Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Jack Bottomly: Threat to National Security

A review of Ray Smith's The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins, hit my mailbox yesterday. In the interest of full disclosure, dear Thirsty readers, I type it out in its entirety here. To say it is negative would be an understatement. But I found it also quite funny, especially the bit at the end where our dear reviewer seems to suggest the book poses some sort of national threat. I completely agree, of course: this book is a threat to national security, morality, the remaining shreds of our military honour. If we can get this into a 2nd printing, I'll be quoting liberally from this review. Forget the Globe: "a dark, Swiftian distaste for the human animal runs beneath ... as defiant as anything Smith has published in the course of his shape-shifting odyssey as an outsider to mainstream literary culture"; forget the Star: "A New Canadian Hero Arises ... Long May He Romp." I'd much rather this: "Vulgar and raunchy ... bring(s) the honour and pride of those who serve in Canada's air force intelligence circles to a never-before-reached low. ... has .. the potential to cause any number of problems -- in Canada and abroad."

Anyway ... the review.

Vulgar and raunchy, the "shenanigans" of fictional character Major Jack Bottomly, second in command of DNDI/Air bring the honour and pride of those who serve in Canada's air force intelligence to a never-before-reached low.
If you can stomach the crude smut that is so liberally sprinkled throughout the book, you will come across a plot involving unlikely bedfellows. In the spirit of global accord that preceded the SALT II talks, agents from Russia, England and the US "team up" to crack a coding device that was created on a shoe-string budget by a Canadian professor. Casualties include several agents as well as two older 'birds' -- an Australian Neptune and an Argus.
Bottomly is the antitheses if everything known about those who serve in the air force blue (actually green -- for this fictional episode begins in 1979). He is a foul-mouthed, filthy-minded, beer-guzzling lazy lout wqho schemes (somewhat successfully) to defraud Canadian taxpayers. In teh end, he also helps plant a 'nuisance' virus that infects intelligence computers around the world.
Author Ray Smith, who teaches English literature at Montreal's Dawson College, has a flair for languages. His ability to phonetically capture the nuances of English as spoken by those who were not born and raised in English Canada merits the occasional chuckle.
The author plans for this book to become the first in a series of Bottomly misadventures by the dastardly Bottomly. With the development of this "off-colour" character, the author has garnered for his hero the potential to cause any number of problems -- in Canada and abroad.
Future episodes will not be on my reading list.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Short Winnipeg Free Press Reviews

The Winnipeg Free Press ran two short reviews of Biblioasis titles this past weekend, Robyn Sarah's Little Eurekas, and Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant.

Poet has a few surprises up her sleeve by Mauriece Mierau

Montrealer Robyn Sarah's Little Eurekas: A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry (Biblioasis, 272 pages, $24.95) is stimulating and fiercely articulate. Sarah has published four full-length collections and appeared in numerous anthologies. There is much here that will surprise people who believe poetry is merely self-expression. Sarah advocates the memorization of poems in schools, for example, rather than misguided classroom 'analysis.' Her essay 'In Praise of Smaller Servings' will also raise eyebrows. She argues that Canadian books by individual, unknown poets are 'a form that alienates readers and buyers' and that such collections are 'mostly over-long.' She describes book awards as 'an annual lottery' where poets increase their chances by publishing as frequently as possible. " Little Eurekas also contains exemplary short reviews and appreciations that frequently make you want to rush to the bookstore.

According the the preface, Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant: Selected Poems (Biblioasis, 288 pages, $29) is actually a collected volume. It brings together work from five books published between 1958 and 2006 and also some unpublished poems. Ormsby was a professor of Islamic studies at McGill University for many years, and wrote on the side. His bibliography is glamorous: he's appeared in the New Yorker, several Norton anthologies and the Paris Review. Many of the poems here are delicate, linguistically intricate observations of nature. 'Skunk cabbage ', for instance, describes "the foul magenta of its gorgeous heart," and 'Bee Balm' observes how "All night they cling sybaritic as pashas, / Their stiff golden fur dampened with pleasure.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hockey in July Lorna Jackson style

It may seem much too early to think about hockey, but some of us -- two of us, actually -- have to. Lorna Jackson's Cold-cocked: on Hockey is at the printer and due back within a couple of weeks. It will officially hit bookstore shelves the first week of September. Readying herself, she's started a blog for the book, which can be found here: http://lornaj.blogspot.com/.

