- Gary Geddes (Author)
Flying Blind. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jim Smith (Author)
Leonel/Roque. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dean J. Irvine
FlyingBlind is—as you might expect of the author of The Terracotta Army, HongKong, No Easy Exit/ Salida difÃcil, and Letters from Managua—another travelogue by Gary Geddes, a poetic flight through politics and poetry abroad. Figures and names unfamiliar to the untravelled and unhistoried reader surge into view in this most recent installment.
The alienation effect of the first of twelve poems is deliberate and disorienting. Its narrative is a record of Geddes’s 1993 trip through Israel and Palestine with the blind poet and scholar John Asfour. If you wanted a guide, Geddes isn’t going to provide one on this trip. As he warned his readers in Letters from Managua:
One thing’s certain: there’ll be nothing of the Cook’s Tour about this trip. And no one will ask me to do an update of the famous Guide Bleu, which Roland Barthes cleverly describes as a tourist document so concerned with types, essences, and the picturesque that it becomes, instead of a guide, "an agent of blindness."
The persona Geddes adopts in the opening sequence is not that of a travel agent, nor a tour guide, but "an agent of blindness." His persona is sighted, yet blind. This paradox at the centre of his persona’s meditations is the subject of the collection’s epigraph, from Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: "The paradox stems from the fact that the blind man thus becomes the best witness, a chosen witness. In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind. Witnessing substi- tutes narrative for perception." Narrative is an agent of blindness. Geddes travels into his own blind spots, aware that his eye-witness narratives of Arabic politics, culture, and history are yet more occasions for blindness. That his travelling companion Asfour is blind, and a poet, presents an ideal doppelgÃ¤nger for reflection and introspection—that is, on blindness and insight.
The middle sections that follow— "Aggregate Resources" and "Little Sleeps"—return the reader to somewhat familiar spaces and relationships: friends, family, rural eastern Ontario, portraits of the domestic, familial, natural worlds of the poet’s daily travels and travail. These are poems of patient observation, insights into everyday things. They cultivate a casual voice, inviting the sympathetic reader into the poet’s private sphere. These are poems full of seeing, yet they risk being sometimes "so concerned with types, essences, and the picturesque that [the poem] becomes . . . an ’agent of blindness.’" These middle poems lack the defamiliarization and culture shock that make those of the first sequence so eye-opening, so stunning, so unremitting. The last section, "Basho’s Road Apples," regains the effect of the opening sequence through another travelogue. Like Basho’s poetic, travel diaries, this section consists of pieces written about travels in Japan. It resitutates the political urgency of the first section, beginning and ending with meditations on the nuclear holocaust of August 1945. Its final sequence—seven hokku—opens with a contemporary tourist’s photo of a Zen Garden in Kyoto and closes with an historic diary entry:
A thousand gods
assigned to protect children:
8:15, slept in.
One impulse you might have after reading Jim Smith’s Leonel/Roque is to read Geddes again—not so much Flying Blind as Letters from Managua. Even with Smith’s preface, notes and glossary, you want to reach for some other guide—like Geddes’s Letters—to Central American poetry and politics before attempting another reading. Letters reveals Smith to be another of Geddes’s fellow travellers—poet and compaÃ±ero: "a gifted and irrepressible poet and graduate of Concordia University’s M. A. in Creative Writing . . . one of my former students and an Old Nica Hand, who came to Managua on a solidarity mission in 1984 and attended the first book fair in 1987." Smith himself credits Geddes as "travelling companion and Canada’s finest living political poet" in his acknowledgements. And Geddes contributes a back-cover blurb to Leonel/Roque,calling it "a charred love-letter to two lost compaÃ±eros in Central America."
