Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers

This is just going to be a short review, since I read this 1993 anthology of essays on the art of the short story more for professional development than I did for pleasure. I’m getting back into writing short stories again after a lengthy hiatus to write a new novel, and How Stories Mean came highly recommended as a text to get one thinking about the story as an art form, and to get the short story juices flowing.

Not that this is a criticism, but this anthology does reprint a number of older essays that I encountered in previous books, either written or edited by Metcalf, including the brilliant Sixteen by Twelve, The Narrative Voice and Kicking Against the Pricks. In How Stories Mean, Metcalf reprints his own “Editing the Best,” “Punctuation as Score”, as well as Ray Smith’s “Dinosaur” and other pieces. These are vitally important essays to understanding the Canadian short story and how one goes about writing one, so I certainly didn’t mind reading them again.

The book also includes fantastic essays by Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Clark Blaise, Mavis Gallant, Leon Rooke, Norman Levine and others. The best pieces in the anthology talk about the short story at both the level of art and of craft. It was wonderful to get into some theory about the short story from those who practice it well. I took several pages of notes on things that resonated with me.

There were a few duds in the book. The essays by Jack Hodgins claim to be original to this anthology, but they seemed to rehash a lot of the ground he covered in A Passion for Narrative. Kent Thompson has a couple of duds in here before he redeems himself at the end with his piece “Reading & Writing.”

Anyway, it was great to read (and in many cases, reread) these essays as I embark on putting together a suite of new short stories over the coming months. Don’t be surprised if you see a spike in the number of high-profile short story collections in my reading log.

Reminder: Reading tonight at Type Books in Toronto

Just a friendly reminder that I'll be reading at Type Books on Queen Street tonight from 6 until 8 pm, along with RR and Jeff Bursey. Please come out if you can make - there will be cookies! (Plus literature.)

M.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Conclusion: The Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So both RR and I finished our rereading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany at the tail-end of last week as part of our Co-habitational Reading Challenge. While we both still consider the book a delightful romp and one of the great treasures of our young(er) reading years, we have to say that the book does totally fall apart in the second half or so. I suppose it’s a testament to how much you used to love a book that you’d go about giving it such a hard ride upon rereading it.

For me, the book began to resemble, around the second half or so, a rather large and cumbersome piece of IKEA furniture as I began to wonder whether Irving would end up with a bunch of unused pieces left over and whether he’d be able to tighten up all the screws by the last chapter. Sadly, there are a lot of dangling, unfulfilled or at least unsatisfying aspects to the end of this long, long novel. For one, I didn’t feel like I got enough closure on the mysteries of John’s mother’s life – her clandestine singing career and the secrets behind who John’s father actually was. I also felt really disappointed in the way the character of Hester – John’s sexually precocious cousin – just sort of disintegrates: she spends pretty much the entire second half of the novel vomiting, and then she becomes a famous musician. Huh? What? How did that happen?

RR and I both agreed that the more spiritual-mystical elements of Owen Meany got really out of hand the longer the novel went on. The earlier examples of it – like when Owen is convinced he is an instrument of God after accidentally killing John’s mother with a baseball, or when Owen sees his own name and date of death on a tombstone while playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a stage production of A Christmas Carol – all had natural, secular explanations to coincide with them. (The baseball thing was just a freak accident; Owen was suffering from a massive fever when he had his vision about his death.) But by the time Rev. Merrill begins speaking in Owen’s voice near the end of the novel, well, I was convinced that Irving had pretty much jumped the shark.

Thankfully, our disappointments in the novel have been tempered by our love of the first half, which is sweet and touching, so full of richly drawn characters and packed with some laugh-out-loud hilarity. “We’ll always have the Christmas pageant,” will be, I think, our mantra when we think back on this experience.

