Thursday, July 21, 2016

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

You want to know something about how complicated Jamaica is? Read just this one commentary in the Jamaica Observer, "When a simple 'to rahtid' will not do", and follow the clues: power cuts in the House of Parliament; a 30% year-over-year increase in robberies in the commercial district; and most importantly for this post, the Tivoli Report on the 2010 Kingston unrest (a.k.a. the Tivoli incursion), in which 86 people were killed in the search for a don who had already promised to surrender himself.

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings is loosely based on the personalities and histories behind the Tivoli incursion, with Christopher "Dudus" Coke recreated in the figure of Josey Wales. The novel's all about voice, James says in his acknowledgements section, "a novel that would be driven only by voice," and frankly it would've been good to know that before starting to try and keep track of the novel's dozens of characters (some of them with multiple names) in several locations interacting in all sorts of ways. I'm considering dropping the word "bombocloth" into conversation, though, so that's something.

There are lots of reviews of this novel, some of them lengthy and most of them glowing, so feel free to spend time with Anupa Mistry (Toronto Star), Scott Carey (, Christopher Tayler (London Review of Books), or Zachary Lazar (New York Times). Heck, stop by Rolling Stone itself to learn more about the author.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love

I'll let Lee Maracle have the first word here about Leanne Simpson's collection Islands of Decolonial Love, which Maracle blurbs: this "is the sort of book [she has] been looking for all [her] life."

One reason for this, is that this isn't a readily accessible book if you don't have the secret handshake, and Maracle has it. Marilyn Dumont, a terrific writer herself, has some advice for the less connected:
"Some readers may take exception to Simpson's unconventional approach to story structure, characterization, and European literary aesthetic, but her use of Indigenous rhetoric when working in the English language exposes the power imbalance inherent in the colonizing effects of English, which undermined our stories as legend and our songs as entertainment. Through her moving stories and credible characters, Simpson reasserts and honours Indigenous forms of expression."
In other words, this isn't standard CanLit, and its relations to works produced from within a broadly European literary tradition aren't overly recognizable. More specifically, the book's tissue of references and allusions, that foundation underlying every text's identity, have everything to do with Anishinaabe culture, with settler Canadian culture visible only as caricature, only rarely, and generally either ignorant or villainous. Settler readers have to get over themselves if they're going to enjoy a book like this, but if they don't know the references, good intentions won't take them very far.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Basma Kavanagh, Niche

Front to back, Basma Kavanagh’s Niche is my favourite book of poetry this year: each turn of the page brought me something unexpected, even if she's pursuing some themes repeatedly throughout the book. The mythic as real comes up several times, in “How to Find New Myths,” for example, and extinction is a persistent theme:
We taste our death
in every extinction,
our extinction
in every death.
("Threatened," p.70: the whole poem, cf. Atwood's "You fit into me")
Kavanagh has the ability to adopt multiple perspectives in aid of a consistent ethic, speaking often for what I take to be some version of herself but also imagining herself (sometimes anthropomorphically) into the desires of the nonhuman:
The sphagnum bog tingles, its granite on edge, crests of Cladina lichen tender and expectant, alert to a pain that never arrives, forests of reindeer lichen with no reindeer in sight....
The ocean lacy and tattered, crumpling down to suffocating darkness as its auk-shaped, cod-shaped, salmon-shaped, tuna-shaped, walrus-shaped, leatherback-shaped, sea mink-shaped veins collapse. (“Phantom Limbs”, p.42 – prose poetry, I think)
These assorted themes and approaches come together in how Kavanagh reflects on human efforts to address the environmental crises of climate change, resource extraction, ocean acidification, and so on. At bottom, Kavanagh recognizes that any actions we take will lead to change that we will never ourselves see, and so the intimacy her readers seek with the world is never to be fully achieved—but that’s all the more reason for us to seek it.

And in the heartbreaking “Coda,” too, Kavanagh imagines the assorted happinesses that the world might experience after human extinction: “Only hawks will eat songbirds on the new earth, / no naked animal cover itself with another’s skin” (“Coda” part 4, p.107). Hers is a comprehensive sympathy, in other words, a sympathy even for humans in our collective inability to care for the world that made us, and that's an emotion I find myself craving. Sure, conservatives presumably loathed CBC for making the superficially humanity-hating "Coda" one of its 2014 poetry prize nominees, but who says those guys are reading attentively?

Seriously, this is a fantastic book, one that can be enjoyed by a whole lot of readers, and I know I've got some people I'm buying it for...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ariel Gordon, Stowaway

Oh god, Ariel Gordon is going to email me. And I just don't know what she's going to say.

Quite simply, I felt conflicted about Ariel Gordon’s Stowaways.

On a per-page basis, I felt myself more at home here than in most poetry books I've read in the last few years, more comfortable especially with the voice and the store of images. In the end, though, I just don't know what I think of it overall. Do I distrust funny, which is all over this book? Probably: I’m not sure how to weigh humour. Do I overvalue the complicated, which this book isn’t? Probably: but I don't particular enjoy overtly complicated poetry.

When I came back again to the book, I felt like Stowaways showed more inconsistency than it should. It may be simply that Gordon's going after enough different targets and goals that I'm not quite keeping up, but I'm not sure it's a collection so much as it is a book of separate poems. Still, at its best, there’s a sly and telling humour to Gordon’s verse that I very much appreciate:
how the word wild has begun to beg,
as a half-starved
bear begs: defeated, but with one eye
on the toddlers
& lap dogs.
(“How to Survive in the Woods,” p.58)
As much as I enjoyed the separate poems, I wanted more from Stowaways, and I hope that Ariel Gordon will achieve even more with her next collection. I'm planning on buying that one as well, and I hope you do, too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Emily McGiffin, Subduction Zone

You know what? Enough with my recent anxieties about my approaches to poetry: I loved Emily McGiffin's Subduction Zone.

