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Currently Reading: Luminous, Illuminating and Light

Working last to first and first to last and in various orders in between, my irregular self-poll of what books or materials I’ve got open and am reading…

Faking Relaxation by Brynna Leslie is on p. 7 of May 31, 2012’s EMC is also in the online version. Her column is about trying out yoga. Here’s a taste,

Always the procrastinator, I was running late and it looked like rain, so I sprinted the 750 metres to the studio. I walked into the lobby panting and sweating.

It was painted soothing shades of green, with a little water feature. I took a deep breath and allowed my journalist’s eye to examine the studio.

I’ll have to watch for more by her.

Artifact by Frannie Linday at Linebreak is striking in being so streamlined and lucid yet embedding so much distance covered. It’s something of a bullet train of a poem. It starts in the middle of action,

You came to put up with
the buxom peonies
Helga kept bringing.
First you asked them to stop
the prednisone, next the valium,

We know so much of the context and room, the smell, the social and medical context. She has 3 books out, one from Perugia Press in the U.S. called Lamb. These poems are not light, nor do they go somewhere unexpected, yet they have a glowing quality made possible perhaps only by the darkness of terrain she has chosen.

Michelle Desbarats characteristically walks the darker edge of things and yet she also blesses it with a generosity of glow, comic and a touch of surreal. With any luck we’ll get another collection by her in coming years to brighten the eyes.

The Touch of a Moth, edited by Claudia Coutu Radmore and Marco Fraticelli (Scrivener Press, 2012) includes past luminaries who, in some cases I know only by name, not face or poem. Both are included here, those who are part of living memory for others like Marianne Bluger, Ruby Spriggs, Jocelyne Villeneuve, and Shaunt Basmajian and ones I had the pleasure of meeting, like Bill Higginson.

Essays of remembrance flesh out the names I hear floating as does an 8-page history of haiku in Canada by Terry Ann Carter puts all the pieces in order of how it all fits together. 2 poems from each add it all up to 202 pages. I’ll pick my way thru it all eventually. Haiku and senryu tend to be deceptively dense poems that can add up to watching individual raindrops if you try to do too many in a sitting. (Which is tempting since a new issue of A Hundred Gourds is out.)

Here’s one of Jean Jorgensen from the Moth anthology, p. 115

he ties one hole
to another – fisherman
mending his nets

In the poem from her 1990 collection an opening paradox becomes concrete, clear. It tickles the brain to look at the negative spaces, spins a way of thinking of something.

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges, (EP Dutton, 1971) is a short story collection was quoted in a podcast of Craig Mod and led me to finally read some of Borges.

In his short story, The Other, he remarks, (p. 16 in this version),

“Your mass of oppressed and alienated is no more than an abstraction,” I said. “Only individuals exist – if it can be said that anyone exists.”

Even the individual is something of a crowd of distinct individuals. The story is something like a Freedom 55 commercial, or rather, where that ad came from, with a 20-year-old meeting his 70-year-old self.

Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in which makes conversation difficult.

He describes in the intro how he tries to emulate “H.G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.” They are easy stories to slip into, perhaps because they have changed the culture, having been absorbed into the culture banks and changing it to be like him.

I’m looking at Laura Carstensen’s talk on Older People are Happier. Our society is changing from pyramid of large numbers of youth and few elders to more of a box shape with healthier long living older people. Culturally we shift with aging and with demographic balance shifting, the overall culture will shift in some predictable way.

With the longevity people have, on average a more broad outlook, less tolerance for injustice, but paying more attention to happier things and less frazzled by unnecessary bullshit. The numbers and methods are fascinating in her talk. Illuminating even.

Flutter by Alice Burdick (Mansfield Press, 2008) is light in the comic sense. It is abrupt, with a rapid dry wit, cynical perhaps yet not disheartened in the maudlin sense. p. 22

The modulation of yesteryear
has been flattened, sorry.

