Friday, April 21, 2017

Poetry Month: Thoughts on Two Titles

Before Poetry Month ends, I want to be sure to share some thoughts on a few more collections I've been dipping into over the past few weeks. Some have been brand-new, some a bit older; and some have really spoken to each other thematically. Here are two I've finished most recently.

Auguries / Clea Roberts
London: Brick Books, c2017.
103 p.

This is a newly released title from Brick Books, one of my favourite poetry houses. It's one of the titles from their spring releases, coincidentally all by women. This is Clea Roberts' second collection, after her well-received and award-nominated first book, Here is Where We Disembark. 

I have not read that one, but now that I've been introduced to her work through this new volume, I may have to go back and look for it. Her writing is spare and beautiful; the cover of this book reflects the spaciousness and the sense of "augury" that is revealed in both poems and title.

As the publisher's copy says about this book:

"Written during a period in which Roberts both became a parent and lost a parent, the poems in Auguries lend themselves to prayer, surrender, celebration, reconciliation, meditation, and auspice."

It's true that there is both life burgeoning and ending in these poems, both in relation to her family and to the wider world as well. Poems set during the stillness of winter, in spring which uncovers "the dull carcass / of the neighbour's cat/ emerging from the melting/ snowbank" alongside the new shoots and growth, over long summers. Though the poems are mostly brief, both in actual length and subject, there is a feeling of expansive attention throughout. The natural world is made present, in perfect balance with the small and domestic moments between parents and children. 

I enjoyed the way that domestic, textile references were sprinkled into Roberts' descriptions of both nature and abstract notions: 

They made it through / to spring that way, with duty / stitched onto them like a / button  (from "Getting Wood"

setting your stories / out for the last time, /  reupholstering those that / would allow you to lie / more peacefully  (from "Storytelling")

there was no path at all, / just the forest's worry of branches, / knitted together and waiting.  (from "A Small Legacy")

This was a lovely and quiet collection that draws out evocative imagery with simple, clear effect. It's one I'll revisit. 

Lake of Two Mountains / Arleen Paré  
London: Brick Books, c2014.
83 p.

Another Brick Books volume, this one is a bit older and an award-winner (2014 Governor General's Award). I read it way back then... and I have just reread it, enjoying just as much this time. 

I think it is just as much about a place as Auguries is; about the way a family inhabits its place, through both memories and movement into the future. In this volume, Paré examines her family's history with the Lake of Two Mountains - the summers they spent there as children, the fraught ideas of ownership (especially in "Whose Lake?"), the history of the land itself. 

She describes the physical landscape with as much detail and care as she does her family stories, and adds in stories of the Trappist monastery across the lake. There is a jumble of historical fact, a naturalist's eye, emotionally drawn moments, and awareness of the future. There are poems about the Oka Crisis of 1990 and related issues of human presence on the land. This book is like a busy painting that at first glance looks clear and serene, but as you get closer you see more and more detail in it. 

And it's also full of beautiful language, with metaphors from the natural world colouring the family's descriptions. The lake is breathing, alive. This is another collection that presents sharp, memorable images to the reader, revealed like innocuous dull stones that shine once they're gathered wet from the shore. 

If you'd like, you can find more reviews of this title and a recording of Paré reading from this book, over at the publisher's website. 

And, just until the end of April, Brick Books is having a big sale of all pre-2017 titles -- you can order them for only $10 each. What a steal! I recommend checking it out; I've found some real gems at Brick Books. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Game of Hide and Seek

A Game of Hide and Seek / Elizabeth Taylor
London: Virago, 2008, c1951.  
306 p.

It was Simon's 1951 Club that finally got me reading this book, which has been on the TBR for longer than I can remember. For some reason, I'd got the feel of Elizabeth Bowen's House in Paris mixed up with my impressions of this novel by Elizabeth Taylor (oh, those many Elizabeths) and so had been a little resistant to picking it up. Fortunately I had this lovely Virago classics edition to read this week.

