O’Meara & Przybylo
David O’Meara is an Ottawa bartender and writer, with two previous poetry collections and a stage play to his credit. His new work is Noble Gas, Penny Black (Brick Books, $18).
His style is demonstrated well in the first poem, “The Next Day”: “You turned forty all afternoon, / and with every hour’s drink you poured, / you aged. The thought was fuel; your mind roared / like a fire, like a starved sun // eating its core, making a feast / of the fears that remained. But the next day arrived, / and you were safe, and sane; not in the least surprised you’d lived.”
That’s it—the whole poem, treating the subject’s angst at turning forty. But it is muted suffering. The subject’s mind “roared”—but perhaps too much like the sun—quiet in distant space. The notion that the subject may make “a feast of fears” is rendered too abstractly to be convincing, and the last line seems listless.
For me, a better poem is “Czarna Polewka,” or, in Polish, “Black Soup”—the fare that rejected suitors are served by the parents of the once-intended. On his way to make his proposal, the suitor hears “a curt squeal of shifting ice / and the chop of wet-packed snow”: While clearly rendered, neither sound is a good omen.
Returning from his failed mission, the suitor reflects on his life, “and no good // news to take there; / only the warm, black stone / of his stomach, / the taste of duck blood and plum.” Here, again, the imagery is definite enough to convey a sense of emotion.
“Root Cellar” is another strong poem, thanks to the clarity and vividness of O’Meara’s writing: “The latch is still black. Just / a pinch with your thumb, and you’re in. The old paint swells and flakes / with damp, though the sunk trough / along the walls where the rain / drained is dry as ash.”
Sometimes poets let meaning evaporate into vague philosophy. Better it is to describe reality as firmly as possible, as in this case of a driver who enjoys speeding: “Somewhere down these back routes, / just for kicks, he guns the rusted chassis / at rising humps in the road, / full speed, trying to jimmy us // loose from gravity, and slip / a fat envelope of air / between our wheels and the earth.”
Born in Wroclaw, Poland, Ela Przybylo lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Threats of Intimacy (Buschek Books, $17.50) is her debut collection. Her subject is love, but also the struggle “against the limitations and preconceptions of love poetry.”
Thus, Przybylo proves vaguely Blakean and Wordsworthian—or maybe more like Bliss Carman in his “vagabond” mode: The soul communes with Nature: “Above is the bloom, the fuming sky, / the illusive puff of cloud, / this is the playpen of poetry.” For her, “clusters of words / … are born, / out of sky, out of road, / out of sleepless nights.”
But Przybylo does have, at times, the mettle of Dickinson, to propose speculation, but grounded in careful scrutiny: “I fell in love / with a tree / today / stem cells anchored me / tree’s bark anchored me / insomnia of spring // My scent remains on the tree / a trace of the affair’s presence / while the evening bleeds.”
A graduate student in Women’s Studies, Przybylo is tempted frequently, I think, to seek transcendence through ‘theory’ (i.e. philosophy). This interest can engender disruptive diction.
Hence, one poem asks, “Do you find me beautiful / when I am emitting / my concave fears / with my soul / over the daily vessel?” The abstractions are intrusive. Better is the conclusion: “Do you find me beautiful, then? / Thoughts dance in your direction.”
Even better though is this passage from another poem: “I watched / a two-legged deer / scramble across the road / its second half / hanging carcass / fresh and raw / sticking to the pavement.”
Yes, make the poem funky, down-to-earth, and then there is power in the writing and pleasure in the reading. Let the ether remain ethereal: it’s good at that. Prefer, poet, the real.
U.S. Prez Election Books
At my local barbershop, in January 2008, a group of us black men (barbers and heads needing sculpting), debated the chances of then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama winning the Democratic Party presidential nomination and then the U.S. presidency.
One gent was vehement, almost apoplectic, in insisting that it was impossible. Obama could not win; racism would prevent his victory—if not during the primaries, then certainly in the general election.
