Issue # 187 - Patrick O'Flaherty

Anniversary Essays on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Donald W. Nichol, ed.,  (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 265 pp., $64.00).

Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock appeared in two cantos in 1712, in five cantos in 1714, and with some additional material in 1717. It is “a matter of choice” when to mark its tercentenary, as Donald Nichol says. This new celebratory volume comprises ten essays, some quite brilliant, all stimulating, none of them printed previously. The contributors are English professors, many with spinoff specializations in other fields. Explication of parts of the text is carried out here through the lenses of gender study, “thing theory,” the history of art, politics, sex, and automata, and “fractal theory,” fractals being a term borrowed from mathematics. Some approaches the contributors take will be daunting for the uninitiated. The dust jacket claims the book “will be essential reading for students and teachers of The Rape of the Lock and a valuable resource for investigating eighteenth-century culture.” Professors and graduate students in English literature will certainly find much in it to provoke them. I foresee many 18th-century Lit seminars centered on sexual politics and fractals.

    The poem itself follows the young naïve aristocrat and “virgin” Belinda through her awakening at midday, her elaborate preparations at the dressing table, her trip on the Thames to fashionable Hampton Court, the card game (ombre) she plays there and wins, the “rape” of one of her ringlets by the unnamed Baron, the villain of the piece, and her near-violent response to that assault. Accompanying her on this journey in the editions after 1712 is a “militia” of tiny airy creatures, mostly sylphs, who supposedly offer protection from the many perils that threaten her. The ingenuity displayed by Pope in depicting these beings is a sign of his genius. We sense him sporting delightedly and lengthily with his discoveries. The Rape of the Lock is, as Nichol says, “playful.” Pope pokes fun at the epic form, at the gods and goddesses and characters in the classical epics, and at many of the features of England’s beau monde to which Belinda and the Baron belong, but which Pope himself, as a deformed and sickly Roman Catholic, could know only from a distance. He applies the features of the great epics to a small incident that had been blown out of proportion. We laugh with him. It is all “ludicrous,” as Samuel Johnson said.

     Pope’s overriding attitude towards the main character is conveyed by these couplets:


            Yet graceful Ease, and sweetness void of pride,

            Might hide her faults, if Belles had faults to hide:

            If to her share some Female Errors fall,

            Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all.


This passage, mostly ignored by the contributors in this volume, may well be a key to understanding the poem, if such a key is needed. It is hard to think of Belinda as an automaton or specimen of vanity or of gross sexual commodification after reading it.

     Mind you, she does make a “Female Error” relating to sex at one point. After the Baron cuts off the lock, she berates him in a speech with this ending:


            Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize

            Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!


It is the classic example in English poetry of a Freudian slip. It and other sexually suggestive images are much harped on in this book, especially in the pieces by Raymond Stephanson (“‘Hairs less in sight’: Pope, Biology, and Culture”) and Allison Muri (“Of Words and Things: Image, Page, Text, and The Rape of the Lock”). Muri’s learned exegesis on the six engraved illustrations to The Rape of the Lock in the 1714 edition constitutes perhaps the outstanding item in the volume. She argues that while “one can never be quite sure just how much of this poem is devoted to sex,” the engravings that accompany it “make these associations less ambiguous.” They support “a more pointed analysis of lust and manners, of cunt as commodity.” Hmmm. She decides (along with fellow “knowledgeable readers”) that “this is a poem about fucking, or at the very least, the mature desire to fuck.” One of the additional illustrations she chooses to show us is Agostino Carracci’s A Satyr and Nymph Embracing, which is a scene of copulation.

     But not to focus just on Muri. There seems to be a hunt on through the book for “dangerous” sexy words and ideas. Belinda’s “Guardian Sylph” Ariel says this to her, as part of a long speech before she awakes:


            Hear and believe! Thy own Importance know,

            Nor bound thy narrow Views to Things below.


Ariel means that she should continue to believe in “airy Elves,” “heav’ly Flow’rs, “Golden Crowns,” and other “secret Truths” that are revealed to “Maids alone and Children” — and not bind her views to common, earthly things. I.e., “Things below.” But the consensus in this book is that the phrase “Things below” refers to genitalia. The same for the word “lap,” much dwelt on by Stephanson. Box, head, petticoat, spread, ring, thing, curl, hair — all and more are “exploding dirty bubbles.” (To quote Stephanson.)

     Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a lap a lap.

     And sometimes, of course, it is not. There is a sexual undercurrent to the poem, and it is true that there is an element of commodification to what Belinda does — dressing up and going out to display herself, so that men might see and admire her. It was what her society had told her was the way the game of love was played. (And is it not still played that way?) She wants to be desired more than she wants, at the moment, to be won. What she does has its perils, as she learns.

     Ariel in Canto I is especially worried about her petticoat:


            To Fifty chosen Sylphs, of special Note,

            We trust th’important Charge, the Petticoat,

            Oft have we known that sev’nfold Fence to fail,

            Tho’ stiff with Hoops, and arm’d with Ribs of Whale.

            Form a strong Line about the Silver Bound,

            And guard the wide Circumference around.


Stephanson comments: “Simultaneously adorned and protected, Belinda’s genitals … become a crass commodity in these couplets.” I fail to see what is crass about it. To find a mate, a woman must show herself; to find a mate, the man must advertise his wares too. In the process, sooner or later, the petticoat must “fail.” It is how the human race is propagated.

     The entry here that stays well clear of sexual innuendo and cultural theorizing is Nichol’s meticulous biographical/bibliographical essay at the end, “From ‘Trivial Things’ to ‘trivial things’: Pope, Lintot, and The Rape of the Lock.” (Bernard Lintot was the first publisher of the poem.) Nichol’s investigations deals in part with Pope’s alteration of his text from edition to edition, a subject that could profitably be taken further. In his Introduction to the book J. Paul Hunter notes that in the 1712 version of the poem Belinda’s slip about “any Hairs but these” was assigned, not to her, but to the character Thalestris. This “transforms the way we think about the poem’s central figure,” he says. There may be more to be said of it, or another way to look at it.

     The entire volume is well worth careful study. It leaves us with much to ponder. Professor Nichol is to be congratulated for putting it together.

Issue # 187 - Michael Oliver

The Double Nature of Reality

The Ruined Elegance by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016, 64 pp., $19.00).

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s new book of poems marks a fresh refinement in her art. Her previous two volumes, Water the Moon and My Funeral Gondola, evinced a lyrical intensity more penetrating than mere self-expression, while still being, almost nonchalantly, more revealing of the private soul than many other recent poets’ styles. The Ruined Elegance is even better at refining sensibility, till what is silent and invisible — the Universal Myth of Human Life — can be imagined and appreciated, or at least approached and contemplated.

Sze-Lorrain’s poetics need explaining. Her own words deserve consideration:

When I work ... I concentrate on the intensity. I try to be humane and luminous. I do think of the soul and the sacred. There is a line in a Jewish prayer that speaks to my heart: “A person’s thoughts are his or her own, but their expression belongs to God.” Whether one believes in the redemptive power of writing (or not) is probably another affair. To me, that sentence evokes something of a marvel beyond human grasp in an enduring literary imagination. It humbles me, constantly reminding me that expression is a gift, not a talent, less so an “ability.” It also suggests that a true literary imagination isn’t “selective” — it contains an universal allure. I like this idea. I believe if something is profound, it must also be accessible. When I stay luminous, people, mountains, poems and music find their way to me more naturally. The experience is all quite inexplicable and mysterious, yet at the same time concrete and real — I cherish it that way, and hope to continue keeping the mystery alive.
(“Interview with Fiona Sze-Lorrain,” Bitter Oleander, Autumn 2011)

Sze-Lorrain believes in inspiration, but she also knows she must be ready — what she says is being luminous — in order to receive the wondrous gift of images of externality, the world much greater than the single soul, the world that comes to her if she is worthy. How this happens is a mystery, but Sze-Lorrain possesses certain faith that what is actually universal must be actually accessible to the poet’s best imagination. Careful readers will at once observe that this connection seems to baffle logic. Sze-Lorrain resolves this easily by pointing out the unknown world beyond is something that imagination makes. Presumably, like William Blake, she means imagination sees reality, what might be hidden to both sense and reason, and then utters what the vision is. In the matter of transcendent truth — or what she often calls profundity — authentic poetry includes it all, while self-expression excludes much of it.

    The arching theme of Sze-Lorrain’s new book is waiting for “the ruined elegance,” a motif mentioned early and repeated, but not realized until the end, the final poem “Jardin Sous La Pluie.” It is not elegance the poet seeks, not simply grace, but ruined elegance. The first thing this implies is something gone, the ancient past of vanished human life:


    Thinking that I must harness the past, I erase temples and scriptoria, civilization buried in Persian tombs. Disrobed of their worth, revived in museums. Twice I paid to stand close to the sacred. I stood on the rim of an emptiness, losing deities no matter how I asked. In an era not mine I couldn’t trust a guide. This was the atmosphere I had been after in different libraries and editions. A compulsion to hold the weight of myths.


(“Back from the Aegean Sea”)


The poet standing next to emptiness, contemplating gods from bygone stories — this appears to be her chosen pose, her sensibility of elegance. And what is elegance but formal style? But then the question, what is ruined style?  Does Sze-Lorrain believe these opposites must interact to make reality?  And can she name this ruined elegance?  She can and does, imagining extremes, but we must listen very carefully to hear the words she whispers in her soul.

    It probably is easier to see the two extremes when they are placed together. “Jardins Sous La Pluie” shows us clearly that with all quotidian experiences — ordinary rainfall, for example — “details” are the enemy of “glory.”  Sze-Lorrain insists that common facts are wild and stark and dreary, so much that we desire to replace “the first half of nature” with what we consider to be “glamour.”  If common details — that is, facts of living — do not satisfy the human soul, what does, what can, but poetry — or painting, music, any form of art?  This means, of course, the mind imagining. She says the rain sends gladness to her flesh, but how can she find words to “shape the rain”?  Or how can she idealize the rain?  Or must its elegance be always ruined?  Other artists cause her to despair:


Monet and Debussy kept

rain with discomfort, trying to measure

a quiet too pure

and transparent for humans.


In “Bonnard’s Naked Wife Leaving the Bathtub” Sze-Lorrain identifies the nature of her problem. Following a cursory description of Bonnard’s Intimist nude study she declares, “Here stands a moment in praise of mundane details.” Somewhat strangely, she ignores the fact this artist was a master classicist and made his pictures after ancient styles — in fact, he no doubt valued elegance. But Sze-Lorrain’s opinion is distinctive, and it soon is clear what bothers her: 


Like you, I wish for more narratives.

a plot that unravels a grand finale.


But we know imagination


Trusts best in permanence —

Dawn held at a windowsill.


The elegance that Sze-Lorrain finds ruined seems to be important narratives, those found in myths and sometimes histories — all deeds and speeches that should be preserved.

    It would be interesting — and exciting — to see Sze-Lorrain, who has achieved such excellence with lyrics, turn her hand to writing storied verse, because she has a sense of narrative inherent in her vast imagination. Take, for instance, “To Survive When It Must” a lyric that describes a cursing voice, and then transforms it with a startling figure, saying that a tear in a page “is a slit / in the book’s tongue.”  This metaphor has tragic implications, certainly for ruined elegance:



and phantasmal, its blood

dries up

to quell terror. But

the curse echoes

deeper and beyond. The librarian             

knows the curse preserves a life,

In times of doubt, it’ll fool

censors. It is mummified, it has eyes.

