Emergence and Renewal
Maybe It’s Me – On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman, Eileen Pollack (Delphinium Books 2022)
Artful Flight, Susan Glickman (Porcupine’s Quill 2022)
In the Writers’ Words, Laurence Hutchman (Guernica 2022)
Music, Late and Soon, Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis 2022)
The Swan: A Biography, Steven Moss (Square Peg 2021)
A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers, Pratibha Castle (Hedgehog Poetry Press 2022)
Stars in the Junkyard, Sharon Berg (Cyberwit 2020)
Screw Factory, Edward Anki (Anxiety Press 2022)
Mandate free and making the best of that sluggish season, winter into spring, I settled into a very fine cache of those collections of the printed word we have come to love as books. Blustery afternoons were made benign by the likes of Eileen Pollack’s essays Maybe It’s Me, On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman. Frosty evenings were chivvied into cosy by the stimulating literary opinion-making of Susan Glickman’s Artful Flight. Laurence Hutchman’s interviews conveniently packaged under the rubric of In the Writers’ Words insinuated themselves into many a bright blue sunny morning, while Robyn Sarah’s musings on her mid-life return to music and performance, Music, Late and Soon made for a chatty companion to Mozart’s piano trios and Prokoviev’s violin concertos. Steven Moss’s venture into the enigmatic and paradoxical world of swans, The Swan: A Biography, chastised me back into the nature worship of emerging green as I stared longingly into the drab wet garden, and when I rose to wander about the house with a pretense to the elegant rearrangement of the archive, poets Berg, Castle, and Anki reminded me, in stanza after stanza, why books do, as Anthony Powell insisted, furnish a room.
The storytelling abilities of Eileen Pollack, mostly delivered in autobiographical memoir/essays, were previously unknown to me, but the subtitle ‘On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman’ stirred my rebel soul. And if I mention that among her other thirteen titles there is The Only Woman in The Room: Why Science Is Still a Boy’s Club, perhaps you’ll catch my drift.
Pollack’s evocations of her childhood, home, parents, home town and schooling work well as an in-on-the-ground floor understanding of this very 20th century American woman and scientist and her struggles with ethnicity, relationships and the world at large in all its ugly insanity. She makes coming to terms with herself and her square-peg-in-a-round-hole life as amusing as it is confrontational. You come to see why she subtitles her memoir ‘on being the wrong kind of woman’, even if, as this reader did, you fail to find her anything but a fascinatingly feisty and fitfully neurotic, over-educated urbanite who cannot take either fools or egomaniacs gladly, and rarely, if ever, fails to call a spade and spade. Nothing wrong with Eileen, just a parcel of politically incorrect and socially unacceptable attitudes seeing her place as the iconoclast sweetening this circus of sour with comedic jabs of irony and satire.
Whether railing against the fanatical extremists on either side of the Israel/Palestine divide whilst on a tour of a homeland she could never live in, detailing the seemingly endless list of excruciating encounters derived from the lies of dating apps or describing the hospital from hell in Krakow, where, misdiagnosed while on vacation with her beloved Polish American partner, she is forced to spend a few nights whilst awaiting an unnecessary surgery, she remains quite capable of laughing at her lousy luck, knowing, with plenty of evidence that shit happens to all and sundry, and that the best one can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and ready yourself to tilt at some more windmills.
It is a challenge of obdurate proportions, not to feel educated, cultured and intelligent when succumbing to the charms of Susan Glickman’s reviews and essays, such is the poise with which she positions her analytical powers and witty observations throughout the wondrous compendium which is Artful Flight. Both her wide range of subject matter and trail of observations do indeed artfully mirror the other. For example, in her twelve-page deep dive into the impressive output of Don Coles, All in War with Time she observes that “Cole tries for a balance between his two voices, giving equal time to the two prosodies of American modernism: the T.S. Eliot line of retrospective, if experimental, formalism and the W.C. Williams line of idiomatic revolt against convention. His aesthetic is defined by the area between his versions of these two – a fairly small one to be sure, with eloquence as the common priority of both styles.”
