Of Time and Trouble

  • Harold Jaffe
    Goosestep: Fictions and Docufictions. JEF Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Leon Rooke
    Swinging Through Dixie. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Phil Hall
    Conjugation. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Karl Jirgens

These three authors offer meditative, disturbing, sublime, and self-aware visions, resituating writing within its larger socio-cultural context while sharing perceptions on literary predecessors, engaging with small presses, reconsidering effects of substance abuse, and while deploying disjunctive stylistics depicting socio-political discord replete with psychic rupture.

Portions of Governor General’s Award-winner Phil Hall’s Conjugation appear in My Banjo & Tiny Drawings, edited and published by Joe LaBine through the exciting new Flat Singles Press (Toronto), illustrating the important role of small presses in sustaining fresh literary expression. In Conjugation, Hall observes: “I am in two anthologies / the one everyone is in / & the one no one is in.” The collection’s title gestures to Hall’s engagement with word, line, ink, page, reader, and author, multiplying meaning, juxtaposing narrative viewpoints, and uncovering linguistic discoveries beyond Black or Blue Mountain, while offering an alfresco alphabet released from the prison-hood of language. Exceptionally erudite, Hall knows one cannot write poems about flies or eels without having read Holub or Montale. He references Curnoe’s ink stamps, the poetry of Zukofsky, Yeats, Neruda, Lorca, Olson, Spicer, and Bishop, and the visionary paintings of Norval Morrisseau, while addressing the process of writing itself: “I work on a poem   nearly a year / When it is aping nothing else   & everything else / When its music is quirky-intrinsic   its tone   ping”—then, the poem is ready. Hall confesses a humble arrogance in thinking any poem ready for public viewing. Yet, it is aping” that resonates, much like fine bone china, fresh out of imagination’s kiln, heated by embers of remembering. Hall’s stylistics are elliptic, polysemous, kinetic, cubist, animated by cutting wit, acutely aware of social inequity, at times contemplating the plight of First Nations people, or the impact of colonialism, or tensions between materialism and spirituality set against a birchwood fire, banjo tunes, and late-night liquor, with nearby coywolves howling.

Harold Jaffe’s Goosestep, published by Eckhard Gerdes’ remarkable Journal of Experimental Fiction Books, is a preview from his novel-in-progress, Brando Bleeds. Goosestep, divided in three parts, offers an alternate history of Marlon Brando during his heyday. Goosestep is dedicated to Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011), poet, jazz musician, rap pioneer, and author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Jaffe has written twenty-four volumes of fiction, docufiction, and non-fiction. His writing is hard-wired, satiric, fragmented, and elliptic. It embraces the pornographic, while skewering social strife and reimagining writers’ roles in a schizophrenic world. His canto “Stunt Dick” addresses melting ice caps while invoking Antonin Artaud’s chant—“o dedi a dada orzoura o dou zoura a dada skizi”—which serves as a curative incantation against Nazism, ethnocide, rampant corruption, increasing warfare, the military-industrial complex, spiritual bankruptcy, mass poverty, and for-profit prisons filled with the “coloured poor.” Jaffe forwards Brando as an “agonized voice magician,” a mockingbird engaging death, summoning Whitman, Blake, Kafka, Neruda, Brecht, Buñuel, Eliot, Simone Weil, Joyce, Beckett, and Baudrillard in consort while advancing Rimbaud’s axiom, “I am of the race that sings under torture.” Brando journeys, and repairs Tennessee Williams’ toilet, encounters Jessica Tandy (who later plays Blanche DuBois), and boxes with Norman Mailer and KOs him. Brando encounters and deflowers a crazed cannibalistic fan, and dresses in a nun’s habit while horseback riding with a reclusive Marilyn Monroe who later performs provocative sexual acts while reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot out loud. Jaffe’s Norma Jean (Monroe) might be Circe, but then Bud (Brando) must be Ulysses, ever returning. Jaffe reconsiders drugs, booze, morphine, electroshock, melancholy, organ failure, and what remains of the writer faced with the difference between “anguish” and “sacred anguish” within a dissolute socio-cultural wilderness lying beyond good or evil, where you never get “something for nothing.”

Leon Rooke’s Swinging Through Dixie offers alternately magical, decadent, and erotic intertextual perceptions through two novellas and three short stories. Governor General’s Award-winner Rooke depicts the paralyzing minutiae of small-town life. The title story features a rural southern US town with hucksters peddling surplus U-boats, theories on the Lindbergh kidnapping, a burning car on the edge of town (occupants living or dead), bored gossiping locals, pool sharks, beautiful self-indulgent women, and “crazy” people exchanging clashing opinions: “But if that buggy wasn’t Grey’s, you can boil me in your onion soup like you would a housefly.” Some stories in this collection appeared earlier in small-press publications, further evidencing the indispensability of grassroots publishing. The story “Sara Mago Et Al” opens like a joke: “A fat man and a thin man and a woman . . . came into the café.” But it’s no joke. A blind woman’s seeing-eye dog was hit by a car. State troopers investigate, but, in spite of the blind dog-owner’s eloquent pleas, justice is not served. Rooke attends to minutiae: the café’s unwiped end-booth, dirty cups, crumpled napkins, a spread of salt where a regular customer fingered her name onto the yellow tabletop. Small-town gloom dominates with tumbleweeds skittering past yucca, creosote, and mesquite over a scrim of ashen dust in a rubescent haze set against the limpid blue sky, while the waitress, Sara Mago, face down in besmirched uniform, mourns the death-by-suicide of her erstwhile ne’er-do-well lover, Doc. The closing magical realist novella, “Trading with Mexico,” recalls Apuleius (The Golden Ass) and Petronius (Satyricon). Set in Chiapas. and rich in hyperbole, satire, fabulation, narrative disjunction, stream of consciousness, eroticism, injustice, and political-economic intrigue, this open-ended novella features mescal-bibbing rascals, a musical ensemble of blind female sex workers, a possibly incestuous relationship between two lovers divided by intense familial rivalry, lighting supplied by electric eels, hacked bodies mystically coming back to life, and strife between the gods of Yes and No set against a backdrop of war and guerrilla resistance. Much like Hall and Jaffe, Rooke challenges the goals of materialism as they swerve from more righteous spiritual values, leaving few consolations apart from writers’ tears.

This review “Of Time and Trouble” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 153-155.

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