She hears it day and night,

in the silence of archives.


This might be an image of the poet, Sze-Lorrain’s succinct self-portraiture.


Issue # 187 - Contributors

Peter Blais, born in Ottawa in 1949, has had a long career as a visual artist, actor and theatre designer. In 1984, he created the original design for the Arthur Ellis Book Award. His studio/gallery, the Maritime Painted Saltbox, is located in Petite Riviere, Nova Scotia.

Adrienne Drobnies lives in Vancouver, BC. She is a 2010 graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. Her work has appeared in literary magazines in Canada, the US, and UK, including The Toronto Quarterly, The Maynard, Scrivener, Cider Press Review, Sow’s Ear Review, and Popshot Magazine. Her suite of poems, “Randonnées,” was a finalist for the CBC literary award for poetry in 2009 and on the short list for the 2013 Gwendolyn MacEwen Exile Poetry Competition. She is an editor of a collection of poetry in French, Poèmes sur Mesure, by Alain Fournier.

Leo Furey is a writer from St. John’s, Newfoundland.  He is founder of Broken Earth Productions, a theatre company that raises money for Broken Earth, a non-profit group of Canadian health care individuals providing medical assistance to earthquake victims in Haiti, Bangladesh, Nepal and Guatemala.  Last year he produced and directed Joan MacLeod’s Jewel.  This year he is doing Conor McPherson’s The Weir.

Sharon Goldberg’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, The Louisville Review, Cold Mountain Review, Under the Sun, Chicago Literary Review, three fiction anthologies, and elsewhere. She was second place winner of On the Premises’ Humor Contest (2012) and Fiction Attic Press’ Flash in the Attic Contest (2013).

Adele Graf’s poetry has appeared previously in The Antigonish Review, and in other Canadian journals including CV2, The Dalhousie Review, The Fiddlehead, Room, Vallum and White Wall Review. Adele has a book forthcoming from Guernica Editions. She lives in Ottawa.

Mark Grenon supplied the text for a video poem entitled SEED screened at the Visible Verse Festival and at the Rendez-vous cinéma québécois. His poetry will be featured in a forthcoming issue of Matrix. Mark Grenon has lived and taught ESL in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, Chile, and in Montreal.

David Hickey has lived most of his life in Newfoundland. His work has appeared in Atlantic Canada literary magazines and competed successfully in various Newfoundland Arts and Letters Competitions.

Robert James Hicks is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Quarterly West, PRISM international, and The Dalhousie Review. He has recently completed a novel and is wondering what to do with it.

Sean Howard is author of  Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009), Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011) and The Photographer’s Last Picture (Gaspereau Press, 2016). His work has twice been featured in The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books). Sean lives in the fishing village of Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton.

Bill Howell is a former CBC Radio Drama producer-director who continues to explore colloquial language. A long-time contributor to The Antigonish Review, Bill has five poetry collections, with recent work in Dalhousie Review, Fiddlehead, Filling Station, Geist, New Quarterly, and Vallum. 

A.M. Lang’s fiction has appeared in Hart House Review and in University of  Toronto Magazine, where it placed first in the 2015 University of Toronto  Magazine Short Story Contest. A recent graduate of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Lang teaches, lives, and writes in Toronto.

Cailean Lewis lives in Toronto, Ontario. His work explores the spiritual detachment inherent in city life and our illusions of natures’ purity. He grew up in rural Nova Scotia and maintains an embarrassing fear of the forest.

Larry Mathews taught for 30 years in the English Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he founded and directed the Creative Writing Program. His own publications include The Sandblasting Hall of Fame (short fiction, 2003) and  The Artificial Newfoundlander (novel, 2010). In 2015 he edited The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction.

Anna Moore is a writer from Vancouver Island. She lives in Victoria, BC.

Pamela Mosher is from Nova Scotia, and lives in Ottawa with her wife and son. Her writing has been published in journals such as EVENT Magazine and Contemporary Verse 2. She’s won the Young Buck Poetry Prize and been a finalist for the Writer’s Union of Canada Short Prose Competition.

Don Nichol has taught English at Memorial University since 1984. He recently edited Anniversary Essays on Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (University of Toronto Press, 2016).

Patrick O’Flaherty is a professor emeritus in the department of English at Memorial University, where he specialized in 18th-century literature. His latest books are a memoir, Paddy Boy: Growing Up Irish in a Newfoundland Outport (2015), a biographical and critical study, Scotland’s Pariah: the Life and Work of John Pinkerton, 1758-1826 (2015), A Reading of Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) (2016), and a collection of short fiction, The Hardest Christmas Ever and other stories (2016). He lives in St. John’s.

Michael Oliver has published poems, stories, and critical writings in various magazines and anthologies, such as Canto, The Fiddlehead, Canadian Literature, and Easterly: 60 Atlantic Writers, and has recently published a novella called The Final Cause of Love. He lives in Charlottetown, PEI.

Branka Petrovic completed an M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from McGill University. Her (mostly ekphrastic) poetry has appeared in Branch, Arc Poetry Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, The Malahat Review, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, and The New Quarterly, among others. Her work was long-listed for the 2012 and 2015 CBC Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the 2013 Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Competition. Her poems have appeared in a dance duet video (created by Monique Romeiko) that was screened in Manila and Antwerp. Her work was read at The Literary Death Match, in Montreal, and elsewhere.

Pavle Radonic is Australian by birth and of Montenegrin origin. His five years living and writing in South East Asia has provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, most recently Ambit, Big Bridge and The Literary Yard. A mountainous blog of related work appears at

Matt Robinson’s new full-length collection of poems, Some nights it’s entertainment; some other nights just work, was released by Gaspereau Press in Fall 2016. His 2013 chapbook, a fist made and then un-made (Gaspereau Press), was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. He lives in Halifax, NS with his family.

Laisha Rosnau is the author of three poetry collections, Pluck, Lousy Explorers, and Notes on Leaving (Nightwood Editions), and the best-selling novel The Sudden Weight of Snow (McClelland & Stewart). Her work has been published in journals and anthologies internationally, has been nominated for several awards, and was the recipient of the Acorn-Plantos Poetry Award. She lives in Coldstream, BC, where she and her family are resident caretakers of a wild bird sanctuary.

Peter Sanger has been poetry editor of The Antigonish Review since 1985. His most recent book of poetry is Fireship: Early Poems, 1964-1991 (Gaspereau Press, 2013).  His most recent book of prose is Through Darkling Air: The Poetry of Richard Outram (Gaspereau Press, 2010).  His essay on ecology, Oikos, was published in letterpress by Gaspereau in autumn, 2013.  He lives in South Maitland, Nova Scotia.

Traci Skuce’s stories have appeared in Grain, The Dalhousie Review, Event and Prairie Fire. She won honorable mention in Prairie Fire’s 2015 short fiction award and was a finalist for the 2015 CBC Creative Non-fiction Prize. She lives in Cumberland, BC.

Vince Small taught high school English for 47 years. Since retirement he has been supervising the field experience of prospective high school English teachers for Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and also teaching a college prep writing course for inmates.

D.S. Stymeist has published poems and articles in many magazines and journals, and currently teaches at Carleton University. A former resident of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, he is the editor of the micro-press, Textualis, and the vice-president of  VERSe Ottawa. He is presently revising a collection entitled Dead Reckoning.

Marc Swan lives in Portland, Maine. He has poems published or forthcoming in Poet Lore, Chiron Review, Gargoyle, Poetry New Zealand, Toad Suck Review, and Westerly, among others. Tall-Lighthouse Press in London, England published his last two poetry collections: In a Distinct Minor Key (2007) and Simple Distraction (2009).

Kim Trainor’s first poetry collection Karyotype appeared with Brick Books in 2015. Her next book, Ledi, a book-length poem that narrates the discovery of the grave of an Iron Age horsewoman in the steppes of Siberia, will appear with BookThug in 2018.

Jane Edey Wood’s writing has appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail, and Prairie Fire and through online literary journals such as Catapult, Motherhood Stories, CommuterLit, and Catapult. She is the author of Voluntary Starvation. She is completing her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

Allan Brown - Issue 112

Cities and Citizens

Toward A Catalogue of Falling by Méira Cook. London, Ont.: Brick Books, 1996.109 pp., $12.95.

Rush Hour by Kevin Fitzpatrick. St. Paul, Minn.: Midwest Villages & Voices, 1997. 82 pp., $9.00.

Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic by Phil Hall. London, Ont.: Brick Books, 1996. 105 pp., $12.95.

Nothing Vanishes by Robert Hilles. Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 1996. 95 pp., $12.00.

Rifts in the Visible / Fêlures dans le visible by Inge Israel. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 131

The Colour of Flight by Linda Waybrant. Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn. 96 pp., $12.00.

Some clichés are worth repeating. Both the much tried and sometimes true "The personal is the political" and its revisionist cousin "The political is the personal" kept echoing as I read, remembered, and then revisited these six collections of poetry that each in its way moves sometimes easily, sometimes uneasily through the rich dialectic of person and polis.

Méira Cook both observes and newly creates an engagingly lopsided society. This witty and well-varied collection was short listed for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. It is her second full-length book, following A Fine Grammar of Bones (Turnstone, 1993) and the chapbook the ruby garotte (disorientations, 1994). Her latest work maintains a nice balance of energy and control which may reflect Cook's experience as a poetry reader for the Winnipeg-based litmagPrairie Fire.

Aquality of learned playfulness is apparent in much of her writingShe employs a complex of circus/clown images in the open-ended prose poem "And now":

  let's us two clowns go halvsies 
  i have a nose a pair of shoes a string 
  of pearls that die if they're ignored

And in the more closely wrought, lyrical lament "the clowns are dying": "all over the world their faces / ajar luminous as dials under their wigs charred." She is clearly aware of her debt here to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's symbolic use of the acrobat as artist in his poem "constantly risking absurdity" and jauntily acknowledges and asserts her debt with the feminine rewrite of:

  gaudy she stands on one 
  leg on a painted horse the circus 
  is language too
          ("this way to the bamum & bailey").

Other aspects of her work apparent in Toward a Catalogue of Falling include the quiet, allegorical description of "Vertical cities" that "slide off their mountains and into the sea," as well as the populist, rather sentimental stance of the four-part performance piece "String Quartet." For a writer who appears to rely chiefly on gamesmanship, Cook is still also capable of some old fashioned rhetoric, as with the resonant display of "Rumours of bear in this lapsed valley / of uninflected pine, the lucid stones / cut slant."

There are many rings in her poetic circus and she manages to keep them all active without a stumble.

Like Méira Cook, the American poet Kevin Fitzpatrick can also bring a critical eye to his own work, though with considerably more experience, for he was editor of the Lake Street Review (St. Paul, Minnesota) for fourteen years. He has also been long involved with The Writer's Almanac and Weekend Edition programmes of Minnesota Public Radio. A deep concern with both people and polis is evident throughout his work.

