If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You by Adèle Barclay, Nightwood Editions, 96 pages, $18.95
“Where are our time machines?” asks the narrator in “Dear Sara I,” the first poem of Adèle Barclay’s debut collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You.
Pulsing with an old-world, occult feel, Barclay’s poetry draws the reader back in time with its tarot readers, bearded ladies, riding caps, griffins, and witchery. Alcohol, cigarettes, and erotic desire lend a theatrical, 1920s-era noir feel to the reading.
Yet Barclay’s poems are both contemporary and relevant. Millennial anxieties are a common thread (“I’m so tired / I can’t even curate / a good life” or “our stupid hands / scratching at glass screens”), as is the desire for digital-era connection (“I watched the new Grimes video / hoping to find you in feathers”). The wry, often humorous voice of the narrator feels intimate and familiar, like that of the friend you’re in a semi-permanent state of physical separation with but still speak to every day, by “dial-up telepathy,” text messages, and handwritten letters. But here, the longing is also carnal, marked by blood, bruises, blisters, and body heat. If I Were in a Cage wonders aloud whether closeness is sustainable from afar.
A variety of expertly rendered settings reinforce this question. Within the first two poems, Barclay moves from the “slick jaws / of Brooklyn” to small-town Ontario, where “a grunge trio’s name / references Alice Munro.” In Montréal, “darkness in winter is anyone’s game,” while the Pacific Northwest is all “witchery, rain, chanterelles, and moss.” “I have destinations / to tally” writes Barclay, and whether it’s San Bernardino, Paris, Michigan, or rural Alberta, her deftly observed details safeguard the reader’s perception of each place.
“There’s language / and then there’s language” claims the narrator in “Grammar by the Minute,” and Barclay’s language is both keen and vivid (“The faucet / is a siren, the pipes freeze a rusted melody”), while sensations are contorted (“I’ve / turned Saturn / in my mouth / like an olive pit”) to defy our expectations. At times, it feels like Barclay
is a magician pulling back the curtains of perception and memory to reveal something more enduring. The opening poem is one of six Dear Sara’s interspersed throughout this collection, and by “Dear Sara VI,” the final poem, time has passed and place names have changed, but it’s love that appears to endure. In its exploration of intimacy, If I Were in a Cage is at its most reverent and mystical.
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt In on the Great Joke by Laura Broadbent, Coach House Books, 83 pages, $18.95
In on the Great Joke, the second book by Montréal poet
Laura Broadbent, is a collection of lyric responses, interviews, film scripts, dreams, epigraphs and postscripts that circle the process of reading and writing.
Divided into two parts—“Wei Wu Wei / Do Not
Do / Tao Not Tao” and “Interviews”—each section starts with its own lyric introduction that points to
Broadbent’s thinking around the making of these poems. The introductions contain beautiful reflections on writing and reading: “The writer’s words (as a stand-in for the writer herself) have the effect of piercing little holes in one’s consciousness in order to let new and oneiric light sluice in—the beginning of the transformation.”
Throughout the book, Broadbent shapes her work as a response to the “alchemy of reading.” In the first section, Broadbent brings together multiple translations of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, also known as “The Book of the Way,” and then adopts a pseudo-philosophical voice that strikes a nice balance of advice that is both soothing and humourous: “Despite / what they say, I come bearing the goods: / you do not have to be functioning all the time.”
In “Interviews,” which is a series of posthumous conversations with deceased writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector, she prefaces the section with a short description about her tactics:
. . . from each book I arranged phrases which I took to be their dominant scents in order to distill their essence. Or course
their answers sound like both them and me combined, but that is what happens when one reads, not unlike what happens when one loves—you cannot feel where you begin and the others end.
Throughout the first and second sections, Broadbent includes a series of “short films” that use the scene format to tell a story about a woman who experiences a range of emotion from sad, agitated, to distressed. Broadbent notes that, if cast, this actress must fulfill the Hollywood starlet mold of being “young, fit and attractive” in order for the character’s “unattractive” emotions to be accepted by mainstream audiences who are more sympathetic to beautiful people. While these scenes served as interesting disruptions throughout each section, Broadbent’s note on the series at the very end of the book resonated with me long after I set the collection away.
With writing and reading at the centre of this book, In on the Great Joke is an exploration of what it means to be in conversation with the subjectivity of reading, translation and understanding. Broadbent’s use of introductions and postscripts throughout her book served as an engaging tactic that added an important layer to the reading experience and make this book one that is well worth checking out.
