Originally published in Canadian Poetry 79.
Verse Biography and the Loneliness of the Single-Author Study
Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby, and Angelina Sbroma, eds. Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016. 250 pp.
For scholars of biography and the long poem, Anna Jackson’s introduction to Truth and Beauty is necessary reading. Jackson, defining verse biography as “a collection of poetry that tells the life story of a historical person,” identifies it as a genre that stretches at least as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh and that has enjoyed a boom in recent decades (8). As Jackson considers what distinguishes it from its prose counterpart, she notes various characteristics of the lyric: the way in which it allows for sudden jumps and shifts in perspective; its toleration of gaps and absences; its emphasis on individual moments and individual people’s imagined interiority. These qualities, Jackson argues, lead to verse biographies frequently offering portraits that are both uniquely intimate and pointedly incomplete, refusing to let readers think…
My review of Yann Martel's latest book is now online: http://canlit.ca/article/of-apes-and-automobiles/.
Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 32.
ROBYN SARAH, My Shoes Are Killing Me. Windsor: Biblioasis, 2015. Paperback. Pp. 71. $18.95
Winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Poetry in English, Robyn Sarah’s tenth poetry collection is rife with nostalgia and a sensitivity to life’s transience. The poems’ speaker has arrived at an age that brings with it a heightened sense of mortality, as well as a tendency to retrospect and to wonder what has happened to things now gone. From the crepuscular opening poem, “In the Slant Light,” it is clear that those things include opportunities; as the speaker puts it, “It is too late now for many things.” And while there are details that give glimpses of a real or fictional biography inflecting the poems—the speaker’s memory of pregnancy in “Seed” is especially powerful—Sarah tends to focus on experiences and feelings in an abstracted manner that encourages identification by readers, especially those who are likewise prone to dwell on their bright pasts and eventual demises. An effe…
Originally published in Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 31.2.
Mary Dalton. Edge: Essays, Reviews, Interviews. Windsor: Palimpsest Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-926794-27-3.
In a note introducing this collection of her prose writings, Mary Dalton observes that “the raison d’etre of a book of this kind is the way in which it speaks to the works for which its author is known—in my case, the poems” (14). Indeed, admirers of Dalton’s poetry will find much in Edge that sheds light on it, especially as she discusses writers who have influenced her, from Eavan Boland to Charles Bruce. But to approach Edge merely as a supplement to Dalton’s poetry would do the book a disservice, for the volume is much else besides as it collects essays, interviews, and reviews published over the past thirty years. The opening essays alone make Edge worth reading, as they offer a compelling perspective on Newfoundland’s literature and language. Dalton recalls that when she was growing up i…
Originally published in University of Toronto Quarterly 83.2.
Douglas Glover. Attack of the Copula Spiders: And Other Essays on Writing Biblioasis. $19.95
Attack of the Copula Spiders is a book preoccupied by connections—in particular, by fiction’s establishment of oblique but fruitful ones between apparently disparate phenomena. Douglas Glover has made similar connections himself in this volume by collecting a diverse yet coherent set of essays: instructional expositions on creative writing, analyses of contemporary fiction, and meditations on the functions of literature.
Throughout, Glover shows a special sensitivity to structure, whether involving whole novels or single sentences. The latter are at issue when it comes to the ‘copula spiders’ of Glover’s title—his term for the annotations he makes to identify his Creative Writing students’ overuse of the verb ‘to be’ in their stories. Glover wants writers to use livelier action words, instead. To cite an example that he gives: ‘“The barn WAS red&r…
Originally published in University of Toronto Quarterly 82.3.
Susanna Egan. Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography Wilfrid Laurier University Press. $34.95
In this book, Susanna Egan addresses a range of ‘autobiographical impostures,’ from ghost-writing and plagiarized poems to made-up memoirs and invented poets, contending that cases of imposture each exploit a particular cultural crisis, and that we should ask of them: ‘Why this story in this time and place?’ For instance, Egan claims it wasn’t coincidental that in 2003, as Americans were seeking justifications for the invasion of Iraq, a woman named Jumana Hanna made headlines by telling the Washington Post—falsely, it turned out—that she’d been tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Egan insists that ‘impostures are topical and timing is key,’ and that they’re most easily believed when feeding people orthodox stories they want to hear, confirmations of what they already believe.
Such impostures don’t succeed solely based on a sing…
Originally published in University of Toronto Quarterly 80.2.