As in his earlier collection Down on the Corner, Fitzpatrick provides a close, careful, yet compassionate look at his fellow citizens, presenting them always as individuals of one sort or another, but always also as part of a larger whole. The central section of the new book, Pedaling Back, contains a number of vivid evocations of past scenes. The unchanging tensions of adolescence are well caught in "A Gathering in the South High Parking Lot" as "Guys in jean jackets and smudged pants" are seen 11 slouching / near, but never on, a '73 Chevy." The youths are shown with a neatly balanced ironic sympathy that observes but does notjudge. A more complex observation occurs in the final poem of the collection, "Rush Hour," in which another adolescent appears, "slim with long blond hair," looking "eighteen or so in black T-shirt and jeans." But he is poised, a potential suicide, on a bridge over the freeway. The poet halts, hesitates, then continues on his way with the practical knowledge that "I'm no help here" and also with the deeper knowledge that "Both life and death have contracts out on him." On the poet, of course, as well as the young man.

Sometimes these multiple sympathies, along with the continuous strength and integrity of the individual, can be seen indirectly and by implication. Fitzpatrick's quietly defiant "Starting Over" begins with a kind of positive vacancy:

  My dream is simply to go,
  with the door wiae open, the TV blaring,
  my money scattered across the dresser,

  grabbing nothing,
  not even consulting a map,
  destination unknown.

The negative, indifferent forces of the city and the materialistic society behind it are presented in the concluding lines of the poem as:

  Let the landlord think
  I've gone for cigarettes.

  At rent time he'll remove the remains
  to a locker in the cellar.

More thanjust a good read, though it is certainly that; more also than merely the sound of another voice, even one with a Minnesota accent; Rush Hour provides one of the best reasons for literary cross-border shopping that I've experienced in a long while.

And talking of borders, I first encountered Phil Hall as a poet of Detroit-as seen from Windsor, Ont., where he lived for many years. I was guest editor for two issues of Nebula featuring writing on the theme of Cities and used his ironic pastoral "Ducks on the Detroit River: A Water Colour." With a typical reversal of roles, he perceived the birds as themselves perceiving: "The ducks / noticed the open ground. / Their eyes / blur each form that towers and shadows" (Nebula 14: Cities, 1980). The transformative power of perception hinted at here characterizes much of his other writing and thoroughly informs Hearthedral.

Hall's satirical touches are as deft (or "spry," to use his term) as ever in the new work, with memorable glimpses of dimly repetitive city life and living conditions: "each icecube in its bachelorette / each egg in its condominium." He sees, questions, and describes a society that often seems incapable of describing itself in a way that is both literal-historical and mythical at once.

Much of the scaffolding for this [c] ... a ... thedral (the pun is necessary, of course) comes appropriately from other writers, such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, well known for their large and humane sympathies. "Where's Huck got to?" Hall asks, and again "here's / Micawber I think." He invokes poets also, with quotations and references extending from the "impalpable sustenance" of Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Bridge" to Woody Guthrie's ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd. Other American ancestral voices come from Hart Crane's The Bridge and, unavol 'dably, the Cantos of Ezra Pound. His near and Canadian precursors are the Dave Godfrey of /Ching Kanada and the Michael Ondaatje of In the Skin of a Lion.

And, yes, there are times here when the reader is tempted to ask, "where's Hall got to?" His voice is intriguingly, if sometimes somewhat confusingly, both individual and social, even composite. He muses upon this mixed point of view in the elegiac prose section "Epham Nanny":

 We speak from within a stillness that comes 
 of carrying run-toground sorrow fervently, 
 as if it were the last live coal of this 
 species.  If I carry my sorrow-ember far and 
 long enough it ceases to be my personal sorrow.

This and similar considerations of a felt, or at least a hoped for, consensus appear from time to time in the book and hint at some form of an individuated community; or as he put it in his earlier collection Old Enemy Juice (Quary 1988): "Inventing an inside / that is open to everyone" ("Swoop").

Much-indeed, I would say, more-of such openness is present in Robert Hilles's eleventh book Nothing Vanishes. While Hall strives with large and multiple gestures to erect a heart's cathedral, Hilles is content to wander quietly through chapels of his own competent construction. Loma Crozier claims as the special quality of his work here that: "he fashions poems that manage to be both domestic and sacred at the same time." He does, of course; but he fashions them also with an effectively combining, single and multiple awareness that represents his own version of the individual and the social.

The first section of the book, Blue Mud, provides several good examples of such interactions. The title poem of the book, for instance, is an apparently simple, reflective narrative that describes how


  My mother picks mushrooms
  out in the bush, small hands 
  reaching between the thistles 
  perfectly, never once getting 

The poet himself appears both as a character immediately involved in the story- "she / offers me one and I look at it / for awhile and then / put it in my mouth"-and, later, as the narrator of it: "Opening my eyes / the city looks aimless as it / vanishes at the horizon." The horizon itself expands farther, contracts, and finally centres upon: "my mother moving about/ her small house as if / she were already in heaven."

The second section of the book, There Are Horses, contains more abstract material. Some of this deals with the nature of perception which, forhilles, is as much about whatcannotbe seen as what can: "All is hidden. / Including what bodies are / and how they stand / so gently in a landscape" ("Hidden"). The concluding section, Invisible World, continues to explore modes of perception, but modulates from abstraction to a kind of mild expressionism:

  A small girl is chased 
  by a dog with three legs... 
  In the girl's eyes the dog 
  can see the sky and behind it
  a face he should know but doesn't
           ("The Wind Inside").

Hilles then balances this extravagance toward the end of the volume with the simpler statements of "Last Words to a Father" where: "You will stare at the empty chair. The house quiet on a quiet street. Off in the distance a dog will bark at someone."

For all the apparent shifts of style or points of view in the collection, all these forms of statement are fully typical of this poet with his persistently sophisticated yet humble attitude that sees, records, and then wanders quietly away again.

"Mild" or "quiet" are the last words that could be used to characterize Inge Israel's expressionistic techniques in Rifts in the Visible which brings together forty-five poems in parallel English and French versions that recount the life and work of the Russian-bom painter Chaim Sou'tine, along with other artists such as Modigliani, Chagall, and lipschitz. The volume also contains eight colou rreproductions of Soutine's lyaintings. It is a powerful if somewhat confusing evocation of his "emotionally charged colours," as Israel herself describes them. She has also explored this subject in prose with her radio play "Wild Rhythm," which appeared in The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature (No. 27, 1996).

Modigliani appears both as a character in the play and as a passing reference in the poem "Mademoiselle Garde." Marc Chagall takes a more significant role in this cityscape as he "spreads his memories / on endless feast tables / weddings holy days / one or two pogroms thrown in" ("Memories"). The ironic juxtaposition here is typical of Soutine's world view-or perhaps, more accurately, of Inge Israel's view of him and his world. A similar blend of the lyrical and the grotesque appears in the psychological study "Must Waif' ("II faut que j'attende") as the painter perceives:

  at first slow to warm 
  to melt icy blue remnants 
  of winter's glare, 
  beguilingly wraps itself 
  over surfaces like a spider 
  spinning silken threads
  around its victim before
  injecting the venom 
  that will preserve it 
  for slow consumption

Soutine's techniques a painter are replicated to some extent by the verbal method of the poems. The in-your-face vulgarity of his 1924 oil "Boeuf écorché" ("Carcass of Beef'), one of the plates in this volume, is re-created in the abrupt beginning of: "of courseRembrandt's "Slaughtered-Ox" / is magnificent!" followed by the hushed tones of "but I want to show / all of Paris in this slab of beef..." and concluding with a crudely casual reference to "the fresh blood / from the slaughterhouse" that he requires to "touch up / the rotting parts // and get on with my work."

It may be uncharitable to complain of a lack of plot I' me or even of much recoverable personal and historical matrix for these suggestive and often brilliant pieces, but in spite of her Introduction and a few endnotes, it is often very difficult to even tentatively locate them within Soutine's life and world. The play "Wild Rhythm" provides a useful background and leads in to this sometimes overwhelming vision and it might be appropriate to have it, or something similar to it, attached to a reprint of the collection.

Although both Inge Israel and Linda Waybrant deal with city life, there is a clear contrast between the "living throbbing" Parisian scenes ("Arrival") of Rifts in the Visible and the continuously shifting, unspec'fiable memories and images of The Colour of Flight.The personal aspects are different too, as Soutine and his fellow artists roil through a world of vivid, slashing colours, and Waybrant's quiet, rather wistful "I" inhabits a shadow place of hints and uncertainties.

Her impressively professional first book exposes the painful facts of an abusive childhood situation too complex to summarize here, by means of discontinuous narratives and carefully elided sequences. This is confessional poetry in the general tradition of Anne Sexton and others; and, like her predecessors, Waybrant is much concerned with "telifing] her story" and helping herself-sometimes identified as "she," sometimes as "I"-as well as the readerto "see the unimaginable" and by that act of seeing somehow find and fill "the empty space of understanding" ("The Colour of Flight"). The book is deeply self-reflective and acutely aware of the difficulties inherent in its own explorations when memories are "not reliable" ("Gifts 4: Grandfather's Funeral") and where movement is always in some sense distant or transient:

  You went to live somewhere else 
  with people who were much older
  but it didn't last more than a few weeks
                            ("Exodus I ").

The goal of the "she" or "child" of the title poem is a place of absence as much as presence, a "landscape" which is:

  too often defined by what it lacks
  a story-
  of a sinall dark place
  where a child tries to keep something warm.

This landscape is often, as I have mentioned, a cityscape which can be both mundanely literal-"crossing streets / through traffic / across parking lots"-and hauntingly metaphoric, "navigating the edge / the line between daylight / & the gasping for breath" ("Nothing Ever Warm Again").ThefugitivepresenceofLindaWaybrant's "I/she/child" throughout this unnamed, ubiquitous city is a unique creation, yet equally effective in its own rather ghostly way as the sardonic clown figures of M6ira Cook, the shrewdly observed adolescents of Kevin Fitzpatrick, the postmodern chock-a-block civic cosmos of Phil Hall, the decorously enspirited family of Robert Hilles, or the lurid "images taillées" ("Graven Images") of Inge Israel.

Robert Edison Sandiford - Issue 112

Partaking of a MasterThe Bounty by Derek Walcott

The title poem of The Bounty, Derek Walcott's first collection of new poems since winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, refers to more than the legendary boat captained by William Bligh, mutinied by Fletcher Christian and said to have brought the breadfruit tree to the Caribbean. Among its lines is the bounty of matemal love, which is the milk of kindness. There is the bounty that is booty, also known as treasure. There is the bounty that is one's spiritual reward, on earth as it is, presumably, in heaven. Then there is the bounty of the work itself.

This is not to suggest undue hubris on Walcott's part (though he has been accused of this and much else beside). It is, rather, stating what is hoped for, if not expected, notably from a book which sports one of the author's lush watercolours. And to read The Bounty is to partake of the work of a master of his craft. Walcott, who favours an alternating rhyme scheme here, is rhythmic, flowing. He makes versifying sound easy.

Be sure, he has his burdens. Some poems, impressive as they are technically, verbally and intellectually, remain unmoving. And this, in part, is due to odd fits of wordiness, causing images to tumble over each other into a not always elegant, prosaic heap.

But this is not chief among Walcott's concerns; The Bounty bears a different load. Much of his poetry - specially his mature work-is an attempt to retell the history of Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, thereby embracing all of humanity. His scope in The Bounty is no less epic than it was in his Odyssey-inspired Omeros (1990) or the more modest The Fortunate Traveller (1981).

Yet this history is his, too, recalling his raw, autobiographicalAnother Life (1973). The St. Lucian has often expressed pride in the fact that he is of mixed West African, Duth and English ancestry. So his words resonate most in his brief takes on places he has known, like Italy, New England, Trinidad and Tobago, or Spain. He captures the landscape in the literature and vice versa, observing poetry is "all echoes, all associations and inferences."

