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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reader's Diary #162- Toni Morrison: Beloved (up to p.106)

I recant.

In my first post about this book, I said it was confusing and elitist.
Either I was in a rotten mood, it's just one of those books that doesn't grab you right away, or both.

I still doubt it will become a personal favourite, and I'm still unsure of all of its accolades . The insane amount of praise seems to leave the impression that it is a faultless piece of work. It's not. My beef is with some of the artistic license she takes with reality. In particular, I have a problem with the Paul D. character. In one scene he compares Beloved to a strawberry plant, saying she had the same shine the plants had just before they shot out vines. I can believe that Paul D. would have had experience with strawberry plants, and even that he might use them in a personal metaphor, but the way Morrsion portrays it seems artificial. Paul D. almost becomes a poet in his thoughts, and this doesn't mesh with the character she has previously painted of him. In fact, he'd probably be the character with the least poetic sensibilities. A little too often, Morrison herself seems to have taken over the character and to me, the novel suffers for it.

However, the story is not confusing as I had first suggested, and I am overall enjoying it very much. One very small detail that I find particularly impressive is her "colouredpeople" or "whitepeople". The first time I came across the term, I thought it just a typo- the publishers accidentally left out the space between the words. But as I noticed that it was consistent and for "colouredpeople" as well as "whitepeople" I caught the intention. This artistic license I like.

Beloved herself is a very intriguing character. There's an obvious supernatural element about her- she knows things she should not know, people cannot explain how they act around her, she seems to have no past and came to house 124 under very mysterious circumstances. Yet less obvious, is who she is- is she the adult ghost of Sethe's baby? Is she somehow connected to the white Denver who helped her give birth? Is she good? Is she evil? It's this mystery that has taken a hold of me.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Writer's Diary #7- One Small Edit For Man...

Taking a break
from my coffee
as I sip it slowly
and mourn last night's sleep
lessness.

It becomes bitter
and I have to admire
the persistently dark outlook-
so we meet halfway.

What was it
about (last night and)
a perfectly empty cup?
...................................................................................
Small change:

The line break changed in the last stanza from
"about (last night/ and) a perfectly empty cup" to "about (last night and)/a perfectly empty cup". To be honest, I couldn't remember why I had broken it the way I had, so I tried it the other way and I like the way the parentheses resemble the rim of the coffee mug thus further drawing the parallel between the empty mug and last night.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #161- Robert Service: The Best Of (up to "The March of The Dead")


"The Cremation of Sam McGee" is one of two poems I remember loving as a child (the other being Poe's "The Raven"). Admittedly, I probably loved them because of their short story element more than any poetic appreciation.

As I got older and studied poetry in high school and university I often reflected on Sam McGee and questioned its integrity. The poems taught at those levels seemed to be a little more sophisticated, a little more complicated...

I was a snob. And an ignorant one at that. "Sam McGee" has very common rhyme scheme; AABB. It also has a very bouncy rhythm. It's very traditional, and it seems to be the number one choice for those who submit poems to local newspapers. Unfortunately, I let some of those newspaper submissions cloud my judgment. "Sam McGee" was a great poem. I realized this again in recent years when I found a copy with beautiful illustrations by Ted Harrison. Not only was the story as great as I remembered it, but I now also appreciated Service's rich imagery, a more complex rhyme scheme than I had noticed earlier, and even the rhythm. The rhyme scheme as it turns out is not simply AABB, there are internal rhymes as well. Take the opening lines:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold

When I was younger I took notice only of "gold" and "cold", but now I appreciated the skill in adding the internal rhymes (i.e., done-sun and trails-tales). Furthermore, the bouncy rhythm does exactly what it's supposed to when it calls to mind folk poetry- it takes you to a campfire or a warm kitchen with a grandparent and gets you all psyched up for the story that's about to unfold. This tale would not work with any degree of pretentiousness.

But enough about Sam. Another poem I've appreciated was "Unforgotten". Again Service seems to have carefully chose the best rhyme scheme (ABBA). In three stanzas, we get a picture of a woman and the man she loves separated by war and an ocean. He chooses a rhyme scheme that reflects the separation- two A's separated by a gulf of B's. Furthermore, how he has it arranged signifies the idea of love and separation superbly- both characters may be isolated (the woman is the sole character of the first stanza, and the man of the second) but they remain together through "unforgetting" (the third stanza states "he is in the garden by her side/ and she is in the garrett there with him.")

