Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantastic history: Children of Earth and Sky.

9780451472960Guy Gavriel Kay. Children of Earth and Sky. (Viking 2016).

Following his two novels set in an alternate Tang & Song dynasty China, in Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay has returned to the world beneath two moons of many of his novels, most relevantly Sailing to Sarantium & Lord of Emperors, setting this new, &, as expected, wondrous novel some nine hundred years after that duology. In the continent that looks somewhat like a simplified Europe next to the Middle East, Sarantium has fallen to the eastern forces serving the god of the stars, Ashar, while the western empire, much smaller now, still follows the sun god, Jad. The map at the front is both important & necessary.

In this world, which he has so completely & complexly imagined, Kay introduces a number of protagonists, whose lives & stories will intertwine throughout this highly satisfying network of plots & counterplots (all orchestrated by the historically learned narrator, who assumes a mastery of the inner lives of these people but also offers commentaries on the ways of the (this) world, & the crises both individual & social/cultural that confront them all. The main figures, those whose changing lives will most propel the narrative, who come from all levels of their various societies, are: Pero Villani, a young & mostly untried artist of the city state of Seressa; Leonora Valeri, a young noblewomen with a past, from the same Seressa; Danica Gradek, a young woman archer from the fighting town of Senjan; Marin Djivo, younger son of a major merchant family in the lesser city state of Dubrava; Damaz (the name given him by the Asharites who abducted him from a village near Senjan when he was 4; this will be important later on), a 14 year old trainee in the khalif of Asharias’s infantry. There are many other figures, many of them people of power, such as the Grand Khalif Gurçu, residing in Asharias, once Sarantium, which he conquered & made the capital of the Osmanli Empire some 20 years before this tale begins; or Duke Ricci, the head of Seressa’s Council of Twelve, whose plotting propels the stories of Pero & Leonora, & thus those of the others, whom they encounter early in their travels, into motion.

To go into much detail about their stories would be to deny readers the pleasures of this complex text. Suffice to say, Seressa is a great trading city whose leaders are willing to do just about anything to maintain its primacy as the major centre of trade in its part of the world beneath the two moons. Dubrava is also a trading city, smaller, & nearer the edge of the Osmanli Empire, trying to maintain its place, & even increase its trading power, especially if it can also do some damage to Seressa’s. Jad’s Holy Emperor lives in the city of Obravic far to the north of Seressa while the High Patriarch of Jad lives in Rhodias, somewhat to the south. And in Asharias, the Grand Khalif sends out his army every Spring to try to break through the great walled city of Woberg to conquer the ‘infidel’ lands under Jad.

Spies are a necessary part of war & diplomacy in this world, & all states use them. When the Grand Khalif expresses a wish to be painted in the western style, Seressa chooses a young man without family to send to Asharias to do that job, & perhaps manage to spy & even try to kill the Khalif; they also induce a young woman to become a new spy in Dubrava. To get to Dubrava & thence onward to Asharias, these must sail on board a trading ship from that city. And fighting men, & one woman, from Senjan will board that ship to steal any wares from Seressa or Asharias (they are, after all, not pirates but heroes of Jad, dedicated to fighting the followers of Ashar in any way they can). From this conjunction much of the rest of the narrative follows, & it is multifarious, full of deceit, betrayals, battles, & confrontations both large & small – an extravagant tale full of tales, an adventure of bodies, minds, & souls in conflict.

Kay has perfected a fascinating narrative voice over his decades of constructing these marvelous tales set in an invented world with a history so neatly parallel to our own. It is that of a somewhat scholarly, but never too prim, historian all too aware of the vagaries, injustices, & just plain unfairness of life in such a world, yet one who can find moments & individuals that rise above the general chaos & loss. There is a place for love & loyalty among the ruins of a greater past. As an author, he likes people of intelligence & wit, & he finds them in a variety of places in the societies & cultures he constructs with such subtlety & nuance; & he includes a touch of the supernatural, which deeply disturbs any who experience it. All of which makes him one of the few truly philosophical fantasists writing today. Like his other novels set in a history just a few degrees off from our own, Children of Earth and Sky is a superbly entertaining, profoundly moral, & politically astute, novel.

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Chris Turnbull’s continua(lly) performative twists & turns

continua_coverChris Turnbull. continua. (Chaudiere Books 2015)

There are many possible ways to read continua, a multi-voiced, verbal & pictorial collage text the square pages of which shape a reading anew each time one opens the book. For the moment, I’m going to suggest that one way is to treat each page as a visual field, a kind of print to be seen as much as read (including the many photographs interspersed with the texts). The pages are filled with fragments in various type faces & sizes, all demanding simultaneous responses but because they are words making it impossible to give them that.

