Friday, November 28, 2008

Ken Belford, ecologue

All this semester my BC lit students have been admiring the poetry volumes that Caitlin Press and Nightwood Editions have been putting out recently. I've got several of them now, and they're lovely little artifacts: Gillian Wigmore's Soft Geography, Ken Belford's lan(d)guage, Rita Wong's forage, Tim Bowling's The Witness Ghost, Philip Kevin Paul's Taking the Names Down from the Hill, just lovely.

Harbour Publishing distributes all these books, thus making it very close to my heart, so I hate to say it, but their own books are a little less physically attractive than many of the ones they distribute. I'm hopeful that this hasn't affected my response to Ken Belford's 2005 ecologue, but listen, I'm a shallow guy. You never know what'll set me off.

But more seriously, it's been two weeks since I finished this book. I set it aside for some perspective, and since then I've marked 70 essays, written a discussion paper, and responded to about a hundred emails. The search for perspective faded away rather, and that's a shame because this book - while lacking some of the polish and juice of the 2008 lan(d)guage - has a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that mixes nicely with the swinging rhythms. It sounds partly like slam verse, cranky and assertive, but I kept thinking of strange little country songs from my youth, too, ones with lines too embarrassing for me to admit to humming against my will through gritted teeth to this day ("my boots are Tony Lama, / My hat's a Stetson, of course...").

This book came across to me as less consistent than the new volume, though this may be partly because of the separate sequence in ecologue called "leaving andamayin" (a river north of Smithers). The rest of the book is of a piece, even though it's divided into titled sections, so the distinct sequence distracts me somewhat. In my reading this book had strong flashes, of different voices and showing different purposes, but I wanted more of them.

There's the intentionally plain, the under-poetic naivety of love:
At 58 I went to my desk
and took out a paper and wrote
I love you and looked out
over the lake and across my life
and thought about farewells
. (p.62, close of "Retouch")
There's the direct objection, the complaint couched in abstractions:
                          I don't
believe in a mythic golden age
or the dominant view
so I collaborate in contexts
that don't close in on
themselves. (p.4, "City limits")
There are even lines like a koan:
A poem isn't a dog
until it bites you
and becomes a story
that won't go away.
(p.37, "Corresponding divisions")
I won't quote it, but "Remember, suppose, say" is worth the price of admission all by itself. A small and earnest poem that's still a bit self-deprecating, it has lots of what I think of as proper to a Ken Belford poem. It's less assertive than "The suicide economy" and the rest of the slammish verse, more personal than political, but can't we all stand for a complicated love poem - a simple poem about a complicated love - at least once in a while?

This book moved way up in my reading list because of  my great pleasure in lan(d)guage. I preferred lan(d)guage, certainly, but I'm pleased to have spent time with ecologue as well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Norah Vincent, Self-Made Man

An odd choice for a men's book club, or a predictable one? I'm not sure - there are so few of us, apparently, that there may not be enough data to say for sure. Either way, we're meeting this week to talk about Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man:One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again, which - it must be said - isn't about transgendered individuals, or about transsexuals in the usual sense of the term. Instead it's an example of cultural anthropology, like Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (which was, I have to say, a terrific book).

Basically Vincent goes undercover part-time, ranging from one night a week as the worst bowler ever seen by a men's bowling league, to 24/7 for three weeks at a monastery (Catholic, but otherwise nonspecific in denomination). Parts are funny, but mostly this is serious stuff, and not just because of the impact on Norah's psyche of having to inhabit Ned's mind as well. It's meant to be a look at how men live, and I gather that it started out of a sense that guys have it good - like the old Eddie Murphy SNL skit, in white-face out in the world, where cocktails are served on busses as long as there are only other whites there.

