Poets Telling Stories

Reviewed by Michael Roberson

Army of the Brave and Accidental by Alex Boyd and Crow Jazz by Linda Rogers represent daring experiments by writers recognized more for their poetry than for their prose.

Army of the Brave and Accidental, Boyd’s first novel, invokes Homer’s Odyssey in a contemporary tale about the mercurial nature of time travel and the challenges that ensue with one man’s attempt to change his past to sustain his future. Spanning forty vignettes, the book alternates between a handful of characters, whose voices do not change to reflect the shifting of perspective. Rather, Boyd maintains an almost dispassionate voice throughout: controlled by a polished poetic sensibility, the book sometimes resembles a travel journal, which might be appropriate since most of the characters traverse a “blended landscape of moments.” In fact, the leaps in time and space and the consistent tone preserve classic epic conventions without feeling contrived (there are also other conventional aspects for aficionados). Not unexpectedly, Boyd offers us an allegory, with the hero and his “army” advocating “compassion,” “reverence,” and “gratefulness” as ultimate ideals. The title not only refers to the coterie of time travellers, but also acknowledges the “wave of people that dig in every day but are sent home drowsy . . . trying to manage a life.” Boyd demonstrates how time travel could never be smooth since the moments in our private and public memories, inseparable from the places in which they occur, all exert a shifting psychic gravity. Ultimately, “there isn’t any way to cheat time” since we seem to bear the push, the pull, the burden of “the thick history of people” in our hearts and minds.

While Boyd forgoes invoking a muse at the beginning of his novel, Rogers begins Crow Jazz, her first book of short stories, with “A Blessing” by “She”—a kind of Spirit Mother with a trickster beneficence and “cosmic lips.” As the title implies, the twenty-two pieces that make up the book combine an improvisational gusto and shrewd wit. They overlap theme, character, image, and “terroir”; like literary “mud pies” that begin with a basic “recipe” and then riff, these pieces often amalgamate impressions, demonstrating a “mind that travels fast, faster than fastballs and agile tongues.” As Rogers writes early on: “I gather life’s pleasure and some of its pain and dump it into a big mixing bowl.” So while Crow Jazz contains some clunky unpolished gems—perhaps lyrical micro-essays rather than stories—the book operates by a grander impulse—to preserve and celebrate the whims of an experienced, artistic temperament at the expense of potential “plot exegesis.” Some of Rogers’ more cohering moments have didactic intentions, touching on issues like sexual abuse, abortion, neglect, divorce, and dementia. With honesty, pathos, cleverness, and humour, Rogers’ pieces teach us about respecting each other and the complexity of identity, respecting our elders and the wisdom of age, and respecting ourselves and the fragility of health and sanity. In a time when “journalism and storytelling are under attack,” Rogers offers us a refreshing defence.

This review “Poets Telling Stories” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 122-123.

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