Smith’s preface does provide context to a collection about two poets familiar to Geddes or to other fellow travellers and readers of Latin American revolutionary poetry and history, but not to those unfamiliar with the political and literary cultures of Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1970s. Smith is aware of his audience, briefing anyone who hopes to parachute into the volatile political world of these poems. He informs prospective readers that the "Leonel of the title refers to Leonel Rugama, a young Sandinista poet who at 20 years old was killed in a shootout with Nicaragua’s National Guard in January 1970" and that the "Roque of the title refers to Roque Dalton of El Salvador, who at 40 years of age, and with a substantial writing career and numerous publications, was murdered by unknown members of his own revolutionary party in San Salvador in May 1975." Having established the historical content of his collection, Smith proceeds to identify the historical context of its form, locating it in a specific tradition of Latin American writing:
Leonel/Roque is not a history, nor is it a biography, nor a political tract, though, as a serial poem sequence, it occasionally exercises its right to take on aspects of any of these. It is, perhaps, a distant relative of the Latin American genre of testimonio, in that a number of voices testify about events and experiences which arise from the latter part of this tormented century.
Testimonio traditionally a novel or novella-length narrative, related in the first person by a narrator who is the protagonist of the events she or he recounts. When Smith speaks in the person of Dalton or Rugama, the affinity to testimonio is apparent; Smith’s authorial interventions, self-consciously calling attention to the comparative project of writing about two poets historically unknown to one another, step outside of the testimonio tradition into metafictional history. These interventions more often than not foreground the improbability and untenability of Smith’s doubled histories of Rugama and Dalton. "It is a slim possibility," ends one poem that had begun by entertaining this comparative project: "okay, say the task is to compare and contrast." At such moments, the reader may wonder if these poems constitute a series of workshop exercises, tasks left over from Smith’s days as Geddes’s student. Smith often fails to finesse his poems; they sometimes read like political tracts, pamphlets, or poster captions. Smith’s own translations of "certain neglected works" Rugama and Dalton appended to Leonel/Roque do little to suggest that either poet wrote anything other than political propaganda. In response, Smith has written a collection of propagandistic "love-letters," to use Geddes’s term, an encomiastic serial poem in memory of two "lost compaÃ±eros!’ As a serial poem, not a typical testimonio novel or a novella, Leonel/Roqueis also related to the tradition of the "documentary poem," named a "Canadian genre" by Dorothy Livesay in 1969. Geddes, incidentally, has been a practitioner of the documentary poem since his War & Other Measures in 1976. If you wanted one of these political poets as a documentarist and fellow traveller, Geddes again proves himself the more experienced and skilled guide.
- Landmark Translations from Literary Québec by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Miss September by Sheila Fischman and Francois Gravel, Cruelties by Lise Bissonnette and Sheil Fischman, Fragments of a Farewell Letter Read by Geologists by Normand Chaurette and Linda Gaboriau, and Wintersleep by Marie-Claire Blais and Nigel Spencer
- Sous le signe d'Hermès: voyages poétiques... by Mélanie Collado
Books reviewed: Ce que vous ne lirez pas by Nadine Ltaif, Italie et autres voyages by Fulvio Caccia, and Miniatures sidérales by Teymour Toutounji and Mona Latif-Ghattas
- En état d'incandescence by Réjean Beaudoin
Books reviewed: En longues rivières cachées by Annick Perrot-Bishop, Femme au profil d'arbre by Annick Perrot-Bishop, and Woman Arborescent by Neil B. Bishop and Annick Perrot-Bishop
- Worlds Within Worlds by Allan Brown
Books reviewed: A Random Gospel by David Helwig, Too Spare, Too Fierce by Patrick Lane, and Science Lessons by W. H. New
- Verse in the Bush by Warren Stevenson
Books reviewed: Jean Baptiste: A Poetic Olio, in II Cantos by Levi Adams and Tracy Ware and Poetry by John Strachan by Wanda Campbell and John Strachan
MLA: Irvine, Dean J. Fellow Travellers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #173 (Summer 2002), (Crawford, Munro, Watson, Atwood, Duncan). (pg. 139 - 141)
***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.