Book Basking in Autumn
Dirtbag, Massachusetts, Isaac Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury 2022)
All Of This, Rebecca Woolf (Harper One 2022)
Elizabeth Finch, Julian Barnes (Random House 2022)
The Razor’s Edge, Karl Jirgens (The Porcupine’s Quill 2022)
A Minor Chorus, Billy-Ray Belcourt (Hamish Hamilton 2022)
We Are Still Here, Nahid Shahalimi, ed. (Penguin 2021)
Until Further Notice, Amy Kaler (U. of Alberta Press 2022)
Intimations, Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2020)
The Most Charming Creatures, Gary Barwin (ECW 2022)
Tras-os-Montes, Jose-Flore Tappy (Mad Hat Press 2021)
Who could resist the title Dirtbag, Massachusetts? Or the notion that the book was a confessional and not just another memoir? Or the breezy chapter titles like “When Your Barber Assumes You’re Racist Too? “ Not I, sir, not I. While comparisons to the likes of Kerouac seem a tad overblown, the author does provide a guided tour through the seamier sides of life that your average page turner, pausing for a breather between one dull duty and another, might not be so thoroughly acquainted with.
Of course, we are not unfamiliar with the wounds that troubled, abusive families come armed with. Many are the memoirs that tout such souls construct their redemptions from after many decades of denial, avoidance, petty criminality, casual sex and more boozing and doping than you can shake a stick at. Fitzgerald manages to outpace the usual braggadocio of the abused child on several fronts, not the least of which is his claim to having a 17-year-old girlfriend when he was 12. As a matter of fact, who wouldn’t choose to do that as a means of escaping in stolen cars from the abusive, poverty-stricken, alcoholic and suicidal household to which he was condemned from the age of four?
Intriguing departures from the abuse shocker norm include a scholarship funded escape to a fancy boarding school where the wealthy kids, bucking the trend, treated him with an almost magical kindness, indulging the orphan in weekend trips to parent-provided pleasures of yachts and private aeroplanes, and indeed aeroplanes that take you to where those very yachts are moored, a six month traverse through San Francisco’s porn film industry, where he not only observed but acted, and an extended sojourn with a nominally Christian NGO surreptitiously providing material and medical aid to cruelly oppressed minorities in the remote jungles of Myanmar.
In line with Tara Westhover and J.D.Vance and their flag waving followers, our boy Isaac emerges triumphant from all that oppresses to join in family Thanksgivings and Christmases, where his siblings freely provide the cuddly gift of grandchildren to sooth the bruised memories, rendering the future somewhat bearable. And by the way, did you know the guy that founded VICE also went on to spawn that currently notorious band of Brothers the Proud Boys? I sure didn’t, but then I lead sheltered life, safe from such enticing ephemera. Perhaps only an author who has published best sellers on the no doubt fascinating tales behind people’s tattoos would have access to that kind of esoterica.
Sure, it takes all sorts to staff a society, and I for one, am glad to take a minor role unencumbered by such anguish as memoirs thrive on, never for a moment considering a family ascent of Kilimanjaro as an item on this bucket list thing that folks keep chattering about.
Not long after returning Abi Morgan’s memoir detailing her struggles with her husband’s six-month coma and the aftermath to its public perch I came across Rebecca Woolf’s rigorous self-examination All of This, a Memoir of Death and Desire in which her partner swiftly descended with virtually no warning into a four month chemo-assisted bodily collapse, resulting in death. A brutally honest and searing account of the long troubled marriage from which she craved some escape, but hardly the one she would have picked, this account deserves a praise-filled niche in an already crowded genre.
An electrifying affair, followed by a surprise pregnancy and an ill-advised marriage that spawned three more offspring, one successful career balancing another failure, a clean freak with a terminal slob, a monogamist versus a polyandrist in denial, temper flare-ups and endless arguments decided by the loudest voice, and what do you have but a perfect recipe for disaster. Perhaps her years of mommy blogging prepared her well, they must have as Woolf’s account is, been a surprisingly well written excavation of the avoidance and pretense that such a relationship requires. Somehow as a careerist and mother of four she manages affairs with both men and women while her spouse suffers the fate of a failed musician resorting to paycheck slavery to hold up his end. A love-hate relationship for sure and one that she never lets herself or us forget.