The Bounty conveys the poet's yearning for the country of his birth in particular. People tend not to associate concreteness with poetry. They confuse the allusive with the elusive. But the power and grace of poetry depend on the precision of its images as much as on the integrity of its lines or the certainty of its rhythm. And "I am not home till Sesenne sings," he writes, "a voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it, that cracks/ like clay on a road whose tints are the dry season's,/ whose cuatros tighten my heartstrings."

From the outset, Walcott acknowledges his memories are like a mirage: "Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true/ Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah's elations/ force a rose from the sand." This begs a couple of questions. If the Tourist Board and Paradise are an illusion, what is "real"? If "memory is less/ than the place which it cherishes," what to make of his homesick reminiscences?

In poem after poem, Walcott meets these challenges head on. For it's often startling what can be retrieved even from "a life of incredible errors." In his case, these include "small red berries shaped like abell"; "the sound of la rivière Dorée"; "the scent of hog plums"; "the long-shadowed emptiness of small roads." The bounty of his native St. Lucia, in other words, their beauty and truth magnificently crystalline.

At 67, counting playwrighting among his various accomplishments, there are now more years behind Walcott than ahead of him. Inevitably tainting his nostalgia is a sense of mortality.

As is the case with similarly blessed writers of his generation (fellow Nobel laureate Saul Bellow comes to mind), Walcott finds himself in the uneasy yet necessary position of reevaluating the event of his life in the closing days of the 20th century. It seems to him, amid "so many deaths, nothing short of a massacre/ from the wild scythe blindly flailing friends, flowers, and grass," that "the only art left is the preparation of grace." He can't help it. The passing of the Russian poet and comrade Joseph Brodsky, another Nobel recipient, is one of the many that has left him shaken:

since the fear of the infinite is the same as death
all I am saying is that the dread of death is in the faces
we love, the dread of our dying, or theirs;
therefore we see in the glint of immeasurable spaces
not stars or falling embers, not meteors, but tears.

Despair, however, is not a sentiment in which Walcott indulges. "There is symmetry in all this, or all fiction is lying." The poet can name his pains as well as his pleasures. And this is how we, like he, better understand things: by naming them but also by ordering them and finding a meaning within the links they form.

Mary Pat Cude - Issue 112

A strange [and truly Canadian] love story

Barney's Version, Mordecai Richier's latest novel, has a wonderful cast of players. Representatives of the raucous tribe of St. Urbain Street, so familiar from the earlier works, are paraded before us once again: there's Jerry Dingleman, a.k.a. The Boy Wonder, fixing things on Schnorrers' Day and, of course, Duddy Kravitz, touchstone of the Richier world, sardonically consoling Barney afterthecollapse of his third marriage. "They're into that now. The libbers. One night you help them with the dishes and the next they go back to college to get a degree and soon enough they're shtupped by some kid." And even the new faces, making their first appearance, are marvellously recognizable and characteristically raw. Men like Detective Inspector Izzy Panofsky, electrifying "twelve stunned people gathered at the long table" during his son's second wedding celebration, jolting them with insights into his days on the morality squad. "Some of them whorehouses was elegantly furnished," he enthuses: "Clean? Rabbi, you could eat off the floor. And, oh, they had beautiful beds and everything was systematically...... This is obstreperous, glorious, belly laugh fun.

Yet, despite the humour and the wonderful characters, Barney's Version initially seems a trifle slow, perhaps even a little lightweight, too much verbal slapstick and too little substance. There is Bamey's first marriage to lying, shoplifting Clara, with her dirty talk and loose ways, weirdly transformed into feminist icon after her grotesque suicide: why on earth would he choose to share his life with such a hopelessly unengaging and self-destructive partner? And then, swiftly thereafter, there is his lightning courtship of "the Second Mrs. Panofsky," a physically attractive, socially pushy, chatterbox compulsive shopper of whom he puzzlingly concedes: "had she not fallen into my hands but instead married a real, rather than a pretend, straight arrow, she would be a model wife and mother today." Whatever possessed him, disentangling himself from the melancholy memory of Clara, to seek refuge here? The reader strains for patience, as Barney once again reconfigures his chameleon skin for the purpose of acquiring his second wife. What is the truth about this "pretend straight arrow?" Barney's vindictive little pranks, his obsession with hockey, his shallow lifestyle, all tricked out to circle around the possibility of his committing a tacky murder: tossed lightly together, it seems a recipe for a quick and superficial read. But watch out! There is Miriam, after all....

Miriam, constant focus of Barney's thoughts, enduring core of his adult being, the third and only beloved wife of "Barney Panofsky's troika," Miriam, Miriam, "my heart's desire." Miriam, "moving with astonishing grace" throughout these pages in her "layered blue chiffon cocktail dress" ("Oh, that face of incomparable beauty. Those bare shoulders.") is everywhere - and yet, strangely nowhere. Her ubiquitous presence is as much spiritual as physical, telling us that something of Barney is deep and true, that there is something of passion we can trust. And what other passions does he have? What things give meaning to his otherwise seemingly shallow existence? These are his "belovedmontreal Canadiens," his "dying city" that he will not leave, his "cherished Quebec" divided in loyalties, and yes, disguise it though he may with supercilious intellectual posturing, his country. "I could rhumba as a latter-day patriot," he says, "sheltering in the Great Cham's last refuge of the scoundrel." But this is no scoundrel. Love of wife, team, city, province and country are oddly woven into the fabric of his life: ethical threads of personal, civic, regional and national pride holding him together - keeping him from despair.

The source of his despair, of course, is the murder. Also ubiquitous, the murder is a constant reminder of what others believed to be the dark and violent underside in the fabric of Barney's life. However, there are surprises. After the body has been recovered, after all of the incriminating evidence has been gathered and presented, in the concluding lines of Barney's Version (almost too late, for us) we discover that this splendid book was not a murder mystery after all. "Oh my God, I thought, breaking into a sweat, I'd better call Saul." Michael, Bamey's firstborn son, is getting it. "I owe Kate an apology. But, oh God, it's too late for Barney." A swirl of details throughout the work, a fleeting reference to a "prizewinning but boring" NFB documentary, the roar of an aircraft, an arcane snippet of forensic information, each blandly innocuous in its context, each separated from all the others by the sprawling style, can come together for us -just as they did for Michael. There was no murder! But if this is not a murder mystery that Mordecai Richier has created, what is it?

It is a love story - a strange and "truly Canadian" love story. And it is about "insensitivity," about not getting it, whatever "it" may happen to be: love of wife, love of friends, love of city, province, country. Barney's Version is a story about the danger of arriving too late: it is an urgent message for our time and place.

We see how Bamey's insensitivity causes his world to fall into ruin, and we grieve with him when he discovers, too late, that "the monster was me." This book, in the main, is about Bamey's inability to read the "early distress signals in his marriage:" Miriam's insistence on getting back in the workforce; her almost pathological intolerance of marital infidelity; and, above all, the increasingly intrusive Blair Hopper "n6 Hauptman", a draft dodger ten years Bamey's junior, one of the many "troubled kids" welcomed into the Panofsky home by Miriam over the years. But the book is about far more than this. It is also about Bamey's inability to read similar distress signals concerning his "beloved Montreal" and his "cherished Quebec." "Why shouldn't we have our own country?" Solange, his Quebecoise friend and associate, asks him. "Because it would destroy mine," he quips. "Your ancestors were stupid. They should have sold Quebec and kept Louisiana." On a more reflective note, he urges her not to vote Yes, because "neither of us is young and stupid any more." Barney isn't getting it. And there is a message here for all of us: a message for Canadians who love their spouse, their team, their city, province, country. Pay attention to detail, watch for the warning signals lest you lose all you hold dear, arriving "shamefully late."

Skilfully, Richler flags his message of arriving "shamefully late" with markers of colour, sound and scent. Twice we are enticed into a warm, safe, gentle setting in Monte Carlo, where we see a "grizzly old geezer wearing a blue smock," hear the "clippity-clop" of his donkey's hooves, smell the scent "of roses on the evening breeze" and the aroma of "freshly baked baguettes." The first time this passage appears, it seems innocent enough. Barney and his friends are seated in a restaurant, watching a beautiful young woman who, after a long wait, is joined by a Frenchman, "well into his fifties," arriving "shamefully late." The friends are contemptuous of the old man, and later, when they see him sitting on his yacht, Barney yells insults at this "French sugar daddy." But when we encounter the passage a second time, our memory triggered by the flash of blue, the clippity-clop, the scent of the roses and the aroma of freshly baked bread, we realize, along with Barney, that he has become like "that odious Frenchman" he taunted so long ago. Solange's daughter, Chantal, puts it more bluntly: "A dirty old man is what you are." With the repetition of colour, sound and (most particularly) scent, Richler underscores what Chantal is saying. Smell, after all, is our most vital aid to memory, a most primal flag; and Richler is warning us to be wary, to keep alert to our most primitive selves... else we, like Barney Panofsky, may arrive too late.

So what happened to Bamey's thirty-one year old marriage-other, that is, than his obvious infidelity with "the bimbo who ruined [his] life," the one thing which Miriam could never forgive? We are told that "fearful of losing her, I made hermy prisoner." "You're devouring me" Miriam tells Barney, early in their relationship; and this state of affairs appears only to have worsened over the years. Insensitivetohiswife'sneedforintellectual stimulation, frightened of things changing, of "coming home to an empty house while she was sitting in a lecture hall," Barney deals ineptly with the situation. He begins "staying out later than usual" or "boorishly" failing "into a drunken sleep on the living-room sofa." And when questioned by daughter Kate about why he is "so sanguine about Mom meeting Blair," by now a full professor of English at Victoria College, he responds with a quick retort. "Don't be foolish. This marriage is a rock." Similarly, when asked by Kate what he will do "if the separatists win," Barney responds firmly to this as well. "They won't. So there's no need for you to worry." So certain, Barney? So certain, fellow Canadians? A thirty-one year old marriage, a one-hundred and thirty-one year old country - what is the difference? The partners need space.

The very act of reading this fine novel causes us to become active participants in the theme, missing or nearly missing the waming signals that are so cleverly dispersed along the way. We, too, are vulnerable to the possibility of not getting it - of arriving "shamefully late." Pay attention! This is a "truly Canadian" story, "roaring" onto the literary scene, "gulping up God knows how many." In a way, I suppose, it is a mystery - a mystery about living; and the clues are scattered throughout the pages, like water droplets sprinkled on a "distant mountain" - tiny elusive details - a challenge waiting for each reader to explore.

Randall Curb - Issue 111

The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken. Dial Press, 1996. 259 pp. (paperback forthcoming)

Named by Granta in 1996 as one of America's most promising fiction-writers, Elizabeth McCracken has, in her first novel, accomplished two remarkable feats. She has given us a first-person voice that is unique and arresting from its opening utterance: "I do not love mankind." And she has created a character-his name is James Carlson Sweatt, and he is physically a giant-who dwarfs every other fictive character in recent memory. The voice belongs to a thirtyish librarian called Peggy Cort who has been trying to fit snugly into her own misanthropy. James, the giant, is not quite a teenager when he walks into her library and, just by being himself, causes Peggy to fall helplessly in love with him. Their story is subtitled "a romance," and, even with no kisses, it is a fine one.

