If Not for You & Other Stories, Niles Reddick (Big Table Publishing 2023)
Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice (ECW 2018)
Who by Fire, Matti Friedman (Penguin Random House 2022)
Inspiring Canadians, Mark Bulgutch (Douglas & MacIntyre 2022)
A Book of Days, Patti Smith (Knopf Canada, 2022)
Common Tones, Alan Licht, ed. (Blank Forms Editions 2021)
This Strange Invisible Air, Sharon Butala (Freehand Books 2021)
Unmask Alice, Rick Emerson (BenBella Books 2022)
A Lab of One’s Own, Rita Colwell (Simon & Shuster 2020)
Making History, Richard Cohen (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
Poetica Dystopia, Stephen Roxborough & Karl Blau (2022)
Report from The Betts Society/Report from The Reid Society
Report from The Ross Society/Report from The Brockwell Society/
Report from The Hall Society (above/ground press 2022)
There’s been a trend now for some seasons to slim down short stories to little more than postcards from vacation moments, where a brief series of events and interactions is presented as emblematic of life in general. Characters are called onto stage but given few lines. The complexities of conflict and collisions of ambition are mapped onto postage stamp collections to be flipped through admiringly at one’s armchair ease.
And one can certainly admire author Niles Reddick’s adoption of this literary mode. Not to put too fine a point on it, he makes it work for him. There is an admirable efficiency to the glimpses he gives of small town and rural life, usually of a blue collar hue, as they struggle with the apparent emptiness of their existence and the quiet traumas of decaying bodies and brains.
Time and again he manages to make his snapshots resound into the moments and days beyond reading, reaching the entangled empathy to which all fiction aspires with an ease that belies the myth of effort. These are fictions that can be accessed as the evening meal prepares itself elsewhere or in the many spare moments that parse out the day. As a collection it is as useful as it is pleasurable. A book for public transit as well as the private armchair.
The scarifying drama of sudden and complete societal collapse, some nasty apocalypse that renders all infrastructure useless and daily life impossible, has been employed in many narratives of the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres. Sometimes, when all else fails, it sneaks surreptitiously into literature, no doubt looking for readers whose naivete exceeds their enthusiasm.
That all modes of communication, power generation, food distribution and health care could collapse in little more than a day without any official communications or emergency services kicking in, leaving citizens to riot and fight in the streets while remote rural communities resort to the hunting, trapping and fishing that used to sustain them before the luxuries of electricity, clean water, flush toilets and wi-fi seduced them into sloth and entitlement, well, it seems more than tad far-fetched to this sucker for civilized life.
But such is the conceit that powers Moon of the Crusted Snow, a first novel by the Anishinaabe writer Waubgeshig Rice. Published in 2018 but only finding its way to this city boy’s backwater these past few months, I approached this obvious slice of genre fiction with an open mind as yet uncorrupted by the crazed apocalyptic nature of the narrative’s unfolding. With its snappy sentence structure and the odd over-the-top adjective I could see we were in for some kind of gruesome thriller and waited to be appalled by the customary gratuitous violence, the more senseless the better.
After several harsh winter months, not uncommon in those northern reservations, where emergency supplies of food and fuel are carefully meted out and hungry strangers treated first with suspicion and then acceptance, and finally with rude dispatch, the community dwindles through attrition, suicidal drunkenness and depression, which in turn builds to a shoot-out with the cannibalistic transgressors, lead not surprisingly by a white alpha male determined to make use of those frozen corpses stacked in the garage till spring-enabled burial.
A couple of seasons later, the stalwart remains of the tribe desert their now useless homes and head for the bush life they quit many decades before, tools and fishing rods packed and ready. A romantic fantasy of a denouement, which some reviewers called ‘harrowing’ and ‘riveting’ but I felt should be filed under ‘laughable’, the Cormac McCarthy comparisons notwithstanding.
Last season’s flush of entries to the all-new cottage industry of Leonard Cohen studies was actually lead by the previous spring’s Who by Fire, Matti Friedman’s examination of the Canadian poet’s three week jaunt into the maw of that 1973 war between, it would seem, the Israelis and the Egyptians and the Syrians, although one suspects other vultures may have been nibbling at the edges. And a fierce contest of wills it was too, with the aggressors discovering once again that those defending their homeland will never be crushed.