Cancer tales are all appallingly grim and I’m not sure one more recitation of the gruesome details serves any purpose other than the all-too-familiar rituals of horrors endured. For Woolf, it seems to bring out the selfless compassion that her years of self-indulgence precluded. Not long after her husband’s death and internment she resumes her romantic and erotic adventures on Tinder, having her share of ups and downs with dates who had no doubts about her requirements. After about a year she falls in love with some version of the southern gentleman.
As she comments: “When you have spent the bulk of your adult life in a tumultuous marriage it is very hard to understand its toxicity, until it’s over and you’re on the other side. For me, falling in love with a man who was not only kind but communicative, caring and concerned about my feelings was such a shock to my system that I became both euphoric and furious.” They move into what most of us would call an open relationship, seeming not to suffer when others were included. “Jake and I made plans to have dates with other people on the same nights so we could come ‘home’ to each other, our fingers smelling like the sex of other people. I found that there was nothing in the world that turned me on more than tasting another woman on his face after reuniting. I was ravenous for him after he went out with someone else in a way few people understood.” Me included I suspect.
Yet even after a year of this blissful seeming freedom Woolf finds herself once more claustrophobic and needing space, and so off she goes in search of, well, turns out to be a woman she’s known for years, a co-blogger also seeking otherness. Whether or not one feels appalled or admiring of Woolf’s remorseless quest, she has to be thanked for illuminating some dark corners of desire, those that many might hide in shame. Myself, I thought it wise to refrain from judgement.
In my mind Julian Barnes has fit quite snugly into the first rank of British novelists since the glory days of Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World In Ten and a Half Chapters decades back. During the intervening years there has been little, if any, slippage, leaving him firmly ensconced in that top shelf with the likes of Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, John Banville and Anita Brookner. The Booker win for 2011’s The Sense of An Ending was my most recent opportunity to indulge in his masterful command of narrative and characterisation, while my pleasure was only increased by the filmic variation with Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. And in my celebratory rereading of the novella I couldn’t help but notice that the narrator’s father is typified by “still fossicking around with those mysterious projects of his, doubt he’ll even finish anything”, not unlike our present narrator Neil who mocks himself by reporting his kids’ definition of their old dad as “the king of unfinished projects”. A small point perhaps but you never know, these have been built on less.
But to return to that river of praise, Barnes’s brilliantly subtle, witty and effective prose never fails to charm and intrigue, and this latest epistle from on high continues to shamelessly exploit that genius. And from a round-up of reviews, both print and video, it would seem all are agreed: more grateful genuflection is in order. Of course, with Barnes there is no resisting the tease of adjectives like ‘refulgent’, but by cleverly placing it close to the more reassuring ‘translucent’ he puts the reader’s puzzled brain at ease. The point in question being a description of a brooch worn by his tidy and deceitfully demure heroine, a night class lecturer for mature students and author of the conveniently out-of-print Explosive Women, concerning the undoubted contribution of female anarchists circa 1890/1910, and Our Necessary Myths, connecting nationalism to religion and family, doubtless with cliché-free, uncompromising rigour. This kettle of students, soon to be mates and rivals, are all keen to absorb her note free extemporising on Culture and Civilisation, the kind of generously wide sweep from Ancient Greece onward that primes the naïve with the illusion of understanding at the price of that messy, complicating detail that allows the idle to snooze under comforting slogans. Narrator Neil, a sort of failed-at-anything everyman in twice-divorced middle age, is now ready to be educated far beyond school and that diet of employment that provides without satisfying, but maybe not so impressed with the font of free-form wisdom as he later becomes.
