work.

The facts are glaring, and one must wrestle with them, but Malcolm offers little insight into the episode because, quite frankly, there isn't much to illustrate. What is curious to me is the narrative of obliviousness that she crafts for Stein, a strand rooted in the by-now cliched crtique of Stein's ego (we know all that...), her status as last born child, a person with a sense of things "always working out for herself," and them doing so. (In a way, Stein is a perfectly modern American subject isn't she? Just imagine help and abundance and it will arrive...). It would be interesting to imagine the making of that ego and the implications of it, the uses of it in terms of the risk of her multiple and complex identities.

Unfortunately, I don't see much "wrestling" with complicity with fascism here. The topic is too lightly passed over for my comfort. It's strange, too, to me that Queyras, politically engaged with percentages and the ecology of the Don River, can say simply (naively?) that Stein did not seem to want to bother with politics in a direct way. Living in Nazi-occupied Europe, was that possible? The review, however, does provide evidence (for those disbelieving that Queyras can be not-an-evaluative critic and also critical). She links to a number of other reviews of Malcolm's book to illustrate her points, then ends with:

But really, if one is going to take up the trope of the scathing and insouciant biographer, one might want to have something to say not only about one's subject, but about one's relationship to it, something to back up the penchant for the whip of a good quip (Malcom recently here on Gossip Girls), for the flaying of the unfortunate object who has managed to catch her eye. It isn't that I was looking for a love affair with Stein, it's that I was looking for some genuine insight.


So ... in closing ... the blog and the book are two different things. The blog has many, many more entries than are collected in the book, and the book (apparently) has entries that have since disappeared from the blog.

Re: the book, Unleashed. Once again, I liked it. I liked it a lot. In 165 pages, it introduced me to a range of people, places and things, often returning to common themes: poetry, aesthetics, visual art, photography, female-directed criticism, ecological concerns, and, yes, feminism.

To blog or not to blog. No question. Do, don't talk about it. Blog.

Queyras has a lot of interest to say. A more linearly organized collection of essays would enable her readers to understand her thoughts in greater depth and detail and allow her space to expand on her positions. The blog form, on the other hand, provides her opportunities to explore topics and ideas in a hit-and-miss manner, interacting with readers, and participating in an ever evolving, often highly charged community.

The blog and book are not opposites, not in competition; they merely have different strengths and weaknesses. As e-readers become more prominent, it will be interesting to see how literary bloggers like Queyras take advantage of this form.

There is also a sizeable dollop of good natured subtle humour in this book. (Overheard dialogue of the week [November 9, 2005: A says:] "I mean I know this class isn't high on her list of priorities, but I have things to do too, and I have to give them up, so you know, she should at least be prepared .... [B replies:] Yah, or at least dress properly.") Since I haven't mentioned this before, it seems a good place to end.

p.s. - An index please.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Richard Ford & Men

I wrote a blog post about Richard Ford in 2008. I linked to it last week from my John Gould post. Before I linked, I re-read the post, and I was reminded of one of the reasons I'm writing on this blog. Because if I don't write it down, I forget what my reaction to books are. I was quite hard on Ford's Rock Springs in my previous post. Whereas now I remember that book rather fondly. Hmm.

In the 2008 post, I linked to something else I'd written on Ford, a short review of The Lay of the Land. I've now posted that review below.

But there's more.

I have a half-started essay on "Men" that I began in the early part of the last decade that was in part inspired by Ford's The Sportswriter. I happened to be reading Unless by Carol Shields at the same time and noticed two quotations that called out to be placed side-by-side.

All my men were too serious, too brooding and humorless, characters at loggerheads with imponderable dilemmas, and much less interesting than my female characters, who were always of secondary importance but free-spirited and sharp-witted. – Richard Ford, The Sports Writer

I need to speak further about this problem of women, how they’re dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements. But we’ve come so far; that’s the thinking. So far compared to fifty or a hundred years ago. Well, no, we’ve arrived at the new millennium and we haven’t “arrived” at all. We’ve been sent over to the side pocket of the snooker table and made to disappear. – Carol Shields, Unless

It got me to thinking about writing an essay on the different types of male characters. If women are stereotyped into madonna/whores, men are stereotyped into bruts/wimps. Which isn't to say I wanted to write about spreading misandry. No, I was hoping for something more nuanced. What I wanted to write about was the diversity of "males," to develop a catalogue of literary male types. To celebrate complexity.

