BOOKS Good Lo­cal poets vi­bra­tions cel­e­brate stan­zas

Tale of love, es­pi­onage and mu­sic hits all the right notes

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - By Bob Arm­strong

APRIL isn’t just the cru­ellest month. It’s also the most po­etic. A cel­e­bra­tion of Na­tional Po­etry Month at McNally Robin­son will fea­ture an as­sort­ment of lo­cal bards whose work crosses genre bound­aries. John K. Sam­son, lead singer for the Weak­erthans and one of the founders of Ar­beiter Ring Pub­lish­ing, will be joined by vis­ual artist/poet and U of W women’s and gen­der stud­ies pro­fes­sor Roe­wan Crowe ( Quiv­er­ing Land), edi­tor and au­thor Mau­rice Mierau ( Fear Not), boxer/poet Kerry Ryan ( Vs.), luthier and birder John Weier ( Where Call­ing Birds Gather) and Me­lanie Den­nis Un­rau ( Hap­pi­ness Threads), who also works as po­etry edi­tor of Geez mag­a­zine. The event be­gins Mon­day at 7:30 p.m. Po­etry fans who have prior com­mit­ments on Mon­day can cel­e­brate Na­tional Po­etry Month on­line at the web­site of Win­nipeg’s Turn­stone Press, which has been post­ing a poem for each day in April, fea­tur­ing Turn­stone poets read­ing their own work. Win­nipeg book lovers will gather at The Gates on Roblin at 10:30 a.m. on May 4 for the an­nual Books and Brunch fundraiser to sup­port the Win­nipeg Pub­lic Li­brary. His­to­rian Frank Albo, known for de­cod­ing the art and ar­chi­tec­ture of the Man­i­toba Leg­isla­tive Build­ing, and Win­nipeg Free Press pop-cul­ture watcher Ali­son Gillmor are the fea­tured guests for a dis­cus­sion of “Books I Have Known and Loved.” Broad­caster Joanne Kelly is the MC. For tick­ets to the par­tially taxd­e­ductible fundraiser, con­tact the Friends of the Win­nipeg Pub­lic Li­brary at 204-947-0110 or info@ friendswpl.ca. The Cana­dian writ­ing com­mu­nity will gather at the Univer­sity of Toronto Sun­day to pay trib­ute to a for­mer Win­nipeg­ger who spent decades ad­vo­cat­ing for writ­ing as a pro­fes­sion. Friends and col­leagues will pay trib­ute to Heather Robertson, who died in March at the age of 72. Among them will be rep­re­sen­ta­tives of two or­ga­ni­za­tions she helped to found — the Writ­ers’ Union of Canada and the Pe­ri­od­i­cal Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada — as well as the Cana­dian Free­lancers’ Union. In ad­di­tion to a long, distin­guished ca­reer writ­ing fic­tion and non-fic­tion books as well as for mag­a­zines, Robertson is re­mem­bered for the 1996 law­suit she launched against Thom­son Corp., then pub­lisher of the Globe and Mail, in which she ar­gued suc­cess­fully that pub­lish­ers could not re­use free­lancers’ work on­line with­out con­sent. With panel dis­cus­sions in English, French, Ital­ian, Span­ish and Chi­nese, Mon­treal’s Blue Me­trop­o­lis is prob­a­bly the most mul­ti­cul­tural lit­er­ary fes­ti­val in Canada. Win­nipeg poet and nov­el­ist Carmelo Mil­i­tano will take his views on Ital­ianCana­dian lit­er­a­ture to the fes­ti­val May 2, when he reads from his novel Sebastiano’s Vine and par­tic­i­pates in a panel dis­cus­sion ti­tled “Love, Be­trayal and Iden­tity in Ital­ian-Cana­dian Fic­tion.” Be­fore head­ing off to Blue Me­trop­o­lis, he’ll give Win­nipeg read­ers a taste of his writ­ing via a read­ing Sun­day at 11:30 a.m. at Bar Italia. The Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion is look­ing for po­ems or songs ex­plor­ing the im­pact of Canada’s In­dian res­i­den­tial schools. The goal is to cre­ate a com­pi­la­tion that will in­spire Cana­di­ans with sto­ries of sur­vival and mes­sages of hope. Songs need to be pre-recorded to be sub­mit­ted. To sub­mit an en­try, email the songs or po­etry to Léo Du­fault at chez­duff@ shaw.ca, along with a bi­og­ra­phy, by May 1.