Surprise, surprise, a personal relationship develops, though not of the fleshy variety, more the once-a month lunch with decorous nibbling and delicate proffering of views. While Neil is obsessed with his teacher’s radical revisions and questionings of accepted truths, she is obsessed with the internecine rivalries of Paganism versus Christianity, personified in the last Roman Emperor, the neoplatonist Julian the Apostate, who made the awful error of bringing in a policy of tolerance for the fighting mad Christians of his day, frustrating their lust for the martyrdom that would, without fail, usher them into paradise. Most bloody annoying and they never let him forget it, taking turns down the centuries to trash whatever was left of his reputation for the following millennium and more, making him over as some devilish apostate surrendering with his dying breath on the battlefield to the ‘Pale Galilean’ as proof of the vanquishing power inherent in the new dispensation. All tendentious mythmaking of course, as that scholar of note, the philosopher king, would doubtless see it from whatever perch in eternity became his preference.
Of course history is constructed out of ideologically motivated accusations, denials and counter accusations, our culturally sanctioned panoply of heroes and villains being tasked to play musical chairs throughout the centuries, as the shifting forces of righteousness rearranged the skittles to discover new sets of hapless souls to be harnessed and victimised. And not only history but the network of personal relationships that never ceases to undermine our sense of ourselves and that story from which our life is woven. Not surprisingly protagonist Neil inherits his teacher’s notebooks and library, from which he is sorely tempted to construct, if not a life then an affectionate memoir, perhaps not to justify his obsession but to counteract a tabloid led scandal from which Ms. Finch never really recovered. After pained consultations with her other now aging students and a classic what me? elder brother, he falters in defending his prophetess as others sought to defend Julian, without completion or success, such is the overwhelming tide of myth and its modern exemplar, gossip.
A noble failure for narrator Neil but a literary triumph for Barnes, whose power of the pen continues to provide the likes of you and me with those supreme pleasures of the text.
Pursuing the interlinked and intertwining narrative threads in Karl Jirgens ‘story’ collection, The Razor’s Edge, can be an intoxicating experience as the various themes range and curl around each other, folding back on themselves to spring fresh sprouts that constantly engage one in a tangled garden of memories and metaphors that cannot be hacked through for anything approaching meaning, you know, the independently verifiable kind, only admired for the brilliance of their subtle and hypnotic elegance. Prepare to be dazzled.
Blending the modernist and post-modernist approaches with the mundane, the mystical, high and low culture, the brutalities of war, the sensual pleasures of food preparation and the ruthless incisions of language unchained from common usage is a high wire act reserved for the star performer poised in perfect balance. Jirgens adopts that role with an ease that belies the discipline of long practice, producing for the open minded reader a dazzling play of narratives, all of which seem to agree on the many nuances of knowing that take their place in the playground between author, reader and text. It is a book that calls out for several re-readings as the magic of its tellings pass like clouds through the reader’s imagination. Such is the artful interweaving of themes and variations, almost symphonic in its intricacy, it would, I fear, be ruinous to extract quotes and risk disfiguring the whole.
Jirgens has passed this way before, particularly with Strappado (1995) and A Measure of Time (1985) and I’m tempted to say this could be his crowning glory, but who knows what undiscovered treasures still lie in wait? Many will know of his dedicated tenure as the progenitor and editor of the journal Rampike, now sadly at rest. But perhaps you are unaware that the complete archive is now easily and generously available on his website. If so proceed not with caution but celebration, it is also a carnival of delights.
Most novelists, when starting out, are content to make inroads to that already existing audience of story lovers, where character and motivation are subservient to plot, where what happens takes precedence over who makes it happen, and language is less an expression of individuality and more the vehicle the reader rides in as the resolution of conflict comes ever nearer.
