For Whom Do the Poets Write, If Not for Me?

GurielCoverThe Pigheaded Soul

Essays and Reviews on Poetry & Culture

Jason Guriel

Porcupine’s Quill

264 pages

I admired the cover of a newly released book on Facebook, and to my surprise I received a copy in the mail from the publisher – no charge, no strings attached.

When the book arrived, I found myself as intrigued by the first few pages of the work as I had been by the cover. This created a dilemma for me. I like to write about books that intrigue me: doing so allows me to engage in conversation about the book – with myself, with other readers and, theoretically, with the author. I read books differently when I know I’m going to write about them – pausing to make notes, to reread paragraphs, to check external references. I wanted to read this book this way, and then to write about it on this blog, but I wondered if I dared.

This was the source of my dilemma: The Pigheaded Soul is a book about poetry – a field in which I have no credentials, aside from my deep and long-standing admiration for well-crafted products of the art form. To make matters worse, this is not a book of poetry (I have dared to write reviews of those before), but a collection of essays about poetry – written by someone who is clearly a well known and knowledgeable poetry critic.

In this country, you are stepping into dangerous territory when you choose to review a book of essays about poetry and culture: it’s bad enough if you are a poet or a poetry critic. How much worse for an outsider? My main blog may be called The Militant Writer, but I’ve got nothing on the more pugnacious members of the poetry cabals: those guys are out for blood, and they (well, at least the more talented writers among them) know how to forge the instruments to draw it. For many years I have watched (some, not all, of) Canada’s poetry elite aim sharply crafted instruments at one another’s throats, and felt the ground shudder from their outrage. They have crazed the literary landscape with their factions. What kind of fool would dare to enter there?

My disinclination to enter the fray had two very different elements. On the one hand, I was fearful that if I agreed or disagreed with a position the book’s author had taken, I might myself become the object of the venom (or, worse, derision) of some poetry camp or other. On the other hand, I was afraid that due to my lack of credentials, no self-respecting poet would even deign to read what I had written, much less take up arms against me: all this work would be ignored. But up through the middle of my indecision came an old friend, rebelliousness: an emotion that has always spurred me into action, even when action was neither wise nor worth the effort.

After all, I asked myself, for whom are all these poets (and hence their critics) writing? Are they writing only for one another? Specifically, are they writing only for others who work in their own immediate poetic milieu (other academic poets, in the main)? Are they not also writing for readers of poetry – for poetry enthusiasts? For people such as me? Why shouldn’t a mere reader, a mere aficionado of good writing, not step into the rarefied world of critiquing poetry – and even of critiquing poetry critics, for that matter?

And so, having judged its cover with no real background in design or art, I now gave myself permission to judge the book despite my lack of background in poetry criticism. If nothing else, I reasoned, what better approach to take to reviewing a book called The Pigheaded Soul than one that was spurred by rebellion?

First Steps

Jason Guriel, a writer of whom I confess never to have heard until his book landed in my mailbox, is impressively qualified for the work at hand. He has published three books of poetry with respected presses (Exile Editions and Véhicule Press), and his writing has appeared in such noted publications as Slate, Reader’s Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, and The New Criterion. He even won the Editors Prize for Book Reviewing from Poetry in 2009. Someone like this, I decided, was going to be able to teach me a whole lot about poetry.

I was prepared to find that so highly experienced a poet and critic would be talking entirely about poets I didn’t know and poetry issues I had not previously considered. This he often did, but it was with both surprise and relief that I discovered that he also seemed to respect a few poets I’d already found all by myself, and read deeply just because I wanted to, including Weldon Kees, August Kleinzahler, and Elizabeth Bishop. This made me feel more comfortable in the rarefied atmosphere into which I had ventured, and I pressed on with growing courage.

Literary Criticism

It’s not that I come to the world of literary criticism utterly devoid of experience – or prejudice. I have read widely and written many reviews of books, mostly of works of fiction, for newspapers, magazines and journals as well as for my own diversion. Over the past 40 years, I have developed my own principles regarding what constitutes good writing, irrespective of the genre and independent of any particular school of literary thought (either actual or theoretical). They apply not only to everything I read, but to everything I write.

