Issue #186 - Wilf Cude

Wilf Cude


Stoking the Fires


Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy by B.W. Powe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, 354 pp., $32.95).



They met in Toronto in 1946.” Thus softly and simply, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy opens. “It was a moment of a rare convergence,” author B.W. Powe continues, proceeding into his own confessed reconstruction of that rare moment, one occurring at a modest college situated within a provincial university located in a parochial small city “a sort of nowhere at that time in the North American grid.” There is no record extant of that portentous moment, so Powe calmly and convincingly builds his own. The underlying reality, now so apparent, then merely trembling in potential, had almost casually manifested itself back then: at a routine social occasion welcoming new faculty members, an initial personal encounter between “the two men who would become the most formidable and influential intellectual-seers that Canada had yet produced.” What might have transpired between them, then and there?  “I like to imagine their first conversation,” Powe muses, “I like to think that at their first meeting the sparks of brilliance between them were palpable.” All imagination, of course, all speculation. But it is all imagination, all speculation, stemming from yet another significant convergence over three decades later that would ultimately bring this splendid study into being.

     That second convergence, taking place at the very same place, on the ever-extending campus of the University of Toronto, the second convergence so much later in clock time to the first, and yet somewhat paradoxically (in a sense, a creative sense, a figurative sense that would have delighted both McLuhan and Frye) coming way before the first, at least before the softly subtle recognition of the first that opens the fine work at hand. For the two men at the centre were rather more, academically and spiritually speaking, than the intellectual giants whom all the historians of thought have abundantly recognized. They were teachers!  Yes, they were equally gifted in that dimension of their craft conventionally if shamefacedly generally shrugged aside as peripheral. But not by these two intellectual-seers. For decades on that campus, McLuhan from 1946 to 1978, a little over a year before his death, and Frye from the late 1930s to sometime close to his own death in 1991, day after day, week after week, academic year after academic year, each of these men, commencing before either had published the first of the major works that would catapult him into fame and ceasing only just before the inevitable closed his life and extinguished a legendary career, each of these men found his way into a classroom or lecture hall, made his way up to the head of the room, settled himself each characteristically, McLuhan constantly improvising, Frye consistently formal, but each in his own unmistakable fashion, “stoking the fires of illumination in the furnaces of learning.” Each converging with every student in the room. Each converging, in one particular instance, at one noteworthy time, with a brash and thoroughly clever kid named Bruce William Powe.

     It’s both very instructive and (it should definitely also be said) intensely challenging to go back to B.W. Powe’s first book, the immediately and deservedly praised 1984 A Climate Charged, to appreciate the insight and comprehension implicit then in his appraisal of each of his two internationally celebrated teachers. The first appearing in the book, McLuhan comes across as genuinely personable, wildly engaging and just plain intellectually mercurial: at the head of the room, he seems in a perpetual state of ideas in flux, a dizzying and dazzling display of “jokes, judgments, references to his friendship with Ezra Pound and Lewis, and tantalizing ideas about media and modernism.” After experiencing a whirlwind two hours of McLuhan’s spectacular talk, offered unstintingly to a depressingly diminished turnout of six students, an entranced Bruce William confesses: “I was hooked.” But there was far more happening than showmanship, far more intensive and demanding dimensions of thought to pursue. “McLuhan always filtered his perceptions through literature,” B.W. marvels, listing the scope of those perceptions as they unfolded in class. “The depth of his commitment to awakening audiences to the ‘Pure Present’; his literary bias, despite his predilection for oral teaching and dialogue; his emphasis on humour and satire; and how little he cared for the new technological environments.” And the concomitant irony of those perceptions so dramatically imparted in the classroom was that they somehow never widely registered much beyond that point. “Few read McLuhan,” B.W. remarks; “they came to know him through TV and radio.” Sadly, a marvellous visionary who could prophesy where technology would take us, and prophesy with nerve-grating accuracy, “also became for many a vulgarizer, a charlatan, an enthusiast of pop trash, an apologist for the new technologies.” Over three decades further on, B.W. will once more address the memory of this great teacher, and he will ensure that this lingering shadowy misconception would finally be laid to rest.

     But appearing second in that early book, and second as well in the title of the current book, Northrop Frye comes across understandably as initially rather more distant and almost austere. Initially the alternate extreme, personally as well as intellectually, from the flamboyantly dynamic McLuhan, Frye is another pedagogical presence altogether: sedate, measured, and by comparison with his much more volatile colleague almost static — he is “what seems ... so flat.” He is what seems the consummate caricature of the absent-minded, out-of-touch-with-reality academic. “The professor shambles up to the front of the quiet classroom — which is filled to capacity,” the critically attentive Bruce William recalls. And this professor is, Bruce William rather unkindly also recalls, seemingly “the incarnation of what was once known as the browner: the studious, withdrawn, and invariably brainy student.” As this professor commences, with a “gentle, soft-spoken, informal” lecturing style, it becomes evident “this is a lecture, and not a dialogue.” Whereas Bruce William had enrolled in McLuhan’s last class ever, when the great man had (in Northrop Frye’s memorable phrasing) gone “away to the skies like a rocket and then came down like the stick,” he had also enrolled in just another of Frye’s ever-more-crowded classes, when the great man was at the very apex of his own ascent: he was (in Marshall McLuhan’s memorable phrasing) “not struggling for his place in the sun – he was the sun.” Although enchanted by the corruscations of the one, he rejected the “near deification” of the other, and probed relentlessly into what many (then and later) would not choose to examine: Frye’s “pseudo-scientific approach that operates beyond taste, value-judgements, and the uniqueness of an artist and his work.” Extremely valid points, that should neither be lost nor even neglected; and yet, over three decades further on, B.W. will once more address the memory of this great teacher, and he will strive to reconcile the astringent quality of his earlier view with a far more compassionate and mature vision.

     “My students are my publications” provocatively declared Garnett Sedgewick, a University of British Columbia professor so renowned across campus for his teaching prowess that the institution named an undergraduate library after him. The student as publication, bearing an imprint of the teacher’s presentation, is a necessary, legitimate but often far less properly acknowledged — now, perhaps more than ever — element warranting professional pride that every competent instructor can claim, ranking a vital but undervalued accomplishment with equal propriety among all other professorial attainments. And as it was for Professor Sedgewick, so it also was for those two Canadian humanists standing at the very forefront of their academic peers: Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, each making his way to the head of the classroom or lecture hall, year after academic year, decade after decade, surveying group after group of bright, clever and ambitious young people, offering each of those bright, clever and ambitious young people a first-hand and uniquely individualized introduction into the incandescent mystical workings of the propagation of thought. In such circumstances, these two stood very like all the most prominent of their predecessors stood before them, not so much in the exalted role of cultural icon but rather in the more toil-stained yet dignified role of humble stoker: they stood, shovelling manfully, day in and day out, feeding the fuel of thought past all those intent and earnest young people, “stoking the fires of illumination in the furnaces of learning.” Above all else, the two of them lived in common through “faith in the mentoring act.” It is a toil-stained yet dignified role increasingly coming under both technological scrutiny and threat, as Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye themselves intuited, each through his own ever-evolving perception of apocalypse and alchemy. This we can discern through the writings of perhaps the most talented student the two scholars shared, the human publication as generator of publications, student Bruce William Powe transmuted over three decades into B.W. Powe, author of such impressive works as A Climate Charged, Outage, Mystic Trudeau and, of course, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy.

     “I said at the start that they were my teachers,” Powe summarizes in his concluding pages. “What were the lessons?” Pay attention, reader, pay very close attention: here we have, in two simple, direct and completely unostentatious sentences, yet further evidence of a genuinely subtle prose mastery, a definitive quality of the book that rewards considerable inspection in its own right. The first sentence, in the active voice, is a blunt statement of fact taking us back to both historical time and authorial time of the book’s composition, and reminding us as well of one central theme of that composition. The second sentence, however, takes on something of a truly complex passive construction simultaneously tendering a dual meaning: “what were the lessons I as Bruce William the student learned and thereafter over three decades and change put into practice as B.W. the author;” and moreover, perhaps a little more impudently, but far more relevantly, “what were the lessons you, gentle reader, learned from your adventure through this truly rewarding and under-statedly sympathetic and spectacular examination of erudition.” A reply to the query within the first meaning, the answer to the question concerning Powe’s own lessons, is offered concisely enough: as a young man, as a student, he saw his two mentors essentially as opposites, contrasts personally and professionally, two far-seeing University of Toronto seers who incessantly “scolded and provoked one another;” nevertheless, as a much more personally, emotionally and intellectually weathered author and professor, he confesses “when I read them closely — mustering all my attention — I found harmonies.” Which brings us irrevocably to the multiplicity of replies to the query within that second meaning, the one directed to us, all of us readers, every one. What were the lessons we learned?

     Judging from two supportive reviews, each proffered from a sympathetic and discerning reader, Philip Marchand in the 27 June, 2014 issue of the National Post and Faye Hammill in the 21 November, 2014 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, there are most assuredly lessons aplenty to be learned. For Marchand, author of the well-received 1989 biography Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, there could have been a mildly discomfiting encounter with an extended sophisticated thesis concerning McLuhan and Frye amplifying but qualifying one central thesis of his own. Powe’s argument that “the thought of both men was ultimately complementary and converging” went well beyond Marchand’s earlier sustained analysis of the intellectual rivalry between the two, and Marchand felt impelled — in intellectual self-defence — to respond. “Powe also admits that there is little documentary emphasis on the supposed indirect collaboration between Frye and McLuhan.” But sheer courtesy also impels him to add “I am biased,” explaining “in this book Powe mentions my own biography of McLuhan in a generous but not uncritical fashion — he is courteous to all those with whom he disagrees.” A gentle lesson in civility extended and received, which the rest of us should take note. And for Hammill, something vaguely similar. In a gesture towards establishing her reviewer’s judiciousness, she observes: “Powe is by no means uncritical, but he is protective of his former teachers’ reputations, and perhaps sets them too much apart from their context, peers and predecessors.” However, even that fudge-factor “perhaps” doesn’t rescue her from the incongruity between that judgment and others immediately before and after. Before, she writes: “[Powe’s] long and intimate engagement with their [McLuhan’s and Frye’s] work has culminated in a rich, subtly argued book.” And after, she writes: “[Powe] convincingly proves, though, that the extent of their [McLuhan’s and Frye’s] interaction has been underestimated.” Having recognized the author’s full command of style, approach and content, isn’t it a trifle gratuitous to rebuke him for not accomplishing a task he never committed to undertake?  Another lesson, not so much from the book itself, but rather from a reader’s consideration of it. Again, the rest of us might profit from taking note.

