Anne Simpson, The Marram Grass

And of course it's a lovely book: every Gaspereau Press volume is physically beautiful, you know this, of course, with the laid paper and the heavyweight dust-jacket with the line-art image in a colour barely contrasting against the paper. Usually there's an occasional copy-edit problem with Gaspereau, and this one has a few small ones, but Anne Simpson's prose has been handled with deserving respect in The Marram Grass: Poetry & Otherness.

An odd lead paragraph, that one?

Thing is, as much as I loved some of the essays in Simpson's 2009 collection, it all makes the best sense if you're already plugged into the conversations that she's participating in. The more you know on the way in, the more sense most pieces of serious Canadian literature will make to you. Generally I'm okay with this, because it's always the case that a text has an intended audience and a base vocabulary: concrete poetry, science fiction, suturing instructions, financial prospectuses, so why should literature get blamed for being exclusionary and elitist?

Anne Simpson's The Marram Grass is a wonderful collection, though your response to some essays will depend almost entirely on how you feel about Serious Literature. The best example of that is "Season of Ice," which provides the background to her poem (also included) "A Woman, an Owl, a Boy." Nothing wrong there, because a tightly multi-stranded commentary on a somewhat opaque poem that provides really useful illumination -- until you learn that this poem was Simpson's response to a teenaged boy's suicide, by hanging, in his parents' garage. Poetry can't undo a young man's death, and it can't do all that much in the way of explanation or grief-allaying. When the poet's outside the family and without inside information, well, it's a poem about the poet's response, rather than about the suicide itself. If you're okay with that, either you're a heartless bastard, or you're a fan of Serious Literature (or both, but let's not Venn-diagram a possibly useful binary out of existence, okay?). The essay provides a valuable window into Simpson's process, and into one version of the relationships between inspiration and history, and between Art and The World.

(Capital letters just make everything clearer, don't they?)

Two of these essays struck me as especially likely to repay continued attention -- my attention, at least, and if I'm going to call out Simpson for what feels like good-intentioned egotism, then I've got to acknowledge my own egotism (which likely isn't as pure of heart as hers).

The book's closing essay, "Waterwords" is a pretty great discussion of metaphor. Mostly organized around the Heart Sutra's opening lines about emptiness, but also drawing carefully on the phenomenology of Edith Stein, Simpson's interest seems to be in poetry as a "logic of possibility" in showing "us ourselves as if we were others" (p.146, her italics). Note to self: read Edith Stein, because she sounds fascinating. The focus here is on empathy, especially with other humans at moments of horror and darkness, so (for example) there's a brief but haunting passage about doomed people, photographed looking out from the 90th-floor windows of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

My fave, though, is "The Dark Side of Fiction's Moon." Meandering through some comments about classical fiction about doppelgangers, emphasizing the uncanny or unheimlich, Simpson has some interesting things to say about environmental impact assessment hearings. The rooms are set up for adversarial discourse, not conversation, but her time observing the hearings about the previously proposed Goldboro liquified natural gas project (now deceased, but there's a new proponent) convinced her that the project's proponents were more like her than she had been prepared to recognize:
None of the experts seated behind the tables wanted to do harm; they weren't against the land, despite the fact that exploitation of its non-renewable resources couldn't be achieved without harm. As I looked at them, it was as if I saw my own face in the faces of those around me. (p.83)
And of course we know this, mostly, but connecting this subterranean similarity with the doppelganger in Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, and Poe? Genius. Worth the price of admission, all on its own.


theresa said…
Lovely piece, Richard, on a wonderful book.
richard said…
As always, thanks for the kind attention, Theresa.

I was thinking about "The Dark Side of Fiction's Moon" tonight while watching the new movie Promised Land, which is about a company's attempts to persuade a county to permit fracking for natural gas. Very good work, predictably, from Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand, though I was disappointed that it was mostly inoffensive: still, a lot of it has to do with a politics of community across the boundary of resource extraction, and that's exactly what that essay's about (when it's not talking about Dostoyevsky, at least!).

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