Waiting for the Cyclone by Leesa Dean, Brindle & Glass, 214 pages, $19.95
The characters in Leesa Dean’s debut short story collection, Waiting for the Cyclone, exist in a state of skeptical anticipation. They allow themselves to expose their ugly and vulnerable sides, while eschewing others’ tepid efforts at kindness. Although they follow the heat of their own desires, they remain unsatisfied, and seem to be waiting for something more. This waiting, or hesitance, turns out to be a defining characteristic for each story’s protagonist.
In “Malad,” the unnamed narrator is waiting for life to make sense, while her parents are too busy with their own demons to offer guid-
ance. In “Shelter from the Storm,” Chelsea is literally waiting for the return of her sailor boyfriend, and in “Libertad,” Alison is waiting to feel the passion again in her marriage. In “Waiting for the Cyclone,” the unnamed female protagonist tells her version of a failed love story between herself and a man named Michael as they wait for a Coney Island rollercoaster called the Cyclone. After a summer romance, she struggles to fully commit to the relationship, but seems tied down by Michael’s expectations of a long-term partnership.
Like the characters in many of these stories, the unnamed narrator doesn’t know exactly what she is waiting for, except, perhaps, something different. When Michael sees an apartment for rent and suggests they could live together, she balks: “I knew what he was doing and I didn’t like it . . . I never wanted to see a tarnished version of what we’d been that summer.” Dean explores the weight of expectations in a relationship and how, even when we attempt to subvert them, circumstances can lead us down a path of inevitability.
Dean avoids tying up her endings in favour of leaving a frayed edge. Form mirrors subject in that there is sometimes an unfinished quality to these stories. The Cyclone, which “up close . . . looked fragile with its outdated graphics and weathered paint,” is not unlike the characters who, upon examination, reveal their breakable, flawed selves. While going through the motions of creating lives in the approximation of or against some expected ideal, they are at times caught in the outdated images which they are working to resist. In the end, they seem to be waiting for something even they can’t describe.
Mankind and Other Stories of Women by Marianne Ackerman, Guernica Editions, 183 pages, $20
A character in this book says she likes stories that “go off on side roads and then veer back and hit you on the face.” These ten stories do that. Fast-paced, and smoothly compressed, with distinctive voices (dialogue and internal thoughts) that reflect the author’s experience with drama, the stories offer engaging, funny and touching pictures of family relationships and adult couplings.
Most of them are rooted in contemporary downtown Montreal. Big ambitions—work, meaning, life partner—are pursued with determination and deception. Eight of the stories (sets of two, two, and four) are linked by overlapping characters. These linkages, even when not central, enrich the background of individual stories.
Despite its dedication to Alice Munro, most of the book in tone reminds me more of Mavis Gallant’s mordant eye for human foolishness. On the first page, a modestly successful thirty-something writer meets with her book club, “a speckled group:” “Their savage demolition of a hefty prizewinner cut right through the clouds of panic and jealousy that hang over the writing life. Seeing how other people treat literary success lifted her spirits . . .” How Gallant!
Ackerman’s characters, male and female, are distinctive and eccentric, and so are their situations. Ackerman treats them with touching sympathy. In one story, a man’s unknown half-brother turns up at his fiftieth birthday party, and sends the known members of the family spinning in different directions. In a different story, a thirteen-year-old boy arrives, screaming inconsolably, from his father’s life before his current marriage. In a story set in California, a woman pretends to be blind in order to see truth, while a myopic neighbour pretends she can see.
Two of the stories, “Marlene” and “Florence,” are set in 1960s rural Ontario. A funny-heartbreaking wedding party (its details meticulously convincing) plays out against an ominous backdrop—the disappearance of a hired man, a blood-stained barn, a colicky baby who may not be that of the family head, a pregnancy which crushes an unwed daughter’s promise. In an awkward, poignant scene, the (possibly cuckolded) father tells his pregnant daughter she does not have to go through with her marriage. Had his own been forced? Was his wife’s subsequent restlessness what led to the colicky baby and the whispers of his own violence against the hired man? Unstated implications in these stories reward re-reading.
My favourite of the stories is “Kitty.” Thirteen pages compress a lifetime of longing following a lost love, and a deathbed vision of love’s return.
Despite occasional over-explaining and a lack of emotional depth in the last two stories, this is a collection of polish, intelligence, and humour.
Jean Van Loon
Art Lessons by Katherine Koller, Enfield & Wizenty, 191 pages, $19.95
“Trees, for me, are like humans,” writes Cassie, the young protagonist of Katherine Koller’s debut coming-of-age novel, Art Lessons. The first-person narrative opens with Cassie as a seven-year-old budding artist and traces her inner life for the next decade, trading the colourful crayons of her childhood for charcoal sticks, blossoming and changing like the trees she sketches over time.