We'll be stealing the odd post and putting them up on Thirsty, but if you're into hockey, and you feel like a test drive of the wit, wordplay, swagger and street smarts Jackson brings to her interpretation of the game, you could do much worse than to check in on Cold-cocked: the blog on a fairly regular basis.

Without further ado, the first entry.

St. Trev in the Dolomites

Maybe training camp. Maybe pre-season. I was going to wait to start writing, but then shots of Trevor Linden snugged into spandex in Europe surfaced—shell-shocked, jubilant, shirtless by a cold river in Italy, dehydrated and schnitzelling in Germany.

When I finished writing Cold-cocked: On Hockey, I wondered if I’d ever be that hell-bent drawn to the game again. Would players still inspire, thrill, disgust, delight and bore me? I guess so, starting now.

Linden’s lately been the topic of fan snits and on-air sport-gripes. Canuck fans are choked with management for not re-signing St. Trev the minute he scraped off his (grey) playoff beard. Fan favourite. Heart and soul. Great playoff stats (for a team that couldn’t cut-and-paste a goal post-season). “Beg him to stay! Pay him double!”

Last week’s 2007 JEANTEX Bike Transalp was 725K through the German and Austrian Alps and Italian Dolomites in 8 stages. Vertical gain: 20,836M. The winners took 27 hours; Linden and his partner went 40 and finished a stunning 48th in the Masters category. His partner’s blog describes Linden’s harrowing cartoon careen—hey! no brakes!—down a perpendicular hill and it’s clear to me the team would be nuts to sign the naughty daredevil before he passes his next physical.

Also clear: Linden is not a guy who’ll be lost without hockey. Let’s see: relax—tanned, handsome, beery—in an icy river in Predazzo after an epic 12-hour bike ride, or get 20 minutes of penalty-kill ice time 5-on-3 playing against this year’s Edmonton Oilers for 8 hours?

2007 Metcalf-Rooke Award

I have been meaning to announce the 2007 Metcalf-Rooke Award for over a month now, but we've been so hard pressed and focused on our Fall titles it keeps slipping off of the radar. So, without further ado, let me annouce:

The 3rd Annual Metcalf-Rooke Award for Unpublished Fiction

The objective of the competition is to uphold and celebrate the tradition of small press publishing and independent bookselling in Canada, and to champion the writing of new and up-and-coming Canadian writers. The competition is open to all Canadian writers with an unpublished book length manuscript of short or novel-length fiction. Manuscripts must be titled, typed, double-spaced and unstapled. The author’s name should not appear on the manuscript. All entries must be accompanied by a separate page containing the contestant’s full name, mailing address, telephone number, email address (optional), manuscript title, and brief bio (which should include a list of all previously published or forthcoming works). Manuscripts will not be returned. Submissions must be postmarked no later than September 30, 2007. A shortlist will be announced at the beginning of November. The winning manuscript will be announced November 30th with publication of the work in 2008.

This year’s winner will receive:
a publishing contract with BIBLIOASIS
a leather bound copy of their book
$1,500 advance
book launch at Ottawa International Writers Festival
a regional book tour

Send your manuscripts to:
The Metcalf-Rooke Award
c/o Biblioasis
Emeryville, Ontario
N0R 1C0

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Little Eurekas Reviewed in Prairie Fire

Little Eurekas: A decade's thoughts on poetry by Robyn Sarah. Emeryville, ON: Biblioasis, 2007, ISBN 978-1-897231-29-6, 272 pp., $24.95 paper.

What makes a poem?

