Issue #185 - Michael Oliver

Michael Oliver

 

What Outlasts Life?

 

Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013, 86 pp., $26.50).

 

 

Clive James writes poems that are poetry. That is, his poems speak with verbal music, like the poems poets used to write, before fine writing was denounced and damned, by righteous anti-intellectuals. An axiom of creativity declares that knowledge must precede creation — knowledge of both method and domain. A poet must know how to form a poem, and a poet must know what each feeling is (as Susanne Langer said — and she was right) in order to create a lasting poem.

   James defends his poems in a poem that might be considered his poetics, not to mention his severe assessment of the way some other poets write. To make his point he first calls on Ronsard:

 

But on the whole it’s useless to point out

That making the thing musical is part

Of pinning down what you are on about.

The voice leads to the craft, the craft to

     art:

All this is patent to the gifted few

Who know, before they can, what they

     must do

To make the mind a spokesman for the

     heart.

             

As for the million others, they are

     blessed:

This is their age. Their slap-dash in

      demand

For all who would take fright were thought expressed

In ways that showed a hint of being planned,

They may say anything, in any way.

Why not? Why shouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they?

Nothing to study, nothing to understand.

                                      (“A Perfect Market”)

 

One line in these two stanzas is outstanding, and it is not easy to forget:  To make the mind a spokesman for the heart. The fact that we might easily remember this one line is owing to its beauty: its precision and its flawless rhythm of iambics in pentameter, its sharp caesura and its rising cadence. Like the lines of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and Yeats — to name the standards — and to chasten Ezra Pound’s curse to “make it new,” which ruined English metre for the last chaotic hundred years — Clive James’s lines require that we listen, and then think about what he is saying. Shakespeare and the others live forever. Who can now recall a line from Pound?

     The poems in this fascinating volume, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, are the products of an old man knowing that his life is in its final days. He may be dying, but his mind is living, and he strives to make a testament that will ensure that he, at least, remembers what his life has been before he dies. What is it, then, that he remembers most?  This tottering libidinous old man. Of course the answer is predictable, but still it is a little disappointing. Sex is what his poems have in mind. Not merely as a theme to be considered, but as lust imagined in the act. Not often does a poet celebrate the sense of touch involved in copulation with a woman in the way James does. The story is, his wife of many years — a scholar who translated Dante’s work — expelled  him from her own refined embrace because of his obscene philandering. “How sensual pleasure feels. It can’t be seen,” says James in “Oval Room, Wallace Collection,” and this might be the motto of his mind.

     If this is so, it might be disconcerting. Fortunately, James’s poetry is what concerns us here. His life and thinking are irrelevant. Consider how his verse articulates the secret touch, the female mystery, as he describes the hidden White Nun Orchid:

 

  ... Her sweet hunger is displayed

  By the labellum, set for bees in flight

  To land on. In her well, the viscin gleams:

  Mesmeric nectar, sticky stuff of dreams.

                                       (“Monja Blanca”)

The point is that these lines transcend the thought. The theme of touching is transformed to sight, and pleasure is expressed in terms of beauty, by the images and metaphors and rhythm, making what is unknown to the eyes intelligibly visual and rare.

     Not only is the coarseness of plain sex redeemed by James’s fine poetic writing, but the love he feels toward his wife is also uttered with exquisite grace. He speaks to her as they sit near Mount Etna and watch lava spilling from the peak:

 

  Only because it’s violent to the core

  The world grows gardens. Out of earth we came,

  To earth we shall return. But first, one more

  Of these, delicious echoes of the flame

 

  That drives the long life all should have, yet few

  Are granted as we were. It wasn’t fair?

  Of course it wasn’t, but which of us knew,

  To start with, that the other would be there.

 

  One step away, for all the time it took

  To come this far and see a mountain cry

  Hot tears, as if our names, signed in the book

  Of marriage, were still burning in the sky?

                                      (“Signing Ceremony”)

 

This poem is romantic through and through, and only tragic if we know what happened after that late night of married love. A reader should not listen to the gossip. What the poem says is all important.

     At the centre of this poignant book is “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” read best as a hopeful meditation on the painful ravages of time. The poem opens with a playful image, and some musing on the portrait bust that has become a captivating icon:

 

  If there were one thing that Egyptian Queens were used to

  It was getting walled up inside a million tons

  Of solid rock. Nefertiti had a taste of that

  Before the painted head by which we know her —

  That neck, that pretty hat, those film-star features,

  The Louise Brooks of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms —

  Emerged to start a tour of the museums

  That finished in Berlin, almost for keeps.

  It could have been the end, but for the flak tower:

  With all the other treasures she was brought there

  And sat the war out barely shivering,

  Deep in the armoured storeroom built by slaves —

  The old scenario again ....

 

The poem then describes the massive bombings, and the bombers shot down on the towers, all the horror of concussive warfare, till it ended and the Queen emerged. Years later James goes on a visit:

 

  In Berlin in the spring I cross the bridge

  To the Museumsinsel just to see her

  And dote on her while she gives me that look,

  The look that says: “You’ve seen one tomb, you’ve seen

  Them all.” For five long years the flak towers stood

  Fighting the enemy armies in the sky

  Whose flying chariots were as the locusts

  An age but less than no time to Nefertiti,

  Who looks as if she never heard a thing.

 

Now read again that last pentameter — James’s trademark and how fine it is!  What, though, does Nefertiti symbolize?  That she embodies exemplarity is evident to anyone who sees her. James implies that she is everlasting. But what is she? Not just Art but Beauty. This is how the poet lives forever. Not by seizing days and wanton women, but by writing poems beautifully, great lyrics that are never touched by time.

     Clive James has done that, with true dignity, as in this farewell poem to himself:

 

  The light as it grows dark has come for you

  To comfort you. It is the sweet embrace

  Of what your history was bound to do:

  Close in, and in due time to take your place.

  You can’t believe it, but it’s nothing new:

  Your life has turned to look you in the face.

                            (“The Light As It Grows Dark”)

 

That final line is unforgettable.

 

 

 

 

 

Issue # 185 - Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore

 

Diving in

 

 

Confidence by Russell Smith (Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2015, 158 pp., $19.95).

Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill (Toronto, ON: Harper Collins, 2015, 368 pp., $22.99).

Specimen by Irina Kovalyova (Anansi, 2015, 292 pp., $19.95).

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2015, 272 pp., $29.95).

 

 

There is something enthralling about the short story. Maybe it’s the sleight of hand — so much scope and breadth and emotion in so few pages. In fact, about the only thing you can say definitively about the short story is that it’s short. Reading one is the literary equivalent of stepping off a diving board and plunging into thin air. In that brief moment, everything can somersault. You can experience a wild, heady ride that can change you.

     Traditionally, the Canadian short story is staunchly based in realism, with a narrative arc that ratchets up through conflicts and semi-resolutions toward a crisis, an epiphany, and a tidy conclusion. The shape is almost hard-wired in our collective brains.

     But a new crop is working against these constraints, with wider plots that spread into the lives of characters who may be only tangentially linked to one another. They spread out over time, too, rather than adhere to the traditional shape of action, epiphany, denouement.

     Enter Russell Smith’s mesmeric, sensuous collection Confidence. His protagonists are mostly white Torontonian men, and they are taken up with their own bodies, emotions, and interior thoughts. In particular, they are obsessed with sex — with whom to have it, how much it costs, and the moral compromises required to keep it coming. These men are at ease with the vernacular of gentrification, with the syntax of haute couture and fine cuisine.

     In each of the eight stories, the protagonist has a tenuous grip on the upper-middle rungs of society, has a job that requires a liberal education, and is afflicted with a low-thrumming anxiety about money.

     In “Gentrification,” for example, Tracy worries about property values when he finds garbage, left by his neighbours in an adjacent apartment, piled along his back fence. To maintain his lifestyle, he rents his downstairs apartment to loud, violent welfare recipients who happen to be black lesbians; he then schemes to evict them and fantasizes about them while masturbating.

     Tracy and the other protagonists are united by middle age and disillusionment, having given up their individual freedoms for unfulfilling domestic stability. Through third-person limited narrators and a confection of keen-eyed observations that zip off the tongue like fizz candy, we understand their thoughts and feelings, lusts and desires — and the excuses the men invent when they behave badly. The narrative tension works like a spiderweb, delicately constructed and ensnaring: Smith’s prose captures moral decay.

     Of course, all the women are subjected to the male gaze — that hackneyed but disturbingly apt term. They are cleavage, hips, and thighs; they are sweaty black polyester thongs. The male protagonists find them sexy in their poverty or sexy in their vulnerability. In “Fun Girls,” one of the “fun” women raves about an expensive restaurant: “And it was so free! Was it not free? ” She is oblivious to the fact that someone else has picked up the tab. Even the powerful women — solvent and self-aware — are nothing but sex objects tricked out with expensive Italian boots or wives with ticking biological clocks. Yet, somehow, they always hold the moral upper hand.

     Smith leaves wiggle room between his characters’ perceptions and his own overriding judgment. He deftly allows us to discern grubbing desires, and, in doing so, our own prejudices. Epiphanies tend to fly past the characters themselves, but they hit us head-on.

 

***

 

The stakes are higher for Heather O’Neill’s characters — the urban poor who have more to lose than Smith’s moneyed men. O’Neill has a knack for capturing cities and the details of class, and in Daydreams of Angels she explores the power imbalances between children and adults, between the innocent and the corrupt, and between the rich and the poor.

