Wednesday, December 23, 2015

That's All, Folks

It’s with sincere regret that I announce the closing of this blog.

Though the posts have diminished in the past few years, and though I’ve toyed with the idea of closing it before, mostly due to time pressures, I felt that the occasional review here and there would be more interesting – to me, at least – than shutting it down altogether. And I’ve always enjoyed thinking through, and composing, responses to books I’ve read, whether new Canadian poetry or literary classics that’ve been hashed out for hundreds of years, otherwise the hundreds of reviews you see indexed to the right would’ve been a mere dribble.

No, the reason I’m saying auf wiedersehen is because, as of today, and for the first time in twenty-two years, I’m unemployed, and can’t any longer justify the time sink. As a gambler, I’ve had the good fortune to be a lone wolf, answerable to no (typical) repulsive authority for my daily bread and beer. But I still needed the infrastructure – in my case – through a company, in order to do business. They’ve decided, for whatever mysterious internal reason(s), that they no longer want or need Canadians (first they came for the Poles, then the Germans, then the French ... and no, this isn’t just sarcastic fiction) to contribute to their bottom line, and they’ve only been answerable in the past seven years, following most of the rest of the corrupt corporate world, to their shareholders, forgetting that the only reason they have self-styled paycheques at all is because of the compromised good will of their shit-upon customers.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done at this site and will certainly, and always, keep all the reviews I’ve done, as they originally appeared, online. If the site goes dark, it’s because of a glitch in Blogger (I’m told this happens with more regularity than one would think), but even so, I have most everything backed up, and the original content of almost eight years would then be re-posted upon discovery.

Thank you, one and all – whether infrequent guests or regular readers – for the time you’ve taken out of busy days and nights, to read a particular review or to browse the site, in general. It’s really been a lot of fun for me, and I sincerely hope you’ve taken something useful from it, as well, along the way.

I intend to continue to write paid reviews at other places, whether in journals, online sites, or in some as-yet-to-be-determined revolutionary media form, though they’ll most likely be infrequent, at least in the short term.

Merry Christmas and happy reading!

-- Brian Palmu

Friday, December 18, 2015

Edward Carson's Birds Flock Fish School

“Something is moving them/into the sky, spreading their wings.”

“Something about what has come/and gone swirls and eddies in our brains, hastily forgotten.”

“something/more than ordinary light,”

“a mark of something largely more.”

“We already understand/something has gone missing,”

“It happens every time we say something about//what’s coming for each of us,”

“Something departs, ambitious, perfect.”

“something/more than knowing what to do, how to arrive,”

“someone might be searching for something else//entirely.”

The last of these nine quotations (in eight poems) from Edward Carson’s 2013 collection of poetry, Birds Flock Fish School, applies to yours truly. So there’s your answer (though Carson hates answers) to at least one particular “something” or “someone”.

Vague sermons dressed up with somber, vatic assumptions (Carson hammers, in most every poem, on the “we” undergoing the experience, a beautifully funny example of the grammatical term, “subjective case”) are a mainstay of an always-popular subset of Canadian poetry, which depresses, in its dime-store translation of timeless spiritual wisdom, with an embarrassingly unsophisticated caress of air. Carson, worse than most followers in this school, gives next to no concrete colorings or imagery which would at least help to make vivid, in relief and contrast and context, the abstractions he finds so important. But it would also force Carson to be far more nuanced and responsible in those pronouncements. It would also show, even more humorously, the pretentiousness “we” find, in lines such as, “One thing beckoning at the edges of another,/we think of things retrieved”, or, “brilliant mosaics of now”, or, “a new opening/opens”, or, “We see the horizon/lingers, speaking in tongues”, or, “In the end, will we find this to be what is here/for us to wonder, what dark embrace we covet, identical as heaven?”, or, “the morning shows the way/to what is meant to be”.

Further to the problem of bastardised content, Carson has only one note. Every poem (but one) shows it, and relentlessly, but here’s a passage from the end of “Symptoms” which best captures his (not our) discovery:

“The day breaks before we know it. Our restlessness
is impossible to subdue. A promise appears, invisible

as light, pushing past the literal, the loosely knit ideas
of what the only thing is on earth to know, to believe in.”

Aside, again, from the arrogant first-person plural, note the tone. The one note in content is matched by a consistency in mood. The voice, strangely, is both grey-green and ridiculous, almost an unintended parody on the foolish spiritual sufferer, meditating for ten hours a day with the familiar patina of woes and minute, finely-tuned turnings of the deluded mind, however calibrated those thoughts may be to an ontological profundity.