The essay didn't get written, but it got started. Here's part of it:

The subject of this essay is men, more specifically, men in literature, more specifically how men make meaning in their lives. Making meaning of life, I think, is literature’s primary obligation. Yes, in part, this essay is a reaction to feminism, because (some) feminists have made it their job to distort the meaning of male lives in order to make meaning in female lives. A couple of weeks ago, I heard Barbara Gowdy on CBC radio discussing her new novel, The Romantic. Gowdy spoke without ambiguity: Women suffer for love, men do not. Yes, she said, after being prompted by the (male) interviewer, some men are sensitive, some men suffer for love. But not the way women suffer. Women suffer collectively, she said. They share their sufferings. Men go to the bar and talk about sports.

This is patronizing claptrap. As is this: “Not one of us was going to get what we wanted. I had suspected this for years, and now I believe that Norah half knows the big female secret of wanting and not getting” (Carol Shields, Unless). The big “female secret”? Feminism can be saluted for its strong, useful critique of so-called “universalism” in literature; but it has locked itself in a dead end by claiming disappointment as a female privilege.

Here's basically all of the rest of it:

In 2000, I took part in a two-week writing workshop led by Bonnie Burnard, author of The Good House, a book as female-friendly as any written by Carol Shields. The workshop included five writers, each of whom had published at least one book. We spent the two weeks talking about the aesthetic problems we were struggling with in our fiction and offered support and encouragement to each other. At one point, Burnard asked us about the patterns we saw in our work. Were there recurring dilemmas, obsessions? Were their questions that drove us to choose certain narratives? What kinds of books did we find ourselves drawn to? Burnard said she found herself returning in her work to existential questions: What is life? Why bother to live it? She also said she liked to read about men, whom she found infinitely interesting.

I remember at that moment feeling a sense of relief. Like Burnard, I also returned again and again to existential questions in my fiction, sensing, like Camus in The Stranger, that the primary question in life was whether or not to commit suicide (Yes, life is absurd, but we must make a conscious choice to live it out fully anyhow). I also wrote a lot about men, which I felt some anxiety about, since I came of age during the feminist revolution and I tended to believe that questions about female emancipation ought to be a priority for everyone, as they were for me during my time on campus (the late-1980s, early-1990s, the period of the Montreal Massacre). I also wrote about women, which was also a source of anxiety, since the “appropriation of voice” debate was at its height during that period, and I felt some sympathy towards those who felt that they alone deserved the right to speak their own stories (I thought: Wouldn’t I want the same?).

But the same was not being offered. Stories about men by men were read as narratives of dominating female; stories about women by men were read as appropriation of voice and narratives which perpetuated male domination of women; stories about women by women were read as female emancipation from men; stories about men by women were … um, were there any? Well, yes. Lorna Crozier wrote her “penis poems” during that period, and feminists took her to task for celebrating the penis as a source of pleasure (and not reducing it to a symbol of oppression). This was the period of “backlash,” when attempts to critique the rigor of feminist claims were categorized as reactionary slights. It was also the period when the term “political correctness” first appeared, used by the first Bush administration and others on the right to lump any progressive critique of their policies into the camp of the leftist loonies. (I wrote a column for the campus newspaper arguing that the term “political correctness” was unnecessary, since language already existed for rebutting empty arguments, if that was your intent. But that wasn’t the intent of those who screamed PC was taking over campuses; their intent was to sweep away all dissent. As Bush II has famously said: You’re with us, or you’re against us.)

But what about those of us who reject the positions at both ends of the polarity? What about those of use who believe reality cannot be reduced to “us/them”? What about those of us who want to see a real discussion of the issues, who believe the freedom we are lucky to have ought to be used to find language that is the most honest, the most direct, the most realistic, and, yes, progressive?

Maybe you can see why I never finished this essay. It hurts my head re-reading it.

And things are so much better now. (Ha, ha.)

For related meanderings, check out CNQ #80. The Gender Issue.


[First published in The Danforth Review (2007)]

The Lay of the Land
by Richard Ford
Knopf, 2006

Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land (okay, I haven't actually finished this one yet; it's 485 pages in hard cover, and I've been reading it since the beginning of the year--back in the days when my now wife was my then girlfriend, which is a very Richard Ford-like thought and preoccupation). Here's my favourite passage from this novel so far:

If only Clare would just take the plunge (always the realtor's warmest wish for mankind), banish fear, think that instead of having suffered error and loss, he's survived them (but won't survive them indefinitely), that today could be the first day of his new life, then he'd be fine. In other words, accept the Permanent Period as your personal savior and act not as though you're going to die tomorrow but--much scarier--as though you might live.

