Thursday, June 21, 2012

Brian Fawcett, Revisited

Shortly after opening this blog, I began a series of responses to Brian Fawcett's essay, "The Tides Are Caused By The Moon's Gravity", the latter running in the online dooneyscafe. I've just reread those responses and though I'm still foursquare with everything I posited in that fractured screen reaction, I've come to appreciate (much more) the tone, if not the beliefs, of many of Fawcett's opinions on the current state of poetry (the last four words intoned over thunder rolls, followed by haunting retreating winds).

The personal? Never have, and never will have, a problem with that focus in verse if it's done with universal echoes and affecting language, rhythm and syntax. But where once (and for decades) I only became bored with lines of generic nature brooding, of stunted scope, of insularity, of slight content or jocose cultural ephemera, I've increasingly become irritated, even at times angered by it. And it's not just because it's irrelevant, but because of what it means in relation (as one example) to the problems Fawcett talks about in the below linked essay, also from dooneyscafe.

in which he unrolls a mini-history of poetry action and influence in Prince George, BC, which is then used as contrast to the current strain of postcolonial jargon and political mischief. It's a terrific essay (though riddled with typos, repetitions, misplaced commas, word deletions, and other verbal and grammatical infelicities -- so much for lambasting unedited bloggers, in another recent essay there, and tooting the home team's editing protocol and skills) . Though the set-up is a trifle romanticized (but hey, who am I to argue, I wasn't there), Fawcett's current views of Rob Budde's (and others') power-push at UNBC, with some frightening foreshadowing details, are right on the mark.

The only thing I'd like to add here takes off from this Fawcett quote:

"Everyone with a non-conforming opinion will sooner or later be accused of “hurtful bullying” and placed before a tribunal. How Bolshevik!

 ....Absurd as it sounds, this sort of thing, along with an apparently irresistible urge to supervise the language, thought and actions of those around them appears to be normal practice for the Bolshevik side of the poetry war, as is boycotting any poetry reading—or person—they think might have the potential to cause harm and to misrepresent. And if this degree of intellectual fundamentalism is sweeping the Western world, as it seems to be doing, most of our democratic institutions are in jeopardy, not just our artistic freedom. Though I confess to having had a lot of fun in this essay making merry with the absurdities of the situation, I don’t think what these people are doing is ultimately very funny. It scares the hell out of me."-- Fawcett

Elsewhere, Fawcett says that these ideologues are fighting the good fight, and that they mean no intentional harm. But in light of specific events and alliances (too detailed and numerous to go into here) in the U.S. since the early 70s, and more recently in Canada,  there is nothing naive or play-as-you-go about university politics in the postcolonial racket. Budde came from the U.S. And the rampant takeover in liberal arts programs in the majority of universities by ideologues circumventing intellectual investigation of factual data (abetted, in many cases, by the complementary faddishness of poststructuralism) has been thorougly documented by many writers, David Horowitz being one of the most prominent. Perhaps the reason Fawcett seems innocent of this record is that Horowitz and other brave authors and speakers detailing this unpleasant reality belong to the Conservative wing of the academies, and it's hard for some of those fighting to keep intellectual rights -- entrenched rights as the major pillar of what defines universities-- enshrined when those on the defensive are from a political affiliation contrary to their own.

For those who say that postcolonialism, or the "sexism" of Purdy, are one thing, political parties another, take a peek at Budde's propaganda masking as poetry in Declining America, and note the references to corrupt Floridian politics, and so on and so on. Cultural bullying is terrifying, but make no mistake that a specific political agenda is also behind the curtain. Yep, the Bolshevik card may be alarmist, and on one level an insult to the memories of those living through the 20s, 30s, and 40s Soviet nightmares. But every giant leap starts with a small step.

Speaking of right-wing defensiveness, our close-to-home BC grown Human "Rights" Tribunal has had its own recent humourous-if-it-weren't so-infuriating brush with "correct" thinking. And anyone, by now, who doesn't know what I'm referring to should be ashamed, the same as those poetlings who continue to describe their tender feelings in ten skinny lines when chancing upon dead robins on the side of the highway, all while consciously gaining favours by avoiding politically incorrect language and attitudes.Unless, of course, mourning dead robins is really your thing, In that case, carry on. I sure wouldn't want to, you know, offend any budding King of the proles.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Christian McPherson's The Cube People

I picked up Christian McPherson's 2010 novel The Cube People on the recommendation of separate entries by two reviewers whose opinions I respect. And the first chapter didn't disappoint. The protagonist Colin MacDonald -- aspiring father and writer, and computer coding geek at an Ottawa tax office -- begins his first-person relating with, "I'm waiting to masturbate into a cup." Now since most editors apparently stop reading the manuscripts of aspiring novelists after the first turgid, generic and/or overblown sentence, this is terrific stuff. If we conflate the author with the character, perhaps Colin will have his day in the sun with his own novel. The humour of having to wank to a one-copy-only overabused Penthouse while also maintaining hygenically-considered physical contortions in the small booth is entertaining fare. The satirical character pokes are also well done: the chatty, "sympathetic" and intrusive waiting room lady as well as the Nurse Ratchett-lite holder of the semen vial. The fertility clinic could also double as a positive metaphor for authorial invention.

