Review (Poetry): With the Keenness of Time (Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele)

…Maybe time is not / an arrow after all but a whirling / storm about to touch down (“The Possibility of Time Travel”)

Mary di Michele’s consistent search through place and time continues in her latest collection, Bicycle Thieves, as do particular images.

Thirty-seven years ago, di Michele’s Bread and Chocolate (1980) was published, and in it a poem called “1952.” The poem lyrically describes the photograph we see on the cover of Bicycle Thieves. The poem and her current book’s cover attest to the desire to know what shaped her parents, her self. “1952” tracks a migration and in it we glimpse a man and a woman and hints of a puzzle. This puzzle is further explored in her latest collection.

In “The Bicycle Thief,” di Michele shares birth-place images and vivid sketches of her father – in youth and old age. She captures a return visit to Lanciano and regrets that she cannot go back in time as well as place, to a time “before / the World War, seen the boy my father was / before his father betrayed / a barefoot son / and sold his bicycle.” A patina of love and loss and change loosely covers section one – The Montreal Book of the Dead – like a sheer veil lifted in a breeze.

The middle section – Life Sentences (An Autobiography in Verse) – is comprised of 100 three-line stanzas. In them, a life passes by, nuanced with detail, yet like an illusion. Whereas in section one, the emigration is physical – place to place – in section two it is the lived past:

The past is that far
country you emigrated from
as a child.

It is the past of the poet under a sharply focused magnifying glass where she peers intently at that small enlarged circle, moving the magnifier across memories and through time. The cautionary voice warns: “Mary, you can’t go / back to yesterday, you were / a different person then” (#90). But Socrates suggests that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Di Michele, like Lorna Crozier (What the Soul Doesn’t Want, reviewed July 21 2017), poignantly holds a lens to the past, focusing it on both joys and sorrows in a search for its essence, for meaning. Di Michele’s poems explore the particulars of her life (of an immigrant child, of the mystery of parents, of the curious mind). They create a portal, a bridge that gives voice to universal experiences recognized by her readers.

In the final section – After – we find influences of di Michele’s reading, but even here, she takes us to a specific place and time that is hers. My favourite poem in Bicycle Thieves is “Evening Light” (After Umberto Saba); she tells us:

Moon rise.

                             In the street it’s still
day though dusk’s rapidly descending.
The young don’t notice, they’re busy
texting, faces lit up
by the screens. They have no idea
about death, how in the end, it’s

what helps you live.

And here we have it all: the observation and insight, the sense of time’s movement, the lyrically perfect words and flow.

Since Mary di Michele’s first book (Tree of Life, 1978), she has been honing her poetic skills, the writing becoming sharper, the insights keener. It’s hard to imagine what will come next – after Bicycle Thieves – but already I want it.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Bicycle Thieves

Review (& Controversy): Into Northern Lake Country (The Last Woman by John Bemrose)

“I’ve come to think of her as a sort of Mother Earth figure. You know, Lilith, Eve, the first woman –.”
“I don’t know,” Richard says….”Looks more to me like the last woman.”

The Last Woman by John Bemrose is an elegy for the ending of love; for a forest, clear-cut landscape; for simple equity for the lives of people – in this case Ojibway – who are caught in the ugly transition from “what was” to “what is.” On one level, The Last Woman is the story of a love triangle, simple and straightforward. On another, it is the story of a clash of cultures, each trying to do things for the right reasons and each totally misinterpreting motives. It is about politics where truth and justice don’t matter. It is about a land claim, secrets, ambitions and dreams, art and logic, and the totally different way that indigenous people think about and live on the land. In short, Bemrose has written a complex story, weaving the personal angst of his characters into a web that includes greed along with cultural and environmental destruction. Bemrose’s writing is measured; he doesn’t rant, although readers will see where his sympathies lie.

Over the years, I’ve bought books by the few Indians (First Nations in Canada) who managed to get published. I think that Halfbreed by Maria Campbell was among the first, along with books by N. Scott Momaday. Later, books by Louise Erdrich made their way to my shelf and some by Thomas King, plus harder to read books like for Joshua by Richard Wagamese, poets like Lee Maracle and gritty Métis poet Katherena Vermette. I own Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copperfield, a book that generated controversy in the early 1980s (that continues to rage) about who has the right to the traditional stories, to their telling. Of course, I have the well-packaged and easy-to-embrace collections of quotes from the speeches of elders, such as Touch the Earth. And yes, academic and anthropological work sits there too.