With many interviews with surviving soldiers and volunteers being compared to two recently available sets of Cohen notebooks and contemporaneous interviews with the travelling musician himself, there is little chance of a threadbare narrative bulked up with the author’s precious opinions. What does come to light however is the theory, best summed up by the subtitle ‘War, Atonement and the Resurrection of Leonard Cohen’. However much the author desires it, the three weeks of roughing it and rushing hither and thither to sing at the front, followed immediately by an isolating retreat in that paradise of self-punishment, Eritrea, does not equal an atonement or a resurrection in my books.
Certainly Cohen issued his best album in ages the following year and made some kind of temporary truce with his spouse on Hydra that resulted in a boy child, yet it reminds me more of that Dylan Thomas line ‘I make this in a warring absence’ than any kind of blossoming in the peripatetic wanderings that made up the bulk of Cohen’s life.
Of course the war affected him, as did his appearances at various mental institutions, his golden boy childhood, his lsd fueled concert tour of ‘72, his voracious sexual appetites and the Muse dropping by to gift him with the sublime in melody and lyric. It all adds up to the complex mystery that was his existence on earth, a mystery to be further picked over in the decades to come. More than anything I was reminded of the classic and rarely quoted Cohen lines, “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows, … and I can‘t pretend I feel very much like singing as they carry the bodies away”, from ‘The Old Revolution’ on Songs From A Room, two years previous.
And speaking of Inspiring Canadians, we have this recent collection of essays, gathered under that cheerful umbrella, edited by Mark Bulgutch, to consider in that very light. I’m never sure I agree with those who feel that out of some insecurity we are always trying to define ourselves. I haven’t noticed that living in a shrinking empire like the Brits or a bloated one like the Yanks has made them any the less sure of who they are. The chatter, ours and theirs: it all seems like a carnival of opinions to me. In 1975, when being interviewed by the American music journalist of some renown, Paul Williams, Leonard Cohen espoused that “Canadians are like the Jews, continually examining their identity. We’re on the edge of a very great empire,… and we have always understood that we have to go along with the U.S. to a certain extent. But despite article after article where our press threatens us with the extinction of our identity, I don’t think that any Canadian seriously believes that we’re going to become Americans.
“I live in Montreal, a French city in a French country, where I exist as a minority writer, almost in exile as there is not an English writing community. This sort of thing forms the Canadian character, and we are very concerned about minority and majority, and yet it seems like everyone has space.” He continues in this fashion at length, trying to explain our mosaic to their melting pot.
In 2000, Globe and Mail journalist John Stackhouse was inspired to hitchhike across our vast land. He decided to call his book TimBit Nation but his daily Globe column was the less inflammatory Notes From The Road. Needless to say he met a remarkable assortment of citizens on his passage, impossible to summarize here, but on his return to Toronto and a wifi connection he discovered that almost every installment of his road journal seemed to have tapped into a deep sentiment – sometimes hostile, sometimes passionate, sometimes endearing. There were Canadians “who were in love with their country”, Canadians “who were fed up with their country”, but very few “who were complacent about their country”. I won’t even venture into the deafening silence that greeted Norman Levine’s Canada Made Me from the early fifties or Pierre Vallieres early seventies broadside White Niggers of America.
That would be a bridge too far.
I had assumed that Inspiring Canadians would be little more than another Three Cheers for Canada, but I was gratified to find that it leapt that hurdle with ease, despite being a sequel to 2020’s Extraordinary Canadians. With forty contributors on a wide variety of topics, including homelessness, drug abuse, mental illness, the inevitable climate change, sports, architecture, the arts and sciences in general, it measures our home and native land with a distinctive ease.
As a whole this collection reinforces our tender and somewhat coddled understanding that Canada, despite its shortcomings and public policy disappointments, is a virtual paradise for 90% of the world’s less fortunate population. Our standards of justice, norms of racial and sexual quality, traditions of social democracy and an all-embracing welfare net is the envy of many, and not just fleeing refugees. It is all too easy to take for granted but these essayists remind us that long and winding roads lie ahead but at least we have paved them well for future generations. Many of the contributors seem on the edge of transcending their celebrations of accomplishments and strivings for excellence and leaping into the kind of visionary evocations sketched by B.W. Powe in Towards a Canada of Light, way back in 2006. May they continue on that inspirational path.