And however a reader may approach these thoughts, and downplay any residual meaning (Carson, like others in this school, gets to step away from challenges of content since even the concrete nouns are general: cloud, sky, bird, star, earth, light), the overwhelming focus, as appears in the last-quoted segment above, is on “our” exasperated failure, always just out of reach, of and for enlightenment. I don’t deny this is real, and that it’s experienced by many (it accords with a minority of my own history) but it’s the importance – no, the obsession – he attaches to this experience that finally irritates at least this reader. Life – including meditation, whether formal or spontaneous – is far more various in mood and spiritual insight than Carson lets on. To be brief about it: divinity is in reach, at times, and, opposite, at most other times, even a hint of it is completely foreign.

There is one very good poem in Birds Flock Fish School: “The Force that Keeps Things Afloat”. Here, Carson forgets the script, and a sensitive, extended four-part nature metaphor builds to an affecting consideration on how the past defines us (yes, the “we”, finally, is fitting), but is paradoxically (and optimistically, for a change) lightened by the wind (forgetfulness? or superseded by joy, however brief?). No matter on the takeaway. These lines are good for the mind to roll around in, and the language here is devoid of easy mystification, instead letting the reader luxuriate, however briefly, in the sensuous contact of, “The force that keeps things afloat takes note/of what it is to be the falling leaf, imagines//the tension of its balancing, face up, against/the water pressing back.”

The last poem in the collection is titled “First and Last Things”, and whaddaya know, a second human finally appears, in itself giving the narrator a human (if generic) element. But, and despite the success of “The Force that Keeps Things Afloat”, it’s much too little and too late. The weight of spiritual fatalism smothers all (the book’s worst, “Flying Formation”, schools us with, “[the clouds] describe what turns out to be the rising//shape of our fear”).

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Don Coles' A Serious Call

Don Coles has often etched his poems on a membrane separating enchantment from mundanity. To his great credit, the cell has rarely broken, and his fascinating recollections, sprinkled liberally with cleverly shaped bursts of spontaneous wonder, add to the stock of that all-too-rare breed of poetry: elevated thought and feeling, fragile, ensorcelling, imprinted, and sensitively adjusted. But Coles’ latest offering, this year’s A Serious Call, is a collection of staggering missteps. Gone are the close relationships between narrator Coles and his subjects, to be replaced by long-distance, rambling reminiscences. Here’s a cut from “People I Knew for One Year”:

“Frank Elsom who won a blue sleeveless sweater
with ‘Bolo-Bat Champion’ on it for hitting
the Bolo-ball on its elastic string more times
than anybody.”

The standard objection to this type of quoting is that it’s cherry-picking for weak spots. But this is a representative example. It’s not just the tediousness of the thoughts that dismays, but the dead tone one naturally evinces to give them voice. Robert Lowell, in his otherwise seminal Life Studies, isn’t a stranger, either, to the biographical doldrums, banging out a pedestrian observation of, “Father and Mother moved to Beverly Farms/to be a two minute walk from the station,/half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.” At other times, though, Lowell hauls his diurnal drudgery up from its roots by language alone. Coles’ talents, however, don’t lend themselves to virtuosic rescue of this sort.

There’s also the problem throughout of ground covered like the front row of a three-day outdoor international congress with the Pope. “Moonlight” – actually one of the poems that shows Coles here at close to his best manner of offhand-raconteur-turns-spellbinding (“a kind of be-cloaked Caspar David Friedrich walk-on/gibbering under the moon to a nodding-off fellow-cloakee/while on a remote hilltop his tiny wife lies with her white legs/in the air either side of his happy teenage apprentice”) – descends into, “I’ve so often wished I had asked him much more/about all that, and right now there’s a blurred couple of seconds which could be my chance,/but in the moonlight and the remembered quiet /I let it go.”

