Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shawn Syms

Nothing Looks Familiar
by Shawn Syms
Arsenal, 2014

Eleven strong, tender short stories that follow the contours of the every day, including sending out shockwaves of the unexpected, which, after all, is part of every day.

Put another way, there is much in Nothing Looks Familiar that is familiar. These are not stories that strain towards oddness. If anything, they are comfortable in their normalcy, until suddenly they're not.

Syms has a plainspoken style and a painterly eye for detail. The reader is easily placed in each scene and is connected well to every character. Motivation is never a mystery.

These are stories warm of heart that eschew cynicism, but neither are they shy or "safe." Portraits of our contemporary world, these stories help us face ourselves and feel alive. Here and now.

Did I have a favorite? Maybe "Family Circus" - a mother of young children is scheming how to escape her drug den / ID stealing household ... Okay, not so "normal", but the narrative voice is calm, cool, collected. All goes to hell, but the kids end up alright, which was all the mother wanted. A happy ending, but an unfamiliar one. It's really quite brilliant. Bravo.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sheila Heti

How Should a Person Be?
by Sheila Heti
Anansi, 2012

So I liked this book, quite a lot, but as I've thought about what I would write about it, I've become muddled about why.

What should a review be?

Clear? Concise? Searching? Uncertain? Open to interrogation? Defiant?

Enough with the question marks.

First off, the fact that the protagonist is named Sheila and the author is named Sheila is a fact that I am not going to consider from this point forward, but readers beware. Something is afoot.

What? Don't ask me.

Sheila (protagonist) is pretty fucked up. She's graduated high school, plus quite a bit more, and she doesn't know how to "be." Poor her, except not really.

Sheila's pretty stuck up, she's pretty self-involved, she's narcissistic as all get out. At least she is at the beginning, where she tells us she entered a three-year marriage for not the best of reasons. Ended it without really explaining why, either to the readers or her husband. And this is where we find her, divorced, twenty-something, lost, seeking an ideal state of "being," discovering a female best friend, something she's never had before, Margot.

Margot is a painter, brilliant by all accounts, and she enters an "ugly painting" competition with another young painter. This competition frames the book. The painters seek beauty in their work, and they challenge themselves to make the most ugly painting they can. Margot's competitor (male) doesn't think she can. She delays doing so for nearly the entire length of the book. He yanks it off quickly.

When I was at the University of Toronto for a Master's Degree in English, I took a seminar on teaching at the university level. It was really for the PhD students, but I was interested. One of the senior academics, a world-renowned critic, told a story about how she had put a book on her syllabus that she hadn't read. On the first day of class she asked the students: "What can we learn from the first page?"

For some reason, this story came back to me as I was reading Heti's book. You can tell a lot about this book from the first page. It's a fantastic first page. But on page three, there's a phrase that rivals the "prostitute" quote at the beginning of Catcher in the Rye: "We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists." Except the use of prostitute is explicitly metaphorical, and the use of blow-job artist is not quite. But should be read that way. But not quite.

Read the first page, and BAM! You're on your way. And what the fuck is up with Sheila? I mean, really. Is it all in her head?

Dickensian this novel is not. The sensory details are all but absent. You want description, sights, smells, taste, touch, any sensory details at all ... this novel is not for you. Existential dread is what this novel is all about. And THANK GOD someone else in Canadian literature has done THIS. Heti is not alone, but THANK GOD ALMIGHTY AND THE SEVEN DWARFS that she undertook this project. Break free of memory, loss, and historical realism, please, please, please the rest of you.

Okay, I've gotten another glass of wine, and I've calmed down.

Yes, there is sexual frankness in this book. Heti told the Guardian she loves "reading people who write well about sex. I love dirty books! I think there's a way of talking about the human that can be quite profound. I tried Fifty Shades of Grey but three pages in I realised I just couldn't read it. It was like every sentence was written by a different writer."

That quotation begins with the four words: "I love Henry Miller." The Guardian apparently loves Sheila Heti, because what a trove of links! Here's a complete summary of the book under review. And a quotation from that summary:

Email from Israel to Sheila. 1) I want you to gag on my cock again. 2) I want you to show off your pussy to a tramp.
Email from Sheila to Israel. 1) OK, but on one condition. 2) You let me put my head up your arse.

Oh, Israel. What are we to make of this? Metaphor? Hot guy?