The book does have the same sense of a doomed love affair though; it opens with young Harriet & Vesey, who've known each other since childhood but are now in late adolescence and suddenly aware of one another. Harriet falls hard but they are both awkward and inarticulate, and can't express their new feelings at all. The book is coloured by their inability to be open, by the habit of both of stifling all expression. He leaves; they are separated for the next fifteen or twenty years. 

Harriet eventually shows some spine and gets a job in a dress shop. This is where some of the funniest bits come in, elements which may play into a comparison with Barbara Pym. Taylor describes each of the "ladies" that Harriet works with so amusingly, their situation quite funny (until much later when we learn the fates of a few of them). Harriet herself seems to expand in this milieu, but then she becomes involved with Charles, a lawyer twice her age, and marries as a good girl should. Jump cut -- part two -- Harriet is now in middle age, with a 15 yr old daughter (though she must in reality be only in her mid-30s, hardly into decrepitude). In any case, Vesey returns.

And they start a mild affair. I can only say mild because they are both as uncertain and awkward as ever. Vesey is a poor object of affection, but Harriet carries that torch. It's at the end, an uncertain and endlessly interpretable end, that he seems to show a spark of unselfish redemption in his character. 

This novel reflected the culture of suburban British life in the 50s effectively -- its strictures and norms, the stifling expectations, the strange modern habits like adults drinking excessively at local dances nearly weekly, the gossip. It's a sad and pinched kind of story, but the writing itself is very fine. Taylor can capture a character in a gesture, in a phrase, whether a main character or an incidental one. She is darker than Pym but with the same eye for social interaction. I found it started slowly, throwing the reader into the midst of things and thus feeling a bit muddled at the start, but by the time I was partway through I was completely involved. 

Aside from Harriet and Vesey, the story moves into the present/future with Betsy, her daughter, and a Dutch girl, Elke, who lives with Harriet's family and observes, though understanding little. There is quite a lot to observe in this novel, and the compression of time between Harriet's suffragette mother's youth and her own modern daughter's teen years is startling. Definitely a social novel worth the effort, with many quotable bits. I'll leave you with one about the vagaries of time:
If we do not alter with the times, the times yet alter us. We may stand perfectly still, but our surroundings shift round and we are not in the same relationship to them for long; just as a chameleon, matching perfectly the greenness of a leaf, should know that the leaf will one day fade. 

See more 1951 books and reviews at Simon's 1951 Roundup Post

Friday, April 14, 2017

North End Love Songs

North End Love Songs / Katherena Vermette
Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, c2012. 
108 p.

This poetry month, I must share some poetry. Here is a book I picked up after reading Vermette's The Break, to hear more from her, even if this was written first.

It's a collection looking at  life in North End Winnipeg, the same setting as her novel. Again, she is excellent at evoking a setting, a sense of place with just a few words, a few images. Here we have young girls walking down the middle of the road in summer, with slushes in hand; and I was instantly transported back to my own early teen years. She focuses on the relationships between young women, and on describing various girls using bird metaphors in one section, which I found especially appealing.

Her poems are short, and sparely written -- her style is simple but carries a lot within in. It's an honest voice, and realistic. The simplicity of the voice allows for the emotional connection to the story that's unfolding. In the second and third sections of the book, she delves into the life of her missing brother, just another young man who didn't make it home, and no law enforcement seemed very concerned about it at all. Small details of their relationship, like his heavy metal music playing all throughout the house, or asking to borrow his sweater the last time she saw him, add resonance to his absence.

The depth of character and straight talk about the political realities faced by the Indigenous community in Winnipeg is straightforward but reveals unexpected moments, like a spotlight aiming at a frozen moment - the same effect she created in her novel, though with (obviously) more narrative continuity there. I think this is an easy read in the sense of its structure, but with currents of content that will catch at a reader's emotions and perceptions.

She finishes with a powerful set of "verses in many voices", a poem called "I Am A North End Girl". It's a chorus of women's stories and voices which don't hold back. The effect is to hear lives being lived, without judgement being passed. This book is another important read that I'd recommend to all Canadians in this year of reconciliation -- it's a voice of understanding and experience that is much needed. North End Love Songs won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 2013, and I hope more readers will discover her now through the attention on her new novel.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tangles: a Story about Alzheimer's, my Mother and Me

Tangles: a Story about Alzheimer's, my Mother and Me / Sarah Leavitt
Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, c2010.
132 p.