     Above all else, though, the rest of us in closing should take note of the one lesson both reviewers have pretty well acknowledged, the one lesson each of us might have anticipated somewhere along in our own reading: B.W. Powe is one thoroughly talented author. Marchand is characteristically forthright. “Powe as novelist remains more or less in the background,” he affirms: “nevertheless [his] study is trenchant in its vision and often rhapsodic in its style.” Hammill, by contrast, and also characteristically a touch overly judicious, cannot resist commencing with a snide little jab: “At times, Powe — a writer by profession — seems quite as interested in his own prose as theirs.” Yet in an instant attempt to recover impartiality, she rattles on with this cautiously backhanded concession. “Happily, [Powe’s] portentous declarations do not dominate the text: he allows Frye and McLuhan plenty of space to speak for themselves, and closely analyzes their different styles of writing.” Granted, no review of any length can fairly and properly probe the full resources of an author’s skill: but one example, such as the concluding paragraph we find here, can alert us to something of the work’s stylistic potential.


There is the lesson that says do without your elders. You must abandon them to move on, living deeply. The path must be yours. I have learned this teaching slowly. But I have found the trust that you can come back — someday — fresh from frontiers, in a changed form, to meet your mentors again. Then other new and vital lessons can begin.


Six sentences, straightforward, uncomplicated. But how sly is the tricksy gerund “teaching” in the central fourth sentence, evoking “the thing taught” and simultaneously “the act of teaching.” Here we have a dual statement in the same words: from the student Bruce William so long ago savouring what he learned from his mentors over three decades, and from the author B.W. contemplating his accomplishments in print and in the classroom over those selfsame three decades. Very simple, very neat, very, very clever.

     “What are the laws at work?” The question, right before the close, is rhetorical. “These are what was called the two truths of the wisdom tradition,” B.W. replies, to himself and to us: “everything has two sides, which can be called the double vision and figure/ground, innocence and experience together, the visible and invisible always in vibrations of influence.” Two sides. Two books, A Climate Charged from so long ago and Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy, from just about yesterday. Thirty years between them, and a well-lived life, innocence and experience. Two bookend books, bookending a remarkable academic and intellectual enterprise, when student Bruce William has come back as author B.W. Powe, fresh from frontiers, in a changed form, finally to meet his mentors again. On more or less equal footing, this time around. Let other new and vital lessons begin.



Issue # 186 - Laura Rock

Laura Rock


The Justice of the Land



Smoke River by Krista Foss (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014, 341 pp., $19.95).


It’s easy to get lost in the swirling eddies of Smoke River, Krista Foss’s debut novel. And I mean lost in the best sense of the word, drawn into the immersive pleasures of a complex and assured narrative. This is a book that foregoes easy resolutions to intractable conflicts, whether they be personal or political, etched on bodies or land.

     Smoke River follows an array of characters through a summer-long dispute over a piece of property. The land in question, wedged between a First Nation reserve and a tobacco farm, is slated for an upscale subdivision and golf course. A sign markets the built-out vision of instant community: 80% pre-sold, it lies. The soil has been scraped by bulldozers and pierced by survey stakes. A hydro tower has been erected. For real estate developers Mitch and Ella Bain, as well as for the mayor and townspeople, the project signifies hope for a future veering away from tobacco, yesterday’s crop. It means progress and prosperity. But others remember what was there before: sedge meadows, a pond full of frogs, berries ripe for picking. Many of the reserve’s residents have intimate histories with this landscape, which they’ve never ceded. Shayna Fallingbrook, the Mohawk lawyer who has returned from the city, muses: “Her people called the place simply o’tá:ra, their word for clay as well as clan, for everything that was land and family and how who you were and where you lived were indivisible.”

      Shayna organizes a blockade, which grows into a prolonged encampment. Barricades across the highway cut off nearby businesses, sparking retaliation from angry merchants and drawing possibly armed Warriors from beyond the reserve. Young hotheads Las and Gordo, prominent sons of the town, threaten violence against the protesters and enact it on each other. The police, band council, and provincial government squabble over what to do, as cigarette manufacturer Elijah Barton seeks to influence negotiations toward his own undeclared ends. Back-channel offers are made, illuminating potential settlements and not a few conflicts of interest. The government might be persuaded to spread cash around to smother the flames. The silence of a badly hurt girl might be purchased, obscuring the crime against her. Seek justice or take the money? Principles or pragmatism? The choice runs through the novel.

     Intertwined with the question of which side will win are the fates of the people involved. A plot that might have been rendered bloodless, merely a political contest, gains dramatic heft because of its human toll. The threat to their reputation and solvency sends the Bain family, already a shaky emotional enterprise, into full-on crisis. Although Ella and Mitch seem to care only about appearances — presentation over substance — both bear scars that manifest in their different styles of parenting, and their obsessions with, respectively, control-freaking and drinking. Las, an overindulged star athlete, embodies his mother’s thwarted ambitions, while his sister Stephanie remains unseen by her parents until she commands their attention — for starters, by falling in love with “one of those wild kids from the blockade,” as the mayor tells Ella in a bout of maternal score-settling. Shayna, carrying her own losses, attempts to shield her runaway niece, the aspiring singer, Cherisse. Tobacco farmer Coulson Stercyx continues his parents’ lifelong fight to wrest a salable crop from the ground. As their relationship takes root in the shadow of the barricade, Shayna and Coulson become a symbol of both unity and division.  

     Foss has created characters who are rounded and flawed — people with their own motivations, memories, vices and voices — and endows them with a humanity that makes even those who do hateful things seem understandable, perhaps redeemable in the long run. The secondary characters also come to life in her hands. In a book with so many characters, it is essential that they be memorable or readers will become confused. That Foss has accomplished this while also linking them through recurring images is a major accomplishment. Events, places and ideas echo across generations, but the characters themselves remain distinct.

     Throughout the novel, Foss weaves intricate patterns. There are many examples. Cross-cultural couples defy community norms and then face consequences, or their children do, such as when Elijah’s mother loses her right to live on the reserve. Shayna’s mother survived the degradations of residential school only to visit similar humiliations on her older daughter. Las is a champion swimmer with a university athletic scholarship awaiting him; as a young man, Coulson earned his way out of town on a swim scholarship. Mitch once taunted his high school classmate Elijah, marked as a dunce, but now Elijah takes revenge by flaunting his wealth. When he was a boy, Elijah’s mother told him: “You need to know who you are”; in the present day, Shayna sees her niece running across a field and thinks: “That one has no idea who she is.” Shayna rifles Coulson’s wallet, foreshadowing a critical scene with Cherisse and a wallet. The occupation of the development reminds Ella (somewhat absurdly) of her husband’s takeover of a room in their home, a domestic act of colonialism. Images of ice and glass, tobacco, and peach pies baked for comfort appear repeatedly as Foss mines the multiple meanings attached to them.   

     The reverberations also serve to reinforce the confining small-town setting, which Foss nails. Doreville — a radio broadcaster mistakenly refers to it as Dotville, and the local teenagers call it Dorkville — is located in an area known as the Interlake, a silted delta perfect for growing tobacco. It’s the type of place where slights and grievances accumulate like layers of sediment. A wrongful death in one generation might be paid for, or repeated, in the next. Sons inherit their fathers’ weaknesses, and everyone can see the through-line. But Doreville wants and needs change — hence the housing development to attract newcomers, and the sputtering campaigns to convince sunburned, tobacco-stained farmers to try growing baby cabbage and ginseng. With the blockade, it becomes evident that Doreville’s future is just as contested as the disputed land. Ella thinks: “You can change the history of a place with the right packaging,” but events overthrow that notion. Elijah realizes that land is a constant “with its own kind of justice, its own understanding” regardless of who owns it, but his idea isn’t widely accepted. This is a novel that asks: what is progress? And who gets to decide?

     Almost every chapter of Smoke River is divided into scenes told from a different character’s perspective, allowing the reader to see the mounting conflict from all angles. While the point of view rotates, the beginning of a new scene often picks up on dialogue or action from the one preceding it, so transitions are smooth. Because the scenes are vivid and the writing economical, this structure has the effect of moving the story swiftly along its course. Variations in the number of scenes and the characters featured keep the chapters from feeling formulaic. And the pacing matches the storyline. A pivotal chapter follows just one character in an extended, moving scene. As the climax nears, the pace picks up, with the narration cutting from character to character in short, tense bursts.

     What is irksome in a novel likely varies from reader to reader. Only a few elements of Smoke River, for me, didn’t work. First, a decision to render all thoughts and past dialogue in italics. This is unnecessary, as the context makes it clear that a character is either thinking or remembering a conversation. In many cases, “he thinks” or “she thinks” is also used, so I found the italics to be too much stage managing, as if the reader can’t be trusted to figure out what’s going on.

     Another quibble: there’s a scene in which Ella fills out her son’s university application for him, writing “Economics” with a ballpoint pen on the paper form. Although the precise time of the novel is never specified, it is clearly contemporary, with its text-messaging and characters who think that someone’s comment is heteronormative (Stephanie) or yell “Holla!” (Cherisse). So this form-filling was a small detail that didn’t ring true. Anyone who has dealt with a university in the past decade will attest to the fact that applicants no longer have a paper option — it’s all data entry and uploads.

     Finally, a single adjective made me close the book for a moment: inscrutable, applied to Shayna by Coulson. He notes “her inscrutable face,” which leaves him unsure about her feelings for him. That this word carries the taint of longstanding stereotype makes its use unfortunate at best. While it could be interpreted as true to Coulson’s point of view in that moment — he really doesn’t get Shayna — it also undermines the otherwise successful characterization of Coulson as someone who is fair and open in his dealings with people, including the migrant workers on his farm. But let’s be clear: this is one poor word choice at odds with a masterfully constructed whole. There is much to admire in Smoke River.

     Looming over the novel is the memory of Caledonia, and Oka before that, and now the ghosts of Tina Fontaine and far too many like her — the missing and murdered indigenous women of our country. For anyone familiar with this background, Smoke River will evoke flashes of recognition and sorrow, and perhaps a desire to compare notes with media reports. It’s not necessary, however, to have that base of knowledge in order to engage the novel, which shines its own beacon of truth, universalizing facts and giving them a narrative shape that real life rarely provides.    

     Smoke River could have been an issues book, either didactic or bound by politics — however compelling and timely. Instead, Foss has created something much larger in scale, a multi-faceted tale that glints and sparkles like the broken glass covering Cherisse as she floats down the river, letting it carry her where it will.  



Issue # 185 - Contributors



Susan Alexander’s poetry has appeared in several Canadian literary journals including ARC PoetryMagazine, CV2, Grain and PRISM International. She is the winner of the 2015 Vancover Writers Festival Poetry prize and a finalist in The Malahat Review’s 2016 Open Season Awards.

Jane Byers’ first poetry collection, Steeling Effects, was published by Caitlin Press (2014). Her poems have appeared in Grain, Descant, The Antigonish Review, The Canadian Journal of Hockey Literature, Poetry in Transit and Best Canadian Poetry 2014.

