The Collaborative Vision

  • Christine Stewart (Author) and David Dowker (Author)
    Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal. BookThug (purchase at
  • Lola Lemire Tostevin (Author)
    Signed Wings. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • Chus Pato (Author) and Erín Mouré (Translator)
    Hordes of Writing. Buschek Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

Collaboration can take many forms. In two of these books, two writers work together in various ways, but all five writers know full well that they collaborate with historical texts whenever they set out to write; in that sense we all always already collaborate with our literary past.

We all owe a great debt to Erin Moure for learning Galician and translating Chus Pato’s genre-bending works into English, to, as Moure suggests, discomfit and exhilarate the literature of Canada, not to mention the UK, the US, and the whole English-speaking world. Call Hordes of Writing poetry, perhaps poetics, or a mash-up of all genres—fiction, essay, memoir; no, just call it writing. It’s certainly skittish, changeable, shifty, and, despite its deliberate refusal of the conventions of all these forms, Hordes of Writing is also mesmerizing (as Pato says, “The horde is the perfect mode of human relation because it is the perfect protective space for human beings, like the mother’s womb. It also makes us think of constant movement, of mobility like the barbarians had, with their absolute freedom.”). It demands the reader’s constant attention or s/he’ll be thrown off.

There’s an author, a narrator, and “characters” (so deliberately “thin”), more than one “I,” and figures so to speak of speech speechifying throughout. The text continually interrogates the concepts of “I” and of character, yet even in their minimal presence these figures compel. Galician history, geography, and culture lie at the heart of this horde, yet it restlessly rides (and writes) its way into other histories, the abysms of human cruelty both political and personal. Although never at ease, readers will find themselves pulled ever deeper into this text by its precision, dark humour, and visionary humanity.

In Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal, the two writers collaborate with each other as well as the texts they acknowledge and the texts they do not. Like all the best collaborations, this highly complicated arrangement makes it difficult if not impossible to figure out who wrote what.

Each section begins with a poem that takes off from both its title and a quotation from a poetic theorist such as Giorgio Agamben, Paul Celan, Gilles Deleuze. Within that poem at least one highlighted phrase serves as the title of a following poem, containing at least one highlighted phrase, and so on. It seems that Dowker and Stewart are taking turns. This allows for both a give-and-take of imagery, metaphor, pun, concept, etc., as well as a wide range of forms. As Virtualis investigates the topologies of the contemporary baroque topographies found only in the virtual worlds of the internet, and always, therefore, quoted in some manner, it reveals an often savage, wonkily academic wit.

Throughout, “the inadvertent curvature of the argument” allows for a wide, and wild, exploration of the melancholic/ecstatic body, which “is plural, / a congeries / of metamorphoses / —its engine / is difference, its dermis / absurd — a hinged incidence / in a terminal display.” That final line beautifully exemplifies the way these writers double down on possible meanings, leaving everything carefully ambivalent.

A poem lacking highlights demonstrates how the whole works, with internal rhyme, punning, sly metaphors representing something of the complete text:

By all means let polar opposites repose,
transfixed contraries so disposed.
These flowers of delirium blossom
in that aporia, a frenzied catatonia
or raving calyx array, a mutant line
to a smooth space engendered,
the implicit lucidity of the body
in the near fields of the unreal.

Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal challenges and delights equally. On one level, Lola Lemire Tostevin’s Singed Wings offers a wildly ekphrastic homage to a number of her female artistic forebears. On another level, it’s a wise and often witty excursus into the realm of aging, a song of the elder self, as the epigraph from Agnés Varda implies: “I play the role of a pudgy and chatty little old lady.” But the chats have teeth. And most of her collaborators are those other artists, whose works and words inspire and enter her own writing.

In “The Daughters of Necessity,” she converses with Camille Claudel, Louise Bourgeois, and Betty Goodwin, all visual artists who managed, often against great odds, to put something of their own feminine vision into visual/material form: “What is given to see is given to touch”—a core concept of this poem sequence. In the case of Claudel, something put her “out of touch . . . / Losing touch as a little insane / But not too much / Just a touch.” Except it was too much, finally, her “only failing / … never carving a change of heart.” Bourgeois on the other hand lived long, and in her art “doesn’t recreate the way she lived / She lives the way she recreates.” The poem celebrates Bourgeois doing, undoing, and redoing, throughout a long life of engagement. This is also true of Betty Goodwin, who “folds, unfolds, refolds” all those “Double helices of replication // The paradox of lives held / Between / Hier- / Aujourd’hui.”

A few examples give a sense of the complex metaphysical chats all the poems in Singed Wingsoffer: “XVI Philippics / After Cicero” takes on old age as he did, but does so through engaging Varda and Hannah Arendt: the poem casts a cold, hard, and very honest eye on aging. “Punctum,” on the other hand, recalls, through near matching photographs of her grandson and her younger self, something of the child’s visionary encounter with the world. “Singed Wings” finds inspiration in the writings of Marguerite Duras, who could never not write. Duras, and Tostevin by implication, understand that “[t]he ransom of formalism / Is the permission to love and live / Still.” “Lichens” returns to Ontario wilderness, and “La Fiesta de los Muertos” celebrates the pain-full art of Frida Kahlo, whose self-portraits make her viewers “point of view her point of view / Accomplices, each on a half-footing // What I take away are not self-portraits / Of la mestizo but a space / Where I am left standing.” Which is what Singed Wings offers its readers.

This review “The Collaborative Vision” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 147.

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