Anyway, this was a fun (if time-consuming) exercise and well worth the effort. We loved doing it, but also love the idea of getting back to our regular reading schedules. If you have any thoughts on Owen Meany, by all means drop us a comment. Or better yet, if you’re in the Toronto area, come out this Thursday (August 25) to Type Books on Queen Street West at 6pm and tell us in person: RR and I will be doing a reading there with PEI author Jeff Bursey. We’d love to see you if you can make it.

M.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Update on our Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So if you’re been following along on RR’s blog, you can see that she’s already posted some wonderful stuff about our discussions of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which we’re rereading simultaneously. We had great fun going over the hilarious Christmas pageant scene last night, which to my mind is one of the funniest passages in all of American literature. (Pages 214 to 220 in the standard paperback edition, for those of you interested.) We’ve also discussed other comical moments involving the maids at the Wheelwrights’ place as well as the diminutive authority Owen seems to wield over his parents.

As RR touched on, one thing that continues to impress about this book is the fluidity and skillfulness that Irving shows in the structuring of time. I suppose with a 617-page novel, you have lots of room to manoeuvre between the past and present, but it still isn’t easy. Irving is excellent at giving each scene a cadence and crescendo that is then counterbalanced perfectly with a sudden jump – either forwards or backwards –in the timeline. He never once waivers in his trust of the reader that he or she is capable of following along.

Like with most things I read, I do have the occasional criticism. Beyond the minor plot contrivances that RR alluded to in her post, there are times when I feel like some characters don’t always act like real people. Chief Pike’s obsession with finding the baseball that killed John’s mother seems like a bit of a strain; it was clearly a freak accident, so why treat it so fanatically like a ‘murder’? Also, Owen’s mother’s space cadet-like behaviour – the fact that she almost never leaves her house, almost never speaks, never looks out her windows, never even makes eye contact with people – isn’t really believable. Also, I wonder if the last name of Dan - the man who provides love, support and guidance to John after his mother days - is a bit too obvious: Needham.

But nitpickery aside, we’re having a real blast rereading this big, fat, funny novel from our youth. Stay tuned to our blogs over next few days for more discussion points. And if you’re reading along at home (or if you and your housemate are reading a different book simultaneously) , drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

M.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Event: Reading at Type Books in Toronto

I know this has been making the rounds on a bunch of different websites, but I thought I'd mention it here as well: RR and I will be reading at Type Books in Toronto, along with PEI novelist Jeff Bursey, on August 25th.

I met Jeff briefly about 10 years ago while I was home on the Island, and he contacted me out of the blue a couple of months ago to ask if I'd read with him while he was in town. His novel, called Verbatim, is set in the legislature of an unnamed Atlantic province. There will apparently be a bit of theatre accompanying Jeff's reading, which RR and I will be participating in, so it should be loads of fun.

Anyway, here are the details:

Where: Type Books, 883 Queen St. West, Toronto.
When: Thursday, August 25 from 6 until 8 pm.
Who: Mark Sampson, Rebecca Rosenblum and Jeff Bursey
How much: Free, but naturally we encourage you to buy the authors' books.

I did want to mention that, contrary to the marketing materials making the rounds about this event, I'll most likely read a scene from the new novel. It won't be the same excerpt I've read at recent events in Toronto, Perth and Moncton (and subsequently published here, in a literary journal out of Manitoba called The Quint, back in the spring), but something new. I hope you're looking forward to it as much as I am.

M.

Review: Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, by Stuart Ross

Many writers attempt to find the absurd in the tragic, but few are able to translate their efforts into something highly, compulsively readable. Stuart Ross, in his new novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, certainly gives us a healthy dose of tragedy: his protagonist, Ben, a Jewish performance artist in Toronto, has lost both his parents to cancer, has a brother with a brain injury that has ruined his short- and long-term memory, and is constantly followed by the spectre of anti-Semitism. The absurdity is there, too – Ross’s trademark surrealism, including multiple conversations with actress Kim Novak about her role in the film Vertigo. But what makes Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew stand out is how its small, episodic scenes create a page-turning tension using the subtlest of narrative arcs: Ben is consumed with finding out whether a memory he has – that of his mother assassinating a prominent neo-Nazi – actually happened.