Ian Rae. From Cohen to Carson: The Poet’s Novel in Canada McGill-Queen’s UP 2008. 390. $85.00
Why have so many contemporary Canadian novelists started out as poets? Ian Rae poses this question at the outset of his book but spends little time speculating about an answer, preferring to focus not on why authors have made the shift but on how they’ve done so. As successive chapters treat Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, and Anne Carson, Rae makes it clear that those who study these writers’ fiction ignore the poetry at some peril. Tracking each author’s transition from short lyrics to long poems and thence to the novel, Rae deftly illustrates how the writers’ early preoccupations with language and narrative structure metamorphose along with changes in form, such that strategies and techniques first adopted for poetry are then productively brought to bear on fiction. Accordingly, From Cohen to Carson offers a persuasive map of continuities as well as innovations with regard to each writer’s career. ...
Originally published in Literary Review of Canada 15.6.
Don’t Try This at Home
A puzzle of a novel gets away with taking risks.
Divisadero. Michael Ondaatje. McClelland & Stewart. 273 pages. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-7710-6872-0.
Michael Ondaatje’s novels should come with a warning label on them, something to the effect that what you’re about to read has been executed by a professional and should not be tried at home. This warning should apply not least to readers, who otherwise might be tempted by the example of Ondaatje’s characters to pursue things like defusing bombs, catching nuns in mid-air, and having spectacular sex in semi-public locations. The warning should also be heeded by novelists who aspire to the kinds of feats that Ondaatje accomplishes so deftly and so often. Like his characters, he does hazardous work. His sensuous, poetic descriptions of extraordinary people are constantly at risk of collapsing into romantic cliché. In his new novel Divisadero
Originally published in Literary Review of Canada 17.9.
From the Somme to Guernica
A novel’s historical canvas is by turns sketched upon and richly painted.
Underground. June Hutton. Cormorant. 246 pages. Trade paperback. ISBN 978-1-896951-81-2.
Why do Canadian writers so love the First World War? It features in some of the nation’s most canonized novels, from Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising to Timothy Findley’s The Wars, while the past decade alone has brought us Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, Frances Itani’s Deafening, and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. Perhaps it’s because the war marked Canada’s coming-of-age, thus making the conflict a fit subject for national epics. Or maybe it’s because unlike World War II, the First World War left behind few film reels, thus sparing it from the History Channel and giving novelists some room to manoeuvre.
Less charitably, one might point to the ready-made gravitas of war as a subject, the out-of-copyright a…
Originally published in Literary Review of Canada 21.1.
John Ralston Saul explores the banality of affluence and the tedium of the raconteur.
Dark Diversions. John Ralston Saul. Viking. 322 pages. Hardcover. ISBN 078-0-670-06655-1.
If some people spend their lives terrified of being bored, why are the distractions they seek out often tedious? This question is raised so provocatively by Dark Diversions that to call the book a study in boredom is not to condemn it but to identify its most interesting subject matter.
Dark Diversions features eighteen linked stories and vignettes from the adult life of its fictional narrator, a peripatetic man of letters named Thomas Bell, who has certain playful resemblances to John Ralston Saul, and whose life seems anything but boring at first blush. Bell spends much of his time among the world’s rich and powerful, from Haitian despots and murderous Arizona oilmen to octogenarian American expats in Tuscany. Some of these people cross Bell’s radar only br…
Originally published in Canadian Literature 188.
A High Wind in Can. Lit.
Galveston. Random House Canada $34.95
At a recent gathering of Margaret Atwood scholars in Ottawa there was some debate about the relative lack of attention to her 1981 novel Bodily Harm, which is set on the fictional island of St. Antoine and blends political thriller with postcolonial critique. Had Atwood strayed too far from her usual terrain, or were current Canadianist paradigms simply unable to accommodate fiction written by a white Ontarian about the Caribbean?
It will be interesting to see whether a similar fate greets Paul Quarrington’s Galveston, a novel that adds tiny Dampier’s Cay to an archipelago of imagined Caribbean islands stretching at least as far back as Caliban’s. Indeed, Shakespeare seems particularly relevant here, since it’s a tempest that threatens Dampier’s Cay and attracts two emotionally scarred “weather weenies” from southern Ontario, Ca…
Originally published in Canadian Literature 212.
The Death of Donna Whalen. Hamish Hamilton $34.00
Room. HarperCollins $29.99
The Death of Donna Whalen and Room are based on sensational real-life crimes, but both narratives suggest that no crimes are so remarkable as the everyday ones in which we are all implicated.
Michael Winter’s foreword to The Death of Donna Whalen explains his compositional method: drawing on public records relating to a murder in contemporary St John’s, he has transformed what he found there by changing names, shifting first-person accounts into third-person focalized narration, and condensing thousands of pages of transcripts into a series of short testimonials from the people involved. Through their voices the case unfolds: Donna Whalen has been stabbed multi…
Originally published in Ideas: The Arts & Science Review 1.1.