The Lay of the Land is the third novel in a trilogy that began with The Sportswriter and also includes Independence Day. The protagonist of all three novels is Frank Bascombe, a one-time short-story writer who also wrote about sports. He is now twice married. His most recent wife has left him to re-unite with her former husband. His two grown children have various minor life crises. His first wife is flirting with him. He has recently survived (for now) a diagnosis of prostate cancer. It's Thanksgiving weekend, and he is living in what he calls "the Permanent Period." What others might call the slow slide to death (Frank is only 52), but Frank sees as the time when no major changes are anticipated or sought and so life can seem like a state of stasis, though clearly not of calm. Oh, yeah. The novel also takes place during the period in 2000 when the Gore/Bush election remained unresolved. Big decisions seem to be on hold. Can this situation remain? Probably not. How does it end? I don't know (haven't finished the book yet!).

So why include it in this review? Because I might not get another chance. Go about your affairs as if you might live!

Those who have read The Sportswriter and Independence Day will likely remember some of the sharp facts of Frank's life. He had a third child, a boy, who died in childhood. This event dunked Frank into a pool of dreaminess and womanizing that ended his first marriage. It also disconnected him from his children, his past ambitions and nearly life in general. In the second book, Frank took a trip to Cooperstown with his other son, in an attempt at father-son bonding, which ended with the son getting a baseball in the head. Accidentally, of course, though also (intentionally) rich in significance. In the new novel, Frank continues his drifting ways, though one should also say that Frank is clearly his life's "decider." He only appears passive because he is so deeply reflective; he is not in denial about what he's done or hasn't.

The narrative of Ford's trilogy is ultimately less the point than the creation of Frank. What I mean is, it's not what happens next that matters. It's how Frank responds to the day-by-day. Who Frank is. How he gets to be that way. What his options are. And the persistence of meaning over time. If it does. The lay of the land, in other words. It's just what's out there and how you deal with it. How we go along for the ride. And Frank provides quite a ride. He's a character as resonant as Updike's Rabbit, as Richler's Kravitz. As Jay Gatz, too.

Pages 326-327, in fact, provide a number of discussion points on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. Frank's car is in need of repair. At the local auto shop, the attendant is reading Fitzgerald's novel. Frank notes "garage mechanics, of course, played a pivotal role in Fitzgerald's denoument:

I'm tempted to poll his views about Jay Gatz. Victim? Ill-starred innocent? Gray-tinged antihero? Or all three at once, vividly registering Fitzgerald's glum assessment of our century's plight--now blessedly at an end. ... It's possible of course that as a modern student, Chris doesn't subscribe to the concept of author per se. I, however, still do.

When a significant American author (Ford) references a significant American novel (The Great Gatsby), readers are free to rush to all kids of conclusions. Gatsby is famously a novel about the failure of the American Dream, as many high school essayists have insisted. A similar theme could be staked for Ford's trilogy. We might also note that "the end of American exceptionalism" is one of the dominant stories of the presidency of George W. Bush, and Ford knew the outcomes of certain events (Iraq) while he presented the pessimistic Frank in the period that ultimately handed Dubya the keys to the White House. Things often don't work out the way we want them to, but we need to keep trying and live our lives looking forward, not back.



So my point is here is that disappointment is not a female priviledge; there are all types of men, and some of us, like Frank B., know the secret of wanting and not getting. Go about your affairs as if you might live!

Friday, January 14, 2011

John Gould

[First published in The Danforth Review]

Kilter: 55 fictions
by John Gould
Turnstone Press, 2003

John Gould's kilter: 55 fictions was nominated for the 2003 Giller Prize. "Fifty-five fictions?" you ask. Yes, there are 55 in this book's 205 pages, an average of less than four pages per story. So, it didn't surprise this reader that many of the stories feel like fragments, aborted beginnings, chunks of middle. Which can be just fine, if the writing is strong. And it is here, as the Giller nomination suggests. Gould's collected fragments add up to a sum that is greater than its parts.

Here is the opening of the first story in the book:

I liked it better back when my son was into stuff I could understand. Sex, drugs, rock'n'roll. Or rap, I guess you'd call it, Yo, mufo, kind of thing, the white boy's black dream. The big challenge in those days was to keep myself upright on the couch late enough at night to catch him creeping in, reeking of rum and Pepsi and Players Light, mauve hair all mussed up, buttons in all the wrong button holes. What would his mother have said? I'd ask myself.

"What would your mother have said?" I'd ask him.

