Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Dancing, with Mirrors, by George Amabile

The true poet knows how long it can take for the heart to distill what the eye sees. In the case of George Amabile, this process can (and often does) take decades. The connection between the eye and the heart – that is, the acute visualization of experience and the subsequent emotional rendering of it into poetry – is the hallmark of George Amabile’s work, a talent clearly and most affectingly on display in his new collection of poems, Dancing, with Mirrors.

I suppose I should disclose here that I knew George a bit during my time in Winnipeg. He and I bent our elbows together on more than one occasion and we had many wonderful chats about the writing life. I also attended the launch of his previous book Tasting the Dark (New and Selected Poems) when it was released back in 2001. That collection had and continues to have a big effect on me: I often pull it down from the shelf and spot-read my favourite pieces from it. So it was immensely pleasurable to see that Dancing, with Mirrors not only extends the explorations of George Amabile’s earlier poems but actually contains echoes of them within it.

The new collection is comprised of 11 cantos, each examining some deeply personal and richly felt aspect of the author’s life. He tackles both the big moments – finding love with a younger woman, having a child late in life – as well as the seemingly more mundane events, like travelling abroad or dealing with another frigid Prairie winter. Yet nothing is mundane in a George Amabile poem. Through a traditionalist’s reliance on the power of description and metaphor, he is able to infuse an entire heart’s worth of insight into the objects and relationships he sees around him. Many lines achieve their ends through the most astounding brevity (a night sky described thusly: “the moon a pearl among diamonds/ the empty sleeves/ of the sea”; or his child Evan in bed: “no blanket, his legs tucked/ under his chest, shadow bars/ like prison stripes across/ his back …”) while others build up over several stanzas to a breathtaking crescendo. What’s more, many of these poems overlap and call back to earlier Amabile pieces in ways that both haunt and elucidate.

The most harrowing example of this happens in the canto called “What We Take with Us, Going Away.” The poem’s narrator, on vacation in Italy, goes out to a café following a tiff with his partner. Upon coming home, his car slams into a motorcyclist who has veered into his lane. The description of the impact is ghastly enough: “[H]is heavy, T-shirted shoulders/ rise and there’s a/ sickening thud/ when his head hammers the roof, just above/ the suddenly spiderwebbed windshield …” But then the poem goes to whole other unsettling level when it conjures up, in post-traumatic fashion, George’s earlier poem “Accidental Death,” about the death of his younger brother when they were children out riding their bikes:

I heard the rattle of a dump truck, a screech
of brakes, then the gunshot
of a burst tire. Over my shoulder,
a splitsecond glimpse of handlebars
raking the air at a sick angle,
milky smoke and a black
smear on the highway. I was in the air
when his body slammed on the grass
shoulder, rolled up in a heap.
I landed running, tearing
his name loose
from my throat.

This version of the poem is slightly different than the one that appears in Tasting the Dark (which in turn is slightly different than the version in George’s 1972 collection Blood Ties, where “Accidental Death” originally appeared); but it’s that variation, that kaleidoscopic view on a singular event through the prism of poetry, that makes the flashback – and thus the traffic accident in Italy – so disturbing and fresh.

This kind of “intertextuality” happens again, this time in the title canto of the new collection. “Dancing, with Mirrors” is of course a variant on “Dancing in the Mirror,” a poem that appears in both Tasting the Dark and in the 1995 collection Rumours of Paradise/Rumours of War. Here I felt less open to George’s textual mischief, but only because I love “Dancing in the Mirror” so damn much. Indeed, it took achieving my thirties (and a few blown relationships along the way) before I could grasp the full impact of lines like “Of course, the telephone/ helps, but those few you could say/ anything to, those you have known/ for years keep slipping away/ into marriages, or solitudes of their own” or what the “bell-buoy heart’s red wash” means. In the new version, the poem switches from second person to third and takes on a mesmerizing mixture of dream-like effervescence and coy specificity:

she begins to trust
her ears; the ticking
snow, far-off, echo-y
tires on wet streets, the sadness
of time. And there’s no one to kiss
her to sleep again, so she hugs
her pillow hard to the hollow
undertow that aches and leaves
her weak, knees
to her chin, her eyes
pinched against the spurs
of light that have already started
to flare in around her
Japanese window shade.

It’s the eye’s job to see and the heart’s eye to know, and this is the wisdom that George Amabile has been blessed with. Dancing, with Mirrors, through the courage of its metaphors and the trust it places in distilled experience, is a book willing to share its quiet wisdom with us. The message could be quaint in lesser hands but here it is siren call to how life itself might be lived: “Love is a mirror/ in which we learn to dance.” So too, might it be said, about the poetry itself.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: Hannus, by Rachel Lebowitz

When the past is elusive and historical characters stay frustratingly inscrutable, poetry can often step up to fill in the gaps. Canada has a rich tradition of rendering historical figures through the art of a poem, and it often involves deliberate fragmentation, elliptical imagery, non-linear narrative, or acts of pure imagination to tell us something new about a recognizable character.

Rachel Lebowitz, in her 2006 collection Hannus, takes a slightly different approach to this tradition. Her subject, while not exactly famous, is someone she “knows” intimately well through the lore and artifacts passed down through her family: her great grandmother, Ida Basilia Hannus, a Finnish-Canadian suffragist living in the isolated island community of Sointula in British Columbia in the early part of the 20th century. The community is founded as a kind of socialist utopia within turn-of-the-century Canada, and Ida is a complex character struggling to balance her sharp political beliefs with her role as a mother to children she’s had by two separate men.