     The collection’s twenty stories are postmodern fairy tales, complete with a performing bear that speaks and a boy raised by wolves. There are single mothers, quadruplets, modern prophets, and babies born of the sea. There are also orphans who face harsh adult realities. These are kids who battle errant, unpredictable punishments of all sorts. As with that Canadian orphan prototype, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, they use their imaginations to overcome cruelty. But O’Neill’s orphans live in cities, not the idyllic fields of Prince Edward Island. They deal with addicts, fascists, sexual assault, and eviction. The only way they are similar to Anne is that they are emboldened, alive with agency and imagination.

     Disney movies have warped our view of fairy tales, making them whimsical and sweet. These stories resemble the more nightmarish tales of the Brothers Grimm. They are declarative articulations of hardship, leavened with wit and compassion. Daydreams of Angels contrasts innocence and man-made cruelties; it is rich in metaphor and awash in magic, and it sparkles with idiosyncratic one-liners.

     The book’s heroes aren’t beribboned by helpful bluebirds, and they certainly don’t ride off into sunsets with handsome princes. In “The Story of a Rose Bush,” for example, a Nazi john gives leather gloves to a child prostitute, who ends up shamed and shorn on the streets of Paris. Although she is rescued by a Canadian soldier and taken to Montreal, she ends up paralyzed by a bypass surgery gone wrong. As an older woman, she rides a wheelchair through the streets, filled with nostalgia for a same-sex affair (the only real love she ever experienced) that ended in devastating betrayal.

     O’Neill upends preconceived notions about childhood and poverty — and form. She plays with the traditional fairy tale to reveal the dangerous, often grotesque underbelly of desperate times.

 

***

 

Irina Kovalyova’s debut collection, Specimen, is also preoccupied with experimental form. Born in the Soviet Union, Kovalyova was, for a time, stateless (due to shifting political boundaries). She later interned atNASA and worked as a DNA analyst in New York before settling in British Columbia, where she earned a master’s degree in creative writing and now teaches molecular biology. In other words, she is no slouch.

     Specimen is enriched with the author’s scholarship, but its nine stories also pack an emotional punch. Kovalyova wields gentle humour and bald wonder to explore the scientific underpinnings of the universe, including all kinds of love and despair.

     “Peptide p” documents how young people experience grief, in the form of a scientific report complete with the apt subtitle, “The Association of Parapsychological Phenomena with Resistance to Heart Break Disease in Peptide p-Positive Children.” Graphs and interviews that assess paranormal activity fill the pages, which focus on biochemical fluctuations in kids who have suffered trauma. Ironically, the story uses scientific language to prove the existence of the unreal.

     Specimen concludes with “The Blood Keeper,” a tour de force. Full of wildly propulsive action, it borrows from the pulp spy novel and is pinned down by complex insights about science, totalitarianism, betrayal, trust, and soporific plant extracts.

     The narrator, Vera, is a botany student in Moscow who is writing a dissertation about tropical plants. When her father, who oversees Lenin’s tomb, is called to Pyongyang shortly after the death of Kim Il Sung, she joins him. What follows is a flurry of doublespeak, sinister flirtations, and secret codes.

     Kovalyova creates a labyrinthine plot that constricts until it becomes necessary for her protagonist to seek escape. As in Daydreams of Angels, there are touches of magic here; the realism warps to give a view of motherhood, romantic love, and the desire for freedom. Specimen touches down in Canada, but its scope is global.

 

***

 

If O’Neill and Kovalyova are postmodern in their approach to the short story, Guy Vanderhaeghe is more traditional. Nevertheless, he presses the form to say new things about class, gentrification, and escape. Daddy Lenin and Other Stories returns to some of the themes the author explored in Man Descending, which won a Governor General’s Award in 1983.

     Many of Vanderhaeghe’s characters have escaped threatening rural pasts or overpowering early loves to achieve modest financial security, obtained primarily through willpower and brawn. Using sturdy, unadorned sentences, Vanderhaeghe fashions hapless, hard-working narrators who have travelled far (socially and geographically) to escape claustrophobic realities. Still, they end up dissatisfied, not far enough away from what formed them.

     Vanderhaeghe’s female characters are particularly vivid. We understand them through simple, indelible details: the green, caked-on eyeshadow worn by fifteen-year-old Darcy in “1957 Chevy Bel Air,” for example, is the exact shade of her irises. She is fickle and breaks the protagonist’s heart when she leaves him for an older guy with a newer car. Like many of the other women in the collection, Darcy is a siren who befuddles and abandons men. She is passionate, selfish, ungovernable. And she leaps off the page.

     “The Jimi Hendrix Experience” is a particularly captivating story of a boy’s desire to escape a hot, tedious summer and follow his sole ambition — to be the famous musician. “I want a burst of Afro ablaze in a bank of stage lights,” Troy says, “to own a corona of genius.”

     Along with two friends, he plays a prank on an elderly man and finds himself trapped in an explosive situation. The tension builds to a pyrotechnical epiphany: “And here I am, running through the late-afternoon stillness of an empty suburban street, sucked down it faster than my legs can carry me, this hollow, throaty roar of fire in my head, that tiny point on the horizon drawing me to where the sun is either coming up or going down.”

     Vanderhaeghe’s men are worlds apart from Smith’s coke-snorting partiers, who stay out all night snacking on crab balls. They are silent and defeated, and disappear into clock-punching jobs that systematically destroy their bodies and souls. But both writers capture the vagaries of class, as well as uneasy, complicated relationships with women who are at once wise and unattainable. Their books help define an uncomfortable twenty-first-century masculinity.

     Read together, these four collections exhibit the current preoccupations of the Canadian short story. They are compressed but expansive and concerned with escape of all kinds. They rise and fall and ripple as the reader dives in.

 

 

 

 

               — Previously published in The Walrus (September, 2015)

 

 

Issue # 188 - Contributors

Contributors

 

David Barrick writes stories, poems, and songs, and his work has previously been published in The Fiddlehead, Matrix, and Headlight Anthology. He teaches writing at Western University in London, Ontario.

Chris Benjamin is the author of three award-winning and critically-acclaimed books: Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School; Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada; and the novel Drive-by Saviours. Chris has written for The Globe and Mail, CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Star, Z Magazine, Science Friday and numerous others. www.chrisbenjaminwriting.com.

Roger Caldwell currently lives in Essex, England, and has previously lived in Canada and Germany. He writes for numerous journals on literature and philosophy. His latest collection of poetry is Setting Out for the Mad Islands (Shoestring Press, UK, 2016).

Sue Chenette, a classical pianist as well as a poet, grew up in northern Wisconsin and has made her home in Toronto since 1972. She is an editor for Brick Books, and the author of Slender Human Weight (Guernica Editions, 2009) and The Bones of His Being (Guernica Editions, 2012).

Ian Colford is the author of Evidence, a collection of short fiction, and a novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomás. He lives in Halifax.

James Copeland has published a short piece of fiction in  Killing the Angel magazine entitled President’s Day.  He concentrates on narrative fiction, though has attempted other forms of writing such as poetry and creative non-fiction.  He strives for his own distinctive style and voice.  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is home.

John Wedgwood Clarke is a lecturer in literature and creative writing at the University of Hull, UK. His first collection, Ghost Pot, was published in 2013 and his forthcoming collection, Landfill, will be published in 2017.

Lee Firestone Dunne has published two chapbooks: Cocktail Shaker (2008), Life in the Poorhouse (2013), followed by a collaborative work with four Santa Fe poets, Bosque Rhythms (2014). She is completing a poetry manuscript and a memoir. She presents cross-cultural workshops in Italy, South Africa, Canada and the US.

Michael Dunwoody is a lifelong resident of Windsor, ON. His work has appeared in several numbers of The Antigonish Review, for which he’s really proud. It has also appeared in Canadian and American magazines, active and defunct, including Event, The Fiddlehead, Plenitude, Prairie Fire, Pottersfield Portfolio, The MacGuffin, and The Great Lakes Review. A piece of non-fiction was short-listed in the Malahat Review 2013 “Open Seasons” Contest. He has stories upcoming in The Antigonish Review and Polychrome Ink. He’s currently working on a play set in Essex County.

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 (http://www.brokenearth.ca/about-us/), a non-profit group of Canadian health care individuals providing medical assistance to earthquake victims in Haiti, Bangladesh, Nepal and Gautemala. Last year he produced and directed Joan MacLeod’s Jewel.  This year he is doing Conor McPherson’s The Weir.

Rocco de Giacomo is a widely published poet whose work has appeared in literary journals in Canada, Australia, England, Hong Kong and the US. His forthcoming collection, Every Night of Our Lives, will be published with Guernica Editions. He is currently working on his third poetry manuscript, entitled Brace Yourselves.

John Harrington is a Canadian artist who has been painting for more than fifty years. His favourite medium is acrylic on canvas or board; his style can be described as realism and his subjects are based on life experiences. John  has become known in some circles for his extensive travels in the Canadian Arctic. Ten expeditions in search of the lost Franklin Expedition of 1845 have resulted in numerous discoveries. The Inukshuk at Victory Point painting is based on an inukshuk discovered at Victory Point on King William Island — the place where Franklin’s men came ashore in 1848. John’s works can be viewed on his website:  www.johnharringtonart.com   He recently became a “Fellow” of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society”

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.