Robyn Sarah, an accomplished poet, has collected in this book many of the essays and reviews she has written over the years. While not a literary critic or academic, she poses an honest question and tries to answer it with her own litmus test for poetry, mostly by looking at individual poems to see what makes them work.
Her bugaboos are plainly stated: "abstruse theories, personal mysticisms, abstractions and vagueness" (210) versus clarity of thought and gracefulness of expression. She agrees with George Johnston, once a teacher of hers, that a good poem has a particular voice, but that the poet could be anonymous. Great poems outlive their authors because they are memorable.
But what makes them memorable? The list is not unusual: cadence, rhythm, music of words (not chopped prose), density of meaning, compression, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, a juxtaposition of images which provide tension or interest (or tug, as she calls it); an element of surprise and authenticity of feeling, to mention a few. But she adds to this that a good poem wants to be said aloud, to be savoured, learnt "by heart." It is her definition of poetry with heart that resonates most with me. She has the courage to denounce "high-sounding vagueness" in poetry that has no feeling.
The only place where this book falls down is where the "lit-crit babble" is allowed to creep in, in her collaborative essay on polyphony. On the whole, erudite, honest, informative reviews fill this book. Sarah expects the best of poets, and she shows us where they don't quite measure up. Some may find her views a bit stuffy, but she is not interested in the showy, the loud or the trendy. If no one is reading the poems, she asks, what use is giving glitzy prizes to attract attention to poets as if they were celebrities? Similarly, she questions our country's publishing subsidies, which she feels promote quantity over quality. Who can keep up with the reading?
Little Eurekas is not concerned with making canons or baptizing the "new" great poets. "As a culture, we will begin to reclaim poetry when we learn to praise poems, not poets" (57) states Sarah. Such an attitude treats poems on the level of their poetry. It confirms what many feel, that contemporary poetry (whether free verse or formal) benefits from a heightened attention to the song and dance of each syllable, to the marriage of music and meaning.
This book is useful to both students and teachers. Its ideal reader is anyone interested in how and why poetry works. She also gives advice on how to write a good review. (How'd I do, teach?)

Jennifer Boire attended the Maritime Writers' Workshop in 2005, where Robyn Sarah first read her essay "Poetry's Bottom Line." Although both of them in Montreal, she and Robyn first met in Fredericton, and have not met since!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Kathleen Winter: Cover Girl

The new issue of the New Quarterly is out, and Kathleen Winter is the cover girl. A long interview, photos and 3 stories. A sneak peak from her up-coming collection boYs. Congratulations. Buy this issue, and when the book comes out, buy the book. You will not be disappointed.

I don't yet have my copy: I stole this from Kathleen's Facebook account (I've been sucked into Facebook: I'm almost ashamed to admit it. There's even a Biblioasis group: sign up, if only so we can try and kick Brick's ass.) After this post, I'll be going to the post office to see if I've my issue.

Thnks to Kim Jernigan for being so responsive. This is the 2nd year she's done a 3 story profile of a Metcalf-Rooke Award winner. Not part of the official package, but a side perk.

Looking at the cover, at least one regular Biblioasis regular is in between those covers: Mike Barnes. Making it a much better deal.

Speaking of the M-R Award, time to post an open ivitation to all the as-yet undiscovered fiction writers in the land. Keep an eye out: I'll get everything ready this week.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Order of Canada

A few weeks ago Leon Rooke received word that he will be getting the Order of Canada. He'll receive it in a ceremony this fall. Congratulations! I can't think of a more deserving gent. Leon is one of Canada's best writers, a mentor to younger writers, a man who has given generously of his talent and time for decades. I'm happy to see that he's getting some acknowledgment for all that he's done.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Biblioasis Logos

For some time I've been thinking about press logos. PQL has their printer's devil; Coach House their press; Anansi their 'A'; Gaspereau their 'G'. I've heard from many people, including some of Biblioasis' authors, that they thought we needed some visual to latch onto. I've agreed: but it's not been something I've had a lot of time to give much thought to.

Biblioasis is not even officially -- by the standards of the Canada Council or any of the main publishing bodies -- 3 years old. We won't hit our 3rd year until we celebrate the anniversary of the launch of Salvatore Ala's Straight Razor and Other Poems, our first title, published in October 2004. But I've been around enough now to have lost a goodly deal of my illusions about publishing in Canada. There's no audience (except, of course, for you, my handful of Thirsty readers); little financial support or incentive (those who believe grants are some form of golden cow, guess again: and a new player like Biblioasis is close to last at a rather well-sucked teat. After {nearly} three years I can tell you artistic excellence, whatever the hell that may be to most people, seems to have little to do with much of anything.); there's long, long, long hours. And this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the top of what is a long litany of complaint...