My response was two-fold: First, we should consider Obama as an ascendant athlete, who, like Tiger Woods in golf, Muhammad Ali in boxing, Venus Williams and Serena Williams in tennis, or Lewis Hamilton in auto racing, is simply either the best in his sport (in this case, the blood-sport of politics), or among the very best (best fundraising machine, best message, best campaign organization, etc.). Hence, as with any top athlete, victory was not guaranteed (even Woods can lose a tournament), but it was the most likely outcome.
My second argument turned from analogy to history, specifically to the question of what previous election campaign the 2008 presidential race most closely resembled.
My answer was 1960 and 1968: In both years, a youthful candidate, representing hope and change, promised America a new start, and appealed to youth and blacks and other minorities. See John F. Kennedy in 1960; his brother, Robert, in 1968.
But 1960 fit best, for J.F.K. defeated Republican candidate Richard Nixon, though by a razor-thin margin, partly because some Protestant Americans rejected the prospect of a Catholic president.
The parallels with African-American Obama seemed clear, and so I forecast a narrow victory for him, but one propelled by youth and minorities. (I was wrong about the idea that his win would be close, but it was still closer than election eve polls had indicated.)
My reading, for the first time, in January 2008, of Theodore H. White’s classic political history, The Making of the President, 1960 (Atheneum, 1961), affirmed my prognostication.
It was spooky to read White’s description of Nixon’s “campaign chant—Experience” because that was exactly what Obama’s primary campaign rival Hillary Clinton had chosen as her “soundest appeal” and also the stance that Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose as his: both lost to Obama—just as Nixon did to Kennedy.
In his account of the 1960 Democratic Party convention, White writes, “this was the convention where the young faced the old, this was the convention where one generation gave way to another.” As we now know, young voters voted 66% in favour of Obama, while the Baby Boomer generation and older voted by a similar percentage for McCain.
When White says that one of Nixon’s “characteristic and fatal flaws” was his projection of “a split image,” one could say the same of Clinton (a ‘New Woman’ or one of the ‘old boys’?) and “erratic” McCain.
Although Clinton and McCain—and some pundits—attacked Obama for his rhetorical skill, White praises Kennedy in this way: “the great orator is one who can make [political audiences] feel they are partners with him in whatever he is doing, that they have a role as well as he.” Remember here Obama’s insistence that his victory was not about him, but about America in general.
Another book worth reading in light of Obama’s fantastic—or upset—victory is Fletcher Knebel’s novel, Dark Horse (Doubleday, 1972). I first read it in 1976, as then-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter was making his way, as the Democratic Party candidate, toward the White House.
Knebel’s novel seemed practically to predict Carter’s anti-Establishment, post-Watergate campaign and win.
Knebel’s plot turns upon the sudden, compromise appointment of Eddie Quinn, an obscure New Jersey highway official, to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, when the original appointee dies just three weeks before the election.
Quinn is expected to parrot the party brass. Instead, when he advocates, independently, that wars are fought by the elders who start them, income taxes be cut dramatically, all tax deductions be abolished except for a 30% “human depletion allowance” for all taxpayers, and that regular citizens have greater access to the president, he almost prevails.
Obama’s outsider story echoes Knebel’s script, save that he wins. I suspect he will be a great president.
Chapbooks—the libretti of poetry—are, ironically, unsung productions. They have little respect and few readers. Yet, they are often the first—and sometimes the best—way a poet puts his or her work before the public.
Usually inexpensively produced, they are practically given away. Their function is not so much to articulate new work, but to circulate a new author or an established author in a new format.
Herein discussed, then, are five chapbooks. I begin with David L. Potter’s Theories About Summer. Self-published in Halifax in February 2008, Potter’s little book offers 33 poems, about one per page.
The poems suit the format: they are ironic, whimsical, and brief—like spring blossoms, or a summer shower. They are also romantic, wistful, loving the idea of love and the person of a woman.
“The garden tour” ends, “springtime fills that moment, / as the eyes of two strangers /meet, with recognition that both / were admiring someone else’s lilacs.”
