Thoughtful Generosity

  • George Amabile
    Dancing, with Mirrors. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
  • Oana Avasilichioaei
    We, Beasts. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at
  • W. H. New
    YVR. Oolichan Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Duffy Roberts

I can’t help but review these three collections in the larger contexts of poetry’s readers, poetry’s value, and the generosity of each to each. And then, there are poetry reviews and their potential for generosity. To be effective, poetry reviews should situate criticism within a consideration of audience. Poetry’s value might get taken for granted (by those of us reading and writing reviews such as this), but poetry’s audience should not be taken for granted. We, Beasts and Dancing, with Mirrors need to remember audience a little more, inspire a larger audience even, and not lose sight of the written word as commodity. I struggled with We, Beasts because its intertextuality, untranslated text, and structural choices are obscure. Dancing, with Mirrors is 185 pages long and the cosmic, I-will-return-to-the-universe-upon-death everlasting-universe-of-things is less effective than when George Amabile writes about specific things. YVR will lose anyone without command of the Vancouver it references, or anyone who is uninspired to look them up. These criticisms, though, do not detract from each book’s generosity.

Oana Avasilichioaei’s We, Beasts aches for a beastly language, one that pounds and pounds out. Translation is the collection’s focus, or maybe not translating, with its untranslated lines, epigraphs, taxonomy diagrams, and pages more blank than populated with text. It’s as if the poet is pulling reclaimed and honest mythology out of the blinding white pages of misunderstood, mistransformed, mistranslated, and misappropriated fairytales and stories. The collection reminds us why here, a city lies to a child: storytellers tell the child that the wolf is not wolf but nightmare; black bats and cats absorb the truth; a witch is not a woman healer but an evil spell-caster; a crow shadow[s] the shadows; a king is not cruel but just; and speaking in tongues and not listening solely to your elder[’s] tongue will lead to darkness. When tales are told, the teller transforms the tale in the service of power, in the service of particular and controlled versions of home. Beasts are beasts because we are not beasts but civilized, or so the lie to the child goes.

We, Beasts reminds that what is interesting about us is that we are beasts. When humanity’s vault at ease / in her stained apron // rooster // into its // barbarity, we are only at ease because the barbarity is in the service of humanity, whereas other barbarity is in the service of barbarity. When a home knocks on the door of itself / enters inside and forgets itself, it is as if assumed and static versions of home dismiss our power to live in the world as if it were home. The unknown requires not only translation, We, Beasts argues, but also care that those translations do not become memes in the service of power for tyrants fond of taming / tasks that can be named. Perhaps inspired by a recognition that much of the world is transformed into language that keeps us dumb (without language) to the complexities of places, the child says, oh mama, unchild me from this child voice. Avasilichioaei exposes the lies in language, in stories, yes. Perhaps it is advice for adults too.

George Amabile’s own adult face (or well-travelled life) is in the mirror in Dancing, with Mirrors, but the dancing is more complicated to describe. The book-jacket blurb calls this long poem, fairy accurately, a lyrical retrospective. Amabile revisits his past experiences and memories and their meanings. Sometimes history changes key and soars, he writes, and sometimes it sits there like a damaged animal. History (memory even) as a damaged animal is difficult to associate with dancing, but maybe the success of the collection is in turning damage (loss, guilt, regret, absence) into insight and metaphor: Amabile calls this task entertain[ing] possibility. The damage has specific sources in childhood: namely, in Amabile’s relationship with his father—how love can change / to a not-so-simple politics / of need when his father believe[s] children belonged / to the distant and irrational world / of women, believed it so well—and in the still-open scar of helplessness, / the guilt of my brother’s death, a death that tear[s] / his name loose / from my throat.