Louisa Howerow’s latest poems appeared in The Fiddlehead, Carousel, and in the following anthologies — Imaginarium 3 & 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications), River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century (Blue Light Press) and Full, an Anthology of Moon Poems (Two of Cups Press).

David Huebert is the author of the poetry collection We Are No Longer the Smart Kids in Class (Guernica, 2015). His story, “Enigma,” won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize.

Hung Hung (鴻鴻) was born in 1964 in Tainan, southern Taiwan.  A leading poet of  his generation, he is also a prolific fiction writer, essayist, theatre critic, playwright, editor, and festival curator.  An award-winning screenwriter as well as stage, film, and documentary film director, he resides in Taipei. 

Lauren Marshall is a Canadian writer living in British Columbia. Her poetry has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, The Puritan, The Warren Undergraduate Review, and UBC Okanagan’s Paper Shell anthology. She recently graduated from UBC Okanagan where she received a BA in both Creative Writing and Political Science.

Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong. He currently edits a trade magazine in Vancouver. His debut collection of short stories, In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad), was a 2009 ReLit Award finalist. His second collection of stories, Brunch with the Jackals, was released by Thistledown Press in Spring 2015.

Margaret McLeod lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and has been writing poetry for 25 years. This is her second appearance in The Antigonish Review (the first being a short story in 1990), and she’s very glad to be back.

Richard Sanger is the author of two collections, Shadow Cabinet and Calling Home, both with Signal Editions. His poems have appeared in the LRB, Poetry Review, the TLS and many other publications. He also writes plays, and has reviewed poetry for The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and TLS.

Stephen Scott is a student at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.

Suzanne Stewart teaches at St. Francis Xavier University. Her principal area of interest is Romantic literature. She has also completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is the author of three books of poems, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016).  Her latest translation is Chinese poet-scenographer Yi Lu’s book of selected poems, Sea Summit (Milkweed, 2016). She lives in France.

Kim Trainor’s poems have been published in journals such as CV2 and Grain. She has won The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and the Gustafson Prize, and has been longlisted several times for the CBC Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Karyotype was published in Fall 2015 with Brick Books.

Marcia Walker’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prism International, Event, Room, University of Toronto Magazine and The Broken Social Scene Story Project. Her play, Recess, is part of the Write from the Hip program at Nightwood Theatre. Currently she is an MFA student at Guelph University.

Shelley Wood’s stories have appeared in The New Quarterly, carte blanche, Nashwaak Review, and Room. In 2016, she won the Tethered by Letters F(r)iction contest and the Frank McCourt prize for Creative Nonfiction. She divides her time between a job in New York City and a family in Kelowna, BC.

Howard Wright lectures at the Belfast School of Art. Recent poems have appeared in Scintilla, The Fiddlehead and Magma. Others are forthcoming in Stand and The North. He was longlisted in last year’s National Poetry Competition.

 

 

 

 

Issue # 188 - David Hickey

David Hickey

 

Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems by Jeanette Lynes (Hamilton, ON: Buckrider Books, 2015, 80 pp., $18.00).

Karyotype by Kim Trainor (London ON: Brick Books, 2015, 97 pp., $20.00).

a tree planted in summer by Ling Yu (Paris: Vif Éditions, 2015, 46 pp., US$10.00).

 

 

“Here is a delicate and graceful hand naming the fragile materials of poetry.”

 

The above quote is Dionne Brand’s vivid and insightful blurb on the back of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s volume of poetry, Small Arguments, published in 2003. Thammavongsa’s minimalist pieces sparked off the “fragile materials of poetry” illustrate how it is that the same elements of this art can be taken up daintily or … otherwise. I make this point to draw attention to the differences between, on the one hand, the heavy and hyper-referential style of two of the volumes reviewed here: Jeanette Lynes’ Bedlam Cowslip and Kim Trainor’s Karyotype and, on the other, the spare imagistic turns in a tree planted in summer, by Ling Yu. All three poets are accomplished in their own right and do not need comparisons to other poets to be appreciated. But, there are birds to be terminated here and, in a review of this length, only a few stones at hand.

     The subtitle of Lynes’ Bedlam Cowslip, is: “The John Clare Poems.” References to the life and writings of Clare and some of his fellow romantic poets and assorted Clare scholars appear regularly in Lynes’ poems, and archaic 18th and 19th century diction — including slang — peppers many of her lines. In fact, there is a sixteen-piece bibliography appended  to  the text. Hence, you read these poems with two hands: one holds the place of the poem, and one the place of the notes. I resisted the google and went with my own reading background and memory of Clare; I don’t think Lynes’ poetry suffered because I relied solely on my own resources and her notes.

     And certainly the pleasure afforded by such a gifted conductor of these fragile materials was not diminished. Lynes writes consistently with a tight command of tone and image:

 

            Miss Kent, for her volume, seeks advice

            on parish birds. You little iconoclast

            he thinks. His skull crackles blue ache.

            Has she even seen those birds?

 

            No birds for the girl’s lyrical ballast.

            She trundles off, huffs over the heath,

            her disappointment tight as stays.

            He broke a violin string.

 

Throughout, she recreates the Clare half-century in big and small ways. While many of the poems attend to the minutiae of the rural landscape (birds, haymaking, traditional cures, lime burning, etc.), many others name-check the newsmakers and the headlines: Lord Byron; John Keats; the Enclosure Acts. Overall, though, it doesn’t seem to be her intention to submerge her readers in Clare’s world so much as it is to celebrate John Clare’s sensibility, as “The Briefest Nature Poem Ever Writ” makes clear:

 

                                    Tesco

                                    sod off

 

Many of the poems are Clare biography-riffs onto which Lynes attaches contemporary poetic materials. She conflates a self-loathing hipster romantic longing with Clare’s own doubts about the success of his project. In “On Emmonsail Heath” the half-mellowed-out voice of some minor 21st century Lear confronts a world gone mad.

 

            Bullocks on my heath — a mere trope.

            I’ve never stood on Emmonsail Heath

            so why don’t I just zip it? Me with my

            sherbet, buzzy computer,

            bourgeois craft-beer barleycorn.

            My on: an awning rent, a rip large enough

            to drive a rhetorical lorry through.

            Yet I love the show —

            bumbarrel aerobatics,

            Clare’s avian cast, flapping, flitting,

            soshing odd in the ling.

            Here I am now, entertain me!

 

Further on, in the same poem, a gypsy appears to epitomize all these mentalities: grunge, technophilia, and ironic cool. These juxtapositions usually work because Lynes is respectful of each ingredient. (Sometimes not, as in “To the Prizefighters” whose David Bowie allusion this reader found jarring.)

     Lynes’ collection takes a dramatic turn mid-way through Part III when John Clare’s madness becomes the focus. Here, biography becomes more obvious. Nevertheless, the poet masters the material, even as she works the edges of bitterness. The allusions are more to Clare’s own time and contemporaries (Keats, Byron, Mary Lamb, Shakespeare’s plays, his own wives — real and imagined) and the settings bleaker and less playful. Always, though, the poems portray Clare’s mania with sensitivity and intelligence.

 

                                           … He passes the last

            standing willow, his old pin-and-thread

            fishing spot, the laughing ghost boys

            with their proggling sticks, his own ghost.

            He has no map. Tramps a crankled course,

            soodles among cowslips, careful

            not to climb trees (this never

            turns out well). He’d like to see what grasses

            see. Three crows signal some brink.

            Still no Keats.

            Only fields akin to some great, ruined wheel —

            spokes, not grid — circle, spire, a rounding of home.

 

                                    “The Edge of The World, A Theory”

 

It’s an admirable feat to throw pebbles in the pond called Poor John Clare and interpret the rings this way. And, today, as her last golden eagle disappears from the English countryside, it’s worthy of Clare’s legacy.

     I also did not google ‘karyotype’, Tarim Basin, mummies of Ürümchi, or the Beauty of Loulan, even though these are some of the fragile materials of poetry that Kim Trainor employs in her collection, Karyotype. Again, this is two-handed poetry requiring repeated reference to endnotes. As with Jeanette Lynes, I do not feel that I missed anything by not expanding on Trainor’s own reported research. Her poems are not weighed down by an obtrusive reliance on extraneous data so they move quickly along a quasi-narrative trajectory that calls forth the emotion she’s aiming for. There is a constant tightening of the focus through an unmediated and concise language that brings the reader closer and closer to the centripetal centre. Every image is ultimately particular and subjective. There is little resonance: no ‘great soul’ observes the goings on. There is only the plaintive voice of the poet regretting, regretting, regretting.

     Trainor’s meditations on the mummies of Ürümchi pass over the ghoulish in the name of the aesthetic and the philosophical. DNA is our age’s Great Chain of Being and most of these poems explore, with and without metaphor, the bred-in-the-bone relationships in our little genetic village.

 

                                                        … She is past

                        caring, her body now a manuscript

                        of faded letters and soft words.

 

                        of mourning; comb and spindle,

                        whorl and winnowing tray, all her craft

                        long forgotten as she is left, thinned

 

                        to paper and clots of ink

                        that once ran clear in her, her life’s

                        illumination, her life

 

                        resolved to heat-glazed onion skin,

                        to mute tendrils of kin.

                        I think I might be of her kind

 

                        deep in my own unconsecrated skin.