There’s a hint of Ez Pound’s imagist mode here, and one finds it again at the conclusion of “lovemaking”: “the task of a lover / is the task of a magician / directing the other’s attention away / convincing your body to slowly disappear / dissolving in a wash of kisses / and then drawing it back / through the keyhole of surprise.”
But Potter dedicates a three-page poem to a lyric on Jeff Chaucer, and there’s something Sixties-ish, a mixture of Lenny Cohen and Dick Brautigan, also in these verses. In other words, this chapbook is a fun and endearing read.
If it is for sale, I know not where. But find Potter via the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia.
Anna Quon, of Dartmouth, NS, has just reprinted, after 21 years, Maurice, which isn’t poetry, but a kind of children’s story for adults. First issued in Dalhousie University’s student newspaper, The Gazette, in 1987, this chapbook version includes ink drawings that Quon has likely penned herself.
The story is quirky: a boy too beautiful for his own (or anyone’s good) wreaks havoc on a kingdom: people react to him as they do to great artists or art: they fall sick with love or sick with envy. The book is a groovy, snazzy production….
Quon has also issued a very small chapbook of new poems, Crazy Women. Each lyric is a succinct portrait.
Here is “Sass”: “I’ve never seen you sit, / Cross-legged / Like a lotus // You always seem / Like you’re not where / You’re supposed to be // Flying, flying / Then crashing / Lying in the / Wreckage of the plane / And looking up at the sky….
Maurice (22 pages) sells for $5 and Crazy Women (eight poems) for $1. One might find copies at Mulan Chinese Cultural Centre in Halifax, which also carries Quon’s first exquisite chapbook.
Only 40 copies of George Bowering’s Montenegro 1966 (firstname.lastname@example.org) were produced in 2007, and I own “No. 38.”
I can’t tell whether these are 31 new poems (in 32 pages) based on a memory of a trip to Europe back-in-the-day, or whether these are poems that were written then, but only recently excavated from a vintage notebook or two.
It’s impossible to say because the Vancouver poet has been improbably consistent in style for 50 years, and that style is always fresh, elliptical, (contradictorily) down-to-earth, and Imagist. Each stanza is a snapshot; each poem holds excellent stuff.
“Two Jolly Men in Verona” features Bowering’s persona “still hiking, slurping Pepsi under an umbrella, / watching my first bouncing, rolling Italian women, / their breasts loose and heavy inside cotton or silk, / or parakeet feathers, sway, I fell from my slight chair.”
As is maybe always the case with a chapbook, there’s whimsy and irony all about. “Turkey” ends, “Black market broken stones, old ruins, / you want a ruin, centuries old? / Hire a wheelbarrow.”
Kevin S. Magri is a Waterloo, Ontario, writer, and his first chapbook, using both poetry and prose, is Le Trained People and Other Writings (Filfla Islet Press; email@example.com).
These 35 pages display pieces unabashedly Romantic and religious. “Candle” offers both: “She provided a Candle / Insisted on burning it night & day with an intense flame / While I wished … to preserve our gift; / …she… / Burned Love too quickly, / And I returned to darkness.”
Despite the best efforts of paleontologists, archaeologists, and then genealogists, any history, traced back far enough, begins in speculation, theory, or, if conveyed as a tale, mythology.
So we might wonder how men and women, male and female, actually began; that is to say, not how they were created (we may thank Genesis and Darwin for two influential accounts), but how they saw each other, how they began to see each other as two distinct sexes with separate gender roles.
Enter Doris Lessing. Introducing The Cleft, the novel released in her Nobel Prize for Literature year (2007), the British writer remarks that a “recent scientific article” holds that “the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later, as a kind of cosmic afterthought.”
Lessing then imagines that the “advent” of males was not “trouble-free,” because men “lack the solidity of women” and are “unstable, and erratic”—as if “Nature (is) trying something out….”
Lessing goes on to tell a version of the Creation story. Though her invention is indebted to science, it is really myth plus sci fi.