He's hot. He's misogynistic. Sheila repeatedly complains about "another man who wanted to teach me something." She also compares herself to Moses, who is her leader, not Jesus, who is the leader of the Christians. In case you were confused about that.


Ah, there's something going on here that is above me. I've decided to just flounder. Floudering is a strategy often deployed by Sheila. I can't say it often works for her. She leaves her husband without much explanation, then she leaves Margot without explanation either. Sheila takes herself to New York (from Toronto, yay), deciding it's best for her and everyone else that she leave. Not that she discussed this with another else.

Did the burning bush tell her? Are we expected to think so? Briefly, I think. Then Sheila realizes not. Margot is really fucking pissed off at her. Sheila begins to realize that her identity is not cast in some idealized sphere, but it is dependent on her closest, most loving relationships.

But I may be projecting my own crap on that.

Judaism. Let's not lose sight of that. This is a diaspora novel, which I didn't expect. It's not a "late-capitalist" novel, as one back cover quotation claims. Well, maybe it is, sort of. But while Sheila has some money anxiety (she works for a while in a hair salon), she frames even that experience as an opportunity to "be" in the best possible way, and the best possible way is to be Jewish. Like Moses. Lost in the desert. Called to greatness but ill-suited for it. Driven to exhalation and struggle.

Wow. This book goes from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Henry Miller? Whatever.

Heti has pulled something off here that is unique and remarkable. What? Fucked if I know.

*** Bonus track: Jeanette Winterson on Henry Miller. What?!

Oh, I read the "new and expanded paperback edition." Thought I should note that. 

Also, my buddy who teaches Cegep in Montreal assigned this book to his students without reading it. I told him my UofT story. His students were only 16-17. I said, Oh, boy. Look out. 

Funny story, I noted on Goodreads that I'd started to read this book and a couple of days later I got notice asking if I wanted to take part in a forum or something about Heti's new book, women's clothes or something. No, thanks. Freaky.

What should I wear? I dunno. We live in an age of some really great dressers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Michelle Berry

So Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto in name only for another five weeks (until the election), has cancer. His cancer may or may not be lethal. He started chemotherapy this week, and from what his doctors have told the media, I gather no one knows what is going to happen. I wish him well.

Ford's doctors have told the media that his cancer is aggressive (which is bad), but it generally responds well to treatment (which is good). Three years ago I sat in small clinic room at Princess Margaret Hospital and heard a doctor describe the exact same scenario to my wife, who had breast cancer.

"What would you rather have," he asked, "a non-aggressive cancer, or one that doesn't respond to treatment?" (We agreed that having a cancer that responds to treatment sounded better. Not having cancer, wasn't on the menu.)

The best article I've read that describes this impossible-to-be-in dilemma is a piece called "Living with Cancer: Truthiness" by Susan Gubar (NY Times, April 4, 2013).

The disjunction between feeling all right and not knowing what verdict will come down causes all sorts of disruptions in the lives of the women in my support group. Judy finds herself fragmented by anxiety: whether she is watching a movie or dining out, part of her mind wanders off, worrying about a recurrence. Diane engages in “serious culling”: she keeps on going through her closets, bagging the stuff she hasn’t worn, and hauling it to Good Will so “the kids won’t find a mess afterwards.” Alison, no longer trusting her body, finds her world narrowing as the house becomes “her nest.” Like Sarah, I fear the interminable lining up for security surveillance and the coughing crowds at airports. But now at take-off, when (as always) I picture the plane crashing in flames, I joke to myself, “Not a bad way to go!”

Not knowing, sometimes called denial, sometimes called normal.

My wife died in May 2012. The aggressive cancer responded well to treatment, but it also never went away. Cancer is ingenious. It evolves to evade the poison. As my brother-in-law said after his sister died, "I take some satisfaction from the fact that the cancer died, too." There wasn't anything else that could kill it. Not for nothing, is cancer The Emperor of All Maladies.

Among other things, as Mr. Ford is now experiencing, cancer is an interference of the best made plans, and it is only one of the interferences that play like flies to wanton gods with a collection of neighbours in Michelle Berry's powerfully quiet new novel, Interference (ECW, 2014), set in a town very much like Peterborough, Ontario, where the author lives.

Truthiness is a common element among the cast of characters Berry introduces us to in this ensemble novel. There is no single protagonist, and no straight through line. As a novel, it resembles another newly released creative work, Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood, which is framed around the life of one character (boy, ages, from 6 to 18), but is really a portrait of a collective, the family. Interference takes place over a winter, and it is rife with anxiety, often related to the safety of children. Violence often appears to lurk around every corner, but the slasher (figuratively speaking) never appears.