Heather Cadsby is the author of four books of poetry. The most recent book, Could be, was published by Brick Books. Her poetry has appeared in such journals as Grain, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, PRISM International and the anthology The Best Canadian Poetry in English.

Wilf Cude is the author of A Due Sense of Differences, The Ph.D. Trap and The Ph.D. Trap Revisited. His latest book is Weapons of Mass Disruption: An Academic Whistleblower’s Tale. His writing has appeared frequently in The Antigonish Review and other journals. He lives in Roberta, Cape Breton, NS.

Rocco de Giacomo is a widely published poet whose work has appeared in literary journals in Canada, Australia, England, Hong Kong and the US. His work has recently been accepted for publication in The Antigonish Review and Ottawa Arts Review, and has most recently been published in JuxtaProse Literary Magazine. Rocco’s poetry has also been featured on the CBC.  In 2009, his first full-length poetry collection, Ten Thousand Miles Between Us, was launched through Quattro Books. His forthcoming collection, Every Night of Our Lives, will be published with Guernica Editions.

Stephanie Dickinson lives in New York City. She studied with William Packard, and still considers him a marvel and inspiration. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, and Fjords, among others. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg is available from New Michigan Press. Along with Rob Cook, she edits Skidrow Penthouse and its imprint Rain Mount Press. A new novel, Love Highway, a fictional treatment of the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder, is just out.

Catherine Dowling was born and raised on a dairy farm in south-west Ireland and has also lived in England, but mainly in Canada. Writing has always been a means of relaxtion and for telling stories of “the olden days” — her children’s favourite bed-time fare. She assures us her story is an absolutely true experience.

Deirdre Dwyer is the author of two poetry collections: The Breath that Lightens the Body and Going to the Eyestone. “The House, so they say” comes from her manuscript The Blomidon Logs, about her and her family’s adventures at an old camp and a new A-frame cottage in Lower Blomidon, a farming community on the Bay of Fundy. The manuscript of The Blomidon Logs is scheduled for publiction in fall 2016.

Christine Estima’s writing has appeared in VICE, Bitch Magazine, The Malahat Review, The Madison Review, Descant, Room Magazine, The New Quarterly, CBC, The National Post, Palver Journal, Matrix Magazine, NOW Magazine, The Grid Verge Magazine, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, and many others. Visit for more.

Anthony Kane Evans has had around fifty short stories published in various UK, US, Canadian and Australian literary journals and ezines. He has made a number of documentary films for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. Although born and raised in Manchester, England, he has lived for the last 25 years in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has written a novel — haven’t we all? ­— and would dearly like to see it published.

Maureen Evans grew up in northern British Columbia. She set her mind to writing when young and has travelled, writing widely, ever since. This poem comes from a first collection of that work. She loves everything wild, beautiful and hard.

Kevin Eze was born in Nigeria where he began writing and learning the piano at the age of seven. He studied Literature and Philosophy at the Jesuit Faculty in the Congo and Sociology at the University of Paris XII, France.  A student of Theology, his stories have appeared in Writers, Writing on Conflict and Wars in Africa and in Long Journeys, and in the magazine Actu’elle. His work is commissioned by the Commonwealth Foundation for inclusion in the Commonwealth Writers anthology (2016). The author of The Peacekeeper’s Wife (Dakar: Amalion Publishing, Fall 2015), Kevin lives and writes in Senegal, West Africa.

Len Gasparini is the author of sixteen chapbooks of poetry, including his Collected Poems (2015), five short-story collections, a work of non-fiction, and a one-act play. His work has been translated into French and Italian. He lives in Windsor, Ontario.

Adele Graf’s poetry has appeared previously in The Antigonish Review, and in many Canadian journals including CV2, The Dalhousie Review, Room, Vallum and White Wall Review. Adele has a book forthcoming from Guernica Editions. She lives in Ottawa.

Peggy Herring is author of This Innocent Corner (Oolichan Books, 2010). She has worked as a writer, editor, communications consultant and journalist in Canada, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Japan. Her short story “Brave New Land” was published in The Antigonish Review #137. More information maybe found on her website

Maureen Scott Harris is a Toronto poet and essayist. She has published three collections of poetry: A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993), Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004) — awarded the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry — and Slow Curve Out (Pedlar Press, 2012).

Bill Howell has five poetry collections, includig Porcupine Archery (Insomniac Press). A long-time contributor to The Antigonish Review, he has recent work in Dalhousie Review, Fiddlehead, Geist, New Quarterly, and Prairie Fire.

Esmé Claire Keith has had short fiction published in Prairie Fire, Descant, Zeugma Literary Journal, The Dalhousie Review, and brokenpencil. Her first novel, Not Being on a Boat, was published in 2011 by Freehand Books and it won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year prize in 2012.

Joy Laking is one of Nova Scotia’s best known realist artists. For over forty years, she has captured the beauty of Nova Scotia and the world.  She has had national solo exhibitions, including one at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Her Gallery near Bass River is open June 1 until September 30, Mon to Sat 10 until 5 and Sunday’s one to five, other times and seasons by chance or by appointment.

Georgette Leblanc was born in Pointe-de-l’Ègise in Nova Scotia’s Baie Saint-Marie region. She completed her master’s degree on the evolution of traditional music at Université Sainte-Anne (BA, 1999) and holds an MA (2003) and Doctorate (2007) in French Studies from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, US. She has been a professor at Université Sainte-Anne since 2007. She received the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award in 2010 for her original poetic works Alma (published in 2007) and Amédé (published in 2010). Alma further garnered the Prix Félix-Leclerc et Prix Antonine-Maillet-Acadie Vie. In 2011, she was awarded the Prix Émile-Ollivier.

Norma West Linder is a member of TWUC, T.O.P.S., and WITS. She is a novelist, poet, and short story writer. Her latest poetry collection, Two paths through the Seasons (with James Deahl) was published in Israel. A children’s book, The Pastel Planet, is being published by Hidden Brook Press.

Mona T. Lydon-Rochelle’s chapbook, Mourning Dove, was published by Finishing Line Press (2014). Poems have appeared in Santa Fe Literary Journl, Floating Bridge Review, Spiritus, Journal of Medical Huanities and JAMA, among others. She volunteers for Médecins Sans Frontières and previously served as a professor at the University of Washington and University of College Cork, Ireland.

Cathy MacLean’s flash non-fiction has appeared in Gravel Magazine. “The Day I Married Jesus” is part of a manuscript of short stories about Cathy’s family. Some of these stories were longlisted for Prism International’s CNF award, shortlisted for Event’s NF prize and won first place at the Word on the Lake Writer’s Festival. She lives with her real husband in Gibsons, BC.

Sarah MacNeil grew up in Pomquet, Nova Scotia. She currently resides in Moncton, New Brunswick where she works as a museum interpreter and an aspiring literary translator. She is in the final year of her undergraduate degree in translation at Université de Moncton.

Lisa Moore has written two collections of stories and two novels. She has twice been nominated for the Giller Prize, and has won the Commonwealth Prize fot the Canadian Caribbean Region, the ReLit Award, and the Canadian Authors’ Association  Jubilee Prize for Short Fiction. Her novel, February, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She will publish Flannery, a young adult novel, in 2016

Don Nichol is currently teaching a course on songwriting at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He edited a collection of Anniversary Essays on Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock which was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2016. He plans on becoming a busker in his retirement.

Michael Oliver has published poems, stories, and critical writings in various magazines and anthologies, such as Canto, The Fiddlehead, Canadian Literature, and Easterly: 60 Atlantic Writers, and has recently published a novella called The Final Cause of Love. He lives in Charlottetown, PEI.

Pauline Peters is a writer living in Toronto. Her plays “Mavis Rising” and “Dryland” have been produced for theatre by Nightwood Theatre. She has published short fiction in the anthologies Frictions II, published by Second Story Press, and Fiery Spirits published by Harper Collins.

Tim Prior is a Toronto poet whose poetry has, since the early eighties, appeared in a variety of Canadian literary journals including The Antigonish Review, Canadian Literature, CV2, Event, The Fiddlehead, Grain, Literary Review of Canada, Quarry, and Queen’s Quarterly, among others.

Eleonore Schönmaier’s most recent book is Wavelengths of Your Song (McGill-Queen’s University Press). Her poetry has been set to music by Canadian, Dutch, Scottish, American and Greek composers. She has won the Alfred G. Bailey and Earle Birney Prizes, has been shortlisted for the Bridport prize, and has been published in Best Canadian Poetry.

Moez Surani’s writing has been published widely, including in Harper’s Magazine, The Walrus and The Globe and Mail. He is the author of two poetry collections, Reticent Bodies and Floating Life. Art and performance pieces have been exhibited in Canada, Italy and Taiwan.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is the author of three books of poems, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016).  Her latest translation is Chinese poet-scenographer Yi Lu’s book of selected poems, Sea Summit (Milkweed, 2016).  She lives in France. 

Ling Yu (零雨), acclaimed Taiwanese poet, was born in Taipei in 1952.  A visiting scholar at Harvard University in 1991, she is a co-founder of Poetry Now.  Formerly the assistant chief editor of the World of Chinese Language and Literature and editor of Modern Poetry Quarterly, she has authored eight books of poetry. A bilingual edition, A Tree Planted in Summer (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain), is out from Vif Éditions and distributed in Taiwan.  Laureate of the 1993 Annual Poetry Award in Taiwan, she was a guest poet at the 2004 Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam and the 2011 International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong. Currently, she lectures at the National Ilan University.







Issue #186 - Ian Colford

Ian Colford



The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction edited by Larry Mathews (St. John’s, NL: Breakwater Books, 2015, 182 pp., $19.95).


Anyone who has assembled a collection of writing for an anthology — essays, poetry, prose, drama — knows that luck, randomness and subjectivity are unavoidable. Given limited space and an abundance of deserving contributors, any number of factors can come into play when making decisions about who to include and who to leave out, factors that sometimes have little to do with literary merit. To his credit, Larry Mathews addresses this issue head-on in his introduction to the present volume, making no claims of canonical authority and admitting up front that his choices are “based mostly on my personal taste, my sense of what, in the vast array of short fiction published by Newfoundland-based writers over the last three decades or so, is most successful in terms of aesthetic merit as intuited by me.” He goes on to describe in eloquent fashion the qualities of fiction that he finds most engaging and asserts, “with traditional editorial belligerence,” that the stories he’s included possess those qualities “in spades.”

     Mathews uses the rest of the introduction to not so much defend his choices or attempt to sway the reader as to explain specifically and in detail why these editorial decisions were made. Make no mistake, it’s useful to know why a particular story has ended up in the pages of an anthology, and to understand the principles and parameters that drove the selection process. But in the final analysis, the success or failure of the volume depends on the quality of the writing. So what can we make of The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction?

