Room Re­views

Room Magazine - - REVIEWS -

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.

Taryn Hub­bard

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.

Cara Lang

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.

Annick MacAskill

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.