If you had assumed, as had I, from seeing the moniker in various headlines, that New York punk era musician and singer Patti Smith had cobbled together a couple of short books in the manner of highly visible rockers taking advantage of their stardom to push forth some of their teen angst diaries and societal commentaries of the faux profundity that tawdry glamour gives access to, then think again. Eleven volumes at last count, two of which, Devotion and Year of the Monkey, I found appealing despite a certain studied precocity, this collection of bon mots, personal Polaroids and classic from-the-canon photography, being the latest. Drawn in the main from her Instagram account, initially provoked by her daughter’s insistence and later admired by many thousands, it certainly conveys the essence of carefully wrought punkish cool, embroidered with girlish charm. This is not a woman who regularly attends a hair stylist but definitely takes advantage of her disposable income to gad about the globe with an earnest and unflagging curiosity.
From a shot of her strolling down a hallway of the Waldorf with a white suited Michael Stipe towards their rock ‘n roll hall of fame inductions to the inevitable pic of the Diane Arbus, whom she imagines “entering the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel with a manifest sense of purpose and ever present camera, her third eye” and a classic shot of Allen Ginsberg reading poetry circa ’66, “serving poetry as if it were bread”, one feels oneself in the presence of a pale vanity advertising itself with humility.
In the midst of some dull seen-that-before imagery there are some very pleasant surprises: an image of the typewriter upon which Hermann Hesse composed The Glass Bead Game, a shadowy foreboding shot of her brother’s navy bag seemingly discarded in a corner, one of the best portraits of actor and playwright Sam Shepherd that I have come across, a fabulous shot of an old coat hanger with shadows, worthy of Man Ray, an empty staircase gazing down at a poster of Jimi Hendrix, a vision of Ralph Fiennes on the set of Coriolanus.
In the tradition of a ‘book of days’ entries are required for the full 365 so occasional lapses from the transcendental into the chirpy trite are unavoidable and for this reader indulged in a little too often. The accumulation of café table tops with coffee cups and significant books grows tiresome. After a number of sincere salutes to the artsy dead from Baudelaire, Proust, Genet and Morrison, that is Jim, she ends her 365 sojourn with “Happy New Year everybody! We are alive together!” Need I say more?
Well actually I could. Mere hours after penning the above I received notification of the death of alt-rocker and guitarist of renown Tom Verlaine, as a tribute to his life appeared in a New Yorker online edition, one authored by his life long friend and sometime collaborator Patti Smith, whose heartfelt words bear repeating.
“He awoke to the sound of water dripping into a rusted sink. The streets below were bathed in medieval moonlight, reverberating silence. He lay there grappling with the terror of beauty, as the night unfolded like a Chinese screen. He lay shuddering, riveted by flickering movements of aliens and angels as the words and melodies of “Marquee Moon” were formed, drop by drop, note be note, from a state of calm yet sinister excitement. He was Tom Verlaine, and that was his process: exquisite torment.”
Next day, as I contemplated the synchronicity, it effortlessly multiplied itself with the appearance of a volume of interviews by Alan Licht, Common Tones, whose long time involvement with New York’s music and art scene gave him a familiarity and access to such fringe luminaries as Tony Conrad, Lou Reed, Ira Caplan, Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Tom Verlaine and others. If you are into that arty experimentalism which might annoy your neighbours or bore your friends rather than foot-tappers you can sing while doing the dishes, this is the compendium for you. And at 600 odd pages it can shamelessly claim to be encyclopedic in scope. For many it would be little more than oddball ephemera but for those clued into the fearsome mysteries of the avant-garde it will be close to indispensable.