I have long believed that as literary critics and reviewers, we should apply the principles of good writing that we have adopted for ourselves as standards for the books we are reviewing, and be more honest than we typically are. If the emperor (or his would-be successor) is wearing no clothes, we should either look away and say nothing, or – if we are going to speak to the matter at all – we should have the courage in our own convictions to point out that the nobleperson’s dressingperson appears to have decamped.

Guriel concurs. In fact, he says, it has been his willingness to speak his mind that has led to his being invited to write most of the essays in this book, and thus to create the book itself. “In the generally dull world of poetry criticism,” he says, “a remotely sharp judgement will tend to perk the ears of editors who like a little edge, even if some readers elect to call the noise they hear a ‘hatchet job’.”

He names as his mentors the critics who have dared to speak the truth, “seemingly failing again and again to consider the impact their sharp sentences might have on their own careers.” In fact, the perils of writing honest reviews in a small literary community are among the reasons I now choose to maintain this blog rather than writing reviews for pay as I used to do: now, when I have nothing positive to say, at least in public I can choose to say nothing at all.

“Good” Writing

As far as the nature of good writing, I found Guriel uttering rubrics that correspond exactly with my own thinking. In this area, he shows himself to be both inclusive and rigorous.

“The poem,” he says in the essay titled “New-Fangled, Old-Fangled,” “—whether fixed or free, lyric or language, traditional or experimental, name the deadlock – assures the reader that there’s a sound reason for most if not all of its words. Even if it has been channelled by meditation or hallucinogens or randomizing computer programs, the poem will somehow account for the quality of the meditation or give some assurance that the hallucinogens have been well spent or the lines of code well programmed.” I make this same demand not only of poetry, but of prose (both others’ and my own).

In a later essay, Guriel underscores this point with a quote from The Paris Review by Truman Capote: “Call it precious and go to hell […] but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs toward the end – or a mistaken paragraphing, even punctuation.”

I completely agree with that as well.

I am therefore firmly in his corner when Guriel demands not only talent but signs of diligence in the poetry he favours. He seems intrigued by such questions as “What is a good poem?” and “What is a good poet?” and the answers he proposes often have to do with the way the poet has connected the language – the words themselves – with the purpose of the work. While defending their choices of subject matter (“small objects as good or better than righteous causes”), he challenges poets to keep those subjects firmly in mind as they choose their words, and as they construct the frames on which to place them.

Again and again Guriel opens a poem to show the reader its construction, increasing my admiration not only for Guriel, and (if the poem proves solid) for the poet who made the poem, but also for the discipline (!) of poetry as a whole. Talking about a George Johnston poem, for example, he says, “’War on the Periphery’ is neither pro- nor anti-war, and the tension between the singsong form and the grim, matter-of-fact subject matter stays nice and taut to the very end, like a hangman’s rope.” When I re-read the poem after that commentary – poetic in itself – I am not only enlightened, but delighted to have been shown how to see in a new way.

In the poets and poems he discusses, Guriel demonstrates his openness to both new and more traditional approaches to the writing of poetry, suggesting that the determination of writing excellence must be grounded in the reader’s exploration of the work itself, and is never the sole dominion of any one form or style. He delights in finding in a wide range of types of poetry a precise and perfectly felicitous word or turn of phrase. He is eloquent in his praise of a well-placed line break or a keen metaphor, as here in an essay about the poetry of Ann Carson: “Later, same poem, a ‘videotape jerks to a halt / like a glass slide under a drop of blood’,” a simile Guriel describes as “an incredibly specific sort of analog motion, recorded with the precision of an unblinking aperture.”

The Critic as Teacher

The Pigheaded Soul fulfilled my initial hope that it would introduce me to some poets I hadn’t known before, whose work I could now explore – three examples being Daryl Hine, Greg Ormsby and Kay Ryan. (I have probably just demonstrated the depths of my ignorance of the poetry canon to any informed readers who happen to have read this far. You were warned.) But his praise for the writers he enjoys is explained so specifically and well that it serves as a primer for readers who are eager to know more about how poets do their work.

For example, after describing Hine as “a virtuoso,” Guriel shows us why he has given him that designation. Here, he is talking about a poem called “Don Juan in Amsterdam”:

Hine cuts the near-naïve rhyme of ‘known in/born in’ with the off-rhymes ‘sea’/’say’ and even better ‘crossed’/’creased’, the stanza maturing and souring as it slumps, via the assonance of ‘stained and stale’ toward its exquisitely musty final image. ‘Love-disordered linen’ easily tops my Desert Island list for Best Image of Polluted Canal Water Ever (or Best Image of Soiled Post-Coital Bed Sheets Ever).