Off in the fringes of tradition are the mavericks who seek to explore and expand the parameters by which narratives entice readers. For them the day may not dawn as many might expect, night may make a mockery of rest and refreshment, sentences may tackle the unsuspecting, paragraphs may manifest all manner of maze-like impudence while the authorial voice may emulate every attitude but the one it truly covets.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is one of those mavericks. His first novel, A Minor Chorus, as thinly veiled an autobiography as I’ve seen, abounds in such maze-making. The narrator seems lost in the several definitions of his existence: Cree, Queer, invisible, over-educated, – and seeks through wordy self-expression any portal of escape that might starve his past of its shadows and nourish the nascent individual breaking free of its egg. Already colonized by the dominant culture he doubles that distance with a college education replacing the rural isolation of his upbringing, reading him into an elite he despises and a language his contemporaries might never understand.
All this is conveyed with a dizzying array of erotic banditry and intellectual invective: “I’d been in the bathtub for almost an hour, but the smell of sex and displaced yearning still hung in the air. Flowing through me were the shock waves of intercourse: the euphoria of surrender, the catatonia of regret. An incitement to abstract thought as powerful as any.
“I was reading Agua Viva and in it Clarice Lispector wrote: ‘Writing is the method of using the word as bait.’ If nothing else, I thought, art could usher in a brief trace of another kind of embodiment, another experience of having a body that wasn’t already absorbed into the misery machine called life under white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. At the very least it could do what sex did for me, give access to what Lispector called ‘whatever is not word’, what I believed to be another way of saying ‘the opposite of the present’.
“I felt an urge to text River. I reached for my phone perched dangerously on the toilet and wrote: inside my body it was loud like a body, or a city street. To which they responded: O desire!
So what if the present was an empty bathroom inside which I shivered. At least I had something to write about.”
Having something to write about: Yes, it often plagues the young and desirous, especially the educated ones that know all too well that it’s all been said before, regardless of which branch of the tradition you cleave to. Belcourt, despite the praise recently heaped upon him, has yet to find a niche sufficiently capacious to contain all the contradictory desires and critiques that outrage and self-pity contain him with. His gift of expressive prose, by turns jagged and smooth, yet exceeds the range of his experience, often resulting in descriptive overreach and the usual over-egging of the omelette.
But I am sure he does not need me to remind him of all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that do not refrain from reaching out as adulthood crowns the callow youth but continue their relentless
carving out to reveal the wizened, wise character that will undoubtedly emerge. He’s likely heard it all from elders, ancestors or the W.H. Auden or Toni Morrison he praises in between Grindr assignations with anonymous strangers from whom comfort is fleeting and friendship almost impossible.
Coming-of-age novels often have a narrow focus, one that can make the most of the dramas and tragedies that hem in the protagonists in their efforts to break the bonds, – cultural, personal, familial – that seem to prevent their free advance. The big picture of history is bypassed to avoid the dilution of the agonised innocent pleading their case. Belcourt’s bleating of wounds is not dissimilar to those of the FLQ, IRA, Black Panthers and Basque Separatists: all felt colonized and oppressed by a dominant culture determined to keep them in their place. His complaints are legitimate but hardly unique. Yes, the ugly truth must be faced and admitted but also seen in the context of passing centuries, where man’s inhumanity to man is, ultimately and unfortunately, the state of things. Profuse apologies are only persuasive in the short term, much as we might wish otherwise.
Recent anthropological and historical research, summarised by Andres Resendez’s The Other Slavery –
The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (2016), provides ample evidence that in the hundreds of years before and after the arrival of Columbus, the buying and selling of indentured servants, serfs and slaves was common practice amongst tribes such as the Apaches and others, often as the result of raid parties and the harshness of starvation. To quote; “Slavery had been practised in Mexico since time immemorial. Pre-contact Indians had sold their children or even themselves into slavery because they had no food. Many Indians had been sold into slavery by other Indians as punishment for robbery, rape or other crimes. Some war slaves were set aside for public sacrifices and ritual cannibalism. Some towns even had holding pens where men and women were fattened before the festivities.”
In approaching the personal wounds that often produce memoirs such as A Minor Chorus it is salutary to recall, as Joyce noted, that history is a nightmare from which we are all trying desperately to awaken.