TO­DAY, most people know the theremin — if they know it at all — as the in­stru­ment that lends the creepy vibe to Vin­cent Price-era movie sound­tracks, or from the wav­ery open­ing notes to the Beach Boys’ Good Vi­bra­tions. But at the time of its in­ven­tion, the theremin was a sen­sa­tion. Cre­ated by Rus­sian sci­en­tist Lev (Leon) Ter­men, it was one of the first elec­tronic in­stru­ments and was al­most mag­i­cal to those who heard it for the first time, es­pe­cially in the way the player seemed to be draw­ing the eerie notes out of thin air. When Ter­men brought his theremin to Amer­ica, there was a flurry of in­ter­est in the new­fan­gled in­stru­ment among sci­en­tists and mu­sic fans alike, with lessons for acolytes and recitals at Carnegie Hall. In his first novel, Mon­treal au­thor and pi­o­neer­ing mu­sic blog­ger Sean Michaels takes the out­line of Ter­man’s bi­og­ra­phy, zaps it with elec­tric­ity and trans­forms it into a love story, set amid the dizzy­ing swing of the Jazz Age and the grey hope­less­ness of a Siberian labour camp. In Us Con­duc­tors, Leon is sent to the United States by his coun­try, ac­com­pa­nied by a mys­te­ri­ous min­der he only knows as Pash, to use his ground­break­ing in­stru­ment as a call­ing card, a way to in­gra­ti­ate him­self to large Amer­i­can cor­po­ra­tions for pur­poses of es­pi­onage. The de­tails are han­dled by Pash, so Leon is free to min­gle with high so­ci­ety and work on new in­ven­tions, es­pe­cially when Pash dis­ap­pears af­ter the 1929 stock­mar­ket crash. He mixes with Ge­orge Gersh­win and Glenn Miller, goes dancing at the Rose­land, lives at the Plaza, and be­comes in­tox­i­cated with New York City. Michaels writes beau­ti­fully and of­ten quite sim­ply, with short sen­tences that nonethe­less con­vey a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence. “I bought yel­low French’s mus­tard and de­vel­oped a taste for salted potato chips,” Leon re­calls. “In a jazz club, in a cel­lar, I lis­tened to a man play a drum solo. My life’s first drum solo.” In New York, he also meets his life’s first love (de­spite the fact he is al­ready mar­ried to Ka­tia, the sis­ter of a Rus­sian col­league). Clara Reisen­berg, a Vil­nius-born vi­o­lin prodigy 15 years his ju­nior, vis­its his sa­lon and he is smit­ten. She be­comes a vir­tu­oso theremin player (this part is true; Clara Rock­more, a pro­tegé of Ter­men’s, was the pre­mier per­formerf of the in­stru­ment), but she was not to be­come his wife, anda this un­re­quited lovelo both haunts him and keeps him alive through­out the rest of the novel. Af­ter new han­dlers forcef him to en­gage in more hands-on es­pi­onage, Leon is forced to re­turnr to Stalin’s Soviet Union, which is a dif­fer­ent coun­try than the one he left. Sus­pi­cions over his U.S. con­nec­tions lead him to be ar­rested as a traitor and sen­tenced to eight years in a work camp. Part 2 of the book fol­lows Leon’s in­car­cer­a­tion in one of Stalin’s most no­to­ri­ous gu­lag camps, a gold mine in Kolyna, Siberia. In Amer­ica, Leon’s life in Amer­ica was a so­cial whirl­wind, filled with speakeasies and celebri­ties, bene­fac­tors ready to pick up the cheque and ladies ready to share from their flasks. Michaels’ vivid de­pic­tion of the drudgery and hope­less­ness of the gu­lag — the bit­ter cold, the rot­ten ra­tions, the back-break­ing labour — are even more ef­fec­tive be­cause of the con­trast. “Part of me is sur­prised that any sorrow can ex­ist away from the camps,” Leon writes. “Man­hat­tan is 136 lon­gi­tudes from Kolyna and we still had the folly, there, to cry.” Luck­ily, Leon’s sci­en­tific mind proves use­ful and he finds him­self trans­ferred to a sha­rashka, a sci­en­tific lab manned by gu­lag pris­on­ers, but Clara’s mem­ory haunts him still. Us Con­duc­tors is never less than fas­ci­nat­ing — it might make read­ers pick up a bi­og­ra­phy of Ter­men to see what’s fact and what’s fic­tion — but de­spite Leon’s rap­tur­ous de­scrip­tions, we never quite un­der­stand what he sees in Clara, who seems un­wor­thy of life­long de­vo­tion. His feel­ings are clear and pal­pa­ble, but what she’s done to evoke them is not. But per­haps that’s in­ten­tional — maybe Michaels means to tell us that the per­son you love is just some­one who hap­pens to vi­brate as the same fre­quency as you. Jill Wil­son is a Free Press copy

edi­tor.

Us Con­duc­tors

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