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Writer's Diary #6- Editing Advice?

On my coffee breaks lately, I've been going to a nearby coffee joint and writing about, what else? Coffee.

It's been fun. I've kept some of the coffee poems, discarded others, but I'm writing on a more regular basis and I've always found the discipline to be the hardest part.

Related to that, I'm not sure if I'm going about this the right way. I've heard novelists say that they write first and edit later. But I'm not sure if that's the right approach for a poet. If each poem is a separate entity- should I stop and edit each one? Or should I just go onto the next one and edit them all later? I'd prefer to just go on to the next one but I'm not sure I'm disciplined to ever go back. I've a few poems I've posted on this blog that haven't been touched since.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

In the meantime, here's another coffee poem...

Taking a break
from my coffee
as I sip it slowly
and mourn last night's sleep
lessness.

It becomes bitter
and I have to admire
the persistently dark outlook-
so we meet halfway.

What was it
about (last night
and) a perfectly empty cup?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Reader's Diary #160- Toni Morrison: Beloved (up to p. 43)

On the front cover of my copy:

"Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature"
"Winner of the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction"

On the back cover:

"A triumph!" - Margaret Atwood.

And inside, 3 pages of glowing sentiments from everyone from The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor.

What does all this mean? People will buy the book.

But also... if people don't like the book (or worse, if they don't understand the book), they're big fat idiots.

It's too early to tell how big, fat and idiotic I am.

I will say that it initially captured my attention. I haven't seen the movie version, so I wasn't expecting a supernatural story. And once I had that figured out, I wasn't expecting the supernatural elements to be thrown in so matter of factly. Likewise with the perversions. So far Morrison presents ghosts and cow-humping as though common occurrences in our everyday life. Maybe in Nebraska.

(I'm not sure why I picked Nebraska- it felt like I needed a punchline and Nebraska popped in my head. Sorry, Nebraska.)

But I can't quite take to the characters yet. Something about the way they think and act seems unauthentic to me. They're very much like those in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and to a lesser extent, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. They're not uninteresting, they just seem to me a little like an upper (or middle) class view of the lowerclass. All seem to be portrayed in a somewhat stupid and often slightly deviant light. Of course, the authors bend over backwards trying to throw in some niceties, poke a few jabs at the higher classes from time to time, and leave us all with some morals to ponder, but the American classics often leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Maybe I'm just being bitter. I'm not fully understanding it yet. It's hard to know at times what is going on, what is really going on, and who's doing what. So, stuck with the realization that I might be a big fat idiot, I'm lashing out at American classics. But it is possible that it's a case of the Emperor's New Clothes.

That said, I will try to keep an open mind as I finish this thing...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #159- Carolyn Marie Souaid: Snow Formations (FINISHED)

While I doubt it'll stick with me like Purdy or Bok, Snow Formations is a pretty solid piece of work.

Two of Souaid's biggest strengths are wit and line-breaks.

1. Wit- In "Goodbye" she reflects back on her leaving and quips, "No one stopped me when I left. No one cursed the sky or penned an epic." I love it. Sarcastic comic relief, but also it reveals more of her sense of isolation and insignificance. The fact that the collection in itself has an almost epic feel, comments even further on her growth- no one else wrote her epic, so she gains some autonomy and does it herself.

2. Line-breaks- To me, this has to be one of the most under-rated skills in poetry. When many people first get into poetry, I think they cut lines off willy-nilly just to make them look "poem-like". Others, who are aware of rhythm, will chop lines off to fit the meter or sound of the poem. That's a step in the right direction. But Souaid is one of those people who use the line break to it's utmost (Atwood's quite skilled at it as well). I just picked "Coming Home" at random to illustrate my point:

The photographs on the wall are still
stuck in their frames. The family,
all in bed, sleep soundly.

Notice how each line makes a point individually? Great line breaks, I have to admit, are one of the things I appreciate most about poetry. And if that doesn't make me sound geeky, I don't know what does.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reader's Diary #158- Matt Cohen: Elizabeth and After (FINISHED)

I really enjoyed this book. Cohen accomplished two great feats with this book that I haven't read in a LONG time...