In her exploration of Bronwen Wallace, Angels Not Polarities, she observes, in comparison to Wordsworth’s ‘a man talking to men’ that “women are less likely to speak in generalities and abstractions such as ‘the child is father of the man’; they are more likely to focus on how the boy’s childhood habit of picking the chocolate chips out of his cookies and counting them to see what the average number was foretold in his adult career with Statistics Canada.” With such witty and incisive commentary and a seemingly bottomless ability to quote from any era of English literature to bolster a point, Glickman canters along smoothly and sometimes merrily, always maintaining a respectful attitude to the work and words of the poet, extensively quoting the lines themselves. A verse from Robyn Sarah should suffice:
“with a child asleep in her lap, saying loudly
Here’s how it is,
if I can’t spend a year on a houseboat
on the rivers of China, I want at least
to throw out all my clothes
and get a good haircut.”
If the extended deliberations of the essays seem too steep a climb, then the occasional essays of the section “The Self in the World” might just be your cup of tea: “There are a heck of a lot of opinions out there. Some days they come at you thick as blackflies over Lac Ouareau on a July afternoon. (…) You can swim out to the dock to work on your tan, you can bury your head in an Agatha Christie novel so venerable that it has lost its cover and smells not of paper but wood smoke and mildew, but unless you stay under water holding your breath, you just can’t escape the plague of modern opinions. (…) I should know, I trace my descent from givers of advice both requisitioned and unsolicited, a wiggly conga line of doctors and social workers and other avatars of professional wisdom.” Artful Flight feels to me like some boundless lake of meditation and reflection, in which I continue to take refreshing plunges after all these weeks.
A similar sustained immersion in literary pleasure is to be derived from Laurence Hutchman’s collection of conversations with Canadian poets in The Writers’ Words II, a sequel to his first such venture from 2011. And these really are conversations, most of which catch fire. George Elliot Clarke’s is a perfect illustration. Long known as a live wire with provocative opinions on just about everything, he does not disappoint here. Lively? You got it. His rhapsodizing on Pierre Elliot Trudeau really has to be read to be believed. Not to mention his enthusiastic effusions on almost everything else.
Bruce Meyer follows a close second in the field of passionate declaration and while his devotion to the art and practice of literature is laudable and indeed inspiring, his vexacious manner in what I might call the chastising diatribe remains problematic. Some opinions are better reserved for the barstool. Brian Barlett and A.F. Moritz manage to maintain a pose of civility in detailing their journeys through inspiration and its exposition, while John B. Lee charms with his declaration that The Beatles’ joyous vocalizing in 1964 turned his soul towards poetry.
I was pleased to be reminded of Brain Barlett’s extensive contributions in many forms while his assertion that “ a day without listening to music often felt like a day without reading” gladdens the heart. And pleased also to become better acquainted with poets such as Roo Borson and Colleen Thibaudeau, whose work had somehow escaped me until now. Thibaudeau in particular rang up the curtain on history when she reminisced about that “summer of 47 in Montreal” and later, invoking Robert Weaver, that doyen of the short story, back when it was considered in some CanLit circles the holy writ, telling her she had “an interesting style…but you don’t have anything to write about.”
Such compilations of reflections on the life and work are not only important but essential to the further study of CanLit in the 20th century, an epoch rapidly evaporating in this instant digital universe of a million writers convinced their every heartfelt utterance is somehow relevant while the likes of Shakespeare, Dante, Chekov, Stevens, Munro, Eliot and Woolf are increasingly relegated to the sidelines of streamed video. While this volume will doubtlessly be read and quoted by students and scholars of the era, it also deserves a parking spot on your night table, perhaps peeking out beneath the thrillers and biographies.
With a fond recall of various poetry titles by Robyn Sarah over the years, I was intrigued to come across the memoir Music, Late and Soon. A keen musician in youth and once again in middle age the poet plays out her life in reminiscence and careful reexamination. The aimiable tug of war between music and poetry is a piquant one and Sarah delineates the contrary impulses competing for her focus with the care that a poet can bring to suck a task. Her relationship to music, its performance and reception, is one of profound and mystical resonance, particularly in her youth as first clarinet in a conservatory orchestra. “Beautiful sounds are all around me and I’m entwined in them, I’m part of them, we’re one! (…) Then I’m playing again, flooded with a sweet, strange exaltation, and an unreasoning conviction that everyone else is feeling this too, that we’re part of one another, dependent on one another, moving together, mystically connected.”
