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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Dwelling

  • Harry Thurston (Author)
    Broken Vessel: Thirty-five Days in the Desert. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • A.S. Woudstra (Author)
    The Green Heart of the Tree: Essays and Notes on a Time in Africa. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Lisa S. Szabo

After living seven years in Somalia and Ghana, Margaret Laurence produced her travel memoir The Prophet’s Camel Bell. She observed that travel writing aims to seduce you with strangeness of a seeming “vast and elusive” foreign place. In The Green Heart of the Tree: Essays and Notes on Time in Africa, Annette S. Woudstra similarly contemplates her time spent living in Rwanda and Gabon. When Woudstra first arrives on the west coast of Africa, she is “still new enough and Canadian enough,” yet when she returns to Canada a few years later, “Canadian” slips away, replaced by migrant, refugee, and “a dweller in uncertain times.” As an outsider “from the edges peering in,” she grapples with inhabiting a foreign place; her sense of rootlessness provides scope for greater possibilities: humility, compassion, and awareness of interconnectivity. Attentive to ecologies, politics, and culture, Woudstra questions and challenges the creation and displacement of “home.” Though she sets out “not to name or subdue, but to dwell” in Africa, different cultures, landscapes, and biota come to inhabit her in disorienting and profound ways.

Woudstra’s poetic prose is tenacious and mesmerizing, as is her subject matter moving. Photographs of family, artifacts, and landscape accompany a collection of nine essays interposed with five brief journal entries. Always attending to the wordlessness and complexity of language and sensitivity to cultural differences, she reflects on such diverse topics as Rwanda’s civil war, Gabon culture, sea turtles, and forests. The journal writings ground her contemplations of unfamiliar and often troubled experiences in material moments and further illuminate her struggles with inhabiting place. However uncertain, resistant, or unable to place home she may be, her journal meditations on birds and insects become tangible reminders that home is both material and intangible, a space that dwells as much within as outside you.

Harry Thurston’s Broken Vessel: Thirty-five Days in the Desert arises also from travels in Africa. While residing with archaeologists at the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt, Thurston composed a series of short, lyrical poems over a period of thirty-five nights. He layers his poems with a temporal attunement to ecology and environment, Western Desert history, and archaeological findings. Anticipating how the desert will unfold, will reveal its unknowns and uncertainties, he begins the first night “with a promise / of clarity.” As the nights elapse, however, Thurston’s meditations trouble the longing for and underscore the elusiveness of clarity. An outsider’s reflection on and attempt to grasp place emphasize immensity and unfamiliar territory which, in the end, can only ever be translations, albeit mystifying and compelling reflections of the poet’s relation to place and time. And, so aptly, the title Broken Vessel presents these poems as poetic shards that leave open to speculation the missing pieces, the cracks, and precariousness of desert life, animating “the hard borders between the living and the non-living.” Remnants of civilizations, architecture, and flora and fauna both dissolve and refortify the divide between nature and human in a seemingly endless interchange between living and non-living, between human activity and environmental forces.

But what about the silence “that does not sound / like the decrepit patter / of broken pots / underfoot,” the other-than-human presences that surround the oasis? Thurston fills these silences with the songs and traces of living creatures: the sparrow sings “zerzura, zerzura, zerzura,” “incendiary” smells seep into skin, and hawk, snake, scarab and Dorcas gazelle appear and “disappear into empty / mysteries.” In the “foreign” song of the sparrow and the distant glimpses of desert wildlife, as the histories subsumed by “empty / mystery,” Thurston depicts an environment that resists clarity. Much shifts. “When you thought, at last, / you could see what was in the desert,” the khamsim, the Fifty Day’s Wind, whips up the sand, blocking the light, and what remains is “your tongue thickened with earth.”

Thurston and Woudstra evoke the complexities of dwelling in foreign lands, yet, as Margaret Laurence observes, “the strangest glimpses you may have of any creature in the distant lands will be those you catch of yourself.” As such, Broken Vessel and The Green Heart of the Tree offer self-reflexive glimpses that thicken your tongue with the tastes of dwelling in your own land.

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MLA: Szabo, Lisa S. Dwelling. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 195 - 196)

***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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