Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Whiteout, by George Murray

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I attempt to review—even just briefly—virtually every book I read over the course of a year. It’s no easy task. But a curious thing happened back in 2011 when I read George Murray’s collection of sonnets The Rush to Here. Here was a poetry book that I enjoyed quite a lot, and yet found that I had nothing really constructive to say about it. It’s not that I didn’t admire the book—I did. I thought it was great. But I struggled to articulate why. So rather than force myself to put down thoughts I didn’t actually have, I thought it wiser to just remain silent.

I’ve had no such issue with Murray’s new collection, Whiteout. This book is a tiny tour de force, a gently but meticulously crafted array of poems about life, death, love, and the randomness of the universe. Indeed, Whiteout spins itself into its own little galaxy, tugging at us with the gravitational pull of life’s arbitrary moments. Murray understands that joy and tenderness can arise out of such machinations, but so too can chaos and catastrophe.

A fine example of theses ideas in action is his poem “St. John’s.” On one level, the piece takes us on a briny, beery tour of that city’s downtown, but there is also something larger at play. Murray hints at the possibility of alternate universes in this poem with lines like: “Your future could lean in that door and you/ might not recognize it as anything/ but the next in another series of nows.” And he closes this exploration with an arresting statement that halted me in my tracks:

… Somewhere under
every inch of skin is a Venn diagram

with lovers overlapping just so,
and it’s here I want us to be. No one asked,
What if there’s only the one universe?
If it turns out there is, then one is enough.

For me this statement hung over the entirety of the book, a kind of neutral resignation to the random power that life can exact upon us. I saw these ideas at play when I went back and reread “The Uncountable”, with its lines “Mass exists, numbers exist, but there’s no/ power one has over the other without/ the intrusion of our invention.” And I also saw it in the violence of his poem “The Ants”, where a bomb blast at an opera house leaves the audience in a state of shock as they “stumbled about like straggled/ scalpers calling out spares and outrageous asks.”

If this all sounds a bit intense, rest assured that Murray is capable of great playfulness here, too. His piece “Song of a Divorce Budget” uses traditional rhyme and the assemblage of puns to build a fun little counting poem about one of life’s least fun experiences.

Other critics of said it and I’m happy to echo them: Murray is at the height of his powers in Whiteout. This book is a great place to start if you haven’t read him before, with lots of ideas and imagery to savour.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse, by Phoebe Tsang

Sensuality and fairy tales abound in this 2009 debut poetry collection by Hong Kong-born, Canadian-based violinist Phoebe Tsang. There is a rich (some might say overtired) tradition in our literature of firing the tropes of classic fairy tales through the lens of contemporary living; but Tsang breathes new life into the genre by focusing her verse on an oft-overlooked aspect of those traditional yarns for kids: the erotic.

Indeed, in poem after poem, Tsang peels back our expectations of what can be conveyed through a traditional image for kids—a mermaid, a black cat, a pig with an apple in its mouth—to reveal a visceral world of lust, desire and even violence underneath. Take, for example, her poem “With Cherries for Eyes.” Even the most prudish schoolmarm would notice the steamy flush that accompanies the following lines:

My suckling piglet, my prize.
You have come here through fire, red and well-oiled.

You lie there, legs sprawled wide as a treat—a sweetmeat—
with your glazed maraschino-eyes.

And the telltale apple between your lips
as if yours was a death by choking—burning—unsatisfied—

Or take the piece “Golden Goose Pie”. Here the bodily desires go airbourne, climbing the proverbial beanstalk toward some elusive crescendo, a passionate peak. Tsang writes: “You carry me on your back like Hercules/ and I wonder: Is there a giant in you/who eats girls for breakfast?” Her climatic stanza begins, “If it’s true we are/ what we eat, I have swallowed/ a sapling whole and now/ must rise each day entwined/ in tendrils …”

These preoccupations culminate in what I felt was the best and most explosive poem in the book, “His Mistress the Witch.” Lured in like Hansel and Gretel, we cannot escape the immediate eroticism of the poem’s opening salvo, “She tastes like gingerbread—/ fresh from the oven/after the icing’s licked off—”? The candied carnality continues with lines like:

When your tongue finally
reached her nectar
all you could do was lap faster
greedy as a kitten
for the sweet cream
liquid sugar ebbing    

But what really brought me home, so to speak, in this small masterpiece was the linguistic volleys that Tsang deploys. Gently jarring rhymes—often enacted mid-line—occur throughout the poem (“And how could you forget the thirsty/ miles alone in the desert before/ the woods were grown”); and an understated use of alliteration and assonance provide the piece with much of its propulsion. Yet what made me want to read “His Mistress the Witch” over and over (and over, and over) again was its searing climax, which seems to coalesce all of Tsang’s preoccupations into one concentrated thatch of verse:

… her nutmeg and cinnamon skin,
and as the glucose high
kicked in, it seemed
all of life’s questions
had simmered
to one longing distilled:

what would you give
to sleep with a witch—
inside a witch’s bed,
under a witch’s candied canopy
(that melts peppermint relief
onto your raw red face),
while heat rises
from the oven, where
your own children are being fed
like kindling, daily bread
to keep your home fires burning.