In contrast to Christy's manly men, Gould's men are self-doubters. They are anxious. They are emotionally complicated, in that never-ending contradictory sort of way that cliché says is the singular realm of women (it isn't). If Christy tends towards Bukowski, Gould tends towards the Richard Ford of The Sportswriter.

For example, let's look at the story "Near-Death Experience." A mother is dying in hospital. Her daughter, Boo, and the daughter's partner, Jack, sit by her bed. The dying woman is asleep, semi-comatose, drifting towards death. The story begins with Jack wanting to ask the dying woman about her experience. As he explains to Boo: "How many chances like this does a person get?"

Jack whispers, "She's been where we're all going, Boo. Aren't you the tiniest bit curious about what she's seen?"

"No. And anyway, I know what she's seen. She's seen what she's always seen when she closes her eyes. She sees the inside of her head."

Later, Jack asks Boo what she would tell their child, if they had one, about "this" (death, the afterlife, belief systems).

"I'd tell her . . . I have no idea what I'd tell her," says Boo. "I'd tell her you can't believe anything, you can't count on anything. I'd tell her the only thing you can count on is the absolute, the infinite. Anything less than that is a crock."

Jack says, "The absolute? The infinite?"

"I have no idea. Mom, I miss you, I do." Boo takes her mother's hand, kneads a knobby joint between her fingertips.

"Near-Death Experience" covers barely four pages, and yet its subject matter is as large as can be: death, love, the infinite. It is also representative of Gould's other stories: the asking of big questions, the ambiguous answers, the focus on the domestic. The emphasis on small moments of truth: Boo will miss her mother, she offers the simple solace of touch.

kilter: 55 fictions was a worthy nomination for the 2003 Giller Prize. Some might find its tone of post-modern skepticism relentless. Some might wish the stories pushed outward, included more of the social context of its narrators, instead of keeping its eye inward on relationships. Sure, whatever. Gould's vision is his own, and in this book it is well realized.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jim Christy

[Review of Real Gone first appeared in Quill and Quire; review of Tight Like That first appeared in The Danforth Review.]

In addition, I was on the novel jury for the 2006 ReLit Awards and Jim Christy's The Redemption of Anna Depree made the final three short list at my instigation. I see now the book is selling for $48.95 on Amazon, and, gosh, I have no idea where my copy is.

Real Gone
by Jim Christy
Quattro Books, 2010

Tight Like That
by Jim Christy
Anvil Press, 2003

Real Gone is a meandering novella about a draft dodger in the 1960s who moves to Canada. Written by one-time American Jim Christy, who relocated to Canada in 1968, the book reads like a memoir.

The narrator, also named Jim Christy, reconstructs a year or so of his life when he was in his early twenties, driving around America with buddies and girlfriends, contemplating the cruelty of bigots and the naïveté of hippies, getting arrested and drafted, deciding to flee north, and taking part in a murder trial.

Written in Christy’s customary plainspoken prose style, Real Gone presents a portrait of an America polarized between revolutionaries and racists. The narrator fashions himself as an anarchist and has no kind words to say about the crazies on either side. If he identifies with any group, it’s the black underclass. He has a deep knowledge of old time rhythm and blues, studies at a black college, and is the only white guy to attend a lecture by Muhammad Ali on the Nation of Islam. (Ali shakes Christy’s hand and hams it up for the cheering crowd while whispering in his ear, “What you doin’ here, boy?”).

Increasingly, Christy has no answer to that question. He attempts to go to Atlanta for the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, dodging race riots along the way, but ends up in a North Carolina jail for being out on the street after curfew.

America, he concludes, has no place for the likes of him. Before he can leave, though, he’s called as a character witness at a good friend’s trial for murder. The trial goes better than expected, but the accused man is still convicted. Christy heads for Canada, and the book comes to a sudden close.

Ultimately, this slim volume is more first act than complete story. Canada, in this fiction, is the Promised Land, or at least not the Land of Chaos. Canadian readers may find this storyline comforting, but the mythology of the 1960s as the most important decade – and Canada as the Great, Sane, Liberated Place – is more than stale. Entering Canada, Jim Christy (protagonist) leaves behind the outrageous U.S., but this doesn’t offer the reader narrative satisfaction.