The Cleft (Fourth Estate, 17£) is guided by two epigraphs: Robert Graves says, “Man does, woman is”; a James Elroy Flecker character insists, “Men are unwise and curiously planned,” and a woman speaker answers, “They have their dreams, and do not think of us.”
As striking as Lessing’s sexual narrative is, it is also strikingly conservative: herein men emerge as hunter-gatherers, explorers, and athletic providers who relish violent games, while women become carriers of babies, nurses of children, cultivators of fruit, and the possessors of civilization (language and tenderness).
Or perhaps this vision of the bifurcation of human sex roles is conservative because of its putative author—a senior Roman senator, turned historian, who, in assembling ancient scrolls of recorded oral records, takes to transcribing and imagining for himself the prehistory of humanity.
In the beginning, then, were Clefts—or human females—who gave birth only to females, thanks to the fertile influence of the moon or the sea from which they themselves arose and continued to live beside.
Then, males began to be born, and they were dubbed “Monsters,” given their possession of “bumps and lumps and the thing like a pipe which is sometimes like a sea squirt.”
Perceived as deformed infants, these first male babies are set out by their dames to be carried off, killed, and consumed by giant eagles. (By implication, stories of storks and rocs get their start here.)
Eventually, enough boys (being boys) survive, tended by eagles and nursed by deer; then, as adolescents and adults, they encounter Clefts, and undertake coitus—accidentally, spontaneously, rapaciously, ignorantly, and orgiastically, without any notion of possessiveness, pregnancy / children-as-consequence, or, understandably, morality.
Once Lessing’s tale abandons the scientific theory of originally female-only births and the fairy-tale notions of protective eagles and boy-baby-nurturing deer, it becomes a primal myth of the rise of civilization, one which is resolutely—purely—heterosexual and traditionally gendered: men learn to hunt; women to beautify.
Lessing’s novel recalls many how-we-began narratives, including Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (where an alien Monolith grants the ape Moonwatcher the gift of intelligence), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (where schoolboys regress to a violent state-of-nature), David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (where the Roman poet Ovid finds himself exiled among the ‘primitive’ Getae tribe), and even Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 film Quest for Fire. (This search is, indeed, an explicit subject in The Cleft.)
Though Lessing may refer to other narratives, her novel also suggests sources for stories that have shaped Western consciousness: Do those of Amazons reflect prehistoric women who hated the arrival and rise of males? What about those of wicked witches? And what of murderous misogyny, the too-true tales of Bluebeard and his ilk: do they refer back to antique male envy of—and violence toward—women?
Lessing’s The Cleft asks one ponder—anew—the miracle of birth and the mystery of sexuality.
Huh & Shillington
Dae-Tong Huh is a cultural—no, multicultural—force in Anglo-Canadian letters. His press, Korean-Canadian Literary Forum-21, or KCLF-21, has published books by Romanian-Canadian poet Flavia Cosma as well as by Anglo-Canadian poet Brue Meyer.
In addition, his annual anthology (now a decade old), Varieties Crossing, unites Canadian and international poets, in English, Korean, in other languages, and always in translation. In its visionary pages, Quebecoise poet Nicole Brossard meets Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. (I’ve also appeared therein, in Huh’s translations.)
Though Huh reaches out to the English and Canadian literary worlds, his own poetics is, sensibly, Korean, and this interest supports his latest book, Korean Contemporary Poetry Selection (order from www.munhakvatang.co.kr, or write Huh at firstname.lastname@example.org), wherein 18 Korean poets appear in their own characters, and in Huh’s English rendering.
The imagery of flowers, snow, water, wind, insects, mountain, and moon, as well as of old age and spring, is reminiscent for me of Canadian landscape, but gentler than the vistas Canadian poets tend to describe (or prefer).
I can’t comment on the quality of Huh’s Korean-to-English translations, or, for that matter, on the quality of the Korean poets themselves, for I do not know the language. But this anthology is still valuable in demonstrating the ways in which our contemporaries—Korean—are attempting to voice, in verse, universal human dilemmas.
