95 Books for 2013, Part 14: Joosten, Laurence, Reid, Keret, Stanley

A worthwhile book for you, leads you somewhere. It isn’t packed so self-contained that there’s no loose thread. If a book confirms or comforts and has no aha, no deepening, widening or redirecting, then couldn’t I have watched trees move in the wind to as much or more benefit?
It’s not that I entirely want something I’ve not seen before. Better it be done well than uniquely. It’s not that I want well-written non-fiction science narrative, necessarily.
What makes me grumpy? “Here, let me manipulate you and induce a feeling.” Why? I’ve had feelings of all sorts before. It’s a rather small palette. Information is infinite. Understanding and story are infinite. A world and the components to see through other eyes is more valuable.
Bah, am I done? Probably not ever. But here are titles what I did finish over the last few weeks:

  1. Light, Light by Julie Joosten
    The title is not a miscue. The poems curate and contemplate botanical observations of the 1700-1800s and remixes with her own watching light. Flipping open the book first, I saw “An ecology of intensities” p. 100. Even if that were a quote from another writer, to have chosen that says volumes of what the rest might be. I was half-sold by the strength of that line alone.
    She considers photography and other records and responders of light. People are not the stars, plants are more so. I appreciate this stepping back and aside. It somehow how makes words more concrete and significant to reference people. (What can you do with human nature?) so when humans make an appearance, it’s startling but nor unpleasant. p.97 “Sometimes I have the fragment of a memory that’s yours.” Plain and universal but not expected. There’s an us that comes and goes less often than light. “It is noon repeatedly, sky repeatedly. It is wind repeatedly” (p. 13)
    Is our context light or dark? I’d say, we only experience light, even in the night. It is rare to be in true complete dark. Most dark has enough shadow for us to make bogeymen from.
    We say colour, form, shape, size but really, these are revealed by the quality of light. p. 34

    Qualities of light:
    slant, reflectivity,
    colour, illumination
    without seizure
    light’s ability to
    receive a bee
    an ocean a
    ship while
    retracting itself
    from view

    The stanza’s lines perch off centred, but not so far off balance to topple. It picks its way carefully, evenly. You have a hint of what’s coming but can’t predict where it will go. What do we do with observer effect? How to direct see anything? p. 20-21

    My breathing or the beating of my heart disturbs the movement of
    tall grass in the wind[…]
    Cells loosen and energy rises in stem and sepal, draws out an arc of
    thought, opalescent
    Sense adapts through thought’s tangent as an arc between the sun and the
    As a change in timbre not yet voice or born
    Once we know we are nothing
    Not a cloud in the sky
    Our effort is to become nothing

    Abstract but with a meditative quality without become incantatory. We are indivisible from our perceptions, from our breath and tissues and that is indivisible from the processes and plants and beings and air pressures and sounds and tactile things that are around and in us.
    p. 84

    Tenderness is a kind
    of touch. When you touch me
    and I’m looking at the orchid
    tenderness moves between us
                as an electrical current.

    where the us is as much between the speaker and the plant as between the two humans. The boundaries are softened into omnidirectional respect where p. 87 “plant neurobiology hypothesizes the integration and/ transmission of information at the plant level involves .neuron-like processes,/such as action potentials, long distance/electrical signalling”
    The book was a wonderful antidote to poems that fit the whole world into the poem but the list is limited to trade vocabulary or relationship fracture over coffee. Or something where the whole palette is humanity.

  2. The Prophet’s Camel Bell by Margaret Laurence.
    It is a rich read. There’s her everyday as a 23-25-year-old new bride living in Somaliland in the 1950s. She explores story of Somali people and works out personalities. In the tale of ‘Igaal Bowkahh when he was starving, tired and thirsty with no one to take him in, he gave what money he had left for a cigar.

    “if you saw the world falling down,’ ‘Igaal said, ‘what could you do, by yourself, to put it right?
    ‘Obviously there is nothing anyone could do,’ the young men replied.
    ‘Look here, ‘Igaal said, ‘the best thing to do in that situation is to give the world a good hard kick and make it topple over properly. When I saw that my fortune was at a low ebb, I thought I might as well give it a shove and finish it off. But it turned out well for me, because, as the proverb says, a hard belly is the perennial friend of Allah.’

