Livres d’artistes, poets’ lives

  • Bruce Meyer
    Portraits of Canadian Writers. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
  • Leon Rooke and Tony Calzetta (Illustrator)
    Fabulous Fictions & Peculiar Practices. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

A profound connection between word and image lies at the heart of these two fine offerings from Porcupine’s Quill. Fabulous Fictions & Peculiar Practices, a complex and exquisite collaboration between two seasoned masters of their craft, chronicles a cross-pollination of graphic and verbal ideas, testing the limits of representation. Inspired by Tony Calzetta’s stripped-down visuals—always suggestive of familiar shapes, yet oddly refusing cognitive closure—Leon Rooke’s peculiar, lusty, surrealist miniatures suggest plots and characters without taking their ontology too seriously. As so often in his work, central to Rooke’s tales is the distinct, theatrical voice, seemingly capable of conjuring up anything at all; as Robert Enright observes in his informative foreword, “[t]his is a world governed by Could-be.” Here, the voice becomes an intriguing analogue of Calzetta’s deceptively simple, endlessly generative line, which Enright traces back to the work of Philip Guston, Keith Haring, or Red Grooms. In Rooke’s humorous renditions, Calzetta’s shapes give rise to abbreviated, absurd tales of vengeful gods, spurned artists, petulant muses, cuckolded lovers, and fawning critics. The verbal and the visual interpenetrate in this remarkable livre d’artiste: details from illustrations recur as shadows on word-lined pages, and textual fragments insinuate themselves into the images, as in the enthralling colour foldout centrepiece, “How God Talks in His Sleep.”

A different principle of intermediality governs Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers, the fruit of an impressive three decades worth of encounters, collaborations, and friendships with some of Canada’s most celebrated authors. The book’s documentary aspect is made clear in the introduction, where Meyer reminds us that many of those portrayed here, in photographs and textual vignettes, have passed on, leaving an indelible mark on their followers. Meyer—accomplished poet in his own right, as well as an editor, journalist, and teacher—has sifted through thousands of photographs and negatives in search of definitive shots. Unlike the Rooke-Calzetta collaboration, which achieves a rare equilibrium between the two modes of expression, Meyer’s black-and-white photographs often speak more powerfully than the accompanying text. Seldom relying on props or arranged settings, and shot in the writers’ houses, backyards or other cherished spaces, they instantly communicate a sense of individuality and passion, fully justifying Meyer’s claim that “a successful portrait . . . becomes a text” and “acts as a work of criticism.”

The book’s title is somewhat misleading since it downplays the proportion of poets to practitioners of other literary arts: out of the nearly ninety authors included, only ten or so are not associated first and foremost with poetry. However, this marked underrepresentation of prose writers is compensated for by their stature. (We have here, for example, portraits of Atwood, Findley, Frye, Kogawa, MacLeod, and Rooke.) What may also come as a surprise is the extent to which the book foregrounds Meyer’s personal and professional connections to his subjects. Many notes succeed marvellously at conveying a writer’s unique personality through superb anecdote. One easily imagines Northrop Frye encouraging the diffident young author at Victoria College by pointing to his own awkward photo; Leonard Cohen toying with the nascent “Hallelujah” during Meyer’s awestruck visit; or Milton Acorn waiting for hours at a Toronto fruit store to avoid meeting Dorothy Livesay. The writing, however, is uneven, not always matching the almost uniformly remarkable, perceptive images. Some of the compliments are puzzling: for instance, that Kateri Lanthier is “the Mrs. Dalloway of contemporary Canadian poetry,” or that John B. Lee as a writer is “profoundly glib.” In a number of notes Meyer prioritizes his reminiscences, connecting only marginally to their subject (such as Kate Marshall Flaherty or Eric Folsom). For better or for worse, the main (written) portrait is that of Bruce Meyer, who emerges as a fascinating, full character: inventive, energetic, helpful, reverent towards his mentors, and open to younger colleagues. Proud of his protégés’ accomplishments, as well as his own, he is also courageous enough to admit failure, and in this way shed light on the personalities involved: P. K. Page, who turned an interview into a nightmare by dismissing every question; Al Purdy, whose drunken antics prevented any questioning, but who later sent “a very contrite letter”; and Dennis Lee, whose enigmatic disapproval still understandably rankles. Even if all of the vignettes are not equally insightful or moving, coupled with the photographs they are testament to three fascinating decades of a unique mind and eye at work. At its best, Meyer’s book is a genuine treasury of Canadian poets’ lives.

This review “Livres d’artistes, poets’ lives” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 178-179.

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