On another hand, Turnbull thanks ‘those who have performed continua with me.’ And it certainly helps to see/hear the various bits & pieces overlapping & contra-dictating at one another on many of these pages as engaged in a heightened conversation where everyone is talking at once.

Among those rhetorics playing off against one another on these visually engaging pages, Turnbull has included what appear to be personal recollections, historical & ecological statements about the Rideau Canal, architectural arguments, & much else. Who (and how many) are making these textual & photographic comments remains illusive, but not illusory: the sheer accumulation of information, however much of it is lost in archive, memory, or natural decay, is material.

continua shifts among many different & differing rhetorics: found prose from various documents; diary entries; historical documentation in both words & images; poetic meditations. Some pages are so full of text(s) that overlap(s) & interrupt(s), that the eye does not know where to begin taking it in. Others seem clearer, where, say, the phrase ‘got // lost // looking’ appears beside a photo of a few links of chain; below & to the right, in another type, ‘days clean pass, / I forgets and it / gets away’; bottom left in smaller type yet, ‘refusal to permit the closure of form’ (which might serve as the rallying cry of the whole book); & almost impossible to see bottom right, in very light grey shade, ‘lichen shows up / stone here, / crenellated musing’. How to read all that (following a page of 2 almost mirroring [quite literally, as one is upside down beneath the other] pieces of near-hallucinatory descriptions accompanied by ‘clean window’ for the upper & ‘oublier’ for the lower) is part of the quest continua lays out for its readers (& performers).

In its final pages, continua moves to an almost imagistic simplicity of utterance, each page floating just a few phrases or words; after all ‘(finally just you and me / and all this space)’. But the ‘no silence in the flow of breath and arms’ has been hard won from all that went before: a dance of syllable & syntax that seeks a kind of erotic rest after all. I like the way continua continually challenges its reader to step up & out.

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Samuel Andreyev’s very relativistic empire of signs

The-Relativistic-Empire-Samuel-Andreyev-cover-510Samuel Andreyev. The Relativistic Empire. (BookThug 2015)

I had not heard of Andreyev, but he’s a composer & performer from Ontario who now lives in France, & is also known for his experimental poetry. The Relativistic Empire, his 2nd collection, is deliberately obscure in that its mostly short & short-lined poems playfully resist interpretation, or any clear narrative movement.

Yet, in their constant borrowing of snatches of ordinary, almost cliché, speech, they seem to act out an almost present series of dramatic moments, speeches that slip slyly away from normal meaning (a meaning their basically straightforward & ordinary titles hint at). And so a kind of almost collection of stories begins to almost manifest as one reads through the book. The speaker (the various speakers?) manufactures a near knowledge of a world (that empire) falling apart. Take the person in the 3 ‘A Prime Location’ poems, who begins by telling us ‘so i’m not going to / i mean i’m not going to feel that way / but she’s scattered right now’; moves to say ‘things you say aren’t things you do’ only to insist ‘erase this scandal from your memory / books don’t survive / all the way out here on the pier’s end’; & in the 3rd poem says ‘i require stability / and lightweight doors that don’t squeak or jam / only’. Or many other things that do or don’t achieve any kind of unity. In this sequence, as throughout, this ‘I’ slips & slides through many ‘doors’ or worlds. As he says in ‘Fancy Footwork,’ ‘the uncertainty principle / is very much in style here’.

Andreyev’s fragments of usual speech, his twists & turns of ‘natural’ rhetoric, are simultaneously off putting & inviting; there’s a comic edge to them that keeps one reading on. Tone of voice feels important, even as the lines jumble normal syntax: ‘right avoid     timing disasters accelerate / smashing into violin solo     an open / break intensified reminiscence’.

All of which sets up the lengthy title piece, a series of 11 line verses that accumulate something, but it insists on remaining uncertain: ’what’s happening / outside / the frame / this development /takes several / years ago’. The piece shifts among a variety of speaker positions, entertains many different possibilities, to end with a confession (perhaps?): ‘lacking words / to / inscribe on / an old man’s / cane so / future generations / can / comment on / it without / feeling embarrassed’. As ‘Exit Lines,’ the final poem says, ‘move toward a / fall along the / only way out’. Andreyev uses his line breaks a lot to undermine general sense, yet this jagged little pile of words does its job of keeping readers off balance & dancing to his tune. By the end I was enjoying the experience even as I recognized its darker hues.