Any parent will recognize these feelings as par for the course. Berry's brilliance here is to make us care about so many people all at the same time. She speaks truth about the prevalence of fear, and also battens down the anxiety with a flavour of hope that doesn't resort to sentimentality or naivete.

I could give more plot summary, but why give anything away. Here's how the publisher frames it:

From fall to spring, the inhabitants of Edgewood Drive in the small town of Parkville prove that the simplest lives can be intricate and complicated. The interwoven, layered narrative of Michelle Berry’s Interference moves between Senior Ladies Leisure League hockey, the unsure and awkward life of pre-teens and teens, suspected pedophilia, disfigurement, and cancer. In Interference, there is always someone watching, biding their time — and as this suspense builds the vivaciousness of a congenial neighbourhood, full of life and happiness as well as fear and sorrow, becomes at once more humorous, frightening, and real. 

Does the empty swing and the splash of red on the cover make your stomach churn? Good. Berry explores that churning with a sensibility fine tuned with calm reality (which is different from truth). She displays a sensitivity that is as large as it is remarkable.

Each of the chapters begins with a "found text." An email. A note home from school. A message to the team of female hockey players who stumble to a winning season over the course of the book, no matter how few pucks they put in the net. The tone of these notes is frequently jovial, and contrapuntal to the gist of much of the other action. The humour enlivens the book, and serves as a reminder, too, that even in the midst of catastrophe (or the fear of catastrophe) the beat of the absurd stampedes on.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lisa Moore

I wrote at the end of last summer, and it was just published in #90 of Canadian Notes and Queries

Please check out the magazine, and send them funds to cover an annual subscription - from now until the end of time.

I reviewed Moore's novel February in 2009 on this blog.

By Lisa Moore
Anansi, 2013

Fifteen months ago I was sitting outside Sunnybrook General Hospital in Toronto with my wife. She was in a wheelchair. She had just had a chemotherapy treatment, her last. She was in a wheelchair because her breast cancer had spread to her liver and then her bones. Her T1 vertebrae fractured. She took a series of high powered pain killers and that day was streaming hydromorphine (seven times more powerful than morphine) into her abdomen through a catheter. She could stand, but barely walk. The chemotherapy was for a resurgence of cancer in her liver. It was a last ditch effort to extend, not save, her life, however briefly. Before the chemotherapy, Kate had pulled up her blood results from that morning on her ipad (yay, e-health). They were not good. The one number we’d been told to watch, that we were hoping was at least stable from a week earlier, that we were hoping most of all would go down, had doubled.

“I guess this is it,” she said.

“Do you want to go through with the chemo?” I asked.

“Might as well,” she said. “We’re here.”

She had the treatment, then I wheeled her out into the sunshine and called the private ambulance company I’d hired to transport her that day. I have 24 steps from the sidewalk to my front door. Kate couldn’t do it anymore. I needed someone to carry her up the stairs.

The ambulance didn’t come until three hours later.

It was the last time we were alone together. It was a Friday. She died the following Wednesday.

It was the time to say those things. I can tell you there isn’t much to say at that point, except reiterating love. I said, “I wish this moment would last forever. Just you and me, right here, right now. It’s not the disease that’s the enemy. It’s time.”

We can’t stop tomorrow from coming.

We said some other things. It was a lovely moment. A grain of sand in the ocean of time.

Lisa Moore’s fiction, all of it, is full of such moments. She is an expert at stopping the clock and forcing the reader to focus on the intense swirl of details locked into an instant.

In a review of Moore’s Giller-nominated short story collection, Open (Anansi, 2002), I wrote: “Moore's stories are fragmented like memories. They have a coherence from beginning to end, but in the middle the reader is often jarred by the sudden, apparently random, thoughts of the characters.”

In a review of Moore’s novel, February (Anansi, 2009), I wrote of what I called “Moore’s genius”: “The structure of time, the implications of time, is perhaps Lisa Moore's primary narrative obsession. ... Moore's style and attention to the details of her character's specifics, focus the reader's attention on the here and now, while also allowing the past and future to resonate.”

Which is to say that I disagree with the pull quote on the cover of Moore’s new novel, Caught (Anansi, 2013). The quote, by Patrick deWitt, calls the new novel, “A propulsive and harrowing read.” Harrowing is okay. Propulsive, however, the novel is surely not.