1. He had a great ending. Lately I've been disappointed with endings. They've seemed too Hollywood-happy, too wrist-slashingly dark, or worst of all, ambiguous. What's left? The not-so-popular middle-ground. I'm a fan of the middle ground.

Cohen must have had fun writing the ending. If it were a DVD there'd be a lot of alternate endings in the special features. In the last 50 pages or so, Cohen taunts the reader with several possibilities. Yet at the very end, he picks a superb one, one that concludes the theme of history repeating itself, and leaves us with the question of whether of not we make it that way.

2. He wrote good sex. Even some of my favourite authors have failed miserably in that category. Too often I find that authors use overly "dirty" words to describe what should be a romantic scene, or vice versa, they use overly technical terms to describe what should have been a bawdy roll in the hay. (Or if you're Jean M. Auel you pick overly cheesy terminology like "manhood"). To me, Cohen was able to (again) find that middle ground. He chose words that fit the situation.

Another point: Considering that the greater percentage of the Canadian population lives in urban centres, it's amazing how many Canadian novels are set in rural settings. Cohen's choice of placing Elizabeth and After in the small town of West Gull can be defended easily. As he explores the connections between times, the relationship that the past has with the present, Cohen was clever to keep the idea of connections in the forefront of the reader's minds by intertwining the lives of West Gull inhabitants. While it's true lives can be meshed together in cities as well, it's a lot more obvious in small town life.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Reader's Diary #157- Carolyn Marie Souaid: Snow Formations (up to section 3)

In a testimonial by George Elliott Clarke, Snow Formations is said to be "no poetry of alphabet games." While Clarke , I'm sure, intended that to be a good thing, I was still coming off the high of reading Christian Bok's Eunoia- the ultimate in "alphabet games."

Yet I had originally bought this book because of the publisher's description on the inside flap, "Weary of her humdrum existence, a woman packs up and heads for Arctic Quebec, where she hopes to find a new lease on life teaching native children." While not in Arctic Quebec, I can relate. I was certainly too young to have been "weary of [my] humdrum existence", but I was looking for an adventure, something out of my comfort zone, when I first moved to teach in Nunavut 5 years ago.

So despite being a little bored at first (I was finding it a little too unadventurous- not Bok enough), it's won me over.

In the first section, you get the "humdrum" part. Souaid is quite adept at capturing a feeling of ennui. Actually, that's not quite right. She begins with that feeling, yet quickly moves to disillusionment and even resentment with the way her life has stalled. In the opening poem, "The Trouble With Being Dead", she uses terms like dead, dried-up, and blanking out to capture her mindset, and quickly the poems move to show how she continued to spiral downward. "Still Life" for instance opens with the line, "I can hardly stand to look/ at myself."

The overall narrative is one of the more appealing aspects of the book. A frequent complaint of mine, even for poets I enjoy, is the placement of the poems in the collection. Too often they seem thrown in at random or publishers have compiled them and have arbitrarily chosen say chronology of when they were written or even alphabetizing to organize the poems. Souaid's collection however, has a consistent character's voice (even in the section which deals primarily with the legend of Sedna). Though each poem is strong (and complete) enough to stand on its own, there is a sense of growth or at the very least, a sense of internalizing, in the voice with the way the poems have been arranged.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Quick Giller Survey

On this past Monday, the good Giller people announced the longlist for the coveted Giller Prize:

David Adams Richards, The Friends of Meager Fortune
Caroline Adderson, Pleased to Meet You
Todd Babiak, The Garneau Block
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
Douglas Coupland, jPod
Alan Cumyn, The Famished Lover
Rawi Hage, De Niro's Game
Kenneth J. Harvey, Inside
Wayne Johnston, The Custodian of Paradise
Vincent Lam, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
Annette Lapointe, Stolen
Pascale Quiviger, The Perfect Circle
Gaétan Soucy, The Immaculate Conception
Russell Wangersky, The Hour of Bad Decisions
Carol Windley, Home Schooling

Once again, I haven't read any of these. It's not that they pick really obscure books, it's that I'm horrible on keeping up with newly published books. At best, I'm a couple of years behind. Looking at the list of past winners:

2005- David Bergen, The Time In Between
2004- Alice Munro, The Runaway
2003- M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
2002- Austin Clarke- The Polished Hoe
2001-Richard B. Wright, Clara Callan
2000-Michael Ondaatje, Anil's Ghost and David Adams Richards, Mercy Among The Children
1999-Bonnie Burnard, A Good House
1998-Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman
1997-Mordecai Richler, Barney's Version
1996-Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
1995-Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
1994-M.G. Vassanji, The Book of Secrets

I've read less than half (1.The Love of a Good Woman, 2.Barney's Version, 3.Alias Grace and 4.The Book of Secrets). Looking at these, I'm not even a couple years behind, I'm 8 years behind!