What struck me about this novel is how much it reminded of the works of PEI short story writer, poet and playwright J.J. Steinfeld. In both Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew and the majority of Steinfeld’s oeuvre, we find not so much direct survivor guilt over the Holocaust but rather guilt from the children of Holocaust survivors, the difficulty those children have of facing up to (and finding meaning in) a reality that could perpetrate such a mind-boggling atrocity. Indeed, Ben’s ability to spot random absurdity in the everyday seems to stem from his awareness of the grandest absurdity of all – the Holocaust itself. A friend’s mother is born with a debilitating deformity; his brother’s brain condition prevents him from recognizing the women he loves; a childhood bully terrorizes Ben for reading a book for pleasure. Everyone, it seems, is susceptible to the random cruelties of a random universe.

What’s interesting is the way the novel balances this randomness with Ben’s religio-cultural background. On the one hand, he is very aware of the role that God and religion play in his self identity – he has a bar mitzvah, he celebrates Jewish holidays, etc.; but on the other hand, you get the sense that Ben ultimately believes in none of it, believes that there is nothing beyond this one crack at existence that we are all given. This is typified in a scene where he describes a story he learns at Hebrew school about 12 rabbis who face a painful, brutal death when they refuse to reject their beliefs. As Ben puts it:

We were halfway through the story of the Twelve Rabbis when I started feeling really guilty. I imagined walking home from school one day, and getting cornered by some Christian boys. I pictured them wearing Boy Scout outfits. They say to me, Ben, give up your Jewish god and become Christian like us, or we’ll kill you right now. I think of potato latkes and jelly fruit slices … and of my mother sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me how all her aunts and uncles were killed by Hitler, and of my father slathering horseradish upon his lump of gefilte fish at the Passover Seder, and of my mother getting pelted with snowballs because she’s four years old and she speaks Yiddish. Then I think of being dead. Nothing happens when you’re dead, and you’re not even aware that nothing is happening, because you’re dead.
The juxtaposition here of an inherited Jewishness with an atheistic creed is startling.

But if it all sounds a bit depressing and ghastly, rest assured that it is not. Ross approaches these heady matters with an astounding sense of whimsy and humour. It’s wholly apt that his protagonist is a performance artist: what better way to express the comically arbitrary nature of life than through performances that are designed to exclude a grander sense of ‘meaning’? (As Ben says about his father’s reaction to his art: “He had no idea what I was doing – he was sure it was supposed to mean something and he was a simple man … ‘Whatever response you have is the correct response,’ I told him. ‘It’s not a matter of what I’m trying to say, but of what you get out of it.’”) Ben’s exhibits are, in one sense, typical of performance art: in one show, he eats a thousand donuts; in another, he submerges himself in a vat of ketchup and allows the audience to pull his hair; in another, he travels to Yellowknife to build inukshuks out of eggrolls. But it is that sense of playfulness, that child-like desire to express oneself as the universe spins around us, that makes both Ben’s personality and his art come to life.

Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew offers, in the end, no pat answers or solutions to the questions it raises. (Indeed, the sole plot point, that of whether Ben’s mother actually killed a Nazi, is never really resolved.) Instead, it simply gives us something deeper to ponder: the question of purpose, and the purpose of questioning. Perhaps there is no grander arc of meaning to the universe, but Ross is telling us that that’s okay. The artist’s job is to help us find patterns in the randomness. To find humour. To find beauty.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Introducing the Co-habitational Reading Challenge

So as many of you probably know, RR and I moved in together back in the spring. One of the things we did to cement our undying love and commitment was to painstakingly combine our huge personal libraries. While this has resulted in a massive wall of books now taking up the entire length of our living room, it did have the interesting side effect of producing a whole box’s worth of doubles. (This also included some double CDs –two copies of Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, for example. Don’t judge me.) Now, while we have managed to give away most of the double books, one copy that has persisted is A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. My theory is that everyone who is literate already owns a copy of this book, and therefore it's been virtually impossible to fob off to somebody else.

