“Travelling, Companions”

  • John Gilmore
    Head of a Man. Reality Street
  • Julie Bruck
    Monkey Ranch. Brick Books
  • Alanna F. Bondar
    There are Many Ways to Die While Travelling in Peru. Your Scrivener Press
Reviewed by Weldon Hunter

There are Many Ways to Die While Travelling in Peru by Alanna F. Bondar is a hybrid text of poetry and prose that juxtaposes her experiences as an eco-tourist in Peru with the familiar and familial landscapes of Northern Ontario. Bondar announces her discovery of the surprising relations between the two at the beginning of her poetic narrative: “You are among the first to be told of Peru’s tourism cover story. This secret knowledge is your reward for reading Canadian poetry.” As national and continental boundaries are blurred, so are the distinctions between prose and poetry. Bondar employs the forward slash to mark linebreaks (/) within prose paragraphs to disrupt generic conventions and geographic spatiality:

What the traveler takes into the virtual reality tank is everything & nothing at all. // You are reading the output from my collected data—from Northern Ontario, my home and native land & Peru, likewise remote & in spots under-populated, with space to explore a wilder geopsyche.

Bondar alternates narrative perspectives between places, frontiers, and “solitudes,” always in lively and convivial voices.

Julie Bruck’s collection, Monkey Ranch, is notable for winning the 2012 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, as well as for possessing the kind of cover that will garner curious looks if read in public. The poems themselves are witty and formally elegant, often balancing the tragic with the comic, the human with the anthropoid. Bruck’s poems are “keenly observed,” but they go

further than that rather pedestrian classification in exploring what happens to our perspective when our non-human companions stare back at us—at zoos, in our homes, and even on the covers of our poetry books! In “The Mandrill’s Gaze,” the titular beast’s “hazel eyes, are small, deep-set, and when / he fixes them on yours, I dare you, / turn away.” Bruck also raises the question of how we look at, look for, and look after our fellow humans. In the poem “Missing Jerry Tang,” when the search for that titular character peters out, the flyers of the missing man are “replaced with more recent sightings: / pictures of the two blue herons who nest here, / an egret teetering on its fragile orange legs.” There is the sense that animals and humans live parallel, but not always synchronous lives, where momentous human events, like the destruction of the Twin Towers, only present a “small disturbance / quickly settled” to the eels of Jamaica Bay, Queens, in the poem “Scientists Say.”

John Gilmore’s Head of a Man presents an unusual twist on the conventional travel narrative. The protagonist of this spare, lyrical novel remains mostly in one room, sequestered in a hostel in an unidentified Asian country. Unlike other tourists, who come to “see the valley and the terraces . . . stay a few nights, and then move on,” our reluctant narrator (who may or may not be named “Joe”) is locked in an unsettling stasis, unable or unwilling to provide the details of a recent trauma. In fact, he seems, as much as the reader, to be waiting for his story to surface: “I am at rest. A tongue at rest. Waiting.” The novel shows that our societal discourse of distress is no easy path to catharsis. Instead of language “containing” trauma, in the sense of healing or holding within bounds—the “talking cure”—our narrator reveals how language is comprised of dangerous elements, which can inflame our suffering: “Words cut the throat. Scratch stone. Leave lines behind. Once incised, indelible.” Gilmore’s minimalism would make for an interesting travelling companion with Bondar’s loquacious volume.

This review ““Travelling, Companions”” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 132-33.

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