BOOKS Good Local poets vibrations celebrate stanzas
Tale of love, espionage and music hits all the right notes
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