- Cyril Dabydeen (Editor)
Another Way to Dance: Contemporary Asian Poetry from Canada and the United States. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Chelva Kanaganayakam (Author)
Dark Antonyms and Paradise: The Poetry of Rienzi Crusz. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rienzi Crusz (Author)
Insurgent Rain: Selected Poems 1974-1996. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Scott Gordon
There is an interesting premise behind Dark Antonyms and Paradise, Chelva Kanaganayakam’s look at the poetry of Rienzi Crusz: somewhere in the midst of the polemical and political debate that surrounds post-colonial literature "there is a middle ground" where Crusz’s poetry—a rare breed of verse that incorporates the traditional and the modern and is influenced just as much by the ’centre’ as it is by the ’margin’—can be appreciated to its fullest potential. Of course, finding this middle ground is no easy task. Post-colonial theory and criticism was born of an understandable frustration with the sometimes domineering and one-sided colonial- British approaches to literature, but often the opposition to these ’old school’ practices is so vehement that the alternative critical practices end up being just as one-sided and blind to nuance. With this in mind, Kanaganayakam cautiously blends traditional as well as more contemporary approaches to the study of literature in an
attempt to address the wide range of themes found in Crusz’s poetry.
Over the years various labels—multicultural, ethnic, post-colonial, and so on—have hampered interpretations of Crusz’s poetry. Within these labels themes like migrancy, identity and marginality were seen as paramount to understanding the poetry while virtually everything else was only of secondary importance. Kanaganayakam does not deny that there is some validity to the labels; he acknowledges, in fact, that various labels "came into being for perfectly legitimate reasons" and that Crusz might have even "unconsciously courted [them] by writing a certain kind of poem." The difference between his approach and that of many others, however, is that he does not let his acknowledgment of these labels get in the way of seeing things that might lie outside their parameters. In Kanaganayakam’s study, Crusz’s post-colonial identity is the starting point rather than the end result. This position allows him to consider Crusz’s work not only in the context of other post-colonial writers like Walcott and Naipaul, but also in contrast with writers from a broader spectrum of English literature like Keats, Blake, Whitman, Yeats and Larkin. Rather than focusing on which authors or which tradition might have had more effect upon Crusz’s poetry, Kanaganayakam is content to explore how the influences all play off one another in Crusz’s poetry. One of the more interesting passages of the book explores the interplay between Crusz’s Christian beliefs and his diasporic identity: "Here the contemporary experience of migration fuses with the Biblical and the personal becomes the universal." For Crusz, these two themes are of equal importance and Kanaganayakam does not let external political forces privilege one at the expense of the other.
The way Kanaganayakam sees it, adopting this different approach is necessary because Crusz’s poetry is unlike the work of most other poets, especially those who share the multicultural or post-colonial labels. On the surface Crusz’s work fits very comfortably into the post-colonial or ’immigrant’ stream of Canadian literature. Beneath the surface, however, his poems are about more than his ’otherness’ and, eschewing as they do "the experimental in favour of the lyrical and the traditional," their structure and rhythm are often more reminiscent of the literature he studied in the course of his colonial education than anything else. Crusz’s refusal or inability to align himself with one side or another has resulted in his work being largely overlooked by both the Canadian literary establishment as well as the radical critics and theorists who populate the margins. He has slipped through the critical and academic cracks: he "cannot claim to be part of the centre; and he cannot, with any degree of sincerity, position himself as an ’other’."
While Kanaganayakam’s point is an important one and not just as it relates to Crusz—there are a number of post-colonial writers who would benefit from such an approach—ultimately, it is not as forceful as a study of this kind should be. For one thing, he is far too nice. Not limiting himself to the traditional approaches to literature nor to post-colonial theory is a good start but it has got to be followed up with a bit more aggressiveness than Kanaganayakam manages. In and amongst post-colonialism’s politics and polemics a critic can’t hope to make his case gently. Of Arun Mukherjee, for instance, an aggressive and passionate critic whose articles advocate a radical approach to the study of postcolonial literature, Kanaganayakam writes: "Her stance is an important one, and a perfectly reasonable one, but it has had the effect of framing and foregrounding Crusz’s work along mainly political lines." Unfortunately, Kanaganayakam is not going to free Crusz from this or any other frame by being so conciliatory.
