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95books: List 22: Joyce, Choice, Death and Depth of Story 176-185

By chance many of the works on the billet at the moment circle around the ideas of boundaries of identity, of country, of living and dead. What is the individual to the nation? What is the collective to the individual?

176. Introducing William Pittman Lett: Ottawa’s First City Clerk and Bard 1819-1892 by Bryan D. Cook (self-published, 2014)

Been picking away at this one since June. The historical notes are fascinating as are the images. In 1882 Ontario became the first province to establish a Board of Health to manage sewers, which meant piping raw sewage directly into the nearest river. (Which apparently we still think is a good idea to do, even while we tell campers not to pee near a stream.) By the end of WWI only 1 in 3 municipalities in Canada treated their sewage. (p. 339). There are photos of old city hall and of

Lett was a man of his time more than one that connects easily to this one but reading only what is in accord with your own thoughts is unhealthy.

As an Orangeman he edited an anti-Catholic screed-letter. In one case he gives an occasion poem to royalty which last a page and a half but when a bridge he used to fish on is torn down he goes on in rhapsody for 7 pages. Likewise when his favourite watering hole is to be demolished. His rhymes are perfect in the sound-sense. Predictable thoughts within his framework of thinking.  He expounds on why we should have a national army and police, why war is glorious. In a tribute to 2 men, Osgoode and Rogers who died at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, May 2, 1882 Lett supports suppression of Indian and Métis rebels.

“Red-handed lawlessness shall fall,
And wither before Patriot might,
Our flag shall triumph over all,
And wave victorious in the fight!
Peace, Law and Order still shall stand
The guardian Genii of our Land!

Mourn for each true and gallant one,
Who fought and fell before the foe;
Canada drops a bitter tear
O’er every grave; where lying low
Her hero sons are proudly taking
Glory’s sleep “that knows no waking.”

(p.330, Ottawa’s Honour Roll)

Although he had a native guide to take him hunting, he calls him an extinct race, wrote a paeon to his death but a longer more moving one about the death of his favourite hunting hound. He also writes odes to his boat and to his gun. He makes a list poem of all the birds he shot. He admires the new spiral inside his his gun that gives better accuracy to the better range and can shoot an exit hole 18” wide in a deer. What he doesn’t intend to disturb doesn’t convey.  He also wrote  “Concealed Weapons” (p. 246-247) which exhorts people not to do it after D’Arcy McGee was shot.

“Put it down! Assassins only
Carry arms concealed from sight;
Thugs haunt passes dark and lonely.
True born courage seeks the light.
Stand up firm and self-reliant
With the weapons nature gave;
Bold yet modest, cool, defiant
Is the conduct of the brave!

The god-given weapons borne on the end of the arms comes back thru various poems. And in this one he reiterates for 5 more stanzas against not being an agent of evil and coward to shoot people.

He sometimes uses a romping rhythm for sombre subjects and writes in an imagined Scottish dialect. Some is satire. Some is amusing verse such as one at length condemning the intricate woman’s hairstyle of the year, or how people go to theatre, not to see the play but catch a glimpse of who’s who.

177. Just My  Type: a book about fonts by Simon Garfield (Gotham, 2010)

This on GoodReads was highly recommended. For good cause. It is comprehensive and readable. The background of the making of typefaces, the lives of creators. The small facts like 1920s Germany banning any but blackletter as not properly Germany and calling some typefaces Jewish. How one typegrapher was in a legal bind that all his equipment would go to his former partner on his death so on a falling out he secretly bound up the metal type and made 100 night walks to dump it in the river. These Dove pieces were recently dredged since the time of writing. A worthwhile read for anyone curious.