Nor should it be.

Though let’s first judge a book by its cover. The girl in the red bikini, standing in the big-waved surf, sailboat on the horizon, large red italicized CAUGHT weighing down on the ocean like a primeval sun. Yum. Propulsive. But that’s not what this book is about.

This book is about David Slaney, a 24-year-old convicted drug smuggler, who breaks out of prison after four years on the inside and is on the run on page one. Where is he running? To find his old mate, Brian Hearn, who skipped bail on the original charges and is now living under a false identity and, get this, studying to become an English professor.

The largest part of the book focuses on Slaney’s trek, east to west, as he seeks to meet up with Hearn, who has a new smuggling operation planned, one that doesn’t include getting caught. Slaney’s job will be to lead the operation on the sailboat (see cover), meet up with a militia in South America, trade cash for a whack of marijuana, and slip back up the (west) coast (this time). Millionaires, they will be. Set for life on the lam.

The frame of the plot is high adventure, but for all of the revving of engines, it never picks up speed. Slaney’s journey west is episodic, as Moore deep dives into scene after scene. The writing in these scenes is sharp and intense. As discussed above, Moore is able to stop the clock through an expert use of repetition and a journalistic eye for detail. Like Jeff Wall, she takes miniature moments and blows them up to enormous scale. The scenes are also often highly cinematic.

For example, Slaney stops at a hotel where he trades labour for room and board. On the eve before he’s scheduled to leave, he catches wind that there are police in the building. He doubles back and seeks escape. He travels along a floor that houses guests from a wedding. A door opens and the bride, inside alone, asks him to enter and help zip up her dress. They hear the police pounding on doors along the hallway. Slaney hides and the bride assures the officers that all is well within. Slaney wishes the bride well on her journey, and she wishes him well on his.

“It’s only pot,” is repeated more than once.

To which the refrain is, boys, you knew the risk.

But as the bride story illustrates, Slaney is no gangster. In fact, the arc of the story is more folk tale than novel. Slaney doesn’t go through a transformative learning curve, reaching a climax of confidence that leads to crisis and resolution. He gets batted around like one of Lear’s flies to wanton gods. He’s just a good old boy, never meaning no harm. He’s not even a red neck.

Women, it must be said, love him. He gets laid with rapid frequency.

Is he a kind of idealized boy-man?

Slaney is the one the title refers to. He is the caught one. But he is also the one who is most free. He makes no compromises. He never negotiates his integrity.

He is like Pretty Boy Floyd, except he lives.

Hearn, on the other hand, skips bail, bankrupts his father, lives a notoriously open life for a “most wanted” man. He grew up with Slaney, and they were best buds, but the connection between them is never proven; it is only asserted. Readers will have no trouble understanding the attractiveness of Slaney. Hearn, however, reeks of a slime ball, however well read. Why does Slaney risk it all for this man? Why is it Slaney who is always the one putting himself at the forefront of harm’s way? The questions are never answered satisfactorily.

The girl on the cover, for example, is a passenger in the sailboat. There wasn’t supposed to be a passenger. There wasn’t supposed to be a girl. Hearn isn’t as in control of the details as he should be as a hands on project manager. Slaney is the muscle; Hearn, logistics. Slaney trusts Hearn implicitly, but his trust isn’t earned.

So let’s get to the end. Spoiler alert. Stop here if you would prefer not to know.

The rendezvous in South America succeeds. Along the Mexican coast, they hit a hurricane, which they are lucky to survive, but the sails are torn to shreds. They need to go into port. They are held by the authorities. The gig is up, surely, except, no, it isn’t, because Hearn’s operation has been infiltrated by the police, and the police want Slaney back in Canada, so they can complete their arrest. Deals are made, and the Mexican’s release the crew and their cargo, and out to sea they go, but they know something is up because a cop talks to the girl and tells her she can get off if she cooperates.

Slaney decides on a bold move. They will reverse course, go through the Panama Canal, and head home, to Newfoundland. This is a brilliant plot twist and it had me riveted, but by this part of the novel Moore had dropped the time pause techniques and only a few pages later Slaney was in handcuffs in the back of a squad car. Hearn got off on a technicality. Slaney did 20 years and in 1998 he gets out and heads back to the Rock to whittle away his days.

He visits the local university and the English Department, which is the new home of Dr. Brian Hearn.