But of course things are not so positive in Man Land, at least not always. The inhabitants already know this, so Vincent goes through a shock that's not news to the more thoughtful among us. but she makes it worse by deliberately doing things she considers manly that have next to nothing in common with her own life. She can't bowl, so it's a crazy idea to join a cash bowling league; she's fairly urbane, so it's crazy to spend several consecutive afternoons and evenings at the lowest-class strip club imaginable; she doesn't like talking to people, so it's crazy to try a high-octane sales job. There are ways in which I'd be likely to crack in these environments, but she seems to have gone out of her way to find the darkness.

In a lot of her assessments about emotion, about men being unable to talk about them with other men, she's (sob! sniff!) mostly right. Most of us do a reasonable job of finding women for these conversations, but sure, a lot of us suffer in relative silence: I've gone through pretty significant crises, as have a few other guys I know.

Did I like the book, though? Good question. It's well worth talking about, but at least in part that's because I don't fully trust her self-assessment, or her assessment of other men or of what it's like on the inside. She did her best, and she gave up almost everything to achieve the deep cover, but - OK, I'll say it. It's a women's book, with a women's perspective about what women think men are like. I don't need an anthropology experiment to tell me what my life is like, because I'm already over-thinking it daily. Women will get a little better sense of how men exist, but I don't see all that much in it for me, and the Less Sensitive are hardly going to read this book in pursuit of More Sensitivity In Themselves.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thomas King, Medicine River

I was disappointed that Thomas King was defeated as the NDP candidate for Guelph in the recent federal election, because I'm unable to shake the idea that it's nice when good people get into politics, and I really do think of Thomas King as good people. On the other hand, he gets to keep doing all the great things he's been doing so well without having a federal seat in Parliament. I had lots of nice things to say about his book The Truth About Stories, and while I don't fully get what he's doing with the Dead Dog Cafe, people seem to dig that well enough that I'm pleased to see it continue. At least it's not the (*spits*) bloody Air Farce, right? Ugh.

Plus it can't be that pleasant to be a backbencher for a minority party, though maybe NDPers are OK with it since they've never even been the Official Opposition and hence are a seriously long shot to run the country. I voted NDP in my riding, which is my usual but occasionally forsaken choice, but as I commented over at Transmontanus (I think, though I can't find it now), I wasn't happy with any of my selections this year.

Anyway, in all the chaos of the conference I'm trying to organize, I took the time for some pleasure reading: Thomas King's Medicine River, which was rumoured to be funny and represents another title in my ongoing project to read more First Nations texts.

And yep, it was funny. I liked it a lot, though in a low-key sort of way. Mind you, I'm fairly sure it's not going to stick with me, or have much effect on my reading patterns, but I can see the reasons for Medicine River's success, and I'm glad to see that there was some taste involved in this book's success. The characters are really nicely drawn, and the dialogue feels very natural: the voluble Harlen Bigbear, the reluctant Will (reluctant in so many ways, in fact), the charmingly no-nonsense Louise, and the rest. It's just a well put-together novel.

After reading Medicine River, I can confidently say that I'll never go back to W.P. Kinsella's Hobbema books - Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, sure, but not the Hobbema books. I haven't spent time in southern Alberta, or indeed on a reserve, but by the time I was a quarter of the way through this book, this southern Alberta town on the edge of a reserve felt like a place I already knew. My long-standing discomfort with Kinsella's portrayal of the same area was confirmed, purely on the basis of literary merit - I'm no closer to knowing whose portrait is more "true," but King's is much more effectively written, and that counts for a lot.

Escapist reading for me, basically, and it'd be good escapist reading for you.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Ken Belford, lan(d)guage

I can't really say what I know
but I write provisional inferences
and, like others, perpetuate copies. (p.34)
Ken Belford's new book lan(d)guage, published by Caitlin Press and distributed via Harbour Press, is full of little gems that read autobiographically. I don't know Belford well enough to say where the boundaries are between imagined and experienced, but of course that's beside the point. They read autobiographically, so it's not especially relevant whether there's a persona intervening between the two of us.