178. Death with Interruptions by José Saramago trans. Margaret Jull Costa (Harcourt, 2007)

This has sat on my shelf for any number of years. It seems a daunting title. What if death quit and deaths stopped? What are the implications of aging but never being permitted to die? What are the impacts on state agencies, on families, on economics? And then the story pivots to the pov of death herself and what life she leads. The hard satire turns into a sort of romance. Bound to write as he will he leads a crazy journey, idiosyncratic and winking. An aside to the reader with an eye to logic and continuity, you may have wondered how death paid the cab fare? Let’s speculate that…

We read the entirely aloud. Dark at times but oddly entertaining and pointed and touching eventually. What just happened there? What? But worthwhile.

179. Obasan by Joy Kogawa (Penguin, 1981)

This is darker and more sombre and yet compatible to read alongside with Death with Interruptions. The cover presents it as the story from the point of view as a 5 year old, which was off-putting but also not true. It is chapters in before we get to a child’s point of view and the child ages quickly and it is filled with flashbacks and archival letters.

It builds the depth of detail of the injustice done to the Japanese people. the sudden pivot of “good” society to demonize individuals as enemies of state. People who acted as neighbours suddenly became a parallel society bound in blindness at not seeing the actions and implications of their own hands. The level of details of tenderness shown to family kept a constant thread of humanity in the inhumane.

180. Mayor Snow: poems by Nick Thran (nightwood, 2015)

I read this in the wrong order of books. Obasan is intense, concrete. Death with Interruptions is wild and true in a fantastical way. The Odyssey is full of drama. James Joyce is dense and chewy. Poetry doesn’t have the size of canvas to compete with thoughts just dipped towards in each poem a subject. This is the logic for making poems that resonate with old existing works, the larger canvas of history to get the depth of loop back. Inside a poem there isn’t the room the way there is in a novel. But to refer outside the poem or contemporary book of poetry can allow a similar effect.

Still, in reading from one work to another how to change gears enough?

This is floaty, abstract more so than it would be surrounded by my usual diet of poetry. What is it that I want poetry to do? What is it that this poetry wants to do? It is about the more everyday removed from drama. Even “Obit” has its root in a celebrity death,

“Seymour Hoffman’s eyes
from the year’s list of obits.
The perpetual, pouring
condolence note.
The grief muscle always alert
and working through grief.
A crow is the collar
of a funeral suit.
A flock like the black lace
of a funeral shroud.
real grief and also
the practice of grief.
Tom Hanks is going to die.
Tom Hanks is going to die
just as the mountains
and aspens will die.”

And then a poking mocking at brief grief as it ends “the Joan rivers of grief/that run in the cold, dark sea.” It plays at satire and keeping death at a safe distance and yet speak lyrically of the power of the ubiquitous grief muscle which doesn’t let up. Resented like a conjoined twin organ on a peevish day.

I rarely have found notes at the back of a poetry book such a useful codex. I could make heads nor tails of the Mayor series, which is cento and erasure. One gestures thru other people’s words and like speaking a foreign tongue doesn’t hit exactly the right words to be clear. But you say something that you might not have otherwise have said were you not trying to speak thru a constraint. It might erupt or dislodge something new. Likewise the muddiness of SEVERs Talking is a play with machine translation which yielded the fortuitous idea of a bird as a hot ember in the hand.

181. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (Oxford, 1929)

Interesting material but her thought structure is curlicues. Frequent long digressions. But she’s citing case after case making the case for how women write as they do because of economics. As does anyone. With a steady income and enough time one can rise to sublime but it is a luxury because of the systems at play, some of those being prejudice. It makes a defensiveness and anger as the primary focus of mind. One can’t talk of large things when nettled and netted and hemmed in by one’s own personal constraints that are based in injustice. This seems as true now as then. Queer people of colour who write of injustice are called one note orchestra’s who are asked to write of something new, that is to say, white entitled middle class privilege of abstracts and kittens and flower gardens and praise the holier purer happy gentle poor I suppose.

Things have progressed slightly since the time of writing. Women are allowed into libraries for instance. Are permitted to work. Women have had the vote for even longer, yet here still are less represented in elections. Are a tiny fragment of the CEO population.