The greatest travesty, though, arrives with the titular effort. To mangle Delmore Schwartz: “with many pages begin responsibilities”. “A Serious Call” occupies the final nineteen pages of the book. After the first half, a little trepidation naturally crept in. But that was eased by the first page. After a blackly humorous epigraph on Pushkin’s response, while on his deathbed, to the question of whether or not he wanted to say goodbye to his friends, (“He looked around at his books/and said, ‘Goodbye, friends’.”), and the opening setting wherein Coles mixes a mysterious stew of geography, fitting allusion, hints of danger, an as-yet-unrevealed bookstore gig, and art-to-commerce enjambments in cutting yet even-toned revelation, (“Nowadays the area’s rampant with wine bars/patronized by rich youths who got that way/shifting currencies in nearby highrises”), the poem quickly falls apart when and after a clumsily rendered depiction of first-person narrator Coles and the bookstore owner ... well, put their feet up, smoke roll ‘ems, and read whatever they want. This dull recording then passes into a Colesian standard: the many-angled consideration of epiphany, here in its literary manifestation. In previous volumes, Coles was a master, in this vein, at creating moods at once unnerving and welcoming, but in this poem the transference is borrowed from the deathless, and splashed with a ramped-up, laudatory mystification. The reader (the current reviewer, not Coles) is treated to particularly contorted, long-winded, and multiple asides, and the clauses are interwoven so thickly within the core statements that rereading this section, immediately, and more than once, is necessary just to parse the hesitant declarations, which owe more to enthusiasm than to transferred experience. Here’s an example:

“I can even remember what the first lines, the first
of so many lines to be read aloud by one of those two
(one of us two, sure, but we’re so almost out-of-sight
way back there among the years that from where I am now
we look to be a those) and listened to by the other one
(roles undecided, who would do what, who would read
and who listen – usually this depended on who was the first
to be prompted by a newly arrived sentence cluster to know
that there was no way he was going to move past this cluster,
its unexpectedness, without getting some backup)”

But let’s move on. Once settled in, stationary, feet up on the table, Coles then continues with a statement of poetics before launching into scattershot omnibus review-bites covering canonical favourites from the past three centuries. The poem’s set-up, then, disappears. We are now entirely inside Coles’ head, and the bookstore, any people who may have ventured into it, his boss, and the relationship between this outlet and the surrounding community, have dropped away. This criticism is entirely justified since Coles laid down these elements in the initial stages. And yes, I know that interior concentration is the point – the epigraph is a reminder – but structurally, the poem is a mess. But let’s talk about what’s there for the remaining pages. Coles’ valedictory penchant moves to the fore. It’s always been a strength, and in snippets from – and commentary on – writers from Flaubert to Hardy, George Eliot to Camus, the author warms his heart (and occasionally mine) by turning over a mini-highlight reel of verse and prose passage. There is nothing particularly illuminating here, though. The great writers speak for themselves. Coles simply admires for the most part, though he also reviews a Hardy passage by remarking on, “ ‘starlit’ locked into its perfection-slot [ugh!] in that last line”, and George Eliot is rightfully belaurelled (or whatever the equivalent word is for novelists) for a specific passage in Middlemarch, after which Coles remarks that Eliot “allows you to bring to mind, possibly from very far off, someone you know or, just as possibly, love”. Even here, though, the emotion, deep, devotional, can be, should be, readily evident from the source quotation, never mind the novel itself. Here’s the late Ralph Gustafson, Coles’ friend and neighbour, from his similarly considered winter poem-memoir, Configurations at Midnight:

“North, where I live, the crocus blooms
For about four weeks, less,
Perhaps, I haven’t counted, being
Too busy with coming peonies,
Then eating garden green peas,
Then August Indian corn
(Eight minutes is about all you need
For that, the water already boiling,
That is), far quicker than reading
Remembrance of Things Past. George
Eliot’s Middlemarch matches
Eating corn though and Chopin’s
“Barcarolle,” peas ...

Sadness to know there is no time.”

The latter passage is from a poem with complications. Coles’ enthusiasms are not much more than book blurbs.

Outside of the act of arranging these words, the sentiments herein give me zero pleasure. On this site, I’ve plugged all of Coles’ books – four? five? – that I’ve read. I just hope this volume isn’t indicative of the last offerings of some of our other gifted senior poets – Daryl Hine jumps immediately to mind – and that it’s just one bad note in a continuing, mesmerizing sonata. The second option is retirement. The other choice doesn’t bear dwelling on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Peter Norman's The Gun That Starts the Race

The West’s strategy concerning death is to pretend it doesn’t exist. When this fails – at a funeral; over a compost bin; after house demolitions – the next move is to cover it up or spruce it up, and, when those additional strategies sputter, to “turn in, those hordes of us who need not know the night”. The preceding quotation is plucked from “Super’s Report”, the opening poem of Peter Norman’s  The Gun That Starts the Race. It’s tempting to see Norman as the reluctant but faithful super, issuing reports – on paper, with a gun’s reverberations – and handing his “torch to the night shift guy”, “torch”, like “reports”, taking on the double meaning of violence and necessary communication of unpleasant fate. Here, as in many other poems of decay and disorder, Norman’s tone – at once pungent and even – recalls general communal views of the expired, pre-WWI, where, as related in Philippe Ari├Ęs’ Western Attitudes Toward Death, the final event was observed as “a public ceremony ... including children ... with no theatrics, with no great show of emotion”.