Yun Soo Chang’s “Cloud and Fog” seems to me a singular poem, notable for its unusually vivid imagery. I quote it in full: “A libertine who walked around the mountainsides / Opened a package that he was carrying, / And drew a picture. // A paint-brush made of wild grass, / The moist earth for black writing fluid, / Visible or not / painted the full landscape. // The woman’s cotton skirt walked out from the picture: / It is a morning of waves.”
Chang’s “Poems 2” is also intriguing, though simpler: “The warmth of a wriggling life, / Today I also feel it, / Pain from frequent miscarriages, / The sixty-year-old pregnant woman cries.”
The theme of age and re/birth also concerns Se Yong Kim’s “Menopause”: “A cruel wind penetrates / My osteoporotic chest bones / Using the last remaining fragrance / I cry out the glory of the flower // The butterfly’s last message, / A cold body temperature / With sudden yearning // Blistered black / Taking my lips, my first kiss / Burying it between the leaves of my chest.”
Woo Sik Kang’s “Galaxy” is a subtle picture-poem, much like Japanese haiku: “Suddenly / Acacia floral fragrance spreads / Like fog.”
Hyang Rim No’s “Deep Well” opens with an acute metaphor: “In your heart / No matter how much a bucket-rope is unwound, / Miniscule sadness can’t be reached.” It dwells on the “silent bottom” like “a deep black monster serpent.” That’s the blues….
For a personal slogan for 2009, “The Year of the Ox,” I’d choose these lines from Hyo Chee Moon: “Don’t put a name on me / I only wish to stand as a flower, as ‘freedom.’”
Huh’s book is generous; we now know, in English, a dozen-and-a-half Korean poets of our time.
Calgary, Alberta, poet Joan Shillington looks to the earth-shaking collapse of Czarist Russia for subject matter for her debut book, Revolutions (Leaf Press, $16.95).
In this narrative lyric suite, Shillington reconstructs the family life of Czar Nicholas II, moving from the pathos of marital ups-and-downs and sick children to the tragedy of the massacre of the royal family by either 1) liberators of the people or 2) Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik butchers. (You choose).
An early image contains, in miniature, the argument of the text: “In the aftermath of the [photographer’s] magnesium fireball, / the Romanov family blinks a momentary blindness”: Aloof from history—i.e., the hard-hearted, industrial capitalist world—the Romanovs, despite their interest in improving Russia, run out of time, and end up assembling for a fake “family portrait,” namely, their mass execution by firing squad.
There are many fine passages in this estimable first book, all of which remind me that, come 2017, the ‘ten-days-that-shook-the-world’ will be a century old, and the Soviet Union itself, dead a quarter-century.
McAllister & Pierson
Two recent collections of Canadian verse deal with remembrance and oblivion.
Between You and Me: Poems from the Alzheimer Bus Trips ($15.95, Mercury Press) is Toronto poet Lesley McAllister’s first collection. Known first as a novelist, McAllister pens, in this book, love poems to a mother losing her mind, from a daughter journeying through past and present on a long-distance bus, as it were.
McAllister’s lyrics read like jottings. They are spare, conversational, reports from experience, of being-there, facing the pain of a loved one dying slowly as the brain closes down, cell by cell, calcifying, but still, in this ‘going away,’ so to speak, remaining intimately and pathetically human.
To suffer Alzheimer’s is to experience a soft suicide: “you / are quietly / losing your mind / putting it down / somewhere / like a wallet left on a shop counter / spilling gold loonies // or a waxed-paper cup / abandoned / in the … bus terminal / ice cubes melting into puddles / on the floor.” So unassuming are these poems that they dispense with titles.
McAllister’s intent is to give a surgical-but-bedside-sweet account of her mother’s terminal decline and her own attempt to cope: “… the waterway / you’re paddling down / is class-one rapids all the way / with you a dumbstruck prisoner / in a paper boat / whirling into rocks and submerged trees / your memories ripped out / still beating / the life you’ve lived dismembered / limb by limb.”