Peggy is not an easy woman to love. She knows it; she revels in her unlovableness. It has protected her and consoled her. With distant, emotionally frugal parents back in Boston, she has settled in a small resort town on Cape Cod. Though she narrates the entire novel, we don't see her in her apartment until the last pages of the book. The little library she runs with such efficiency-for years she never misses a day of work-is her home and her fortress. Somewhere inside it is a heart, and she knows it is there. She says that while some people are ruined by love, she "was ruined by the lack of it." This is not a plea for sympathy but a statement of simple fact. Facts, especially the kind that can be formulated on catalog cards or held up as rules (your book is late, you owe a nickel), keep things orderly, in perspective. Far from being a romantic, she looks at herself and others dead-on. "My feet were wide, wide, wide, and flat-footed," she tells us, "which was mostly a blessing - no arches to ache or fall."

James has big feet, too. But then, when he turns sixteen and has become a frequent visitor to the library, he is seven and a half feet tall. His feet are so big he's been hired as an attraction, a drawing-card, at a shoe store, where he puts his enormous trotters under a fluoroscope for shoppers to marvel over. Attuned to his librarian , s fondness for him, he brings her complimentary shoes from the store that he thinks will be good for her aching feet. They don't quite fit because she has fibbed about her size, but she loves those orthopedic-style shoes. Cinderella couldn't be any prouder.

You may now be wondering, So, a novel about pedophilia and foot fetishism. But this is no more a book about those things than The Ballad of the Sad Café is about midgets and cock fights. The analogy comes to mind because Elizabeth McCracken has said that Carson McCullers is one of her favorite writers. Almost everything McCullers wrote is concerned with the frustration, even the impossibility, of love, and in her novels and stories the more intense the love is, the greater the obstacles to it become. There arebeautiful passages in The Giant's House that seem deeply inspired by the voice of Carson McCullers. Listen to Peggy here:

"Perhaps I was a princess from a fairy tale. Sometimes, when your lover does not step from the woods to save you ... sometimes you have to marry your tower, your tiny room. You must take great interest in everything, a spinning wheel, a perfect single bed, the sound of someone breathing on the other side of the door. Once I had thought that the library was my tower, but that wasn't true. My love for James was the dark room I moved into......"

Because McCracken is persuasive enough in the voice of Peggy to lead us to sympathize with her without sentimentalizing her in any way, we also come under James's inadvertent spell. We see his charm as Peggy does-in the books he reads, his modesty, his awkwardness in maneuvering around a room, his unselfconsciousness with other teenagers, his frailty. Peggy discovers early on that James will die young. Unable to stop growing, he must eventually fall to one of any number of possible medical calamities. His mother, who is referred to by her own sister-in-law as Mrs. Sweatt, knows this and is dying too, of alcoholism, grief, and despair. Abandoned by Mr. Sweatt, she is the one Peggy says is ruined by love. Her love for James, once it is coupled with her helplessness in saving him, destroys her. Peggy steps in-book provider, confidant, mother substitute, inamorata.

Together with James' aunt and uncle, Peggy sees to the building of a customized one-room house in which everything will be in scale for him, including a specially made chair and bed. Word gets out, people come. James Sweatt, "The Giant of Cape Cod," is written up in Time magazine, and the town has another tourist attraction. Peggy keeps herjob as librarian but comes to "manage" James's celebrity. She even accompanies him on a trip to New York, where he is briefly paired in a circus act with the world's tiniest woman. Named Leila, and married five times (each husband successively taller), she is McCracken's wittiest and most perceptive secondary creation. She immediately diagnoses Peggy's condition. Noting that she can't marry "Jimmy" because she's not in-between at the moment, she asks him to wait for her. "Meanwhile," she announces, "he should marry whoever he likes." She looks at Peggy. "You, maybe. Maybe you and Jimmy, right?"

Peggy tells her story retrospectively, years after its events, and so she has already confessed to us. She has learned to open up-although there's such intimacy in the telling the reader feels like a stranger Peggy is addressing in strict confidentiality. At one point she even says, "I have always loved strangers agood deal more than my own family, will be politer and friendlier on a bus or in an airport than I am at a dinner table. You have nothing to lose with strangers: they will like you or not and most likely never think of you again, and conversation becomes that much easier."

Yes, Peggy has owned up to her longing, and James will come to sense it in all its irony and pathos. A quarter through the novel Peggy sets it down. "I loved him in a way that I have never and will never love anyone ever again ... I loved him because he was young and dying and needed me. I loved not only his height, but his careful way with any hobby, his earnestness, his strange sense of humor that always surprised me. I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him, and I was not. I loved him because I discovered that ... after years of practice, I had a talent for it."

Elizabeth McCracken is a wonderful writer. She has a gift for similes and asides keener than anyone I've read in ages. Here's one of many examples: "Mrs. Sweatt wore a distracted, wistful look on her face, like the girl singer of a big band during a tragic ballad's instrumental solo." Once we know that about Mrs. Sweatt, everything else seems inevitably to follow.

We may all be strangers to McCracken at this point, so early in her career. But it is very unlikely that we will never think of her-or Peggy, or James-again.

Ellen Rose - Issue 111

Overturning Convictions: An Interrogation of the Latent Meanings of Multimedia

A review of Scott Huelsman's Convictions (Spectrum Multimedia, 1997)

The technological tendency to do more and more with less and less could now be exceeded only by putting the information directly into the human nervous system. If an age of "brain transplants" lies ahead, it may become possible to supply each new generation with "brain prints" taken live and directly from the intellects of the age. Instead of buying the works of Shakespeare or Erasmus,one might well become electroencephatographically imprinted with the actual brain perception and erudition of Shakespeare or Erasmus. The book ... could then be bypassed. (Marshall McLuhan, 1970, Qtd. inEssential McLuhan (1995) 297)

Caught up in the thoughtless whirl of progress, society often attributes to media almost biological properties of propagation, such that it is assumed that any two or more media, conjoining, will spin off into a transcendent new form. Hence the clamor for multimedia, the "multi" connoting not just quantitative value but the fusion of many media into a qualitatively superior phenomenon providing immense benefits for humanity. The notion of bountiful technological progress is not just a fad: it is a conviction which underlies our contemporary understanding of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps the last place one would expect to find an exploration of the modern myth of technological progress is in one of these emerging forms: an electronic book. But such an exploration can indeed be discovered in Scott Huelsman's Convictions. Convictions is a "MediaNovelTM," described in the introductory "ExperienceMe" file as "the logical next step in the ageless art of storytelling, a perfect blend of the traditional formats (novels, motion pictures, radio drama and even theater) withthe interactivity andthe intimacy of multimediacomputer." Multimedia indeed. Huelsman's MediaNovel is containedon fourCD-ROMs, enormous by any standard (Microsoft's on-line reference library-including encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, and atlas-is contained on one CDROM).

Much current discussion about electronic books centres upon the notion of hypertext, a relatively new form which provides the reader with the capability of following interests and personal associations viahyperlinks rather than being constrained by the traditional linearity of text. Emerging from the union of print and digital capabilities, hypertext provides an interactive, on-line environment which invites the reader to participate in acts of textual intervention, collaboration, and sense-making. Once inviolable boundaries between author and reader dissolve as text becomes context, meaning constructed rather than inscribed.

But there is little evidence in Convictions of such sophisticated experimentation with literary and media forms. In fact, Huelsman's is an ingenuous offering, a simple tale presented in a way which totally under uses the capabilities of the media. The typical screen contains text (often broken up to "keep the reading quick and easy") superimposed on a simple monocolour line drawing related to the text content. Music "perfectly suited the current page" also plays in the background. On each screen, there are several buttons offering additional options. The Listen button, available on many screens, offers snatches of monologue which supposedly provide insights into the thoughts of the characters. For example, after reading that "A distant shout suddenly ripped through the marshland, a human-like cry more of surprise than anything else" (I 16), one can click the Listen button to hear a heart-felt rendition of this cry and then hero Redfern muttering theatrically, "That cry, possibly human, sounded in trouble. But where did it come from? I'd better find out." Similarly, the Watch button brings up snippets of video, in which the main characters do not act out sequences from the story but rather reflect with great feeling upon the events depicted. During a point in the narrative when Redfern is obstructed from entering the Valley of Destiny by an "inorganic creature" (36), one can click the Watch button to view a video clip in which Redfern emotes, "What could I do against a man of stone, something not alive to begin with? I thought I was doomed!"

An additional series of buttons across the top of the screen provides the ability to move from page to page and chapter to chapter in the book. and to insert bookmarks. The Media button offers the option of turning off the background picture, the music, and the video (but not the text).

Convictions is neither great literature nor sophisticated multimedia. In fact, the two people to whom I showed the MediaNovel-a programmer with whom I work and my husband, a professor of English-had the same immediate reaction: they laughed. And I too must admit to an initial sense of disappointment. Having spent the better part of my life both creating multimedia and reading and writing about literature, I had high hopes for finding in Huelsman's MediaNovel evidence of the sort of synthesis between traditional and digital worlds which I have striven for many years to achieve. But upon reflection I realize that it is by virtue of its very artlessness, its utter disharmony and disjointedness, its startling(con)fusion of forms, that Convictions achieves what more sophisticated efforts cannot: a deeply ironic self-commentary and a profound insight on the social reality from which it springs.

To understand Huelsman's achievement, one must abandon one's convictions. It is not meaningful to approach the MediaNovel as a user critiquing the functionality and design of a piece of software, asking such questions such: Is it "user friendly"? Does it abound with state-of-the-art special effects? Are the functions easy to understand? The fact is that this simple program hardly dwells on the leadingedge of multimedia technology - hence the chuckle of my programmer colleague. On the other hand, it is no more productive to critique Convictions solely on the basis of its literary merits. A fantasy tale about levitating wizards and earnest young adventurers searching for a magic stone runs the risk of being judged harshly, and certainly of not being taken seriously-hence my husband's laugh.

No, the only perspective from which to approach Convictions is neither as software user nor as novel reader, but rather as a "mediareader," able to decipher the discursive patterns of media, and willing to delve beyond the obvious to find the true meaning of the MediaNovel in the interstices where form and content merge. And if, in Convictions, the digital and traditional worlds tend to collide like tectonic plates, then itis the mediareader's responsibility to discover, in the rough new continent which emerges, hidden crevices in which the subtleties and complexities of the tale are revealed.

The collision itself is effected through a combination of seemingly artless devices, beginning with an intrusive screen design. Whereas most computer text scrolls, this text appears on a scroll, a square of ancient parchment covered with primitive sienna drawings. Against this background, the media effects appear incongruous, and the Media button itself, represented as a fragment of parchment at the top of the screen, seems only to add to this jarring juxtaposition of traditional and digital formats. The heightened sense of irony is perpetuated by the deliberate theatricality of the video and sound clips. Unlike most multimedia presentations, which strive for a filmic super-reality, which strive in fact to be more real than reality itself,Convictions deliberately offers actors dressed in elaborate costumes of furs and flowing gowns, delivering the kinds of emotional soliloquies one might expect to find on the stage. This constructed artificiality is apparently designed to prevent mediareaders from becoming immersed in forgetfulness, and to encourage contemplation of the very artifice of the on-line environment presented.

