Leonard Cohen: Untold Stories, from this broken hill, Vol.2
Michael Posner ed. (Simon & Shuster 2021)
Flower Diary, Molly Peacock (ECW 2021))
Imagined Truths: myths from a draft-dodging poet, Richard Lemm (Tidewater Press 2021)
We, Jane, Aimee Wall (Book*Hug Press 2021)
Danger Flower, Jaclyn Desforges (Palimpsest Press 2021)
With From This Broken Hill, editor and compiler Michael Posner continues the fascinating saga of that Canadian icon of poem and song, Leonard Cohen. Oral biographies, with their multitude of memories and opinion, some wildly contradictory, can paint a much fuller picture than a conventional biography, however well researched. With Posner’s cache of around 550 contributors, a claim I find completely believable, such is the smorgasbord of delicacies to be savoured and digested at post-prandial length, the reader, far from being overwhelmed, begs to stay at the banquet well past bedtime.
With long time boyhood friends, musical collaborators, literary friends, stoner pals, lovers satisfied and frustrated, all throwing in their two and twenty cents on every conceivable incident in bedroom, stage, plane and hotel, we enter not just one era but several. From Montreal rebel Jew and arts crowd partier to sixties hippy bohemian to seventies Euro-folk star to eighties jet setting zen savant, on and on we go giddily, wondering how it all could have been packed in, what with all that songwriting and merry-go-round of ladies in waiting.
A busy boy that L. Cohen, juggling his assignations in Hydra, Athens, New York, London and L.A. with long multi-city tours, uncalled-for kindnesses to promising artists who usually failed to ignite, record companies who grouched sooner than gambled over the genius in their midst. Stories I could tell you:
How about this: “En route to Eastbourne (the 74 tour), the tour bus broke down. To stop traffic Cohen adopted a yoga pose – Sirsasana – standing on his head in the middle of the highway, until help arrived” Or this, (Barrie Wexler):- On the way, we passed a janitor sweeping the hallway who greeted Leonard in Spanish. Leonard stopped, took the guitar off his shoulder and started strumming a flamenco riff. The janitor had tears in his eyes. Cohen gave him a little salute and then took the stage. No matter how insignificant the moment seemed, Leonard had the ability to completely disregard the noise around him and be totally present.” Or this: “Returning to Hydra, Cohen met a young American lesbian couple, Rebecca and Karin, from San Francisco. (Barrie Wexler):- He wanted Rebecca. Everyone did. He was completely infatuated. He arranged a menage a trois in Athens at the St. George Hotel. Then, as if by some bizarre sexual symmetry, Suzanne called from Hydra – she was about to have an orgy with three gay Frenchmen. A day or so later they were all at the Byzantino Café in the Hilton. Everyone was staring at Rebecca, even the waitress. … He’d earlier gone to see a doctor who’d said the antibiotics he’d given him had cured his gonorrhea. (Posner):- It seems almost certain that Rebecca, his innamorata del momento, was the inspiration for Songs for Rebecca.”
With a career in lust rivalling that of the likes of Anais Nin and Gore Vidal, it is only fair to balance the scales with the following to a Polish audience in the midst of the rise of the Solidarity movement: “I know that there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgement that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect.”
And so it went, the meandering path through everyday suffering and pleasure to artistic immortality. One awaits volume three with pleasured anticipation.
From the fireworks of the L. Cohen trajectory we move to the subdued intimacy binding the artistic career of Mary Heister Reid, a name perhaps known only to habituees of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery in Ottawa. In Flower Diary, as compiled, composed and edited by Molly Peacock in a beautifully produced volume featuring many fine full colour prints, we have before us as welcome a tribute to this pioneering woman artist as we could hope for. All at ECW Press and editor Susan Renouf are to be congratulated for such a handsome volume, and one that would make a perfect gift for the art lover in your circle.
Unfortunately, this would-be biographer is hampered by a grim paucity of source materials, a brief biography of the artist’s better-known husband George Reid being the main source. She mourns the lack of letters and diaries, sensing the type of righteous paper burning relative we are familiar with in other 19th century lives. And she is likely correct in this estimation. Unfortunately, the result is much fantasizing over what might have happened in this sitting room and studio or during the days and nights of that long journey, of which Mary and George managed several. Sensitive imaginative recreations delivered with passages of sensuous poetic language they might be, but as solid biography they fall short.
Peacock also indulges in several ‘interludes’, where the details of her own very 20th century personal and artistic life are related with much curious enthusiasm but to this reader, significantly shaky relevance. Rebecca Mead similarly performed in her My Life in Middlemarch but she was not essaying a biography, more a memoir with literary references. It is perhaps not my remit to critique the work under survey, but Mary Heister Reid’s much praised by Peacock still lives and landscapes seem to me pleasant but unremarkable in the main, with a few of the chrysanthemum and rose studies evincing little more than a delicate drawing room charm. While Peacock’s admiration for what she sees as a brave female pioneer in 19th Canadian Art, a deeper and perhaps more realistic view of her and her husband’s achievements can be gleaned from A.R. Prakash’s 2015’s Impressionism in Canada, which includes I might add, chapters on two other pioneering woman artists, Laura Muntz Lyall and Helen Galloway McNicoll.