McAllister notes that her poems were begun “the year following my mother’s Alzheimer diagnosis while we waited for a place in long-term care” and their insights assisted by “the tireless day-program staff at the Alzheimer Society of York Region.”
It would be a mistake, though, to think these lyrics mere therapy for Alzheimer patient caregivers. Rather, they are good—and, more importantly, feeling—pieces: “I roll a little ball of words / between my fingers / leave a trail / … to keep me / from getting lost // we’re stuck together / you and me / fast as chewing gum / on the bus seat.”
Aide-Memoire (Buschek Books, $15), or, in English, Memory Aid, is retired Newfoundland academic historian, feminist scholar, and now-Toronto poet Ruth Roach Pierson’s second collection, and was nominated for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry.
Given the subject of the book—namely, recollection, it is germane to note that Pierson is a septuagenarian, thus able to look back over seven decades of life and locate mysteries, solve puzzles, exclaim at marvels and coincidences, mourn what is lost, celebrate renewal, and ponder both history and existence.
Pierson employs an exact and exquisite diction, plus imagery that is accessible and evocative. “A Distant Caw” is one ‘textbook’ example.
The poet recalls the lecturing words of a relative or a friend: “You complained that I collect experiences / the way boys collect baseball cards. / And I did.” In those days, for her, “Repose” was like “an empty canvas / to be filled, still water to be stirred.”
Back then, she desired action, doing. But “Now, I savour the snow’s quiet falling, each flake isolate, / almost knowable.” Now, “I hunger for greater and greater stillness, for a blotting out of voices rising / from the floor below, sounds made by a shovel / scraping snow from the path.”
The “voices” may be from the present—or from the past. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. “Enough / the distant caw breaking the white silence, / enough the blood-hum faint in my ears.” The call of the blood is toward both ancestry and the future, what every breath desires.
In another poem, “Thinking of a Former Student in Early Autumn,” Pierson adopts the titular mode of Chinese T’ang Dynasty poetry, and the subject—the succumbing of a graduate student to cancer—recalls the pain and pathos of the deathbed lyrics of the unjustly neglected Sino-Nova Scotian poet Cheng Sait Chia, who, having died, aged 40, in January 1981, now lies buried in Glen Margaret, NS, near Peggy’s Cove.
Remember Cheng: “I lay stript / forgotten / on the rocks of the shore.”
Elliott & Selman
Given the identity of the 44th President of the United States, who is also, simultaneously, the most powerful person on the planet, African Heritage Month has just become “African (Diasporic) History 24/7.” Though Barack Obama is not a black president, but a president who-happens-to-be-black, it’s in every one’s interest to know a little about Africa—and its diaspora, including to what is now Canada.
Born and raised in Toronto, Zetta Eliott is a visiting professor of African and African American Studies at Mt. Holyoke College, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Frankly “biracial,” she is also, frankly, bi-national, as an African-Canadian who now resides in the United States, in a community where African-Americans comprise the majority.
This position gives her a unique perspective: as an African-Canadian African-American, she may consider race and racism, as well as cultural differences, from both sides of the 49th Parallel, and she is ably suited for doing so.
After a Canadian publisher rejected her manuscript, asking, “Why should I care about this individual—what makes her experiences so special that I would want to read about them,” Elliott chose to self-publish Stranger in the Family (www.zettaelliott.com $16 US), her “mixed-media memoir that examines the shifting terrain upon which we negotiate race, kinship, and identity.”
In my opinion, Elliott’s memoir deserved issuance by mainstream publishers, for she writes lucid, beautiful, thoughtful, and compelling prose. Too, her cultural background does make her “special,” and enough so that her book deserves, as she says, “to exist in the world,” even if some deem it “irrelevant” or “heretical.”
Thinking about why she feels more “at home” in Brooklyn than in Toronto, Elliott states, “Toronto will always be indifferent to me: uninterested in my talents, unconcerned by my particular needs…. Cities only rely on certain kinds of people; the rest of us are disposable.”