And yet, I love what I do. Despite the financial stress, the hours, the indifference; the frequent bouts of 2 AM despair.

At Book Expo last month, Patrick Crean introduced me to some Penguin Editors as 'the bravest publisher in Canada.' Not something I much believe, nor want around my neck. I rejoined by saying that I thought I was likely just the most foolish.

Hence the windmills.

Publishing in Canada is a fool's venture. Maybe it wasn't in the 1960s and 1970s, when so many of our literary publishers started out, but it certainly is now. We are all in some form or another tilting at windmills, riding our nags off into the sunset, to the general ridicule and indifference of the majority. Biblioasis could quit publishing today, this moment -- and there are days, trust me, I think about it -- and only a few would notice. Most booksellers in this country would not notice, the bureaucrats at the arts councils, god bless 'em -- after all, we get the patrons we deserve -- would not notice, most quote-unquote avid readers would not bat a lash. Yet I believe, fervently, that what we are doing here in our office above the garage in a former onion-field in southwestern Ontario is exceptionally important, that the writers we have published are the best in the country, some of them as good as any writing anywhere, any time. I have faith in them, in what they produce, in what might be described as our collective aesthetic project. And if like so many faiths my own in founded in some fashion on a delusion so be it.

So the windmill: foolishness, futility, industry, faith. Seems to capture the publishing industry as I understand it perfectly.

The three versions above are sketches by friend and artist Tony Calzetta, who's put quite a bit of work into this. I think it will come down to some version of one of these. To be seen on a Biblioasis spine and colophon on a Fall 2007 book coming soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kathleen Winter's boYs: the cover

Above, what I think will be the cover for Kathleen Winter's short story collection boYs. This has been one of the hardest covers we've had to do: none of our previous ideas gelled at all. Kathleen remembered this image, which Geist had used to illustrate boYs the story, and we thought it perfect.

There's been a lot of interest in this book. Kathleen is so far scheduled to read at Eden Mills Spetember 9th, The Winnipeg Fest, Thin Air, at the end of September, and the Ottawa Festival, with John Metcalf and Leon Rooke, in October. There are still a couple of other festivals considering her. I've just finished reading it again, and it's extremely good: I don't think anyone who gives it a chance will regret doing so. It contains a full range, from more local, Newfoundland sketches to fairly surreal tales.

For those of you who might want an early taste, the forthcoming issue of the New Quarterly has included three stories, along with an interview. Kathleen is also, so I've been told, the cover girl.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Michael Darling does Morley Callaghan doing Ernest Hemingway

I'm working away this evening copy editing John's Shut Up He Explained. As I've said elsewhere, this is a brilliantly odd bird of a book: part literary memoir, part travelogue and part criticism. It's also very entertaining, a problem as I copy edit: I keep getting drawn into the damn thing and have to go back to reread passages, and make sure I haven't missed anything.

I'm reading -- copy editing -- at the moment a chapter on Morley Callaghan. In it, he quotes CNQ contributing editor Michael Darling doing a parody of Callaghan's writing, using Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." I found it incredibly funny, and think he's got it spot on. Hopefully he won't mind me posting it here.

If Morley Callaghan Had Written Earnest Hemingway’s

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

For years Johnny Wilson had been a regular customer at Al Smith’s café. Johnny was an old man with thinning grey hair and a wrinkled red face. He liked to sit in one corner of the café where it was neither light nor dark but partly both, and think despairingly about his need for identity and a sense of self-worth.

On this particular night, two waiters stood watching him. Bill Jones was a burly old man with white hair and a shiny red face. Fred Brown was a thin young man with straight black hair and a smooth red face. He was engaged to Molly Smith, Al Smith’s niece, a tall blonde girl with really swell legs. Fred rubbed the end of his smooth red nose and grinned as he thought of Molly’s swell legs. Molly was a really fine girl and they were going to get married as soon as they could.

“Last week Johnny tried to commit suicide,” said Bill Jones in his deep but slightly cracked voice, brimming with sorrow and compassion. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his shiny red face, thinking to himself, “I could be Johnny, sitting there and drinking, and wishing I could stay in this clean and well-lighted café.”