I'm still learning to read Belford. I've got ecologue out of the library as an intended help, because there are actual titles to the poems in that book. lan(d)guage has no titles, perhaps because it's subtitled a sequence of poetics, rather than poems, but I've been thinking of them by first line. He has the knack of saying complex things simply, without losing philosophic depth to the demands of the colloquial, but occasionally I fail to grasp his lines - I'd like to flatter myself that such lines aren't fully elaborated, but Belford's craft tells me that really, I just haven't earned the right to understand it yet. Hopefully there'll be time enough for that, and ecologue is helping a bit.

Some pieces stand out for me, especially for the way he blends elements of traditional nature writing with a more probing, textually rich description/analysis. The first strong example comes on just the third page of poetics, about waking up having slept unaware beside a grizzly and seeing him flee as soon as they both awake:
At that moment everything I knew left me
And now a new world has taken place.
......................To see this thing
was not horrendous, and to see it go
was not delightful. Nothing meaningful
occurred, but time started with a big bear.
This is not about anything, but I'm waiting
for some thing to come up behind me
in the night. I'm like something else now,
and every breath I take anticipates
that moment I want again and again.
The book doesn't quote that well, but it goes down nicely in great swallows, and like all really good poetry, it's a treat to reread. Of course I didn't miss anything on the first read, so wise am I (wha'?-ed.), but as the days go on I'm rewarded more and more for my patience.

The third and last of the reviews saved up over the tough last few weeks. Less detailed than it was going to be, too, but that's a reflection on me rather than on Ken Belford. This book has an unstable place in my affections still, but I'm confident it'll end up in my year-end best-books shortlist.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

It's kind of a long title, this one - The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature - and in the end I don't know how well it reflects my experience of the book. It's a book worth reading, but the not-quite nature of its title's fit is a sign for how well it suits me. (Book review number two I'm catching up on, for those keeping track at home.)

In brief, Butala in 1973 was a divorced single mother and university instructor living in Regina. She subsequently fell in love with and married bachelor farmer Peter Butala, who had himself lived his whole live in that part of southwestern Saskatchewan falling inside the boundaries of Palliser's Triangle - not far from Eastend, SK, where Wallace Stegner briefly lived as a young lad. Over the years she has come to an increasingly deep connection with this place, a place of which she had no knowledge whatsoever when she moved there, and this book follows the growth and deepening of that connection. Some links to Thoreau's experience outside Concord, Mass., in other words, as well as to the post-1970s tradition of women's life-writing.

She does a marvelous job of discussing the 80s-90s boom/bust that had such a disastrous effect on Prairie farmers, but I was hooked early by her confessions about gradually remembering sensations from her rural childhood, after suppressing them in pursuit of urban success, once she begins to spend time on the Butala ranch. Here's the book's key passage:
If we abandon farms and farmers as we have known them for the last ten thousand years, we abandon our best hope for redefining ourselves as children of Nature and for reclaiming our lost souls, for what other sizable body of people exists in North America with their knowledge? There are only Native people left, who have been speaking to deaf ears since their conquest from five hundred to a hundred years ago. We may at last be ready to listen to them, but the cultural differences - in particular, religion - make it difficult for many non-Natives to hear what it is that Natives are saying. Increasingly we know in our hearts they are right, have been right all along, but we can't find a way of implementing their knowledge, of blending it with our own beliefs into a workable salvation both for the land and for all of us as a species. (p.179)
If you're wondering, yeah, I do find those lines problematic, in a number of ways. I'm uncomfortable with spirituality, and with the breadth of generalization she's prone to, and with any non-ironic use of phrases like "children of Nature." Plus Butala's casual use of "our" stands out for me, because with it she excludes First Nations individuals from her audience - perhaps unintentionally, but perhaps on purpose if she's writing to a specific audience.

And I do think she's writing to a specific audience. As good an example of nature writing as this book is, The Perfection of the Morning probably works for the same readers who enjoyed Diane Schoemperlen's Our Lady of the Lost and Found (reviewed here in June 2007), and for the same reasons that mean neither one feels like home for me. It's a worthwhile read, especially for women of a certain age and persons of a certain persuasion - plus her prose is really quite lovely - but it's not a book I identify with.