ASLE chose well to make Subduction Zone its 2015 winner of the Creative Book Award. McGiffin shows great range in her form, moving from villanelle to free verse without the form ever seeming either obvious or unnecessary. More than that, she consistently manages the neat trick of bridging the conversational and the poetical, writing for example of how to learn a language in another country (the Philippines, in this case) through understanding place above all:
In the evenings, I write out the new words.
By day, transcribe them onto the landscape.
("The Work," p.53)
Subduction Zone memorializes places of significant human cost, such as Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, the mountain above Potosí that claimed roughly two million lives to mine silver for Spain, as well as ongoing catastrophes for the non-human (as in “Red List,” on endangered species, or “Levee,” on a denuded industrial landscape). Its opening sequence draws its inspiration from specific Burtynsky photos, each one anchoring its description of the capitalist monument (ship-breaking, giant mines) in an ancient monument (the Sphinx, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), and it’s one of the most powerful, striking poetic sequences I’ve read in a long time.

It's possible that this collection could become a minor classic, appreciated for a long time, even if I might be reading nostalgically. After all, there's something a little old-school about McGiffin's stylistics, which place her on the side of Don McKay (who's noted in her acknowledgements) rather than, say, Lisa Robertson, and these days I feel both old and old-school myself. But McGiffin's achievements in classical poetic form marry beautifully with her readings both of large-scale environmental crises and of personal journeys in a scarred, inexplicable world, and it's the kind of book I want to share.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Theresa Kishkan, Winter Wren

Should John Pass ever have gotten concerned at how pleased I always am to read new work from Theresa Kishkan?

Kishkan's new novella, Winter Wren, is a phenomenal read, and the latest evidence that there's no accounting for which artists are the ones who get famous. Kishkan has a wonderful touch with small moments, and indeed this novella is largely constructed of small moments surrounding some vastly larger moments, laconically told.

Winter Wren is set in 1974, and Grace Oakden has bought a tiny, isolated cabin above Sandcut Beach on southern Vancouver Island. The title is in homage to the song of the winter wrens which frequent the area, birds whom Grace recognizes to be singing what sounds very like something by Bach. Fairly early in the book, she visits the cabin's previous owner at the nursing home where he has been confined. Many years have passed now since his boyhood travels with his father who plundered (collected from) First Nations villages, and she asks him about the winter wrens:
     In reply, the old man whistled the run of notes she had heard in the salal. He covered his face with his hands and began to weep. Grace bent to the wheelchair and touched his shoulder. He kept his hands over his face and his whole body shuddered as he wept. If I can find us some tea, she asked, would you drink a cup? (p.36)
The novella has strands of narration, each within its own strand of time: the nearly 60-year-old Grace, who has lived an artist's life in Europe for decades without ever quite being The Artist; Grace in some younger days; some men at different points in her life, not all of them romantic interests. In Grace's company we visit Paris and Venice, as well as Memorial Crescent here in Victoria BC, and in Tom Winston's company we visit some of the villages and sites to which he accompanied his father. I'm still puzzling over which theme is truly at the core of the book, the meaning of artistic production (painting, pottery, photography), the artistry of meaningful cultural production (First Nations objects of ritual and ceremony, plus those other arts), the inhabitation of space and place, and so on. To be honest, however, the intersection of these themes through the poignant, wry mind of Grace Oakden means that there's no disentangling them.

And the end of the book is so very, very rewarding, though I'm giving nothing away about that!

Autobiography and fiction have a complicated relationship, and Kishkan's reflection on this particular book's genesis illuminates some of that complication. Winter Wren is the first book from Fish Gotta Swim, a new imprint led by Kishkan and the very talented Anik See (whose book Saudade is itself a treasure). With this as a starting point, we should all be excited to see where they take us.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Liz Howard, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent

The 2016 Griffin poetry prize went to Liz Howard and her book Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, and this was a very good call. At least, that's the official view of the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC), which selected this volume as one of the top four entrants for its inaugural book prize, the only creative work to be so honoured. It's a very strong collection, with some remarkable poems:
If I moan from an animal throat it is in hope you
will return to me what I lost in learning to speak.
(“A Wake,” p.12)
Lines like these sparkle like gems, but to me, at least, they're impressive because they stand out from less engaging sections. This is a poetic mode that depends for its success not on accessibility but on intricacy, complication, sometimes the appearance of impenetrability. Howard's are highly polished poems, and Howard stands in good company with the mentors she acknowledges, Ken Babstock, Dionne Brand, Erin Moure, and Lisa Robertson in particular. More than that, I admire and appreciate Howard's efforts to link her mentors' poetic practice with the other practices and traditions in which she participates.

In terms of its content and thematics, I was taken by the intensity with which Howard takes on the challenge of bringing together human perception and nonhuman existence, the complicated relations between perception, being, and being perceived:
what else is a river but the promise of a text      this is my delta some neural asymptote    where else could you cull such a clanging nerve? (“Foramen Magnum,” p.56)
I don't mean this to be faint praise, because who am I to query the wisdom of the Griffin and ALECC juries? But regardless of its strengths, this collection hasn’t become a favourite for me. Just as there are many modes of fiction, there are many poetries, and my preferences lie elsewhere. These things happen: it's hardly the first prize winner that didn't work for me....