So we’ve decided to use this opportunity to introduce the Co-habitational Reading Challenge. We will both be reading Owen Meany at the same time, and use our respective blogs to post our conversations and insights on the text. Don’t be surprised if this reminds you a little of the Retro Reading Challenge I ran on the blog last year. It’s very similar in nature – we each read Owen Meany when we were younger (she was about 17; I was about 24) and absolutely loved it, and we’re curious to see if it holds up after all these years.

Naturally if you’d like to participate, we totally encourage you to do so. You can either read Owen Meany along with us or you and your co-habitational life partner can choose another book to read simultaneously and then pop back to our blogs and let us know how it’s coming along.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Review: Dog Eat Rat, by Tom Walmsley

There is something to be said about the beauty of concision. Tom Walmsley knows the power of the minimal, the insight and illumination it can bring to a reader’s mind. In his new novel, Dog Eat Rat, Walmsley composes scenes of incredible tightness, a ruthlessly stripped-down approach to action, dialogue and characterization. It’s a fitting style for this book, considering that his protagonist, Trip, while a private eye during the day, writes haiku in his off hours. This is a novel that knows the art of conveying very much with very little.

Dog Eat Rat is, in many ways, a parody of a hard-boiled detective story; and Trip is, in many ways, a deliberately stereotyped P.I., replete with a fucked-up life and all manner of self-destructive behaviour. The novel tells the tale of an exceedingly dysfunctional love triangle Trip has with two women: a fellow investigator named Ginger (and yes, for the record, she is a redhead) and a young woman named Suzi, who is looking to cast off her dull office job and break in to the P.I. business with Trip and Ginger’s help.

The investigation that sits at the centre of the plot is like nothing you’ll find in any typical detective novel. Trip and Ginger are hired by a man named George DeWitt to spy on his wife Rebecca, whom DeWitt suspects is cheating on him. However, he is not interested in catching her in the act so much as he is interesting in finding out what Rebecca’s paramour does with her in bed so that he, DeWitt, can become a better lover and keep her satisfied. (To be fair, this concept may stretch plausibility to a breaking point for some readers.) What results is a convoluted meshing of sexual and emotional entanglements among the novel’s primary characters: Trip and Rebecca hook up, Suzi goes after Dewitt, etc. etc. etc.

Dog Eat Rat is, as the title suggests, a story about messing around with life’s food chain – in this case, the emotional and sexual food chain between characters who are just barely holding themselves together. Walmsley scrapes clean any inclination he has towards sentimentality and shows the raw, unwashed consequences that come from fucking around with the natural order of relationships. The novel, in its own minimalist way, dabbles with bigger questions – like the existence of God and the slippery nature of fidelity, both to one’s self and to others – but Walmsley is driven by a near relentless obsession with keeping his prose tight, his action lean, and his themes hidden from our immediate view.

I have to admit, though, that the novel did fall apart a little bit for me in the last third. While I appreciate the aloofness of the writing, in the end I had to ask myself what was at stake in this story other than the sexual gratification of its characters. (In that sense, it reminded me a little of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, where the broader ideas are obscured by the characters’ need to simply get off.) Walmsley, at times, keeps a little too much below the surface; he severs the connection between sex and the bigger things he’s trying to examine.

But overall, Dog Eat Rat is an exhilarating read and a disturbing take on a well-established genre of fiction. There are scenes here I will turn back to over and over for the lessons they teach about the magic of brevity, about how to convey a whole world – deliciously imagined – through just a few lines.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Robert Kroetsch Tribute #1: Seed Catalogue

The Canadian literature community was saddened by the news that on June 21, Robert Kroetsch - author of more than 25 books and winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction - had been killed in a car crash near Leduc, Alberta. When I heard about Kroetsch's death, I put out a call to various writers I know to participate in a tribute to him on this blog. The assignment was simple: choose a book by Kroetsch and write 1,000 to 1,500 words on what it has meant to you.