 

                                                                    from “III”

 

There are 23 of these excavations in the first section of Trainor’s collection, entitled “Karotype.” And, later, in section three, there is a handful more. Throughout, the bodies of long dead children and adults stir up the poet’s confusion as often as her sympathy. In fact, the mix of sympathy and confusion is the right way to respond to something so close and yet so distant. Mixed metaphors and strings of synonyms pour out onto the page as if the speaker is surrendering to a rather helpless insouciance.

 

                        The crocuses that were stiff blue flames

                        are broken now, their wrung necks

                        laid on banks of moss. All the same.

 

                        Life furls somewhere below.

                        I lie with them in pearls of bone,

                        in dark earth that shudders faintly

 

                        without a sound.

                                                                        “XXII”                        

Another of Kim Trainor’s centres into which her poems lean is Eastern European and Russian literary and political history (section two). Again, these are book-based and library-bred poems.  But, unlike better known poems spun off of urns or paintings or symphonies, they are not paeans to high culture. Rather, they are raw responses to the suffering of dead ancestors, both the famous and the unknown.

     The fourth and final section of Karyotype, entitled “Nothing is Lost,” is based upon the second Book of Belongings published by the International Committee of the Red Cross containing “2,702 photos of clothes, jewellery and other personal effects found on exhumed bodies of persons who disappeared” around Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Trainor responds to these photos in a series of 26, eight-line abecedarian poems. As an example:

 

            has entered into the interior of the other person’s seeing

            hat drawn over contours of hair, skin, bone threaded with vein

            hat lined with felt for warmth

            having small stitches

            here a hand laboured

            here in this earth

            hundreds of artifacts worn and carried

            husks

                       

 The format fits for its stark simplicity: how elseto react to a catalogue so harrowing?

     The final volume under consideration is a tree planted in summer, by Taiwanese poet Ling Yu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. These are 15 poems—– the original Chinese on facing pages — taken from Ling Yu’s collection, Fields and Gardens / Five Forty-Nine P.M. (2014), which won New Poetry Honourable Mention for the Wu Zhuoliu Literary Award (which I did google). These are stand-alone poems that strip the “fragile materials of poetry” to their contemplative bones. They expect very little from the reader beyond a close and intense attentiveness. Human beings are seldom a force in these poems. Instead, nature abides.

 

                        now the garden darkens slightly because

                        fruits enlarge gradually, leaves fleshy

                        and a deep green

                        diffuses

 

                        white —

                        a mysterious visitor —

 

                        ………………………………………………….

                        I like the fact that he has no scheme —

 

                        quietly he walks to the front

                        heard by some unheard

                        by others

                                                            from “Autumn · September”

 

The translator’s introduction explains her principle of selection for this smaller volume. These are “train poems” written during Ling Wu’s “frequent train rides from Ilan … to Taipei…. Like a train, these transport us from one time-space to another, back and forth from the pastoral to the urban.” Dylan wrote that it takes a lot to laugh but it takes a train to cry, and Ling Wu knows this to be true. Her irony is light but her pathos is dramatic. In “Toucheng — Elegy for F

 

            … the train passes through a tunnel

            and trees blacken

 

            and pale blue drapes brighter than cobalt blue

            slowly fall off the train windows

            ……………………………………………………….

 

           

            at that moment you hear

            a clock fall off a valley

            cry softly like a cicada

            skim past water on the right stirring

            the light slumber of Turtle Island

 

            a conductor punches the tickets and not knowing why

            he says thank you and bon voyage

            the words I want to tell you

 

It’s the not knowing why that best captures this poet’s particular handling of her fragile materials of poetry.

     Indeed, for all three of these poets, it would seem that the yearning is all. More and more of our poets abjure painting big pictures. Of course, we don’t accept grand narratives from our social scientists or teleologies from our natural scientists, but it is puzzling to me how and why not knowing why has become the safest place for our artists to stand.  Go looking for certainty and there’s only Kanye, et. al. left! Of these three poets, only Ling Yu lets God in, but always with self-defeating reservations: “I know God’s strength is limited,” (“Tail”). (And neither would I take seriously iron age religio-fantasticals anyway.) Would that the subtleties implied in Brand’s phrase “fragile materials of poetry” not preclude verdicts. Or what’s a heaven for?

 

 

 

Issue # 188 - Suzanne Stewart

Suzanne Stewart

 

Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing by Carol Shields, Eds. Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini. (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016, 198 pp., $14.99). 

 

She died in 2003, leaving behind the fruits of a flourishing literary career: nine novels — including The Stone Diaries, Larry’s Party, and Unless — collections of short stories, poems, and plays, and several works of non-fiction, both biography and literary criticism. Carol Shields was 68, her writing voice silenced prematurely.

   Now, we hear her speak again — autobiographically, this time.

        In Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, Anne and Nicholas Giardini, Shields’ daughter and grandson, have collected materials from her essays, letters, notes, and lectures that “illuminate” her life as a writer and her thoughts on the writing process. The book is written, so to speak, in Shields’ own voice. Her words, unearthed from her papers in Library and Archives Canada, have been pieced together in a single, fluid narrative, as if they were uttered while we read, in a single sitting. Shields’ lyrical, unassuming, and delightfully probing voice comes alive again, after its silence for thirteen years. 

     The book has been marketed as a “guide to the writing process,” one that will rival Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But Startle and Illuminate is more than a writer’s handbook. The work is duplicitous, in the positive sense of the term, as having “a twofold structure,” or presenting “two or more matters in one.” The book crosses two genres: handbook and autobiography. These twin pillars form the architectural core of the book; they are different, but “one.” 

     Autobiographically, the book is tightly framed, its focus specific: a woman whose life was intensely devoted to writing. All other aspects of Shields’ life are filtered out, even though she was a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, and friend, who experienced the day-to-day circumstances that any human being encounters. The book omits the messy details of life. Its chronology is pared down to moments of literary significance: first publication dates, speaking engagements, teaching appointments, and letters to students and other writers. We do learn that Shields was an American, born in 1935 in Illinois, that she was an avid reader as a child, that she obtained a B.A. and M.A. in English literature, that she married and lived in various cities in Europe and Canada, and that she settled, ultimately, in Winnipeg, where she taught in the English Department at the University of Manitoba. Still, all of these autobiographical details hang on the singular thrust of the book: the story of a writer’s life. 

     This remarkable purity of detail, which deepens the reader’s appreciation of her devotion to her calling as a writer, also stands in sharp contrast to the domestic texture of her own works.  Her fiction, especially, embraces the lives of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. “I was writing to fill up on the natural gas of the quotidian,” Shields says. “More and more I trusted daily detail, wondering why domesticity ... had been shoved aside by fiction writers .... I wanted wall paper in my novels, cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers.” But this is not what Startle and Illuminate offers; we learn, instead, about Shields as a writer.     

     In places, hints of Shields’ daily life do emerge, particularly in relation to her family. In her introduction to the book, Anne Giardini recalls how she and her four siblings “watched” their mother work — “as the pages stacked up beside her typewriter” — and Shields, in turn, invited her children’s response to her writing. She was “not secretive,” Anne says, about writing. Her mother “shared generously,” and that familial interaction encouraged the children, too, to write. The book also offers glimpses of the domestic restraints that shaped Shields’ writing. She learned to make use of snippets of time, “any time,” here and there, especially when the children were at school. Family life undoubtedly molded her modest, but disciplined, practice “to write two pages a day,” small units, Shields says, that she built up over time into a more substantial work — a novel. She was content with incremental progress, bits of observation and fragments of conversations that she preserved, from day-to-day, in her book of Notes and gradually developed into stories.       

     As these minute details about Shields’ life reveal, she approached writing as a social activity, an art that involves people. Writers must learn to live in the world — “to notice things,” she says — and to share their ideas with each other. For Shields, writing was simply — but reverently — a thread through her daily life.

     Startle and Illuminate, in that respect, is beautifully punctured with charming anecdotes in which Shields, while discussing a particular point, veers off unexpectedly into personal recollection. “I knew very early ...,” “Like most children I started out believing ...,” “I remember once seeing a story in which there was a rather awkward page ...,” “Let me suggest to you that when a writer sits down to write ...,” “One of my discoveries has been ....” These informal asides soften the tone of the book, giving Shields — the accomplished writer — a modest human presence, in which she throws off the authoritative stance of an expert.

     While this autobiographical strand of the book is inward looking, an expression of the writer’s self as it emerges over time, the book’s other genre, as a writers’ handbook, looks outward. Shields projects her voice towards others: to help, share, correct, and create community. She speaks of “kindness and trust,” as she offers herself with generosity, sensitivity, compassion, and honesty, as a singular reader with sharp insight, who delights in conversation. This aspect of Shields’ character is particularly pronounced in the chapters on her teaching and in the excerpts from her letters. Shields talks. She provokes exchanges, bringing writers together in community.

     “Haven’t writers always, in fact, functioned this way — teaching, coaching, mentoring, advising, editing and influencing other writers — in garrets or coffee houses or the courts of kings or in country houses, through correspondence, or by the simple dissemination of their book?” she asks. Yes, but Shields was less solitary, surely, than most writers, and Startle and Illuminate is another instance of her “dissemination,” a book that Shields likely would have published herself, had she lived. Startle and Illuminate is full — bursting — with ideas, and this profusion of remarks suggests that she envisioned a work of this nature long before it was “written” posthumously.             

     But what was Shields’ advice to writers?  What makes this book an astounding “guide”?  