The look on Bill’s face brought a strange feeling to Fred Brown, who suddenly looked at Johnny Wilson with a puzzled, shy, wondering look on his face, feeling that there was something about the old man that might someday be important to him, something that went beyond Molly Smith’s swell legs. It seemed to him that this was the first time he had ever looked upon Johnny Wilson.

“Maybe he just has insomnia,” suggested Bill Jones gently, hoping to spare Fred Brown the painful realization of his own mortality. “Many have it.”

Fred Brown nodded sadly, his smooth red face suddenly becoming wrinkled and old. Now when he tried to think of Molly Smith’s swell legs, all he could visualize was Johnny Wilson’s thinning grey hair. He stood beside Bill Jones in the shadows of Al Smith’s café and thought to himself, “Golly, a clean, well-lighted place might be fine too.”

Open up almost any Callaghan at random: you'll see how close Michael got.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Globe Review of Ray Smith's Flush of Victory

A first for Biblioasis: This past Saturday, we had two reviews in the Globe & Mail. In this post, Charlie Foran's review of Ray Smith's Flush of Victory; in the post below, George Murray's review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant. Though both were good (and positive), Charlie Foran's in particular is everything a good review should be: thoughtful, considered, and well-written, placing the book within the larger context of the author's body of work. I think the fact that he pulled this off in1000 word or less quite impressive.

It's also worth mentioning that Biblioasis is republishing all 4 of the books Foran singles out as being Smith's best work as part of its Renditions series. Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada was published in November of last year; Night at the Opera will be released this month; Century next Spring; and Lord Nelson's Tavern sometime thereafter. Century in particular is a stellar piece of work, one of the best short novels I've read in a long time, deserving of canonical status. Hopefully there will come a time when Ray will acquire the readership and reputation he deserves.

Don't wait for our edition of Century: go to Abebooks and pick up a copy. It was published by Stoddart, in 1986 (I think); you could probably find yourself a copy for 15.00 or less. Well, well, well worth the investment.

Now ... without further introduction, Foran's review.

Inside the spy story lurks a Swiftian darkness


Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins

By Ray Smith

Biblioasis, 334 pages, $23.95

The long, singular career of Ray Smith is testament to the virtues and perils of literary wanderlust. An irreverent voice in the earnest early days of CanLit nationalism, the Nova Scotia native launched smartly with the 1969 story collection Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada, a book whose title alone merited its canonization. Two years later, the Halifax-rooted novel Lord Nelson Tavern struck a still more original note, offering bite and insight, charm and sentimentality, in stylish, often wildly funny prose.

Fifteen years later, Smith, now a teacher at a Montreal college, reappeared with Century. A series of linked fictions that charted calamitous recent European history while meditating on the limits of art to affect moral change, Century marked a starling escalation in ambition. Here was an artist reborn after long silence with new seriousness and range.

With Smith's next novel, 1992's A Night at the Opera, the aesthetic canvas was altered once again. Set in a town in postwar Germany, with glances back into the murk of medieval lore, this satire of provincialism and petty-mindedness was likely meant to echo the habits of contemporary Quebec. While a bravura literary performance, the book was almost too lost in its own ornate conceits to persuade. Two subsequent novels set in "real" Montreal were bitter and blunt in this regard.

The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins isn't going to be accused of excess subtlety. Ray Smith's latest is not only a broad farce, half inspired and half silly, but also a straightforward spy romp, closer in spirit to the black comedy of 1960s pranksters Terry Southern and Ken Kesey than any fancy metafictions. It is also pan-Canadian in the sweep of its bemusement, and its ire.

Major Jack (Bummo) Bottomly is an intelligence officer for the Canadian Air Force. The year is 1979, and the repellent Bottomly is resigned to ending his Ottawa career in a haze of booze and boredom and inappropriate remarks to, and lunges at, women. To his surprise and delight, he falls upon a plot to steal a local aircraft. Better still, the operation seems the improbable brainchild of both the KGB and the CIA. Finally, Canada will get to play with the big boys.