Cultural oppression and its accompanying cruelties are bad enough in first world liberal democracies, but completely beyond the pale in third world societies like Afghanistan, where being poor and female can hover on the edge of injury, imprisonment and a swiftly executed death sentence every other week.
We Are Still Here: Afghan Women on Courage, Freedom and the Fight to be Heard, an anthology edited by Nahid Shahalimi and introduced by Margaret Atwood, featuring contributions from thirteen almost citizens of that beleaguered country, will bring you up to date if that’s what you need to complete your anguished distaste for the state of the planet.
The essays and interviews included range from parliamentarians, writers, actors, NGO activists, print and visual media participants. Many recall the first fall of the Taliban in 2001 until their return to power in 2020 to be the onset of their happy and almost carefree days of personal adventure and opportunity. Not surprisingly several are now living in exile (Germany, US, Doha, etc.), many are from the country’s prominent families, those whose enemies might brand them as the elite, but as mothers and daughters they are hardly subject to the privilege that term implies.
As the former deputy minister of Internal Affairs, Hosna Jalil, writes: “In a society where every decision was made by the male members of my family, I decided to choose my own last name at the age of thirteen…. Choosing my own name gave me a sense of independence and individuality…. It was a step I took to build my identity and decide who I wanted to be.” Later we hear “Being in politics is difficult everywhere. But Afghanistan is one of the few countries where assassinations and personal attacks on politicians occur so frequently that they seem a normal part of political life.” And later: “I paid a heavy price for my new position. For the first time my ethical principles were questioned in the media, not just by the general public but by people I knew…. daily social media scandals emerged and were subsequently dissected… Many claimed that I, and other women in the government, had only received our positions in return for sexual favours.”
Prominent filmmaker Roya Sadat, whose first screenplay was written during the first Taliban era, prior to 2001, when “she and her five sisters were not longer allowed to go to school” and were instructed at home by their mother. Her first film “Se Noghta” (Three Dots) was produced by 2003 and won numerous awards. Later she founded the Herat International Women’s Film Festival. Her answer to Nahid Shahalimi’s first interview question (What do you think makes Afghan women special?) is as follows:
“Afghan women, whether in the fields of art, culture, politics or otherwise, have fought for their rights more than other women in the world, because there have been and still are many obstacles and winding paths still in front of them. Making art, in particular, is still a social taboo in Afghanistan, an unacceptable field of employment for women. How ever, women always try to use their knowledge, experience and assertiveness to advance in society. Afghan women should be judged based on their persistent skills and talents. In my view, a person’s mindset is more important than their background or gender, and that is also a central theme in my cinematic work.”
Later, in response to the inevitable how did you become a filmmaker question she adds, “Throughout my life of facing injustice and inequality I realised, more and more, that cinema and filmmaking gave me a voice. Making films is my life, and it is the birthplace of thought for me. My father was a respected man, who like many men, wanted to have a boy as his first child. In his opinion, the combination of abilities, passion and talent could only be reflected in a boy. Unfortunately, this misconception prevailed in my family, and as a result my sisters and I tried to be twice as good as the boys. Today all of my sisters work in various fields of art and culture. When my father saw our talents and abilities he recognised them, and from then on he has helped and supported us in all areas of our lives.”
I trust the aforementioned will adequately convey the general tenor of life for these educated and privileged women trying their utmost to combine personal ambition with a love for their culture and history and an almost desperate desire to see the lot of Afghan women improved beyond the cages demanded by religion and patriarchy. This small volume contains considerably more heartbreaking evidence that repeatedly testifies to the need for progressive change, and I wholeheartedly commend
its unending and enlightened mission.