From the avant-garde to the luminescence of the everyday: portraits of which Sharon Butala is something of past master. Her recent collection, This Strange Visible Air: Aging and the Writing Life extends and refines that talent. I had enjoyed several of her earlier works, The Perfection of the Morning and Coyote’s Morning Cry in particular, and while aware that she’d continued publishing and being praised, I had drifted away as other names and reputations surfaced. Such is the life of a giddy reviewer and tireless reader of more genres than I care to name. This new assemblage of essays and memoirs is as compelling as those I had recalled after receiving a friend’s recommendation. The power of her pen has not withered with age, as she worries in several places, but has not only been reinforced with that suffering we know shapes character and strengthens will, but has also been refined in the quiet fires of contemplation that the retrospective surveys enabled by retirement permit. She has become the wise old woman, the crone that many cultures revere as we moderns cling to our obsessions with those spasms of youthful foolishness that neatly sidestep responsible stability in favour of another reckless adventure.
As she observes in Passing Through, “One of the first things young people should be told is that one day they will be old. When you’re old, in dismay and disbelief you will ask yourself a dozen times a day, How on earth did I wind up like this, looking around your empty apartment at the light coming through the windows, spreading like clear water across the threadbare rug; hearing the low drone of the radio in the other room; thinking, I need to talk to someone – a certain someone – reminding yourself then that he or she is dead.”
As befits her current status as a citizen of eighty, she spends much of her energies in retrospective reflection: childhood, schooling, small town life, the diaspora of extended families, the wobbly paths of friendship and relationship, the rush to marriage and the dire fates of divorce, the courtly dance around death and the seductive whispers of the somethings beyond. Like all fine writers she does not forget to entertain as she informs, mystifies and provokes. Her rich white lady guilt as she shares public transit with the poor, deprived and definitely non-white is as honest as it is refreshing. Her treatment of that one black sheep that many families are forced to tolerate and indulge, over and above the cup of compassion doled out by whatever deity you subscribe to, conveys the sadness of inevitable tragedy minus the whining of the put-upon relative. I say congratulations on that one Sharon.
Yet despite the real world of “sins, transgressions and deceptions”, there are moments of revelry that are not to be missed. In a Life in Friends: “When I put the scallops into the heated pan, the hot butter splashed up and I burned my hand, so that I spent the rest of the evening running back and forth to the fridge for ice to put on the burn. Then I spilled my glass of red wine, and it splattered over the favourite blouse of my sixty year old friend sitting at the end of the table, so she spent half an hour in the bathroom trying to get the stains out. I gave her my best exercise t-shirt to wear home, because it was the only top of mine that fit her; my lamb chop, beautifully cooked, skated off my plate and wound up on the off white rug five feet away, leaving a greasy stain including a bit of mustard from my plate. These accidents happened because I was still recovering from cataract surgery, and I couldn’t actually see anything close except as a blur. As for reaction to the film (Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty) – the meal is best forgotten – one friend loved it as much as I did, maybe even more, one was approving, but not head over heels about it, and one, who had a sleepless night, fell asleep and had to go home.”
And for those who delighted in her occasional ventures into the mystical there is this, from The Strange Visible Air: “When I was twenty-three and the exhausted mother of a sleepless first baby, I lay down one evening for a nap, and instead of finding the blessed oblivion I longed for, found myself in another universe. Here, our baby lay sleeping in his carriage on the lawn and under the rich green foliage of the gnarled elms that lined our backyard. This was our yard, our trees, our sidewalk, our rickety once white picket fence, but this homely familiar scene was surrounded by, occurred within air that, though translucent, was pebbled or textured. I could see the air. The entire scene, including the air, was utterly still, not the stillness of the living room when you first come home, nor the stillness of a crowd watching something odd in the sky, but a stillness that was itself alive. Nothing ticked or oved, no voice spoke, the scene and its meaning were whole, which I saw at once; and I saw also at once that it was inarguable, it simply was.”
To that I might add: Butala’s visions and contemplations were, are and will be.
Perhaps you do not recall the trashy paperback circulating though every other used bookstore and thrift shop for decades, Go Ask Alice. Just in time for the Nixon era war on drugs, this faux memoir purported to be the diary of one sad hippie wanna-be, a teen runaway, trapped in a descending spiral of homelessness, addiction and prostitution, ending in suicide. The author, hidden in the guise of Anonymous, claimed to have edited down a young girl’s journal, handed to her for safe keeping shortly before the sad end. Despite the appalling prose, amateurish beyond all teen confusion, and a complete lack of verifiable documentation and supposed professional status, Prentice-Hall and Avon jumped on the property launched it and its sequels into a trajectory coming close to four million copies. The first rehash of several, Jay’s Journal, combined the drugs and promiscuity with ouija board witchcraft, a hastily assembled assortment of occult ritual, the usual graveyards at midnight, headless chickens and reckless consumption of blood.