Elliott then pens an excellent, one-sentence description of Toronto: “a cold, clean, barren place with bits of life and flashes of color separated by endless lengths of highway.”
In contrast, Brooklyn offers “grit and bustle” and “dense blocks crowded with black and brown faces”: “There I have no self-conscious stammer, no urge to shrink within myself…. [T]here are no white fingers grabbing at my hair, pressing me to explain or justify my appearance. The whites in Brooklyn know their place.”
Elliott does not demonize one locale at the expense of another; rather, she is fastidiously balanced in seeing the benefits of health care in Canada, while also acknowledging the ghetto conditions of her slice of Brooklyn.
Rather, she insists that her readers view Canada from a black woman’s perspective and America from a Canadian perspective. The result is a book that forces one to rethink all the clichés about each nation.
But Stranger in the Family isn’t mere sociology or self-help therapy either. It is writing that invites comparison to the non-fiction of Bell Hooks and Margaret Atwood and the fiction of James Baldwin and Mordecai Richler (or, make that, the non-fiction of Hooks, Atwood, Baldwin, and Richler, and the fiction of Atwood, Baldwin, and Richler), uniting African-American and Canadian influences.
Indeed, as fine as Elliott’s argumentative memoir is, her short story, “Plastique,” also contained in Stranger in the Family, is an arresting masterpiece. While prose permits Elliott to analyze her racial hybridity and her dual, national allegiances with apt self-consciousness, the fiction mode allows her to flesh out these contradictions in very compelling ways.
I don’t think Elliott’s as good a poet—yet—as she is an essayist and fiction writer. But the several poems included in Stranger in the Family do show the lyrical side of this multifaceted, complex intellectual.
Montreal poet Jason ‘Blackbird’ Selman’s first full-length poetry collection, The Freedom I Stole ($14), is also the last release of the now-shuttered Montreal publisher, Cumulus Press, whose owner, David Widgington, has published several African-Canadian authors.
Selman writes anthems—poems of homage to jazz recordings, black women, Cuba, and Barbados (his parental homeland). The lyrics are riffs: ideas and word-combos bebop about, settling according to the author’s whim.
Hence, though the book could benefit from dexterous but relentless editing, it yields wonderful insights, pithy slogans, and gorgeous lyric moments.
One poem asks, “What kind of warrior chooses sound and speech as their weapon?” Another proclaims, “melody masquerades as mayhem to the unseeing eye.”
Only the blues-soul-jazz-besotted bard can say, “I have the blues and I want more,” and talk of “Blacks, browns, violets and indigos too.”
Selman crafts poetry that bridges “The middle passage and the middle class.” But he also registers hurt: “And just to sleep at night / I break the only heart that I have ever known.”
Coetzee & Waterman
Though it is useful for reminding us that “blacks” originate in Africa (as does all of humanity, for that matter), one of the problems of a term like “African”—as a synonym for “black”—is that it obscures the history of European, Asian, and Semitic presence and “roots” on the continent.
So, what does one do, for instance, with a white, South African-born author like J.M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee? Well, one must read him as an African writer, and as one showing a measure of colour consciousness as a result of both his maturation under the former white-ruled and racist South Africa and his intellectual, anti-apartheid writing.
In his 2007 novel, Diary of a Bad Year (Vintage-Random House, 12€), Coetzee addresses the contradictions between a conservative desire for order and a liberal interest in freedom of imagination, both through narrating the Platonic affair between an aged, white writer and his nubile, Filipina typist, and through describing the competition—for her affections—between the writer and the secretary’s white, bourgeois lover.
The 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate, Coetzee designs his novel as if it were a movie screen split in usually two or three parts. The first part of each page offers the political and cultural observations of a writer who seems a palimpsest of Coetzee himself—a South African native now living in Australia; the second part tells of the old man’s flirtation with the Filipina he hires to type his manuscript; and the third part, when it appears, offers this character’s meditations on the writer’s interest in her as well as on her stockbroker-lover’s morals.