More recently, publishing has opened to First Nations people in a way that seemed previously closed, and there’s new controversy on the topic of who speaks for whom. The editor of Write: The Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada resigned over his editorial in the Spring 2017 issue. He writes: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” I suspect that farther down in the editorial his admonition to “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize” is what skewered him. I read it as inappropriate, as did many others – not political correctness, but a “middle-finger salute.”  Indigenous people in Canada (likely everywhere) are capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need interpreters. But there is a blurry line, although both history and today’s reality badly need the First Nations’ perspective. So, back to The First Woman….

Bemrose walks a fine and informed line as he writes about the land claim and as he develops the character of Billy, of Billy’s loss over his cultural heritage, his land, and the trees gone to clear-cutting. He writes with sensitivity about the childhood attraction and, later, physical love that Billy and Anne shared, as he does with the friendship that once existed between Billy and Anne’s husband Richard.

I wonder what critics today would think about Martin, my character in Calla & Édourd. Martin is a fiction, who grew out of my experience living in Winnipeg. My empathy grew out of my grandmother’s reluctance to talk and her mother’s stories. Yet, now I wonder if readers would feel a line has been crossed. But, once more, back to the novel….

The excerpt that leads into this review fixes our thoughts on a painting and on environmental destruction and provides the title for Bemrose’s novel. But the story is about more than that, it digs and niggles down into a core fault-line. I would love to learn what readers – who have read the novel (and maybe mine) – think.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman

Review: Into the Wilds of Papua New Guinea (The White Mary by Kira Salak)

The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects – in the darkness of the water, in its stillness – all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action.

The White Mary takes us deep into the breath-taking jungles and over the mountains of Papua New Guinea. It is a geography Kira Salak – who has won a PEN award for journalism – knows well and one that she’s written about as a journalist. Four Corners is a nonfiction account of a trip she made to PNG. The White Mary, however, is a fiction that draws on Salak’s adventures and demonstrates her writing skills.

On the surface, Marika – who is The White Mary – sets out to discover whether her hero, award-winning journalist Robert Lewis, is actually dead. On another level, she quests for herself.

Traumatized by on-the-job “risk-taking and near-death escapes” as a war-reporter, Marika’s personal life crumbles. During her freefall she becomes obsessed with Lewis and begins writing his biography. The idea that Lewis could have committed suicide repels her, and she begins tracing his steps. The journey she undertakes is harrowing and utterly believable.

We see the pictures in National Geographic of lost tribes and read about rumours that cannibalistic others exist deeper in insect-infested swampland not yet explored by adventurers and anthropologists. Salak takes us on one of these “interior” forays. She sketches scenes and evokes wonder and despair. Her characters exhibit empathy, repulsion, fear, kindness, and desperation – the whole range of humanness, including greed and destruction.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who taught English as a second language in Papua New Guinea. This was during the time after the eastern half of island became independent (of Australia), although remained part of the British Commonwealth. (The western half is controlled by Indonesia and known as Papua and West Papua.) My colleague was there prior to the 1988 uprising that killed 20,000 people. The island has a history of being a complex and troubled part of the world. So, I was primed to discover more about this island in Melanesia; I wasn’t disappointed.

Written in the tradition of jungle-adventure stories, The White Mary gives us a convincing human drama that unfolds in the harshest of environments – in canoes that leak, on foot across swamps where leeches and snakes are not the only dangers, where witchcraft abounds, and where supplies are few: “some fire-making implements, water-filled gourds, and walnut-sized betel nuts to chew.” In this place (within and without), Marika feels “…there’s too much pain. The pit is bottomless, vast. There’s just too much….[H]er screams won’t stop. Her cries clog her throat, and she chokes and wails.” Her tough exterior breaks. But this is not the end of the story. For that, you will need to visit your library or bookstore.

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Available from your local bookstore and online: The White Mary

Review: Magic is Everlasting (Kingfisher Days by Susan Coyne)

Recently, I was at the Friends of the Library bookstore a few blocks from my home where Kingfisher Days jumped off the shelf into my hands. I carried it home in my bicycle’s basket and read it (again) the same night. (The first time was in 2001 when one of my precocious granddaughters was beginning her teens and, as usual, I read the memoir before gifting it to her.)

Kingfisher Days is a small book, similar to Evenings at Five (reviewed a few posts ago) but the storyline is completely different, although equally intense in its own way. The actress (and author) Susan Coyne is five years old when the memoir begins in cottage country in the summer.

Between our two cottages, running down to the little bay, was a thick hedge. Soon after I arrived that summer I was five, I discovered a strange relic there: an old stone fireplace, half-hidden beneath the leaves. Moss and lichen clung to the rough-hewn stones in patches of black velvet and scaly grey, and brilliant dots of mustard-yellow.