As the story progresses and Cassie becomes more emotionally mature, so does her voice. The earlier chapters are defined by short, simplistic observations about the happenings around her; as Cassie grows older, her thoughts reveal a heightened understanding of how art is the thread that connects people near and far, “making lines like a net on the map of the world.” Just as when a tree is rooted and transplanted, but keeps its history within the heartwood—which Darryl, an old friend, describes as “the memory of the tree”—Cassie’s art is a vessel for shared memories.
While Cassie refers to literal trees—the ones that give life to her sketchbook—it’s the family tree that nourishes her, gives her strength, and helps her grow. It’s no surprise that Cassie becomes an artist in her own right; her mother makes quilts, while Babci—named after the Polish term for grandmother, babcia— is a talented seamstress. Cassie sees Babci’s arms as branches “giving her the air she needs,” while Babci’s hands are “seed cones” that take root in her heart, filling it with “purpose, wit and compassion.”
The image of a grandmother holding her granddaughter’s hands is an endearing moment, but also echoes the intergenerational artistry that nurtured both women to become fearless creators; Babci uses her hands to sew, much like Cassie uses hers to draw. Koller’s novel takes a refreshing angle on how a young woman becomes an artist, mentored and encouraged by other women who teach her not only about art, but about life. The look that Cassie’s mother gives her children is likened to how Cassie feels when she looks at her own art. “It’s the look you give your creation,” Cassie writes.
As a book that is meant to appeal to both young adult and adult readers, Koller’s writing style, like Cassie, evolves drastically from start
to finish, which some readers may find challenging to follow. That said, Koller’s novel explores universal concepts of what it means to exist and grow, to root and transplant—as an artist, a woman, a human, a living thing. Art Lessons has the potential to take root in your heart—let it.
Nadia Siu Van
Painter, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne by Susan McCaslin, Quattro Books, 72 pages, $18.00
Ut pictura poesis (“Just as painting, so, too, poetry”), perhaps the most famous line of Horace’s Epistola ad Pisones (“Letter to the Piso Brothers”), is quoted toward the middle of Susan McCaslin’s fourteenth poetry collection, and could well have served as the book’s third epigraph (the collection opens on two quotations: one from Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne, the other from the painter himself). In this book, McCaslin explores Cézanne’s life and work, combining ekphrasis, character sketches, and lyric meditation. Beyond the post-impressionist himself, the poet is interested in considering his reception among other painters, philosophers, and writers, including the book’s speaker, an incarnation of McCaslin, whose peregrinations in France and British Columbia provide a structural backbone to the collection.
Not surprisingly, McCaslin considers some of Cézanne’s iconic paintings in a number of ekphrastic poems, which delight in their detailed, sometimes startling descriptions. So, for example, are “light-sculpted bathers / softened into a complex attention” in “Cézanne’s Sacre Coeur [sic] (Mont Sainte-Victoire),” while grasses are “chartreuse” in “Cézanne’s Baigneuses.” No less compelling are the poet’s portraits of Cézanne’s family and friends, like “La Mère,” which opens with a physical description:
Sombre in black
smudged gypsy cheekbones white kerchief forming a slight widow’s peak
Why did he later douse her only portrait in heavy black paint?
From there, the poem moves on to the rift between Cézanne and his family, illustrated by a biographical anecdote: “All we know / is that when Hortense burned his mother’s effects / he stumbled alone on the roadways / for hours”.
These portraits and references are accompanied by reflections on the painter’s place in art history. McCaslin also uses Cézanne’s life and paintings as a way to reflect on her writing.
In “On Attending the Hungarian Sinfonetta’s
Stabat Mater Concert (Église Saint Espirit [sic],
Aix-en-Provence),” this reflection extends to a comparison with music, implicitly capable of something beyond the reach of poetry and the visual arts:
Sitting in the nave with Cézanne who here regularly unaccountably attended mass (convention? some deeper call?)
I wonder who wouldn’t turn to music— this tingling in the cells
Elsewhere, Cézanne’s France and the speaker’s home in British Columbia converge in the poems “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Golden Ears” and “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Mount Baker.” In the former, the speaker wonders how Cézanne would react to the Canadian landscape: “If Cézanne could be airlifted here / would he be undone?” Similarly, she looks to Cézanne’s artistic career as a mirror for her own in the second of these poems: “His mont and my mountain / precedent
antecedent to / us late coming artists and poets”. These digressions stray somewhat from the sparkle of some of the earlier, more focused poems, but provide a nice sense of space in the volume. Part art criticism, part biography, part lyric journey, Painter, Poet, Mountain studies the intersection of inspiration, experience, and creation that is inherent to various forms of artistic expression.