I didn’t like this ending. It came too swiftly. It came because of betrayal, the girl’s. Slaney, as a character, I felt, deserved better. He deserved to at least reach Newfoundland and have a taste of success. One roaring party on the beach, say. I would have held in there for another 100 pages for that, even if he got caught in the morning, hung over and stoned. Instead, he and his mates are swiftly rounded up upon arrival and the prospect of a Grand Finale fizzles, and I closed the book feeling sour and disappointed, despite enjoying most of it and admiring same.

To add insult to injury, Hearn, the bastard, gets to teach iambs to undergraduates.

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ice Storm Ontario 2013

Photo credits: (top) Colin McConnell, (middle) Lucas Oleniuk, (bottom) Keith Beaty.

Three days before Christmas, 2013, the power went out as an ice storm hit southern Ontario. The story of the month that followed is captured in Ice Storm Ontario 2013 (ECW, 2014).

Subtitled The Beauty, the Devastation, the Aftermath, this book of Toronto Star photographs tells the city's tale of woe.

There's even a pic of Mayor Rob Ford getting chewed out by residents. Why won't you declare an emergency?!

There's a photograph of a wet fox scampering between towers of ice.

There's a photograph of a dude in Mississauga chopping wood and a notation that he may be the last person in Ontario to have his power reconnected. He was chopping wood a month after the ice storm hit, still waiting for hydro to reconnect juice to his house.

There is no photograph of my in-laws making tea on my front porch using my camping equipment. Tea! First! Okay, tea made, now ... what's your plan about what we do next? Ah, the English!

A portion of the sale proceeds of this book will be donated to The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund.

What can one say about this book? Nice pictures. Um, no narrative. Just what's on the cover flap and in the cut lines.

The most compelling news I read accompanied piles of iced branches. Toronto's tree canopy will take decades to recover. Perhaps that is the take away. The trees. Even five months later, there are still piles of branches about, torn limbs visible, concern for our city forest still top of mind. When had we ever spared so many collective thoughts for our trees?

Another take away should be noted, because this week is Emergency Management Preparedness Week in Ontario.

Ice Storm 2013 is the only time I used my pre-packed candles and emergency water supply. And I was extra glad to have a supply of propane for my camping stove. And tea!

Three days supply of stuff is what is recommended. It wouldn't have been enough for the dude in Mississauga ... or many others ... but better than nothing.

I'm sure many folks have photographs as stunning as many of those included in this book, but the book shows the context across the city and across the weeks of the aftermath.

Not exactly a stocking stuffer, this book will none-the-less remind you that disaster is one freezing rain storm away. Thank God it's almost summer!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Zachariah Wells

I first heard from Zach Wells before I'd heard of him. I suppose that's now an unlikely sequence. His reputation precedes him.

It was 2002 and I was plugging away at The Danforth Review, the online magazine I started in 1999 and continue to tinker with. I published something that Wells took issue with and he let me know where he stood.

Subsequently he wrote book reviews for the magazine and I asked him to write a review essay on Carmine Starnino's A Lover's Quarrel. That review is included in a revised ("New and Improved!"?) form in Career Limiting Moves (Biblioasis, 2013), which Google for some reason categorizes as "humor" (see link on title).

Funnily enough, I saw Wells recently and I said humor was one of the reasons I was enjoying his book. "It's not what you're known for, though," I said. "Some people seem not to get it."

"I know some people don't get it," he replied.

Which brings us back to the reputation that now precedes him.

I have heard him called an asshole. I've heard him called right wing. I've heard him called a misogynist. In the book he notes he's been claimed and rejected by both the populists and the elites. In truth, he has always been what his letter to TDR in 2002 perhaps should have made clear: a jury of one. An iconoclast. One who rejects systems. One who seeks a genuine, unpredictable deep connection with the wildness that is existence and also, therefore, literature.

Which doesn't mean he isn't sometimes a literary bad boy. The conversation about Canadian poetry in the past decade has had multiple moments of overheated debate. Wells has often been in the middle of it or nearby. (Sometimes of his choosing; sometimes dragged in by others.) I'm not going to sift through any of that, except to say little of it made it in between the covers of this book. Readers expecting score-settling won't find it here.

