The Daring Wager

  • Barbara Thomson Godard and Di Brandt
    Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
  • Smaro Kamboureli (Editor) and Erín Mouré (Editor)
    My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice. NeWest Press
Reviewed by Linda Quirk

Wider Boundaries of Daring is an important new book which reimagines literary modernism in Canada— an overdue historical revision which responds to calls issued by David Arnason in 1983, by Barbara Godard in 1984, and by Carole Gerson in 1992. Challenging prevalent masculinist genealogies, which tend to position F.R. Scott’s “The Canadian Authors Meet” as “the birth announcement of Canadian modernism” (in which “T.S. Eliot’s daunting women “talking of Michelangelo” are reduced . . . to “twittering” Miss Crotchets”), this collection of essays foregrounds the leadership of Dorothy Livesay, P.K. Page, Phyllis Webb, Miriam Waddington, Anne Marriott, Margaret Avison, Elizabeth Brewster, Anne Wilkinson, Jay Macpherson, and Elizabeth Smart. What is offered is “a corrective to the current telling of Canada’s literary history by highlighting the achievement and legacy of our best modernist women poets, not ‘alone’ but ‘together,’ not as solitary and marginal receivers of modernist influence but as important makers of it, consciously engaging in a collective, revisionary, ‘new’ cultural project.”

In her introduction, Di Brandt makes a clear and compelling case for the bold revision that this book proposes. The sixteen essays that follow explore a range of interrelated topics from Christine Kim’s revisionist study of the role of small magazines in developing Canadian modernism to Candida Rifkind’s examination of Miriam Waddington’s largely overlooked critical writing, and from Anne Quéma’s study of Elizabeth Smart’s passionate and sublime modernism to Ann Martin’s exploration of the generational influence of Florence Randal Livesay’s life and work on the career of her daughter (Dorothy Livesay). Together, the essays in this collection reveal that these women were not passive participants in modernism, nor were they the followers of male leaders; among other things, they did not subscribe to “the masculinist model of aestheticism divorced from the challenges and the obligations of personal life.” They were prolific and influential writers who engaged deeply with a range of modernist concerns: “the interrogation of subjectivity in the domestic and public arenas; new definitions of sociality and the implications of new media on the local, national, and transnational level; and experimental mythopoetic, surreal, ‘decadent,’ imagist, and what we would now call feminist and ecopoetic approaches to language and creative expression.”

Echoing these modernist pioneers, award-winning contemporary poet and accomplished translator Erín Moure asserts that “writing is always and forever a social practice,” and she imagines a world in which “a citizen, like a poet, is one who works through and against received forms.” Moure’s My Beloved Wager is a collection of essays in which “essay” is “the fraught terrain of a practice, an essai or try articulated from inside the work of poetry” and where her work as a translator contributes significantly to the insights that she offers into reading practice, writing practice, and the functioning of language. A varied collection, filled with thoughtful meditations, wry humour, and complex theory. Deeply personal, unruly, unapologetic, Moure is unafraid of the toughest of the tough questions about art, about representation, about gender, and about the impossibility of denying the terms of the authorized discourse. Suggesting that mainstream English Canadian readers find her work “difficult and strange,” Moure wryly characterizes it as “hi-toned obscurantist lesbo smut” and explains that she is “working on poetic form, on what the brain can understand emotionally from the poem as a whole (the macro level) even when in individual sentences (the micro level) semantic value is missing—there is no apparent sense.”

In her extended meditation on poetic practice—set apart from academic discourses on cultural product—Moure treats a writer’s work not as “finished product,” but as a verb, exploring the ways that words touch each other and the sounds of words as they fracture. She argues that “poetry is not about creativity or uplifting people but about risk, great risk, hurtling oneself at the boundaries of language, ears pressed to the borders of the structure and hearing its constraints, which also indicate openings. Operating at the edge of our belief about what language can do. Risking that you might not like or understand the result at first, or for years.”

Moure celebrates the “little squiggly ants on the page” and the act of reading, which “itself constructs what is there.” Acknowledging those who read for comfort or entertainment; challenging those who read as they have been taught: “poetry reduced to symbol and theme.” For Moure, a book is a “risk,” a “beloved wager,” for “reading is where thought risks concatenation with that which is exterior to it” and old structures are challenged. Like the women whose “wider boundaries of daring” reimagined the Canadian modernist literary landscape, Moure’s “beloved wager” is on the possibilities offered by books and the fact that, sometimes, squiggly ants on a page can change everything.

This review “The Daring Wager” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 150-152.

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