She states that endowments that give a hand up to young men come from older men making more than they can use. Women haven’t tended to have an excess so colleges for women eat and heat their populations poorly.

We are no longer chattel so whatever we inherit becomes our own instead of transferred to our male guardians. Her idea that some write even-handedly and others by the habit of hypermasculine or hyperfeminine. Shakespeare, Keats, Sterne, Cowper, Lamb and Coleridge she says were androgynous. Milton, Wordsworth, Tolstoi and Jonson were skewed masculine. Proust towards feminine.

One must write for all. Confessional is dull, having no sense of the greater breadth.

why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘i’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there.”

182. Small Waterways by Nelson Ball (Apt 9, 2015)

Beautiful encapsulations. Simple but not simplistic. Thought over not to make clever but to make clear as if drawing a line around one awareness. Not around an object or a story or an image but a small eureka, not tied up with a ribbon of form but the size it needs to be.

Short Take 1

It’s safe
to walk backwards

the hall

I live alone.

How touching. A twist in the end. An awareness of change. A freedom and new safety yet within a framework of sadness that gives it a mingled depth. Even the simply stated isn’t simple. Neither is it razorcut that slices away the aspect of joy. They both co-exist.

A bonus to the book is an interview at the back with Catherine who did a documentary on Nelson Ball and Barbara Caruso’s place. And notes on the location of poems and what memories they hold, putting a spotlight on people in those places.

183. illiterature, issue v, the graphic novel  (Puddles of Sky, 2015)

I suppose the fitting response to the visual would be the visual. But being able to perceive is one action. To synthesize and create at the same level is a whole other skill set. It is an interesting endeavour. I wish I’d got myself sorted in time to contribute.  Oddly p. 64 seems like an illustration for José Saramago’s novel. The rhythm of repeating and explosions and then sudden silence of p. 14 and 15 is like classical music. p. 25, 28, 29, 38, 46 strike delight. That it is set in chapters of story/non-story yet story is interesting to look at and move through.

184. How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales by Peter Rubie and Gary Prevost (Writers Digest Books, 1998)

This was enlightening. The idea of what makes story. Why something is included opened my seeing for novels, movies, and stories since then. The device of foreshadowing was never so clear. The Magic of Belle Isle got new depth of appreciation of simple gestures that fit the story laid so far and then did double duty of foreshadowing such as Carl being sidekick to the main character play acting a shootout giving a warning to the gunshot later. The complexity of novels such as Peggy Blair’s Hungry Ghosts, became mindblowing. I could see the intricacy of interconnection and pointing gestures of how story elements function.

The hero’s journey I’ve read about but it is about external plot more than internal motivation.The authors pointed out that every character is in it for their own reason.  Every character is the hero of their own story, including any villains. Each believes they are doing right. A story that has a subplot does not need to be there if it does not intersect and underscore and lead to actions which impact the main story. The same themes can roll through both stories.

What is a story? It is not something which is said. Anything can be said. That speaking does not make it a story. A series of unconnected incidents that have no bearing on each other are not a story. Each thing is a causality chain that causes a change. A story is about action setting something in motion. Action is interesting. A pile of books is not an action. A book stacked on the pile which topples and shows a character outburst of anger which is concealed from others is a reveal. The pile which is cut like a deck of cards revealing a letter of bill overdue shows an economic threat that is a motivation for money-driven action later.

The book describes a story like this,

“Once upon a time, something happened to someone and he decided that he would pursue a goal so he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things got as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson and when offered the prize  he had strenuously sought,  had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.”

Reading the book over 3 months has pivoted my way of seeing more than any poetry. It is daunting to think that when I go to a poetry reading I often walk out saying I have learned nothing but walk out of a non-fiction reading and feel I understand more. But being exposed to information is different than learning. Learning is internalizing and putting thing into action.

185. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916)

I don’t think I have read a book more true. I was stymied a few attempts at the child perspective of the opening chapter but once I pushed on long enough the overall shape of the book, the detail of thought captivated.