I'm not going to attempt a Social History of Canadian Poetry in the Aughts and Beyond, because what I'd like to attempt here is a book review. I have read this tome, and I'd like to record a few thoughts about it. Is any of that extra-curricular stuff relevant? I have decided to mention it in passing because, let's be honest, the book exists in a context and the context is relevant, if sometimes wanton. Willfully spiteful, is what I'm saying, not promiscuous. And, yes, I know Wells has been accused of the same. (So have I, and sometimes I have even deserved it.)

But see how quickly we move away from the book? I will try to stay focused.

The book is subtitled "Interviews. Rejoinders. Essays. Reviews." It begins with "Rejoinders." which is the category most responsible for ZW's reputation. It's the category where the TDR letter would fit. It's not the category that, ahem, contains his best writing. While the writing here is playful, snarky, sharp-witted, intelligent, and polemical, his debate skills (formidable) leave his opponents flattened. The later essays, some of which are also put-downs, are more finely tuned; complex; subtle; and therefore interesting. Wells can be an excellent close reader. His intricacy of thought is not on best display when he's demolishing Dr. Zwicky, for example. (However entertaining the piece is. Too entertaining? No. We must save some room in our life of letters for some fun; at the same time, we must save our praise for that which is truly great. This ripost is fun, and needed, but not great.)

ZW's rhetorical approach is part of the package, however, so ...

"I'm with Angela Carter," Wells writes in his introduction, "a day without an argument is like an egg without salt."

Being Wells, he then adds: "(I prefer pepper myself.)" (So he's with Angela Carter ... but only up to a point.)

This is a small thing, but let's notice that the movement here is towards the specific and subjective. The general point is all he needs. He likes to argue. Okay, we get that. But he also likes things to be grounded in the concrete, the real, the authentic, which is also, therefore, personal and subjective. Is Wells the only poetry critic to include his Myers-Briggs score? Likely. This subjectivity contradicts his reputation. The imperialist doesn't tell you where she is coming from; she simply states what is.

But here's what I really want to say about this book. I acquired some learning that I hadn't expected. I encountered arguments from Wells that I hadn't expected.

Wells is a brilliant polemicist, but his reputation obscures and over-simplifies a more interesting (to me) critic, poet and thinker.

I'm going to focus on one element that emerged from multiple pieces within the book, a pattern that I wouldn't have grasped if I hadn't read each of these essays, reviews and interviews in sequence.

And that is the connection between language, wild nature, and the impenetrable unknown.

I'm not a close reader of Wells's poetry. I have dipped into it, but I claim no insight about what he's "up to." What's at the core of Career Limiting Moves, however, it seems to me, is a collection of interests that might even move toward claiming the label of mandate. (And it's a mandate far beyond the limited conversation about positioning for privilege of place within Canada's hyper-competitive hierarchy of career minded, um, how is this even possible?, poets.)

"If we persist in being so insecure and isolationist, we are doomed to remain infantile," Wells ended his TDR letter. And since 2002 he has been mapping out his vision of a poetry of maturity. What should be starkly obvious is that it is an individual's vision, not part of a collectivist campaign.

He slams poetry that tells us what we already know. He slams poetry that uses worn out language. He turns to the natural world for examples of "the real," and also for example of spontaneous creation. Not his words, but I sense he sees humanity as an animal within nature. We are not apart from it; we are part of it. And what is this thing that we are a part of? What can we know of it? How can what we can know of it tell us about ourselves? What is the limit of our knowledge? How can we break the barriers so that we can know more? He praises poems that press against the outer boundaries. He praises poems that pressure language until it reveals its limit. Then he asks it to go further.

He is claimed by People's Poetry because he writes of work. He is projected to be a member of the elite because he eschews informality and values received forms. Yet every collective who claims him (or he is pressed into), he rejects ... one must say, Dylan-like ("Don't follow leaders, watch pawkin meters"). At one point in my reading I made a note: "straddling the authentic." And here's where that "pepper" comment comes in again. Wells grounds his line, his polemics, his mandate, as it were, in the every day, but it is a deeply mysterious (subjective) kind of quotidian. He is highly alert that day follows night, and night follows day, and life is full of pattern and routine, as poetry has form, as nature has seasons, but also that none of this is simple or self-evident. Whatever intimacy the day-to-day holds is best revealed through interrogation. Not simply conversation, argument.

