Writings / Reviews: Janet Nicol

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Essay and Fiction Review

Notes and Dispatches: Essays
by rob mclennan,
London, ON: Insomniac, 2014
317pp, $19.95 paperback

This collection of literary essays from prolific Ottawa-based poet and writer rob mclennan provides an appreciation of several authors, their work critiqued with enthusiasm and curiosity. mclennan’s own talents and biographic anecdotes also weave throughout the 36 pieces. Each have been previously published in diverse journals, including Maple Tree Literary Supplement.

In the first essay mclennan re-visits Don McKay’s poem, Long Sault (1975), revealing the impact of the post-war construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an almost-forgotten event occurring in central Canada and altering the natural surroundings and peoples’ lives. The reader learns “Long Sault” has been out of print for decades, though rescued from potential obscurity through publication in an anthology. mclennan admirably recovers the poem once again, for readers to consider and value. As a voracious reader, mclennan is in the habit of making such recoveries, as some of his other essays attest.

On a contemporary note, mclennan has followed, with a sense of awe, the writing of Sarah Manguso. Despite Manguso’s hardships while still in her twenties, mclennan observes “…what amazes is just how aware and clear-headed she is of her own situation, especially through the passages when she claims she is neither.” But suffering teaches us to pay attention, he learns from reading Manguso’s novel, “The Two Kinds of Decay.” She further suggests—and mclennan clearly agrees—that to pay attention is “to love everything.”

Douglas Barbour is admired as both a writer and critic of poetry but mclennan wonders if this modest prairie poet has been unfairly overlooked. mclennan never pronounces, but does conclude many of his essays with provocative questions for the reader to consider. David Thompson, the explorer who mapped Canada’s west centuries ago, is the subject of poems by Robert Kroetsch, another prairie writer mclennan praises. He comments on Kroetsch’s unconventional but convincing choice of ‘storyteller’ in his Thompson poems—the explorer’s wife.

In a playful essay about New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, mclennan riffs on how this particular building has fascinated Canadian writers over the years. He briefly describes his own pilgrimage to the Chelsea Hotel, inspiring a poem which he duly shares in the essay. mclennan also shares several enlightening teaching moments with students during his writing workshops. In fact, techniques, methods and ideas to nurture the writing practise appear throughout this collection. mclennan encourages the practise of writing poems in response to other writer’s poems, for instance, and in one piece, chronicles a student’s success using this exercise. In “Notes on writing, writing” mclennan poses questions about literature, draws from other writers’ thoughts and is self-reflective. One such question he asks is “how far away does culture and identity still hold, still compel?” mclennan’s sure sense of identity, with Scottish immigrant roots in rural Ontario, provides his own answer which he more fully explores in another essay, “….on ‘compiling genealogies on Stormant and Glengarry.’

mclennan in the interviewee in one piece, discussing his own writing. As well, mclennan as interviewer to writers John Lavery and Michael Blouin are also included. “Collaborating with Lea Graham” is an insightful essay on what happens when creative sparks fly between mclennan and an American poet.

mclennan’s richly varied essays serve both the aspiring writer and the discerning reader. While the Canadian poetry scene is a primary focus, literary and geographic boundaries are occasionally crossed. Much more frequently, mclennan pays attention to the diction, form and motivation of a distinct nation of writers and this inevitably includes his own valuable contributions.

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