A final note: That George Reid married a longtime family friend and student eight months after Heister Reid’s death, their partnership lasting a further full thirty years, is not matter for scandal, even 19th century style, despite Heister Reid’s witnessed whispered deathbed instructions to her successor, “George will need a wife now”. Regardless of Peacock’s prurient interest in such scenarios, there remains no evidence whatsoever for any salacious menage a trois. Transplanting 21st century assumptions to an earlier era, while intriguing, definitely has its drawbacks.
Speaking of modern times and their trends and attitudes, much is revealed in Richard Lemm’s memoir Imagined Truths. Subtitled Myths from a Draft-Dodging Poet, Lemm surrounds us with a 1960’s suburbs of Seattle childhood, and contrary to many other memoirs of the period an ethnically diverse one. Raised by grandparents dedicated to his welfare in a mother’s absence, he allows us to join him in that epic journey to college and beyond, beyond being the draft of the Vietnam era, and his strident opposition to an illegal and immoral conflict which manifested initially in a claim of Conscientious Objection and finally a bus ride to Vancouver, which almost immediately lands him as a helper in a benefit for The Georgia Straight, the radical weekly then challenging the mores of the city and province.
Meetings with Harry Rankin and Milton Acorn and a part-time position at the legendary Duthie Books serve to cement the foundations of his new identity, which continues through the decades culminating as a professorship at the University of P.E.I. The author can be brutally honest in confronting his wavering attitude to his mother’s confinement as a mental patient back in Oregon, relentlessly exposing his own selfishness and his mother’s unrelenting forgiveness. Like many in her position she has regular periods of loving lucidity, where the timid child triumphs over the paranoid loony, and charms everyone in her area. Lemm evokes the consciousness of boyhood and adolescence with a poet’s sensitivity to language and emotion, making the trek through cultures and epochs all the more enjoyable.
Speaking of enjoyable, Aimee Wall’s short novel We, Jane unspools an intriguing narrative with the style and spiky grace that 21st century feminists employ as they seek to inhabit the myths of matriarchy established by that grandmother generation of the 60’s and 70’s. The author’s long experience as a translator from the French has served her well in this, her first full length fiction. I was carried along in the waves of disappointment, despair and fresh enthusiasm as Marthe and Jane meet and become entangled in the milieu of artsy downtown Montreal, the post college wanna-bes surfing through inebriation and broken relationships as their projects wither on the vine amidst the couch surfing homeless and the middle ages escapees searching for fresh beginnings.
Both are from rural Newfoundland, rebels seeking the liberation of that wide world of thrills and opportunities and retreating when beaten back. As they flirt with the notion of same sex bonding they seem to act out the archetypes of mother and daughter, at least to me, the man along for the ride. Their project is to evoke and repeat the “Jane” experience from mid-century Chicago, when a loosely linked group of women provided abortion services to the needy trapped by poverty and patriarchal law makers. I am just old enough to remember those times well, as the teenagers desperately seeking terminations mixed with the many young men frantically escaping the war machine down south. I drove by the Morgentaler clinic many times in those now distant decades as the posse of right-to-lifers eagerly sought their prey.
Once reestablished in small town Newfoundland, undergoing its by now recognizable boom and bust cycle, and reigniting friendships with midwives operating under the radar before legalization, the relatively young Marthe watches as Jane and her old friends, all of whom have either ditched or been ditched by husbands, leaving what seems to be a women-only circle of pals, petting and scratching as life throws them curve balls in a conservative rural society. Fascinating material and Wall handles it with aplomb, keeping the pot boiling with plenty of undercurrents and sub-plots, never allowing her post-feminist sympathies to drown the very human drama with raging rhetoric. Wall is a writer to watch and I look forward to her next fictive adventure.
And adventure is an apt descriptor for the weeks I have spent with Danger Flower, Jaclyn Desforges debut. An editor for the Hamilton Review of Books, she swims in familiar waters with those poets who prefer the unfathomable and shocking to the predictably shapely, the brittle metaphor to the pacifying simile. I am not unused to such sampling of the mysterious and macabre, but her fearless exercising of that privilege had me spinning in my assumptions. The shock of the new, the nip of the threat. A companion to those shifting sands of that hypnagogic drift between waking and sleeping when language and image slips and spins. Let me leave you with one such delight in the delirious:
Episodic Depression There is a cul de sac There is a tangle of fishing line in an oak tree The cicadas leave their skins behind They won’t stop crying The room inside of me is empty I’m not here anymore there’s been a murder Nature is as unknowable as a cumulus cloud That ice cream truck’s been circling the block for days When I get back I’ll give myself a scolding And a rat to care for with a long soft tail Their father is here but this isn’t his house Everything’s gridlike, he can’t move diagonally My daughter’s apron is covered in flour All she does is cry and knead
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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.
Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.