(Did I mention that Guriel is also funny? Sometimes he uses this gift for evil – as in an occasionally unkind but very amusing essay he wrote for Maisonneuve about the Griffin Poetry Prize presentations.)

Guriel also offers the less-initiated reader guidance in regard to poetic form, as in a review of a book by George Murray when he says, “A good sonnet usually depends on the strengths of its metaphors, a good metaphor, on a connection between tenor and vehicle that’s surprising (we didn’t anticipate it), but also logical (we could’ve anticipated it —if we’d had the poet’s vision).” Guriel’s exploration, with specific examples, of Murray’s poetic facility in this particular essay is, itself, worth the cover price of the book.

For me, however, the outstanding example in The Pigheaded Soul of Guriel’s beneficence as teacher is a two-page essay called “Travel Writing” in which he unpacks (I hate that word, but it seems less loaded than “deconstructs” in the context of poetry criticism) a single poem by Elise Partridge, “Vuillard Interior.” The essay left me breathless with admiration – at Partridge’s vast poetic talent, and at Guriel’s ability to see, and to brilliantly explain.

One of the intriguing questions with which The Pigheaded Soul has left me, one which I had not really thought about before but will mull as I read poetry in future, is the difference between poems that are created solely to become part of a themed or “concept” book, and poems that stand alone, are self-contained – each one constituting what Guriel describes as “A poem, not just poetry.”

The Critic as Human

Jason Guriel as a critic is not without his flaws. Like others of his kind (the sort to whom I referred long, long ago – i.e., in the opening section of this piece), it seems he cannot resist the urge to sink a knife or two into those whose work he disparages, even when it does not seem necessary or relevant to the subject at hand even to mention them. In his case, many of his victims are those considered icons by half of Canada’s reading public: Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, bpNichol. He says, and I agree with this on the basis of my extensive experience in the field of fiction-reading, -writing and -critiquing, “Surely we’ve reached a moment when critics who happen to possess a Canadian passport shouldn’t need to feel compelled to gin up more interest in the national poetry than they want to.” Nor am I defending the widespread public worship of these particular poets. Still, Guriel’s targets often seem – at least to me – a little easy: his parries intended at least in part to attract attention. His droll lacerations may produce in the reader a guilty thrill of schadenfreude, but I found myself wondering what other purpose they might serve.

(This is not to say that Guriel is not as eloquent and instructive when he is being negative as he is in his more laudatory moments. In “Godno,” a review of Yesno by Dennis Lee, he says, “… the overstated gap between a word and its meaning may be theoretically valid, but a good poet renders the gap irrelevant,” continuing the thought a few paragraphs later thus: “A reader [at least one not working on a dissertation or working to prop up a ‘beloved’ reputation] is under no obligation to engage with a poem, especially if that poem seems to be standing at a distance from its words, indifferent, paring its fingernails.” )

On the flip side of the same predilection, Guriel drops the names of poets he admires even when the context does not necessarily require that they be present: Robyn Sarah and Christian Wiman are clearly two of his favourites.

. . .  and culture

The “and culture” part of the subtitle of The Pigheaded Soul includes two interesting essays on poetry in prose (and the varying success of fiction-writers in creating believable poet characters), and a few that relate to Guriel’s obvious love of offbeat music, including a wonderful piece on Alex Chilton. Here Guriel guides me in an utterly unexpected direction as I find myself not only downloading “Like Flies on Sherbet” for myself and listening to it again and again, but also resolving to share the essay (“A Big Star Implodes”) and perhaps the music with my offbeat-music-loving sons.

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I’m sure that there are many who will say that the works that Jason Guriel discusses in this book are limited in range, unrepresentative of this or that perspective. I leave that for the poets and poetry critics to sort out. I am not proposing The Pigheaded Soul as the definitive assembly of words about contemporary poetry by any means, but I am declaring myself more than satisfied with this book as my own introduction to the genre.