    She strings many anecdotes that are rich in smells and postures, clothing and architecture. She builds a bit of that time and place. Margaret Laurence called it a country with no physical resources but rich in people resources. What would become of it after the transitioning?
    What happened after the story ended? War as it turned out. Grandmother Ardo says, “young men grew up in a vicious cycle of oppression and bloodshed. It is all they have known. But I don’t believe for a second they are fighting for freedom or for Somalia.”
    Since the time of making those ballehs, (above ground rainwater collectors) the citizens have added berkads, cement cisterns below the surface. And the severe droughts and flooding has become more irregular and more severe more often. Instead of a bad year in every 10, its every other year. On the other hand, the people of Somalia have gone from a colony of England and Italy to no government for over 20 years.
    Clan groups are still part of the organizational structure. There still are gazelles, although endangered, and baboons, warthogs are doing very well, but the wild cats have been largely over hunted to extinction. Women are still doing most of the physical work. Charcoal production from burning what trees are left at a natural resource that has become a trade. Qat [Kat] chewing has increased. (It is called “chewing the leaf” and male immigrants in Ottawa do it as well. It is an intoxicant but not one forbidden specifically under Islam. It is an anorectic, convenient for an area where famine waves happen. Wikipedia says, Yemeni families spend about 17% of their income on khat.) The land is become privatized which makes migrating herds untenable. Financially Somalia is largely farming and telecommunications. I guess the problem of people taking the copper phone wires as a convenient way to wrap an arrowhead to the spear has been resolved.
    With an estimated total population of 640,000 in 1951 and 90% as nomads, running the numbers it looks pretty bad, with life expectancy being 47. Some of the population has become more university educated but literacy is 17%. The adult literacy rate was over 60% 15 years ago. Infant and maternal mortality rates are the worst for north Africa. Female Genital Mutilation is nearly 100%.
    Grandmother Ardo looks at Somalia in retrospect from the diaspora of 1 million Somalis.
    Grandmother Ardo talks about surviving famine and the times. “Even though patriarchy was a reality there was a strong presence of matriarchy and women usually consulted each other on women affairs. Much has changed after the independence of 1960.” Muna says, “Somali women who lived in urban cities were able to attain higher education, work, and start and run their own businesses. They were able to join the military and become pilots. There was a deep appreciation for the many unsung heroines who died for freedom, and the newly formed SYL [government]”.

  3. Garden: November Unit by Monty Reid has the summary in the previous post.
  4. Suddenly, a Knock at the Door by Etgar Keret
  5. Quite another planet. Think of the discontinuities of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber and transpose it to Israel or the Jewish diaspora. There’s some Kafka, some laughta’.
    There’s a constant thread of murder and suicide which are flicked off like lint. He’s got an attention to detail. For example, in Upgrade “I talk to much.[…] I notice the person next to me has long stopped listening. He may keep up the nodding but his eyes — they’ve completely clouded over. His mind has wnadered and he’s thinking sweeter thoughts than the ones I share.”
    It’s pretty grim reading even with all its clever turns. It’s taken me better than a month to go thru the short stories. His stories are fascinating and dense but full of casual triggers much like I suppose, anything in Hollywood where the bravado and indifference to violence are satire, or an outsider observing.
    On one hand, they are unlike most any other, as Salman Rushdie blurbed. Where else would you read the chatty monologue of a sociopath who gets pleasure from causing injury, who makes the rational argument that juries are sentimental. He knows since he killed kids, and that he’ll be punished worse than his partner who killed only adults. But, shrug, death is death. He argues to his lawyers to not prolong trials with attempts to overturn. He’s fine with lethal injection. And like many other stories in the collection, the narrator continues to narrate beyond his own death, is not in hell as it is often pictured, but he’s reincarnated as one of Christopher Robin’s toys. The ending is unexpected but fitting and it has a crumb trail of the priest telling him the heaven and hell is personal, whatever would be best or worse case scenario custom the the individual.
    In Pick a Color, p. 78

    God entered the church on the disabled ramp. He was in a wheelchair too; He had once lost a woman too. he was silvery. Not the cheap, glittery silver of a banker’s BMW, but a muted matte silver. Once, as he was gliding among the silvery stars with his silvery beloved, a gang of golden gods attacked them, When they were kids, God had once beaten one of them up, a short, skinny, golden god who had now grown up and returned with his friends. The golden gods beat Him with golden clubs of sunlight and didn’t stop until they had broken even bone in His divine body. It took Him years to recuperate. His beloved never did. She remained a vegetable. She could see and hear everything, but couldn’t say a word. The silvery God decided to create a species in His own image so she could watch it to pass the time. That species really did resemble Him, battered and victimized like Him. And His silvery beloved stared wide-eyed at the members of that species for hours, stared and didn’t even shed a tear.
    “What do you think,” the silvery God asked the yellow priest in frustration, “that I created all of you like this because it’s what I wanted? Because I’m some kind of pervert or sadist who enjoys all the suffering? I created you like this because this is all I know. It’s the best I can do.”