How many have you read? And have you read any of those longlisted for this year?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Writer's Diary #5- Untitled

*This is a very, VERY first draft. In fact, there may not be any subsequent drafts- I might just scrap the thing altogether. It was written during my 15 minute break at a local coffee shop. The rushed attempt will no doubt be obvious...


An experiment- this
Columbian coffee,
Columbian music in
Iqaluit


There's an edge
not well defined
but walking a precipice
in fog, is half

the


fun.


(Landing on a definition
is the other half.)

Reader's Diary #156- Matt Cohen: Elizabeth and After (up to part 3, ch. 5)


Sometimes fiction is more honest.

Not long ago, I read Carl Sharpe's self-published memoirs Memories: In The Life of A Twillingate Man. While I had enjoyed it, I was disappointed that he had chosen to avoid the seedier side of small town life, for it's not all Sunday School picnics.

Elizabeth and After captures the darker side quite well. From the promiscuous sex to the political grandstanding and intimidation, Cohen doesn't flinch.

Yet for all the ugliness, most of his characters are still likeable. And those that are not, are at least humanized. He seems very intent on avoiding a black and white picture of morality and the story is better for his efforts.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #155- Christian Bok: Eunoia (FINISHED)

The afterward of Eunoia came close to ruining this book.

Remember when all those magicians were up in arms because the Masked Magician was revealing all of their secrets on Fox TV? The public on the other hand, was thrilled. Who doesn't like being shown behind the scenes?

Me. In the case of Eunoia anyway. Here Bok played the Masked Poet, but in a masochistic spin, appeared to reveal his own secrets! Giving a brief definition of a univocal lipogram, Bok then describes the other rules of Eunoia. In each chapter, there must be an allusion to writing, a description of specific events (i.e., a culinary banquet, prurient debauchery ...er, dirty parts, a pastoral tableau, and a nautical voyage). Furthermore, each sentence needed to "accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism." And it needed to come within 98% of exhausting the available lexicon per vowel.

What this technical jargon did essentially, was strip away the magic. Basically, what Bok did was collect all the vowel exclusive words, categorize them as food words, dirty words, and so on, and put rhymes within a sentence's length of one another. Who couldn't do that?

But after thinking it through (I loved the book so much, I didn't want to give up on it), I was selling Bok short. First of all, it was Bok's idea. Yes, it's true, univocal lipograms have existed before, but the categories were his. I'm sure that after he collected the words, some categories were obvious. Yet again, how many others have taken the time to do so? And the fact that Chapter E is an e-only retelling of the Iliad, says that Bok had more skill than the average Joe.

And furthermore, if Eunoia can be stripped down to a poem that a computer could be programmed to write yet still appear poetic, it says a lot about the magic contained within these little vessels we call vowels.

So, in keeping with the Masked Magician analogy, perhaps Bok wasn't revealing his own secrets, but the secrets of the almighty vowel.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Why I'm Loving Iqaluit

Yesterday, my wife and I brought our kids to mass registration. It's a large event held at one of the local arenas whereby community clubs and organizations have tables set up in order to recruit new members. Not a bad idea.

One of the reasons we had come to Iqaluit was the opportunities that could be had here (compared to where we were living before). So we went to mass registration planning on enrolling our kids in something fun and worthwhile. Of course, our kids are very young so there wasn't a whole lot available to them, but it was nice to see what they can avail of in just a few years, and we did sign both up for gymnastics and possibly hockey for our daughter.

I, on the other hand, ended up signing up with a writer's group. I had no idea Iqaluit had such a thing and was more than pleasantly surprised. Even more surprising, those that run it, also run a local theatre group to which I also signed up. The last time I acted was way back in grade 3 when I brought the house down with my Santa Claus persona (I swear I wasn't a chubby kid), so this could be interesting. Now acting isn't completely foreign to me, my mother runs and performs in a dinner theatre and my sister has been in a couple of musicals, so we'll see if I get the acting gene or not. As for the writing club, I'm really psyched. I'll let you know how it turns out, and share some of my writing from time to time.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Reader's Diary #154- Matt Cohen: Elizabeth and After (up to Part III)

Cohen opened the novel with a brief description of Elizabeth's funeral. Throughout part one, I had begun to think that might be as much as Elizabeth we were going to see. The "and After" part seemed to be the focus.