As for my first (and possibly final) venture into critiquing the critiquers of the poets, there are those who will suggest, no doubt, that too much of this essay has been about me, and my responses to the book, rather than about the book itself and its author. They will also want to point out that no matter how ad-nauseum-atingly endlessly I acknowledge it, my lack of a broad perspective on the poetry firmament precludes their according any real gravitas to my views. To which I respond again: I am a reader. How many of us are there out here who are not poets, but nonetheless read poetry? Probably very few. But I’m sure I’m not the only one. What we think about what the poets and their critics do may not seem to matter, but it should.

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Sodom and Gomorrah (Vol. IV of In Search of Lost Time) – Marcel Proust

S&GSodom and Gomorrah

Volume IV of In Search of Lost Time

Marcel Proust

Translation: C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin

Revised by D. J. Enright

Random House

747 pages

According to reliable sources who have more time for counting such things than I do, the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust contain about 1.2 million words and (in the version I am reading) around 4,200 pages, and introduce as many as 2,000 characters. I started reading Proust’s mammoth novel about the same time as I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I was then in my forties, a time that for me included contemplating mountains and deciding that if I wanted to ascend them, I’d better get moving. I never did run a full 26.2 miles (although I did complete a half-marathon once), but I’ve just finished Volume IV of Proust’s novel, so on that resolution, I’m still going strong.

In fact, even though I’m reading it at the rate of about one volume per half decade, I am liking ISOLT better all the time. And to my amazement, Proust actually ended the volume I’ve just completed (Sodom and Gomorrah) with what I can only describe as a “Proustian cliff-hanger,” so I am itching to get on to Volume V (The Prisoner). I may actually pick it up in two years or so, rather than waiting five. (Fortunately, each volume includes synopses of each chapter, so that even if it has been four years and 300 pages since I last encountered Mme. Swann, I can easily go back and figure out who she is.)

One of Proust’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to describe the minutiae of his unnamed narrator’s daily life (a thinly veiled version of his own, which took place between 1871 and 1922) in a way that sustains the attention of the reader. However, his confidence that his words will draw us in and hold us frequently verges on the audacious. How many other writers would dare to devote 150 pages to the details of a single dinner party? (Thankfully, very few.)

It’s not as though the daily lives of Proust’s narrator, his family, friends, and acquaintances hold any real dramatic interest: in fact, almost nothing ever happens in ISOLT. In Sodom and Gomorrah, which opens in Paris and concludes later in the same summer at the northern seaside resort of Balbec (modeled after Cabourg), the major characters tend to rise from their beds near noon, have lunch, go visiting or walking or on other afternoon excursions, change and dress for dinner, and then eat, drink, talk, and occasionally fondle one another in the dark.

One of the reasons why the narrator’s recounting of events does not benumb us is that, in spite of the number of pages allocated to dinner parties and other social situations, they contain very little detail about what food was served, what the guests were wearing, or other superficialities. Instead Proust uses his narrator’s recollections of these events as springboards for contemplations of such matters as relationships among social strata, the role of “fashion” in appreciation of the arts, transportation, politics, and various manifestations of sexual preference (a primary focus of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the title of the volume suggests).

Europe was changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century, and by observing and reflecting on these changes and on how deeply they altered the world as it had been for decades and even centuries, Proust creates not only a rich and detailed study of the role in our lives of what he terms “involuntary memory,” but also a fascinating record of early 20th century France.

Social Structure

One area of vast upheaval during the early adulthoods of both Proust and his narrator involved the blurring of lines that had previously separated the nobility from the middle and working classes. Now, it was possible for Morel, the son of a servant, to sit at the dinner table of a woman like Mme. Verdurin — a career hostess with a keen awareness of the lineage and social standing of everyone with whom she associated.

Morel’s musical talent was his entree to Mme. Verdurin’s “little clan,” but the fact that he arrived on the arm of a person of royal lineage, Palamède, Baron de Charlus, didn’t hurt. “Being introduced” still mattered, and awareness of social hierarchy was still very much alive. The focus of much of the attention of Mme. Verdurin’s social group was on who was visiting whom, who was not, and why. (I was amused as I was reading Sodom and Gomorrah to note the similarities between it and another much more current book I have been dipping into for fun, The Social Climber’s Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile, by Dirk Wittenborn and Jazz Johnson.) In these circles, whether invitations happened to be accepted or declined was fraught with implications and meaning that related not only to absolute and relative social status (e.g., the capacity of a certain guest to open new doors for the host), through tastes in art and music and political positions (particularly vis á vis the Dreyfus affair, which was much in the news at the turn of the last century), to previous slights among guests and hosts.