    That’s plain show-stopping beautiful, especially in the context he’s built before and after, which you’d have to see for yourself. Any individual story works well. His point of views are not out of the blue but not standard routes either. Yet somehow despite the dazzle of feeling it is well-written and well-done, sentences vary, plot vary, I feel short changed, like each surreal twist is bait and switch. He has commentary on our place in the universe, observations, judgements, but I don’t feel I gained. He seems working from caricature. For example, uptight woman “when she says whore it comes out natural, like she was saying turnip” and can’t play with her child whereas the women who are possibly prostitutes coming to the neighbour are able to play the “what animal are you?” game with the boy, who is one of the few happy characters. It creates a cliché where prostitutes or tight wife are whore or saint gambolling. Still no one is a developed individual.
    There’s no character that feels real and none that feel very distinct, despite all the different names, places and lives. There’s a constant innocent-but-not-innocent in ominous gritty circumstance. It’s not that it should gratify or amuse or give a happy ending for anyone. The text creates discomfort then is sure to assuage so the corners feel rounded in the padded crazy rooms. Each set is dressed with the divorced and sad, the lonely, communicatively incompetent, the awkward who has rich inner life and usually squalor outer life in an undifferentiated existential crisis that doesn’t even end with the death. Recurrent are a kissed a boy and liked it then married a girl. There are a lot of soldiers and a suicide bomber or two. It somehow doesn’t all add up to 3D.

  6. After Desire by George Stanley
    This is a collected going back 40 years or so. It is introspective in an internal monologue sort of way. What is one’s relationship to beauty, life, death, and desire when one is old? The answer seems to be feel helpless and ogle the young, remember the dead, and remember good times. One is where one is.
    His is pretty plain-spoken although the tone varies a lot, which I appreciate. Some are more cataloguing what he sees, some more reflecting. There are tribute poems to George Bowering, Sharon Thesen and a few others. Each is fitted to be as long as it needs to be for its content instead of being consistent from poem to poem. p. 7

    Jack, dead at 40, sees me,
    73, in the boring bar, waiting
    for something to happen. There isn’t even
    a game on, just PokerStars.

    Although the same city and covering the same era as Daphne Marlatt’s Liquidities, maybe that’s boredom is a good thing when you consider her bar poem where a disparately alcoholic woman keels off her stool dead.
    His poem, “Memories of Desire” talks its way towards understanding sexual abuse by a father. “waste mater of the body, semen/ waste matter of the soul, desire.” The poems tether together by coming to terms, deciding peace in various ways. In p. 42 Yawn “Don’t gaze into the abyss./Gaze out.” In Memoey Sun Heart. p. 60, mid-poem,

    The motionless lake wears a gelid
    mirror sheen.
    Nothing will ever happen here,
    nothing, ever.
    Stick outlines of lindens front
    a blank sky.
    Probably it’s best we did
    not marry.

    That ghazal-like leap, the aha, the resignation point is couched in context of nature and the landscape almost gave the suggestion, or made room for it. Interesting way of presenting the turn while it stays understated, mellow and most of the introspection unseen. There’s a slow survey of blank redundancy built in without going too far. That extending and overextending the line explaining the lake has no ripples is about as close to flashy in device as he gets. Gelid is a word like moist, isn’t it?
    Who is the we? What all became clear? What things in the relationship are static and permanent? That’s for the poet not the reader to know. He gives the upshot but not the process. It’s as close as he comes to using metaphor. The moment in time is marked but not the context.
    Or the context is marked but not its significance other than existing. He goes to the busses and pokes around. He’s looking around at West Broadway as subject-worthy. On the second page through a 5-page diaristic poem this,

    Fairmont Medical Building (1959). Look at the windows.
    Fourteen stories of narrow, dark offices.
    Panoramic vista — 19th floor of the “electric razor building”:
    North Shore mountains & the city glittery like a magic island
    from the hygienist’s chair until she tips me back.
    Thoughts arrive by bus, car, acab,
    on ped, X-ings cross Broadway,
    afoot w/cane, walker, in wheelchair;”

    I like the variety and this piece. On #3 in Variations on Poems of Rosalía de Castro, p. 36,

    If you cannot listen to your own soul,
    what do you expect to learn from others?
    If the fountain in your heart has run dry,
    dry too will be any fountain you discover.
    Stars shine in the sky, but you are indifferent to all
    but the one that shone on your birth.
    Flower bloom all over the earth, but you care only
    for those cut and gifted to you.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this posting, Pearl. Interesting and varied readings, and though-provoking reflections.

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