     First of all, it must be said that Larry Mathews has brought together a vastly entertaining collection of stories by some of the more recognizable names in the Newfoundland literary landscape, along with a few by writers whose names might not be immediately familiar. All of the stories are strong. All of them exhibit the kind of narrative urgency and imaginative wordplay that make for compelling reading. The degree to which the stories reflect Newfoundland culture varies, but this is hardly a concern. Where, after all, does it say that Newfoundland writers have to write about Newfoundland?

     The anthology kicks off with “Fogbound in Avalon” by Elizabeth McGrath, originally published in The New Yorker and subsequently included in the 1981 edition of The Best American Short Stories. This, McGrath’s only published fiction, is the story of Anne O’Neill, who, as the story opens, is escaping a rotten marriage and returning to St. John’s with her three children. Anne has friends and family in St. John’s, but ends up spending most of her time alone as she restores to livable condition a house she owns that her tenants nearly wrecked, while smoking and drinking too much and worrying about money. What sustains her is her pragmatism. Anne — impulsive and not given to mincing her words — has no faith in dreams and refuses to unload her problems on other people. The only thing of which she is absolutely certain is that her fate rests in her own hands, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Doggedly loyal to the truth, she doesn’t hesitate to point out the deficiencies of others but is particularly hard on herself, at one point admitting, “I watched, I listened, I cared. Nothing else was possible for me. I was through with moral imperatives. I care, therefore I am. I think, therefore I will make mistakes.” McGrath’s story, a tour-de-force of hardscrabble realism, ends on a wistful note as Anne realizes that, despite her affection for the island and its people, the restlessness in her nature that made her leave once before is going to force her to leave again.

     Bernice Morgan’s “Vain Deceit” is a story that emerges from a similar aesthetic of austerity, one that assumes that life is difficult and adversity is inevitable. In her old age Kate Foley is confined to hospital, undergoing treatment for a malfunctioning valve in her chest. She may be old, but her memory is just fine, and with time on her hands her thoughts roam: to the day when her widowed, Bible-thumping mother took her from her home in Bonivista Bay to St. John’s, to the day in 1945 when Kate, already miserable in marriage to suspicious and intolerant Frank, left her infant son with her dull-witted niece in order to join the celebrations marking the end of World War II and engaged in a reckless indiscretion. With happiness a scarce commodity in Kate’s life, the brief flashes of joy that have come her way cause her no regrets at all.

     The contributions by Michael Winter and Michael Crummey introduce a male perspective to the anthology. Winter’s story, “Deep in My Brother,” is a series of cryptically comic episodes set in and around Corner Brook and narrated by Gabe, concerning his own dubious past and that of his eccentric brother Junior (“June”), whose antics over many years include car accidents and near drownings, get-rich-quick schemes that always come up short, and dispensing nuggets of homespun philosophy: “Some people never become themselves because they’re afraid to be fools.” The story, composed of scenes arranged in no particular order and stripped of narrative cues and signposts, is a stellar example of this author’s adventurous creative spirit and willingness to challenge his readers, though in the end its rewards are cerebral rather than visceral. In Michael Crummey’s “What Possessed Him,” a more conventionally structured but deeply poignant and bittersweet story of longing and regret, Hayward, in his seventies, dying of lung cancer, struggling with the task of informing his children of his illness, recalls an episode from fifty years earlier when, in a moment of vulnerability, when he felt lost and stricken by the new responsibility of being a father, temptation almost caused him to throw away the life he was building with his wife Etta, who had just given birth to their first child.

     Ramona Dearing’s “An Apology” cuts to the emotional crux of the matter, exploring the Mount Cashel sexual abuse scandal through the character of former Christian Brother Gerard Lundrigan, who has returned to St. John’s for his trial. Lundrigan is a particularly loathsome individual, with a short fuse and a distorted take on reality. As a procession of accusers narrate their experiences he sits in silent judgment of them, declaring them losers, belittling them for their weakness, their criminal records and addictions, all the while shaking his head that they have failed in life despite everything that was done for them at the orphanage. It soon becomes apparent to the reader that Lundrigan is living in a fog of denial, unable to face what he has done. In his mind he has erected a fantasy in which he is the wronged party and everyone else is either misguided or malicious. The story packs a wallop, because we know what he is protecting himself from and why. At the end, with the testimony in and the verdict imminent, with his confidence eroded and his fantasy showing signs of breaking down, he seems on the cusp of a reluctant self-awareness. Dearing’s ability to convincingly inhabit the mind of Gerard Lundrigan is eerie and disturbing, and the story she has crafted is a triumph.

     Kathleen Winter’s “Darling’s Kingdom” also has as its focus a character of dubious morality. In this story, Violet, the narrator, and her husband Frank are leaving Pencil Cove and have put out word that their home and property are available. Up steps Gus Darling with a rental offer and $900 cash to back it up. For as long as anyone can remember the Darlings have been aggressive and domineering in their exploitation of the economic opportunities the cove presents — raising cattle and harvesting cranberries — while forcing out anyone else who attempts to profit from this bounty. The Darlings preside in the manner of a Mafia family, with subtle menace. No violence has actually taken place, but still no one dares cross them. Invited to the going-away party, Gus brings enough fresh crab to feed all the guests but also proceeds to get drunk and insult anyone sensitive enough to take his loutish provocations at face value. To Violet he describes his plans for the property once he’s moved in: draining the bog, harvesting the wildlife, expanding his domain by nudging the boundary markers outward a few feet every now and then when no one is looking. Violet, something of a free spirit, is repelled and attracted in equal measure. She loves the place and suspects Gus will destroy it, but she does not love her neighbours, who seem to be mostly uptight self-righteous assholes. Drunk and ambivalent and feeling more than a little reckless, she elects to take a ride with Gus, not knowing where it will end.

     Two overtly comic stories follow. “Brute” by Jessica Grant is narrated by Big Cy, a “pit bull mix,” accustomed to living rough and scrounging meals out of garbage bins prior to moving in with “Grassy” Noel Deshorties (not without a struggle though, on Noel’s part, to eject Big Cy from his car). The entertainment value this story brings to the proceedings is Grant’s wry depiction of life from an unloved and unwanted dog’s point of view, and whose mindset is that of a sociopathic juvenile delinquent. Grant accomplishes this astonishing feat of narrative empathy with her eye for telling detail and exquisitely droll sense of humour. Edward Riche’s “Deer Friends,” an excerpt from a work in progress, lampoons the language of bureaucracy as city officials debate how best to deal with a man living in a local park whose advocates maintain it’s not a case of someone who thinks he’s a deer, but someone who’s “transitioning” into a deer. As always with Riche, even when the premise is far-fetched and the humour applied in broad strokes, the pacing is brisk and the dialogue razor sharp and often hilarious. However, the fragmentary nature of the piece compromises its effectiveness and leaves the reader a bit nonplussed by the abrupt ending.

     “West Orange,” by David Andrews, published here for the first time, is the story of McEwan, a loner who has retreated from an unspecified former life to undistinguished retirement in a beach community. One night, stumbling home in the dark after drinking too much, he finds a spent roll of film in the sand. He is at the point of throwing it away when the temptation of “seeing his home through someone else’s eyes” makes him pause and the next day he takes it to a shop to have it developed. As he suspects, the pictures are of a group of young vacationers, partying, posing and mugging for the camera. In particular, his eye is caught by several photos of a bikini-clad young woman, who, because the photos are overexposed, becomes in his mind the “shining girl.” Later that afternoon and into the evening, McEwan shares banter with local characters such as Jamieson, Sunflower and Divemaster Dan. The reader intuits that, sadly, this is the repeating pattern of McEwan’s life: aimless days and long evenings spent in boozy camaraderie with people he hardly knows and cares little for. McEwan’s emotional isolation is poignantly brought home the next day when, hungover, his gaze again falls on the picture of the shining girl, and we sense a genuine longing for emotional involvement that will probably never materialize.

     The last story in the anthology, Lisa Moore’s “But Lovers with the Intensity I’m Talking About,” also published here for the first time, is again about people trying to connect, or re-connect, though this time it is a chance encounter in a grocery store in the middle of a snowstorm that brings a pair of former lovers together. It is thirty-five years since Jim and Marissa engaged in a brief but all-consuming affair, the kind of idealized physical love that sucks the lovers into a vortex and blinds them to all that is going on around them as they feed their lust on each other’s desire. It’s also a kind of love that burns out quickly, and this is what happened to Jim and Marissa, though Jim, in the telling, can’t remember how or why they broke up, except to say that when the time came they both knew that it was over. Jim suspects that his younger self somehow failed to live up to Marissa’s expectations, that he wilted under her constant attention and the intensity of her need. Moore’s narrative meanders confidently from the past to the present and back again, melding the two, as Jim recalls what it was like to be twenty and the sole focus of Marissa’s passion and how easily he let it engulf him, and reflects on the mundane career and unexciting yet stable marriage to Jillian that followed. The swirl of Jim’s emotions is matched by the swirling storm that has engulfed the city and forced him and Marissa into close quarters for the first time in years. Moore’s prose is richly detailed and offers moments of stunning emotional authenticity. It is a mesmerizing performance.

     Reading the collection from front to back, one is reminded that the literature of contemporary Newfoundland is the literature of people for whom comforts are hard won and the struggle to put food on the table and keep the kids warm and dry never lets up. These characters are not the sons and daughters of privilege. They’ve earned everything they own through sacrifice and hard work. They’ve suffered disappointment and learned to compromise. They’ve learned that you’re a fool if you let yourself be distracted by government promises that prosperity is just around the corner. These people assume that life will be hard, that the wind will be cold, that love is elusive, and that happiness, if and when you find it, will probably be fleeting. If there is a thread running through these stories, perhaps this is it.

     With the quality of the writing uniformly high throughout, what is there to quibble with? We could take issue with the absence of some notable names, such as Wayne Johnston, Kenneth J. Harvey, Donna Morrissey, Michelle Butler Hallett and Robin McGrath. But then one remembers that Larry Mathews faced an impossible task when he agreed to edit this volume because in the last thirty years Newfoundland has produced more than its fair share of excellent writers of fiction, and an anthology that included everybody whose work deserves recognition would be unwieldy and possibly too heavy to lift. The very act of making a selection means that good work by talented writers is going to be left out. But The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction more than fulfills its mandate, by bringing together into one volume a rich and varied sampling of the best fiction Newfoundland has to offer.





Issue # 186 - Larry Mathews

Larry Mathews


Sacred Toys



Slack Action by Jeffery Donaldson (Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013, 96 pp., $16.95).