It seemed at times paced at real life. Each stage of life having its intensity, from belief in hellfires and temptation to debate about the nature of what nationalism means. Must one adopt the rhetoric to be national? If all the Irish decide to adopt the Irish language and re-embrace the church, is that more Irish than to not if you are Irish by raising. All influences led you to be who you are therefore you cannot step outside your Irishness.

Like the debates raised in Obasan, what is it to be Canadian, if not having Canadian citizenship, being raised in Canada, being third generation Canadian, having all the same objects and schooling and clothes and points of reference. But by skin colour, Japanese had all their possessions and possession of nation revoked. Germans were harder to weed out. My grandparents-in-law were Hess but defensively claimed to be Dutch during this same period. Did people suspiciously blacklist their business or make inquiries about origin and leave it at their word of disavowal of bloodlines?

In the Portrait, there’s a cleaving from birthright of language. The only mother tongue is of Ben Jonson because earlier generations abdicated their heritage. Irish adopted the foreign religion and language and culture and erased their own and yet Irish are banned from being English, are still mocked as inferior and genetically so. They cannot become that which is the only thing they know as a nation.

The captured political conversations swirling around him, sermons from the retreat, sparring debates with students at university, his own telegraphic diary entries all capture a speed of life, an intensity of attention, a flavour.

“It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion you say you disbelieve Did you believe it when you were in school? I bet you did.
—I did, Stephen answered
—And were you happier then? Cranly asked softly, happier than you are now, for instance?
—Often happy, Stephen said, and often unhappy. I was someone else then.
—How someone else? What do you mean by that statement?
—I mean, said Stephen, that I was not myself as I am now, as I had to become.”

I can relate to much of the story. I went to no private school. I was not rich then poor and did not come from a rafterful house of siblings. I didn’t get to live in a boy’s world for long but spent a few young years there in the rough and tumble of jibes and sports.

I’m jealous of Stephen that he should be raised by Jesuits, equipped with thinkers who went before. Even if he is saddled with mental furniture and shape of rooms, he had a building rather than playing house as Adam in some lean-to pretending to be first man to learn everything as if nothing had gone before.

It is no wonder Baptists are fundamentalists, anti-intellectual as doomed to extinction as newspapers with their short-sighted views. Which causes which? If one is in economically depressed areas, sad country songs rise and so does religion. If you have too much sad music and power to religion as default, does it cause poverty?

Is it any wonder I drew on nature as spiritual when there was no recourse. Like Emily Carr and Pauline Johnson the holy was the wind because I was left with only the wind to instruct me having no mentor or moral leader. The principle of the only truth a bible, an incoherent, violent collage of petty hatred and the pulpit more so claiming my contrite born again, and again and baptised but it may not take because the gesture is nothing since god hates as unforgivable sin anyone queer which is an intrinsic nature. But we are all born evil. But some evils can’t be overlooked. Such as being female therefore being fit to clean the lord’s house but not to take up collection or be treasurer or speak a sermon. One can read the scripture publicly within a cloud of debate of this being transgressive, if the minister chooses the passage and it is only a verse. One can sing praise and teach the children, but only the stories which have been culled of woman’s voices. One can teach the story of the prostitute accepted despite, but not of women who led and were followed.

Is it any wonder it makes sense to me the practice of homophonic translation when one is laced blind to a text. One can’t research what it could have meant at the time because all history is tainted and suspect. The only truth is your own incomprehension laid on your heart as belief. So the “rich man and the eye of the needle” is to say only the impoverished go to heaven and the rich are evil therefore you should not do too well in business or be corrupted out of eternal prize. Thus perpetuate your own poverty. Forget the idea that the eye of the needle is a door-type in a walled city that a camel can go through if unloaded of baggage.

If one leaves Catholicism, does one become protestant? Stephen answered, “What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent.”

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  1. […] November 2015 | Pearl Pirie: “Beautiful encapsulations. Simple but not simplistic. Thought over not to make clever but to […]