     Shields’ advice is solid, wide-ranging, and thorough. She comments on pacing, the importance of the setting’s concreteness in time and place, the authenticity of a narrator’s voice, careful craftsmanship of every sentence, disciplined daily work, an author’s modesty, writing that strains for the truth, the difficult balance between the disorder of life and the structure of art, a willingness to build up content from small scenes, and the intricate relationship between the world as we know it and the colouring of the imagination.

     But some of Shields’ advice stands out. It sparkles with originality, especially where her metaphors give freshness to her ideas.

     How do novelists keep all of their “disorderly material on track?” she asks. Shields’ method is to imagine “a series of similar-sized boxcars lined up on a track.” “All I had to do,” she says, “was fill them up with ‘stuff,’ and I would have my novel.” From the start, she titles her boxcars and gives them a “timeline”: nine months, one year, seven days, birth, or childhood, for example, each phase of which is one car, a container to fill. The process of giving aesthetic order to life is less daunting, she says, with “a little train of boxes (or else hangers on a coat rack),” even though she doesn’t know, at first, “what’s going in them (or on them).”  

     Using another metaphor, Shields tells writers “to raid.” Work “as thief,” “as scavenger,” she says. “Be bold all the way through.” The world is a treasure chest of materials, a “cosmic lost-and-found bureau,” and writers must commit themselves to “borrowing,” finding “narrative scraps,” and rescuing lost stories — unapologetically.      

     Metaphorically, again, she speaks of scenes and plots in terms of cooking, inviting her students to “thicken” their writing, as if narrative that is thin is also tasteless and bland. “I think you need to ‘thicken’ your scenes,” she writes, encouraging her student to “use more sensory description of people, their faces, their clothes, their gestures, their surroundings, but particularly ... what they are thinking.” “Tell us about the weather,” she says, in another instance, “the time of day, the furniture.” These details will “‘thicken’ your scenes.” Like a heavy stew, stirred laboriously, this kind of writing, Shields suggests, is deliciously dense and evenly paced: “thickening, explaining, describing, taking it slowly, letting the pages breathe.” Then, the writer can dart with “a sudden plunge that takes the reader by surprise.”

     Shifting to metaphors from archaeology and architecture, Shields conceives of stories as material that is “excavated” and, then, built up. The world is a “storyboard,” she says, but “a large portion of the human experience fails to make the narrative record.” Most stories have been “lost,” or left inaccessible. As writers dig — and “raid” — in order to retrieve forgotten stories, they fill the “narrative cupboard,” beginning modestly with “life-bites,” little anecdotes, and heard or overheard conversations. Piece by piece, the structure takes shape, from artifacts, historic narratives, paintings and documents. In this way, any story is “furnished” and “solidly built.” (This is what we see in Startle and Illuminate, too, which was excavated and carefully constructed.)   

     But this aspect of the book — its practicality as a handbook — also contains its principal flaw. Each chapter concludes with a list of bulleted statements, titled In Brief, which summarize the instructive contents of the chapter. The feature doesn’t work. The juxtaposition of Shields’ fluid and lyrical voice with these chapter-end lists is jarring and incongruous. It turns the work into a textbook, with box-like inserts. The publisher has made a poor editorial choice, here.

     The book hinges, instead, on Shields’ musicality.

     Her voice is enticing. We hear, rather than read, the book. Shields speaks fluidly. As readers and listeners, we rarely encounter evidence of the multiple materials that were pieced together: no footnotes, endnotes or an index, few dates, and only occasional references to specific sources. (In this respect, the book is beautifully edited, its pieces woven together with meticulous care, like the multiple threads in a delicate piece of silk. We do, indeed, encounter “two matters” — autobiography and handbook — in “one.”)   

     This musicality is the essence of Jane Urquhart’s complimentary tribute to Shields, in her foreword to the book. The “undeniably extraordinary” quality of Shields’ writing, Urquhart says, is “the sound of her voice.”  It is “bell-like, musical,” a sound that “would sing in the mind long after she had said it.” Startle and Illuminate is “a treasure,” Urquhart adds, “in that it captures the sound of that voice ... the voice of the spoken word.” Here, it is Shields’ non-fiction voice, used in conversation with authors and friends, as she “pondered aloud what it is to be a writer.”      

     But this enchanting oral quality is silenced as each chapter concludes. It is clipped by the flatness of the lists, which imperfectly recreate the intricacy of Shields’ voice, reducing it to cryptic statements that we are invited to memorize, not ponder. The magic of the music — the resonating bell — deflates. The editorial hand is too intrusive. The In Brief points reduce writing to a mechanical practice, even though Shields remarks, throughout the book, that “[s]o much in a writer’s life is unwilled, capricious, inexplicable, and unrecorded.” “I think I fall on the intuitive side of writing,” she says, “not always knowing everything.” “A novel is a wild and overflowing thing,” its narrative “jumping from idea to idea, leaping.” Shields is most “at ease,” she says, with an “organically spilling, unself-conscious, disorderly, unruly, uncharted and unchartable pouring out of voice.” The lists break the spell of this voice.     

     That flaw aside, the book is admirable in all other respects. 

     But does it startle and illuminate its own readers, as the title suggests? Shields uses this phrase in a modest way, in a letter to a student, when she speaks of the importance of individual sentences: “a line that uses words in a striking sequence, where the compression startles and illuminates.” For Shields, a careful craftsman, sentences carry weight.   

     As a whole, the book does, indeed, illuminate. In fact, Shields uses that word to refer not only to a writer’s craft, in composing sentences, but also to the value of literature. “Do we accept the fact that fiction is not strictly mimetic, that we want it to spring out of the world, illuminate the world, not mirror it back to us?” she asks. “I’ve always believed fiction to be about redemption, about trying to see why people are the way they are.” Fiction, like non-fiction, illuminates: it tries to see.

     That is what Startle and Illuminate does, too, most profoundly, I think, in relation to Shields’ view of writing as an act of generosity. She reaches out — to family, friends, students, and other writers — to invite people into her writing process, and to invite herself into their journeys as authors. But Shields’ vision of community is even broader than that: a writer’s commitments extend, as well, to the reader. The writer–reader relationship, she says, “must be one of the most intimate in human experience.” Here, again, is her social view of reading and writing. She overturns the conventional notion of writers as “seekers of solitude.” “The reader knows the writer, not just the written work,” and “longs to be part of that knit.” The illumination goes that deep.      

     But does the book startle?

     This quality is less obvious, at first. Shields, as we know, likes ordinariness, the simple “arc of a human life.” The silence that society imposes — its fear of “intimate interrogation of strangers” — gives the novelist “a freshness of opportunity,” she says, “to bring spaciousness and art into the smallest, most ordinary lives.” In this respect, Shields’ own writing has a tranquil quality; it doesn’t dart, with abruptness or unevenness. She dismisses the fictional convention of “so-called epiphanies ..., those abrupt but carefully prepared-for lurches toward awareness, the manipulative wrap-up that arrived like a hug in the final paragraph.”  What, then, if anything, in this book, startles the reader?  

     Even a statement like this — Shields’ dismissal of epiphanies — embodies exactly what startles about her writing: the striking metaphors that emerge all too naturally from prosaic assertions. Shields has the ability to dress up and sharpen language with figurative freshness. We are caught off guard — as we are with her boxcars, raids, excavations, buildings, furnished rooms and thickened soups, as images for writing.      

     Shields seeks personal, authentic stories, rooted in human experience, but the language that springs from her quotidian material startles the reader, not with spectacle and drama, but with a beauty of language that transcends life’s ordinariness. “[U]sing the great world about me and the droplets that fall from it,” she says, provides the fiction writer with material. In this simple statement alone, we enjoy the elegance of her words: refreshing “droplets” squeezed from the harshness and plainness of the world. In Shields’ writing, then, we see the power of literature. For her, the world is eloquently “dressed in ... fictional robes.” She creates this effect, phrase by phrase, “one word placed surprisingly against another.” Shields’ writing startles less by its subject than its language — the diversions, distractions, metaphors, randomness, surprises, and intricate textures.      

     Startle and Illuminate was miraculously written by three people, but Anne and Nicholas Giardinia, after creating the narrative, step into the background to allow Shields to emerge as the author, as if the idea had been conceived and executed by her. That subtle layering, a creation of three minds “in one,” beautifully disguised, is another aspect of the book’s capacity to startle and illuminate, as it awakens and enlightens readers to the magnificent potential of the literary voice.        

 

 

 

 

Issue # 188 - Ian Colford

Ian Colford

 

I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are by Carole Glasser Langille (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2015, 176 pp., $24.95).

 

 

Carole Glasser Langille’s second collection of short fiction, I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are, probes the inner lives of characters of both genders and at all stages of life with calm assurance and succinct but graceful lyricism. These are mainly stories about mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, friends and acquaintances. The title hints at what’s going on here. The people Langille writes about often linger in each other’s thoughts. As in real life, choices that one person makes will matter greatly to another. Langille is writing about intricately intertwined lives that touch and overlap and influence one another in overt or subtle, but always meaningful, ways. In these stories no one acts or speaks in isolation.