That all of the first and about 80% of the second were complete fabrications seems not to have penetrated the psyches or moral compasses of any editors or reviewers. Who could complain with endorsements that insisted this was a book that every concerned parent should read. As the sales and shocking revelations spread far and wide, no-one seemed willing to hop off the roller coaster, and as we call it now, whistleblow. That shameful, eyes averted oversight seems to lay the blame right at the feet of the publishing world, leaving Dr. Beatrice Sparks still to this day, in the shadows of vampiric exploitation of hapless teenagers and their terminally naïve parents. Author and tireless researcher Rick Emerson exposes the fraud with more style, wit and grace than it deserves, and I applaud his dedication and persistence in pursuit of a legend that richly deserves debunking.
The cultural saga of gender bias, glass ceilings and male abuse continues apace. Racism, sexism, ageism, it seems like all the -isms come home to roost eventually. Some years back I found myself reading the Candace Pert’s memoir The Molecules of Emotion, which chronicled her long struggle to not only gain respect in the scientific community as a woman but also to find a secure footing for her theory that emotions must have a molecular basis. I was intrigued by her ideas and became, in the reading, enamoured of her journey. With digital media making all research accessible, I see now I must have encountered the work around 1998 and its full title was The Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel and that she passed from this life in 2013.
Not for the first time in history, she made her initial discoveries as grad student in 1972, finding the brain’s opiate receptor, the site where the body’s painkillers and ‘bliss-makers’ bond with cells to weave their magic. Displaying the modern intellectual warfare of scientific discovery and the sly purloining of other’s results, her narrative shows how the exhilaration of a shared breakthrough amidst the survival struggle of women in science can lead to mainstream influence; her drug PeptideT was referenced in the award winning drama Dallas Buyers Club and was strongly featured in the documentary “What the Bleep Do We Know?”
By now her radical, almost heretical notions have been substantiated and built upon amidst the myths of modernity, the scientism that insists that all ills and problematic issues can be fixed, modified or eliminated in an atmosphere of enthusiastic progressive cooperation. In Rita Colwell’s A Lab Of One’s Own: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexism In Science belies that myth. Sexism, racism, ruthless careerism, blatant and usually unpunished abuse, cutthroat competition over funding and institutional status: all yet thrive.
Perhaps the reader will not be shocked at how women, married or single, were treated as second class citizens, not much more than serfs in many situations, cleaning and fetching when they could have been pioneering. Her focus is north American universities and research institutions in the 50/60/70’s, when the angry thrusts of feminism had yet to be discovered and then weaponized into a war against a lunk-headed status quo. And of course the only identity more oppressed in science than a woman was a black woman. Those who stuck out the abuse and oppression survived to not only tell the tale but to assume leadership positions, Colwell herself becoming the Director of the National Science Foundation.
Have things changed for the better? Colwell hears this hopefully repeated when talking with young women. Well, on one level yes: “Both my alma maters, Purdue University and the University of Washington, have had or have a woman president”. But on another, not so much: “Deep down, many scientists are still convinced that the ability to do science is linked to the Y chromosome.” This despite “Innumerable studies document that the biological differences between men and women as they relate to science, mathematics, engineering, technology and medicine are trivial or nonexistent.” And tellingly, “Other studies show that women don’t underestimate their own abilities as much as men overestimate theirs”.
Microbiologist Jo Handlesman at Yale, after hearing over and over from male colleagues that unconscious bias against women, did not exist as “Science is objective, we only hire the best, and we know it when we see it.” Smelling a rat, she reacted: “If these disciplines regularly run randomized double-blind experiments because they know they can’t be unbiased about data, how can they expect to be unbiased about everything else?”.