Yet in Part 2, as in so many Canadian novels, we go back in time to Elizabeth's life. Our authors seem to have a thing against chronological stories, don't they? Yet, that's okay in this case. Time is, after all, the major theme of this book.

Cohen looks at time from many angles. Personal histories, however, seem to be his major concern. What shapes them? Whose intersect and what effect do they have on one another? And what role does belief play?

In Part II, Cohen explores that old axiom about history repeating itself. In Part One, we see Carl taking Moira to his mother's cemetery, in Part Two we see William taking Elizabeth to his mother's grave. In both cases, the women notice that the dad's date is already half finished (my own grandmother has a headstone half complete- morbid people). Another parallel, which I will get into later, is the conception of Elizabeth's children- after her very first encounters...

Spoiler Alert*

This is where it gets really interesting; the paternity of Carl. Carl is Elizabeth's son and in the first part we are led to believe that he is also the son of her husband, William. Yet in Part 2, we discover that he might be Adam's son. Adam, is quite the opposite of William, and as you may have guessed, Elizabeth's secret lover.

Here Cohen raises an interesting question. We are led to believe that history repeats itself, but does it need to? In the first part, we see Carl as a pretty troubled young man (actually, by the time we meet him, he is trying to reform himself), with a history of drinking and brawling. Just like his father. Just like the man he believed to be his father, that is. Now it comes down to the whole nature versus nurture debate.

One could also, of course, raise the point that Cohen was merely making a moral point about the value of telling the truth, or more precise, the consequences of telling a lie.

A real book club could have a field day with this one.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #153- Christian Bok: Eunoia (Up to Ch. I)


Today's poet can choose from any number of forms, if in fact choosing form at all (i.e., s/he might choose free form). With so many options, there's a risk of being gratuitous. Too often a reader (or listener) has to suffer through a poet trying to challenge her/himself with a form obviously chosen simply for its own sake. Challenging oneself is fine, but when it is at the reader's expense it is not. I think a poet needs to find that fine line between challenging oneself yet still choosing forms that are warranted by the theme of the poem.

In Eunoia, Christian Bok employs a lesser known form called a lipogram which omits a letter or set of letters. In each chapter, Bok chooses to omit all the vowels but one (i.e., they are univocalic poems). To illustrate, the line "Carpal pangs gnarl a man's hands and cramp a man's palms" is from Chapter A.

Years ago I heard of a novel called Gadsby by a man named Ernest Vincent Wright. As trivia buffs could tell you, it's a book of over 50 000 words yet does not contain the letter e. Obviously that was its claim to fame, and people read it simply to find out if it could still be any good. (Don't ask me, I still haven't read it.) Eunoia used similar gimmickry and I suspect the reason it is popular (well, relative to other poetry collections anyway) for similar curiousity and skepticism.

Before I began, I tried to stifle my doubts by coming up with just causes for writing such poems. For "E" for instance, I thought of the sound of a long "E" and how it reminded me of white noise, of a sustained singularity. Maybe Bok would write about the pressures of loneliness. But then, he didn't focus only on long or short vowels. I was more than just curious if he could make this work. Truth be known, and geeky as this is going to sound, I was VERY excited to begin this book. Had it sent in from a library in Baker Lake even.

And I'm not disappointed. In fact, without even having finished it yet, it is one of the best poetry collections I have ever read. It's easy to theorize about Bok's justifications once you begin. For Chapter A, I could see the connotations A brought regarding beginnings. It was set in the middle East (yes, it had a setting- each chapter is a long, continuous poem almost with an epic feel), and isn't that where civilization is said to have begun? And there seem to be chronologies and geographies we're meant to follow: Brahms gives way to gangsta rap, manna turns to lasagna, and even a pagan switches to Marx. I also heard the A. The long A sound (think the Fonz), combined with the short A, suggest a sinister vibe, and so does this poem. From fatwas and warpaths, to malt and tramps, if its ever had an evil connotation, there's a good chance it's here (granted of course, its only vowel is an A).