     “Class” tells the story of unassertive Nick Rayne, a teacher riddled with self-doubt who cannot abide the disrespectful and critical manner in which Mrs. Vortman, the principal of the school, treats some of the children, Jamal in particular, a bright boy who sometimes acts out in disruptive ways. Nick is also caught in a subtly antagonistic relationship with his younger siblings: brother Cal, a successful actor, and sister Penny, an addict. In addition, Nick is perplexed by his affectionate but emotionally detached relationship with Emma, the daughter of one of his teaching colleagues, and for reasons unknown even to himself, he’s made plans for a trip to Greece over the Easter break without inviting Emma to join him. Consumed by his inadequacies, regretting lost opportunities, it seems Nick is always apologizing, either out loud or in his head to people he feels he’s let down. When, as the school year approaches its close, his doubts about his effectiveness as a teacher nearly overwhelm him, he finds the sadness that grips him assuaged by the boy Jamal, who clearly regards him with reverence.

     In “Navigating” Honey’s life is depicted in all its dizzying complexity. In the midst of divorcing her husband Quinn, her beloved uncle Gil receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Honey, a health-care professional, spends much of her free time with her dying uncle trying to keep him comfortable and listening to his sage advice. In addition to her uncle, she’s also concerned about how the divorce will affect her daughter Maddie. At work, often distracted by worries that keep creeping up on her, she is unprepared and vulnerable when Jarrett, a doctor who sometimes stares at her in an off-putting and unsettling manner, asks her out. Despite serious doubts, she settles into a relationship with Jarrett that soon becomes physical, this even though she often finds herself thinking back to a time in her life before her marriage to Quinn, when she had acted on her attraction to women. When Jarrett becomes possessive, asking her to account for her time away from him and inserting himself into her visits with her uncle, and then subsequently revealing a dark secret to her, it’s too late to retreat easily or gracefully from the relationship. To save herself she’s forced to take drastic action.

     The drama in these stories is quiet. Often the turning point occurs when someone realizes something or reaches a decision. Langille’s characters do not lead privileged lives. Their worries are our worries. They live in a world where effort is not always rewarded with success, and selfishness is more prevalent than kindness. They appreciate small comforts, revel in the modest successes of those they care about. The prose is simple but at the same time starkly lyrical, brimming with elegantly phrased observations about what it means to be human in a hectic, indifferent world. In this passage from “Who Are You?” Mr. Mercier’s daughter Liz has been injured in an accident and is unable to care for herself:

 

Mr. Mercier, alone in the bed he is used to sharing with his wife, does not sleep either. These days he leaves the blinds open in the bedroom and when the moon is bright, looks out at the copse of trees at the back of the yard. They have such a fragile beauty, he thinks. He can’t bear to think of his daughter who isn’t able to keep her head from falling over when she sits on the couch, saliva dripping from her mouth. What will become of her? When he asks himself this question he feels quivering anxiety in his stomach, a knot of grief. He never knew sadness could be so physical, that one could feel it move into the chest and lungs. Some days he can’t help but cry. But he never lets Betty see. Often he’s awake and gazing out the window when the sun comes up. He can see lights flick on in his neighbour’s house. It’s comforting to think that other people have slept and are beginning their day.

 

     The stories are arranged in a loose chronological sequence and are loosely linked as well. The lead character from one story will turn up in another in a supporting role. The effect of this is to create a comfortable familiarity, in the manner of a novel, but without the novel’s framing story arc. The book holds our attention by generating a sort of understated suspense that gently nudges the reader from one story to the next.

     Carole Langille’s accomplishment in I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are is significant. This is richly nuanced work, emotionally resonant and suggestive of depths beyond what is stated. An accomplished and prize-winning poet, Carole Langille knows how to deploy language to touch both the mind and the heart.

 

 

 

Issue # 188 - Chris Benjamin

Chris Benjamin

 

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey (Glentrees, Singapore: Verbivoracious Press, 2015, 344 pp., $22.99).

 

 

Jeff Bursey’s Mirrors on which dust has fallen dissects the fictional town of Bowmount, sort of an Everytown, Atlantic Canada. It is late summer, somewhere in the 1990s. Great change is afoot, creating considerable consternation among the townspeople. The church is embroiled in a sex-abuse scandal, cops are being murdered by animal-rights terrorists, art and media are relentlessly critical and pay no respect to taboo as government officials’ most useful function is as a topic of gossip.

    In essence, traditional sources of authority have lost their relevance. Mirrors is fascinated with how the people respond, and for the most part they are adrift. The large cast of characters are “that despised group of non-believers” who “do not appear at rallies for the city, or vote much of the time; not rich, they do not press their viewpoint on anyone through newsletters … concentrating instead on making it through a day and a night without losing too much hope that tomorrow might not be as bad, all the while praying, sometimes consciously, for a different future if a better one is not possible.”

      They are perhaps the most likely to challenge crumbling authority, and yet they feel powerless. The more traditional folks in town watch these outsiders as closely as they watch one another. “Stan explained that Fred had painted flames coming out of the door and front windows of his house, a lark, and people took it wrongly, calling the fire department so often they called the Council, and jeez, who could fight Mayor Runciman and stupid councillors who couldn’ttake a joke and wanted to poke their noses into everybody’s business?”

     Their dilemmas reflect, on a miniature scale, the bigger stories in the news they all follow so closely. Loyola, who is as close as Bursey comes to creating a main character, is oppressed by his job and boss, a woman with a limited locus of power into which he happens to fall. She is somewhat totalitarian, stressed and obsessed with the work of Moscati-Mann Clothing International. People in towns work and therefore much of Mirrors happens in workplaces, including art galleries, a diner, factories, a bar, a radio station and the church. But Loyola’s purpose is more to do with youthful exuberance, hungry desire and sexuality. His workplace only gets in the way of his passion and lust.

     And lust is everywhere — for sex, for artistic perfection — making life an interesting challenge for these rogues. It has rocked and defamed the Catholic church, so much so that Duncan Lonegan, a lifelong lover of Christ, finds himself speaking out in his quiet way against the institution. In an amusingly bland scene reminiscent of any workplace meeting, the priests lament their bad press coverage, potential lawsuits if a renovation goes wrong, and the optics of eulogizing a fellow priest. They are image conscious and fear new competition from a revivalist parade centred around an obscure saint. “…The parishioners must be stopped from going to see St. Lucy, whose life story isn’t known anyway, an actress portraying her, exposed naked in a brothel, verbally abused, set on fire for preserving her virginity, and then run through the neck with a sword. They wouldn’t use real fire, would they?” One of these priests quests to conduct his own perfect sermon, with no mistakes, not even from the alter boys.

     Whereas Bursey’s first novel, Verbatim, skewered politicians, Mirrors satirizes the common person, but sympathetically; we’re all included, we’re all fools, and in a specifically Atlantic Canadian way. We’re downright provincial, as Bowmount’s archbishop, a Come From Away, observes: “They’re such damn touchy people, these Bowmountians, infected with a ridiculous pride about this rundown pile. If they found a spot Neville Bowmount had said he’d like to visit but never did, they’d erect a public fountain within a week.”

     And whereas Verbatim, appropriate to its subject matter, was written in parliamentary-debate transcripts, the style of  Mirrors reminds me of a Robert Altman film, panning through snippets of conversation about religion, work, identity [“You think all I am is a strike, a protest, a negotiation? I’m a union man in everything, brother, let me tell you that. Or I try to be.”], art [“It’s great, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You do it, then you go home.”], gender relations [“The nineties man is a confused guy, he’s lost when it comes to how to treat women.”], sport, violence, sex-love-lust and kinks, technical automation and its impact on labour. Along the way, the camera catches telltale symbols of the characters’ values, funny bits of graffiti, signs, things written on mugs or t-shirts, the idioms and art people create in everyday objects and places. Bursey himself, through omniscient writing, is like a character actor or impressionist, fully inside the heads of his many, diverse characters and adept at a quick line contrasting not only different perspectives, but different loci of thought. “We’ll ask Sam, he knows that stuff. Alistair would have offered an opinion, but no one asked for it.”

     Signals get dropped or overridden. Thoughts break off. A conversation is interrupted by the radio and we’re suddenly in the head of the disc jockey (a trick that is reversed near the end of the book). Or the narrative drifts among conversations by a multitude of characters in a lunchroom. Characters are named in passing and they come and go. There is little in the way of back story. In this way the fourth wall is subtly broken, we are always aware that our attentions are being directed somewhere, without giving us many clues as to what we are seeing at any given moment. We don’t always get to know these people in depth. But the panoramas eventually give us a picture of a place and its people, a detailed, hyperrealist  scene of the multitudes.

     As a result, we often see people at their worst. Confirming the archbishop’s sense of provincialism is the occasional racism that characters from all social classes display: “What I see is this, that the people from away, those people, they come in, and who can blame them for wanting things they’ve never seen, when they’ve no trade and nothing we can use here, don’t you see? They immediately try to get the other fellow’s goods, easy as pie, no work, no employment record, and meantime the government is paying them as, huh-huh! refugees! We’re paying the criminals to rob us.”

     And as by the more educated Philip Lewis, news director at the town’s main radio station: “…People coming in from shithole countries, and what do you end up with when they start mingling with Canadians? Someone like Karla O’Reilly, some Afro-Gaelic-Canadian, or whatever she calls herself … Bowmount’s full of Turks, Lebanese, Ghanians [sic], Rumanians, and even a handful of East Timorese…”

     Those statements are the most stark examples of a general fear of change that permeates the novel. Some of the most revealing moments happen as the large staff contingent at the radio station deal with management’s decision to increase automation, with the sales manager and station manager trying to convince them it’s a good thing: “It’s like a talk show, without a host! Oswald, it’s a talk show with the rascal multitude as the hosts.” But privately, “Grimly [the station manager] thought of automation, and the nephews. Who the hell was protecting anybody?” This is a question that brings together some of Bursey’s seemingly divergent themes —  automation, authority, cops being shot, priests being jailed and a general crumbling of authority.

