Read­ers in­vited to text au­thor in ru­mi­na­tion on lone­li­ness

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - By Jonathan Ball Re­viewed by Juli­enne Isaacs

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.

FRANCES LIT­MAN / POST­MEDIA NET­WORK INC. FILES

Or­feo

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