In Tight Like That, Jim Christy's short story collection, the world is also lovely and freakish. My mother read this book before I had a chance to read it. She liked it. It isn't the sort of book I thought my mother would like. My mother reads Ruth Rendell. Jim Christy is closer to Charles Bukowski than he is to a British mystery writer. I think what my mother liked about these stories was their lack of pretense. Tight Like That presents fourteen stories about characters caught on the rough edges of society, but his characters are not caught in bitterness, nor are they presented as symbols of injustice and oppression. Christy tells worthy stories, honest stories, well-written stories, too.

Well-written in a plain style, it is perhaps necessary to say, since Christy's writing is the type that high-minded literary readers might distrust. The writing may appear naive, it may appear unaware of it connotations, but it is not (in fact, Christy often lulls the reader into expecting one outcome before revealing another). Christy's storytelling is keen-minded, clever, and always one step ahead of cliché. A bit like a British mystery writer, one is tempted to say.

The back cover of Tight Like That says:

The stories in Jim Christy's latest collection span time and space, taking us from the depression-era Deep South to the modern-day commute. Private eyes. Old drunks. Yuppies, hippies, and everyone in between gets the trademark Christy work-over. His characters inhabit a world where one wrong move, no matter how small, can set in motion the direst of consequences. Luckily, they don't let it get in the way of having a fine old time. Compelling, transforming, this collection makes you long for the days when a cup of coffee cost a dime, and dignity wasn't for sale.

I don't normally quote advertising copy in reviews, but here I make an exception because the above paragraph is an excellent summary of the book, though I have a couple of nits to pick.

First, "the trademark Christy work-over." Not having read any other Christy, I'm not sure what this means. No one gets too much of a "work-over" in Tight Like That. Hypocrites are poked and prodded, yes. Radical feminists, the unthinking rich, politicians, narcissists generally. Christy's narrators stand up for common sense, decency, and the protection of real human connection. Christy's characters are often manly men, men who work with their muscles, men more well-connected to their bodies than to their minds, but his men are also in touch with their feelings, though they aren't likely to abstract them; they aren't Momma's boys, or friends of Freud.

Second, yes, dignity, truly, is not for sale in Christy's world. But, overall, the tone is not nostalgic, as the back cover blurb seems to suggest. Christy's stories are locked in the present. They are fine, entertaining tales, written in language direct and rife with integrity. The hint of nostalgia lingers perhaps because Christy's storytelling may strike some as old-fashioned. Those seeking hipster credentials can look elsewhere. Those hip to be square can check out Tight Like That.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mary Prankster

So, the kids are in bed.

It was 2002. My girlfriend and I, well, we weren't, anymore, and I was bored of going home alone, and I read something in NOW about this show on College and there wasn't anything to stop me from going and so I went and I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this; this pixie of a what? Punk rock, beatnik, flapper? With a mouth like Lenny Bruce?

It was a great reminder, that, yes, sometimes it's best to just give life the finger.

I understand that the "Mary Prankster character" has retired. But she is carried around in a million hearts.

And out there in little clubs across "America" the next generation of rock and roll hillbillies is givin' it to the man.

Also - video for Mac & Cheese


[First published in The Danforth Review]

Lemonade: Live
by Mary Prankster
Palace Coup Records, 2004

It wasn't supposed to be this way. A website devoted to Canadian small press books reviewing a live album by a USAmerican. What gives? Maybe it's the comment a friend said to me: "Tough chicks are cool." Maybe it's that old desire to keep trying something new. For sure it dates to a night back in December 2002 when I saw Ms. Prankster at Rancho Relaxo on College St. in Toronto. Her band had split from her after recording her then latest CD, Tell Your Friends, and she took to the stage solo with acoustic guitar. I knew nothing about her, but soon learned that she was woman of undeniable charisma, wit and intelligence -- and kickass tattoos.

See more of Mary Prankster at her website.

Lemonade: Live showcases 10 songs and some in-between-song-patter: "welcome to my late-twenties." Like many live albums, it's a kind of greatest hits package. Seven of the songs on the album are from Prankster's previous releases, three are previously unrecorded. For my money, Lemonade: Live is not the best place for a Prankster first encounter, but it is a love-in for committed fans of the albums Blue Skies Forever, Roulette Girl and the already mentioned, Tell Your Friends -- the most recent studio album ... and the one interested consumers should check out first, though those wanting a rawer Prankster experience should probably go for Blue Skies Forever, which includes titles such as "Tits and Whisky" and "Mercyfuck," two songs that have zero chance of getting played on mainstream radio.