First up is my good friend Nathan Dueck, whom I knew during my MA years out in Winnipeg. His bio is at the bottom of the essay. For his essay, Nathan chose Kroetsch's seminal (um, pun intended?) 1977 poetry collection Seed Catalogue. Over to you, Nathan.



How Do You Plant a Poet?




1.

But how do you grow a poet?

This is the voice of Robert Kroetsch. This is how he renders it in Seed Catalogue. Kroetsch repeats the line, a question he asks himself often, throughout the long poem. With every repetition, five times in total, the line becomes a verbal tic: the voice is hesitant to write (Kroetsch Catalogue 37); it is insistent about understanding the process of writing (“How do you grow a poet?” 38, 39); and, it is persistent about developing a writing voice (“How do you grow / a poet?” 40). Another speaker replies to the italicized voice. Where the first speaker considers growing, the second voice, presumably belonging to a “poet,” responds with an anecdote about planting. This “poet’s” lines, which lack italics, sound more confidant than the lines with typographical emphasis. It seems that italics appear to indicate intimacy or urgency within Seed Catalogue. Other portions appear more aware, knowing or, more appropriately, self-reflexive. The “poet” teaches us about writing: “Start: with an invocation” (Kroetsch Catalogue 37). And, he inevitably teaches us about dying: “Killed him dead. / It was a strange / planting” (Kroetsch Catalogue 44). The “poet” speaks with a voice that Kroetsch remembers from childhood in rural Alberta. Repetition of such voices is how he remembers the past with Seed Catalogue. Kroetsch repeats these memories in a long poem that resuscitates his own history. Alternately, forgetting the past is akin to suffocation. Perhaps that is why the “poet” uses the gerund “planting,” which implies planting is ongoing, rather than the past tense, “planted.”

In “On Being an Alberta Writer: Or, I Wanted to Tell Our Story,” Kroetsch writes about exhuming a particular seed catalogue from the Glenbow Archives. “I wanted to write a poetic equivalent to the ‘speech’ of a seed catalogue,” he recalls, “[t]he way we read the page and hear its implications” (“Writer” 8). “The writing the writing the writing,” therefore, matters more to Kroetsch than its alterative, “the having written.” Because of that repetition, the writing seems to take on at least three stages: writing the poem, the writing implied by reading it, and the writing in response to it. Every subsequent commentary, essay, or review of “the writing” engages Seed Catalogue in a dialogue that Kroetsch began with his “explosive seed” of poetry. That way, the writing the writing the writing is “a strange / planting” within readers. The writing, etc., like the speaking, goes on, even without the “poet.” That is how you plant a poet.

2.

I knew she was watching me. She was
watching me grow. Like a bad weed, she liked
to say. That pleased her.

The lesson of Seed Catalogue must be the writing the writing the writing. And, especially after Kroetsch’s death, it seems important that I keep this lesson in mind. My first thought after learning about the tragedy was, “well, I guess the field notes are finally complete.” Weeks later, I still do not know how to feel about this ending for the lifelong poem. I cannot convince myself that death is the end. That is to say, the voices that Kroetsch captured in writing still speak to me. I am convinced his dialogue with readers, somehow both intellectually profound and emotionally provocative, goes on. It seems remarkable to me that Kroetsch achieved such a range (with such rigour) by writing the tones of those who tend the land (instead of the pretensions of those who teach in ivory towers). An example from another long poem, “I’m Getting Old Now” from Sounding the Name, indicates how he engages with his upbringing. In this poem, the speaker relates a dream wherein his mother speaks to him as though he was still a child. It is unclear, though, if she is more “pleased” to watch her boy “grow,” or to repeat what they say about “a bad weed” (Kroetsch “Old” 202). With the next stanza, he speaks of awakening to realize that “I’m getting old now . . . Death is not quite / the enemy it was. It is a kind of watching” (Kroetsch “Old” 202). Then, in the final stanza, he feels that, in his old age, “Death begins to seem a friend that one has almost / forgotten, then remembers again.” If “Death” does not represent an end within “I’m Getting Old Now,” it is because the speaker has come to terms with aging. At the same time, aging necessitates memory in the poem. If forgetting represents a betrayal of history, remembering is a delay, or a deferral, of the inevitable end. I suspect this lesson about memory – a form of aging – from Sounding the Name is comparable to the one about writing – a form of speaking – from Seed Catalogue. If so, the writing the writing the writing is how Kroetsch “remembers again.”