"This is the real spying," he says of the covert intelligence game, "and, of course, it is exactly the kind Canadians are still forbidden to do. We are not allowed to send men in trench coats to lurk about the Kremlin, we must not try to subvert visiting Russian ballerinas, and we are sensibly forbidden to do over-flights. Canadian pilot brought down near Minsk: 'No shit, tovarich: it looked just like Moose Jaw to me!' "

Assisted by his even more Rabelaisian Aussie sidekick, Bluey Jones, Bottomly sets out to foil these assailants upon sleepy Canadian sovereignty and imbibe as many "chilled tubes" of beer, preferably the Australian brand Foster's, as the bladder allows. Espionage is pure slapstick, including an attempt by our antihero to shoot a tire belonging to a Russian spy that ends with him plugging a "fat old broad" in the backside, and enemies are incompetents, most notably a "poufter" secret agent couple. The plot, suitably labyrinthine for a faux-thriller, is the excuse for pokes at various pretensions and self-delusions, domestic and international.

Jack Bottomly himself is a stereotype, and Smith has almost too much fun cataloguing his determinedly offensive views and utterances. As the title suggests, The Flush of Victory also enjoys a good toilet joke, over and over, and probably wouldn't temper the scatology even if begged. For all the surface sheen to the picaresque, a dark, Swiftian distaste for the human animal runs beneath. The difficulty of assigning obvious targets to the book's deeper impulses keeps the reader off-balance, never quite sure where to laugh and where to wince.

In this sense, the novel is as defiant as anything Smith has published in the course of his shape-shifting odyssey as an outsider to mainstream literary culture. Canadian writing, then as now, is unreceptive to the scabrous, the calculated outrage. It struggles with bookish conceits of any kind, as a matter of fact, preferring its fictions straight, no-chaser, with as little formal innovation as possible. Even simple satire is a tough sell.

According to its publisher, The Flush of Victory is first in a series of proposed Bottomly stories. Wonderful indeed if such bar-room/bathroom farce gains Ray Smith a wider audience in late career. For long-time admirers, however, especially those of us who took special delight in his literary daring, his willingness to reconfigure the form for each new book, the further misadventures of Major Jack Bottomly are unlikely to birth anything as genuinely bold as Century or A Night at the Opera.

Charles Foran's most recent novel is Carolan's Farewell.

Globe Review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant

A review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant appeared in the Globe this weekend. I paste it in below.

For this trio, vive la différence!


Selected Poems

By Eric Ormsby

Biblioasis, 288 pages, $28.95


By Stuart Ross

Anvil, 104 pages, $15


By Elizabeth Philips

Brick, 120 pages, $18

We live in a world of borders separating "us" from "them," and these borders grow wider and more razor-wired every day, forming narrow nations unto themselves, in which difference is treated with suspicion and paperwork. Yet, within the multinational union of poetry, there's no reason three very different books by three very different poets cannot find themselves shelved together, even on one very opinionated reader's shelf.

Montreal's Eric Ormsby is a distinguished poet and Islamic scholar whose career spans 50 years. He is internationally recognized by his peers in the United States and Britain, as well as Canada, yet is the author of only five previous full-length collections. This indicates two things: Ormsby is both unrushed and a poet of careful choices.

Time's Covenant is selected from Ormsby's earlier work. With it, he displays a vast multicultural knowledge which alludes to everything from Western mythopoetics and classics to the literatures and religions of the East and back again to contemporary culture. Most often, these changes in focus appear on the level of the individual book or poem, but they can also take place at the level of the stanza itself: The roving eye of the poet snapping like a whip back and forth between cultures and times as in Jaham and His Cat:

To drink he gave her pungent camel's milk

He bought at the Desert's Edge Convenience Store.

Jaham listened, he heard her chant Qur'an

In purr-cadenzas of complicit calm.

Ormsby's language is rich. His poems are dense and thick with allusion, owing more to Wallace Stevens than might first meet the eye, yet they also often gloss to a readable narrative the first time through. In Adages of a Grandmother, Ormsby conveniently sums up this tactic by writing:

Wisdom was talismanic and opaque;

Could be carried in a small child's fist

Like the personal pebble I fished out of the lake.

While some may find Ormsby's more ambitious sequential work (such as Araby) a little difficult, Time's Covenant represents the best of all possible worlds: a gorgeous book picking out the best of the best from his considerable oeuvre, as well as a convenient introduction for those who may have missed his work to this point.