I asked my father about it…. He looked up. “Well, that’s Uncle Joe Spondoolak’s house,” he said, and went back to the crossword. “Who’s that?” I asked. My father put down his pencil. “Well…he was an elf, or so they say.

So I started leaving little gifts there for the elves: handfuls of wild strawberries, a daisy chain. And, overnight, the gifts would disappear. I found a little whisk broom and swept the hearth, and I filled some hazelnut shells with water for the elves to drink. And I drew a picture of myself and left it under a rock. These things, too, disappeared.

One morning Susan found “a neatly folded piece of pink paper….Its edges were turned down with a round seal of wax, stamped with an ‘N.’ And on the outside were some words, written in ink in a spidery hand, a little blurred by the dew.” And a summer of gifts and letters begin. I cannot tell you more; that would spoil your reading. But in the fall when Susan and her family returned to Toronto, Susan wrote to Mr. Moir, the retired school principal and cottage-neighbour in whose garden she spend many summer hours, to tell him about her new life. In December she received a reply – by letter, of course.

I wonder if you have time to help me find out something more about Nootsie Tah: Where was she from the time she was hurried away from Sacsahuaman and her mother until she came out of nowhere last summer to teach you about fairies?

Mr. Moir suggests that Susan visit the library; he gives her clues, including John Keats’ poem “The Fairies Triumph.” Mr. Moir’s letters are as charming as those of the fairy Nootsie Tah. There are no sketches, as there are in Evenings at Five, but sprinkled throughout are images of pressed leaves – most appropriate for a northern, cottage-summer story. Later, a young mother takes her son to the magical place of her childhood. “At the bottom of a long hedgerow, we got down on our hands and knees to peer beneath the leaves.…And then we saw it – the old stone fireplace. It was smaller than I remembered it,…almost like an altar.”

We don’t know what will influence us (or the children in our sphere), but this book attests to the inspiration of a little magic and imagination. I am so happy it jumped off bookshelves – not once but twice.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Kingfisher Days

Curious about the author, see Susan Coyne

Review (Poetry): Lines…and what’s between them (What the Soul Doesn’t Want by Lorna Crozier)

What the Soul Doesn’t Want is a new collection, the most recent of 17 books by Lorna Crozier. Five of her poetry collections live on my bookshelf and are frequently pulled off and carried to the oversize, plaid wingchair in my library/office to be read again. However, the poems in What the Soul Doesn’t Want are new to me; I haven’t had the time to ponder them, to return on a different day in a different mood to discover what they might offer. But it’s easy to see they are pure Lorna Crozier.

She writes with quirky wit and sensitive awareness. For readers, the poems provide pleasure and insight and the simple joy of the words she chooses. Her themes in What the Soul Doesn’t Want haven’t veered from past work, but the tautness and edginess are sharper here.

She draws from nature and not always what you might expect. In “Cockroach,” we get the sublime: “they creep from the baseboards, / climb the couch and burrow in her hair” which makes me involuntarily shudder. But I also learn that “In Japanese it’s gokiburi,” a word I expect my grandson teaching in Japan will be interested in adding to the personal dictionary he’s creating. Reading Crozier, one finds clear images and science next to odd bits of trivia and a telling that will cause you to smile and to think (even as you might shudder).

Aging and time are Crozier themes. My favourite poem in What the Soul Doesn’t Want is “When the Bones Get Cold.”

My husband sends me hummingbirds
from his eyes. Only he and I know
he’s going blind….
I am made beautiful by loss. The moon, too,

There’s a sweetness
that comes from accepting what I am,
not a mountain, not a river, not a tree.

Grief also ripples through her poems. In “Algorithm: The Way Out,” Crozier writes: “…Grief’s / a snowdrift that thickens / as you walk.” How simple. How brilliant. How true for all of us who have known sorrow and deep snow. It is this universality and, perhaps, the lightness (and the light) that gets the writer and the reader through the tough stuff she doesn’t shy from.

Crozier is an Officer of the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and a three-time recipient of the Pat Lowther Award. After a long teaching career, she is now Professor Emerita at the University of Victoria (British Columbia). She must be the envy of poets everywhere.

 

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Lorna Crozier’s books are all available through your local bookstore or online: What the Soul Doesn’t Want

Review: Between Men (What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

I admit it. I bought this book because I loved the painting on cover.

What I Loved tells a story of friendship between two men, a friendship that expands to include their wives, and then their sons. A painting by New York artist William Wechsler (not the one on the cover) is bought by Leo Hertzberg, an English professor at Columbia. It is Leo who narrates the story, part saga and part thriller as it turns out.