3.


After the bomb/blossoms Poet, teach us
After the city/falls to love our dying.
After the rider/falls
(the horse West is a winter place.
standing still) The palimpsest of prairie

under the quick erasure
of snow, invites a flight.

Driving up the Queen Elizabeth II highway to Kroetsch’s memorial service in Leduc, a friend revealed what she took away from Seed Catalogue: “it shows me the effectiveness of simple writing.” The four of us in the minivan – three friends from graduate school and one of our professors in the Department of English at the University of Calgary – agreed. We had all, at one time or another, approached Kroetsch for help with our writing. And, he generously obliged us all. He read drafts of our dissertations and manuscripts. He introduced us to other writers. I cannot confirm this, but I would like to say the discussion took place as we unknowingly steered around “the home place: one and a half miles west of Heisler, Alberta, / on the correction road / and three miles south” (Kroetsch Catalogue 30). Later, when I returned home, back to shelves that bow with books by Kroetsch, a line from Seed Catalogue went over in my mind. “Poet, teach us / to love our dying” (Kroetsch Catalogue 45). Now, with the long poem in hand, I am struck by the implications of another verbal noun. The italicized voice speaks of “dying” instead of “dead.” Farther along that column, the speaker provides a sense of what archaeology means to Kroetsch. Throughout Seed Catalogue, archaeology is a practice that forms the object of which it speaks. It offers us a way to speak of the past and of the shifts in epistem√© to organize memories in writing while referencing the limits of the writing itself. In the opposite column of the long poem, the “poet” speaker repeats a principle theme of the long poem. He refers to an earlier passage where he remembers falling off a horse when he was a child. “The horse was standing still,” of course (Kroetsch Catalogue 29). Because of that repetition, it seems necessary to consider what compels the “poet” to embarrass himself. Perhaps he wants us to share the pathos of his memory. If so, he can align with his readers to experience “a strange planting” of voice on the page. The effect of this identification is why reading Seed Catalogue makes me uneasy. It is also why I feel compelled to remember how Kroetsch, the poet, affected me. His death is not the end, but it is a line break.

Nathan Dueck is the author of the poetry collection King's(mere) (Turnstone Press, 2004) and has had poems appear in CV2, Canadian Literature and other places. Originally from Winkler, MB, he now lives and writes in Calgary.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Guesswork, by Jeffery Donaldson

It’s rare for a poetry collection’s jacket copy to say something succinct rather than hyperbolic about a poet’s work, but whoever it was at Goose Lane Editions that wrote the back-cover blurb for Jeffery Donaldson’s new book, Guesswork, certainly knew what he or she was doing. The copy describes Donaldson’s verse as “[r]evealing a mind at once conversant with literary deities and the subtleties of the everyday …” Anyone who has read Donaldson’s previous collections, particularly his formidable 2008 book Palilalia, knows that this description suits him perfectly. Whether conjuring the ghost of Northrop Frye, punning playfully on terms like “Play Doh’s Cave”, or riffing on the works of Rilke, this is a poet who believes not only in the existence of literary deities but in contemporary poetry’s ability to extend their conversations, to build upon them and reveal the rich nuances of the world around us.