Torontonian Stuart Ross's I Cut My Finger is his first full-length poetry collection since his brilliant book of selected poems, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Ross has risen to national prominence over the last decade after many years of street-level activism in the Ontario small-press scene, hawking his (and others') earliest works with a sandwich board hung around his neck. Now considered to be Canada's foremost writer of the surreal, Ross is enjoying some much-deserved recognition and has taken his place as one of the cool uncles of Canadian poetry.

I Cut My Finger continues his obsession with the juxtaposition of odd images and thoughts that work in a collage-like manner to fashion narrative and meaning from apparent chaos. Absurd, surprising, topical, surreal - his new work builds on the mythic significance and brilliance of several career-long metaphors and subjects.

Besides the bizarre poodles and occasional poems to mark the New Year, Ross brings us back time and again to his most compelling narratives, around the character Razovsky, a touching composite of the poet's deceased father and the poet himself (or at least his poetic avatar). Razovsky wanders in a Dali-esque multiverse, his bafflement and glimpses of shrewd wisdom peeking from between a circus of oddities.

In Razovsky in Space, we see how Ross cooks up a poignant moment from the most unlikely ingredients. The protagonist wanders dreamlike through a dusty shop, finds himself suddenly floating in space, and then reaches the back of the shop, only to be strapped into a chair and launched back into space. In the middle of all the laughing, Ross gets us with his melancholy skewer to the heart:

In a photo album somewhere

back on earth, Razovsky stands grinning

in a field just off a single-lane road,

his black hair flickering

in a barely perceptible breeze.

His long coat, too, is black, and his arm

wraps around a woman in fur

who laughs at the camera.

We know this moment is brought to us by the poet's memory, not his imagination, and it is this oscillation that tugs us through.

Depending on taste, one could find Ross slightly aphoristic and ephemeral, but that would be due to the myopia of reading a single book. The only real risk a reader runs with Ross is not being open enough to enjoy the wild ride.

Saskatoon's Elizabeth Philips is long-time editor and teacher who has been on a roll, winning the SK Book Award for both of her last two collections of poetry. She may well be on her way to a third win with Torch River.

One might be tempted to describe Philips's style as "traditionally Canadian" or, more inventively, as "high prairie Gothic lyric narrative," but one would be missing the proverbial forest for the trees.

A book of deceptively quiet lyrics, Torch River is half love song, half funeral dirge, with a measure of travelling tune thrown in. The poems are sensuous and sexy, but painful as well. This is evident in the brilliantly executed sequence Fatherhood, the bloody, sweaty story of a difficult birth:

She speaks so

precisely now. Water,

she says, or heat, or lower.

Her eyelids flicker but do not open.

It's morning. He hears

someone switch off the lamp.

Another day. He tries to calculate

the duration which is more

like distance - twenty

hours, or twenty-five?

Torch River is not just a diary of the idyll, a pretty listing of natural details for the sake of capturing beauty, but also an examination of thought, experience and event using the natural world for perspective, the way an artist might size up a subject with a thumb held at arms length.

Some will undoubtedly decry Philips's use of what they consider to be dead or dying Canadian tropes and narratives (canoes and loons, vast swaths of harsh geography, fallen trees etc.), yet like others who are successfully re-imagining the Canadian landscape for a new century (Don McKay and Stephanie Bolster among them), Philips employs an impressive supply of fresh imagery and perspective, as well as a fine control of pacing and rhythm.

George Murray's fourth book of poems, The Rush to Here, was released in April.


Back from a much needed break: both in terms of a holiday -- Ottawa, and camping with my family, and from Thirsty itself. The latter break was not intentional: I just could not manage the pace, and found the good weather, wine, kids, and books so much more enticing than sitting any longer at this damn computer.

So, if there are any readers still out there, please keep checking in occasionally.