So hostile takeovers
here and everywhere.

[…] May: even the dog wears a ribbon.
Suspended, joy shall be resumed.

A foresight of knowing one is in a trough of tough and the light will come back. It’s looking at human nature, like a foible-full species. We have habits we can predict. He’s a product of avoidance tricks. p. 41, “The meat leaves, slowly” ends with something like a koan but gets into this human habit of being inescapable from ourselves.

Have you seen the water boil?
It does so in it own waves.
Daughters of fisherman
fear the open seas
so mow the hills to roads.

Funny, in a tragi-comedy sense. We won’t make the mistakes of the fathers. To empty the sea of fish isn’t going to happen in the next generation (partly because they learned consequence, partly because the fish are gone). The next generation won’t repeat the heartache of people lost at sea, so turn the collective attention to the land, which they then plunder and crush. But it’s different, because it’s land and its for housing and practical infrastructure, not traditional way of life. As if, See? Different.

We make our paths, but tend not to lie in paths of trains. We are one of the maker-species, chronic nest-builders, compulsive migration-makers. We are in the bath of our boiling selves, rolling with each other so we have little vantage to stop and speculate on the large scale patterns we are within.

The poetry seems a sort of slow-pick for the fast clip of it. Dense and light simultaneously because it doesn’t dwell within the length of the line or poem, more over the whole criss-crossing similar ground.

Good News Bible (Harper Collins, 1994), The Deuterocanonical Books of Apocrypha. Tobias 5:4-6

Tobias then went out to look for someone who knew the way to Medina and would travel with him. Almost as soon as he left the house, he found himself face to face with Raphael. Tobias did not know that Rafael was an angel so asked him where he was from. “I am an Israelite,” Rafael answered, “one of your distant relatives and I have come here to Ninevah to find work.”

Interesting reply. Lying angels? Or true, in a manner of speaking, to the understanding in a world where god gave truth only to the Israelite true believers, a world where the only trusted tribe is one’s own and one must marry cousins so descendants of prophets keep marrying prophets, plus keep profit in the family.

I have a few variants of holy books. It’s curious how impulse finds similar shapes in cultures. It’s like convergent evolution whether Israel‘s weight of showing collarbone or elbow, much like the symbolic weight placed in Eastern Morocco where we were, like the fundamentalist Christian time and place I was were showing the knee was salacious invitation, or at worship with those who follow Bhagavad Gita with women modestly covered and separate from the men. Yet not the man’s body, their forearms or ankles never a come-on by existing. Must be the faulty wiring of humans, susceptibility to myth and confirmation bias and tribe.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (Anansi, 2012) is a story from Pakistan of a man released from prison, p. 42

We woke, later, and watched the dawn arrive. The smudges of grey polished into colour. The sandy path to the village yellowing, and the houses emerging from their gloom, their dull mud bricks beginning to warm. The mountains materializing, immense against the skyline, clean-capped with ice, then furrowed and brown beneath the snowline. The cold air somehow lifting, as though the whole valley took in a breath and held it, silent for a moment.

What could I add to that? The slow reveal of attention to detail. I couldn’t bring back to mind waking in the night in Italy to see dawn arrive until that described. It isn’t so much seeing blue cast disappear as I would have thought of it. It is more to see the colors arrive as if they’d never been and suddenly are. Space seeming to enlarge in time-lapse as visibility distance spreads. An attentive capture of being in that time of day.

It lilts thru in iambic regularity, simple words, concrete images, plain language, nothing extraneous and self-referential to distract. No editorializing asides, no zealous elbow of wit yet not simple and not easily achieved.

Bleeding Light by Sheniz Janmohamed (Tsar, 2010) is a collection of rhymed ghazals with striking metaphors such as one of he who can drain blood from an opal (p. 13). They are often dramatic, almost theatrical yet fresh. I can’t say I’ve heard anyone else say as she did on p. 8,

“Hearing one refrain, of his suffering, her walls stiffen to ice. To melt is her only prayer.”