If there’s a “central” or “essential” poem in this marvellous collection, it may well be the one titled “House of Cards,” whose speaker begins by quoting Jacques Derrida on Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: that fine fragile cathedral” is the French critic’s condescending judgment. In the ensuing stanzas Frye’s assertion of the ultimate power of the imagination is contrasted with Derrida’s implied position that “sooner or later,  /  literature’s whole top-heavy elaborate estate ... / would come crashing down on itself ... .”  Rather than decide between the two, the speaker switches focus to describe a “child at work on a house of cards,” one of Donaldson’s many many metaphorical explorations of the creation of poetry, or art generally. The emphasis is on the dexterity and ingenuity of the child, who, although she “knows its equilibrium is a travesty,” nevertheless carries on until her project is complete: “Her patience is dizzying. Her fingers, feathers.” At poem’s end, the structure is still standing, precariously, “this dwelling she had a hand in making / that tapers at all odds above the fallen world.” It may “come crashing down on itself” at any moment, possibly even deliberately knocked over by the child herself. But for the time being it survives, a temporary monument to the Frygian view of art, “above time,” though Derrida is no doubt waiting knowingly for the inevitable implosion.

      And that’s Donaldson’s world in a nutshell. It’s Wallace Stevens’s world, basically, though Stevens is gestured to only once, in the title of “More than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Listener,” the poet’s funny/serious take on the experience of giving readings. But the more pertinent Stevens connection is to the idea of poetry as supreme fiction, the best available substitute for the old-time religion of Romanticism, or, for that matter, of religion itself. It can provide no access to a world beyond the gorgeousness and intricacy of its own verbiage, and that will have to be sufficient, and for Donaldson it seems, for the most part, to be.

     This is not say that he’s unwilling to look the harshest of brute facts in the eye. Two of the strongest poems in the collection describe a visit to his father in an “assisted care” facility (“Slack Action”) and his response to the death of his mother, who had suffered from dementia (“Inspirit”). In the central section of this latter poem, he uses the encounter between Hamlet and his father’s ghost to examine, poignantly, the experience that his mother must have lived through:


     Yet I wonder who was most haunted there.

     Parent or child? The nasty lab brew went

     Straight to the king’s brains and froze him out.


     Can we even think how that must have felt?

     Your noggin ossified in stucco strips,

     vile and loathsome crust, synaptic through-puts


     numbed to stone, where loves once lived,

     its neurons cleaved, names and faces

     snowbound in their dark dwellings, the wires down.


     But there are few poems that draw so directly and nakedly on the poet’s personal experience. The main subject of Slack Action is poetry itself  —  what it is, how it’s composed, how it’s received, why it’s valuable. The book’s central section, titled “Toy Poems,” dazzles with its verbal exuberance, as poem after poem, each titled after a plaything — “Jack-in-the-Box,” “Spinning Top,” “Yo-yo,” and so forth  —  develops a poetry-related extended metaphor. Thus “Jack-in-the-Box” implicitly describes the composition of a poem, as the speaker-poet must relearn “the rote / lessons of form versus content,” which involves releasing “Your buried clown gathered to itself, / head lowered, scheming, its revelation / a joke.” The speaker is appalled at the content that pops up from the depths of his psyche (“a top-heavy doddering / expression’s gangling hysteria, joyful / as all get-out”), in response to the formal structure of the “music” that turning the handle creates. The poem closes on a note of comic self-deprecation, another of Donaldson’s rhetorical trademarks, as the speaker notes that this sort of thing happens every time, that he continues to “play,” thinking mistakenly that he “wouldn’t flinch / like this every time around.” While a poet may start from the assumption that his intellect is in control, as he works at his craft according to a well-understood set of rules, his imagination has other priorities and will make its presence manifest, however disconcerting the personal revelation that may result.

     “Jack-in-the Box” is the first in a series of nine such poems. They’re all beautifully wrought, thought-provoking, self-assured, subtly conceived, and fun to read. Like a good number of others in this volume, they deserve to have articles written about them, the sort that goes in for line-by-line exegesis, the critic sensitive to the nuances of the language and willing to explicate at length. I can’t do that here, of course, but here’s a passage from “Marbles” that may illustrate my point:


                          I loved the way the rainbows

and particles bent to the shape of their own element

and found their angles there, the arc and gleam


of each radiant crescent; how everything bathed

in its own lucidity. How even the mists were

clarities, how nothing made to be seen was unseen,


for everything inside them was just out there.

How each one was fixed for good, but how also

for variety there was variety, and how each new


marble in the game changed everything, simply

by adding itself.


     Still, even in these poems that celebrate all things poetic, there’s an undertone of nostalgia or regret that, as with the child’s house of cards in the poem discussed at the beginning of this review, the power won’t last — the speaker no longer has the marbles (“A day came when they were gone is all”), the child who owned a rocking horse has “long since moved on” (“Rocking Horse”), a lonely, patient figurine waits in her dollhouse for something to happen (“Figurine”). And the ostensible subjects of these poems are, after all, only toys.

     If that’s all that poetry is, is it enough?

     From the perspective of an individual poet, such as the one who wittily surveys his own career, in “The Selected Poems,” there is a point at which, “modestly convinced / of your lasting genius,” there is the expectation that it may well be:


they’ll quote your lines in English 105;

the world neglected them at its peril.

You are holding up the Canadian side,

at least as good as Auden or James Merrill.


But later, “Towards 85,” comes the disillusioning revelation that “the rest is a two-line bio at the end, / and fame a Universal Product Code.”

     More serious, at least in tone, is the Kafkaesque parable titled “The Stadium,” whose premise is that “all those from town / who have died” mysteriously assemble on the field at the local stadium; the living townspeople congregate in the stands but can’t communicate with the dead. At a certain point, “a bell rang in the bell tower” to announce the arrival of “the poet,” who “read aloud / a poem he had written specially for the occasion,” which was, unfortunately “hard to hear” because of the “general hum that persisted the whole time.” The townspeople go home; the dead stay where they are. No connection has been made between them. As for the poet, who also leaves: “The poem he had read / was about a toy he had lost when he was a child.”

     One can imagine Frye shaking his head sadly while Derrida smirks complacently.

     The facts that the poet’s part in the ceremony was planned and that he was introduced ceremoniously suggest that he was meant to fulfil the traditional role of some combination of shaman-priest-prophet-oracle, the figure who could somehow — in the rhetoric of the poem — be the catalyst to bring about the reunion of the living and the dead. But his voice was not strong enough. And the subject matter of his poem? To be uncharitable, one could say: trivial, inappropriately personal, beside the point, given the occasion. But maybe that’s the only kind of poem that he knows how to write. And perhaps, Donaldson may be suggesting, that’s the only kind that can credibly be written in the twenty-first century. That, and poems such as “The Stadium,” which implicitly lament that very fact.










Issue #185 - Wilf Cude

Wilf Cude


The Awesome Beauty of Cain’s Hinterland



On the Labrador by Arnold Zageris (Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013, 248 pp., $59.99).


This was the land that God gave to Cain.” Thus John Cabot speculated in the early summer of 1496, cautiously nudging the Matthew, his tiny frail 50-ton caravel, down along the stark frowning cliffs of North America’s far northeastern sharp scimitar curve of coastline, veering southwards at last in relief towards the more hospitable western shores of Newfoundland and Cape Breton. And indeed, there is evidence sufficient enough scattered throughout On the Labrador, the magnificent pictorial display crafted through the sophisticated photographic artistry of Arnold Zageris, to give some credence to Cabot’s dour dismissal. For example, Zageris gives us a most deceptively idyllic view of the somewhat fog-bound entrance into a majestic fiord, the entire expanse bathed in lighting tinged by the most exquisitely delicate pastel shadings, an idyllic view accompanied by this sobering observation. “Fog and mist are a welcome sight when one is searching for mood in a landscape picture. Not so when travelling in a small boat, groping blindly across a forty-kilometre fiord.” And traversing inland from the coast, probing the expansive reaches of hinterland Cabot saw as God’s blighted gift to Cain, Zageris does not hesitate to remind us of the manifest perils ever-present there. We encounter in photos or prose one potential hazard after another: jagged fissures in rock, ready to swallow the unwary without a trace; browsing black bears or lurking polar bears, all impatient with and intolerant of human intruders; voracious bloodsucking flies of every description, mosquitoes, blackflies, horseflies, moose flies, “incessant, relentless, perpetual, nonstop, unremitting, never-ending, everlasting, hostile and ceaseless,” capable of driving any warm-blooded creature into panic-instilled stampede often culminating in stark madness or death.

     So that’s one way of seeing the Labrador. But that is not at all, despite the sporadic reminders in the book’s photographs or text of what Cabot might have seen or imagined, the way Arnold Zageris has seen the Labrador. Turning the pages of On the Labrador, we might be tempted to exclaim, in the words of John Dryden: “here is God’s plenty.” For Cain’s hinterland is also very much home to vistas of truly inspirational beauty, admittedly unexpected yet generally striking beauty, to be found in settings so unique as to be close to the virtually unimaginable. The initial image upon opening the book extends across a sweeping double-page spread: on the right, an array of huge black boulders looming out towards the viewer, an array almost intimidating in its massiveness, but relieved in intensity with gentle tinting in places by speckled touches of coloured lichens, red, yellow, grey and orange; and on the left, a scattering of light grey smaller bouldery, more rounded and weathered, spilling away over a ledge of ancient rusty orangish sedimentary rock flowing down towards an arm of the sea. As the eye moves further across that bluish-grey amplitude of water slowly stirring under casual breezes towards the distant horizon, it rests upon another extensive stretch of dark coastline on the opposite shore, a framing along the upper edge of the image linking the two pages in harmony. And that image sets the dominant theme for what emerges in generous measure. Rock adorned with mystery and magic, vastness upon vastness of rock in all its majesty and splendour, rock shattered into crevices, rock folded into flows of undulating permanence, rock moistly shrouded in mist or brilliantly glinting in sunlight. Rock in astonishing configuration after configuration, each a lovely surprise marrying recognition with delight.

     Nevertheless, though rock may often dominate, it does not exclusively command: for where there is rock, there is soil, sparse enough to be sure, but still present, soil and sunlight and water, so there is also most emphatically life in some abundance, indeed life in some richness, strewn in almost reckless luxury across the panorama of rock. Plant life of every description, hardy, tenacious and resolutely enduring, clings to existence despite all the adversity a turbulent sub-arctic climate can inflict. Sturdy stands of scrubby alder, spruce and pine, interspersed with tangles of underbrush, defy torrential rains and scorching sun in summer, cascades of sleet, hail and snow in winter, and hard-driving howling gusts and gales of wind year-round, sheltered in hardscrabble nooks and clefts and stretches of riverbank deposited along the base of towering cliffs. Situated within and against that occasionally lush background of green are images of startling presence, most notably the individual contorted skeletal remains of sun-bleached dead spruce which Zageris captures to convey impression after impression of a haunting spectral past. And then there are patches and carpets of greenery and diverse colours: soft spongy beds of bright emerald moss, as ebullient as any swath of shamrock that Ireland itself can boast; ethereal strands of spidery-web-like pale creepers, blanched wispy tendrils dangling sparse yet defiant down across dark contrasting stone surfaces; lichens and grasses and flowers, riotous in shapes, sizes and colours, white, yellow, blue, red, purple and pink, ranging from the luminous frosty puff balls of arctic cotton to the muted pink of the arctic poppy. And then again, there is the delicious wealth of edible berries, plump red cranberries, gorgeous succulent deep dark purple crowberries, patch after patch of the sub-arctic staple blueberries. God’s plenty, indeed.