When the author's lively, clever mother starting showing signs of forgetfulness, her family thought it was probably just stress or overwork or something like that; sadly, it was the beginnings of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's.

This fearful situation is honestly and lovingly described in Sarah Leavitt's words and pictures. The art is very basic -- line drawings, sketches -- but it captures the charming silliness and connection of this family. Somehow the very simple drawing allows for the story to emerge more strongly. 

Sarah lives far away from her family's home, so is only there part of the time, while her father and sister are more full on caretakers. This means that she sees the changes more startlingly when she does get home. Her mother Midge was an active educator, involved in curriculum design and innovations, and cared deeply about social issues. She changes dramatically, as anyone familiar with the effects of Alzheimer's will recognize -- not only memory but personality changes are she becomes fearful and distrustful. The change is clearly shown, with sorrow and love, and yes, some rage as well. 

Sarah's partner Donimo comes home with her as well, and that relationship is examined here too. They both care for Midge, in one particularly difficult scene, Sarah worries that because she is a lesbian people might think that her physical care she provides for her mother is not 'right' somehow. It's sad that this was a valid worry for her amongst all the others they were facing.

The emotional effect of this story is powerful, and makes it well worth reading for the narrative alone. Leavitt gives a sense of the results of a diagnosis like this on a whole family, not only the one suffering from Alzheimer's. It's hard to read, and terrifying, and very sad. But it's also beautiful. 

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Birds Art Life

Birds Art Life: a Year of Observation / Kyo Maclear  
Toronto: Doubleday, c2017.
272 p.

Kyo Maclear was feeling disconnected, overwhelmed. Anxious about her own career and purpose, her stress is compounded by her father's terminal illness. As a writer, she was looking for something to engage with, something that would give her a sense of purpose, a project. She found it when she discovered a local musician who was equally a dedicated urban birder. She decided to follow him around for a year and see what she could learn. 

And this small book consisting of her thoughts and meditations around this project was the result. It's a memoir of the "one year in a life" sort, so many of which exist now. But this is not an eager, do as much as you can in a year and become a better person kind of book. It's dreamy, it's circular and fragmentary. Maclear learns to really see birds; by which, she really learns to see the small particularities of the world, to identify and name what exists around her, grounding herself in a place - even if it's an urban place in which she hadn't expected to find so much natural life.

She also finds that the habit of birding brings a state of mind that might be called meditative, or mindful. The birders she encounters think nothing of sitting perfectly still for hours, in order to spot one particular bird or get just the right photo. The expanses of time in which they sit, visibly doing 'nothing', amaze her; it's so different from the habit of guilt about not being continually productive that she has been suffering from. This slowing of the pace of life is soothing, allowing her to rest, to reflect, and to write again. 

Of course, as she slows and learns to observe birds, her observations in other parts of life grow sharper as well. She relays stories about her family - her husband, sons and father - and remembers her early life. All this in brief and poetic 'chapters', really more like sections rather than neatly tied up chapters, more like the pace of thought. Perhaps it's better thought of as an extended essay. 

I've read some of Maclear's adult fiction (ie: The Letter Opener) as well as being a big fan of her children's books, and this book is something different again. It has the hallmarks of dreaminess and introspection that I've enjoyed in her other work, though; I found it just as satisfying as her novels. 


Further Reading

Readers of Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk may find some similarities in the theme of fathers, birds, and finding solace in the small things of the natural world. Mary Oliver's recent collection of essays, Upstream, similarly hints that the solution to life's expectations and anxieties lies in observing the natural world.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Where I Live Now

Where I Live Now / Sharon Butala
Toronto: Simon & Schuster, c2017.
192 p.

This newly released book was a beautiful and bittersweet read. Butala is a writer known for her descriptive powers, as she has published many books about the small area of Southern Saskatchewan that she relocated to from the city, decades ago when she met her husband Peter. Many of her books lyrically describe the landscape of the very large Butala ranch and its environs, and talk about the particular codes of this isolated rural community. This one does the same, but in a more overtly elegaic manner. 