To have walls, to be made of ice, to melt are all common enough poetry fodder, but there’s an extra leap there when combined in that way and with “to melt is her only prayer”. It suggests a desire to be compassionate, malleable as liquid. To fervently wish to not react as one does, rather than the more usual reaction at that juncture to go on to a blame game of how the he should change, or elaborate on the off-loading of why oh-woe-is-me and war-is-he.

Nothing is lyrically explored in the ghazal the way it would be in a narrative lyric form and yet the glimpses are rich. For example, something of a parable in “A man sells packets of socks in a gully where most men walk barefoot/ […] If only we planted a thousand trees for each page we discard and crumple!” (p. 14)

Zócalo by Daphne Marlatt, (Coach House, 1977) goes at the speed of light, breathless as a fast freestyle guitar. p. 41-42 the motorcycle’s run thru the twisting unfamiliar roads comes to halt at the ocean,

[…] walk to the edge, rocks, to a thatched-roof hut below them, big bright sign, BE BE PEPSI, people sipping drinks, sitting (she is still weak-knees) & at their feet sea rushing on to sand, sea, an immense brilliant, risible & shining, splashing against the earth it seeks to reduce to flecks of laughter.

Rain; road; an open boat (M&S, 2012) by Roo Borson is curiously similar and dissimilar to have in the head at the same time. They both are travelogues, one to Mexico, the other to Japan, both exploring form, Borson with haibun and Marlatt with the prose poem run-on sentence. The Borson pieces flow one to another as one thought, although that thought is like sitting in reflection, watching what rises inwardly rather than the cataloguing the external flashes. p. 24,

The world in old photos,
or the world in spring –
which is younger?

p. 37 in “Dictionary” she writes,

The book itself is a code, a key, a lock, an implement that stands for an earlier time and other customs, containing only those things that need not exist, but do so nonetheless, carrying them forward as a maple seed is carried forward by the wind.

I admire this structure of sharing a thought to mull. Do we call it poem or prose or prose-poem? Or between genres or just listen? Ideas are power of creation. Once something is thought it can be brought into being in physical reality. Once there’s a word and acknowledgement of something in physical being, it can fall out of existence, moved past. It is a kind of cultural building to admit an idea that may become as large and deep and wide as a tree.

As Richardson points out, it works for rereading. The book itself is meditations on revisiting, or finally visiting places, on the scale of decades of wait. It is a patient book, watching beauty.

Papa: Our Fabulous Father by Linda Soward (Self-Published, 2011) tracks the story of her father from the time of his grandfather father (born 1798) as the story was passed generation to next. On p. 3-4 what was said of my great-great grandfather after he had walked between villages to propose, arriving with the red sky of evening of Monday, Feb 23, 1824,

The windows were trimmed with shutters, and on each side of the doorstep were wooden flower pots filled with green branches. This was the sign Elizabeth promised him. His heart beat wildly, and his his thoughts raced faster. So she was not married, or had she just been married and had forgotten to remove the branches?

Since that family and he had come over in the same boat from Ireland the previous summer, he had not seen them. He stayed with the family and there 3 daughters for supper, after months of baching it and building a cabin for his wife, the company and fireplace and cooking was welcome.

Conversation came easily, except each time John tried to broach the subject of asking Elizabeth to be his wife. He told himself the right moment had not arrived, but the night was fleeting. Suddenly the clock on the mantle struck ten o’clock. Mr. Ireton turned and looked at his three daughters, and then at John, “Which one will you have?” he asked John curtly. The question came as such a surprise the astonished John could not remember her name.

“I’ll have the little one in the corner, if you please, sir,” he stammered meekly, nodding towards Elizabeth. “Very well then,” answered Mr. Ireton. “It is now time to retire. We will make the arrangements in the morning.”

