Books reviewed and referenced
Polly Sampson, A Theatre For Dreamers (Harper Collins)
Margaret Lawrence, Short Non-Fiction (Nora Foster Stovel, ed) (McGill/Queens)
Clinton Heylin, The Double Life Of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, 1941-1966 (Little, Brown)
Salman Rushdie, Languages Of Truth (Knopf)
Bardia Sinaee, Intruder (Anansi)
Stephen Roxborough, I Feel You Doughnut Pain (Optimistic Press)
Stephen Heighton, Selected Poems, 1983-2020 (Anansi)
Susan Glickman, What We Carry (Signal Editions)
Lillian Necakov, il virus (Anvil Press)
Usually summer reading round-ups tend to favour paperback novels so readers can while away the hours while sun worshipping or cottaging during the luscious unwinding of August. Light, entertaining narratives are often top of the list—romances, mysteries and thrillers, with the odd celebrity memoir included.
In my current selection, the only title that fits this paradigm is Polly Sampson’s A Theatre For Dreamers. Polly, long time lyricist for her former Pink Floyd guitarist husband David Gilmour, has situated her coming-of-age novel on Hydra in 1961. That’s where the late ’50s bohemians from chilly Europe migrated to live cheaply and paradisiacally on the Greek myth of sun, wine, and free love. Real life characters, like Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, and Charmain Clift and others, all fresh faced and excited, are slotted into the arrival of the protagonist, her brother, and boyfriend. Each in their own way are fleeing the bourgeois boredoms of 1960s Britain, long before the dawn of swinging London. If you have seen Nick Broomfield’s documentary Words Of Love or read Michael Posner’s recent oral biography reviewed here, you will be right in the picture.
Sampson evokes the time and place with delicacy and obvious love, if not perhaps always the finest literary acumen. She moves through her romance in paradise amongst the artists and poseurs soured by disappointment, disillusionment, envy, and deception—all of it included in the bohemian bed-hopping, back-scratching and blame-gaming, as young bucks posture and preen and the would-be sirens shush their songs for the sake of some husband hunting. Sampson eventually comes to herself, the real girl just beneath the starry-eyed one, as all protagonists ought in such circumstances, sadder but wiser. A fine, absorbing and dreamy escape for any who seek it.
McGill-Queens Press has done us proud by commissioning and publishing Nora Foster Stovel’s exhaustive collection of CanLit icon Margaret Lawrence’s short non-fiction writings. Included are speeches and introductions, more than a few of which are previously unpublished. And a very illuminating read it makes. While rarely as powerful as her much-loved long-form fiction, such as the acclaimed novels The Stone Angel and The Diviners, each selection adds to our understanding of the woman and artist, and how she helped shape what we now know as the literary character of Canada. And while these unearthed missives from an almost antique era in CanLit might, if pursued, lend an eager newcomer insight into the Lawrence oeuvre, I can’t imagine any longtime Lawrence lover not being enthralled.
Before moving on to some outstanding current poetry collections, I’d like to make passing reference to two other new non-fiction titles out this summer: Clinton Heylin’s The Double Life Of Bob Dylan, a biography that covers the years 1941-66, and takes advantage for the first time of the new official and reportedly huge Dylan archive. Unlike some other recent entries in the Dylan sweepstakes that fall under the moniker ghost-written-sloppily-researched-rushed-to-market, this exhaustive study quickly impresses, as the author balances his reverence for the composer’s genius with a sharp cynicism bred from the artist’s earlier sloppy and dishonest ramblings in Chronicles: Volume One.
Also worthy of mention is Salman Rushdie’s essay collection, Languages Of Truth, a surprisingly jaunty collection of essays and speeches. This comes from a novelist whose big, baggy, all-inclusive narratives always left me floundering and frustrated, but whose shorter forms, as in the earlier Imaginary Homelands, pleased me with their thoughtful and witty discipline. With his musings on Heraclitus, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Osama Bin Laden, and Carrie Fisher, Rushdie cuts a wide swathe. There are stretches in the current collection which could be praised for their epithetic scintillating precision, particularly the memoirs of playwright Harold Pinter and novelist Philip Roth.