So he has justification, what about the other poetic elements? Amazing. They're what I imagined beat poetry would be until I actually read some Ginsberg. They come at you with an almost dizzying pace, and the rhymes add a playful element like you're watching a magician at work. And surely, you are.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Reader's Diary #152- Virginia Kroll (Author) and Floyd Cooper (Illustrator): Faraway Drums

Faraway Drums is the story of two African girls who move with their mother to a faraway city (New York maybe?). The older sister, Jamila is put in charge of her younger sister, Zakiya while their mother goes off to work. After the mother leaves, Zakiya becomes afraid of her new surroundings and Jamila comforts her by relating the scary unfamiliar noises back to African sounds. Two people in the street fighting over a car? No, hyenas bickering over scraps. Sirens? No, monkeys fighting over a juicy cocoa pod. And so on.

There are so many wonderful things about this book, that it's probably just best to list them (in no particular order):

1. The voice- Told from Jamila's point of view, hers is a rich voice, full of character. From the subtle ways she drops the "g"s on words (i.e., bickerin', screechin', etc), to the care she shows her little sister ("After, she lies on the sofa in her purple pajamas, smellin' sweet."). Jamila's voice is believable and likeable.

2. Related to the first point, The characters- In particular, Jamila's mother. Despite the fact that she's leaving her children alone, you get the idea she's in turmoil about it. She gives them hugs and reassurances and in the accompanying illustration you see the stress in her face. Also, Jamila. As Zakiya finally drifts off to sleep, Jamila listens to her sleeping and remarks, "Little lioness purrin'". I love how subtly the author suggests that perhaps Zakiya wasn't the only one comforted by African images.

3. The unique perspective- It's great that the same images that give comfort to these girls are the same ones that would scare many of us in this part of the world. A great project for students might be retelling the story with a girl (or themselves) going to Africa.

4. The illustrations- Soft, lifelike and very compelling. As Jamika mentions elephants, monkeys and so on, we see them actually in the apartment with them a la Allsburg's Jumanji. Yet my favourite is the picture with the lamp shade whose pattern mutates slowly into red ants. It sort of reminded me of the Gonsalves illustrations in the Imagine A Day/Night books, only less pretentious.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Reader's Diary #151- Hugh Shea: The Poetry of Newfoundland's Hugh Shea (FINISHED!)

In my last post about this book, I used it as proof that politicians could not be poets. I'd like to amend that assessment slightly.

Politicians cannot be poets simultaneously. They can become poets, but in doing so, lose their political inclinations.

Towards the end of the book, I gained a little more respect for Shea. He was obviously trying to make the transformation. The proof is in his attention to form.

At the end of the book, Shea takes a shot at writing quatrains with a very specific rhyming scheme:

"In all, the Master plants the seed
That each, according to his need,
Can, like the oak, the Heavens embrace,
Or stultify and go to weed."


-from "Quatrains"

Shea notes that he "stole" the type of verse from Khayyam and with them, seeked to attain a higher "reality". While I'm not crazy on the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo (or the awkward rhythm, or the cliched "Master" and "seed" bit), I acknowledge the research and attention to a rhyme scheme (AABA) known as a Rubaiyat. As a student of poetry myself, I appreciate his efforts.

Even more impressive was his attempts at a poem with a rhyming scheme that went a little beyond the rubaiyat. Instead of simply having the third line unrhymed with the others, he added a rhyme within:

"Phone bill and love notes seeping tears
Of exile anguish, through two years
Seived like some rain to guard in vain
The treasures of our loves and cares."

- from "The Return" (italics mine)

No, it is not perfect. The near rhyme of "cares" and "years" may be a product of Shea's accent as this mistake occurs often throughout the book (ex. stairs-fears). But the rhyming pattern is interesting and shows that Shea was at least, trying to challenge himself.

Though I question how it was intended. Shea had recorded these poems before his death in 93, and editors Kenneth Mercer, Bob Rumsey, and Gerard Rumsey transcribed them after he had passed away. It is possible that the particular stanza above had been intended to appear this way:

"Phone bill and love notes seeping tears
Of exile anguish, through two years
Seived like rain
To guard in vain
The treasures of our loves and cares."

