Remembrances of Things Past
- Alice Major (Author)
Memory's Daughter. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan Musgrave (Author)
Obituary of Light: The Sangan River Meditations. Leaf Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Robert Kroetsch (Author)
Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Karl Jirgens
Like Marcel Proust, Susan Musgrave, Robert Kroetsch, and Alice Major meditate on mortality and time past. These three collections are long-poem suites of connected lyrics. Susan Musgrave’s Obituary of Light: The Sangan River Meditations draws from Asian and Western traditions in tribute to Paul, a beloved, lost to cancer. Musgrave links short lyrics, koans, and haiku variants through four seasons, embracing diurnal flux and the life cycle. Obituary of Light provides an exquisite self-portrait through meditations over time, loss, and perception itself: “Is it the flags / that flutter now, or the wind?” In answer, not flags, not wind, but mind flutters, now that “There is no place / to take shelter / but yourself.” Musgrave advances haikai verse forms, as implied by Japanese Waka poet, Ariwara no Narihira whose words introduce the section on Summer: “I have always known that at last I would / take this road, but yesterday I did not know/ that it would be today.” Narihara’s words resonate on the day of Paul’s death near the end of the book: “We all knew Paul / was going to die; I just didn’t think / it would be today.” Bittersweet, Musgrave’s elegy finds solace in Zen, compassion and spiritual enlightenment, recalling Wordsworthian intimations of immortality; “The day we are born we begin / to forget everything we know.” She transcends Keats’ Grecian Urn, “We eluded beauty and went / right to the truth”. Musgrave’s vision, informed by fierce love weaves devoted recollections, quotidian observations, Anishnabi perspectives, and the narrator’s thoughts projected onto the environment, revealing “self,” “other,” and “all,” as one.
Robert Kroetsch’s Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait tenders profound reflections of an artist’s life; “We wrote the books. In whose dream, then, are we dreaming?” Ever the trickster, Kroetsch acknowledges that constructs of self are subject to Wallace Stevens’ “necessary angel” of fiction. If the brain is a “skilled forgetter” then, “Who among us is not a fiction?” Yet, certain realities remain irrefutable. He recalls boyhood, and cutting down his father’s favourite tree to count the rings for a school project; “A tree is a kind of calendar.” His disconcerted father indulges him. “He taught me that love has many seasons.” Life’s metamorphosis is suggested by an anonymous quotation provided by Dennis Cooley: “I’ve kept my grandfather’s axe and used it all these years. I’ve had to change the head twice and the handle three times.” Rich in humour, Too Bad is a long-poem suite featuring sketches of the author and cameo appearances by Odysseus, Orpheus, Hokusai, Rousseau, Twain, and Mandel among others. The poet’s task is to “invent us, again.” Too Bad meditates on childhood, education, river-boats, philosophy, art, travel, eroticism, food, brain functions, and artistic representation, concluding that “[m]aking meaning is easy enough, / but making the meaning mean is tough.” Too Bad features classic Kroetschean language-play flavoured lightly by sardonic wit; “I ransacked my life for a poem.” “Done in by creation itself.” In a semiotic disappearing act, Kroetsch names, renames and un-names himself noting that “Perhaps the face is a mirage.” Ultimately, focus turns to the quotidian and the creative act in process. The artist sojourns onward, recalling that “Every enduring poem was written today.”
Arranged in six parts, Alice Major’s Memory’s Daughter enhances the long-poem tradition adapting Biblical and Greco-Roman myth to depict metamorphosis through life’s seasons. A father’s dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s, is identified as a “vivid vacancy” in the brain’s “architecture.” The Muse of Poetry, Mnemosyne’s daughter, grants Major dominion over microcosm, macrocosm, and time itself, a “pinprick hole in the sky,” illuminating memory. Major celebrates and laments her dying mother, whose clasped hand connects to ancestors during the Industrial Revolution. Recollections are rendered incandescent, “a flowering of light, a globe / I form around the flame.” Youthful joys of cinema and music hall give way to war. Recollections begin appropriately with women on a clock factory assembly line, soon followed by revolts against wealthy war-mongers, at the Glasgow steelworks. In subsequent sections, the past surfaces through photos, moments plucked from the flux of time, juxtaposed with x-rays, CT scans of lungs, brain, body, revealing an end through cancer and sleep. A final lullaby, sung by daughter to mother inverts time, “How I wish I could remember / her young face floating over mine, her eyes”. The fourth suite, “Time is How,” is a remarkable linguistic tour de force radiant in self-referential language, exploring signifying limits and polysemous freedoms. The fifth section depicts a ten-year old girl with muscular dystrophy metamorphosing in Ovidian fashion into tree, map, melody, transforming fear into courage. The final suite articulates a perfect marriage between poetry and alchemy as “We watch the silver of the moon release you” to memory’s daughter.
- Imagining Newfoundland by Susie DeCoste
Books reviewed: Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan, The Fetch by Nico Rogers, and You Could Believe in Nothing by Jamie Fitzpatrick
- Politically Un-signified by Megan Ruttan
Books reviewed: Clockfire by Jonathan Ball, Cop Kisser by Steven Zultanski, and Psychic Geographies and Other Topics by Gregory Betts
- Dark Poems for Bedtime by Kathryn Carter
Books reviewed: But If They Do by Bill Richardson, Daybreak, Nightfall by Jorge Lujáán, and Trees Are Hanging From the Sky by Jorge Argueta
- Composing Nature Decomposing by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Decompositions by Ken Belford and Nature by Mark Truscott
- Rock, Paper, Histories by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Deactivated West 100 by Don McKay, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination by Lawrence Buell, and History of the Book in Canada, Volume One: Beginnings to 1840 by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan, and Yvan Lamonde
MLA: Jirgens, Karl. Remembrances of Things Past. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 158 - 159)
***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.