In many ways, Guesswork picks up where Palilalia left off. The overarching trope of that earlier collection was to examine, through the prism of poetry, Donaldson’s and his son’s own palilalia, a subset of Tourette’s syndrome characterized by the involuntary repetition of words or phrases. Palilalia did this is a number of ways, most cleverly by utilizing the pantoum and other poetic forms that rely on repetition for their power. The first piece in Guesswork, “Guillotine”, is a narrative poem that once again renders a Touretter’s tic into an exquisite work of art. (You can watch a well-crafted YouTube video of the poem, comprised of images and Donaldson himself reading.) Donaldson’s descriptions of his disorder are breathtaking here; he sweeps us up in a relentless flow of metaphors tripping madly over themselves to get out – much like the very tics they describe:

… I’ve made my peace
with the spinning dynamo’s monotonous hum,
engine’s run-on, clockwork’s unnerving tick.

Somewhere above, a sloshed puppet master
grapples his tangled lines – the heartless jerk! –
pulling my leg. No unmangling the doublespeak,

the trickster-muse’s obscure hieroglyphic,
his cryptic morse tapping itself out in broken
longs and shorts …

From this launching pad, Guesswork ascends into a stratosphere rich in delightful preoccupations. One might surmise that the collection’s title is ironic, since none of the poems here come off like guesswork at all; rather, they feel forged out of obsessions or observations that may have taken years, or even decades, to incubate. While there are some wonderful one-off poems in the book (“On the Return of Allegory” and the collection’s title piece are stand-outs), for the purposes of this review I want to focus on four longer sections that act as Guesswork’s key pillars.

The first is the seven-poem sequence called “Book”. Here, Donaldson provides a kind of chirographic history of the codex: indeed, “Book I” is laced with cursive flourishes as it describes the world’s first text: “but for nourishment insinuates/ a wriggling, intermittent cuneiform./ The bark curls back, dried and peeled …” By “Book III”, books have become a fetish item, almost erotic in their smells and textures:

I sniff your pages, thumb fanned,
from front to back, back to front.

I am addicted, stirring your musts,
your spine glues, your inks

and endpapers, the weak sweet
of pulp, your woody tones

like varieties of steeped tea.

And by “Book VII”, the book reaches its inevitable, digital end, a “homeless elegy” for the e-text “destined to wander pixilated/ on white screens, cut and pasted,/ resaveable, its next untyped/ character blinking with disbelief?” What’s remarkable about this sequence is that, despite their accessible trajectory, the poems never once feel tedious or played out. Donaldson keeps his metaphors fresh and his observations as sharp as the end of a quill.

The second section I’d like to touch on is the ekphrastic long poem “Torso: Variations on a Theme by Rilke.” (To hear Donaldson briefly discuss the ekphrastic form, you can listen to this recent interview he gave on Art Waves with Bernadette Rule.) Thankfully, Donaldson provides the full text of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, (translated by Donaldson himself), on which the sequence is subsequently based, allowing him to achieve a couple of different ends.

The first, I would say, is to frame his long poem as a kind of re-translation of a re-translation. The source poem, like much of Rilke’s work, can vary wildly from translation to translation. (Indeed my version, taken from The Essential Rilke, selected and translated by Galway Kinnel and Hannah Liebmann, differs from Donaldson’s in small but important ways.) Each sequence not only retranslates the poem, but re-imagines and re-interprets it, sifting and re-sifting its imagery and altering its voice. This achievement is worth showing in detail, even in the first stanza alone. Here is Donaldson’s translation of the source poem’s opening salvo:

We cannot grasp his outlandish head,
where the eyes once ripened like apples.
But his Torso still shines like a candelabra
in which his look, turned back down

to a luminescence, lasts …

Here is Kinnell and Liebmann’s:

We never knew his stupendous head
in which the eye-apples ripened. But
his torso still glows, like a lamp,
in which his gaze, screwed back to low,

holds steady and gleams …

Now here is the first sequence of Donaldson’s poem:

His missing head is amazing. It is not for you
to know the apple of his eye, softening.
But the torso glows as by its own candlelight
with a gaze that, turned all the way down,

gathers and gleams …

And the second sequence:

The statue has no head. But without one
the remaining torso can see all around it
by a light that shines, it seems from the inside,
that fills with your gaze and then gleams with it.