Through disharmony and rupture, then, Convictions seeks to wake mediareaders from what Marshall McLuhan terms "somnambulism"-a numb obedience to the imperatives of media and technology. With remarkable subtlety and irony, Huelsman subverts the technological imperative, the perpetual striving to use more and more technology wherever it can possibly be used, by his skillful (con)fusion of media forms. The end result makes it quite clear that, contrary to popular thought, not all such mergings produce additive results: in some cases, the outcome can be distinctly subtractive, involving a loss of both the intimacy of literature and the immediacy of media.

Against the background of this uneasy blending of media, Huelsman's simple tale gains new significance. For Convictions is the story of Mairiga (pronounced "Merica"), a utopian world, a "virtual" world in a long forgotten sense of the word, in which people live in unprecedented peace and harmony with themselves and their environment, their lives largely governed by an ancient Code based upon an absolute abhorrence for anything "technikky." Mairiga rejected the technological imperative many years before, during the Purge, when all foul technikky things were eliminated from the land. Now even the most basic tools-bows, arrows, and oars-are reviled. Nor is credence given to the naive belief that a technology is only good or bad in accordance with how it is used: Mairiga rejects in its totality what Jacques Ellul calls the technological system, the autonomous force which is created when, in the name of power and efficiency, the technological means become society's ends. Thus a wizard of Mairiga proclaims, "Technikky is evil, a curse of the land, a slayer of basic living things. It is something expressly forbidden here" (31 1).

Ellen, a contemporary woman caught in the wrong dimension because she is "a victim of something technikky" (207), replies to this condemnation of technology that "Where I come from, technology is quite needed. It's who we are" (31 1). Which is indeed the point: contemporary society not only relies upon technology for its daily existence, but defines itself in terms of social values devolving from technology: values like efficiency, material worth, and professionalism. Mairiga represents the very antithesis of modem technological society: it is a world which refuses to renounce religion and myth, tradition and virtue, for the elusive technological dream. Ironically, the modem notion of progress is also founded upon visions of a utopian order-not the primitive harmony of Mairiga, but rather the kind of technological utopia promised by the scientists at MIT's Media Lab, who foresee a time when humanity will be released, through the intelligence of machines and the diligent attentions of computerized agents, into a life of perpetual ease. Convictions foregrounds such fixed beliefs with an alternate vision, a possibility of peaceful relationship with one's surroundings, unmediated by technology.

Despite its depiction of a world without things technikky, one need not probe far to see in Convictions another level of meaning in which Mairiga is presented as an allegory of the modern technical state. For there are artifacts inmairiga, such as lyfestone, which contain natural concentrates of a great power called majika. This power can only be invoked by great wizards, "those possessing intense faith and conviction, for only the strongest of hearts could mentally will the living energy from the lyfestone, and transform their own innerbeliefs into genuine reality"(81). Thecentral theme of the MediaNovel is the threat upon the utopian state from two camps wishing to harness that power for their own ends: From one side, the Ultimates in Chegoria-wizards whose souls are corrupted and destroyed from ingesting the baneful nemefruit, and from the other side, the benzars of Josephine, mindless animates who manage to seize the majika-laden Shard of Lyfe. Is it going too far to see the corrupted wizards as technicians, who understand the esoteric secrets of technology and are tempted by this knowledge to exploit it? Or to equate the mindless benzars with mass humanity, the inevitable mob created by a technology which reduces humanity to its lowest worth-the cellular component of the machine-and demands unthinking obedience to its imperatives and rhythms?

Iwould argue that, given the congruence between the MediaNovel's narrative and narrative form, it is not. Convictions offers through both content andform a self-reflexive subversion of the technological imperative. Huelsman clearly recognizes that, for a society intent on achieving progress through a multiplicity of media, the MediaNovel represents the inevitable and "logical next step in the ageless art of storytelling." But at the same time, he wams that mediareaders should not take the step like mindless benzars, intent only on seizing a power they do not understand.

This said, I must make two admissions which may have the effect of undermining my interpretation. The first is thatl did not finishConvictions, and therefore can not know whether the narrative in its entirety bears out my claims' about the congruence of content and form. I can admit this because I believe that the fact that I would review Convictions without having finished it relates less to my own temerity than to the nature of the form itself. Both the cover and introductory text file stipulate that the MediaNovel is not meant to be read but"experienced"; and after completing six of the fifteen chapters, I felt that I had certainly experienced it completely and need go no farther.

The second admission is that there is evidence thathuelsman (AKA Spectrum Multimedia) hopes to make and sell many more MediaNovels, a fact which seems to indicate that his goal is not as I have argued to simultaneously exploit and expose the technological imperative, but rather only to exploit it. However, until I see firm evidence that this is the case, I will persist in my interpretation of the MediaNovel as a most unexpected and effective critical inversion of the modem hunger for novel media.

Tony Tremblay - Issue 110

"Reading `McLuhan'" in a Postmodern Age: The Constructions of Glenn Willmott, Terry Gordon, Robert Logan, and Derrick de Kerckhove

As I contemplate this review article on the multiple constructions of Marshall McLuhan, my attentions are distracted by the 1997 federal election. The likenesses between populist postmodern politics and representing mcluhanisme, as the French call the McLuhan/popular art phenomenon, are not lost on me. During the first televised debate last night, both the media and the party leaders were eager to remind us of the positioning of "otherness": Reform and the Conservatives on the right; the NDP on the left; the Liberals slightly right of centre; and the Bloc somewhere far off the ideological map, too far off to register as part of the mainstream collective. Even globalism, it seems, has parameters. The curiosity of all this labelling is that while it is frequently used, it is rarely claimed—the NDP generally doesn't refer to itself as Left, nor does Reform refer to itself as right, yet both are quick to label their opponents. The designations of left, right, and centre, of course, are little more than mystical demarcations that simplify differentiation and encourage generalization, exactly the sentence that each party wants to impose on its opponents, and exactly the simplicity our media mavens think we require. Yet, structurally, a more fundamental phenomenon is at work in the cultural programme of demarcation, having something to do with a well-documented historical tendency, specifically with what Vico called "historical drift." Adopted by Harold Bloom as the centrepiece of his "anxiety" theory, Vico's notion of "drift" advanced that the presence of strong precursors, mentors, or opponents encouraged an unconscious programme of ideological theft, in which the psychology of individuation asserted itself by calculated dissimilarity.

The Liberal Party of Canada and Marshall McLuhan are good examples of Vico's historicist paradigm: just as Trudeau created a Liberal left by misreading Tommy Douglas, so has Jean Crétien created a Liberal right by misappropriating the fiscal logic of the Tories that preceded him. The result is two Liberal parties, different but equally legitimate in their drift from the high-modern master narrative called "Liberal," whatever that is. Such drift, said Vico, has been the progress of history—a crooked man, from a crooked house, walking a crooked line, all in an effort to reclaim a master narrative that defies simple categorization. But who ever has been able to pin-the-tail-on-the-rarefied-donkey? (That "crookedness" applies to my central political metaphor is just good luck.) Mcluhanisme is undergoing a similar fate today, its manifestations, like liberalism, neither good nor bad, just varied. McLuhan's name now appears to have become more a palimpsest than any kind of oracle, somethingLife magazine never anticipated when it named him "the oracle of the electric age" (25 February 1966). Those who now lay claim to McLuhan come from all sectors, their methods and motives from all angles and agendas.

Always concerned with "putting-on" his audience, McLuhan prophesized the dialogicity of his legacy as early as Understanding Media (1964), when he wrote, "Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation" (21). As to the fate of his historical signature in the postmodern present—the so-called "global village" of Eliotary "simultaneity"—McLuhan's critical poetics were equally farsighted and generous. He told Gerald Emanuel in an interview:

  The more you create village conditions 
  [in this case the result of electronic acceleration 
  that retribalizes], the more discontinuity and 
  division and diversity. The global village 
  absolutely ensures maximal disagreement 
  on all points. 
  ("A Dialogue" 272 emphasis added)

True to form, McLuhan not only anticipates the future but offers us in the process an explanation for how we are to read mcluhanisme. The user is, after all, the content, an observation that Glenn Willmott makes in setting up his precept that "justifications for an individual style [are] of limited interest" given that McLuhan's message is "as diffuse as the responses to it" (169). I agree with Willmott and would add to his observation that while particular utterances of the idiosyncratic are indeed insignificant, the idiosyncratic act, as critical practice au courant, is highly significant, for it is a lasting register of the methodology of the Toronto School of Communications that McLuhan and Harold Adams Innis inhabit.

The license for this diffusion and diversity of critical opinion—and issued by the master narrative himself, McLuhan—provides the lead-in to my task at hand, which is to make some sense of the highly stylized, postmodern constructions of mcluhanisme. And I say "postmodern" with deliberation, for, as slippery a term as it is, it does accommodate the multiplicity of representations of McLuhan that now bombard us, a mere four of which I am addressing in this review.1 Indeed, I could have chosen from literally hundreds of other representations, everything from popular misreadings such as Ted Turner being described by Time as "The Prince of the Global Village" (which should remind us of Hugh Kenner's quip that few really know what McLuhan meant) to more serious critical overtures that reclaim McLuhan, including the scholarly work of B.W. Powe and Donald Theall, as well as the anthologizing of Frank Zingrone and the living McLuhans, brother and son. Equally significant, though perhaps more subtle manifestations of the McLuhan register, are everywhere around us, now so unconsciously assimilated that they have become part of our cultural and ideological landscape. I am thinking of the CBC's "town hall" phenomenon; of the inundation of PictureTel units in corporate headquarters and distance education units around the globe; of our culture's quick acceptance (suspiciously quick) of the phenomenon of the World Wide Web; of the longevity of the Neil Postmans, Arthur Krokers, Peter Druckers, and other communications sages; and, finally, of the legitimacy of cultural and media studies as areas of serious academic inquiry. Each of these phenomena, concrete and subtle, has about it something of the McLuhan residue, which is not to say that McLuhan was thedefinitive seer of the intellectual world, but that, as Tom Wolfe intimated in his now-famous Herald Tribune article, he was right about enough things that people listened. And people still are paying attention, making the oracle of the electric age as malleable and abused as Freud and Nietzsche. But that is, one learns after reading McLuhan, the point of mcluhanisme, isn't it? Glenn Willmott concurs:

  McLuhan sacrificed himself to a problem which 
  continues to confront every concerned 
  intellectual struggling with his or her 
  postmodern condition: what form of critical 
  discourse will be able to communicate 
  critical consciousness from one of us to another 
  in the mass media of the Global Village? Today, 
  McLuhan's value lies less in his own explicit 
  answer, in his invention of a duplicitously 
  satirical criticism, than in his larger and 
  implicit, symbolic self-sacrifice to the problem 
  of the critic itself—of the critic's body 
  and medium—in relation to the already-produced 
  nature of itself and others. McLuhan's must be 
  retrieved as an archetype of the problem which 
  confronts every intellectual today in his or her 
  desire to empower, however partially, an audience 
  and milieu. (207)

I maintain that the postmodern register of McLuhan today—his own undying nature as a palimpsest of critical practice—is his historical signature and immortality. If his star fell in the early 70s, it has certainly risen again, which leads me to a final observation unrelated to the allowances of postmodern license. In the 1990s, we have finally distanced ourselves from the late-60s cliché of McLuhan. Time, neglect, and critical processing have worked to his advantage, finally rendering him non-environmental. McLuhan is therefore being treated today as he could not have been treated in his own generation—we are making of him what he made of the New Critics and High Modernists who preceded him. He is visible now, as "the first theologian of information" (qtd. in Gordon 8), as counter-environment. As archetype, he is now more the figure than the ground of our critical inquiry. Our intellectuals are looking to him to point the way, as he looked to Pound, Joyce, and Lewis, the so-called "Men of 1914." His visage is now firmly centred, if still not focussed, in our rear-view mirror.