Mary Prankster is, of course, not her real name. She's a persona rooted in the Merry Pranksters, the band of proto-Hippies ostensibly led by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest, and Neal Cassady, the object of Jack Kerouac's eye in On The Road. The Pranksters were the subject of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by the godfather of New Journalism, Tom Wolfe. What Mary Prankster has to do with this group of 1960s swingers ain't exactly clear ... but the Pranksters did drive a multi-coloured bus named "Further" across the country ... and that's where Mary takes us. Into a space where life can be honestly confronted. And a place where goofiness is a key strategy for resolving life's conundrums.

Baby, you're a poseur
Honey, I should know
You ask me where the show's are
But then you never go

Poseur purgatory
Awaits you in the end
But that's not my story
I'll tell you why my friend

Got my Martens on with steely toes
Spike my hair and pierce my nose
I'm going up to Punk Rock Heaven

"Punk Rock Heaven" (from Roulette Girl)

This song is sung as if Prankster were a swinging 1920s flapper. It's an interesting song because it showcases Prankster's propensity to jump genres, but it also shows she's self-conscious of her lineage. Kesey, Johnny Rotten, our Sweet Mary as Ella Fitzgerald. Most recently, Prankster has been experimenting with country music stylings ... and Lemonade: Live includes her in full imitation twang, among other incarnations. Lemonade: Live is Prankster with new bandmates and a variety of cameo musicians. Like I said earlier, it's a bit like a greatest hits collection, but it also seems like a document of Prankster at a transitional moment. "Welcome to my late-twenties," she says right off the top. How much longer can she go on singing, "The world is full of bastards/ I've dated every one" among other such lines?

As I was thinking about what to write in this review, I kept coming back to the question: Why do I think there is value in the songs? It's not the music, which is fine -- but could be from many other people. It's not her charismatic personality, which comes through in performance and in the recordings -- but there are thousands of charismatic people.

Ultimately, I decided the songs have value because they're fundamentally honest. Some are funny, some are quirky, all shine with a bright intelligence. Honesty may not be a rarer commodity than groovy music, great teeth, and cherry cheeks, but there is a difference between confession and art ... honesty and art are mutually reinforcing; they make each other better; transform each other in an act of alchemy ... and Prankster, remember, is a "Prankster." As she sings in one song, "I know who I ain't." She presents herself as a mask, all the better to get at the truth (Bob Dylan, a man of many masks and much truth telling, started life as a Zimmerman).

And what of the songs? The earlier ones are goofier, rawer. The songs on Tell My Friends are more lyrically complicated. All of the songs shudder at pretense ("poseur purgatory/ awaits you in the end"). Finally, Prankster is capable of being both hopeful and hopeless in love.

I fucked a bunch of stupid men
Went back and fucked them all again
Was never much for romance anyhow

"New Tricks" (from Roulette Girl)


Wake up every morning
In the breaking heart of town
On the half of couch
I can't be bothered to fold down

Here's the thought that gets me
Out of bed and to the bong
What if I said
I could do better I was wrong?

"None for me" (from Tell Your Friends)

Not that it's all self-pity with Prankster. Actually, I don't think any of this is self-pity, it's just a scrupulous self-examination, a la John Lennon ("I'm a Loser," "Help!", "Mother"), about the challenges of finding a way through. Like Lennon also, Prankster can write lovely love odes:

You're an answer
In the form of a question
You're a riddle
That's just aching to be solved

If I many be so bold as to venture
A suggestion
Hey - I would love to see the way this gets resolved

Because you're hotter
Than an August in El Paso
And you're colder
Than a January 5th

And you tie my silver tongue up
Like a lasso
And your smile shines like
The ribbon on a gift

"Spill" (from Tell Your Friends)

She also does rage outs:

Heard what you said about me
You're better off without me
Heard I was begging you to stay

"Tell Your Friends" (Part One) (from Tell Your Friends)

It's this mixture of gloom and brightness that is at the centre of the title of the live CD: "I've seen the future/ And it looks like lemonade." Lemons may be sour, but they make a sweet drink. Life ain't so different.

Here's my favorite Prankster lyric:

Shoplift ideology
So at a loss for leaders
When the flame-retardant books came out
They had to burn the readers
And the politicians' patriot pride
Seemed more convincing when they lied

Oh my melancholy baby
Is the whole world going crazy?
'Cause it can't be me who's mad
I got it bad, but it sure is hot in here

"Brave New Baby" (from Tell Your Friends)

As Michelle Shocked said, "Keep on rockin', girl. Yeah, keep on a-rockin'."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reading TRG

One of the first reviews I wrote in the early days (1999) of The Danforth Review was the one below. I knew nothing of TRG (the Toronto Research Group), but the book had been sent to be as a review copy and I dutifully read it.