The wildness of language and the wildness of nature is where he finds value. (I might have anticipated the first, but the second caught me off guard.) Each is perpetually in motion and impossible to set down except in instants. And here I recollect that ZW's debut collection was called Unsettled. The void looms large over his work. An anxiety to sweep away the superficial and dedicate the best resources to the biggest reward. While time lasts. His patience is weak for those who contemplate lesser obstacles. I knew that about Wells over a decade ago when I received from him from that first email, which set me back a couple of steps. (Most don't bother to engage; those who do, often have nothing to say. Those who have something to say, one never forgets.)

In 2002 I wouldn't have called Canadian literature infantile, but today I'm happy to claim that ZW is helping it grow up.


As a laying of cards on the table seems appropriate, yes, I count Wells as a friend, though I have only met him a handful of times, and I have not met his family, and he has not met mine. About that latter I am sad. He and my late-wife would have got on like a house on fire, if you will pardon the cliche. She liked to argue, too, and she didn't like to lose. It is strange to me to be writing this review and referring to events that happened before I met Kate in 2006 and including events that happened after she died, but that is what we do. We knit our lives together out of what we have, and this is constructive grieving. Just telling the stories and expressing the emotions. I wish Zach and Kate had met. I'm sure that I would have enjoyed that, a lot.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The M Word

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood
Edited by Kerry Clare
Goose Lane Editions, 2014

My step-daughter (10) saw me reading this.

"The M Word," she said. "Michael."

Last May, she gave me a Mother's Day gift. I can't be the only man who's ever received one, but none of the essays written in these "conversations" is written by a male.

A year before I got a Mother's Day gift, my wife mother died, following 21 months with breast cancer.

The temptation to write "following a 21 month battle ..." is immense, as you might understand.

The real battle, however, was in the final three or four months. The disease had gone to her liver and her bones, her T1 vertebrae specifically.

Breast cancer can put you in a wheelchair. I didn't know that until it happened. It also typically progresses, as it did for Kate: breast, liver, bone, brain. Once it leaves the breast, cure is impossible, and you get the special benefit of learning to live with the fact that your days are numbered.

But then they are for all of us, right? We just typically forget that part. We let other anxieties grip and define us.

Goose Lane sent me this book in the mail, a review copy for this site, even though I haven't reviewed anything here in six months. Turns out there's something worse than living with someone who's dying of cancer. It's living without the person who was dying of cancer.

Reviewing books used to give me pleasure; now I have a hard time thinking three sentences in a row.

Ah, but I exaggerate. Some of my Tigger bounce is returning.

I don't like "Conversations about Motherhood," the sub-title. What's wrong with calling essays essays?

A quibble.

Confession: I'm only halfway through this book, but I've been itching to capture my thoughts, so here goes.

Persistently these essays (the one's I've read) reinforce the idea that motherhood is a choice (even if the conception is accidental, because abortion an option and a second level of choice). Alternately, not becoming a mother is also a choice, except for those times when it isn't because conception (and carrying to term) is biologically impossible.

That is, there is anxiety about control. Control to make the choice, one way or the other, and the strong assertion that the choice is valid, whatever the choice is.

Now I support choice, and I accept the validity of any choice anyone makes. It's your body, it's your choice, this is all fine.

What I find oddly missing is, um, well ... awe. Mystery. The miraculous. What also might be called, fate. What will be will be. The revelation that comes with the encounter with the void, the other, the greater power that drives away all expectations and replaces it with that indescribable whatever that shakes you to the core and makes you realize that you've never been so alive. And so lost.

So changed.

I mean ...

In 2007, I became an instant part-time parent of a three-year-old and a seven-year-old. I chose to tie myself to this ship. I love being a parent almost more than I loved being married. I will be eternally grateful that Kate allowed me this experience. It caused rapid growth in my psyche and emotions that could not have happened any other way.

The best days of my life were spent talking to Kate about how we were going to grow these munchkins. The most important thing I've ever done is clean up puke at three o'clock in the morning, while Kate slept, undisturbed. (I know!) She didn't believe that it had happened, until I showed her the sheets in the washing machine. (But there were other times I let her do it. Fair is fair.)

Then in May 2012 I sat with Kate as she told the children that she was going to die, which she did eight days later, in the back room of our house, in front of them.

I wonder how the lost mother becomes part of this conversation.

Anyhoo ...

I'm enjoying reading this book. I enjoy the diversity of the stories, the variations of circumstance.

I wonder why, though, in 2014 we can't have a book about parenting. The P Word. How many generations until these marketing categories get broken down?

