• Jim Christy
    Sweet Assorted: 121 Takes from a Tin Box. Anvil Press (purchase at
  • bill bissett
    hungree throat. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • David Collier
    Hamilton Illustrated. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at
Reviewed by Mike Borkent

The following books—a collection, a memoir, and a novel—all use visual and verbal elements to complicate how we represent and construe our experiences.

David Collier’s book Hamilton Illustrated collects small cartoons, comics, and prose pieces that range broadly in content from autobiographical scenes to portraits of passersby, old buildings, and the bay, beautiful liner-notes illustrating the lyrics of a Hamilton band, anecdotes about local bike stores and bike paths, and commentaries on gentrification, climate change, and technology.

Throughout his excellent book, Collier also offers observations about the nature of cartooning, especially the benefits of sketching (Collier’s characteristic style) and the role of “art’s regenerative powers” in society. These comments inform the book as a whole, which clearly reflects Collier’s gaze and style but regularly includes self-reflexive elements as well as allusions to historical figures such as Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. For instance, a small cartoon features Collier standing dejectedly on a trash-strewn trail. He writes, “Next time . . . you find yourself in a staring contest with a groundhog, instead of just standing there, you can ask yourself: What would Ernest Thompson Seton do? You know damn well what he would’ve done—Whipped out his sketchbook & drawn a picture!” The caption offers both an admonishment and a historical and cultural frame for understanding Collier’s practice. Thompson Seton would have drawn the animal in the “wild;” Collier draws the animal and the person in a less-than-ideal engagement in a soiled suburban landscape. While affirming the artistry of Thompson Seton, Collier suggests a more self-reflexive perspective as a contextualized and inter-subjective observer.

Collier’s inter-subjective focus informs the entire book through his use of comics to embed himself in scenes as he documents them, while also commenting on historical and social elements of his community. Collier elegantly employs the form and practice of comics as an entry point into the dynamics of life in Hamilton in order to reflect on those dynamics directly.

Jim Christy’s memoir Sweet Assorted compiles images and writings that discuss a random collection of receipts, notes, photos, sketches, and small sculptures thrown into an old biscuit tin for over forty years. Each entry is numbered, to presumably signal the order in which items were taken from the tin, and includes a grey-scale image of the object. Most entries reflect the objects through ekphrastic prose, which often feels redundant but also adds some contexts to the images. While employing documentarian features of the archive, the book ignores further structures such as links through chronology or content that could give it more coherence. Thus, it remains a true miscellany, disordered and free-associating.

The richest moments in this book come when the objects become metonyms for events and people from Christy’s past, points of reference that he augments with assessments, reflections, and even occasional sales-pitches for his current work. While often coated in contrasting, occasionally distracting tones of nostalgia and judgment, the sheer range of experiences and the quirky (and at times famous) figures from Christy’s past intrigue and entertain. Simultaneously, Christy’s significant temporal distance from the many figures and events raises the crucial question of autobiography: how factual are these recollections? Christy regularly admits his inability to remember particular details or events surrounding the objects, but at other times is seemingly able to offer decade-old conversations in detail. Thus, the book presents an archive of questionable oft-dissociated anecdotes that blend objects, events, and memories.

bill bissett’s novel hungree throat also plays with connections and tensions between images and language by weaving together drawings, visual poems, lyric poems, and prose while telling the story of the relationship between two gay men through several stages of their lives. In classic bissett style, the short sections are written in phonetic rather than grammatical English and often integrate discussions between the characters on meditation, metaphysics, and the challenge of overcoming fears, traumas, and disappointments. The spiritual, Zen-like focus of the book adds to the salience of the psychedelic images and weaves them into the narrative.

While interesting, the story is not particularly strong and relies upon the defamiliarizing thought-language of phonetic spellings, experimental poetic sequences, and the drawings to add novelty where broken prose falls short. While noteworthy, especially for bissett’s mesmerizing images and their interactions with the language surrounding them, the book might not stand up to sustained meditation. Nonetheless, it remains, along with the works of Collier and Christy, an interesting and intriguing reading/viewing of the struggles of coming to terms with, and visualizing, a tumultuous world and “how we feel abt unsirtintee.”

This review “Visualizations” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 135-36.

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