Readers invited to text author in rumination on loneliness
IN The Loneliness Machine (Insomniac, 94 pages, $17), Calgary’s Aaron Giovannone both plays and parodies the detached, suffering artist. “I am part of the problem / because I love my new cell phone. / If you send me a text message, / my face will light up” — Giovannone then includes his real phone number. You can really text it, but if you do, have you two truly connected? The phone in Giovannone’s poems operates as a metaphor for poetry itself — a thing that stands between him and his readers that makes possible and mediates their connection, but around which exists an economy that structures these connections so they don’t satisfy. Elsewhere, Giovannone dispenses with the metaphor: “What’s your plan tonight, guys? / Loneliness? / Poetry and loneliness?” Reading the book in the evening confirms that this is indeed your plan. A playful, mournful, fun and intelligent debut. In Tether (Seraphim, 90 pages, $17), Minnedosa’s Laurelyn Whitt sets a careful pace through elegant structures while feeling casual and conversational. Poems often end by returning to a previous image, with a sudden, newfound clarity, and easy-to-miss tangles in their construction. Describing an empty, “child-abandoned” playground, Whitt writes: “A blue swing yaws in the breeze; / no one sees this. It is emptier now. / Frost seals every surface. A dog / runs by, as though someone calls.” It’s easy to miss “no one sees this.” What about the speaker? Has the empty swing become “emptier” by becoming a poetic object? Aside from some prose inclusions, which are weak but few, Tether displays Whitt’s stunning talent for images that possess both clarity and depth. Toronto’s Glen Downie, a former Winnipegger, sculpts found text into the poems of Monkey Soap (Mansfield, 80 pages, $17). In one section, Downie unearths gems of dialogue from film noir movies: “The next person that says Merry Christmas to me / I’ll kill them.” Elsewhere, sources are stranger and sentiments less silly: “All men are hungry / They always have been.” Downie has an unfortunate tendency to flatten his poems through titles that emphasize one meaning over another in a way that often limits the poem’s depth. Mostly, though, Downie twists lines well through careful choices and contrasts: “It will be more agreeable [...] / to have a cat named Blackberry / now that men have decided / to live by the sword again.” Since the word Blackberry now alludes to a technology product, Downie folds a number of complex possible meanings into what might otherwise seem a simplistic contrast. At his best, Downie thrills with unexpected turns. Cambridge’s Frank Bidart focuses on the poetic standards of sex, art, and death in Metaphysical Dog (Anansi, 114 pages, $20), but with a verve that belies their overuse. Bidart accomplishes this through sheer ruthlessness. “Your body will be added to the bodies that piled up make the structures of the world” — is there a poetic truth more blunt and brutal than this? Once Bidart drops a concrete, clear statement into a poem, you can be sure it will blossom into an abstract, metaphysical concept — yet knowing this can’t prepare you for what comes. Bidart has something to teach us through this powerful and resplendent collection: you must go to the end of the idea. You can’t shy away from the nightmare the poem wants to be. Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball will launch his new book, John Paizs’s Crime Wave (University of Toronto Press), at Cinematheque on Feb. 28, featuring a
film screening and free admission.
FEW writers of fiction dare to describe music: Straying from one artistic medium into another carries with it a whiff of transgression and puts a novel in danger of being dubbed “hybrid” — not to mention the fact that long descriptions are supposed to be anathema to the modern reader. In Orfeo, U.S. National Book Award winner Richard Powers’ 11th novel, music plays as important a role in the plot as its protagonist, the aging avant-garde composer Peter Els, and long passages of musical description are catalysts for some of Orfeo’s most profound ideas. Powers is no ordinary novelist, and Orfeo is no ordinary novel. Like the haunting music it describes, it is stirring and odd, elegant and melancholy, the kind of book you can’t shake even if you dislike it. Seventy years old, Els is officially retired but still making a kind of music in a new medium altogether — microbiology. He is only midway into a groundbreaking project in genetic manipulation, conducted in his do-it-yourself home laboratory, when the FBI catches wind of his experiment. Els’ strange story is inspired by that of Steve Kurtz, a real-life bio-artist arrested by the FBI in 2004 on charges of terrorism. Like in the Kurtz case, Orfeo’s “Bioterrorist Bach” is guilty of working with potentially dangerous bacteria, but he is innocent of malicious intent. As he repeatedly insists, his materials can be found via a few mouse clicks and purchased with a credit card. In a virus- and terror-phobic era, however, this isn’t enough justification for the FBI, and Els is soon on the run, driving crosscountry and visiting ghosts from his past as he tries to evade the dangers of the present. Orfeo’s structure is complex: the present teases out slowly (the entire novel covers just a few days in real-time), interspersed with long passages delving into Els’ memories. As he has lived a musical life, many of his memories involve music — either that Els himself has composed, or music he’s loved. Some of these descriptions are beautiful, exhibiting Powers’ own tonal range. Sometimes, the pacing of Orfeo slows to a crawl, or shifts to the tempo of the music moving it, but this always feels deliberate. In one key passage, Els does nothing but sit in a university café listening to Steve Reich’s 14-minute musical interpretation of Wittgenstein’s proverb, How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life. As he listens, Els hears his own life unfolding again in the chords — a moment of uncertainty, a wavering between keys. Does that D want to return to B minor, as in the beginning? Will the road lead back to E-flat minor, or leap free into a wilder place? The path bends again; E-flat in the soprano, followed immediately by a half-step lower, and he’s flooded with loss, the sound of something said that can never be taken back. Orfeo mainly strikes minor keys, but its political overtones, familiar to Powers fans — the policing of art, the intersections of power and technology — largely take a back seat to looming themes of love, loss and regret and, most of all, the excruciating effort involved in creating a meaningful work of art. Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based
writer and editor.