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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Alone with the Memory of Everyday

  • Terence Young (Author)
    Moving Day. Signature Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Serge Lamothe (Author)
    The Baldwins. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Erin Wunker

After reading The Baldwins, it came as no surprise to learn that Serge Lamothe has adapted Kafka’s writing for the stage. Lamothe’s experimental novel is set far in the future; it has been 50 years since the last elections, and the “turboliberals” have all but disappeared. A convention of diligent scholars has convened to study the stories of the Baldwins—a group of people who appear to exist only within the carefully documented pages of the cultural researchers who study them. In the prologue to the conference proceedings, the reader is informed that the “Baldwin phenomenon has been extraordinarily useful in our efforts to minimize our historical inadequacies. For, though the existence of the Baldwins has never been scientifically demonstrated, more than a few scientists are prepared to . . . postulate that the Baldwins did indeed exist.” In a post-historical world, the Baldwins have come to represent all that remains of formative cultural phenomena.

The novel is composed of short vignettes, each of which is written as documentation of the particular Baldwin whose name appears in the vignette’s title. The reader encounters Oliver, whose function is to “tally the wild geese of Goose Lake, high in the tundra,” “which meant drawing a line in his notebook every time a new goose touched down noisily on the lake.” Many of the Baldwins’ jobs are simply to wait “for whom or what they hardly knew. But they waited fervently, jammed one another in the malodorous grotto that they named . . . The Temple.” The scholars who have dutifully recorded the existence of the Baldwins sometimes are forced to cut their reports short, as, more often than not there is “no answer. Maybe no survival. It’s the same story every time.”

Lamothe’s text is a searing and ironic commentary on the state of Western society. It is a parody—existentialism taken to its most extreme point. The scholars conclude that “the Baldwins resemble us: they knew nothing of their origins, nor of their destination. They can hardly be faulted for that.” Lamothe’s novel is a wry and urgent reminder that if we are careless with each other we too may simply leave a non-history which, like the Baldwins, “simply represents an extended form of unknowing.

Like Lamothe, Sylvia Adams constructs a record of an unknown persona. Adams’ collection of lyrical poems weaves the fantastic biography of two nineteenth-century explorers. At the age of seventeen, Florence had been “swept along with Hungarian flotsam/from the Hapsburg Empire massacres” where she “fled across the Danube into the arms of slavers.” It is in the Turkish marketplace where the widowed Samuel Baker, “his bearing more regal than a prince,” bought Florence’s freedom. “It was here that my life began: / Florenz Barbara Maria von Sass— / Florence—soul’s companion / to Samuel Baker.”

Baker’s life calling is to locate the source of the great Nile river, and Florence accompanies him on his epic journey. Adams’ poetic skill captures the geography of land as well as it captures that of the heart. Lines bleed into one another organically; memory “smells of damp wool and tallow. A hot brick wrapped in flannel,” while love scorches, “like thin cotton under a hot slow iron.” While at points Adams threatens to fall prey to the overuse of simile (“Fleas as big as bantam cocks, bugs as large as turbots . . . ) more often than not she captures poignant observation in succinct phrases. Remembering her narrow escape and her family’s murders, Florence recollects, “I grew up trapped by the dead. / Handed about, cousin to cousin / friend to neighbor. / Cocooned in languages, books / never forgetting that throats could be cut, / all the words escaping.”

Most of the journey’s adventures are related from Florence’s perspective, and Adams never lets the reader forget Florence’s liminal and unique perspective as a non-English speaking woman in a male-dominated expedition. “Another days passes in hand-me down language . . . My mouth makes V’s of his W’s, F’s of his V’s . . . I am a moth translating flame at its peril,” Florence observes. Regardless of, or perhaps because of, the difficulties of language, the relationship between Florence and Samuel is rendered mythical through Adams’ manipulation. It is strange, then, that after pages of near flawless lyric and prose poetry, Adams chooses the villanelle form to close her text. The rhythmic sequence, when juxtaposed with the rest of the poems, smacks of a children’s song: “So long ago we course each streaming mile! / Now Sam’s gone too and only memory calms. / Every river conjures up the Nile— / until we two are sleeping all the while.” Despite this questionable stylistic shift, Adams’ collection of poems is worthy of the rich lives it attempts to resurrect.

Terrence Young’s second collection of poetry, Moving Day, bears earmarks of both Lamothe and Adams. While Young’s collection is rooted firmly in the recognizable present of Vancouver Island, it warns, like Lamothe, of the danger of forgetting one’s history. Similarly, almost all of Young’s poems are relayed through the dusty lens of re-memory that is reminiscent of Adams.

Young’s subject matter is the usual fodder of poems—youth, aging, marriage, love, regret—and in the hands of a lesser poet, the collection would be banal. Young has a talent for weaving the epic into the everyday; in the opening poem, “Saturday Wine Tour on the E & N,” a bourgeois afternoon becomes a self-effacing reflection on entitlement: “The city conforms, divides itself into triangles along the right- / of-way, which was here first . . . At each vineyard on the circuit, I raise a toast to the past and listen to the pretty speeches of the oenologists . . . I am a / student out on a school field trip waiting for my free sample.” While, in the text’s title poem, the narrator claims that “there was so much to say / that we said nothing, / convinced / as we had been that the Age of Miracles / was over for us,” Young’s latest collection is nothing short of an everyday miracle: a deft rendering of the bittersweet process that is life.

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MLA: Wunker, Erin. Alone with the Memory of Everyday. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 162 - 163)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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