Proust, whose own background could be considered middle class — his father was a pathologist, his mother also very intelligent and well read – is wickedly pointed and very funny in his descriptions of the airs and nastiness of his socially conscious characters. They seem oblivious to their silly obsessions: the little group listens patiently and even raptly as de Charlus describes his lineage in minute detail, but when another guest — Brichot — devotes equal time to the etymology of place names, they mock his endless, tiresome recitations.

Homosexuality

Sodom and Gomorrah focuses on two main characters aside from the narrator – de Charlus and Albertine Simonet – and it is through them that Proust explores his primary theme.

De Charlus is a wealthy, pompous widower of noble lineage who does not realize that the entire little universe that surrounds him is aware that he is “an invert” (as Proust labels it). The narrator becomes aware of the Baron’s inclination early on, when he overhears de Charlus and a gardener, Jupien, getting it on early one afternoon.

De Charlus is circumspect when he is accompanied by one of his young enamoratos or when the subject of homosexuality comes up in conversation, but in general he is so certain that no one would ever suspect him of being a “sodomite” that he feels quite comfortable prancing, mincing and giggling about whenever the spirit takes him. On one occasion he seems blissfully willing to go along with an invitation from Mme. Verdurin that he and Morel, the young violinist who has recently won his heart, should stay at her home – in adjoining rooms that are so well padded that no one anywhere else in the house will hear them rehearsing their musical presentations.

It is believed that Proust himself was homosexual (although — at least so far as I have read at this point — his narrator was not) and he is clearly sympathetic. His many long and detailed reflections include such topics as how “inverts” behave toward those to whom they are attracted vs toward those whom they love (comparing and contrasting their behaviour with that of heterosexuals in similar situations), and analyzing how they behave toward those they think know of their inclinations and those who they believe do not.

In contrast to the sympathy the narrator exhibits for the male homosexuals he knows is his disgust about the lesbian tendencies he perceives in a few of the women of his acquaintance, recoiling in horror at the very thought of women physically loving one another. Part of the reason for this dismay is certainly the narrator’s jealousy of Albertine (“but here the rival was not of the same kind as myself, had different weapons; I could not compete on the same ground, give Albertine the same pleasures, nor indeed conceive of them exactly.” p. 338). Nonetheless, his lack of tolerance for those of “sapphist” tendencies is all the more remarkable because of the aplomb with which he discusses the disposition of males who are physically drawn to one another — which surely must have been an outlier’s attitude in the society in which Proust lived.

Jealousy

The narrator of ISOLT through to the end of Volume IV is in poor health and is often irritatingly absorbed with his own fragility. His pouty need to be cosseted and cared for extends from his grandmother, his mother, and his maid to the young women with whom he becomes involved: his possessiveness towards the latter group borders on the pathological. There seems to be as much hatred as there is affection in the way he feels about Albertine, whose time and attention he consumes without consideration for anyone but himself, and who goes out of her way to accommodate him for no reason I can imagine.

On one occasion, his friend Bloch asks the narrator as a favour to get off the train which is waiting in a station to pay his respects to Bloch’s father, who is nearby. Albertine is with him in the train car, and the narrator is desperately afraid that she will begin to flirt with Robert de Saint-Loup, a rival, if he lets her out of his sight. Although he would have plenty of time to pay the visit, he puts his entire relationship with Bloch, a friend since childhood, into a permanent state of decline when he not only refuses to get off the train, but to provide an explanation (p. 682-4). Later, when after a protracted period of reflection he decides that he does not love Albertine and that he will break the relationship off with her immediately, all it takes is a suspicion that she has been drawn to someone else to bring him flying back in a possessive rage, demanding she stay with him day and night forever.

Immersion in An Era

Recently I have felt immersed in late-19th and early-20th century Europe. I started reading Sodom and Gomorrah just a few months after I finished The Hare with Amber Eyes – a nonfiction account of the misfortunes of the Ephrussi family (which appears under a pseudonym in Proust’s novel).  I have also been reading Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, as well as a biography of the British designer and writer William Morris.