Through a scrapbook approach that includes letters, newspaper articles, photographs and other ephemera, as well some beautifully crafted straight-up poems, Lebowitz provides us with a refreshingly lyrical and accessible portrait of a historical persona. The key to unlocking the mysteries behind Ida’s tale is, for me at least, the extensive family tree included at the beginning of the book. This delineation of relationships and timelines is paramount not only for keeping the characters straight but also for opening up the deeper implications of their interactions with one another and the historical context in which they live. Hannus is as much a tale about Sointula’s “failure” with socialism as it is about Ida herself, and the fact that Lebowitz braids these two elements together in a linear way does a lot to make the book a compelling read.

If I had one criticism – not that it is one, really – it’s that we don’t necessarily get enough examples of Lebowitz’s own verse in every section. This is a strange thing to say about a poetry collection that totals some 170+ pages, but I sometimes felt like the ephemera was crowding out the poetry in certain places. There is no doubt that Lebowitz has some serious chops – she is a writer we should be paying attention to – but I did long to see even more of what she’s capable of. Thankfully, the scuttlebutt is that she has another book on the way, so no worries there.

Side note

Here are some examples of other “poetic renderings” I’ve enjoyed in the past.

king’s(mere), by Nathan Dueck (Turnstone, 2004) – about our kookiest Prime Minister to date, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Tom Three Persons, by Yvonne Trainer (Frontenac House, 2002) – about the fabled First Nations rodeo star.

Bloody Jack, by Dennis Cooley (Turnstone, 1984) – about the Manitoban outlaw John Krafchenko.

The “Province House” section of Guesswork, by Jeffery Donaldson (Goose Lane Editions, 2011) – about Sir John A. Macdonald. My full review.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review: Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoy

My plan to finish Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, arguably the most romantic story in all of world literature, by Valentine’s Day fell a bit short. This, despite having begun the novel during the third week of January (the darkest part of winter being, of course, the ideal time to take on heftier literary tomes.) Indeed, according to my reading log, it took me 24 days to get through the book’s 853 pages. Please do not interpret this as an indictment on the book’s quality or on my abilities to read. It was a very busy few weeks.

Many consider Anna Karenin to be the greatest novel ever written, and now, having actually read it, I can attest that the reputation is probably warranted. The story—and its tragic ending—are well known by now: the titular heroine abandons her loveless marriage to take up a passionate affair with a younger cavalry officer named Vronsky. Anna is strong-willed and desirous, but also prone to paranoia and other forms of emotional unhinging. Put in the impossible position of choosing between her lover and her son (not to mention her place in Russia’s deeply hierarchical aristocracy), her predicament slowly unravels. The novel ends with what is probably literature’s best-known scene: Anna, in a fit of absolute despair and insanity, throwing herself under the wheels of a train.

There is much to be said about Tolstoy’s uncanny skill at diving into his many characters’ many psychological layers. Saying that even the most peripheral player in this novel is drawn in three full dimensions seems both obvious and inadequate. Anna Karenin is written from the sort of omniscient third-person perspective that has become increasingly rare in our literature, to its detriment. Tolstoy makes every examination—from Anna’s simple hatred of her husband’s jutting-out ears to the complex relationship between Levin (considered to be a stand-in for Tolstoy himself) and his love interest Kitty—believable and warranted. There is no fat to this text, despite its length. Everything fits into the broader theme.

What that theme is may vary from reader to reader, but for my money this is a novel ultimately about fidelity. Fidelity, that is, in the grandest and most multifarious sense of the term. We’re not talking simply about Anna betraying her husband or society betraying her back for her wanton ways. We're not even talking about Levin's undulating faith in himself and Kitty's love and loyalty to him. What we face in this book is the shifting plates of what fidelity means in a world overcome with change and upheaval (as Russia was during the time that this novel is set). Even the scenes that detail at length the agricultural history of Russia, as told through the lens of Levin as a rural landowner, fit into this greater dichotomy of fidelity to an ideal versus the ability to change with the shifting of one’s heart. It is, however, through the character of Anna herself where we see these ideas play themselves out most disastrously. Anna must learn that sometimes an act of infidelity can be the best, most moral decision one can make. And when that step is made, we must come to trust the new reality it creates, to become faithful to the choice we make. This is her chief failure—not to believe in the love she has built up with Vronksy—and it is, ultimately, the catalyst of her undoing.

Tolstoy has left us with not one but two landmarks of world literature. War and Peace may be an epic on a grand, geopolitical scale, but to my mind Anna Karenin is the superior work. It is more human, more tragic, and thus a much richer experience.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reminder: Reading this Sunday at The Only Cafe

Hey friends and neighbours: Just a friendly reminder that I'll be doing a reading this Sunday, February 12, at one of my favourite watering holes here in Toronto, The Only Café, as part of the Draft Reading Series. The event starts at 3 pm, but I recommend you get there early as the space is small and the headliner is the always-engaging Stuart Ross, who tends to draw a crowd.

Here are the particulars:

Where: The Only Café - 966 Danforth Ave at Donlands (it's actually in the next-door café section called, wonderfully enough, The One. [But don't worry, you can still bring beer over from the bar side.])

When: Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 3 pm.

The lineup:
Ann Elizabeth Carson
Kathryn Mockler
Stuart Ross
Mark Sampson
Noreen Shanahan

And SPEAKING OF BEER: The Only is famous around these parts for its vast selection of European and Canadian beers. Their array of Belgian (Leffe and Duval being among my favourites), German and Quebecqois beers, not to mention a number of high quality Ontario craft brews on tap, is pretty much peerless in the city. Plus, check out the place's ambiance and tell me it doesn't remind you of your first apartment during undergrad. Anyway, it's a fabulous place to drink away an afternoon, so I hope you'll join us on Sunday if you can.