In which case, the rhyming scheme becomes AABBA like the common limerick. In my opinion, the editors made the right call. The version above takes the edge of the words, making "anguish" and "seeping tears" for example, seem a little too trivial. If nothing else, it proves the power of a good editor.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #150- Matt Cohen: Elizabeth and After (up to the beginning of Part 2)

Kurt Vonnegurt's Slaughter House Five, as those of you who've actually read it know, was essentially (albeit a strange one) an essay on the tapestry of time. Cohen's Elizabeth and After, while definitely more on the normal side, is no less a "time as an interconnected construct" piece. Some might find Vonnegurt's eclectic and eccentric style a bit more original than Cohen's, but I propose that the latter is at least as masterfully crafted.

The books or poems I enjoy most are those which can be enjoyed on two levels; the superficial and the deep. Al Purdy's narrative poems in Rooms For Rent are good examples. The storyline of each poem can be enjoyed as is; they're funny and interesting. Yet, often underneath them there are observations of humanity we've maybe not considered before. Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams is another great example. Many people enjoy it just for the tension between Smallwood and Fielding. Yet if you look at Smallwood as a symbol of Newfoundland and Fielding as a symbol of independence, the book takes on a whole new meaning.

Elizabeth and After, I'm expecting, will be another great example. While the story of Carl McKelvey is compelling enough, the underlying point about time and more specifically how the past lives in the present, is the real weight of the book (and why, I suspect, it won the GG). I said in my first post that the book is not bogged down by flashbacks. I hope I didn't leave the impression that there are none, because in fact, the book is peppered with them. However, Cohen presents them very casually and as reflections of the characters, never having us lose sight of the main storyline. Set in a somewhat small town, where a handful of names predominate everyone, interconnectedness is the key to unraveling the point of the novel. It is a misleadingly simple read.

A favourite part so far is the end of part one, in which the story suddenly switches to the present tense. It happens so quick that it might easily be missed, but again the theme of time comes to the fore. All roads lead to here.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #149- Hugh Shea: The Poetry of Newfoundland's Hugh Shea (up to "We Do")

In an earlier post, I asked the question "What is a poet but a politician with not as much at stake?"

Since then, I've had time to rethink. Poets and politicians have one thing in common; words are their raison d'etre. But that's where the similarities end.

Politicians often use simple words to conceal the truth, while poets often use abstract words to reveal the truth. Does this mean a politician cannot be a poet? Yes.

Exhibit A: The Poetry of Newfoundland's Hugh Shea.

(Disclaimer: This collection was published posthumously and it is possible Shea would have edited these or even chose not to publish them altogether.)

Hugh Shea was a Newfoundland politician, involved with both the Conservatives and then the Liberals, during the 70s and 80s. And while he doesn't use the "simple" words I spoke of above, he's still no poet.

Shea's biggest fault as a poet is his poor sense of rhythm. As a man with two left feet, I feel silly condemning another for being rhythmically challenged, but this is poetry- not dancing.
"He died and everyone swore to a man
They voted for him every time he ran.
A harmless thought and set as though by rote
Now dead, it seemed he did deserve their vote."

- from "The Politician"

That is the opening stanza of the opening poem. I've read and reread the third and fourth lines and they still seem awkward to me. Sometimes poets justify it. A poem about penguins for instance could get away with clumsy phrasing- it would mimic their unrhythmic gait. But every poem in Shea's collection, regardless of subject matter, has equally awkward lines.

To me, that is one mighty hurdle. If the poet screws that up, it's hard to take anything else serious. But I'm continuing to read through them, so I thought I might as well try. Yet, that wasn't his only downfall. Coming from a political vantage point, Shea's poems are often too blunt and intentional for my liking. In "Look Again" for instance, he takes on those who have negative stereotypes about Newfoundlanders: "If you want a Newfie, then find a fight." I'm not a fan of overtly political poetry. I've read some of Che Guevara's poetry, Milton Acorn's poetry and now Shea's. All throw subtlety to the wayside for attacks on bigotry, classism, etc. They might all make for good speeches or rallies, but not for poetry. Margaret Atwood's best poems seem to know how to walk the fine line, the aforementioned poets do not.

Shea does have some poetic sensibilities. Take any line individually and you can sense an appreciation for the "right" word: "Not realizing that this gaudy dove", "Or the haggish sea" etc. Perhaps Shea was on his way to becoming a poet, but he passed away before the transformation was complete.