Having, along with Stephen Fry, mulled over Richard Wagner’s antisemitism while watching the film Wagner and Me, attempting with mixed success to frame it in the context of the time in which he lived, I was intrigued to read on p. 384 of Sodom and Gomorrah that I was reading about that very time: Mme. Verdurin “trembled at the thought of seeing [certain] provincials, ignorant of the Ring and the Meistersinger, introduced into [the midst of her little group], people who would be unable to pay their part in the concert of general conversation and were capable of ruining one of those famous Wednesdays, masterpieces as incomparably fragile as those Venetian glasses which one false note is enough to shatter.”

And while reports began to surface about the Charlie Hebdo massacres and their aftermaths, revealing the limits of free speech and the extent of antisemitism and anti-Islamism in France, I happened upon the following passage in Sodom and Gomorrah: “For Dreyfusism was triumphant politically but not socially. Labori, Reinach, Piquart, Zola were still, to people in society, more or less traitors, who could only keep them estranged from the little nucleus” (p. 384).

Some things, I’m very sad to see, may never change.

Proust’s Narrator

The unnamed Narrator of Proust’s novel is not only aware of the flaws of those he sees around him, and aware of the ways in which society is changing in the large picture, he is also self aware. While this self-awareness brings on irritation on the part of the reader as well as the narrator as he describes his own flaws,  it also inspires some of the novel’s finest passages. One afternoon he is riding on horseback along the cliffs beside the sea, bemoaning the habits he’s got into at Balbec that are holding him back from so much real and imagined work and pleasure. He says

Suddenly my horse reared; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle; then I raised my tear-filled eyes in the direction from which the sound seemed to come and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two great wings of flashing metal which were bearing him aloft, a creature whose indistinct face appeared to me to resemble that of a man. I was deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demigod. I wept — for I had been ready to weep the moment I realized that the sound came from above my head, at the thought that what I was going to see for the first time was an aero plane. Then, just as when in a newspaper that one is coming to a moving passage, the mere sight of the machine was enough to make me burst into tears. Meanwhile the airman seemed to be uncertain of his course; I felt that there lay open before him — before me, had not habit made me a prisoner — all the routes in space, in life itself; he flew on, let himself glide for a few moments over the sea, then quickly making up his mind, seeming to yield to some attraction that was the reverse of gravity, as though returning to his native element, with a slight adjustment of his golden wings he headed straight up into the sky. (p. 582)

Admonished to “write what you know,” most writers have no idea how to make that material of interest to other people. Proust did. As in the 150-page-dinner party, nothing much ever happens, but thanks to the author’s keen eye, his humour, and his intellect, the reader is mesmerized. Reading ISOLT is sort of like getting into a carriage that is drawn slowly around the countryside. We can see the detail – the unfurling of the flowers and the ocean views from the gardens of the villas –  and we get to know the peccadilloes of the people who inhabit the landscape so well that they would become intolerable if we had to live with them any longer than we do. But just in the nick of time, we move on.

The importance of memory is one of the major themes of the entire seven-volume work, and the novel itself serves as a chronicle of much that might otherwise have been forgotten. It is a pleasure to be reading it as the events that make up my own life unfold and gradually retreat into the past. Proust reminds us to pay attention.

Água Viva – Clarice Lispector

LispectorÁgua Viva

Clarice Lispector

Translated by Stefan Tobler

88 pages

New Directions Books

Although Água Viva is officially classified as fiction, it is likely to appeal more to those with a taste for poetry than to those who prefer the more familiar manifestations of prose. Água Viva lacks narrative structure: in fact, one reviewer described it as “non-narrative fiction” — whatever that means. For the most part the author betrays even her own basic construct, which is that this work has been written by an unnamed narrator — a painter who is exploring the artistic possibilities of the writing medium for the first time — to a lover from whom she has been temporarily and unwillingly parted.

Despite the wrench she claims to feel at his departure, the “other” to whom the writing is ostensibly addressed is not important to this work. For most of Água Viva, the narrator seems to be speaking only to herself, and when she does speak of the one who is away, it is not to provide us with any information about that person or his relationship to her, nor even to engage with him in any concrete way, but only to more fully explore the meanderings of her own thought processes. I often found myself thinking that the work would have succeeded equally well as an interior dialogue. The narrator seems to agree: late in the book, she says, “We will meet this afternoon. And I won’t even talk to you about this that I’m writing and which contains what I am and which I give you as a present though you won’t read it. You will never read what I’m writing. And when I note down my secret of being—I shall throw it away as if into the sea.”