A nervous performer, she makes a cautious return to the fray in a noisy bistro where her notes can duck beneath the din, then a quiet artsy café where applause is often a possibility and a century old Chickering grand beckons from the shadows, leading to a magical opportunity to play one of Glenn Gould’s pianos after a Governor General’s Award ceremony, where she was herself one of the winners. Not too shabby I’d say.
While the memoir unfolds in an appealing manner, shifting with ease from 1969 to 2009 and back again, populated with affectionate memories of colleagues, friends, mentors and not forgetting the transcendent experience of performance itself, the repeated use of contemporaneous journal entries seemed superfluous to this reader, bulking up the text unnecessarily. Overall, an enjoyable read for all us artsy types, convinced that all genuine creative enterprises deserve a place on the shelf and in the archive.
Moving right along, as one in a hurry might say, but not I, so in love with the word and its endless applications, we come to Stephen Moss’s The Swan: A Biography. Much more than a cornucopia of fascinating facts and observations of this most graceful creature, Moss’s peregrinations around the species and its seasonal habits, delivered in a supple and easy-going style with an abundance of illustrations drawn from many sources, delights the casual reader perhaps seeking a refuge from the disturbing traumas of the daily news. A naturalist himself, the author supplants his own on-site research with much more drawn from ornithologists, both amateur and academic. It was an educative delight to have my years of pleasure in casual observation so increased.
It would be hard to convince me that the arrival of Pratibha Castle’s A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers that same month was anything less than divine intervention, but perhaps the rationalists among you might rise to the challenge. This debut by a London based poet displays a devotion to the traditional lyric, yet not so traditional as to appear trite, cute or flowery, the customary traps of the genre. Scenes from several areas of the author’s life, from childhood to maturity, are evoked with care and control, the kind of control that prevents that slide into sentimentality when fondly reminiscing.
They swoop in
of long tailed tits.
Do they sense
swarming over terracotta pots
seed stash pansies
forsythia tipping yellow
My heart hankering
for their cabrioles
Canadian poet and editor Sharon Berg’s Stars in the Junkyard is a book of reminiscence, both celebratory and regretful, admittedly not an uncommon combination. Family, friends, colleagues, lovers: all are remembered and reinstated to life, that life of words winding itself about us as we age and ache for what might have been done or said in moments of radiance or rapture, when the goal of living seemed the living itself. The author trawls through her past for such pinnacles of seeming perfection amidst the detritus of imperfect and oft-times shattered relationships. “…it wasn’t you that I mourned, but the dream we two had built together that I grieved.”
The poems evoking Al Purdy and Robert Billings are particularly touching, but the ache of life’s tragic antics spans many of these pages, serenading the reader with melancholies reaching for those stars of joy, often visible but resolutely out of reach.
a night breeze stirs the curtains
every touch on our skins
the chatter within
– muscles, hormones memory –
our bodies till shivering
with the tongues of love making
we lay magic and dumb
our faces beaded and magnificent
the coal of your cigarette
like a torch to something
each of us had lost
Edward Anki’s Screw Factory, a first for this author, aims to confront and shock. The uglies of the world are often front and centre, with the uglies of human relations not far behind. Anki remains stoic about all the petty cruelties humans heap upon one another. He’s one for keeping his powder dry and living to fight another day. Situations are rendered with rigor and comments are brief. No fat here I’ll tell ya. None of that poeticising the impregnable. Snapshots of the real, not selfies of vanity. Details pared down to essentials. As I perused his litany of the grim, unable to sport what seemed like the required grimace, I thought he’ll get over it but I hope he keeps more notes like these, these sharply carved epitaphs to the real.
A few days before she expired
I visited my grandmother
at the hospital
It was a suffocating
and she was seated
by an open window
We sat together,
not saying too much.
I witnessed cars
on the street below.
in the sky above.
We endured the inescapable
by an open window
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.
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