Carrie Snyder, Hair Hat. Penguin Canada, 2004. $24.00
Whether sprouting from heads, legs or knuckles, there’s a lot of hair in Hair Hat, Carrie Snyder’s debut collection of short fiction, and seldom is its appearance innocent. But then, these days we know that hair isn’t just hair. Our entire genetic record is bound up in a single follicle, and yet innocently we drop hundreds daily, leaving behind us a trail of DNA fingerprints that’s both banal and magical. This double nature of the everyday is captured adeptly by Snyder as she offers us portraits of ordinary lives that twist unexpectedly to show us the ruptures and traumas just below the surface of things.
The eleven stories in Hair Hat feature eleven narrators, all of whom themselves undergo a change in perspective as they encounter in turn the same figure: an elusive man with a head of hair that resembles a hat. It’s a bizarre, seemingly whimsical image to hold together a book, but it resonates with increasing intensity as …
Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 31.
JOEL DESHAYE, The Metaphor of Celebrity: Canadian Poetry and the Public, 1955-1980. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Hardcover. Pp. 264. $50.00
The 1960s and 1970s were a fine time to be a poet in Canada, at least if one sought national recognition. The era’s heightened nationalism, with its attendant drive to establish Canadian cultural icons, meant that the mass media were paying a degree of attention to poets that seems remarkable today, while increased government funding of the arts, expanded university enrolments, and unprecedented offerings with respect to courses in Canadian literature meant that there were more Canadian books published, bought, and read than ever before. A numerical indicator: in 1959, there were only 24 volumes of English-language poetry published in Canada; in 1970, there were more than 120. Canadian poets couldn’t reasonably hope to become global celebrities thanks to their poetry alone, but they could plausibly aspire to become—to use Mo…
Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 29.
EVELYN LAU, A Grain of Rice. Fernie, British Columbia: Oolichan Books, 2012. Paper. Pp. 96. $17.95
A collection of poems about loss, Evelyn Lau’s A Grain of Rice appears to skip over the stereotypical first stage of grief, denial, to wrestle from the outset with anger and guilt—in particular, her speaker’s anger at the suffering wrought by social injustice in Lau’s hometown of Vancouver, along with the speaker’s guilt at being a member of that city’s complicit, complacent bourgeoisie. Only in later poems does it become clear that the speaker’s initial focus on injustice, for all its political heft, might also be a form of denial, a way to put off addressing directly the personal losses that she has suffered.
In this regard, one might recall that Lau’s relationship to social injustice has itself been very personal. Her debut book, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, emerged from her time as an indigent teenager in Vancouver. A Grain of Rice, published twenty-three years lat…
Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 28.
PATRICK LANE, The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane. Edited by Russell Morton Brown and Donna Bennett. Afterword by Nicholas Bradley. Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing, 2011. Cloth. Pp. 544. $44.95.
In fifty years as a poet, Patrick Lane has won numerous awards and enjoyed the respect of his peers while suffering serious academic neglect. There are a few articles on his work, a thin monograph by George Woodcock from 1984, and virtually no scholarship about Lane’s poetry in the last fifteen years, even though he has published seven collections in that time—there are now twenty-seven in all—and his newest poetry is as accomplished as ever. Accordingly, the appearance of the Collected Poems is a call to reassess not only Lane’s career but also the kinds of critical attention his poetry merits. In that regard, the Collected Poems invites scholars not least to consider Lane’s work in relation to a rich ecology of Canadian poetry in which he has lon…
Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 27.
PRISCILA UPPAL, Winter Sport: Poems. Toronto, Ontario: Mansfield Press, 2010. Paper. Pp. 122. $16.95.
Everybody knows that for writers to neglect their bodies is the price—for some, the privilege—of literary success. Everyone also knows jocks enjoy little facility with words. Television commercials exploit this stereotype by having sports heroes either recite poetry or play to type. For instance, Wayne Gretzky once took part in a shoot for a Nike ad touting Bo Jackson’s multi-sport prowess. Gretzky was unable satisfactorily to recite his one line, “Bo knows hockey,” so in the ad that aired, he simply looks into the camera and says “No.” The word actually augments the commercial’s lyricism, as the spondaic rhyming anaphora, “Bo knows,” intoned by a series of sports heroes earlier in the ad, is ironized by Gretzky’s homophonic monosyllable. The word confirms both Gretzky’s iconic jockdom and advertising’s claim to being the mainstream poetry of postmodernity.
Working to rescu…