Kanaganayakam could have also strengthened his argument considerably had he avoided pitting Crusz against successful novelists like M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry. Acceptance in the Canadian literary scene means something very different for poets than it does for novelists. Poets are seldom widely read and those few volumes that do end up getting noticed are usually by writers like Margaret Atwood who have gained greater fame through their novels than their poetry. Even the inevitable comparisons between Michael Ondaatje and Crusz are problematic at best and must be approached with caution. Contrasting their writing is not out of line—both, after all, are Sri Lankan Burghers who immigrated to Canada around the same time. But to say that "in relation to his compatriot Michael Ondaatje, Crusz remains a relatively marginalized poet whose work has not received the recognition it deserves" without qualifying the statement is unfair and misleading. While Ondaatje enjoyed success as a poet—two Governor General’s Awards for poetry attest to that—he did not become an "institution," as Cyril Dabydeen calls him, until he began writing novels and winning awards for fiction. In many ways it is unfair to gauge the success of any Canadian poet (that is, someone who limits himself to writing poetry) against the phenomenon that is Ondaatje.
The complexities of Crusz’s situation would have been clearer had his work been considered in the context of other poets rather than poet-novelists. A more effective comparison, for instance, than those to Mistry or Ondaatje, might have been one that considered Crusz’s work in contrast with that of Dionne Brand. While it is true that she does not limit herself strictly to poetry, if her recent GG Award is any indication, much of her success as a writer has so far come through her poetry. Bringing Brand into the picture would have made Kanaganayakam’s argument a little sharper and given it greater resonance; Brand’s success in Canada as a poet who celebrates her ’otherness’ is far more relevant to Crusz than the bestseller list success enjoyed by a novelist like Mistry.
The writing in Dark Antonyms and Paradise could have also done with a little tightening up. It is often repetitive and sometimes feels like it is being stretched out, perhaps in the mistaken belief that a lengthy study of Crusz might make up for the critical neglect of his work. The chapter that looks at Crusz’s children’s stories is particularly tedious, relying as it does on plot summaries of unpublished manuscripts that add little to the overall thesis.
A much better showcase of Kanaganayakam’s talents is Insurgent Rain, a volume of Rienzi Crusz’s selected poems. Kanaganayakam’s introduction is essentially the same argument he makes in Dark Antonyms, but boiled down to fourteen pages and without the redundancies that mar the longer study. This tighter argument is made stronger by virtue of the fact that it is accompanied by a large sampling of Crusz’s poetry that Kanaganayakam has arranged thematically, rather than chronologically. His introduction and the themati- cally arranged poetry work in tandem to piece together the complex, multi-dimensional poet that Kanaganayakam so desperately wants us to see.
It is also interesting to consider Kanaganayakam’s theories regarding Crusz’s marginalization in Cyril Dabydeen’s most recent anthology, Another Way to Dance. Although Crusz and his thirty-nine fellow poets of the Asian diaspora explore a wide range of themes in this collection, those that are most prominent are the same ones that have supposedly imprisoned Crusz for so many years: migration, identity, ideas of home, etc. Reading this anthology it is easy to see why critics and academics have focused on certain themes—the fact is, they do recur and are often the source of inspiration— but it is also apparent how unfair and limiting this one-dimensional perspective can be for Crusz and a number of his fellow poets.
As with any poetry review, it is only fair to give the poet himself the last word:
Junction. The road forks
like a wishbone:
I choose neither, refuse the destinies in separate highways.
And so I go for the crotch
of no-man’s land,
the immediate centre that seems to
to no man, and everyman.
- From Person to Song by Michael Roberson
Books reviewed: Indexical Elegies by Jon Paul Fiorentino, The Dust of Just Beginning by Don Kerr, The Porcupinity of the Stars by Gary Barwin, and The Scare in the Crow by Tammy Armstrong
- Poets from the Island by Indran Amirthanayagam
Books reviewed: Consensual Genocide by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Gambolling with the Divine by Rienzi Cruz
- Orbiting Toronto by Heather Smyth
Books reviewed: Thirsty by Dionne Brand
- Diverse Explorations by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: The Blueness of Light by Antonio D'Alfonso and Louise Dupré, The Unsaid Passing by B. W. Powe, and The Fertile Crescent by Karen Shenfeld
- The Privilege of Age by Sara Jamieson
Books reviewed: Hand Luggage by P. K. Page and Bright Centre by Elizabeth Brewster
MLA: Gordon, Scott. Understanding Cruz. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 218 - 220)
***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.