A few quick words on sundry matters. CNQ 71 is out, and if you have not received your copy, you will soon. Canada Post gave me a host of headaches with this issue -- our largest, and I think best yet. They're ironed out, and the issues are on their way. The CNQ website has been updated, with a couple of articles from the magazine and some web-only exclusives, so please check it out. (www.notesandqueries.ca) One article in particular, Alex Good's Adventures in the Reviewing Trade, has been hit more than 2000 times in the 2 weeks it's been up: a bunch of literary blogs and news sites linked to it, making it likely the most widely circulated CNQ article in the magazine's history. A fine and important piece as well. One would hope that it would engender a bit of discussion. Have an issue with anything he said? Want to elaborate on some point? Please let us know. Write a letter to the magazine: we'd like to see a bit more of that.

Please also check out Mike Barnes' Libraculture piece, also online. It's a very good essay on the state of public libraries.

If you haven't yet subscribed to CNQ, please do so. At 14.84 (w/GST) a year (2 issues), t'is a bargain. You won't be disappointed. If you haven't seen a copy since Biblioasis took it over, please check out the nearest newsstand: I think you'll be very surprised.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

National Post Review of Patricia Robertson

Each story is a gem of unusual lustre
Ruth Panofsky, Weekend PostPublished: Saturday, June 30, 2007
208 pp., $24.95
Lancashire-born Patricia Robertson's second collection of short fiction, The Goldfish Dancer, is a work of insight and mastery. Robertson may not be a prolific writer-- her first volume, City of Orphans, appeared in 1994 -- but each of her stories is a polished gem of unusual lustre. The lingering power of her prose resides in her original vision, intriguing characters and sophisticated craft.
Robertson's work is distinguished by its eclecticism, an unflinching depiction of the various treacheries of daily life and a capacity to surprise readers. Settings range widely across time and place, and characters do not resemble one another. The collection opens in Harlem in 1914, for example, and concludes in Manchester in the early 1900s. Characters include a half-black granddaughter of slaves and a Cheshire-born nursemaid of 11.
The few similarities that mark these stories are thematic and structural. Robertson's protagonists are displaced individuals who are estranged from local culture. Through minor but self-conscious misdemeanours that have significant bearing on their lives, they are partly responsible for their sense of alienation. Their destinies remain unknown, however, as story after story eschews closure and careens toward an unscripted future. In fact, Robertson leaves her characters --and her readers --poised for change and with the realization that they must accept responsibility for their own folly, however small or large.
The title story sets the cool, distanced tone for the rest of the volume. Frances Ridgeley leaves her farm in Southern Ontario for Detroit and later Harlem, where she becomes a renowned exotic dancer. Her career is cut short by the advent of the First World War and an unplanned pregnancy. When she laments her lack of foresight and lost opportunities, readers are not invited to feel compassion for her. Instead, like Frances, we face the arbitrariness
of events, both public and private, and the stark knowledge that these events have had an immutable impact on the course of her life.
In My Hungarian Sister, which was nominated for a National Magazine Award and will appear in the Journey Prize Anthology, a young British girl becomes obsessed with a newspaper photograph of a Hungarian refugee during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Longing to adopt her as a sister, she names her Szaba and gives her a fantasy life. Later, as a journalist, when her childhood fantasy is threatened, she copes by ignoring the undermining facts offered by a colleague.
In other stories, reality is inescapable. Billy, the seven-year-old protagonist of Badlands, for example, is traumatized by his experience of abandonment. First, he and his mother, Mae, desert his father, who has lost a leg in war, and flee their home in Ontario for Alberta; later, Mae leaves her son in the care of her new lover, a relative stranger. When Billy's escape and attempt to return to his Ontario home is foiled, he feels "already centuries older; looking down ... from the blue darkness of outer space and not noticing anything at all." In Girl with a Cello, the young protagonist's obsession with cello music, at first moving and redemptive, is later the source of her downfall. Following her flatmate's premature death, the protagonist in After Annabel -- who comes to know Annabel through family and friends more deeply than in life--offers a discerning view of life's narrative possibilities that echoes across the collection: "You never knew how the story would turn out. You put the pieces together as best you could and handed them on, when the time came."
Only two of the seven stories gathered here proffer tentative resolution. After a circuitous quest, the protagonist in Graves of the Heroes arrives at an unanticipated but healing self-discovery, and Agnes and Fox is unusual for the solicitous relationship between an aged woman and her caregiver at its core and its ending of promise and hope. Robertson's stories of everyday life gone awry will haunt readers who cannot fail but be impressed by their broad vista and artistic precision.