Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: Misshapenness, by J.J. Steinfeld

I hesitate to label this a review because I’ve known J.J. Steinfeld for five or six years now and he has become a good friend. J.J. moved to Charlottetown in 1980 after abandoning grad school in Ontario to become a full-time writer, and in the years since has quietly amassed a varied and impressive body of work – some 13 books, including two novels, nine short story collections, and two collections of poems, of which Misshapenness, published by Ekstasis Editions just before Christmas, is the second.

Not nearly enough readers are aware of J.J.’s work. In fact, despite having grown up in Charlottetown, I didn’t even learn of his existence until I was nearly 30. You may not see many of his books around, but if you’re a big reader of literary journals here in Canada, you’ve no doubt encountered J.J.’s stuff. This man has been published everywhere. You’d be hard pressed to find a single literary journal in this country that hasn’t published at least one of his stories or poems over the years.

The poems collected in Misshapenness (many of which were previously published in journals in Canada, the US, Britain and even South America) pick up on the themes that J.J. explored in his first poetry collection, 2006’s An Affection for Precipices. His preoccupation with the absurdity of daily existence, with the Kafkaesque turns that life can throw at us, as well as with the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the children of its survivors (of which J.J. is one) are all here. And yet I found that Misshapenness affected me more than anything else of his that I’ve read. It’s a powerful distillation of what he has been exploring, book after book, for the last 30 years. There is a line in the collection’s opening poem that captures so perfectly what J.J.’s lifelong work has been trying to record: “the heartbeats of madness overheard.”

These are poems that bear witness to and shake a fist at the very notion of evil, of senseless and unpredictable chaos, of the randomness of both joy and pain. But before you go thinking that this is all too bleakly existential to bare, take heart: so many of these poems are teeming with humanity and a profound tenderness. The closing stanza of “The Sun Aglow in Wisdom” left me brimming with hope: “another morning/the sun aglow in wisdom/and I feel devout”. And I smiled all the way through his poem “During the Unhappiest Happy Hour”, wondering if love really does weigh more than sadness, if my insecurities will ever be lighter than my arrogance.

J.J. addresses the idea of God in a number of these poems, but I wonder if Misshapenness comes at itself with an atheistic sensibility. It’s as if the collection is saying: life is a window of chaos between two infinite periods of oblivion, and there is much to witness there in the randomness, both cruel and beautiful. It is really all we have. It is our unhappiest of happy hours.

And how bewitching, that such an idea would fill me with hope.

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