When Voices Intertwine

Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Robert Bringhurst is often described as a modern-day renaissance man. Few writers could navigate fields as diverse as poetry, translation, typography, cultural history, and philosophy as interwoven vocations. Through an adherence to polyphony as a mode of deep ecological thinking, Bringhurst works to make accessible the wisdom of poets and thinkers past, from Sophocles to Haida mythtellers Ghandl and Skaay.

As Bringhurst puts it, “when two voices intertwine, the space they occupy gets larger, and the mind gets larger with it”; no wonder poet Dennis Lee calls him “a man of massive simple-mindedness.” Bringhurst has a way of chiselling complex thinking down to that part of being that ineluctably binds all living matter together. Bringhurst’s ontological approach is more aligned with ancient Greece than the modern academy, which is why editors Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson make clear that he doesn’t neatly fit within the “twenty-first century university’s rubric of knowledge production and transmission.” As such, Bringhurst is most comfortable in the role of an independent public thinker, bound by neither institution nor strict cultural protocol, which has irked some of his critics.

Working to right the omission of Robert Bringhurst from academic conversations, including his exclusion from CanLit anthologies, Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson have put together an excellent collection (the first of its kind) on Bringhurst’s far-reaching oeuvre. Listening for the Heartbeat of Being: The Arts of Robert Bringhurst includes fifteen essays from a range of literary scholars, publishers, poets, and journalists, and, like Bringhurst’s own work, concerns what we might refer to as an ecology of being. The essays include a detailed biography of Bringhurst by Mark Dickinson, first-hand accounts from publishers about his typographic achievements, analysis of his polyphonic poems for performance, and much needed reconsiderations of his Classical Haida Mythtellers translation trilogy. Aside from experienced scholars and publishers speaking about Bringhurst’s work, we also get strong endorsements for his singular genius and pioneering approach to translation, language, and poetics from well-known CanLit icons Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee.

Bringhurst’s active listening and translation of the great minds of many cultures is rooted in a polyphonic concern for ecological wellbeing. As he puts it in his essay “Singing with Frogs: The Theory and Practice of Literary Polyphony”: “What city dwellers frequently call ‘silence’ is the ebb and flow of birdsong and the calls of hawks and ravens, marmots, pikas, deer, mice, singing voles, the drone of gnats and bees and bee flies, and the sounds of wind and rain and running water. The world is a polyphonic place.” “Ecology becomes,” as Kevin McNeilly puts it in his essay on Bringhurst’s Antigone, “a question of response and responsibility, of careful exchange: human beings cannot keep taking, without giving back.” For Bringhurst this act of giving back relates to translation and revision as a “gesture of respect.” To truly listen and understand, we need to immerse ourselves in the sounding world from which literature is born.

Hence, Bringhurst’s definition of polyphony goes beyond the literary or the musical, as he claims it “isn’t a literary or musical technique” but a “property of reality which any work of art can emphasize or minimize, emulate or answer, acknowledge or ignore.” Of course, the central conceit borrows from the language of literature and music, and in many ways, as Katherine McLeod elucidates, Bringhurst models his own thinking and poetic structures on musicians whose practices are engaged with multiple speaking voices: “Glenn Gould, jazz pianists Bill Evans and John Lewis, and a range of composers from his contemporary Steve Reich all the way to J. S. Bach, and reading scores from ‘early Hayden to Shostakovich.’” The comparison of Bringhurst to reclusive Canadian Glenn Gould is apt, as Wood and Dickinson suggest Gould’s “little known polyphonic radio documentaries inspired Bringhurst’s own multi-voiced performance poems.” From jazz (I enjoyed reading of a young Bringhurst learning jazz drums) to European chamber music, Bringhurst utilizes the techniques of “echo, paraphrase, overlap, repeat,” and other forms of musical response to find ways to show how literature is of the world and mind, shaped within and across cultures.

Bringhurst’s approach to Haida oral literature takes an unexpected direction, albeit in line with his other work. His mentor and friend, the late Haida carver and storyteller Bill Reid, suggested that he could get inside the stories through European classical music, playing Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites for him, saying: “‘Those solo cello pieces are like those myths you were talking about. It’s hard to follow the pattern, but they make a kind of sense.’” Part of the controversy around Bringhurst’s retranslations of Haida oral literature surrounds him not asking the Council of the Haida Nation for permission and his enthnopoetic approach, preferring to use poetic line breaks to mimic an oral voice rather than prose as in prior translations.

Much of the initial ire directed at Bringhurst has dissolved. Atwood claims these early responses were misplaced, and goes on to praise Bringhurst’s Haida translations—particularly A Story as Sharp as a Knife—as an American Iliad. The collection does a good job summarizing the numerous debates and revelations of Bringhurst’s Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers, with an essay about the book design of this work from Scott McIntyre; a public defense of the work by Atwood for the Times; a comprehensive breakdown of the trilogy by Nicholas Bradley; a piece by Vancouver-based broadcaster of Haida and Cherokee decent, Kaawan Sangaa, that looks at the critiques of the text at the time of publication; and an essay by Ishmael Hope, an Alaskan storyteller of Iñupiaq and Tlingit heritage, who acknowledges the importance of these stories and mythworlds of Skaay and Ghandl for his own family. The essays are decidedly supportive of Bringhurst’s endeavours, which as McIntyre offers, seek to reveal “historical truths of the Haida voice.”

While more could be said in the collection about how Bringhurst’s universalism is at times fraught or essentialist, Bringhurst’s translations have much to offer both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers and writers. As Nicholas Bradley phrases it, Bringhurst does not lay claim to culture or land, but rather works to provide a “grave historical understanding of colonialism and dispossession of land and language.” For Bringhurst, the Haida stories of Ghandl and Skaay are more than folklore, as he defines them as literature: “They have individual authors, whom I have gone to some trouble to identify, and the works are treated as the works of individuals.”

Idealistically, Wood and Dickinson suggest Bringhurst’s craft gifts us a path into “a collective re-awakening to humility, a polyphonic epiphany owing something to a renaissance of North American Indigenous cultural ideals.” It is no small feat that Bringhurst has found ways to make the abstract more concrete, as he guides readers into the polyphony that unites all things, whether organic or human made. This collection is a call to pick up his books as starting points for deep reflection. Afterwards, we are called to go out into the world, develop what the editors at one point describe as a “compound ear,” and listen ourselves for the heartbeat of being.

This review “When Voices Intertwine” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 264-266.

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