From an almost permanently ingrained system of political and cultural repression we move, as seamlessly as style will permit, to one of temporary repression of individual freedom and choice. Amy Kaler’s Until Further Notice itemises her daily experience of restrictions imposed by the perceived public emergency unleashed in the virus panic years of 2020/21. A college instructor in sociology, a knowledge base I have found useful over the years, she reflects on her daily and weekly travails in and around Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It is a balanced and sober account of the various frustrations and gloom inducing isolations and necessary adjustments during that bizarre interruption to our personal and familial lives, where digital media seemed to sweep us into its peculiar and enervating world, replacing social interaction with a supremely inadequate technological substitute. Saying hello to strangers and smiling never seemed so important.
Kaler is to be congratulated for refusing to uncritically broadcast the assumptions and projections of her scientific/rational worldview. She understands that it is a lens among many lenses, and refrains from optimizing her bubble’s belief system over others that may discomfort her, even recommending a colleague’s study of faith healing (Dennis Covington’s Salvation On Sand Mountain) that I found so persuasive I ordered the book myself.
In the chapter, “The End Of The Science World”, Kaler steps up to the plate by admitting that although she lives in Science World she recognises that many live in Enchanted World where falsifiable hypotheses and randomised control trials count for little, thanks apparently to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, “where transcendent intelligences make things happen, and powers and principalities move the furniture every now and then”, gathering fundamentalists, “spiritual-but-not-religious New Age types and the generally superstitious” under her politely disapproving umbrella, and never for a moment seeing that her own membership in “Good Science” with its “certainty that there is a reality independent of my perceptions” is based on the myth of objectivity and a raft of unquestioned assumptions, as are those of religion. Whether you believe that some patriarchal Jehovah created the world in seven days or the Big Bang accomplished it in some anonymous space before time caught up with it, you are out on a very precarious limb, supported only by some hearty backslapping community reassurance that either makes you feel cozy in church or grateful for that next foundation grant.
Of course what really drives her batty is virus denialism, which she equates with “bomb-throwing Russian anarchists, late stage drug addicts and poses struck by disaffected youth”, the recent upsurge in deconstructing the dominance of Louis Pasteur and his germ theory notwithstanding. Yes, everything seems to be up for grabs in these turbulent times, setting us afloat in a sea of options that many would prefer to view from shore.
One recent set of examples seems appropriate to mention. In the many trials, clinical and otherwise, administering psilocybin mushrooms to the terminally suffering and depressed which very often induces a celebratory gladness and a willing surrender into those facing apparent destruction. If these subjects under the influence see and feel an inner radiance in all that surrounds them, both animate and inanimate, and a more or less permanent joy that transcends pain and discomfort, is that reality more or less real than the disturbed observers of the newest gruesome civil war or extreme weather event who suspect we are at the end of the road where civilisation stupidly self-destructs? Two of several options with many historical precedents. Yawn, chuckle, ponder.
A fascinating comparison to Kaler’s contemplations that popped up along the way was Zadie Smith’s brief, (95 page) series of essays Intimations (2020), composed and published during the panic. With a variety of observations, street scenes and personal reflections, she constructs and then views the new world(s) she found herself inhabiting. In one chapter she recognises the bottom line in all creative endeavours, – acting, sculpting, singing, knitting, cooking – as the most reliable motivation she knows, which, when all said and done, with all things stripped away, as it was then, the truth of the matter is it’s something to do. “Why did you bake that banana bread? Why did you make a fort in your living room? Why did you dress the dog as a cat? Well it’s something to do isn’t it? Fills in the time.”
Such honesty and wit makes many repeat performances throughout and I recommend it as a refresher course in style, self-deprecating charm and thoughts that are all too often bypassed for reassuring clichés. All in a casually portable paperback easily lost in a purse or briefcase.
I have been following, in my rigorous application of the principle of meandering, the seemingly endless creative output of Gary Barwin – in image, text and sound – for the space the myriad creatures of time inhabit, decades jammed packed with seconds and so on. While the word continues to occupy center stage, music and image undulate seductively in the wings, always tempting the reader to reach and refocus.