The story starts with Butala having to leave the land that has become a part of her over 30 years. This is because, unexpectedly, her husband becomes terminally ill, and there is no way for her to stay on alone. The chapters in which she discusses her husband's illness are emotionally fraught, and when she describes the final moments they had together, I was overcome and had to put the book down for a couple of days. 

But I had to go back to it. Her writing ranges from the history of the land (ancient to current) to examinations of her marriage to thoughts about her place in this rural community, and in the new community she finds herself making in Calgary, of all places. As usual, the writing is measured, thoughtful, and philosophical, while being utterly grounded in the physical world. She can describe the beauty of sunsets, fields, skies, and history itself, while retaining a sense of humour about herself and her enthusiasms - like the time she thought she'd discovered a large dinosaur bone (tip: it wasn't).

She gives the reader a candid account of her journey through grief and loss, and does so in a way which comforts through her understanding of the larger sweep of existence. Looking back and speaking of the life and the person she's lost bring vibrancy to them once again. 

Her story also provides a sense of how the loss of both a spouse and a way of life untether a person, how it takes time to find a place for oneself again.

I found this book both beautiful and heart-breaking. Butala is, as always, honest and heartfelt in her writing, and it is very powerful here.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Green Tomato Years

The Green Tomato Years / Gloria Kupchenko Frolick
Toronto: Williams-Wallace, c1985.
142 p.

Another book I just happened across, this short story collection is infused with the Ukrainian experience. Even the beautiful cover is a William Kurelek painting.

The author states that "it had been in my mind to write these stories for many years. They represent a fulfillment of a vow I had undertaken to write something as a tribute to my parents and brothers and sisters... ". And this is a heartfelt collection, a little uneven, but which really illuminates immigrant life in the Depression & war/postwar years, with special attention to her Ukrainian background.

I thought the first story, "The Counsellor" was the strongest. It is light-hearted, sincere, and engaging. In it, a young girl is working for a neighbour who needs some help around the house, as she's just had her second baby - at age 40. The perspective of this young girl highlights the quirks of adult behaviour and emotional upsets, and allows for a conclusion that isn't either maudlin or too jokey; it's just her report of what's happening. This story's tone and characters remind me quite a lot of Gabrielle Roy's Manitoba-set books. They have the same sense of innocence & nostalgia, and there are echoes of Roy's style. It also reminded me of the lightness in some of Olena Pchilka's short stories about girls in Ukraine.

Kupchenko Frolick also uses a child's perspective in other stories, but more often with a focus on their own experience. As the book progresses, the stories get less light-hearted and deal more with disappointments, sorrows, and fears. In the very brief "Mrs. Paush", the lack of reproductive options for women leads to tragedy.  In "Such A Nice Young Man", a young woman and her sister take their Ukrainian background as a given, but are far more focused on being modern young people. They realize their position in the community, however, when the son of the richest family in town tries to rape the younger daughter; her story is discounted and excuses are made for him (what is new?) This was another disturbing scene that has me wondering why the three books I've just finished all include this theme: is it because I'm reading books by women about women's experience in particular? Is it that writers today are trying to remove the shroud of secrecy around these kinds of experiences? It could be all of these, but the prevalence of this kind of violence is still sad to realize. 

The book closes on a melancholy note, with the description of a youth group going carolling on a Ukrainian Christmas eve. They are out in the country, enjoying their sleigh ride, and stopping in at various places to sing. It's peaceful, beautiful, and highlights tradition; yet the bittersweet nature of life comes through. Kupchenko Frolick seems to notice the undercurrents in all situations, and can't avoid mentioning them. Even when the conclusion of this story, and thus the book as a whole, ends on a positive note, it never feels saccharine, but grounded in daily life.

The nine stories included here provide a variety of perspectives, some very brief vignettes and a couple which are a bit longer. Each of them evokes the sense of a life now gone, in a specific place and time. I liked this collection and appreciated the variety of her stories, with their balance of sorrows and joys.