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Brian Dedora’s profound journey to locate Lorca

Lorcation-Brian-Dedora-cover-510-183x292Brian Dedora. Lorcation. (BookThug 2015).

In the third & final section of this remarkable journey to locate Lorca where he lived, & died, & most importantly (mostly) wrote, Brian Dedora (who in Lorcation stands in for himself as writerly I in a manner unusual for him) insists that ‘Lorca calls us to witness. . . . Lorca in his work rises to stand universally, calling on us to recognize our rootedness, feet firmly in ground.’ But Lorca’s universality is ever hard won, Dedora would say; after all he was murdered for being gay, as well as leftist in his politics; perhaps mostly for being a poet, a representative of the imagination against a regime that sought to crush it.

Dedora’s journey in Lorcation gains much of its power from his identification as a gay man with this poet who, in a time when it was dangerous to do so, did not hide who he was & wrote poems & plays that remain honestly powerful because his was a morality of powerful honesty. As Dedora says in the essay ‘Uno Soy Yo = I Am One,’ the second part of Lorcation’s journey, in his reading he ‘could not help but follow Lorca’s threaded arc, being who one is, of the courageously written awareness of his growth as a homosexual. This is, of course, not the only thread to follow in his work, but for me this was the golden one that led to the centre of things both for him and me personally.’ The essay is a complex personal quest to comprehend the largeness of Lorca’s vision, in which he both ‘gifts us, warp and woof, weaving with morality, honour, and loyalty the most important homosexual testament of the early twentieth century,’ & writes some of the most wonderful poetry of his time with a universal reach. The essay offers the essence of a deeply personal critique.

I have been reading backwards in Lorcation, because although Dedora gestures in his Preface to the unusual-for-him narrative arc of beginning, middle, & end, his text is, in fact, deeply recursive, & the violence to his subject he represents throughout the poems of the first part seem to invite a careful rereading after you have read the rest. They mix the poet’s responses now to the places Lorca lived (& died) with the moments in which he faced life & death there. ‘Granada,’ for example is both the place where the poet writing this book joins the poet he is writing about in a delirium of shared joy & sorrow, but also where ‘I have a gift for you / we have a gift for you / Lorca has a gift for you’ & in a moment of trans-historical synthesis, ‘We will make a new brotherhood / Federico de la Expiratión / his breath ascending . . . // A last gifted breath / . . . / to move out beyond the plains of Granada / reaching out to Al Andalus and New York / invigorating a world of the sympathetic / mouth to mouth . . .’ This is the joy, always there in the work, but the sorrow, the terrible loss will out, & this connection severed as ‘I think of him’ while ‘you don’t think / of the funnel jammed into his mouth / for the jugs of castor oil /to humiliate himself / tied to a chair’; yet even there ‘he has a gift for us // who are those men / who stand on the bottom rung / of the ladder of Hell / chained in the slaughterhouse / by the revulsion of their selves / who live next door?’

As these poems pursue the poet Lorca living & dying they dig deep into the well of dark personal & public politics that killed him. It is Franco, the Caudillo, whose minions riding in ‘on your clouds of gunsmoke’ killed the poet who nevertheless ‘lost /his words were free / rippling silver in water / that feeds furrows / lifting into winds / keening canto jondo / to the beat of gypsy boot heels / from a depth of soul you never owned.’

From this vision, Lorcation moves forward into the essay that declares the union of poet then & poet now, how this knowledge fortifies the writer discovering the depth of his connection to the older poet & his vision, finally realized in ‘The Last Part of the Journey,’ with its concluding lines, for all readers: ‘he is one, / i am one, / as are you . . .’ Lorcation is a heartfelt journey we can all be glad to share.

It’s only fitting that Lorcation is published with a Spanish translation on facing pages by Martin Rodriguez-Gaona.

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Jennifer Londrys’ tattered tales tell & toll.

tatterdemalion_coverJennifer Londry. Tatterdemalion. (Chaudiere Books 2015).

Ragged & raging, dilapidated & defiant: some ways of describing Tatterdemalion, a book that seldom stays in place, keeps throwing around what rags of discourse it finds & shapes into the dirty clothing of fragmented story. About a third of the way into this book, ‘House’ lets the reader know that ‘Oval coffee table is innocent,’ but we already should have figured out that nothing else is. ‘Prayer       beads’ for example argues that ‘forgiveness is / a toxic conundrum.’ And throughout, it’s clear that whatever the circumstances (Anne Sexton on a drunken cross country joyride with a figure, ‘Patience,’ who keeps cropping up in a number of these poems; the inferred lives-before-death of various people figured in ‘Momento Mori, by Dan Meinwald, and his collection of nineteenth century funerary photographs depicting the dearly departed’; ‘the Black slaves of the Delphine LaLaurie household, the French Quarter, circa 1834’), everything is questionable & ‘Life is not that kind.’