     Time and again, the residents turn to love, perhaps as the purest form of human connection in order to face their fears. They are skeptical yet appreciative of its importance:

 

Is that why you can’t define love? Living from hand to mouth every day. Not every day, but sure you’ve had those days. Haven’t you? To their mutual surprise Ivy answered the question. —Yes, but to set the standard of how you’ll live by the worst days? —We’ve each got something unique that beats against our windowpanes at night. I have chaos, what do you have? —You didn’t answer me, about defining love. — It’s a rare thing, love.

 

     Despite their fears and desperate attempts to find comfort, the names of the final two chapters leave one with a sense that change doesn’t stop here. The penultimate chapter is called “Endings,” with the final installment called “A new cycle,” at which point the roof blows off of many Bowmountian secrets — especially sexual — around the same time as two controversial works of art show, one erotic and one deemed by some as sacrilegious. The reactions to these works tell us much about ourselves — some are dismissive, some intrigued. The press focuses on a physical confrontation between the two artists. When a prominent critic of the Catholic church dies and refuses to be buried in a cemetery with “priests who had been fornicators and paedophiles,” the author concludes that “It was clear everyone had changed natures in the last month.”

     I’m comfortable describing some of these events in brief because, should you consider reading this work (and you should), these and the many other events described in it prove to be less important than the diorama Bursey has constructed, so insightful because it is so like us.

 

 

Issue # 187 - Mark Grenon

Let Your Dictionshifter Be Your Ally

Mission Creep by Joshua Trotter (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015, 104 pp., $18.95 CDN / $17.95 US).

    

Divided into twelve sections or chapters, Joshua Trotter’s Mission Creep is both a cyberpunk-infused long poem and a work of speculative fiction, in addition to being something like an anthology of non sequiturs studded with mysterious transmissions. The explosions of references, or transmissions, of Mission Creep are always crisscrossing, rippling across each other in an intriguingly dense inter-textuality Trotter refers to in the acknowledgements as “echoes, borrowings, remixes and frequency bleed-overs from countless texts, films, broadcasts, podcasts and websites.”

    Given the sections themselves have no line breaks whatsoever, the reader is bombarded with a wildly percussive concatenation of jarring allusions and sonic loops, which is fitting for a book that clearly sets out to be a playful subversion of genre, consisting as it does of  a book-length poem in twelve parts and/or a poetic novel of almost Joycean density. All told, it’s a huge departure from Trotter’s well-received and far more formalist debut collection All This Could Be Yours.

    Perhaps Mission Creep could be read as an allegory of the creepy nature of writing and/or consciousness in the age of drones and surveillance, the no opt-out panopticon of 21st century life. With a paranoid gnosticism reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, it depicts a tech dystopia in a virtuosic scale of cracked registers. Trotter crafts a palimpsest of clues regarding possible readings of the book, but these clues are always already deferred. We are warned: “If you let it, the work will drive / you crazy, incomplete detail” (32). Avital Ronell writes in the “User’s Manual” to The Telephone Book: “Warning: The Telephone Book is going to resist you.” So will Mission Creep, both in terms of its transgressive poetics and its fractured narrative(s).

    The relationships between the narrator, her seeming ally the Oracle, the Oracle’s foil the Iron Wind, and the dozens of other characters and place names feed into a pile-up of intentional multiplicities. In the narrator’s voice, Trotter puns on his surname: “I trot across Data Loss Bridge into New Domino City” (67). But just who is this I? The unreliable narrator is taken to its furthest extreme, as the hero, or anti-hero, not only remains unnamed, but is also a kind of everyman (or everywoman, as the narrator appears to be without gender). The narrator at times blends into the other characters, a trickster trotting across the city, filtering transmissions in a cyberpunk soundscape, a time traveller or resonance trapper. Like Evil Knievel, with whom the narrator is closely identified and who pops up frequently through the book, the narrator is a kind of daredevil or stunt double: “I am a professional life risker. I am the bravest in the world” (93). Arguably the narrator is akin to risk-taking writers like Antonin Artaud, one of many alluded to in the work:

 

                      . . . Let me be your miracle Oracle, leaping

            twenty seven school buses. Let THE BANALITY

            OF EVIL KNIEVEL be my mid-life mortality ploy,

            mired in the rubble of the theatre and its double. (8)

 

   Given its intertextual nature, Mission Creep can be read as a do-it-yourself hypertext, a cut-and-paste running gag to be explored through the interface of search engines: “Query the star search engine of your choice. / The galactic quest for answers leads to time-saving / devices like the Judas chair and/or Yahoo” (11). The burlesque mixing of the Romantic quest with science fiction, current technology, and torture is certainly discomfiting. You can almost see Kiefer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 torturing bad guys in the background saving the world in the nick of time. Google “Judas chair” and Bauer’s anti-terror heroism evaporates instantly.

   So far reading the book probably sounds like it’s a whole lot of work, but it’s a fun read, a witty maze of jokes, puns, and ironic inversions. “I’m not joshing you here” (61) Trotter writes, punning on his first name. But he is. Sort of. Much of the time anyway. His darkly prolific sense of humour is exemplified in the dozens of proper nouns scattered nonsensically through the work. Here are a few of my favourites: a power-hungry angel that calls itself the New Woody Allen, My Rise to Power Pizza, the Corpus Colloseum, Mr. Knife Guy, the Book of Odd Jobs, the Kingdom of Wonder Bras.

   Mission Creep is an assemblage of fragments that actively assaults received language. “Let your DictionShifter be your ally” Trotter writes, and as his diction twists and turns, familiar language is punctured by shifting the somnambulist messages of advertising, clichés, dead metaphors, propaganda, and even the dehumanizing technical language of documents such as the CIA’s “Human Resource Exploitation” Manual. If you passively receive language through the veiled agitprop transmissions of TV, marketing, and the entertainment military industrial complex, then “Mission Creep” creeps up on you. Alternatively, you can shift the existential gears of your linguistic vehicle, namely, your very self, with your “DictionShifter.” Like this:

 

            We leaked private photos of stunt doubles, shadow-

            figures flailing as they fell, caught in the gawk of river-

            trolling cameras, broadcast real-time to a chorus of

            yesses. How the stool pigeon was made to sing, I’ll

            reveal after these messages. (49)

 

The lurid invasion of privacy is satirized and inverted, as the private photo is of a mere double. The alliteration that follows in the phrase “figures flailing as they fell” is a sample of Trotter’s natural facility with more formal poetic devices, which is then followed by the assonance of “caught in the gawk” before he weaves back into the theme of transmissions with the phrase “broadcast real-time.” The diction then shifts to the language of the detective novel, with its “stool pigeon” as character, this announced to us ironically in the tones and phrasing of the TV announcer. There’s a lot packed in here, and yet it’s no denser than any other chunk of the nearly one hundred pages of the book. Still, Mission Creep offers considerable rewards for those willing to enter this strategic density:

 

            Units shifted faster than speeding tickets after cranking

            life density to maximum. At MAXIMUM DENSITY

            ˂1019 Hz˃ things look lifelike the more things look

            alike. (11)

 

Bruce Andrews in his essay “Electronic Poetics” gives us an idea of how we might proceed to read a book that’s been built in this way:

 

            Reading’s task: to reentangle, rather than decipher; you don’t

            decipher a labyrinth. Your clicks of attentiveness pile up into a

            density. An opaque screen becomes an actionoriented control

            panel.

 

     In the acknowledgements, Trotter refers to the work itself as a transmission. There’s some play here with the term “mission creep,” or the tendency for military endeavours to escalate to the point where original objectives become dangerously problematic. When the mission turns, as it inevitably will, it becomes creepy, a kind of dangerous transmission, akin one can assume to whatever forces are lurking within “The Tower of the Listener” and the “Iron Wind.”

     As dozens of transmissions, measured in hertz, are interspersed through the work, the inquisitive reader, acting as the captain of her personal control panel, can plot them into YouTube while reading the book. Doing so makes for an uncanny and unique reading experience. Though there’s an aleatoric absurdity to the transmissions, the book remains a meditation on the nature of sound, not just in terms of its hyperactive, disjointed poetics, but also in terms of how sound itself is transmitted to us. Given the exponential reverberations refracting within the book, perhaps we can read Mission Creep not just as a hypertext but also play it as an instrument, part musical and part linguistic, one that glides across a series of detours within detours, a Chinese puzzle or patchwork of elision, whose concentrated details, try as we might to unpack them, perpetually elude us, much like meaning itself.

     One of the main poetic tools in Mission Creep is its use of synchysis, a rhetorical strategy whereby words are scattered to confuse the reader; the effect is to arrest discursive thinking by jolting language processing. Synchysis throws the reader into a kind of helter-skelter alternate reality, a fertile anti-synthesis of refreshingly surprising word clusters. Trotter employs synchysis in an incessant overloading of clashing content:

 

                                                   . . .  Systemic lists of ad libs.

            Pi charts. Heart rates. Tasers if necessary. Tear gas if

            mercenary. Wind drift. Airlifts. Lots of shots of mostly

            cleavage. At the end of each word, in the dark, there’s

            a splash, sparkling synchysis; on his pillar of fire, St.