But when read as a series of meditations, or linked poems, rather than than as any kind of coherent conversation, Água Viva is frequently stunning, often lovely and nearly always stimulating. (Like most internal dialogues, it is also occasionally boring.) It contains meditations on many subjects, among them flowers, music, days of the week, God, sleep and mirrors (“a tiny piece of the mirror is always the whole mirror”). It is a meditation on writing (“So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word — between the lines — takes the bait, something has been written”).

But primarily it is a meditation on time. Lispector’s narrator says, “I want to grab hold of the is of the thing…. I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too, I am this very second forever in the now.” And then, “Is my theme the instant? the theme of my life.” Observations and ruminations such as these cause the reader to stop, sometimes with a sharp intake of breath, to admire and re-read. Lispector is intelligent, insightful, and a brilliant wordsmith. (“Then I live the blue daybreak that comes with its bulge full of little birds.”) She is a poet.

Clarice Lispector, who wrote in Portuguese and has been been by turns acclaimed as one of the most important Jewish writers and one of the most important Brazilian writers, can be frighteningly dark. Some passages are so infused with nightmarish imagery that they seem suited to musical treatment by Diamonda Galás:

The liturgy of the dissonant swarms of the insects that emerge from the foggy and pestilential swamps. Insects, frogs, lice, flies, fleas and bedbugs – all born of the corrupted diseased germination of larvae. And my hunger is fed by these putrefying beings in decomposition.

Lispector was born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1920. Her family fled soon after to Brazil to escape the atrocities to which Jews in Ukraine were subjected following the first world war. Her mother, paralyzed, had been raped in the pogroms, and died when Clarice was nine.

Given the appalling events that marked her early life, the miracle of this book is not its darkness, but its joy. The work opens with hallelujahs and concludes with the narrator’s determined resolution to be joyful (“Because it’s too cruel to know that life is just one time and that we have no guarantee outside our faith in shadows – because it’s too cruel, so I respond with the purity of an untamable happiness”).

The narrative curve of Água Viva not is not described by plot, but by emotion. It begins on a peak, with the kind of elation that can sometimes be torn from parting, then wends its way down and around the inside of a self through the darkness, chaos, and questions that one can experience only in solitude, to emerge with the narrator’s hard-won but powerful decision to live, to love and – most of all – to be happy.

“I am ferociously alive – and I lick my snout like a tiger who has just devoured a deer.”

In Lispector’s prose, as in good poetry, those readers who are willing to work for it will find elation, despair, kindred-spirit-hood – and maybe even anthems.

Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday

 

A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy himself — and threaten the health of the farm animals, and therefore the Ryders’ livelihood. Intensifying the devastation, Billy’s father’s decision to stay on his land and fight the gas company gradually pulls the family apart, and drives a wedge between the Ryders and other families in the community – almost all of whom who have  benefitted economically from the presence of the gas plant.

It is an ironic side effect of the family’s deterioration that as an adult, Bill ends up working as manager of an oilsands upgrader in northern Alberta. Now close to retirement, his choice of a career in the petroleum industry seems to have betrayed everything his father stood for — or failed to stand for. Bill’s life has been marked by a self-torment that has manifested itself in a gambling addiction and an apparently endless cycle of bad decisions. And then, at last, a crisis at the upgrader forces him not only to confront his past, but also to face himself.

Stenson is the highly regarded author of the acclaimed historical novels The Trade and Lightning, as well as of five other works of fiction and seven of nonfiction. In this new novel, he brings his enviable writing talents — which include the ability to create memorable, flawed and sympathetic characters, and an uncanny facility for evoking in a few words not only the landscape of the province of Alberta (no matter what the season or terrain) but also his deep affection for it — to bear on issues that face us all. We are the Ryders, growing sicker by the day from our over-reliance on gas and oil, but we are also the community that shuns the Ryders: our economic well being, too, depends on the continuing exploitation of our fossil fuels.

Like the unknown Jewish poet who long ago presented so many possible scenarios in response to the question of “Who will live and who will die?” —

Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst? ….

– we realize that any outcomes to this conflict over oil and gas will not be straightforward, or painlessly accomplished. And in the meantime our hostility and indecision are not only ravaging the Earth, they are also eroding our humanity.

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