A ridiculous ‘don’t go gentle into that good night’ railing is absent, but so too is passive resignation. Norman keeps a fearless gaze at nothingness (and moreso, the longer look at dissolution) when engraving disturbing yet commonplace images into the reader’s altered mindscape. And it’s not all folded tents and burial rites. In “Note For the Newly Hatched”, the author, in lines trading rhythms with the strength and incision of a pit saw, champions the ugly birth, the “clot of eggs,/as one, burst open ... Creep/with lustful courage/on the corpses of your siblings.”, only possible because of that other inconvenient truth.

This sounds grim, overwhelmingly so (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but whereas lesser writers have us reaching for the razor blade or concoction of pills after forty (or two) poems, Norman’s creations are sparked with mordant humour and a coupled sound/sense mastery.

There are too many lines, (“plump tumour, savaged gum, unseeing eye./And yet the smoke she breathes is grey and painless”; “God’s at his dice again. He cannot hear/my ash’s prayers over his mathematics.”), too many poems, to quote from here to do the book justice, but Norman has achieved that rare thing in poetry at any time: a startling vision which is passionately ordered and realized.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami's IQ84

Shinkitschi Takamiki sighed. With a deft bicep-curl, he brought Haruki Murakami’s cement block IQ84 up near eye level. The eyes peering back at him from between the face-cage title graphics signalled ... what? Pique? Exotic ennui? Static lust? Or a clandestine plea for help from the forthcoming rigours of narrative boredom for which she’d be put through the paces like a ballerina in a mud-wrestling pit?

The cab driver turned around, which wasn’t as dangerous as navigating through an ersatz and humdrum parallel universe. The traffic, after all, had stopped,  the breathless grills of U.S. auto imports stalled and silent across eighteen lanes of bumper-kissing gridlock. Shinkitschi put down the novel, straining a trapezoid in the process, and stared back into the cabbie’s depthless and profoundly mysterious sockets, which, in Kitschi’s dream world, followed him to the four corners of the story like a rent collector booking 3 to 1 that his tenant wouldn’t skip to the elevator before the soul of his heart quaked in bitter congress.

“What’s the music, hack-san?” from Kitschi.

“ ‘Alligator Boogaloo’, by Lou Donaldson.”

“You know, ever since I purchased this novel at the bus terminal, I’ve been besieged by international cultural references in those I’ve met. But before this IQ84 world, no one cared of anything outside of the Tokyo office-subway-homefront.”

“Would you like me to switch the station?”

“Ah! God, please, anything but. One alternate world a day, or year, is all I can take.” Kitschi, antsy, shuffled on the vinyl seat cover like a bear with hemorrhoids. “Stop here!”

“We’re not moving.”

“No. No, we’re not, you’re right. But I just thought I’d introduce some unnecessary drama into our little story since nothing much is happening, anyway.” He paused, and intoned with decidedly ominous overtones and undertones: “Or will ever happen.”

Kitschi leaned over and looked upward through the back-seat window. Two suns appeared – one rote, one a smaller and lopsided sputtering globe somewhat akin to a solar panel lighthouse at the end of its warranty – burning through the existential mist, car fumes, and the expiring streaks of a chemtrail.  He neglected to pay the driver, as befits a narrative which scorns legal and social givens for the much more fascinating and labyrinthian philosophical squalor of cut-rate sci-fi and Sleepless in Seattle romance where the unconvincing lovers meet, for the second time, (literally!) on page 918 of 925 pages, after obsessive, asexual longings more in tune with their spiritual make-up at meeting number one at ten years of age.  But the breasts? Every woman in this parallel skit was obsessed about breasts, so the more seedy of the review-comments suggested. Their own, those belonging to their delightfully unabashed lesbian-for-a-day girlfriends, those in the afterlife. What, in the end, are breasts, anyway, but memory, but figments of creative unreality, a God in two existential lumps. A love story, with name-dropping pop-cult, which makes the highbrow name-dropping all the more pretentious when you realize it’s trying to impress by contrast, even though, like the fabulist silliness, it, too, is a drive-by colour of the phrase-moment, and is then remembered no more.

