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.