Robert Bringhurst, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music

Robert Bringhurst is an iconic figure whose importance is such that his peripheral place in the Canadian literary landscape means that the landscape is being viewed wrong. Come on, how can a celebrated typographer who also writes poetry not be seriously cool?

And yet, blasphemously, I liked only bits of Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, his 1986 collection that had Robin Skelton raving that Bringhurst might be the one poet "who can reclaim the dignity, wit, brilliance, and wisdom it has recently appeared to have mislaid." And they weren't even the bits I was supposed to like. The Buddhist poem series "Book of Silences," for example, which should have been the most important section of this volume, felt simultaneously weighty and empty; I've remarked before on my unease with what feels to me like an escapist use of Buddhism to avoid the burden of Western heritage, and this is another example of that. If I took it more seriously presumably I'd find more in it to take seriously, but the tautological character of this chance at connection is exactly what I find both unnerving and annoying about Western uses of Buddhism.

The bits I liked were remarks in the prose setting for what I took to be the intended poetical jewel: "belief ... is merely dead thought, severed from thinking," stood out for me (p.10), and I imagine it'll resonate for my atheist reader. A longer valuable passage occurs as he describes his relation to Western culture, and to Canadian culture more specifically: "I have tried to pack up into my poems all it contained that looked worth stealing, and to resituate that wealth, that salvageable wisdom, in someplace spiritually distinct: some other dimension of the physical space I inhabit, and which the maze of governments, real-estate agencies and development corporations supposes it owns" (p.102). Recognizing the likely failure of this task, he notes that "there is nothing else to do, for there is nowhere else to go. Home is where the stones have not stopped breathing and where the light still lives" (p.103).

But the poetry left me cold, mostly. I did like the "Lyell Island Variations," but frankly, not enough to place them against the flashes I found in the prose.


Anonymous said…
I'm not surprised that his writing left you cold. He is a rigid, self-absorbed, and infintely calculating man. No effort is made without thought for the payoff.
richard said…
Clearly there's a good reason for remaining anonymous when making a comment like this one, but listen, if you want to talk, I'll leave my email on the profile page for a limited time!

I got something like this impression from the prose pieces in this book. His hero status has always intrigued me, given that I've never really dug his verse.
Anonymous said…
Bringhurst was in Victoria this past weekend for a reading (which I missed). There's a description over at Zach Wells's blog:
richard said…
Well, gosh, but I'm fascinated by the differing tone of these anonymous comments. I've been missing the Festival of the Book stuff as well - bad prof, me.

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