     And that abundance of plant life, not surprisingly, sustains a proliferation of resident animal life. Zageris writes in awe of witnessing the George River caribou herd, today still one of the strongest anywhere in the world, fording the namesake river:  hundreds of heavy horned beasts “packed so closely together that, from a good distance, we mistook them for an island.” Elsewhere, he offers a whimsical little snap of a caribou peeping out in startlement from behind a spray of leaf-laden branches, together with this impish caption: “both of us are trying to decide what we are looking at.” And still farther, there is a most imposing image of a massive bull caribou sauntering across a stretch of riverbank, a tremendous rack of antlers attesting his sheer physical power. Describing another and much closer interaction with an equally impressive creature, a bull sporting “huge antlers” that had stampeded away down an open beach, Zageris estimated that the animal was sprinting at a speed of “fifty-four kilometres per hour.” But as formidable as the caribou might appear, even they slightly dwindle in terms of dynamic potency by comparison with the grandeur of the reigning brute of the Arctic: the classic white polar bear. Dwarfing even the black bears that edgily share the same regional spaces, the polar bear reigns unchallenged over the sub-arctic animal kingdom, its paws of fourteen-inch diameter capable of scooping a seal weighing hundreds of pounds clear of an icy refuge with one mighty slashing blow. This is no beast to be trifled with. Zageris exhibits with a few images the menacing forceful figure of the snow-white Arctic terror, images he underscores with a taut passage of respectful fear. “A polar bear encounter, when you are alone and in the open, ... is sudden, immediate and unexpected,” he writes. “Staring into the eyes of an advancing polar bear in Labrador is not a philosophical epiphany. It’s all physical. You are empty. The cards are dealt and it’s his play.”

     Gratifyingly for those of us perusing this fine work, Zageris survived several such plays, persistently documenting not only the extent of the regional wildlife, but also his own interactions with it. There are smaller creatures in prodigious numbers: chubby arctic hares, some actually gaining ten pounds, feasting past sufficiency among the varieties of berries in summer, maintaining body mass browsing on mosses and lichens in winter; transient ducks and geese, flock after flock, revitalized after a summer’s harvesting the bounty of fish and algae, winging southwards once the nesting season is done; rivers and lakes, fully stocked with trout, salmon and arctic char; the currents at sea offshore, teeming with cod, seals and even whales. For the human residents, the Inuit, those adapting over untold generations within such a harsh, exacting and yet close to over-generous environment, this additional dimension of God’s plenty is key to a strenuous but healthy and rewarding lifestyle. It is with intermingled fascination, admiration and slowly awakening comprehension that Zageris conveys the multiplicity of skills utilized by his Inuit friends in their daily routines. On one particularly prolific occasion, as guest aboard a small trawler crewed with six Inuit, he recounts with increasing astonishment the ease and dexterity of these hunters bagging their prey. First, Joey Agnatok, the boat’s captain, skims ashore in a small runabout and effortlessly takes three ducks; next, off again shortly in the runabout, he equally effortlessly takes a seal; and next, with a minimum of fuss and bother, he plucks the ducks, butchers and cleans the seal, sluices the ensuing mess over the side, and readies the meat for pot or freezer; and then, with nightfall approaching, he proposes a goose hunt on an island nearby. “Goose-hunting? Now?” Zagaris recalls thinking. “What kind of vision do these people have? What is it here that I don’t understand? Are they putting me on? It’s going to be frigging dark!”

     What followed was necessary illumination, not all of it of a physical sort. As the sunlight faded, much of the gear the crew gathered for the hunt was perfectly straightforward: shotguns, ammunition, flashlights, spare clothing, food. But fishing rods? And then there was the boat’s “loaner” shotgun, handed a trifle apologetically to Arnold: it had a slightly bent barrel, the result of an accident, but the problem had been rectified with a hammer, the repair being properly aligned with the aid of a broom handle. Asked if he had ammunition, and not wanting to appear a total novice, Arnold replied bravely he had lots, choosing not to add that his rounds were slugs, heavy solid projectiles designed to stop a charging bear, not at all the birdshot pellets required to bring down a goose on the wing. Once ashore, the crew separated, five hunters moving in one direction, John Agnatok with Arnold in tow moving in another, each group seeking a suitable pond where geese might land to spend the night. The terrain was difficult, “muskeg, tussock grass and spongy moss,” and John and Arnold laboured on until they reached the edge of a small pond. John whispered instructions to Arnold: lie down, listen to geese feeding in the pond, and wait for them to take wing in search of a bigger pond. At that moment, with John’s command “Now!”, Arnold was to point his flashlight straight up, close his eyes, and turn the flashlight on. When John shouted “Now!”, Arnold shone the light straight up and forgot to close his eyes: he saw a flight of geese overhead and heard John fire, but was temporarily blinded by the gun’s muzzle flash and deafened by the close explosions. Two distinct splashes in the pond: John’s kill. Then John ordered Arnold to load and wait his turn. Somewhat recovered from his blindness, though still partially deafened, Arnold saw another flight of geese overhead illuminated by John’s light, and blazed away with his slugs. Shortly thereafter, as the two played the flashlight across the pond, John’s dead geese were floating far from shore: Arnold had hit nothing. But how to recover those geese? Quite easily, with a fishing rod. “Two well-placed casts with an oversized Shakespeare lure brought in a goose every time.”

     John was baffled by his partner’s failure. “How could you miss?” he asked. “They were so close.” To that there was no tenable answer. Arnold couldn’t bring himself to confess that “I had no idea what we were doing, that my barrel was crooked, that I was deaf and blind, and that, on top of everything, I was shooting with slugs.” Upon rejoining the others, he stood shamefaced as everybody studiously avoided asking how he had fared, although it was painfully obvious he was the only one returning empty-handed. The entire incident is depicted with what we should recognize as the Zageris signature self-deprecating good humour, one salient feature of his narrative style. But not to be led astray by that feature alone, since this is a writer with many facets to his literary talent, as we should further recognize by monitoring his consistent and conscientious explorations of the intricacy of his photographic art. Above all else, he emphasizes the influence on everything of variances in the quality of light, right from the initial identification of a suitable image, to the perception of just the appropriate circumstances enabling a successful shot, to the moment of seizing that image through the camera lens and freezing it forever onto film. “I passed this site many times without pausing,” he remarks of an evocative double-page image of a mist-shrouded ridge of high ground fronted by a stretch of scrub woodland, itself dropping down towards what might be a band of riverbank. A pensive study of subdued colours, darker and lighter greens, diverse shades of blues and greys and off-whites, all at once enhancing and yet softening what might in a brighter light have seemed merely rugged and harsh, invites a restful moment of introspection: and this was the product of the perfect light snapped at the exact correct moment, lighting and timing coinciding, that “transformed and vitalized this view.” In passages of prose remarkable for their simple and direct clarity, each accompanying some exquisite image evoking awe and enchantment, we are led to comprehend as well as observe the transformative marvels that light married with artistic sensitivity can yield.

     This is a book nurtured from within and venturing beyond the myriad effects of light, emerging imbued with a sincere and deeply moving sense of reverence, reaching towards an essentially spiritual appreciation of the wonders of our physical realm. “On days like this,” Zageris muses at one point, “I cannot help but feel I am intruding into a world in which I do not belong.” He has before him an image of greyish-white luminescent fog cascading out of the confining grandeur of a crooked fiord, cloud-like fog spilling over but not concealing the massive presence of stone face on either side, vapour and rock emphasizing through contrast a provocative interplay of transience and permanence. The artist’s humility sustains and informs image after image, each attesting yet another step advancing the viewer’s awareness. Those eerie wind-swept and sun-dried near-spectral dead spruce, standing stark and alone as wilderness testament to the inevitable march of time, seem to point up as well successive sombre indicators of our own transitory passages through life. Photos of inuksuit, Inuit stone figures that have “marked the passing of fellow travellers for thousands of years”; photos of more modern evanescence, the wreckage of a crash-landed World War II B-26 bomber, the bright and neatly-tended cemetery in Nain; and perhaps most poignant of all, photos of the crumbling wooden buildings of Hebron, a once vibrant community founded by Moravian missionaries in1831 but finally abandoned in 1959, photos of homes, a chapel entrance, even a charnel house. Gazing about the disrepair of the fading wooden ruins, Zageris is moved to admit: “I am overcome with emotion.” But through the lens of his camera, he can convince us all: “somehow in my mind, Hebron still has something alive and resonating.”

     Quite simply, this is a truly beautiful book, beautiful in every aspect of its presentation, a triumph of photographic artistry, of narrative style, of overall harmonization of content with all the resources of the publisher’s craft. Intended for the adornment of any library or living room display, it goes well beyond elegant embellishment to achieve with distinction the twin objectives of every such significant work: page after page of stunning visual art, accompanied by insightful exposition escorting the reader/viewer gently and easily into places rarely visited so well. Zageris and his colleagues at Fitzhenry & Whiteside have every reason to be proud.



Issue # 185 - Don Nichol

Don Nichol


Tales from Beyond the Tap by Randy Bachman (Toronto: Penguin, 2014, 323 pp., $18.00).



Randy Bachman’s title is an obvious nod to his CBC Radio show that generated Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories. A spin on Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café and Spinal Tap (itself a send-up), “Tap” also plays on Bachman’s sobriety which once threatened his career, but saved his life. More on that later. Tales from Beyond the Tap is Bachman’s remarkable life story told chronologically, in the form of responses to fans’ questions. Just as there are people who don’t know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings, younger listeners (or those on a wifi-free desert island) may not know that long before Bachman-Turner Overdrive there was a young guitarist who joined some other musicians in Winnipeg who ended up calling themselves by their publicist’s gimmicky moniker, The Guess Who.

   Born in 1943 in Winnipeg, Bachman was the definition of a child prodigy: winning a singing contest at the age of three, studying the violin under the auspices of the Royal Toronto Conservatory from age five. By the time he hit twelve rebellion kicked in. He gave up the attempt to read music, but was blessed with a “phonographic” memory, which enabled him to play any melody he liked without the intermediary of sheet music. Like Lennon and McCartney who wrote hundreds of songs, he never needed to commit melodies to paper — only the lyrics.