I figured I ought to have known something about them. I had an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto at that point and had been self-consciously trying to educate myself about the range of writing in Canada.

Interesting reading a decade later. The "eternal debate between the storytellers and the experimenters" (because eternal) remains. The poetry wars, in fact (largely illustrated by the Starnino/Bok polarization), heated up. Mutual mistrust, misunderstanding continues to exemplify the status quo.


ABC of Reading TRG
by Peter Jaeger
Talon Books, 1999

That literature is diverse is not news. That some literature (for example, the lyric poem, the 19th century narrative novel) is more accessible than other literature (say, Finnegan's Wake or "Howl") startles no one. Yet, there remains the eternal debate between the storytellers and the experimenters, the conservatives and the radicals, as some would like to politicize it. While the best (i.e., most daring) work does not necessarily come from the margins, it is unavoidable that some work demands explanation where other work is more able to stand on its own. Thus we have Peter Jaeger's book-length essay explicating the work of the Toronto Research Group, namely poets Steve McCaffery and bpNichol.

As Jaeger writes:

[The TRG was formed] in 1973 as a forum to investigate issues pertinent to formally imaginative writing, such as the role of the reader, the material status of the book, and the non-semantic aspects of translation and narrative. The earliest TRG reports built on theories proposed by such writers as Gertrude Stein, Jerome Rothenberg, Ilse and Pierre Garnier, and the Brazilian Noigandres group of concrete poets. After 1974, however, the Group integrated ideas drawn from French poststructuralist theory into their research reports.

In other words, approach at own risk. Like a full appreciation of Abstract Expressionism, the work of the TRG requires submersion in various schools of theory. Theirs is not poetry of the everyday, unless it is the everyday activity of the mind - thought processes deconstructed into increasingly thin layers of ephemera.

Which does not mean the work of McCaffery and Nichol is not interesting. In fact, theirs was a brave and unique project that deserves the attention Jaeger's slim book gives it. As Jaeger notes, the TRG's reports "remain critical because of [their] refusal to organize desire around such typical Canlit tropes as authentic voice, the land or Canadian identity." The popular - and often critical - conception of Canadian literature continues to be dominated by the post-Expo '67 nationalist project and "Canadian Unity" anxiety - despite the increasing international popularity of Canadian fiction - and various attempts by Canadian writers to integrate international literary movements and strategies into their work. (Stan Rogal's obvious affinity for Borgesian fictions in his 1996 short story collection What Passes for Love is only one such example.) The early 1970s was the period of Atwood's Survival and various other attempts to reduce literature in Canada to an over-simplistic thematic structure - thus aligning literature with other socio-political activities to help define "Canada" and "Canadians" and help protect "us" from cultural domination from "them" (mostly, the USA - but also the British - i.e., colonial - structures that form the core of the Canadian political identity).

In this context, it is McCaffery and Nichol - not Atwood et al - who were the true innovators. Jaeger points out that McCaffery was born in the U.S. and was once victimized by the sharp end of Dorothy Livesay's umbrella. Lisesay accused him "as a landed immigrant - of stealing publication space from more deserving (because "Canadian") writers." Jaeger quotes McCaffery: "It was a milieu obsessed with establishing a Canadian identity largely predicated upon nationalist narratives and values." It was a milieu, also, that the TRG reacted against - or at least moved away from in search of answers of a different sort.

In is on this point that this review must begin to break down, as a complete assessment of Jaeger's material depends upon a more thorough understanding of Jaeger's material than this reviewer can bring to it. That said, the book is structured as a series of chapters, each representing a letter of the alphabet and a word critical to the understanding of the TRG's project: "Alphabet," "Book-Machine," "Canadada Concrete," "Derrida." This structure, though obviously arbitrary, provides ready-made categories for the reader to gradually unpackage what the TRG was all about - still not an easy process. Ultimately, this is a book for a specialized audience - though the questions it raises about the role of nationalism in forming the public's understanding of "Canadian" literature deserve both a broader forum and deeper discussion.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Shane Neilson

Hate is a strong word, is what we say in our house when the kids complain about, well, whatever, as they are wont to do.

“Hate is a strong word. Do you really hate peas?”

I hate journalism. Do I really? No. I am profoundly disappointed in it. I hate the 24-hour news cycle, the promotion of trivialities, the exaggeration of conflicts, the oversimplification of issues, the emphasis on emotional reaction, the denigration of intelligence, the prominence of the image over the word, the implicit assumption that resolution is possible, that problems can actually be solved easily, without creativity and often ground-shaking negotiation.