If the hornier side of fairy tales is not your thing, then Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse offers other delights. Tsang has a real knack for verbal illustration—she describes a medicine cabinet as “flat-chested”; she describes an orchestra as “attentive as wait staff/ at an upscale restaurant”—and there is, not surprisingly for a professional violinist, a certain musicality to much of her writing. This little book is definitely worth picking up.    

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove

As I approach this thoughtful and well-organized overview of the 40-year poetry career of John Newlove, I feel at once uniquely equipped and wholly underqualified to assess its merits. This is because, with the exception of a few anthologies and lit mag reprints, my experience with Newlove’s work has been fairly sparse. I remember his name still being bandied about in the English department hallways at the University of Manitoba when I was there in 2000-2002, but I had few occasions to read anything by him. So perhaps I’m coming to these collected poems with little baggage. Or, perhaps, little context.

No matter. Editor Robert McTavish has done a stellar job in his chronological selecting from and organizing of Newlove’s oeuvre, providing us with a thorough and overarching view into the man’s poetry. Mind you, I could have done without Jeff Derksen’s illiterate and turgidly academic afterword—shocking, that this kind of “scholarly” dross still gets published—but I didn’t allow his convoluted and suffocating pleonasms to spoil my enjoyment of the poems. McTavish, in his work, has stuck to organizing the pieces in the order of their original collections’ publication, rather than trying to group them by theme. The book is stronger for it.

It goes without saying that you get a real window into the development of a poet’s voice when his selected works are laid out in this manner. Newlove’s first collection, Grave Sirs, was published in 1961, when he was just 23; his second, Elephants, Mothers & Others, was released two years later. There is evidence in both of an earnest young man still trying to nail down his craft. You can see this in the arresting misogyny of “My Daddy Drowned” or the stunted framing of "Birds, Dear." Naturally, as the collections progress, the poems get better. I was left stunned by the final line of “Kamsack,” a poem from his 1965 collection Moving in Alone, in the way that it reveals a self awareness so uncommon in a man not yet thirty. Here the poem is in its entirety:

Plump eastern saskatchewan river town,
where even in the depression it’s said the wheat
went thirty bushels and was full-bodied,
the river laying good black dirt each year:
but I found it arid, as young men will

By the time Newlove won the Governor General’s Award for his 1972 collection Lies, his poetry had become ensconced in the rhythms of prairie regionalism and the nationalistic agenda of CanLit as a whole. I don’t mean that entirely as a dig. There is something in Newlove’s voice that transcends the pack with which he ran; one gets the sense reading, say, “Every Muddy Road” or “My Dreams” (with its delightfully disturbing first stanza) that Newlove was unafraid to reach for the universal, to write sly, occasionally crass poems alongside the nationalistic observations that would help earn him Canada Council grants.

Still, the prairies loom large in Newlove’s corpus of work, and this is no more evident than in his long poem The Green Plain, published in 1981. (Or is it 1979? There is a discrepancy in A Long Continual Argument.) The cadence here is a tour de force of crafty line breaks and rhythmic descriptions, unleashing images of plains, forests, stars and farmland alongside ruminations on the larger world. Reading it, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of another great prairie poet, Dennis Cooley. And I mean that literally. Go online and find a clip of Cooley reciting his work, then come back and read this excerpt from The Green Plain. See what I mean? It’s amazing how Newlove is able to replicate a thick prairie accent almost entirely through enjambment. I wager this work played a key role in inspiring the entire genre of the prairie long poem that flourished in the 1980s.

As Newlove got older, his poetry grew increasingly meta. I suppose this was inevitable. Still, there are numerous gems to encounter as you get deeper and deeper into A Long Continual Argument. “The Permanent Tourist Comes Home” teems with sharp observations about middle age—the death of parents, the visits home, the horror of starting over (it closes with the chilling line: “Awkwardly, I am in love again”). “Big Mirror”, by contrast, is a fun, playful take on a visit to the dentist, using battered grammar to represent a temporarily disabled mouth. Indeed, Newlove grew interested in writing about the limitations and inconveniences of an aging body as he entered his final years. His poem “The Examination” shows how our fate can be sealed within the larger genetic tapestry of our families.