Thusly fired up she set about to perform her own study. Convincing 127 scientists in biology, chemistry and physics to evaluate job applications, without revealing her overall purpose. Identical applications for a position as laboratory manager from recent graduates, identical but some were signed “John” and others “Jennifer”. Results were as disturbing as one might suppose: “Both men and women scientists judged the male applicant to be more competent than the female with identical qualifications, paying her almost $4,000 less per year. All across the board – no matter their age, sex, scientific field or tenure status – faculty members preferred John.” Since this study, “A deep-seated bias against women in science has been documented at almost every level, from Nobel prize winners down to undergraduates.”
Cultural change, its underground rumbles, surface ripples and appearance of reassuring adjustments, regularly reads itself into the fabric of society whether we pay attention, flip out or feign ignorance. Employing its own enigmatic energies, it disturbs the calm and calms the disturbed while onward we swim, assured of some destination or other.
Cultural change is of course, part and parcel of that endless infusion of events into the timeline we call history. With his illuminating and amusing study Richard Cohen reminds us that history not only happens but is regularly made by those who would record it. From Herotodus and Suetonious, through Machiavelli, Voltaire, Macaulay, Marx and the t.v moderns like Mary Beard, Simon Schama and Louis Gates we are spun, most entertainingly I might add, through the formative influences and characters of those who purport to make history something more persuasive than the unseemly bragging of the temporarily triumphant. Are there patterns to be observed or the mere chaos of endless insurrections, revolutions, droughts, floods and plagues? Does the process replicate itself with minor variations, significant at first flush but all too predictable with even a smidgen of hindsight? The more we change the more we stay the same? How the mighty fall and how the poor endure?
“The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another” – so wrote the celebrated Muslim historian of centuries past Ibn Khaldun, “whose approach to history places him as the founder of historiography, sociology and economics”. Reading such a view from one so wise one might be tempted to consider the issue closed and move on to more pressing matters, but fortunately for the insatiably curious in the crowd Richard Cohen has supplied us with a large palette of informed opinion, all endlessly prevaricating on every conceivable aspect of that shapeshifting entity that the historical enterprise seems to assume. At seven hundred odd pages Cohen leaves few stones unturned.
There is not a chapter amongst the twenty-two that is anything less than absorbing. Fun filled facts, character flaws, human frailties, deceptive diplomacy, warmongering adventurism, geopolitical chess, ruthless rivalries of religion, the vanities of rulers, the pious submission of the ruled, every class and race exploiting to the max, it could be depressing if it weren’t so comical. But then I belong to that ‘follies of human vanity’ club where the comic always outweighs the tragic. In my life I have mixed it up with many of the ‘gloomy tragedian’ club and our clashes have always been instructive. That I refuse to be condemned to the hells of their imaginations, either scientific or theological, is of course seen as irresponsible if not downright heretical and I am shunted off to the outer darkness where I can chuckle to my heart’s content. And such are often the bases for the squabbles of history.
Cohen subtitles his work ‘The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past’ and his opening epigraphs, from E.H. Carr’s What Is History (1961). ‘Before you study history study the historian’ and Hilary Mantel (The Reith Lectures (2017) ‘Beneath every history, there is another history – there is at least, the life of the historian’ rather give the game away. And what an entrancing game it is too. Opening at random one can delve immediately into intriguing anecdotes, amusing contretemps or theoretical expositions, all delivered with the wit and charm that a long time editor, publishing director and travelling lecturer would accumulate like icing on his obviously deep research.
Here’s one: “Ancient Rome was no better. Juvenal in his Satires, abhorred ‘the woman who is forever referring to Palaemon’s Grammar and thumbing through it…or quote lines I’ve never heard’ The distaff side of humanity refused to let their brains waste away, however. For instance the 1333 painting Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus by the Gothic artists Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, now housed in the Uffize Gallery in Florence, shows the archangel Gabriel informing Mary that
“she is about to give birth to the son of God, but she keeps her thumb in her book, so as not to lose the place.”
And another: “Certainly Churchill did not chop the vegetables, and he did not set the table or mix all the sauces, but as Kelly implies he knew how to get a six course meal in the right order and at more or less the right time. He would coach his subordinates on writing, one issuing a directive ordering his staff to write in ‘short crisp’ paragraphs and to avoid meaningless phrases. Seeing Churchill tightening and clarifying a paragraph, Kelly wrote, was like ‘watching a skillful topiarist restoring a neglected and untidy garden figure to its true shape and proportions’.