Okay, maybe not the first renaissance man to tip his hat to the four winds and three fates, but he’s here and he’s now, broadcasting in as many media as will tolerate his daring impudence, and I advise as much participatory applause as you can reasonably afford to part with. His latest delightful effusion of verse The Most Charming Creatures only adds to the accomplishment of his selected, For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe from 2019.
Rather than waffling on in raptures, as I am wont to do in such circumstances, let me allow the following quotes to measure your desire to quiver:
John Clare Ghazal
mingle did her hair with her hair and clothes
although herons alight on the beach
it’s good to jump on the scales of justice
in the highest half of the tree
nest to his body he made his bed
wood cuts the light
in the place where darkness will be darkened
in gardens, you garden
25 trucks running
protect the soil with soil
now use these small branches and start again
(after Lucretius 1.936-943)
just as eyebrows by the brain are raised
we touch the rim around the world
with sweet, golden liquor of thought
it tricks us
and works as far as the lips
so that meanwhile we drink down the raw
the intent is deceptive not malevolent
and we try to lift trees like eyebrows
squeeze history’s tectonics with our mind
make things with an I Dream of Jeannie nod
this possessive, this past, this gerund, this goat
this cow, echidna, ghost, carfentanil
pancakes, poems, dusklight
who is this “we” we make drink the world?
not birds but wingspeed
what Francis Ponge writes:
words. decency. out humanism.
Let those be your influencers, not paid but provocative, those that shape and shift your taste in our marketplace of flavours, forever refining our moods. Just put aside, if you can, his madly humorous surreal adventures in the universe of fiction, Yiddish for Pirates and Nothing The Same, Everything Haunted, and bask in these sweet breezes. A final word from Mr. Barwin (from Three):
let’s turn the paren-
theses inside out so that
we mean everything
The poetry of Jose-Flore Tappy, an honoured and award wining poet from Switzerland, comes to us, enriched as we are by the words living in word city, inhabiting our imaginations and provoking our thoughts, from her translator John Taylor and MadHat Press in Cheshire, Maryland. The poems in Tras-os-Montes (a remote region in northern Portugal) unfold a narrative, a beguiling one that enveloped me for weeks as I drifted in and out of its spell.
The stanzas of the dual text are in the main, brief and evocative, as they speak of a life lived in rooms and gardens, spaces infused by the protagonist’s spirit. “Servant of the smoky fireplace/she stoops down, straightens back up/ sweeps the walls/with her own smoke.” The poet follows the peasant, perhaps elderly perhaps widowed, though the passages of her remote rural life, at times shadowing her daily rituals like some envious ghost deprived of the struggles that exemplified her aging, at times seeming to merge with her subject, merge beyond the seductive rigours of metaphor and simile, to become one with her gaze.
Over time the verses seduce with their ambient, affectionate simplicity, inducing a light trance that admits the reader into the mystery of who and when and why without troubling the brain with reasons and motivations. Such is the gift of poetic utterance, tamed by the humility of confronting the divine as it leeches itself into the details of domesticity. One arrives at the end and wishes to begin again, life after life.
- Curtains drawn, feet propped
on a low chair,
she knows without knowing,
vanishes behind the lamp,
hastily folding around her
what little shines
wrapped in wool, rags,
her legs look like dolls
Beneath her blouse,
the raw onion blends with sorrow,
love, or whatever resembles it,
she holds it tight between her breasts,
- Against fear we will set
the vigorous trail never weary
of guiding us, or of following us,
the stubborn waves that sweep away
the driftwood, their ebb and flow,
and that fragile moment when the lilac-coloured sky
shatters like eggshell pressed by a finger,
opening the way to the blank hour,
when between us the cement wall
crumbles, when the sandstone cliff
vanishes, between pink carnations
so high are the telephone wires, so steady
their crackling as our voices
pass through them, shadows
within the shadow, speaking to us,
Well, an intoxicating six weeks of reader’s bliss there friends, and yet another example of how vital our literary culture remains, despite the temptations of streaming video, major league skittles and the endlessly reworked reports of war and fear.
Return to Journal
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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