At chapter two, the book sinks and never resurfaces. We're immediately thrust into Colin's bleakly boring, somewhat manic though subdued, workaday world. Everyone knows that there aren't many hockey players, stunt doubles, espionage agents, or cabinet ministers writing novels, so the "write what you know" crowd, if it leaves academia, often moves to the white-collar desk where, between long breaks and downtime, one has the resources (desk, pen, paper or computer) to churn out that money-making potboiler (in fact, Colin proceeds to let us know that his first novel has been partly composed in such a fashion -- it may be interesting for some to speculate on how much was strictly autobiographical here, but not to me). And because offices are usually mind-numbingly absent of entertainment possibilities (not always, I've been in one that was always entertaining), the usual procedure is to inject "frenzied" characters into peculiar storylines. And this is what happens in The Cube People. The characters at Colin's quad -- the bitter and angry fem-warrior, the obsessive-compulsive germ neurotic, the tale-dragging physically afflicted sad sack -- are interesting for the time it takes to meet them. After that, they fill their roles but have no contour or, indeed, surprise. Their development, through plot, is inevitable and uninteresting, and worse, has little to do with other components of the story (in the office) or the stories (at home or in Colin's fictional world -- and yes, I get the various meanings of "hungry hole", but connections need more than cheesy metaphors in shock lit ).

In fact, this, along with the mediocre writing, is the biggest fault of the novel (I'll get to the writing in a bit, though the two problems conjoin). Frequent and long stretches of the book are covered with boring diary-filler, which in the case of life on the domestic front serve, I suppose, to endear us to the tribulations of the family dilemmas and emergencies which many or most can relate to (more on this later, too), but which instead just turn off at least this reader with this-happened-so-it's-important reportage.

"I wait with them at the train station until they board. I kiss Sarah and a sleeping Sammy goodbye. Sarah's on autopilot, as if she's sleepwalking. I remind her to call me day or night if she has any problems" (p.179).

Sarah's not the only one is that condition.

"Sarah is holding her belly, still laughing."

Not only is this a cliche, but it's surprising that the phrase reached that status. Has anyone ever seen anyone else actually holding her belly while laughing?

Colin's best friend Phil is employed as "wild" foil to our lusty though respectable hero. This was a wonderful opportunity to set any number of contrasting off-the-deep-end to stay-the-course adventures among the two pals. But all we get is Phil's ogling and flirting with a new "hot" hair clipper (who he then marries -- we can't even have the "wild" ones remain so in this novel of the housebroken), and their later debaucherie of pizza, choice weed, and "Blade Runner" home viewing. A Jamaican pizza deliverer appears, but it's all surface mood, no palpable effect, savvy dialogue, or cutting commentary..

There are quite a few set pieces which try for humour by slapstick/heightened emotion through emergency. One brutally unfunny scene has faithful Colin spring for chemical cheese pourings from the corner store for the rabid cravings of pregnant Sarah. Though the preamble is witty -- Colin asking for, and getting back, his loonie from the homeless man he'd just given it to -- the in-store humiliation is as funny as slipping a rubber crutch under the emaciated arm of a one-legged man. The author, through Colin, tries for elucidation towards the end: "People are giving me the eye. They likely think I'm stoned and have the munchies -- who else would eat this stuff? Undernourished pregnant women, that's who." We sympathize, Colin. We do.

And that leads to the other problem. In the few other reviews I've seen of the book, it's repeatedly praised in the "I can relate" hossannah terms. But novels, like any other artistic genre or form, have to transcend the familiar. This is a book one reads with comfy slippers and a hot toddy (only one, mind you). For all its hysterical predicaments and relatable emotions, it's a book which emits a certain stamp of recognition for those who look at the exasperated and faintly bland faces of bureaucrats treading the downtown sidewalks at 8:30 a.m. of a cloudy Monday morn. Not just recognition, but a mild pang of sympathy. But it's a world which lays out the middle-class virtues (the ending, in particular, is predictable) in a complacent,   atta-boy lifestyle excursion.

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Listening

(From Canadian Women in the Literary Arts)

"The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go. As such, it is an activity requiring much more effort than the activity of proclaiming our selves through speaking our views."


 "My suggestion is that it is those who insist on listening nonetheless who are really tough: they have the courage to continue to serve art when everything around them is making it easy not to."


 "It’s what Rilke said: in art, as in friendship, the ear of love discerns more, and more truly, than the eye of judgement."