A Long Continual Argument wisely ends with “The Death of the Hired Man” (“He collapsed like a sack of wet shit,/ which is what we all are, if you think of it”), a fitting swan song to cap off a life, a career, at its summit. Newlove left us with an impressive body of work, a rawness and honesty about the world he came from as well the world of the self. He was unafraid to put even his harshest observations through the musicality of his art. As he puts it so sagely in his long poem “White Philharmonic Novels”: “What good is a witness/ who will not tell his tale?”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Quill and Quire review of Every Little Thing, by Chad Pelley ...

is now online at the Q&Q website.

What's interesting about this review is that the first draft was far more negative than what eventually got published, but my editor wisely came back to me a few days after submitting it to ask if I wanted to take another look at my piece, now that I'd gained some distance from it. He didn't tell me to rewrite it or tone it down. He merely asked, in a very respectful way, if I could just make sure I was still okay with what I'd written, having had some time away from it. I was really glad he did this, because having cooled down after reading Pelley's book (yes, I hated it that much), I realized that the initial draft of my review probably did cross a boundary in terms of its vitriol, so I took another pass at it. I even managed to work in something positive to say. As a result, I feel that the published version is a much stronger and more balanced review. It just goes to show that a good editor knows how to gently guide a writer towards making good decisions and to re-consider his approach when it's warranted. Thankfully, Quill & Quire has one of the best.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Arguably – Essays, by Christopher Hitchens

When Christopher Hitchens—the British-born, American-based polemicist and author, famous for his antitheist screed God is Not Great—died in December 2011, a certain pall fell over the intellectual circles in which I travel. For those who quietly (or not so quietly) embrace humanism and see the Enlightenment as the pinnacle of our species’ achievement, Hitchens was a kind of patron saint. In recent years, his regular TV appearances have been rendered into shareable YouTube clips, showing him in the full bloom of his genius as he eviscerates some gormless religious fanatic or other. He was also unafraid to skewer feminists, academics or other ostensible allies should they get a bit too far up his kilt. Indeed Hitchens, who spent decades identifying himself as a socialist, alienated many on the traditional Left by coming out in favour of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But whether you liked him, hated him, felt betrayed by him, or merely feared him, there was no denying that his was one of the great minds of the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

Arguably, published after his death from esophageal cancer, collects the last ream and a half of Hitchens’ geopolitical writing, literary criticism, long-form profiles and other journalistic ephemera, spanning from about 1999 to just a few months before he died. I use the term “ephemera” only partially pejoratively here: these articles, most of which first appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, and The New Statesman, do possess a certain Grub Street grind to their tone and raison d’etre. A lot of the pieces in this book—in fact, I would argue almost half of them—really aren’t worthy of the annals of posterity, and will stand more as quickly crafted artifacts of a certain period of history, rather than imperishable or definitive analysis of our modern times. But it doesn’t really matter. Even when hacking out a couple thousand words on Hugo Chavez, the conflict in Afghanistan, the latest Harry Potter novel, or the death of Benazir Bhutto, Hitchens is sharper and more succinct than the next 10 best nonfiction scribblers combined.

He was, without a doubt, the go-to journalist when you wanted to gain a panoramic view on some geopolitical issue. And therein lies his great strength: he was a true polymath, someone who could take so many disparate pieces of knowledge and weave them together into a cohesive whole. He understood, with great profundity, how the butterfly effects of history could ripple through our civilization and shape the world we now live in. Writing in a period when most alleged intellectuals willfully pigeonhole themselves and see the world through a singular prism, Hitchens was ever-expansive, able to bring to bear the wisdom of poetry and novels on all manner of the world’s geopolitical strife. He was the type of writer where context was everything; he believed wholly in the idea that the world was a knowable place if you were willing to work hard at knowing it. Arguably captures much of this genius and generosity. If you want to challenge your opposition to the Iraq war, learn the idiocy behind the term Islamophobia, understand the broader context of the 2008 economic collapse, or learn about seismology’s relationship to democracy, than this is the book for you.

Or, if those topics are not your thing, you can still pop by to see what Hitchens thought about P.G. Wodehouse. Or John Updike. Or the underhanded way that waiters pour wine. Or why women aren’t funny. (Actually, Hitchens’ tongue is so deeply in cheek in that piece that its tone falls wildly out of step with the rest of the book.) Or why he admires Graham Greene. In fact, his two pieces on Greene—one a review of a 2005 biography, the second an introduction to a new edition of Our Man in Havana—provide some of Hitchens’ juiciest bon mots. The following passage captures Greene’s catholic approach to travel splendidly:

A journalist, most especially an Anglo-American travel writer, will run the risk of disappointing his editor if he visits Saigon and leaves out any reference to quiet Americans, or turns in a piece from Havana that fails to mention the hapless Wormold. As for Brighton, or Vienna, or Haiti—Greene was there just before you turned up.