"The reader wears the mask of the poet's work even as the author puts on the public as a mask. One is probe for the other. Joyce put it in a phrase: `My consumers, are they not my producers?'"

(Cliché 27-28)


Glenn Willmott's McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse (1996), which bears a similarity in title and post-structuralist spirit to Jameson's important work on postmodern culture (see note 1), is the book I begin with because of what appeared to me at first reading to be a central trope: Willmott's book is the deepest of the four I read, and, in its depth, the most closed. The deeper Willmott probed, I felt, the murkier his thought became, not because his logic was flawed or his syntax tortuous, but because his book imagined a scholarly audience awash in the reified, private discourse of post-structuralism. McLuhan's justification for reading Innis, cited by Willmott, captures the feeling I initially had, namely that Innis offers "`a pattern of insights that are not packaged for the consumer palate'" (110). "So does Willmott," I was prepared to say, forgetting both McLuhan's legitimization of "division and diversity" and his loathing for simple dismissal, which he concluded was an effete post-Romantic tendency that privileged the transience of content for the historical permanence of form. For McLuhan, judgement was just so much naiveté, unworthy of critical practice. And so, I was and am happy to reconsider what is a post-structuralist, Jamesonian "reading" of McLuhan, as much for the object-lesson my initial reaction provides as for the opportunity to laud what is an important contribution to McLuhan studies, one that will find its place next to John Fekete'sThe Critical Twilight: Explorations in the Ideology of Anglo-American Literary Theory from Eliot to McLuhan (1978).

The object-lesson of my first reading of Willmott's book is where I'd like to start, for my annoyance is ideologically laden with the burden of reading McLuhan in the postmodern present—that is, of reading McLuhan as much through a media panoply as through the covers of his own books. We have become accustomed to reading representations of thinkers, even of those thinkers with whom we are most familiar. And in being bombarded by the shadow-shows of representations, we become naturalized to messages that slowly re-package our knowledge so that the figure of that knowledge is shape-shifted into another form by the ground of new representations. This is another way of saying that "ground" nourishes "figure." My initial reading of Willmott is a case in point: I wondered what business a philosopher-philologist had in McLuhan studies. The fact is, McLuhan was as critically indebted to traditional, philosophical scholarship as he was eager to employ that indebtedness, a truism that is easy to forget in the maelstrom of popular/MTV versions of mcluhanisme. The upshot of all this self-disclosure points to the precariousness of reading McLuhan in the postmodern present, an activity which should probably be placed in double quotation marks: i.e., "reading `McLuhan,'" hence my title. In short, when one "reads `McLuhan,'" one engages the whole historical unconscious, accessing at best what Willmott rightly calls "an imaginary scaffolding thrown together, not merely from the ideological, but from the technical clichés of ...culture" (206). McLuhan, therefore, is what both the philologist and the MTV VJ remembered and forgot from their reading of a panoply of readings of McLuhan. To be sure, reading McLuhan in the postmodern present is a "high-definition" activity; he is "hot," meaning fully defined and detailed. Reading McLuhan is not reading what McLuhan wrote, which proves exactly what McLuhan said—that in the global Risorgimento, or postmodern revival, we read corporately and collectively, engaging the whole of the historical unconscious. "Reading `McLuhan,'" then, provides an analogue to the act of reading. To have thought about and become comfortable with that paradox is to begin to understand McLuhan and his age.2

Willmott's book, to begin again, is one of three types I am considering in this review article: the kind that explains McLuhan. W. Terrence Gordon's "most excellent" McLuhan for Beginners(1997) is similar to Willmott's in that it too explains, but in documentary comic book form, the McLuhan phenomenon. The vast remove of both books from the centre indicates how wide the craft of explanation really is, and how varied the audience interested in McLuhan: Willmott's is the high-starched treatment and Gordon's the lower-brow, "Gen-Y" version. Where Gordon's readers probably wear sunglasses, Willmott's probably suffer from eye strain. What twins both reader groups, however, is their desire to know something about McLuhan, and whereas those readers likely to buy Willmott's book are also likely to read it, those courted by Gordon want theClassic-Comic-Book version of the McLuhan story, which he delivers with the opening salvo, "Not only have you never read any of McLuhan's books, you've probably never read anything that makes you think you should" (1). And so, where Willmott's book is deliberate, comprehensive, and historically inclined, investigating sources and pondering implications, Gordon's is snappy, fast, hip, and jazzy. If indeed, as McLuhan claimed, one steps into a newspaper as into a bath, then one steps into Gordon's book as into a mid-summer carnival, full of forward and reverse angles, fade-ins and fade-outs, and all manner of cartoony talking heads and multi-media gargoyles, exactly what is needed to communicate with the "excellent adventurers" travelling through history on the air waves.3

In sum, I like many things about Willmott and Gordon's books, especially those ideas that are new or rarely examined. About Willmott's book I specifically like the treatment of the Greek notion of techne, which grounds the whole. Though Willmott doesn't credit Jacques Ellul directly for helping him apply the classical and seventeenth-century definitions of "technique" (later "technology") to McLuhan's use of the term, the spirit of Ellul certainly informs his treatment. As the unspoken creed of efficiency and regimentation—what a contemporary psychoanalyst might term the "symbolic order" of modernity—the subaltern, historical meaning of technology was certainly at the root of McLuhan's programme of illumination for social justice. In fact, after the fashion of Ezra Pound and I.A. Richards, McLuhan considered the process of unearthing etymologies to be one of the important tasks of the literati. As he wrote to Wyndham Lewis, his discovery of the real meaning of technology (primarily as extension, but also as constructivist systematization of process) would go a long way toward ending some of the "blackout of history." Willmott's book is especially valuable in its treatment of what McLuhan saw, again suggesting Ellul (but also Innis), as the unconscious technological imperative of high- and post-modernism. As early as The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan was warning of "the unity of the modern world becom[ing] increasingly a technological rather than a social affair" (87).

Willmott's book is also rigorously authoritative on McLuhan's sources and influences, thinkers as varied as Sergei Eistenstein, the Cambridge New Critics, Siegfried Giedion, Lewis Mumford, and the usual cornerstones: Pound, Lewis, and Innis. Curiously absent, however, is any sustained treatment of Joyce. If I have one criticism, finally, of Willmott's study—and I'll admit that it may be related more to the business of editing than writing—it is of the structural inference that McLuhan arrived at his ideas in an ordered way, that the journey from Pound through Lewis to Innis (from literary criticism to cultural anthropology) was paradigmatic for the development of his thought. In this inference, the book often falls for one of McLuhan's favourite metaphors for understanding the post-modern present—that of revisiting the scene of the crime, in this case a chronological investigation of McLuhan's many teachers. Surely McLuhan's own teachings are worth consulting here, for, simply put, subjectivity and cognition just do not work that way. Influence is as fickle as cliché, both more often than not remaining unexamined by the subject and unexaminable (except as fiction) by the critic.

In the same spirit of refutation I'll challenge Gordon's contention that if he were alive today McLuhan would probably not have an e-mail address (15). I rather doubt that, knowing what little I do about his fascination with early fax technology (presumably, McLuhan was one of the first Canadians to own a fax machine; so new was the technology that he had few recipients for his missives outside of the French and Japanese). Having said that, I also must say that Gordon's book is the best of the four I read in the way it summarizes McLuhan. Granted, that is the book's stated objective— to make McLuhan understandable to cyberspace travellers—however, Gordon's ability to synthesize McLuhan is first-rate, focussing on what the MTV crowd would want to know about the man: his views on TV and computers, popular culture, sex and advertising, and, of course, what all this global change means for youth. Gordon is also extremely effective in isolating and defining McLuhan's key tenets, so much so that McLuhan experts would find real value in reading Gordon's explanations of "the medium is the message," "hot and cool," "the global village," "cliché and archetype" and "laws of the media."

As well, Susan Willmarth's numerous illustrations (there are at least two on every page) provide provocative complement to Gordon's explanations, setting up a paratactic dialogue between visual and textual representations of mcluhanisme. In this, Gordon and Willmarth's collaboration is reminiscent of the McLuhan/Harley Parker project Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968). Designed to heighten our sensory awareness, such collisions of signifiers (of words and images—phonetic and pictographic signs) add not only resonance to the flatness of purely typographic representation but also offer working models of the post-modernity of mosaic man, who, newly retribalized, experiences the world in depth and all-at-once, the clear danger of which, as Gordon infers, is a somnambulism unmatched by Gutenberg's invention. Gordon's way of presenting and interpreting McLuhan is therefore of special interest to young people and the critically uninitiated. The way the book starts and the way the book ends presents a necessary and invaluable ecology for the retribalized: "...the new environment that McLuhan discerns should be studied as carefully as the O2system in the Apollo spaceship" (3); "If we had to put McLuhan into one sentence, it could be this: He asks us `What haven't you noticed lately?'" (136). In presenting McLuhan not as the champion but as the often self-parodying interrogator of popular/mass culture, Gordon comes as close to the spirit of McLuhan as any of these representations under consideration.


"I've been going on from extemporizations of Marshall's for thirty years."
(Kenner 297)


The second type of McLuhan artifice or construction that I am examining is what might be called "extension." Where Willmott and Gordon explain McLuhan, Robert Logan and Derrick de Kerckhoveextend McLuhan outward, using him as a footnote to their own inquiry, yet in a spirit different from how McLuhan used Innis as footnote to The Gutenberg Galaxy (50). The difference today, in the postmodern present, is that many of the thinkers who use McLuhan rarely bother to explain or investigate the "McLuhan" reference. Perhaps in a retribalized milieu that recalls the Homeric rules of oral man, they assume they don't have to. The consequence, however, of loosening the demands of indebtedness is that the subtext — in this case McLuhan — too readily gets claimed as legitimizer of a particular kind of inquiry. Robert Logan's book, The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age (1995), is a case in point. Though Logan's title echoes the later McLuhan, and though his book opens with an intelligent and cogent chapter on the Innis/McLuhan phenomenon, the balance of his book exhibits a reluctance to apply the lessons of McLuhan to the material being investigated. Here is one example.

  Drawing parallels between the two notational 
  systems [reading/writing and mathematics] 
  could certainly help students to understand 
  the abstract nature of the alphabet and the 
  place number system. It might help those who 
  are strong in math but weak in reading, or 
  vice versa, to use their strengths   with one 
  notational system to better understand the 
  other. These suggestions are purely speculative 
  but certainly worthy of further examination 
  and research. 

Though foregrounding what Foucault would call "discursive formation" is an interesting idea, McLuhan, I think, would comment that it is not a characteristic of information or educational policy to do that kind of work explicitly, obeying our inputs — what we term "programming" — but, in fact, to change our work environment as a result of the foundational grammars of the information itself (the syntax of the inputs those grammars require "to make sense"). To speculate, then, that computers or information can solve educational problems and cognitive discrepancies is not to understand (or not to subscribe to) the structural bias of information that fascinated McLuhan and Innis.