Londry approaches all her materials with a kind of demented & surreal bricolage. Throughout, she keeps readers off balance with fragmentary hints of dark tales, a sense of disjunctive narratives always slipping just beyond the curt lines & sentences whose implications insist the hidden story is possibly in reach & definitely important. As in this bit from ‘What time is it         wolf?’, a noirish little summer sequence:

Brisk walk through vodka lamplight

she followed

wickedly red entering the Swelter Motel on the edge of town –

out of sorts

just past

switchblade alley

The various sections of Tatterdemalion each throw open doors to possible tales of ordinary human horror, but all we are allowed to see are some slyly cut & fitted bits & pieces of whatever whole was there. Londry constructs a form that allows a long prose line that can shift suddenly into short intense ones; her rhythms feel jagged, ragtimey, alert. Tatters, indeed, but darkly brilliant ones.

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Andy Weaver makes This happen

this_coverAndy Weaver. This. (Chaudiere Books 2015).

In many ways This is a book of many various & entertaining challenges, & some of that entertainment, designed specifically for the pun-oriented reader, can be seen in the opening of this first sentence. A seemingly chaotic collage of many different modes or forms, This is always both inviting & demanding a special kind of attention for which it offers special rewards. Andy Weaver has been reading widely, studying all kinds of history, & taking voluminous notes it would seem, in order to bring so many rhetorics to bear in This capacious collection of language hard at work.

This clearly recognizes that all writing, wittingly or un-, is a kind of quotation, & so he begins This with a slew of them. As This is, among other things, a series of riffs on late Capitalism (with all the weight of earlier ones assumed), the various kinds of writing keep angling back to how even poetry is complicit in the economy that may be destroying us: ‘There’s a reason / why it’s not called flow-down economics. / I know you love me, Capitalism, but can’t we / stay just friends?’ This from one of a series titled ‘Politics.’

There’s another series of capitalized (yes, really) prose of varying kinds, in which Weaver acts as a kind of prose-lytizing dj, mixing so many different sources to produce an illuminating analytical questioning of them all: ‘VICIOUS BY WEIGHT, THE LIGHT BULBS INTO MAGNOLIA TREES IN SPRING. THE FOUNTAIN BABBLES AT THE CARDINALS, THE WITHOUT SUFFICIENT TIME, EVEN SPRING IS LOST, SWINE GNAW AT THE PEARLS.’ These, like the ‘Politics’ poems, the little visual pun poems, & the one-word-per-line alphabetized poems full of obscure & invented terms, are mixed & matched throughout This. The latter set is full of oral/aural delights, as this one (lacking the way it’s played across the page) shows: ‘ideation / jargonizes / knowledge / langue / masks / nothingology / obtenebrating / parole / quiescently / Realpolitik / shifts / the / unspoken / vernacular / weakens / xenocracy / yawps / zombification / accomplished / bemuted / citizens / drag / employed / feet / globalizing / heedlessly.’ These pieces demonstrate a wild awareness of how words both support & betray our sense of how they (should) work. Like much else in This, they slyly mock & criticize the status quo. As does ‘this poem,’ a light dance of the always interpellated intellect: ‘this poem fears capital and for good reasons. Capital / punishment and capital gains – literal death and taxes. / Capital ideas.’

Although it’s not immediately apparent, & I at least read on just enjoying & reacting to the variety of discourses This kept throwing at me, This is, in fact, a carefully ordered poetic argument, in which the lies of lyric poetry are both unearthed &, in a way, mourned because loved. This, or its author, pays homage to a number of predecessors, like Creeley, Duncan, Olson, among others; their work too was an argument with the inescapable politics of its time. ‘Politics,’ in all its aspects, interrupts, it muffles, it wounds writing itself, yet, as, toward the end, ‘words [Politics]’ puts it, ‘i believe in / their honesty / their treacheries which / is their honesty.’ Later in another ‘Politics’ poem ‘he’ says (does the writer ever appear, & if so, how is the question these various formal ploys keep addressing): ‘I sit here writing a poem for the age / called Love in the Time of Late Capitalism,’ but it doesn’t, it can’t, work, or at least not This way. ‘I love this first person singular, so quaint. / Then it’s over – the rhyme is how we know / the play is done, and it is time to go.’ But not quite, there are a few more poems, lyric demanding its place in This book, & then This ends with a reprise of the opening quotation from Jean-François Lyotard (which I will leave to readers to discover). In This book, the political becomes the personal, & it hurts, but it also lets possibilities enter the conversation book & reader always have. This is a book to savour.