But it's not just that, I know. The entire parent council of the school across the street from my house is made up of women. Women are the do-ers, overwhelmingly. They make the household spending decisions, overwhelmingly. They organize the birthday parties, overwhelmingly. They care for the boo-boos and late night puking, overwhelmingly. They are the caregivers, emotionally and otherwise, overwhelmingly. And each new generation of young women is raised to be independent and self-actualized. Crash, boom, bang. The center cannot hold. Conflict is inevitable, and also interesting. The source of narrative.

I'm starting to get the "conversations" bit now. It's sort of like Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," each story strand is okay. It gives us a different angle on an impossibly angled object.

I should likely highlight some examples to give you some idea of the content of the book, and not just my own muddling meanderings. (I warned you, though; my mind is griefstriken.)

My heart went out to Heather Birrell. Her piece was super lovely.

Julie Booker's late-arriving twins sound like a handful, yet their arrival gave me sweet joy.

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's story about her nephews and their dog was fantastic. Rich complex layers of super goodness.

Kerry Clare's tale of her abortion and subsequent pregnancy was well argued and poignant.

Myrl Coulter's reflections on giving up a baby for adoption show well-earned wisdom. Very effective integration of her own story with researched facts.

Christa Couture lost two small children. Separately. One after the other. Her essay is heartbreaking and, frankly, it contradicts my earlier claim above about the lack of fatalism in the collection. This is a brave and remarkable piece, one of the best here.

Nancy Jo Cullen sounds like a nifty drinking companion. She has two teenagers she will be happy to see out the door. She is a true den mother and zen mistress with a zingy comedic touch.

Marita Dachsel captures the anxiety of parenthood with gut stabbing precision.

Nicole Dixon doesn't have a kid and doesn't want one.

Ariel Gordon is a mother and a poet and she seems pretty good at balancing both roles.

Amy Lavender Harris reminds us that conception, even in modern advanced societies, is not a given. Her essay is another excellent example how effective it can be to mix the personal with well chosen researched facts. This is a very compelling piece that addresses how to become a mother in a lab. It looks at the personal pressures and costs, the social narratives that define and deny "naturalness", and the scientific details about how it all works, when it does.

Fiona Tinwei Lam is a third-generation single mother, and it seems to be working out well for her. As I step-parent, I appreciated her analysis of the changing social ideals of "attachment." Once unwed mothers were thought to be too unstable to care for their children (best for the children to go elsewhere); now the biological connection is privileged above nearly all else.

Deanna McFadden tells the ugly truth. Your children will make you angrier than you ever thought possible, and you will wonder why they aren't like other kids, specifically the quiet one that you saw on the way home on the subway.

And that's as far as I've gotten so far. I'm hoping that there's more craziness to come. Starker confrontations with the abyss. I want to hear from a mother who would be at home in a book like this. Or maybe from Jennifer Lawrence's character in "American Hustle." Or from an incarcerated mother. Or a drunk one. Or by a mother who spends her time looking after other people's kids so she can support her family in another country, typically the Philippines.

The narrative tension between the expectation and the real is okay, you know. It is what it is. It's motherhood in our current moment, though perhaps most prominently in an educated, middle-class type mode.

Motherhood is a role like every other role, in that it is complicated by a variety of pressures: race, class, family background, mental and physical health, level of education, geography, and pure random luck or lack thereof. (Wealth and power might be more common recent additions to this list. I imagine Allison Redford has an interesting tale to tell now. Kathleen Wynne, too.)

The truth is, that life is wild and unpredictable and out along the high wire we go. There is no net. No amount of desiring control and demanding validity is going to change that, though you may get strapped into a safety harness or two.

Yesterday I saw Michèle Taïna Audette speak. She is the president of the Canadian Native Women's Association, and she is currently leading the call for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

She started her talk saying she is a mother of five. And single.

One of the stories she told went like this. She was giving a talk in Sault Ste. Marie to about 300 people. There were about 30 Aboriginal people. She asked them to stand up and raise their hand if one of their direct relatives (grandmother, mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter) was counted among the missing and murdered. Twenty-nine raised their hand. Then she asked the 270 non-Aboriginal people to stand and answer the same question. One person put up their hand.

Someone asked her about the sex slave trade on the Great Lakes. Did she know about that?

Oh, yes.

Life is really a great disaster and the ability to bare and look after children a great gift. Unless you don't want to, then that's okay, too.

It would be a shame if conversations about motherhood skirted that chaos too tightly.