- Frank Davey (Author)
Back to the War. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Leon Rooke (Author)
Hot Poppies. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Stan Dragland (Author)
Stormy Weather: Foursomes. Pedlar Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gregory Betts
Frank Davey’s Back to the War revisits his serious and yet rather uneventful Vancouver childhood, while Leon Rooke’s Hot Poppies sweeps through American culture playfully and with a determined abstraction—that some have been tempted to call “surreal” despite the history of the term. Stan Dragland, for his part, sets his Stormy Weather in St. John’s, Newfoundland, confronting the turmoil of divorce, retirement, and the small pleasures that distract and pass the time. While gender for men is often supposed to be an invisible concern, these texts subtly challenge that myth. In exploring how in a myriad of subtle and outspoken ways masculinity is awkwardly and problematically constituted and perpetuated in the world, they each in their own way undermine the presumption of natural male behaviours. Or, as in Dragland’s disaccommodated question, “if it doesn’t come naturally, should a man study how to get it right?”
Despite the title, only the early poems of Frank Davey’s boyhood portrait are actually haunted by the war. The collection subtly probes its politics—and hardly in the “astonishing” and “unsanitized” depth the back cover asserts. Rather, Davey deploys a simple-tongued narrator drawn into the mystique of the masculine fighting spirit. As the child ages, he discovers a developing sexual consciousness, coincident with the post-war peace. In this way, this rather prosaic collection of confessional poems uncovers links between Davey’s boyish martial glee and the world at large. His father, predictably, embodies the child’s fantasies of masculinity. During the war, this role is defined by bravery and potential violence (and difference from women). In one intimate example, Davey marvels as his father works fearlessly through a thunderstorm that upsets the womenfolk in the house—home-front heroism. The boy and his father later bond over a rifle. As Davey’s mind awakens to the strain of sexuality, his latent desires are again embodied in his father—who cat-calls strangers and pinches his mother. The mood of impending conflict—particularly the fulfillment of the Freudian undertones—is ultimately left unresolved and unjustified in this selection.
While Davey’s work ends awkwardly as sexuality emerges in the male mind, Rooke’s book moves with the playful confidence and the virile language of a more mature masculinity. Many of the poems use linguistic schisms like puns (“It’s Autumn / and here come the women / to witch / us leaves / back to the trees.”), or more direct and playful humour (“Of the onehundredtwentythousand jobs / added in July I got seventeen”). These assume the free and flirtatious tone of a wry smile in a late-night story: slightly ribald (“Talk in the brothel is of politics”), slightly topical (with poems like “How We Elect Our President” and “Martha Stewart Living”), and slightly nonsensical (“Sky remains indispensable / though weird shit / floats upside-down within it”). Using the perspective of a different demographic than Davey, Rooke meanders disaffectedly through the contemporary American sexual and political landscape. In this case, however, rather than the awkward yearnings of a child, Rooke’s narrator delights in uncovering “an entire text / given over to the breasts” and love-letters to Britney Spears. Like a fantasy, the language moves liberally and abstractly without ever resolving into substance.
Stan Dragland’s Stormy Weather, by contrast, makes no pretence to address the Weltanshauung of an era or a culture. These prose-poems function as meditations that twist from their point of departure—be it inspired by a Sarah Harmer song, a snowstorm, or his regular coffee house—to interweave musings, intensely personal experiences, and the work of other writers. Each piece is a small journey through interconnected thoughts on the world of a retiring professor recently divorced. Without the pillars of conventional masculine identity, Dragland probes his knowledge, his personal life, and his aging body for reason, meaning, and insight: “I’m on my knees. Help me! I have a literary education; the sweetness of my semi-colons alone would tell you that; I don’t need to be told that the time to apply for inspirational help is at the get-go.” Each piece is a calling out, a looking in, and a prayer to the figurative and literal women of his life through which he has become himself as a man: “And yet, withholder though I be, I keep envisioning her, the other in whom I will some day be lost, undone. The house, this heart, this writing—offered all to her.
- Death on the BC Coast by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: Moonrakers by Beth Hill, Dangerous Waters: Wrecks and Rescues off the BC Coast by Keith Keller, and On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe by J. R. Struthers
- Return of the Family Romance by Afra Kavanagh
Books reviewed: Feed My Dear Dogs by Emma Richler and A Perfect Night To Go To China by David Gilmour
- Witness Borne by Susan Gingell
Books reviewed: Where She Was Standing by Maggie Helwig and The Path of Totality: New and Selected Stories by Audrey Thomas
- The Road Home by Christine Lorre
Books reviewed: Sweeter Life by Tim Wynveen and Balloon by Tim Wynveen
- Loving It and Losing It by Karen Crossley
Books reviewed: Bow Grip by Ivan E. Coyote and The Famished Lover by Alan Cumyn
MLA: Betts, Gregory . Constructing Masculinities. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 159 - 160)
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