      Bachman was just the right age to be bowled over by Elvis when “Heartbreak Hotel” was released in January 1956. He watched the King on black and white television belting out “Hound Dog,” the Leiber and Stoller number recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952. One profound experience for the budding guitarist in Winnipeg was meeting Les Paul who pioneered the instrument Bachman made his fortune playing. Paul snuck the underage Bachman into the club where he was performing with his wife Mary Ford and taught him a riff from “How High the Moon” (1951). Decades later Bachman found himself invited on stage by his guitar hero to play the old “Moon” licks. Paul then jammed with his erstwhile pupil on his own 1973 BTO hit, “Takin’ Care of Business.” Sweet doesn’t begin to describe how that moment must have felt for Bachman.

     The spirit of Lenny Breau (1941-84) hovers over “Undun,” to my mind one of the best things The Guess Who ever did. The Breaus moved from Maine to Winnipeg in 1957 where the family country-and-western band performed live on radio. The sixteen-year-old Randy Bachman pedalled his bike all the way to the station where he met Breau who was just two years older. Jazz improvisation got in the way of three-chord strums, so Breau left the family to form his own band, which took him to Toronto in 1962. Before leaving on his meteoric rise to fame, Breau imparted some of his finger-picking secrets to Bachman. The life of Canada’s best jazz guitarist ended tragically: Breau was strangled and dumped in a swimming pool in Los Angeles. His murder has never been solved.

     Bachman explains the origin of “Undun”. The title sprang out at him from the radio: a line in Dylan’s “Ballad in Plain D” went “She was easily undone.” It chimed with the memory of a young woman who overdosed on acid. “It’s what happens when a song practically pours forth straight out of you as if from somewhere else and you’re just the conduit.” Radio off, pen scribbles out six verses to fit “jazzy, Lenny Breau chord pattern,” and presto! Well almost: Bachman presented his lyrics to Burton Cummings who pared them down to fit the 45. Released in 1969 when The Guess Who were at their peak, “Undun” was originally a B-side to “Laughing”; it became a hit when DJs flipped the record over and liked what they heard. At 3 minutes and 26 seconds, it packs a hell of a punch starting with Bachman’s jazz guitar progressions morphing into Cummings’ vocal build-up with impeccable vibrato control, his scat singing followed by a flute solo (remarkable especially as he’d just learned to play), rising to its razor-sharp finale.

     Tales from Beyond the Tap opens with an answer to: “Are there any songs in particular that have changed your life?” As you’d expect for a guy whose ear must have been glued to his transistor radio throughout much of his adolescence, a lot of his choices are from the 1950s: ’55 alone saw Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” and Bo Diddley’s eponymous, relentless, one-chord hit. Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula” (1956) and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (1957) with its rhythmic guitarist’s “gunny sack” followed. But no Fender-bending Buddy Holly. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ hit, “Shakin’ All Over,” must have been covered by every garage band in existence from 1960. Chad Allan and the Expressions, which later morphed into The Guess Who after Allan left, covered “Shakin’” which, with the help of Cummings’ vocal prowess and Bachman’s lightning riff, must have had teenage girls fainting in the aisles. Their British counterpart, The Who, covered “Shakin’ All Over” on their Live at Leeds album in 1970. In addition to Les Paul and Chuck Berry, Bachman’s other guitar idol is here: Chet Atkins. The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” gets a nod, but not a single Beatles’ song. What of the first recorded use of feedback: the opening to “I Feel Fine,” followed by George Harrison’s masterful riff? In the mid to late 1960s the guitar soars to unimagined heights with Jimi Hendrix, Cream with Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page….

     Still, the Beatles are mentioned throughout. In fact, at one point Bachman speculates on one of the greatest what ifs in Canadian music: had The Guess Who stayed together, might they have been the next Beatles? Well, maybe, but Bachman’s sobriety (from the night he ran over his own foot with a car and his father rescued, then shamed him) jarred with other band members’ drug habits. A medical emergency and worry about the effects of stardom on family life took Bachman away from the limelight. Other lifestyle differences soon took him away from the band altogether. Besides, Cummings was pretty well lead singer through and through. He was, like his idol Jim Morrison, the star. While Bachman’s time to shine as a lead singer later came with BTO’s chain of hits, I can’t recollect the two harmonizing the way John and Paul did.

     According to one story, “American Woman” came into being while the band was waiting on Cummings to return to the stage. To appease the restless audience, Bachman started playing the iconic intro, the rest of the band followed, and the errant singer came through with improvised lyrics. When the show was over they tried to recall the instant song they’d played and managed to track down a kid who’d captured it on tape. The 1959 Les Paul guitar Bachman recorded it on is now on display in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In one of the more bizarre twists of the time, The Guess Who were invited to play at the White House, then occupied by Richard Nixon, a couple of months after their biggest hit topped the American Billboard chart with its line, “I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes.” Needless to say, a request was made not to play that one, but the band was happy to do the gig anyway.

     Bachman candidly admits he found collaborating with Fred Turner (the “T” in BTO) “difficult,” but they managed to squeeze out at least one hit with “Let It Ride.” In mature hindsight, he sees the dissolution of BTO not unlike that of other bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival (the other main band known for its triple-letter abbreviation). Other band members with less songwriting experience and less talent wanted more album tracks. Understandable, of course, because royalties can still roll in long after the band collapses. When John Fogarty stepped aside and let other band members’ songs go forward, the next album flopped. Great bands don’t always work as democracies.

     For budding songwriters Bachman has many lessons to impart. The Nashville song-mill experience was to him “not organic,” more of “a contrived experience.” As George Harrison missed the pops and hisses of LPs when compared to CDs, Bachman sympathizes: “You can’t push CD to get distortion. There’s no bigness on CD, whereas on tape the track would saturate and affect every sound around it.” A few odd details: “we really became a top-notch cover band — we had to play anything and everything, from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’ to José Feliciano’s ‘Light My Fire’ along with the Doors’ version as well” (131), as if the original infernal hit (with the added four minutes’ worth of solos on the album) followed the slow dampened lament.

     Randy Bachman has landed the dream job for retirement, broadcasting with guitar in hand, reminiscing about the phenomenally good old days, and taking us behind the scenes where few guitarists have gone before. I don’t know if it’s such a good idea telling readers how he went about lawfully acquiring one of Keith Richards’ guitars from a shop. He’s probably long since forgotten about it, but what if Keef wakes up one morning and says, Oy! Where’s that Gibson I took in for repair? And wouldn’t it be great if Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, who have put differences aside in the past to play come back gigs, could get over their rift over royalties? As one of my students once said to me, Pay the man already!




Issue #185 - Michael Oliver

Michael Oliver


What Outlasts Life?


Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013, 86 pp., $26.50).



Clive James writes poems that are poetry. That is, his poems speak with verbal music, like the poems poets used to write, before fine writing was denounced and damned, by righteous anti-intellectuals. An axiom of creativity declares that knowledge must precede creation — knowledge of both method and domain. A poet must know how to form a poem, and a poet must know what each feeling is (as Susanne Langer said — and she was right) in order to create a lasting poem.

   James defends his poems in a poem that might be considered his poetics, not to mention his severe assessment of the way some other poets write. To make his point he first calls on Ronsard:


But on the whole it’s useless to point out

That making the thing musical is part

Of pinning down what you are on about.

The voice leads to the craft, the craft to


All this is patent to the gifted few

Who know, before they can, what they

     must do

To make the mind a spokesman for the



As for the million others, they are


This is their age. Their slap-dash in


For all who would take fright were thought expressed

In ways that showed a hint of being planned,

They may say anything, in any way.

Why not? Why shouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they?

Nothing to study, nothing to understand.

                                      (“A Perfect Market”)


One line in these two stanzas is outstanding, and it is not easy to forget:  To make the mind a spokesman for the heart. The fact that we might easily remember this one line is owing to its beauty: its precision and its flawless rhythm of iambics in pentameter, its sharp caesura and its rising cadence. Like the lines of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and Yeats — to name the standards — and to chasten Ezra Pound’s curse to “make it new,” which ruined English metre for the last chaotic hundred years — Clive James’s lines require that we listen, and then think about what he is saying. Shakespeare and the others live forever. Who can now recall a line from Pound?

     The poems in this fascinating volume, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, are the products of an old man knowing that his life is in its final days. He may be dying, but his mind is living, and he strives to make a testament that will ensure that he, at least, remembers what his life has been before he dies. What is it, then, that he remembers most?  This tottering libidinous old man. Of course the answer is predictable, but still it is a little disappointing. Sex is what his poems have in mind. Not merely as a theme to be considered, but as lust imagined in the act. Not often does a poet celebrate the sense of touch involved in copulation with a woman in the way James does. The story is, his wife of many years — a scholar who translated Dante’s work — expelled  him from her own refined embrace because of his obscene philandering. “How sensual pleasure feels. It can’t be seen,” says James in “Oval Room, Wallace Collection,” and this might be the motto of his mind.

     If this is so, it might be disconcerting. Fortunately, James’s poetry is what concerns us here. His life and thinking are irrelevant. Consider how his verse articulates the secret touch, the female mystery, as he describes the hidden White Nun Orchid:


  ... Her sweet hunger is displayed

  By the labellum, set for bees in flight

  To land on. In her well, the viscin gleams:

  Mesmeric nectar, sticky stuff of dreams.

                                       (“Monja Blanca”)

The point is that these lines transcend the thought. The theme of touching is transformed to sight, and pleasure is expressed in terms of beauty, by the images and metaphors and rhythm, making what is unknown to the eyes intelligibly visual and rare.

     Not only is the coarseness of plain sex redeemed by James’s fine poetic writing, but the love he feels toward his wife is also uttered with exquisite grace. He speaks to her as they sit near Mount Etna and watch lava spilling from the peak:


  Only because it’s violent to the core

  The world grows gardens. Out of earth we came,

  To earth we shall return. But first, one more

  Of these, delicious echoes of the flame


  That drives the long life all should have, yet few

  Are granted as we were. It wasn’t fair?

  Of course it wasn’t, but which of us knew,

  To start with, that the other would be there.


  One step away, for all the time it took

  To come this far and see a mountain cry

  Hot tears, as if our names, signed in the book

  Of marriage, were still burning in the sky?

                                      (“Signing Ceremony”)


This poem is romantic through and through, and only tragic if we know what happened after that late night of married love. A reader should not listen to the gossip. What the poem says is all important.

     At the centre of this poignant book is “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” read best as a hopeful meditation on the painful ravages of time. The poem opens with a playful image, and some musing on the portrait bust that has become a captivating icon:


  If there were one thing that Egyptian Queens were used to

  It was getting walled up inside a million tons

  Of solid rock. Nefertiti had a taste of that

  Before the painted head by which we know her —

  That neck, that pretty hat, those film-star features,

  The Louise Brooks of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms —

  Emerged to start a tour of the museums

  That finished in Berlin, almost for keeps.

