Lying About Lemons

Reviewed by Ryan Melsom

Nicole Markotić’s edited collection Robert Kroetsch: Essays on His Works is, above all, a biographical documentary poem masquerading as a book of essays. The particular way Markotić assembles a critical field of commentaries challenges the expectations of an essay collection at every turn. The book starts off with the expected introduction—a well-rehearsed recap of “Mr. Canadian Postmodern” scholarship dealing with Robert Kroetsch’s self-erasing explorations of genre, narrative, geography, binaries, and (it goes without saying) himself. Given the collection’s timing in relation to Kroetsch’s life, it understandably reads as a scholarly hagiography of sorts. However, that’s just one genre among many here, as it turns out. The collection is anything but run-of-the-mill.

Markotić’s inclusion of biography, interviews, and poetic responses in addition to a series of compelling scholarly essays ultimately provides Essays with its unmistakably documentary feel. It surprises a reader with lyrical scholarly prose (“Tradition is not automatically bad and getting lost is not automatically good.”); with risky linguistic gestures protected by their status as academic sass (“Robert Kroetsch is a liar. Or so he’d like us to believe.”); and with scholarly citations legitimating scandalous explorations of deeply personal responses and musings (“As a serialist fondler, of words and objects, his was a citrus mind”).

In several pieces towards the end, particularly in Bowering’s reading of “The Stone Hammer” and a collaborative series of reflections entitled “A Flight of Lemons,” Essays risks exposing itself as an identifiable permutation of postmodern poetry. Staying true to its subject matter, however, it defies the label by switching genre again at the last moment, including a recorded interview wherein an MFA class of aspiring writers bring Kroetsch’s dodgy voice itself into the text through the form of a wily little Q&A.

What emerges in the end is not exactly the story of Kroetsch’s life and works. It’s something deliciously haunted by the lively (if not exactly living) field of textual Kroetsch that has emerged throughout. It’s partial, gestural, and to borrow Kroetsch’s words, “something as complicated as love.” It renders legible Markotić’s comment in the introduction that it “breaks [her] heart” not to have been able to include more. As editor-poet, she’s tasked, like Kroetsch’s readers, with trying to “perceive the thing while questioning the limitations of [her] own perception.” A brief list of Kroetsch’s accolades appears to close off the book’s final, Wikipedia-style biography, but in offering an even more distilled, reductive version of Kroetsch’s life, it only raises questions about the man: Is he there in the facts? Elsewhere? Does the text about Kroetsch end with absolute finality at any point?

That’s the thing: Kroetsch’s writing does this to people. That’s what’s so elegantly illustrated in both the form and content of this remarkable collection. You think his work has had its say but it’s only just begun. It’s academic text as trickster figure: excellent, creative scholarship morphing into poetic fancy aiming to get back to firm scholarly ground but unable to hide that persistent glint in its eye.

This review “Lying About Lemons” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 170-170.

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