The other peculiarity that makes Logan's book the least satisfying of the four I read is Logan's tendency to range far too widely into areas outside of what appears to be the scope of his book (I admit to my discomfort in saying this because I cannot honestly say what the book aims at). Though I found occasionally interesting his treatment of literacy, numeracy, abstract science, the language of mathematics, the phonetic syllabaries of Akkadian speakers, the bifurcation of impressed logograms, the economic organization of tribal societies, the sociological debate over the definition of the middle class, and the rise of information technologies (to name but a few of the dozens upon dozens of media phenomena he covers), I found myself searching for the book's "teche," to use Willmott's term, amid its penchant for the encyclopedic and historical. In fact, what appears to be the book's first premise — that the challenge the middle class mounted to compete with the ruling elites was a function of the information-processing skills they acquired through education — emerges at the mid-way point of the study. As a short-hand archaeology of the 5000-year evolution of dominant media (speech, money, and mathematics), Logan's The Fifth Language is valuable, offering a wealth of insight and summary from thinkers as varied as Eric Havelock and Denise Schmandt-Besserat; but as a McLuhan-grounded cultural study of the ways in which "the fifth language"—computing—changes the contemporary pedagogic landscape, Logan's book leaves me wanting more of what he touched on in chapter six, where he charts how McLuhan's influence affected the socio-educational doyens of "the Wired World" (Alvin Toffler, Peter Drucker, and Peter Senge).

As an "extender" of McLuhan and mcluhanisme, Derrick de Kerckhove's work has more resonance than Logan's—and not just because he worked with McLuhan (so did Logan), but because he brings a more sophisticated and creative cultural analysis to the consideration of media subtext. One need only read the first few pages of The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality (1995) to discover what I mean, as the following should make clear:

  From the moment they take to computers, our 
  children develop a kind of speed addiction 
  that makes them howl and kick if their 
  favourite programs take more than a 
  nanosecond to come on-line.
  Where other cultural observers might have cited 
  forces of marketing, McLuhan saw in this 
  phenomenon a purely psychological pattern of 
  narcissistic identification with the power of 
  our toys. I see it as proof that we are indeed 
  becoming cyborgs, and that, as each technology 
  extends one of our faculties and transcends our 
  physical limitations, we are inspired to acquire 
  the very best extension of our own body. (3)

The success of de Kerckhove's techno-cultural commentary is related, in my reading, to his study of how McLuhan used his own footnotes to advantage, most notably Innis. Like McLuhan, de Kerckhove foregrounds his sources in an attempt to extend the implications of their thought, as all good cultural criticism does, building from foundation. And so, though de Kerckhove's leaps are often bold, as McLuhan's were, they resonate deeply in their observance of historical praxis, making them more credible inductions than the wild ahistorical guesses of digital hypsters such as Nicholas Negroponte and Louis Rossetto. In this, McLuhan's study of literary history as a barometer of how artists achieved "effect" seems to be an object-lesson that other forecasters also employ—and I am thinking specifically of Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul here. However elusive the formula for precocity is, it seems always balanced between the backward glance and the forward application. What Logan's book lacks in forward application, de Kerckhove's has in abundance, making The Skin of Culture, in many ways, the fin-de-siècle Understanding Media.

This is not necessarily to claim de Kerckhove as McLuhan's successor, a position many have tried to fill in the last few years, but to say that in his consideration of the duplicitous 1990's clichés like "3-D," "virtual reality," and quot;cyberspace," de Kerckhove comes as close to the method of McLuhan inquiry as any other techno-exegete I've read. In fact, one experiences in reading de Kerckhove the same kind of discovery and excitement that reading McLuhan provides; and, like McLuhan, his work begs paraphrase. Unfortunately, only a few examples will have to suffice:

  Because of the sequential properties of our 
  alphabetic conditioning, the western mind has 
  also been trained to divide information into 
  small chunks and reassemble them in a left-right 
  sequential order. The alphabet has supported the 
  basic inspiration and the models for the most 
  powerful codes of mankind: the atomic structure, 
  the genetic string of amino acids, the computer 
  bit. All these codes have a power of action, of 
  creation, and they all stem from the basic 
  model of the alphabet. 


  The fantasy of alien persecution, despite any 
  hard evidence to support it, is, of course, 
  a kind of traumatic metaphor. It could be 
  the psychological effect of the technologies 
  attacking the culture. But we should observe 
  that the Japanese variety is curiously more 
  intimate than the standard 
  `good-guys-versus-bad-guys' type. Indeed 
  Transformers are creatures of design that are 
  both organic and mechanical in turn. What 
  could be a closer approximation of the uneasy 
  adjustment of Japanese psychology to the 
  cyborgian integration of man and machine? 
  By comparison, westerners have been raped 
  by their machines almost without noticing it. 
  In essence, the western equivalent to the 
  Japanese Transformer are Bladerunner's 
  androids, mechanization taking an organic form; 
  Transformers portray organic beings turning 
  mechanical in self-defence. (162)


  Television modulates our emotions and our 
  imaginations in a way comparable to the 
  power of music. That is why the rock video 
  is a natural television creature.
  This is another aspect of the mysteriously 
  tactile dimension that McLuhan attributed 
  to television. When he suggested in later 
  books that `the medium is the massage,' 
  making fun of his own celebrated aphorism, 
  what he meant was that television caresses 
  us and rubs its meaning under our skin.... 
  The overnight success of Trivial Pursuit 
  seems to indicate that most of us share 
  approximately the same body of trivia. In 
  all this, TV may very well be doing our 
  thinking for us. (16-17)


  Now, as we penetrate the screen's virtual 
  realities with eyephones, datagloves and data 
  suits, we are entering the third media era: 
  Cyberculture. Cyberculture is the product of 
  the multiplication of mass by speed, as video 
  technologies are intensified by computer 
  technologies. High Definition Television is a 
  typical example of this kind of multiplication. 
  The deeper message of HDTV is not better 
  definition or finer resolution, but more power 
  to the frame. HDTV is television educated by 
  computer. (125)

The constant in de Kerckhove's book is a willingness to intuit from available evidence and scholarship, an action that relies on a thorough investigation of the deep structure of media subtexts combined with an intimate knowledge of popular culture. The combination, as with McLuhan thirty years earlier, is both exciting and critically valuable. For a McLuhan-inspired (and extended) exploration of the latest cyber-cosmologies, de Kerckhove's The Skin of Culture is first-rate.


"Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight.... He is setting up a mosaic configuration or galaxy of insight.... Innis makes no effort to `spell out' the interrelations between the components in his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only do-it-yourself kits, like a symbolist poet or abstract painter."
(GG 216-17)


The final type of McLuhan "reading" I should mention here is what only could be termed "the McLuhan mosaic"—McLuhan in preview, sound bite, and trailer. The consciously mosaicconfiguration of this kind of testament is more frequent than the two other treatments I examined in this review, a curiosity that reflects our need to have McLuhan presented to us, in the first-person, again and again. Part of this need is related to the complexity and topicality of his thought, part related to our pride in producing such a thinker, and part to the success McLuhan has had in turning us into information anthologizers, those who articulate the world in (and assimilate the world by) "info nuggets." A few of the more notable of these information anthologies that capture the McLuhan mosaic are George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald's Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (1989), Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan's Who Was Marshall McLuhan? (1994), Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone's Essential McLuhan (1995), Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart's Forward Through the Rear View Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan (1996), and, of course, the electronic Understanding McLuhan (1996). Most of these, to add another curiosity, are coffee table books, multi-media kaleidoscopes that present the full sensory complex of McLuhan's thought.

Having said that I'll end on my favourite hobby-horse and say, as I think inductively about this review article, that the multiple constructions and representations of McLuhan are themselves representative of a ground that electronic text is now appropriating, and at the expense of literacy. Sellers of hypertext and digital hype claim that the true mosaic configuration is theirs, that before McLuhan's so-called "electrically-configured whirl" (Massage 150) the linearity of type rendered the historical unconscious hopelessly teleological. That reading can indeed be extracted from McLuhan, especially if one reads only a few chapters of The Gutenberg Galaxy; however, if one samples the full McLuhan plate and considers the multi-sensory implications of his thought, then surely the mosaic configuration which McLuhan first discovered in Innis's methodology predates the electronic claim by generations and even centuries. In reporting on his own archaeology of post-Gutenberg cultural knowledge, Foucault concurs:

  The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: 
  beyond the title, the first lines, and the 
  last full stop, beyond its internal 
  configuration and its autonomous form, it 
  is caught up in a system of references to 
  other books, other texts, other sentences: 
  it is a node within a network....the unity 
  of the book, even in the sense of a group of 
  relations, cannot be regarded as identical 
  in each case. The book is not simply the 
  object that one holds in one's hands; and 
  it cannot remain within the little 
  parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is 
  variable and relative. As soon as one 
  questions that unity, it loses its 
  self-evidence; it indicates itself, 
  constructs itself, only on the basis of a 
  complex field of disclosure. (The Archaeology of Knowledge 23)

So it is with McLuhan, and so it is with the rich multi-sensory musée imaginaire of literacy that, like Pound, he explored—and, as Pound writes in The Cantos, "not as land looks on map / but as sea bord seen by men sailing" (59/324). In other words, in three dimensions. Both McLuhan and the typographic, therefore, are as hyper-extended as hypertext and other digital phenomena. If Negroponte's "being digital" indeed means having exploded your borders, then that is an old schtick, one from the old typographic world of authors and subjects. Your reading of my reading of "reading `McLuhan'" would seem ample proof.


  1. Significant as well to McLuhan's postmodernism is that the pre-eminent postmodernist critic, Frederic Jameson, has used McLuhan frequently as a harbinger of the postmodern, one whose critical practice threw the gate open for Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan to critique the high modernism of the New Critics and the industrial re-tooling of the early twentieth century. Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), is especially revealing in this light, as is the fact that Willmott's book under consideration in this review was written at Duke University under Jameson's supervision. And Willmott's is not the first doctoral thesis on McLuhan that Jameson has been involved with.
  2. I am still working on it, which is to admit something important, namely that all this "confessing" is not anything like a series of false starts; rather, my confessing is proof of the diligence we must have in interrogating our own sensibility, which remains predominantly visual in character and expectation, especially in its institutional—i.e., what Roland Barthes called "writerly"—aspects.
  3. Of course, McLuhan too, as Gordon reminds us, altered his prose "to capture the pop objects of [an] emerging technological age"(25). I.A. Richards' belief in the servitude of language to thought was never far removed from McLuhan's practice, nor, it appears, the practice of McLuhan explainers today. Once again, the medium is the message; we communicate as much by how we say something as by whatwe say.

Works Cited

  1. Foucalt, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
  2. Gordon, W. Terrence. McLuhan for Beginners. Illustrated by Susan Willmarth. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1997.
  3. Kenner, Hugh. Mazes. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.
  4. de Kerckhove, Derrick. The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality. Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1995.
  5. Logan, Robert K. The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age. Toronto: Stoddart, 1995.
  6. McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.
  7. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1951.
  8. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
  9. McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1967.
  10. McLuhan, Marshall and Harley Parker. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1968.
  11. McLuhan, Marshall and Wilfred Watson. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
  12. Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. 1934. New York: New Directions, 1981.
  13. Stearn, Gerald Emanuel. Ed. McLuhan: Hot & Cool. 1967. Toronto: Signet Books, 1969.
  14. Willmott, Glenn. McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse. Toronto: U of T Press. 1996.