Kitschi alighted. The suns were bearing down on him with knowing. But the suns knowing was nothing like the knowing of the maliciously mysterious sperm-chrysalis droplets currently shooting across the asphalt at breakneck pace. It only takes one, thought the unfortunate reader, to impregnate a mind and transform an international culture.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Grant Buday's Stranger on a Strange Island

(This review was first published in subTerrain #60.)

The front cover picture of Grant Buday’s 2011 Mayne Island memoir, Stranger on a Strange Island, announces the tone of its innards unambiguously: a metallic light grey Airstream trailer, detached, foregrounds a patch of island forest. The Gulf Islands have long been associated with romantic getaways, spiritual transformations, and pulchritudinous seascapes, but just months into an ongoing eight-year stay on tiny Mayne, those visions have closed like eyes poked by Moe the head Stooge: “November arrived. The clocks were rolled back and the rain began to fall – and fall ... What with black clouds overhead, tall trees all around, and no street lights, it felt positively medieval. By three in the afternoon it was twilight, by four dark, by five so cave-black I needed a flashlight to venture out the door. What was all that about a third less rain?” To be clear, the Buday family’s move from Vancouver to Mayne was undertaken more out of economic pressure than idealistic stance, but an intriguing pull in Buday’s rumination is one between mundane necessity and spiritual hope. An initial job of helping an employer relocate an illegally moored boat involves this non-postcard entry: “My wet denim stuck to me like depression, my pale and frozen hands resembled bled pork, my back was in spasm. As for my teeth, I was clenching them so tightly against the cold that I feared for my dental work.” Yet the book’s last chapter, of the author’s whale watching excursion with his eight-year-old son, culminates in grace: “she jumped high, surging out of the water with no warning, right up into the air, that bus-sized beast performing a pirouette in the bright sunshine ... The entire ship seemed to stagger. But there she was, twenty tonnes of mammal only twenty metres away, suspended in one glittering airborne moment, a greeting from another world.”

It’s not all angst and wonder. Humour, wit, irony, and satire abound, and are incorporated into the anecdotes with the natural aplomb of a head cook festooning a three-tiered cake with baroque curlicues. Buday is a terrifically funny writer. Past efforts in short stories, novels, and travel essays have shown his gift for uproarious yet accurate simile, believable punch-line dialogue, coarse slapstick, and situational disjunction, all of it delivered in unassuming voice and smooth transition. Here, Buday is able to display a more relaxed tone, a conversational wisdom for his deprecatory, occasionally caustic, humour. The mood is at times melancholic, yet the language is spry and engaging; the autobiographical persona is a maladroit foil to Mr. Handyman, yet there’s satisfaction and even defiance in a low-tech pullback. Buday seamlessly weaves personal interaction with natural description, fascinating allusion with fictive hijinks (the chapter on Mayne Island’s founding), and biographical excavation with incisive psychological speculation. Some may not take to Buday’s penchant for balloon puncturing, but it’s a necessary universal endeavour, and one that yields its own occasional epiphanies, all the more earned for being honest and tenaciously pursued: “The tree hesitated, creaked slowly, creaked loudly, and began to tilt. With the solemn grandeur unique to the enormous, the cedar began to splinter and groan as it gained momentum. The whole world seemed to be toppling. The tree pitched forward then struck the ground with a whamp! And lo, light did flood through the newly opened gap in the forest.”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Carmelo Militano's Sebastiano's Vine

A family saga, coming-of-age narrative, historical consideration, urban adventure, fabular comedy, and cordiform philosophy, Carmelo Militano’s 2013 novella, Sebastiano’s Vine, compresses those various elements within a shifting chronology and, with a lightly poetic touch, captures a wide range of feelings, the more impressive for acing nuances in its frequent, mere two-to-five page scenic fragments. Understated yet colourful natural description dots many pages in a breadth of detail spanning “a blue strip of water, the Gulf of Corinth, mist floating above it like a white muslin veil” to “the remains of last month’s Saturday comic pages bled pink and blue against a corner fencepost”. Canvasses of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, World War II wounded, and the 1783 earthquake in Calabria are painted with bold surface colour, but also with a merging depth as seen through the experiences of the actors involved. Throughout, the reader is hit with weather, not reports or scene-setting abstractions, but in-your-bones transmissions, whether a Winnipeg winter or Calabrian summer. Geographical description aside, historical focus set back, it’s the characters that linger. Militano has infused his dramatis personae with a lively suggestiveness, a suggestiveness that generously (and hopefully) includes the reader at the novella’s close, where “[T]he complex silence that comes after death is what remains, like the silence at the end of a story before one returns to the dream of life”.