Paris, New York, Iceland, Oaxaca, Swift Current, Rome, Chiang Mai: Amabile treats these places as tissue[s] of useful fictions, as if needing to blow our noses to examine the place-specific content and their web[s] of associations / … never thought about before. What inspires Amabile’s interrogations of his experiences is age (only older people carry around a hankie and immodestly examine its contents in public), and perhaps a desire, however doomed to failure, to control others’ perceptions of his life and memories. In Power Failure, he writes:

Think of it: you may never be
fully possessed of your life
as it exists in the eyes of others,
or as it may appear
to emerge from the cold trails
and fragments that will survive you.

This knowledge is physical

Physical knowledge is an interesting idea, as if what we do were not only inspired by what we know, but what we know is what we do. In the end, the collection might be about love as a type of physical knowledge—love is a mirror / in which we learn to dance—the love of places and his experiences in them, his love for revisiting memories in verse, his love for his children, and the love of a drink [of] tea on the deck / then [a] change into old clothes and top-dress the lawn.

While Amabile’s well-traveled life spans the globe, W. H. New’s YVR (the IATA code designating Vancouver International Airport) spans Vancouver geographically, historically, linguistically, socially, and personally. But Amabile’s physical knowledge evokes, too, what YVR enacts as a lived version of Vancouver: physical, visceral, tactile, textural. New has said that he wanted to write YVR for a long time, but every early attempt to seek his city’s language turned into postcards, not poetry. New has also said that it’s by going away that you find memories. (Maybe New’s well-travelled life—well-travelled in other collections of poetry and in a robust career as teacher, scholar, and reader—helped with YVR’s non-postcard version of Vancouver.) New is mesmerized by dividing lines (borders, edges) and calls on Dave Godfrey’s pronouncement that when you say place, I think movement when talking about YVR, a resistance of static versions that rings/dings/mews pleasantly throughout the collection.

YVR begins by writing (maybe assembling is a better verb) Vancouver’s park names into rhyming couplets: China Creek, Still Creek, Oppenheimer, Lam, / Choklit, Trafalgar, Ebisu, Elm— // Nelson, Kensington, Charleson, Grays, / Robson, Templeton, Thornton, Falaise—. The poetry of place comprises, in part, the assembling of language that’s already there. I think YVR’s beginning to position the collection for younger Vancouverites, help them not to be just Kids these days. Just hang[ing] out at the mall. / Check[ing] out the labels. Got no damn sense. But what I find most intriguing about this collection is its generosity to the larger space of Vancouver as place and home, as when, for example, the Main Street long poem, broken into twelve individual poems appearing throughout the book, ends the collection with yes—I live here: I live here can imply that the speaker lives on Main Street or in Vancouver more generally. Insofar as Main Street is a praise poem, YVR too offers praise to a city. Read in light of recent outcry by Vancouver community centres and their members in response to a municipal plan to pool community centre funds for redistribution, YVR gives voice to all of Vancouver as a community. All areas of the city constitute home for New’s speaker. I don’t think this mode of engagement with place to be common (and perhaps the community centre funds-and-funding outcry argues the exact opposite to be more common), but I appreciate, as a Vancouverite, how it narrates a healthy and sustainable Vancouver.

Many of YVR’s poems recreate an old Vancouver, a disappearing Vancouver accelerated by gentrification and a mixed-use-condominium-densification model of sustainability. Vancouver is a rich city, and so much of Vancouver’s literature critiques this fact, but New is more interested in other textured richnesses. YVR recalls V-E day, Luck-Lucky, False Creek Road, Skid Road, Major Matthews, duffer[s], $1.49 day, Guinness holding Lions Gate Bridge up, and too many more city places and events to list or count. When slow-journalist Paul Salopek’s claims that we crave a past in our landscapes, I know YVR makes the same claim, but I can’t help but feel that that’s not true for many of Vancouver’s contemporary citizens, whether isolated by wealth or poverty, by a return to nature, or by the blinding lights of technology.

New has suggested that YVR is an invitation for its readers’ versions of Vancouver; YVR is mine, he says, what’s yours? I like the generosity in texts that ask for dialogue, stories (poems) of place that have an ear to other stories (poems) about place.

This review “Thoughtful Generosity” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 143-46.

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