The novel structure seems, at first glance, off-putting; actual lines separate each part of the page, producing a kind of apartheid as it were. Yet, the subversive magic of the book is that Coetzee shows that all efforts to segregate the personal from the political, or ethics from behaviour, must fail—just as false divisions between peoples must dissolve.
Coetzee’s protagonist—sometimes called “Senor C” or Juan—is cantankerous and radical, offering “Strong Opinions,” circa 2005-06, on everything from the invasion of Iraq (against) to pedophilia (neutral), evolutionary theory (against) and suicide bombers (neutral). Really, he’s a contrarian, but his opinions are interesting: “All love is moderate, in the end. No one will come (die) with one.”
His obsession is Anya, an “apparition” who appears in his apartment tower’s laundry room in a “tomato-red shift … startling in its brevity.” His admiration of her “black, black hair, shapely bones” and golden, “lambent” skin leads to his hiring her to type his manuscript of ornery viewpoints.
As Anya reads and types the work, she and “C” flirt and converse. But their developing friendship attracts the envy and enmity of Anya’s businessman-boyfriend, Alan, who speaks for entrepreneurial values, “the law of the jungle” and the necessity for competition.
Soon, Alan is employing the dirty tactics of the “War on Terror”—electronic espionage, principally—to harass and, potentially, ruin “C.”
When he reveals his sordid beliefs and underhanded practices, he also appears as “a surly, dissatisfied, half drunk, middle-aged white Australian,” and we are not to read the racial reference innocently: Alan embodies Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but in a slick, gin-and-tonic, and country-club shape, boasting a trophy—Third World—girlfriend.
Thus, Alan must also be understood as a fictitious equivalent of the frat-boy persona of then-US President George W. Bush and the lapdog figure of then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, both targets of J.C.’s (and most likely John Coetzee’s personal) opprobrium.
The moral question of the novel is, which white male will golden Anya choose: The Red Tory, sex-fantasizing, elder curmudgeon or the criminally- minded, middle-aged, sexist cur?
The answer is predictable, which is the one fault of this otherwise fine novel, one that recalls, deliberately, Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita, and perhaps John Fowles’s The Ebony Tower, and, maybe even Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women.
African-Canadian author Calle Waterman’s In Colour: Book 2 offers five very raunchy, adults-only tales of bedroom shenanigans in multicultural Montreal. Order it for $15 from Laureson Press, P.O. Box 44595 Station Barclay, Montreal, QC, H3S 2W6.
It is rough, raw writing, complete with typos, but also rich in intriguing language: “I was the older by two years, and two years more stupid”; “She was running as if the law were after her.”
But make no mistake: Barbados-born Waterman offers pornographic scenarios, pure and simple, disrespecting every moral barrier. But, there is truth in her fantastic rendering of sexual power dynamics between men and women, elders and youth, employers and employees, the Canadian and the Caribbean, and among white, brown, and black.
I need not quote the circumstances of the imagined conjunctions, for none is unknown in literature (nor are any unknown in life). There is also the sobering truth to consider that these arrangements, if judged as oppressive, were prevalent under slavery, a fact any Caribbean-born author would know.
What makes Waterman’s work interesting, then, is her mix of Canadian and Caribbean vernacular, her attentiveness to the street-life of Montreal, and her unflinching desire to present dread desires unflinchingly.
What makes In Colour: Book 2 problematic is that none of Waterman’s arguably exploited or victimized characters behave as though they are hurt by their exploitation or victimization. Instead, the working thesis is, sexual “sweetness” for one party usually obliges the usage of—or even pain for—the other, though the giving—or stealing—of money serves to equalize things.
Waterman’s stories are best understood as kinder, gentler—well, Canadian—versions of Sade: lots of (Quebec-based) booty, often rendered for a bounty, but no blood drawn.
George Elliott Clarke is arguably one of Canada’s most accomplished poets. He has several ground-breaking verse and dramatic poetry collections. He was recently inducted into the Order of Canada.
February 10, 2009
New From Gaspereau Press