When the story opens, the men are young and married: William/Bill to Lucille, a poet, and Leo to Erica who teaches English at Rutgers. The model in the purchased painting (and others) is Violet Blom who flies off to Paris in a veil of intrigue. The two couples become neighbours and friends, and later each have son during one summer: Mark to Bill and Lucille, and Matthew to Leo and Erica. As happens in stories—and life—trouble develops in paradise: Lucille moves out and Violet moves in. Of course, it is all more complicated and Siri Hustvedt weaves a much better tale. But this is merely to sketch the backdrop for the drama that unfolds. The painting, however, is central to understanding the story; first impressions can be superficial.

Leo describes the painting as it hung in the gallery:

Bill’s painting hung alone on a wall. If was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand—a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting.

We’ll see other paintings, each obscuring details so that it takes time and careful looking to actually see what they include. Things are not as simple and direct as first imagined. Over time, Bill’s creativity shifts to include sculptural forms, boxes that tell stories almost like visual folk or fairy tales. His vision suggests trouble and, for Leo, reminders of grief. There is tragedy and heartache, desperation and loneliness beyond the art.

Hustvedt writes with precision and psychological insight, with clarity and care for her characters. What I Loved’s ambiguities subtly reflect life—its joy and darkness. The writing is ambitious, compassionate, intelligent and will leave you thinking long after you’ve read the novel’s final word.

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Available through your neighbourhood bookstore or online: What I Loved

Review: Lost in the Southern Atlantic (Hippolyte’s Island by Barbara Hodgson)

…owners of small sailboats…advised him to think big and those with big boats…urged him to think small. They showed him where their hulls were rotting and where their masts had cracked. They talked of the endless work, the alarming drain of money and the worry of storms, vandalism, and amateurs. And they told him, as they looked away from the land and out to the water, that they loved their boats and wouldn’t dream of giving them up.

To suggest that Hippolyte Webb is an eccentric character would be an understatement. He chases a dream, which could prove to be folly. In preparation for his travels, he takes a sailing class and conducts (some) research before adventuring in search of islands (the Auroras in the South Atlantic) that were recorded during the early 19th century but have since fallen off maps.

Hippolyte possesses a falling-over-the-edge creativity, as he dreams, prepares, and eventually sails away from the Falklands to his mysterious destination. He’s wrangled a book deal, which motivates note-making, photographing (he runs out of film), and sketching. Oh, yes, and he keeps a rather unique sailor’s log. He also muses,

“It’s a strange sensation to be slicing through the water in the dark with no idea what’s ahead or what’s been left behind.”

This reminds me of my first overnight sail between the Dutch Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. Other passages remind me of sudden storms, the terrifying racket of sails, and the tossing of the boat, bow-to-stern, and port-to-starboard. At one point, Hippolyte notes,

“If I had known the things I know now about being at sea, I never would have done this. I take so much for granted on land; taking anything for granted at sea is certain doom.”

As you have likely guessed – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say – Hippolyte finds the Auroras and makes a few discoveries of his own before returning to the Falklands and on to New York for the editing of his book. This is when we meet his editor Marie, who is not impressed with Hippolyte’s manuscript. She informs him:

“We simply need to address tense, grammar, pacing, chronology, style, and balance. It’s a normal part of the process….”

Editors and writers who have been through the process of a book’s manufacture will giggle and shudder at the machinations both Marie and Hippolyte must endure. Toward the end of the story (apropos to nothing really, but beautiful), when Marie is doing some extraordinary fact-checking, there is a passage that establishes time, place, and mood (maybe apropos to something). So, for the writers among readers:

“They headed off past the tree, which was heavy with already fermenting, wizened little apples and swarming with early wasps. The tops of long weeds brushed Marie’s hands, burrs attached themselves to her clothing, flies and wasps flew into her face. And it was hot. After fifteen minutes they arrived at the perimeter of a scraggly yard, fenced in with barbed wire.”

The islands metamorphose out of fog and invisibility. Marie metamorphoses too. Hippolyte remains quirky, enthusiastic, and full of surprises.

As you can tell, I sailed along with Hippolyte and relived some of my editing experiences. I enjoyed the book immensely, not least because of the illustrations – the sketches that appear amidst the type and the inserted pages from Hippolyte’s notes that include diagrams, maps, watercolours, sketches and photographs. Barbara Hodgson takes us on a magical journey in the discovery of the islands and Hippolyte’s writing of the tale.

 

Hippolyte’s Island won first prize for Prose Fiction, Alcuin Society Book Design Awards, and the Best Complete Book Design, Applied Arts Design and Advertising Annual.

Available from your local bookstore, or in paperback edition online: Hippolyte’s Island