It goes without saying that, in a book this huge, there are going to be plenty of disappointments. Take, for example, Hitchens’ two “travel” pieces on North Korea. While he isn’t exactly wrong in dismissing the country outright as a slave state, he does miss the opportunity to put the North Korean situation into a broader historical context, to elucidate how 35 years of Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century really shaped that regime’s self image and unique approach to totalitarianism. Hitchens has no qualms providing Islamic dictatorships with generous helpings of context, but his analysis of North Korea feels thin and cursory by comparison.

Or take his piece on J.G. Ballard, the prolific British writer of science fiction and futurism, who died in 2009. The article is labeled a review of Ballard’s posthumously published The Complete Stories (a misnomer, by the way; there are several tales missing from it); but if Hitchens’ piece is meant to be an analysis of Ballard’s corpus of short fiction, it falls well short of that. If it’s meant to more of a profile of the man, then it also fails. You’ll find far better portraits of Ballard elsewhere, including Martin Amis’ hilarious profile of him in the 1993 essay collection Visiting Mrs. Nabokov.

Speaking of Martin Amis, there is a lengthy review of his Koba the Dread included in Arguably. Even if you weren’t familiar with Amis’ novel, this review is interesting to read as an act of journalistic objectivity, since it’s well known that Hitchens and Amis attended Oxford together and were long-time friends. Most book editors would balk at allowing one half of such a relationship several thousand words to review a book written by the other half of such a relationship, but Hitchens puts on an absolute clinic of fairness, detachment, and analysis. He definitely gives Amis his due—there’s no denying his position near the very top of contemporary English-language literature. But in instances where Hitchens feels Amis’ prose has fallen down, he says so—pointedly, unsentimentally, as if he were just another writer and not someone Hitchens has known personally for decades. The piece left me wondering if I myself could ever review a book by a friend I’ve known since my university days with such cold-eyed grace.

In the end, when reviewing Arguably, one must set aside these literary profiles/criticism and once again acknowledge Hitchens’ true m├ętier: his geopolitical writing. Whether tackling the historic phenomena of Nazism and Stalinism, or writing about the current-day situations in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, Hitchens’ breadth of knowledge and depth of engagement have few peers. His piece “Imagining Hitler” is inspired: he shows how senior German officers were aware of the Fuhrer’s madness long before it ever dawned on Winston Churchill. His lengthy piece on Rebecca West puts the early 20th century collision of anti-Semitism and jihadism into a thoroughly enrapturing context. His piece “The Persian Version” is a great primer into the mentality that shapes modern-day Iran. And his vitriol at the murder of Theo van Gogh is pitch perfect.

We could even close by showing how his analysis of contemporary Pakistan skirts the persistent accusation against Hitchens, that he was a misogynist and not especially interested in women’s points of view. In an article about the U.S. government’s complicated relationship with Pakistan, called “From Abbottabad to Worse,” his opening paragraph contains this incredible salvo about Pakistan:

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal or religious kangaroo courts, even if a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

Succinct. Cold-eyed. Articulate. Infusing your brain with context for a broader issue. And a cri de coeur against moral relativism that will (hopefully) place its writer on the right side of history. This is, I think, a fair way to sum up Arguably. Hitchens’ enemies—and he had many—may have wanted to take him down, but it’s hard to see, based on the book at hand, how any of them came close to even touching him.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Acceptance: The New Quarterly

I was overjoyed yesterday to receive an acceptance letter from The New Quarterly for my short story "The Man Room." TNQ, it goes without saying, is one of the most prestigious literary journals in North America and I am ecstatic that they have accepted a piece of fiction from me. "The Man Room" is part of the unpublished short story collection manuscript that I have now started peddling around, so this acceptance (along with the one I received a couple of weeks ago from The Antigonish Review) is another bit of validation that I'm (hopefully) on the right track with this book.

The exact issue in which the story will run still needs to be confirmed--it will either be in the autumn or the winter edition--but I'll keep you all posted when I learn more.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Acceptance: The Antigonish Review

I'm happy to report that The Antigonish Review in Nova Scotia has accepted my short story "The Fantasy" for an upcoming issue. This was some pretty excellent news to come home to last night, as I'd known for a few months that the piece had been forwarded on for final consideration and am so pleased that it made the cut. "The Fantasy" is one of the pieces in the short story collection I recently finished writing and am now peddling around.

While I was waiting for the verdict on "The Fantasy", the book review editor at The Antigonish Review asked if I'd review something for them as well, which I did. My review of Aga Maksimowska's debut novel Giant was accepted and will also appear in an upcoming issue.

Anyway, very excited to have work included in this long-standing and venerable Canadian literary journal.