In Praise of the Left Hand
- Jean Royer (Author)
Le Visage des mots. Écrits des Forges (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jean Royer (Author)
Nos Corps habitables. Éditions du Noroît (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Louise Cotnoir (Author)
Nous sommes en alarme. Éditions du Noroît (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cedric May
I was in Toronto in 1985 for a conference. We celebrated the tenth anniversary of the death of Alain Grandbois in the fittingly grand setting of the University’s baronial halls and the faded thirties’ elegance of University House. I had enjoyed applying Victor Hugo’s great line: “Les formes de la nuit vont et viennent dans l’ombre” (the shapes of night come and go in the darkness) to Grandbois’s restless, far from shapeless nightscape, particularly in Les Îles de la nuit. Later, a neat, quiet man introduced himself. It was Jean Royer. We spoke about poetry, obvious perhaps. I asked his opinion of Eudore Évanturel, a poet being spoken about at the time in the quest for hidden riches in Quebec’s first literary century. The next day, Royer brought and gave me the collected verse of Évanturel in the Réédition Québec series. This impresario of letters had had a hand in its publication. Everything in this encounter was redolent of the man, his quiet affability, his dedication to poetry and his desire to encourage, his tireless generosity in the service of literature.
Royer savours the intimacy of the world of letters. “Words have faces” and they are the faces of his friends, those with whom he has shared many poetry roadshows, whom he has interviewed and reviewed. “Le poème fut ton chemin et ta maison au bord du silence. Tu as grandi dans le ventre des mots.” (The poem was your path and your home on the edge of silence. You grew in the womb of words.) This camaraderie through poetry is a refuge against silence and solitude, Guided in his selection by the poet, Paul Chanel Malenfant, gives just this emphasis in his beautiful introductory essayof Nos Corps habitables, selected poems 1984-2000. The central poem is the uncharacteristically prolix “Le lien de la terre,” in which Royer names 49 poets, their titles, the collections they created, their affinities, quoting them even. I saluted this gift for empathy in an enthusiastic review of Royer’s Introduction à la poésie québécoise (1989), noting then his preferences, his spiritual family, and his love of the “authentic, bravely original, gritty voice of Québec poetry.” Poetry is this link with the soil, rarely patriotic, organic rather, visceral, rooted in a living, human medium. Malenfant unites this theme with that of the mother, as does Royer in the dozen words reproduced in his handwriting (visibly left-handed?) which open Nos Corps habitables: “Qu’est-ce que la poésie sinon la terre dans la bouche des mères,” seeing poetry as the song of the earth on the lips of mothers. “The face of words” is the face of his mother particularly: the one who gave Royer his body, made it habitable, gave him his words, showed him that the creation of the poem is a maternal affair. Four poems open Le Visage des mots, glowing tributes to the woman with whom he has the closest blood ties.
“Une femme m’a pris par la main.” (A woman took me by the hand). Hands, caresses, gestures handed down, these are just so many links with the mother whose life and death fill Le Visage des mots. Paul Chanel Malenfant does not take up this hand theme in his introductory essay, whether out of discretion or a desire for coherence, giving preference to the maternal theme and the tributes to fellow poets, including a moving “Tombeau de Miron.” The hand motif is relegated to a lengthy footnote on page 15.
“Éloge de la main gauche” and “Main d’ombre” which translate as “In praise of the left hand” and “phantom hand,” are the last of the four sections of Le Visage des mots. “Main d’avant moi / et moi sans elle,” Royer salutes the hand he never had, linking this with other creative artists, the Catalan sculptor Jordi Bonet, evoked in the act of creating a famous Montreal mural, and the left-handed Gauguin. The tree comforts the child, troubled by the absence of his right hand, by telling him that his branches too are of unequal lengths. Does left-handedness favour creative art, we are left asking. This playful, inventive treatment of a sad theme justifies the epigraph from Francis Ponge, the equally puckish poet of the doggedness of things. These brave lines belong in any Royer collection. He deserves the elegant homage the Éditions du Noroît pay him here.
From the same editor comes the 14th title from, Louise Cotnoir, Nous sommes en alarme. Her work goes back to the 80s when Cotnoir took part in collective women’s theatre. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature reminds us that collective creation has been one of the main currents in Québec theatre since 1965. (P.137) Though still teaching there, Louise Cotnoir has come a long way from the Thetford Mines of those heady days, a location synonymous with labour disputes brutally repressed, with some of Québec’s blackest and bleakest industrial landscapes. Most will have seen those movie clips in black and white of the sombre protests in 1950 during the Asbestos Strike, with the young Pierre Elliott Trudeau in short pants walking alongside the striking miners. The “nous” of the title echoes throughout these poems, the collective voice that comes naturally to Cotnoir and her “itinéraire féministe” — the title of one of the series she has contributed to - is reflected in the tiny photograph she provides for the front cover of a standing statue of a muscular virago in stark contrast to the standard feminine image. This is big city poetry in two voices, one writing prose which speaks the collective sense of alarm, the other more laconic, more factual, in short, pared down poems, expressing physical, despiritualised reflections on the city scene. The writer is marooned in a lonely bar in that vast “trailer-park” which is North America, in the acute irony of the “happy hour.” The décor is reminiscent of that in Michel Tremblay’s Duchesse de Langeais where the “duchess” is similarly stranded on a plastic beach under the full glare of vacation sunshine.
This collection is marked by a critical distance which is evident in the language. Louise Cotnoir writes in elegant, rhetorical French, at ease with the regular anglicisms, present more to reflect contemporary concerns — she shares the bar with a young black man — than out of necessity. She is comfortable with the voice she has made her own, forged no doubt in the classrooms of the college where she teaches as much as in her writing or on the barricades, and which suits the note of shared alarm she feels compelled to sound. Enforced leisure hangs heavy on the arms of the ideologically committed. Degrading, dehumanising, driving us back into a very physical self, it is increasingly the challenge of our times.
- Tons de blanc by Thierry Bissonnette
Books reviewed: Le bruissement des possibles by Antoine Boisclair
- Elemental Voices by Robert Lecker
Books reviewed: Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry by Susan McMaster and Modern Canadian Poets by Evan Jones and Todd Swift
- A Poetics of Spatiality by Michael Roberson
Books reviewed: Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics by Jeff Derksen, The Enchanted Adder by Rona Murray, and Shadows on a Wall by Charles E. Israel
- Crossing Boundaries by Pilar Somacarrera
Books reviewed: Imaginary Origins: Selected Poems 1997-2002 by Cyril Dabydeen and Play a Song Somebody: New and Selected Stories by Cyril Dabydeen
- A Poetics of Listening by Paul Watkins
Books reviewed: Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst
MLA: May, Cedric. In Praise of the Left Hand. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 172 - 173)
***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.