            Simeon Stylites, receiving transmissions, tries not to

            weep into the blue machinery. (55)

 

In addition to the ad libs themselves, the spontaneous scattering of synchysis throws us out of our quotidian frames; pie charts becomes Pi charts, which are coupled with the clinical phrasing of “heart rates.” Taser is a bisyllabic word that plays off tear gas and both are tools of violent suppression and/or war; at the same time that the rhymes of necessary/mercenary and drift/airlifts reveal formal poetics, the “joshing” tone belies deadly content: the language of measuring and controlling individual bodies and populations, crowd control in domestic populations and in war zones. The jarring “Lots of shots of cleavage” satirizes the conjunction of sensationalism, prurience, marketing and our collective drive to violence, while “at the end of each word” a perhaps orgasmic splash occurs; there’s also plenty of alliteration with all the “S” words, and an obscure allusion to Christian hagiography looping back into the transmission theme. Amidst all the ironic chatter and juxtapositions, the reader’s pushed headlong into re-framing the very nature of language.

     Mission Creep undercuts linear reading in a kaleidoscopic, disclosure-blocking poetics. In the place of closure, a language game of turns or swerves creeps up on us by way of the volta, which is akin to a marathon session of channel-surfing: “I try to change the channel” (45). The inter-textual reading on offer here is akin to moving the dial across a radio trying to tune into the right station, or filtering click-bait to land on satisfying Internet quarry. Trotter not only employs the volta but in a meta-moment overtly refers to it:

                                                                           

                            ...    All winter I waited for reverb, craving the

            volta of the Oracle’s voice, air-guitaring over lampblack

            hills to vault me from my prison. (32)

 

The first turn consists of the passage from the plaintive “All winter” to “reverb,” which could be short for reverberation and so an allusion to the theme of frequencies, or it could also mean to re-verb, or verb again, to come to action after a period of stasis, namely winter. There’s a turn back to the plaintive tone of craving the Oracle’s voice, perhaps where the Oracle represents a kind of muse, but that’s immediately undercut by the absurd image of the Oracle playing an air-guitar, along with the further irony of the instant splicing of the poetical “lampblack hills” to “vault” (another poetical word) the narrator from his prison. Whatever soothsaying the Oracle may have to offer, it immediately turns in the “volta of the Oracle’s voice,” like a drug one craves that promises knowledge but merely leads to further synaptic leaps in a linguistic labyrinth without exit, a kind of mental prison whose post-apocalyptic transmissions offer no salvation save the salve of laughter.

     In the thick, fugue-like yoking together of divergent strains in Trotter’s language, no sooner do we enter one thought or memory than we are jolted immediately into another. Though the thwarting of a sensical weave for all Trotter’s allusions is disorienting, through perseverance, we may map the violence of new directions for language through the elision of frames we have never encountered mashed, looped, or spliced together in just this way. And there can be no doubt that Trotter gets at a synaptic itch you may not have even realized was there before you embarked into the bizarre sonic textures of Mission Creep.

 

Issue # 187 - David Hickey

Strays: Stories by Ed Kavanagh (St. John’s, NL: Killick Press, 2013, 208 pp., $18.95).

 

Ed Kavanagh’s collection of short stories, Strays, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the 2014 Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards. As a summary-of-sorts, this level of recognition ought to tell a serious book buyer something about the book’s worth. In what follows, I supply some of the evidence that accounts for these laurels.

   Strays gathers the ordinary, seemingly shapeless lives of Newfoundlanders young and old, at home and away, and reports the meaning of their struggles. (In the true spirit of the book’s title, there is also the outlier: “Nice Boy,” which is set in England and is about a young British lawyer and a Chilean immigrant.) There are nine Chekhovian slices of life here, and one — “The Strayaway Child” — Munrovian chronicle. It is this last piece that many readers will find most affecting. This is not to suggest that the other nine stories are somehow heartless or cynical; but their strengths lie in the fact that they spread themselves outward, over the series of events, rather than inward through depiction of character.

    Of the first nine, the title story, “Strays,” and another, “Houses,” best represent for the purposes of this review the range of Ed Kavanagh’s storytelling skills. “Strays” is set in pre-child-advocacy days when foster children were entirely subject to the lot of the foster parent lottery. If you were in the system, you were, in all senses of the phrase, at the mercy of the fates. But neglect and deprivations are not something that the young characters in any of these stories dwell on and neither does the author. Rather, Kavanagh’s strays, like the  dog that is the subject of the main character’s concerns, simply make sense of things and carry on. It is as automatic as breathing: the world throws at us its curves and its screwballs and we must take our three swings.

     There will be no dwelling in uncertainty and related hand-wringing in any of Kavanagh’s stories. His characters always keep moving forward (with rare exceptions) and do so with grace. Now, it’s true that all of us have Hamlet moments, periods of irresolution and doubt. Often, for many, this leads to the Scylla of cynicism or the Charybdis of fantasy. But one of the pleasures of Kavanagh’s narrative attitude is that he successfully walks that fine line between debilitating irony and unrealistic romanticizing. Perhaps it is because many of his narrators are young or are remembering their younger selves that they simply don’t have the language for overcooked self-analysis. Certainly that must be a factor, but the impression is rather that Kavanagh knows, as Mike in “Wind” puts it, that when you’re on the water and about to be sick the best thing to do is “‘Just grab on and stare at the horizon.’”

     This philosophy “‘steadies you against the tilt of the world’” avers Mike. Most of Kavanagh’s characters seem to know this instinctively. Callie, the young narrator of “Strays,” meditates on her own condition and learns that dichotomizing the world between “big-bus people and little-bus people; Catholic people and Protestant people; people who have real parents and people like me who have foster ones” ultimately leads nowhere. There is always another story hiding inside a person’s public story, like nested Russian dolls. The dog — Prince — that Callie believes Michael, her mentally handicapped neighbour, does not deserve to own because the latter is unable to understand and respond to Prince’s needs becomes the source for Callie’s epiphany. Callie wonders if maybe Michael is also a stray and that “with Prince he was a little less of a stray.”  Ruminating on this thought, Callie is struck by the more profound thought that  “Maybe the world is not divided up so easily. Maybe we’re all strays. Maybe we all need a few prayers. And, if we do, I don’t suppose it makes much difference who says them.”

 

There is a loose-limbed quality about Kavanagh’s style that is quite effective. Minimal atmospherics — he’s the anti-Nabokov! — and an unobtrusive application of Newfoundland customs and dialect (even in a story about accents, such as “Wind”). These characteristics make a space for the narrative current to flow without resistance. There is little description of inner conflict. At first, one wonders if this is a flaw and whether it’s possible that the stories lack depth. Very soon, though, the reader is completely immersed, for Kavanagh knows his characters so thoroughly that he nails their inner lives with just the right detail and plot point. What characters say or do next reveals where their souls stand.

     “Houses,” on the surface, appears to be one of those quaint Newfoundland stories about loopy characters from around the bay: folks who seem to go out of their way to patent the weird and the bizarre. A 15-year-old boy loves from afar a local maiden (three years older) and so builds her a house. A real house, but, with dimensions somewhere between a doll’s house and a ‘normal’ house. She rejects him and he leaves the house and his pursuit of her and heads off to the mainland for a few years. When he returns, he’s six foot five inches tall! The narrator, a grandson, many years distant from the life his grandmother, the pined-for local maiden, and long-dead grandfather, the house-builder, spent together in the house, is telling his townie girlfriend (“a chronic real estate addict”) this story as he drives her out to see the infamous house for the first time.

     On the surface, odd enough. Yet, the cumulative effect is richer and more inventive and more touching than silly stereotypes would allow. There are references to Van Gogh, an inappropriate nickname and a twist on death-by-shaving. “Houses” is as rangy as Kavanagh’s other stories but nevertheless beautifully coherent. The narrator reports an earlier conversation with his 90-year-old grandmother in her nursing home:

    

     “But why did he build it so small?”

     “Why?” she said, and her pale lashes trembled. She took my hand and  her voice fell to a whisper. “Because he loved me.”

 

     After their viewing of the tiny house the girlfriend leaves unimpressed and, together, they return to the city “to a house with airy rooms and winding, polished staircases that, even with all the fires in, always felt cold.”

     The last story, “The Strayaway Child,” comprises the final third of the book. It is, plainly put, one of the best stories I’ve read about connections: the universal connection we have (‘universal’ but still individual) to music and the personal connections between generations. Kavanagh eschews the sociological and analytic as he drills into the Bildung of his main character, Ivy. Her coming of age against the backdrop of the Depression in St. John’s is rendered fully without resorting to sentimental schmaltz, or an exaggerated griminess. The result is a true-to-life portrayal of a young girl confronting challenges and moving through them. Likewise, in his descriptions of the power of music and Ivy’s absorption of it and into it, Kavanagh confronts music’s mystical qualities but not at the expense of genuine and realistic experience with learning to play and appreciate an instrument. (No doubt the author’s own international success playing the Celtic harp helps in his presentation of the musical sensibility.)

     Yep: Ed Kavanagh deserves the accolades named above. Simple and direct never was more sophisticated. Strays is a collection that resonates not for its Newfoundlandia but for the truthfulness of its magnanimity. Kavanagh’s stories, each of them, are suffused with an open-heartedness that has the depth of a lived philosophy. If Socrates told campfire stories, they would resemble Ed Kavanagh stories.