Productive Uncertainties

Reviewed by Dougal McNeill

Phyllis Webb’s Canada is “unreal estate,” a “fantasy that changes” as she changes. Webb’s genius, for me, is in her art of indecision. Poems “of failure,” line breaks splitting and troubling the meaning of a sentence, all those expanses of white page in Naked Poems: Webb offers readers what her poem “Flux” calls “an unbaptizing touch,” worrying what seemed assured, unsettling what was settled, prompting glances to “the particular, the local, the dialectical, and private.” The three books under review carry on, in different registers and fields, the work of unbaptizing Canadian unreal estate. All blur, helpfully, the distinctions between critical and creative writing, and all incorporate potentially salutary forms of failure into the projects.

Stephen Collis, a celebrated poet himself, is the author of an earlier study, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (2007), blending criticism and creative writing. In Almost Islands he pushes these terms closer together, offering nuggets of something akin to prose poems, some less than a page long, with a cumulative argumentative and emotional force. Collis turns to Webb’s writing and example “for renewal,” looking for ways for poetry “to have geography and a map.” Webb, in Collis’ treatment, is, especially in the poems of Wilson’s Bowl, “a bellwether of the complexities of writing poetry on this far-flung and deeply entangled West Coast,” and her career a confrontation with an essential problem: “how to write as a settler in the wake of colonization—how to write, in this place, under the signs of liberty and justice, in ways that do not entirely erase the history of erasures?” A recognition of those erasures—the “many-fouled lines dragging us down in the historical deep,” Collis calls them—marks, Almost Islands suggests, a crucial break (and breakthrough) in Webb’s poetic career. This argument develops in loops via Kropotkin, Emily Dickinson, William Morris, (auto)biography, the politics of naming, and some gloriously evocative passages responding to southwestern BC. Almost Islands is a prompt book, critical rumination, memoir, and lyrical gift, a work offering “porosity” in the relationship between art and politics. If Collis sometimes substitutes verbal gestures for sustained argument, as, for me, in his evocation of the “biotariat,” this is part of his book’s political force and poetic beauty.

War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature is a more straightforwardly scholarly work, but Robert McGill brings to his study a novelist’s ear, indicated not least by his title’s nice punning play with Northrop Frye. McGill seems to have read every poem, novel, and playscript written in Canada about the Vietnam War, and his survey of changing Canadian fantasies of Vietnam and the US uses these to finesse and trouble some familiar nationalist accounting. Canadian identity, for McGill, is

dialectically connected to Canadians’ perceptions of America and what is going on there. Consequently, as long as the Vietnam War continues to provoke the American consciousness, it will have a place in Canadians’ minds, too.

The mythology of Canada developed by the new nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s continues to have influence “whenever people describe the country as liberal, peaceable, humanitarian, hospitable, and harmoniously multicultural”; this myth was shaped, War Is Here compellingly demonstrates, through creative responses to the Vietnam War. This is no simple celebration of the “peaceable kingdom,” however. McGill is struck by how much of “war-era Canadian writing about Vietnam” was “concerned with the war’s implications for Canada,” and he has canny observations to offer on the ways in which the nationalist association of Canada with Vietnam, ranged against the threat of the US, ran “the risk of instrumentalizing Vietnamese people’s suffering, even as it depends for its efficacy on the reader’s empathy with their plight.” Images of Vietnam (and, by association, Canada) as a woman violated sexually by the US were connected, McGill shows, to older discourses gendering the Canada-US relationship, and, “in seeking to make visceral Canada’s complicity in US domination,” authors often “ended up promoting a conservative sexual politics.” McGill pulls off the difficult critical trick of balancing critique and appreciation, survey and analysis, and, along the way, he offers some lively and convincing arguments for treating as war narratives texts that make no explicit accounting with Vietnam—Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid especially. All this alongside an attentive unpacking of “figurative language and rhetorical devices” in George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, a close reading of forms of ekphrasis in Canadian responses to the ways the war was represented and narrated in news media, and soundings of the “covert nationalist voice” in twenty-first-century Vietnam narratives. Inspiring in an era when literary studies and humanistic scholarship seem everywhere under threat, McGill demonstrates the intellectual-historical value of careful, sustained explication de texte.

Comparative literature has always been about creative failure and Webb’s “the particular, the local, the dialectical.” As a discipline it is, as Linda Hutcheon observes in her foreword to Comparative Literature for the New Century, “fruitfully un-disciplined,” “healthily contrarian,” and fond of “self-conscious self-interrogation.” The essays collected here reflect this, although a melancholy air haunts them all, one prompted by the administrative philistinism in higher education and anglophone incuriosity. Joseph Pivato suggests ways in which a collective Canadian “unreal estate” might make these provinces an ideal place for comparison. With around one-third of Canadians from cultural backgrounds neither English nor French, translation and its failures are a part of Canadian life. “We understand the limits of translation,” Pivato argues, and Derridean différance is a fact of everyday life. The essays Pivato and Giulia de Gasperi have collected, especially Dominique Hétu’s on Canadian dystopia and George Elliott Clarke’s on epics failed and unfinished, show the productive power of uncertainty, worry, and “an unbaptizing touch” in multilingual criticism prepared to take its time over misunderstanding as much as translation.

This review “Productive Uncertainties” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 145-146.

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