The following day, Feb 24, 1824, the young couple were married at Carleton Place. Elizabeth, age 26, walked with John to her new home in Lanark County. Elizabeth never returned to her parents home. Such were the lives of pioneers.”

Amazing to think there are family photos, records, stories passed down from generations. If we relied on oral alone, I’d have never have known.

The Real Made Up by Stephen Brockwell used transcribed speech of the valley, Eastern Ontario/Eastern Townships of Western Quebec, a few generations on. p. 23, Bill McGillivray’s Trophy Deer (p. 23-26) and other poems in that series stand out to me as illuminating about what can be said and a certain eureka of understanding these boys I grew up among. The scoff of city folks being afraid to kill a spider, the doubling back to Canadian self-deprecating, quaking in his own boots as he and his brother went deer hunting. “I didn’t have the courage/not to watch/them dress it.” That dual pull reminds me of one of my cousins.

In “Bill McGillivray’s Antique Rifle” (p. 62-63) Bill muses on the rifle he inherited and what it could have meant and been or where it came from. It was a keepsake from his dad stripped of its full weight of memory because,

He’d never talk
about it. None of them did.
People say they were
afraid to share
their feelings. That’s
not it. They just didn’t feel
a thing by the time
they had time to talk.

I wonder if that’s not it. That procrastination, waiting for time to share to open up and suddenly a deathbed and years of stories never fully worked out enough to share. Never the right time, moment, person. Deferring in a life two blinks long. Realizing too late that memories erode and synching up your stories against another, how do you reconstruct something plausible of how it was. Like how the poems grab a bit of verbatim, In “Mark Bradley’s Truck”, p. 66

have look at her.
She has a big block
V10 with 500
horses ready to
rip a rubber mile
down the 407. And
talk about towing.
She’d tow the
Titanic from the ocean.

Just the brag of bravado of a guy for his truck. Any number of neighbours with steel toe boots and belt buckles for show that each he persists in wearing despite decades of razzing. People like the guys. They can tell a pretty good tale and you might even want to believe half it.

Poems either silence you or knock something loose to tell. Silence is good. “Silence is Karikura’s favourite affirmation.” (p. 60). I’d just as rather have something knocked loose.

The McGillivray poems remind me of being in school, grade 9, and 11 years into the system including pre-school and first seeing something I recognize in the classroom. A map of places that matched places I knew. I thought it was taboo. We weren’t even allowed to count like our parents, but to use metric instead. Instead of an alphabet of African and South American animals, comprehension question readings of hunts and ghosts in the U.S., battles of generals in England, and nothing on farming or local animals, except for that one time. Someone was brought in to talk about dairy farming from the Milk Marketing Board. She was a blushing college girl who carefully enunciated every word from paper script, including “teats” and caused titters from the back. Cows have tits. She explained how cows are milked to the group of grade 7 students who’d already been watching or doing the milking on the farm since they were just past the height of a gum boot.

And yet, it’s not just institutions that marginalize actual lived experience. Poetry is given to doing it too. Too many poems of lake vacations skipping over the daily. Death and ache and what about the muddles in betweem?

Like the haiku that use season words because that it what haiku does, rather than what the cultural weight or lived experience demands.

Poets sometimes picks subjects that skip over people, for privacy sometimes or sometimes to make it “poetic” or “in language”. To loop back to Borges, where are the spirits of particular individuals? Instead of painting a particular daisy in a particular moment, we settle for the word flower, or a list poem of species and adjectives to confer the idea of a field in an attempt to do it new, or do it transcendently, or avoid transcendent. In any case it can elbow out of the way what’s real or what feels important to say. What gesture within needs an outward expression? How to gesture it well enough that another can make it out? One of my favorite poem’s is p. 12’s Karikura’s Gives Advice, which I’d both hate to excerpt or to include in entirely. It’s worth the cover price itself.

Brockwell is giving a 3-hour workshop July 7 at the Ottawa Public Library with the focus to “help poets invest more verbal energy into their poems.”

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