And if the fragrant breath of high culture charms you, then perhaps the following poetry collections will tempt. They certainly did me. Stephen Heighton’s Selected Poems, while leaving out two of my personal favourites, remains a fine introduction to a perhaps unfairly neglected Canadian poet in mid-career. Mid-career, that slough of despond between the shooting stardom of youth and the grand-old-man-of-CanLit status, is populated by more than a few sculptors of the stanza selflessly serving the muse (hardly any of whom you’ll find on Instagram)—poets who have long since slotted themselves into the tradition of their choice and are occupied with the precise evocation of an oeuvre. Of the many examples herein, let me recommend the following:
An Elegy, Years After Sarah
So her ceiling a map of stars. First time we made love
late afternoon, late winter, and after as she slept
how her room fogged up with dusk
and paper stars she’d stuck up there in childhood
came out in strange constellations
and I missed the earth
till her room was night her breath deepening the stars
cooling down: I said come closer and her eyes,
half-open, flashing back whatever light there was — went out.
Susan Glickman is a Toronto-based editor and writer. Her newest, What We Carry, continues a lyric and philosophic tradition, one that I was already enjoying when I revisited her 2004 Running In Prospect Cemetary some months back. A compact and concise missive from the pen of one who often sees the world as a visual artist, these poems exemplify the eternal quest of the lyric to lasso the ineffable with metaphor and image into something mysterious yet as recognizable as a dragonfly on a leaf. Below is a perfect Illustration:
How’s It Going?
Determined to cross before the light changes,
bent at the waist, neck turtling up, arms rigid,
she wills her heavy legs to lift and fall.
The seconds tick down, flashing orange;
impatient drivers inch ahead.
No one honks,
though a single cyclist slips by
agile as a fish and a child in a cozy stroller
asks his mother why that old lady is so slow
before being hushed.
Bardia Sinaee’s Intruder, his first for Anansi, reflects his origins in Iran and adult residence in Toronto. With two chapbooks behind him, he has forged an original and sometimes unsettling vision that I feel quite transcends the immigrant experience we’ve seen in a number of other titles these past few years. This is certainly an impressive debut, and one that bodes well for that enigma we call the future.
How harrowing the prospect
there may be no clandestine agency after all,
only our clamouring until we’ve built
something we’d sooner take up arms for
than name. By now there ought to be
some sort of saying for it:
to march all day through toppled statuary,
surprised to find oneself inclined
towards such hopefully destructive sentiments
as might find expression
in a goose step chant.
I love my people, even you
who harbour a private vision
of the future, one that alarms even you,
that scales your fortitude
then pleads for understanding
The political and cultural concerns given voice by Bardia Sinaee virtually explode on the page in Stephen Roxborough’s I Feel Your Doughnut Pain. With this, his fifteenth publication, Roxborough evokes the rebellious spirit of the Beat generation and the passionate denunciations of Abbie Hoffman (who was recently portrayed in the film Trial of The Chicago Seven) with what one might call ‘diatribes in the time of Trump.’ While one senses a live reading would be their perfect expression, perhaps with a gospel-ly call and response from a flushed audience, let me offer a taster:
tip for amerikans
sit with yourself in stillness
turn off the gismos and gadgets
those ubiquitous screens
& buzzing bulbs of terror
Turn them all off
& listen to your thoughts
Who is doing the thinking?
Who is having this dualistic experience?
Happy unhappy high low hot cold
Rich poor material spiritual
Body soul calm storm
None of it real
You are already holy
A god or goddess divine
You do not need to go anywhere
Chase or flee anything
Do or get anything
Listen to the silence
Listen to the silence
Lillian Necakov’s il virus covers the year of our plague-imposed restraints in an often surreal catalogue of poetic reflections and meditations. For me it’s her most accomplished outing since her 1997 Polaroids. Or maybe just my favourite. The 113 short lyrics span the weeks and months in flashes of intimate sparkle. Like circles in a stream radiating out from the plop of inspiration, the experiences of one soul become shared moments for us all.
Forget the grand jury secrets,
The hailstones, the street that is not my street
I’ve been standing on this small typo
braving the deep night
in search of the corn planting moon
like a broken chimney
I’ve had chaos for breakfast
lunch and dinner
watched my hair grow
into an insectarium
and yearned for the sophomoric
laugh tracks of
I Love Lucy
I’ve grown phantom limbs
and a wooden leg
I’ve baked every number
and voice you love into
to be eaten with apples
I’ve been asked
but it’s hard to dance on one leg
I’ve been bled of my hooliganism.
As all of us breathe a little easier this summer, swimming in lakes, supping on patios and snoozing on deck chairs, let us be grateful that literature continues to challenge and charm, despite the world being poisoned in panic, and whose reverberations seem to conspire against even the most meagre of profits and audience.
Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit. Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.
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