Oh, my. Is that too much information? More than you needed to know?

I mean, yes, of course, some problems can be solved. And hate is a strong word. I don’t hate the 24-hour news cycle. It just makes my blood boil.

And so, poetry. The antidote?

Shane Neilson’s latest, Complete Physical (Porcupine’s Quill, 2010), spurred my thoughts along this line.

Amongst all of the frantic mass anxiety of the contemporary world, is there a special role for poetry to remind us to stop, shut up, listen and reflect from time to time?

Normally, I hate poetry. Okay, I don’t. It just often leaves me numb, and of all of the different things that poetry ought to do, leaving the reader numb must be near the bottom of the list.

Poetry is a borderless category, I know. That is, there are all kinds of word clusters (sometimes not even words) that people call poetry, and there are all different kinds of readers that “like” all of these different “poems.”

I like all kinds of stuff. I resist being locked into one school or another. That said, I am required here to give a synopsis of what I like best and maybe not so much in Neilson – and to back it up with evidence.

In other words, what I like in these poems isn’t their New Formalism.

Neilson is a doctor, and Complete Physical is a collection of poems about doctoring. It is also a collection that refers a lot to “love,” and the poems collectively form a type of self-portrait of the poet, a man with an aptitude for the well-turned phrase and skepticism about his profession.

The mysteries of language, the mysteries of the body. The poet/doctor narrator often finds that all he has to offer his patients are words. They come to him expecting miracles and all he can offer are “palliatives.” Pain management.

Caught in the constant crisis of the 24-hour news cycle, we might be wise to turn in to this meta-message. No miracles. Only comfort and care.

Here’s one of Neilson’s poems to reflect on.


At five, I’d play doctor with a toy stethoscope
and only one illness for Mr Bear: You’re sick!
Now I preside over lives that elope,
over illnesses that hide
until they preside and steal.
They call me a healer.
Actually, I’m an actuary,
an on-call oddsmaker,
the farmer that closes the barn door
after the horse-thief made a home visit.

At twenty-five, degree on my wall,
I looked to yellowed yards of textbooks
for wisdom, and found data only.
There is no preparation: people die,
and I solder silver linings to grief.
At five, my belief: that doctors cure,
that patients live. Now I know the furred truth:
palliation, and survival.

On the job I learned to look the part,
to harken back to five years old:
people want a doctor that listens,
that seems to care, that’s sure.
Not a whit in his head,
what they want is faithless understanding
as he massages their fattening chart,
as his ballpoint pen misspells symptoms
and makes a big flatulent blot of diagnosis.

You’re sick, I say, albeit in a different way,
and I may care, I may not.
But I laugh at good jokes
and I reach for tissues at teary times
and the word Expectations
is cursive on my prescription pad.


Here’s a fragment from ABSCOND:

I thought on love;
on the medicine you would never take;
on shocks that settle in from crossed wires;
on why.


Love is the medicine Neilson’s narrator recommends most, the substance he identifies as lacking in the ill. And it is against an essentially tragic background of the ill, dying and dead that this dart is thrown hard into the centre of the board.

There is wisdom in these poems. Let’s not be so post-modernistic as to deny the presence of such a substance. It is tragic wisdom, true. A different doctor/narrator may have found more subjects celebratory in nature. So there is subjectivity here, too. A certain doctor/poet, a certain set of poems.

But even with these caveats, can we not say that the universal is also present? Truths that survive time and context (and also escape cliche)?

If our 24-hour news cycle mainlines us with hyper-anxiety (more so today than even Umberto Eco could have imagined), poetry that reminds us to live at the pace of our heartbeat, not our neurons, contains a shout-out from the deep past.

Complete Physical has been reviewed in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere.

The Globe review is laudatory, if a bit pit-nicky. This is not a book of Major Poems, but it is a book of good poems. It is redundant to say so, but Neilson is a poet to watch and read. I look forward, as always, to his continuing development.

On a personal note, as the husband of someone currently going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, I do hope that doctors can offer more than comfort (and it's not metaphysical miracle that I expect, but the results of diligent science and lots of tests, tests, tests, as one of Neilson's poems sharply points out).

From a poetry angle, I'd like to see Neilson expand the circle of joy he communicates so well and clearly holds close and deep.

Finally, some readers may accuse me of bias. I have a relationship with Neilson that goes back nearly a decade. He was once poetry editor at The Danforth Review, where I was publisher/editor, etc. So be it.