  It could have been the end, but for the flak tower:

  With all the other treasures she was brought there

  And sat the war out barely shivering,

  Deep in the armoured storeroom built by slaves —

  The old scenario again ....


The poem then describes the massive bombings, and the bombers shot down on the towers, all the horror of concussive warfare, till it ended and the Queen emerged. Years later James goes on a visit:


  In Berlin in the spring I cross the bridge

  To the Museumsinsel just to see her

  And dote on her while she gives me that look,

  The look that says: “You’ve seen one tomb, you’ve seen

  Them all.” For five long years the flak towers stood

  Fighting the enemy armies in the sky

  Whose flying chariots were as the locusts

  An age but less than no time to Nefertiti,

  Who looks as if she never heard a thing.


Now read again that last pentameter — James’s trademark and how fine it is!  What, though, does Nefertiti symbolize?  That she embodies exemplarity is evident to anyone who sees her. James implies that she is everlasting. But what is she? Not just Art but Beauty. This is how the poet lives forever. Not by seizing days and wanton women, but by writing poems beautifully, great lyrics that are never touched by time.

     Clive James has done that, with true dignity, as in this farewell poem to himself:


  The light as it grows dark has come for you

  To comfort you. It is the sweet embrace

  Of what your history was bound to do:

  Close in, and in due time to take your place.

  You can’t believe it, but it’s nothing new:

  Your life has turned to look you in the face.

                            (“The Light As It Grows Dark”)


That final line is unforgettable.






Issue # 185 - Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore


Diving in



Confidence by Russell Smith (Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2015, 158 pp., $19.95).

Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill (Toronto, ON: Harper Collins, 2015, 368 pp., $22.99).

Specimen by Irina Kovalyova (Anansi, 2015, 292 pp., $19.95).

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2015, 272 pp., $29.95).



There is something enthralling about the short story. Maybe it’s the sleight of hand — so much scope and breadth and emotion in so few pages. In fact, about the only thing you can say definitively about the short story is that it’s short. Reading one is the literary equivalent of stepping off a diving board and plunging into thin air. In that brief moment, everything can somersault. You can experience a wild, heady ride that can change you.

     Traditionally, the Canadian short story is staunchly based in realism, with a narrative arc that ratchets up through conflicts and semi-resolutions toward a crisis, an epiphany, and a tidy conclusion. The shape is almost hard-wired in our collective brains.

     But a new crop is working against these constraints, with wider plots that spread into the lives of characters who may be only tangentially linked to one another. They spread out over time, too, rather than adhere to the traditional shape of action, epiphany, denouement.

     Enter Russell Smith’s mesmeric, sensuous collection Confidence. His protagonists are mostly white Torontonian men, and they are taken up with their own bodies, emotions, and interior thoughts. In particular, they are obsessed with sex — with whom to have it, how much it costs, and the moral compromises required to keep it coming. These men are at ease with the vernacular of gentrification, with the syntax of haute couture and fine cuisine.

     In each of the eight stories, the protagonist has a tenuous grip on the upper-middle rungs of society, has a job that requires a liberal education, and is afflicted with a low-thrumming anxiety about money.

     In “Gentrification,” for example, Tracy worries about property values when he finds garbage, left by his neighbours in an adjacent apartment, piled along his back fence. To maintain his lifestyle, he rents his downstairs apartment to loud, violent welfare recipients who happen to be black lesbians; he then schemes to evict them and fantasizes about them while masturbating.

     Tracy and the other protagonists are united by middle age and disillusionment, having given up their individual freedoms for unfulfilling domestic stability. Through third-person limited narrators and a confection of keen-eyed observations that zip off the tongue like fizz candy, we understand their thoughts and feelings, lusts and desires — and the excuses the men invent when they behave badly. The narrative tension works like a spiderweb, delicately constructed and ensnaring: Smith’s prose captures moral decay.

     Of course, all the women are subjected to the male gaze — that hackneyed but disturbingly apt term. They are cleavage, hips, and thighs; they are sweaty black polyester thongs. The male protagonists find them sexy in their poverty or sexy in their vulnerability. In “Fun Girls,” one of the “fun” women raves about an expensive restaurant: “And it was so free! Was it not free? ” She is oblivious to the fact that someone else has picked up the tab. Even the powerful women — solvent and self-aware — are nothing but sex objects tricked out with expensive Italian boots or wives with ticking biological clocks. Yet, somehow, they always hold the moral upper hand.

     Smith leaves wiggle room between his characters’ perceptions and his own overriding judgment. He deftly allows us to discern grubbing desires, and, in doing so, our own prejudices. Epiphanies tend to fly past the characters themselves, but they hit us head-on.




The stakes are higher for Heather O’Neill’s characters — the urban poor who have more to lose than Smith’s moneyed men. O’Neill has a knack for capturing cities and the details of class, and in Daydreams of Angels she explores the power imbalances between children and adults, between the innocent and the corrupt, and between the rich and the poor.

     The collection’s twenty stories are postmodern fairy tales, complete with a performing bear that speaks and a boy raised by wolves. There are single mothers, quadruplets, modern prophets, and babies born of the sea. There are also orphans who face harsh adult realities. These are kids who battle errant, unpredictable punishments of all sorts. As with that Canadian orphan prototype, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, they use their imaginations to overcome cruelty. But O’Neill’s orphans live in cities, not the idyllic fields of Prince Edward Island. They deal with addicts, fascists, sexual assault, and eviction. The only way they are similar to Anne is that they are emboldened, alive with agency and imagination.

     Disney movies have warped our view of fairy tales, making them whimsical and sweet. These stories resemble the more nightmarish tales of the Brothers Grimm. They are declarative articulations of hardship, leavened with wit and compassion. Daydreams of Angels contrasts innocence and man-made cruelties; it is rich in metaphor and awash in magic, and it sparkles with idiosyncratic one-liners.

     The book’s heroes aren’t beribboned by helpful bluebirds, and they certainly don’t ride off into sunsets with handsome princes. In “The Story of a Rose Bush,” for example, a Nazi john gives leather gloves to a child prostitute, who ends up shamed and shorn on the streets of Paris. Although she is rescued by a Canadian soldier and taken to Montreal, she ends up paralyzed by a bypass surgery gone wrong. As an older woman, she rides a wheelchair through the streets, filled with nostalgia for a same-sex affair (the only real love she ever experienced) that ended in devastating betrayal.

     O’Neill upends preconceived notions about childhood and poverty — and form. She plays with the traditional fairy tale to reveal the dangerous, often grotesque underbelly of desperate times.




Irina Kovalyova’s debut collection, Specimen, is also preoccupied with experimental form. Born in the Soviet Union, Kovalyova was, for a time, stateless (due to shifting political boundaries). She later interned atNASA and worked as a DNA analyst in New York before settling in British Columbia, where she earned a master’s degree in creative writing and now teaches molecular biology. In other words, she is no slouch.

     Specimen is enriched with the author’s scholarship, but its nine stories also pack an emotional punch. Kovalyova wields gentle humour and bald wonder to explore the scientific underpinnings of the universe, including all kinds of love and despair.

     “Peptide p” documents how young people experience grief, in the form of a scientific report complete with the apt subtitle, “The Association of Parapsychological Phenomena with Resistance to Heart Break Disease in Peptide p-Positive Children.” Graphs and interviews that assess paranormal activity fill the pages, which focus on biochemical fluctuations in kids who have suffered trauma. Ironically, the story uses scientific language to prove the existence of the unreal.

     Specimen concludes with “The Blood Keeper,” a tour de force. Full of wildly propulsive action, it borrows from the pulp spy novel and is pinned down by complex insights about science, totalitarianism, betrayal, trust, and soporific plant extracts.

     The narrator, Vera, is a botany student in Moscow who is writing a dissertation about tropical plants. When her father, who oversees Lenin’s tomb, is called to Pyongyang shortly after the death of Kim Il Sung, she joins him. What follows is a flurry of doublespeak, sinister flirtations, and secret codes.

     Kovalyova creates a labyrinthine plot that constricts until it becomes necessary for her protagonist to seek escape. As in Daydreams of Angels, there are touches of magic here; the realism warps to give a view of motherhood, romantic love, and the desire for freedom. Specimen touches down in Canada, but its scope is global.




If O’Neill and Kovalyova are postmodern in their approach to the short story, Guy Vanderhaeghe is more traditional. Nevertheless, he presses the form to say new things about class, gentrification, and escape. Daddy Lenin and Other Stories returns to some of the themes the author explored in Man Descending, which won a Governor General’s Award in 1983.

     Many of Vanderhaeghe’s characters have escaped threatening rural pasts or overpowering early loves to achieve modest financial security, obtained primarily through willpower and brawn. Using sturdy, unadorned sentences, Vanderhaeghe fashions hapless, hard-working narrators who have travelled far (socially and geographically) to escape claustrophobic realities. Still, they end up dissatisfied, not far enough away from what formed them.

     Vanderhaeghe’s female characters are particularly vivid. We understand them through simple, indelible details: the green, caked-on eyeshadow worn by fifteen-year-old Darcy in “1957 Chevy Bel Air,” for example, is the exact shade of her irises. She is fickle and breaks the protagonist’s heart when she leaves him for an older guy with a newer car. Like many of the other women in the collection, Darcy is a siren who befuddles and abandons men. She is passionate, selfish, ungovernable. And she leaps off the page.

     “The Jimi Hendrix Experience” is a particularly captivating story of a boy’s desire to escape a hot, tedious summer and follow his sole ambition — to be the famous musician. “I want a burst of Afro ablaze in a bank of stage lights,” Troy says, “to own a corona of genius.”

     Along with two friends, he plays a prank on an elderly man and finds himself trapped in an explosive situation. The tension builds to a pyrotechnical epiphany: “And here I am, running through the late-afternoon stillness of an empty suburban street, sucked down it faster than my legs can carry me, this hollow, throaty roar of fire in my head, that tiny point on the horizon drawing me to where the sun is either coming up or going down.”

     Vanderhaeghe’s men are worlds apart from Smith’s coke-snorting partiers, who stay out all night snacking on crab balls. They are silent and defeated, and disappear into clock-punching jobs that systematically destroy their bodies and souls. But both writers capture the vagaries of class, as well as uneasy, complicated relationships with women who are at once wise and unattainable. Their books help define an uncomfortable twenty-first-century masculinity.

     Read together, these four collections exhibit the current preoccupations of the Canadian short story. They are compressed but expansive and concerned with escape of all kinds. They rise and fall and ripple as the reader dives in.





               — Previously published in The Walrus (September, 2015)