--from Jan Zwicky's essay, "The Ethics of the Negative Review"

Listening is, indeed, active (though not "requiring ... effort"). Real listening is joyful, without conflict, without concentration (because concentration requires effort and discipline, even force and bargaining), without judgement. When one has thus read (in this case) a passage or an entire novel or poem or book of poems through the non-state of active listening, then, and only then, can one proceed to engage with it on the so-called speaking (or writing) level. Attention or listening from a global, an absolute, perspective,  begets judgement. There is no dichotomy here between love and judgement. This foolish antipodal strawman, incorrect even in a different argument, thus destroys Zwicky's assertion which is based, ironically enough, on the hurt feelings of the author, not the perceived fractured reception of the review's reader(s). But there is no ego in listening, remember? Therefore there is no one to be hurt in this global attention, this holistic approach (which only comes in fits and starts, anyway, and which only provides the basis for authoritative criticism, not the necessary relative state from which all judgement must navigate through).

Zwicky's philosophical views stem from a common spiritual misunderstanding of the nature of the absolute and relative states. One listens (or reads) ideally, from the absolute non-state, from deep listening. (It is arrogant, preposterous and strawstuffed for anyone to suggest that, because one may write a "negative" review, it somehow originates from a lack of clear listening.) A transitional "considering" state is then often given spontaneous reign. Finally, a wrestling-with relative framework will take hold, and from which the review or speech will occur. But the relative is not always in the absolute. Without active listening, any fool can misinterpret or misrepresent their own view(s) as stemming from a deep understanding. Why, all one has to do is proclaim it in a book of poems, or, in this case, in a screed, which, through misappropriation or baseline confusion, demonstrates how a fundamental error in recognizing how harsh judgement can come from a love of legitimate art can also serve to show up that same person's misunderstanding of how the absolute and relative don't oppose one another, but coexist with complicated cross-traffic.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shane Neilson's Complete Physical

My ever-ready supply of two-bit Bic standards ran out for the first time in decades, and by chance I'm now using an uncomfortably fat neon blue clicker with cleverly drawn stethoscope in the shape of a heart, the word "we" nestled inside, the word "care" nudging from without. "Home Health Services", in much smaller letters underneath, completes the graphic on the column. The ink is black. I'd also like to add that today, for the seventh time since 1369 or so, Venus passes in front of the sun. Unfortunately, clouds and rain are in the forecast (just past midnight as of this sentence).

"For Krissake, get to the poems!"

"Metaphors are easy". So begins "Reading Electrocardiograms", a poem from Shane Neilson's 2010 collection Complete Physical. Those words came back to me when I weighed options for an opening to this review. Easy, indeed. After all, Neilson contradicts himself later in the poem when the ocean acts as missing half of the metaphorical coupling. Humorous construction, and the list of failed metaphors that begin the poem show that that poetic staple can scatter unconvincingly or sear like a permanent brand.

My opening paragraph-gambit is a cheap metaphor, but what's worse, a misplaced or misjudged one. Serendipity, perhaps. Or just a cute coincidence. But the professional life of a general practitioner in the Hippocratic Arts would seem to be a word aquifer in horizon-long fields of freshet-spilling metaphorical rows. Who needs constantly gamed irrigation?

Well, not so fast. In "Campanology", Neilson (I'll dispense with an equivocating "narrator' or "speaker") is "dumbfouded/in ... office, as death robs all vocabulary/and grief fills in interstices". Note the clear ("clear", that dirty, dirty postmodern word) exasperation of language failing because of metaphysical inexplicableness in the fierce and dull prods of the daily rounds, ironically stated in understandable onomatopoeia ("long lowing moan"). But then, like Alden Nowlan and Milton Acorn, two poets who've influenced Neilson, the author is interested in practical axiology, and the hunkered down -- and at times furious -- puzzles never completed. Neilson has no fear of ending a poem ("On Conducting Complete Physicals") with, "There would have to be a treatment for love./What would it be?". (I'm reminded of Robert Lowell's "narrator's" response to the psychiatric staff sent to pick him up, and who told him he wouldn't need to take his Dante with him: -- "what will I need there?")

But it's not all black bile. Unlike many other themed books (and it must be noted that themed books are becoming the rampant norm), the tone is varied, and impressively so since the array of voices are convincing and authoritative. The one-sentence poem "All Pain Can Be Controlled" is hilarious even as it inserts the burr; thoughts during an exhausted homecoming while escaping "fecal wafts and fluorescence" ("On-Call Song: To My Wife") express a finely integrated range and sequence of emotion.

I enjoyed the rich character studies. The elegiac "The Death of Leo Emberson, November 2006" was a highlight, but, as with some of Peter Richardson's fascinating narratives, I wanted the poem to continue for several pages. Poetry may be concision, but tributes deserve details, and lots of 'em. Also refreshing is Neilson's honouring of the other. I never got the sense that he was using his patients as props for self-examination.

And on that note, I end with my own overblown metaphor as I turn out the light and enter that nightly death. Setting down the blue dart. Good night.