The statement here about the fragmentary nature of art (in the case of the statue of Apollo’s torso, quite literal) is clear. The unfixed shapes before us – the poem and the statue – demand many interpretations and reinterpretations. If this were not enough, Donaldson also exacts a second intention with his poem – one of ventriloquism, of voice appropriation. By section IV, we find ourselves in the midst of a child’s observations about the statue (“Papa, look, here’s a funny one!/ How come he has no head? …”); by section V, we’re being led around a gallery by a slightly smug tour guide (“Oh Madam, we ask that our guests/ not touch the stone. No, not even lightly,/ and yes, even if it is already broken …”). In a way, these shifting voices tell us that, for better or for worse, art and its elucidations belong to everyone, and everyone will translate the experience of art differently. Moreover, each translation takes us further and further away from the source material, begetting whole new works, and this is in no way a bad thing.

The third section I want to touch on is Guesswork’s long poem about hockey, playfully called “Enter, PUCK.” I spotted excerpts from this piece (in slightly different versions) in the Winter 2010 issue of The Fiddlehead, and I admit I was skeptical about whether something as savage and artless as hockey could be rendered into poetry. But Donaldson proved me wrong: once again we find his well-pondered metaphors and crisp descriptive writing on display. What makes these pieces so strong is that Donaldson is unafraid to eschew an immediate correlation between his metaphors and the game in favour of a more nuanced association, one that needs to be mulled over before a connection can be made. Take, for example, these lines from “Defencemen”: “Cowboys at heart, they can circle the wagons,/ face showdowns one-on-one, grapple feisty ones/ broken loose, stare down the six-shooters.” Or take this salvo from “The Referee”: “High-strung stars drift and divide now/ on both sides of the milky firmament/ and slowly gather into mirrored symmetries.”

Whereas some parts of “Enter, PUCK” are dense and elliptical, other parts are explicitly recognizable. I’m thinking specifically of “Play-by-Play”, where Donaldson captures with uncanny precision the cadence of a TV’s commentator’s call on a hockey game:

Now here’s Cournoyer breaking in … drop pass
to Beliveau, cuts on the Short S-i-i-i-i-i-de, Ohhh …
how did Gamble get his glove on it! …

Under ten seconds to go! There’s Keon
over the line, cutting in on the wing …
Keon closing in, a scramble in front,
rebound … backhand … he Sc-o-o-o-res!

Through perfect vocabulary, alternative spellings, and well-placed line breaks, the verisimilitude of the call is incredible. The energy of the poem feeds off the energy of this excerpt.

Finally, being a born and bred PEIslander, I can’t help but touch on Donaldson’s long poem “Province House.” Having grown up in Charlottetown, I couldn’t escape having this provincial landmark in the centre of the city – with all its connotations of nation building, bourne from the impromptu meeting in 1864 of the future “Fathers of Confederation” – stamped into my small-town brain. Indeed, Charlottetown’s ruthless appropriation of this historic site for the purposes of tourism and kitsch does not seem lost on Donaldson: there are times when his poems seems fully aware of how silly the notions of regionalism or nationalism can be. In tercets, the poem summons the boozy ghost of Sir John A. MacDonald and the role he played in putting Charlottetown’s little legislature on the map.

What stands out, though, is how much Donaldson himself – or at least his speaker’s voice – does not feel like a tourist to Charlottetown. With just a few skillful brushstrokes, he captures the essence of the city’s downtown and casts vivid imagery in the reader’s mind.

In the end, Guesswork stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Palilalia as a collection of thoughtful joys and insights from a poet at the very peak of his powers. Donaldson lends a big heart and a lot of patience to these poems – and has, as a result, created something of lasting beauty. I’m anxiously looking forward to what he does next.