Finally, from his Afterword, as if you need any more convincing: “A friend of mine, after reading through a draft of this book, asked, did I think people were writing better history now? I think we are.
‘But, said Simon Schama when I mentioned this view to him, ‘What are your criteria for better? Deeper research? More imaginative storytelling? I don’t think you can improve on, say, Ferdinand Braudel, whose books can sometimes become prose poems. Does one find anyone like that now? No. Not combining the panoramic scholarly research and intense literary power.’
The wife of an old friend, on giving me recipes to post on my fridge door, on the off chance that I might actually try them out, would always add, not quite as an afterthought but as a motherly instruction to an errant bachelor doubtlessly undergoing the rigours of a low protein diet: “Eat and Enjoy”. In that spirit I would add, “Read and enjoy”.
The other day a poet friend emailed to ask if I knew any female sound poets that might be interested in a group project. I had to report, sadly, that I did not. The brief Q and A reminded me of how many styles and attitudes inform the practice of CanLit: lots, and this will devolve into an attempt to enumerate them. As I advance in years and my umbrella of inclusion expands in the rain of creativity and self-expression, I come to embrace more and more hearts and minds that appropriate words as their means of creative communication. But the ways in which they make that appropriation are myriad and my life as a critic cannot find time to be exhaustively inclusive though God knows I foolishly keep trying.
In my YouTube video reading series GordsPoetryShow I have included as many English language poets (Can/US/UK etc) as I can get my hands on, both canon and contemporaries, and despite coming up to #100 soon, it all seems woefully incomplete.
Some of my inspiration was the tireless editing and publishing efforts of Ottawa’s Rob Mclennan, whose above/ground chapbook project continues to break all land speed records for small/micro press diversity and longevity. This current series of brief critical assessments/celebrations of poets in mid-career is yet another reason to applaud his cheerful multi-tasking. Some of the poets can be seen as anarchists and surrealists; certainly all avant-garde, although that appellation now seems a tad tired, and perhaps ‘language’ and ‘post-language’ are better fits, for they all take pleasure in playing with words rather than directing them to fulfil a purpose in the traditions of story or poetic evocation. In the main they love to deconstruct all form and expression to initiate fresh perspectives and worldviews. Progenitors would be, of course, Tristam Shandy, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, to mention but three. And if one challenges any perceived lack of progress from these landmark texts, the counterblasts would likely be along the lines of does Alice Munro improve on Anton Chekov, does John Updike improve on Thomas Hardy, do Eugene O’Neill or David Hare upend William Shakespeare? The tides of debate were and still are endless. Despite being firmly on the side of convention and tradition and seeing subject matter being of more significance than matters of style, and post-modernism is, essentially, just another style, another way of shifting perspective while moving the furniture of punctuation around, I can see why others, like, for example, Gregory Betts, might utter “The longer I spend in CanLit, the more I realize that the answer is almost always ‘Margaret Atwood’; and the question too.” I would argue that as Canadians we have not spent nearly long enough in the decades to have any realizations of consequence. Let us live through our adolescence and see what real maturity brings.
While these writers in this always expanding series have diligently honed their craft to uncover their vision, what they have discovered beyond narrative and lyric is hardly a land lush with cultural possibilities but a jungle dense with obscurantist language games designed to tickle the fancies of the initiated, in which, as far as I can see, it wholly succeeds. Swimming against the tide certainly strengthens the muscles but rafting back down with the flow affords many perspectives on what you might have missed in your travails upstream.
I have enjoyed the poetry of Stephen Roxborough for some years now, but his recent collaboration with musician Karl Blau, in which he declaims against a soundtrack of varied rhythms, textures and provocative shards of melody, is a sonic triumph, springing beyond printed text into that realm of audio assault previously the preserve of rap artists and Terence McKenna raves. Barbed critiques of culture, politics and society reverberate with an anarchic majesty as Blau’s cornucopia of instruments and styles vies with the voice in a quasi-shamanic shake up of the senses. In the music and lyrics I hear echoes of Zappa, Ferlinghetti and Eno, all of which are put to good use in creating the architecture of the experience. Hats off to these idiom colleagues! May the words of their city continue to repopulate imaginations.
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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