The Butala ranch, incidentally, is now the Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. It's an important surviving patch of semi-arid mixed-grass prairie: buffalo country, in other words, and the Butalas are greatly to be commended for selling their 13,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy.

Monday, November 03, 2008

John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce

Times have been tough around Book Addiction HQ these days: lots of work to do, some large-scale family things, and by far most importantly a Saturday memorial service for Ranger Clark, one of the world's great six-year-old boys, who was a friend to my daughter and who meant a lot to us. I've been reading, because it keeps me sane, but I haven't had the energy to do much reflecting back.

And that's a shame, because I've got three really sharp books in my "Completed" pile, starting today with John Vaillant's deservedly acclaimed The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. I think "true story" is a bit of a stretch, since there's a healthy dose of speculation in the discussion of the eventual fate (still unknown) of Grant Hadwin, the book's (pro/an)tagonist, but that's the kind of uncertainty that adds up to myth in this book.

If the story's unknown to you, basically it's about a logging contractor named Grant Hadwin who in 1997, as a political protest, cut down a 300-year-old, 200-foot-tall Sitka spruce that had an extremely rare genetic mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green, and that was sterile to boot and so could not reproduce other spruce with the same mutation. The scientific explanation is that there was next to no chlorophyll, but the tree survived and thrived because it was in one of the few places on the planet that offered enough indirect sunlight to do what it needed to grow (reflected off a smooth stretch of river) along with little enough direct, hot sunlight that it wouldn't be burned to death. The Haida have a mythic explanation for it, which includes elements like those in the story of Lot's wife (woman/pillar of salt = boy/golden spruce).

Thing is, this book is really well built, as well as thoughtful without edging over into polemics. There are important questions at play here, and while it'd be interesting to know more about Hadwin's family history of mental illness, and about his troubling (to me) relationship with the much older Cora Gray, Vaillant manages to use all these potentially titillating elements in service of the right questions to ask. On the working success of a logger, for example, whose work can ruin the nature that provides much of his delight in the world:
The evaluation of success involves a strange and subjective calculus: at what point does the brown cloud over an industrial city become a "problem" as opposed to a sky-high banner proclaiming good times? When does the ratio of clear-cuts and Christmas tree farms to healthy, intact forests begin to cause aesthetic and moral discomfort, or real environmental damage? How does one gauge this in a place as big as British Columbia, or North America? (p.98)
Vaillant's not in the business of answering these questions - that's our job, mine and yours - but in The Golden Spruce he gives us a story that'll let us exercise our intellects honestly on them.

Grant Hadwin, for his part, saw the golden spruce - Kiidk'yaas - as a fetish object. It was saved from logging along with the grove it stood in, while huge swathes around it were liquidated. The forest companies could be praised for their actions in leaving it to stand, while barely altering the scale or pattern of their logging practices that were coming under such intense pressure throughout coastal British Columbia. What Grant Hadwin did was remove the fetish object, to see what value the grove had without it. He didn't know the tree's importance for the Haida, he misjudged the nature and quality of public response, and his philosophic reasoning was negatively affected by his mental illness, but what seems to have been his intended goal doesn't sound that strange to me: to draw attention to a logging company's exploitation of Western culture's (or possibly humanity's) forest fetish to distract potential protesters' attention away from the despoliation of Haida Gwaii, and more generally of coastal forests in the Pacific Northwest.

To go back to the title: "myth" refers to the Haida, to individuals working in the logging industry, and to people who like nature; "madness" refers to Grant Hadwin, but possibly also to logging practices and (in Hadwin's view) to anyone who doesn't take up arms against the planet's oppressors; and "greed" refers to the logging companies - and possibly to individuals working in the logging industry, though their circumstances are more delicately handled than that.

Heck of a book. I'm glad to have given away a few copies of this one already, before having read it, because I'd have given it away more quickly and more often if I'd actually read the thing beforehand.