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Jenna Butler professes hope in a market garden on the edge of the Boreal Forest.

Profession_Hope_front_coverJenna Butler. A Profession of Hope (Wolsak & Wynn 2015).

Subtitled Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, this collection of essays makes a fervent argument for small organic farming, even as far north as the Southern edge of the Boreal Forest, which is where Butler & her husband, Thomas Locke, decided in the early 2000s to buy a small lot of land & woods & turn it into an organic farm garden. A Profession of Hope is Butler’s memoir & meditation on the work (& deep pleasure) that went into this profoundly optimistic operation & on the deeper meaning of doing so in an age of mechanical food reproduction.

A fine poet, Butler writes of both the wonders of their patch of woods & slowly cleared garden & of the often incredibly hard work that has gone into turning it into a market garden where the two of them hope to live & farm (at the moment, both are teachers, she at the post-secondary level, he at a primary school, which means that during a good part of the year they commute every weekend from Edmonton or Red Deer to the Barrhead area about an hour & a half drive north of Edmonton, where they pitch in on all the various & difficult bits of work it takes to keep even as small a farm enterprise as theirs going).

Over the years, they have slowly expanded their gardens, encountered all kinds of wildlife they hope to offer a place to live in their woods & around their now fenced in garden & (after some years of ‘living in a fourteen-by-six-foot truck camper for four months of the year’) lovely log cabin. As Butler argues throughout, they are doing this both because it feels right & good for them personally & because they believe in the necessity for those who can do it to expand the organic farm movement in order to help the planet, all its living inhabitants, survive humanity’s ravages of the natural world.

As a city dweller who is also a friend, & one of the lucky people who was able to subscribe to their ‘community-supported agriculture (CSA) food box program’ for a few years before flooding wiped out a whole summer for them (& will be back on it again very soon, I hope), I both support their work & recognize that I could never do it. A Profession of Hope is full of delightful tales of success, & failure, of high hopes & the ways in which a recalcitrant nature can dash them, but never fully. Butler makes her case warmly & brilliantly, saying that ‘there’s a very specific love that drives us out here, that makes us want, more than anything, to be able to enrich our lives and those of others by working with this land, taking just what we need from a small corner while safeguarding the rest as a wild place for future generations.’ But she is wholly aware that such an effort is not for everyone, & tells city people like me just how poorly we would do in their place, unless we have their powerful desire to be there, in what, in one of these lovingly connected meditations, she calls ‘a place that always exists, as it does on this June evening, half in the real world and half in imagination,’

Reading through A Profession of Hope, I found myself delighting in Butler’s rich & delicate descriptions of the varieties of animal & vegetable life they encounter on their land, her lovely evocations of the landscape, the sky, & especially the very changeable weather, as well as her often slyly comic representations of the many trials & tribulations any such adventure, & their creation of their farm is certainly that, will encounter. The thing is, they are in it for the long term, & they not only believe in the importance of what they are doing, but it gives them the greatest pleasure to continue their almost utopian project – living on their little farm provides a spiritual sustenance they thrive on.

This is a short book, yet I’ve barely touched on all the various aspects of their life on the farm that these essays separately take up. Throughout, Butler writes with a poet’s perceptions & precision, as in just about every paragraph in the chapter ‘The Birds’: ‘The real stunners make their appearance in late April and early May, bringing the warmer summer weather with them, brightening the garden with flashy plumage and fluting calls. We see goldfinches only occasionally, so sunflower yellow that we almost doubt our eyes, and so shy that we’re more likely to witness the feeders swinging in their wake and just an afterimage of gold.’

A Profession of Hope is, then, both a delightful & sobering series of glimpses into the many ways of trying to create a space in which to work with the land to feed at least a small portion of humanity – in a time when, as she argues passionately: ‘Our every interaction with an increasingly threatened environment needs to become one where we meet at an interface. . . . We can’t take back the damage we’ve inflicted, but with effort, I do believe we can change it, as long as we are willing to give up our notion of being at the top of the power pyramid. Let’s face it: things are dire, and there is no hierarchy in this struggle for survival.’ Even the most city-centred readers will find much to delight in & to learn from in A Profession of Hope. An emotional & thoughtful argument for learning how to care for the land, it belongs on the same shelf as the ecological classics she refers to throughout.

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