Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
Edited by Eugene Ostashevsky
Translated by Lyn Hejinian et al.
Wesleyan UP (2014)
Read by Andre Furlani

The Russian modernist poet Osip Mandelstam declared in the epochal “Conversation about Dante” that “to speak means to be forever on the road”: “When we pronounce the word ‘sun’ we are, as it were, making an immense journey which has become so familiar to us that we move along in our sleep” (Mandelstam 2004 115). In uttering a word, “we are living through a peculiar cycle” rather than conveying an “already prepared meaning” (ibid). The condition of speech is flux: “All nominative cases should be replaced by datives of direction. This is the law of reversible and convertible poetic material, which exists only in the performing impulse” (153).

This performing impulse drives the verse of Mandelstam’s canny descendent Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, whose every word and phrase is a volley. After attending theatre school in Leningrad – Mandelstam’s “Petropolis” – in the 1970s, he began to collaborate on samizdat periodicals, from type-setting and editing to contributing poems. With Mikhail Iossel, he belonged to a Leningrad underground that perpetuated the proscribed legacy of the stunning early twentieth century Russian avant-garde in which Mandelstam figured, along with Velimir Khlebnikov, whose zaum “beyonsense” experiments in a hermetic non-referential sound poetry rivalled Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and the “parole in libertà” of Futurism. Invoking Khlebnikov directly in “Nasturtium as Reality,” he writes: zaum returns as conclusion what it has absorbed/ and dissolved into pure plasm each day” (121).

Thus, despite the Soviet suppression of Formalism, Constructivism, Cubo-Futurism, Acmeism, Structuralism, and their numerous postmodern progeny, the plasmic poets of the Andropov era were well-prepared for the arrival of the American language poets. With no language between them but the buoying beyonsense of poetry itself, Lyn Hejinian and Dragomoshchenko embarked on a friendship in Leningrad in 1983 that, with the Glasnost thaw, issued in the 1989 poetry seminar attended by Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Michael Davis, and Hejinian. The next year the latter collaborated with Elena Balashova to produce an English translation, Description, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union the poet was free to tour the United States and to accept teaching gigs at American universities.

Endarkenment is the fifth volume of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry to appear in English, in a handsome bilingual edition that includes a capsule biography, a bibliography of his works, photos, a preface by Hejinian and an illuminating essay by Ostashevsky. A photo of the jocular chain-smoking poet on the hood of a Lada balances the striking dust-cover reproduction of Dragomoshchenko’s grainy, grim self-portrait as an emaciated inmate peering from the aperture of a gulag-like door, an image projecting the poet’s literary marginalization and precarious political status. “Under Suspicion” was the title of a collection excerpted in the present volume. Endarkenment indeed, and yet, far from prolonging the note of incarceration, the poems convey an impish, convivial liberty from cant, coterie, and prosodic convention. With more joy than righteous indignation he releases words and phrases from the Bastille of Soviet aesthetic mandates and ubiquitous institutional mendacity.

“There they are again, the signs that have lost their meaning,” he writes (43), and these are equally the empty verbal ciphers of Structuralist linguistics and the bankrupt heraldic symbols of Soviet supremacy. “The perspective should have changed,” he declares with an eye to the late-Soviet stagnation, adding, with a nod to Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers”: “And it changed” (87). This poem can be wry indeed about the era, and perhaps clairvoyant about our own: “Everything was in decline./ Even the talk about everything being in decline” (87). The poet refuses elegy as well as satire in favour of the erratic, the uncanny, the illegible. The verse is in flight from the meekly paraphrasable, for he agrees with Mandelstam that, where one finds paraphrase, “there the sheets have not been rumpled; there poetry has not, so to speak, spent the night” (2004 104).

With an ear to vacuous official oratory, Dragomoshchenko attempts, at the level of the phrase, what Paul Celan, Mandelstam’s unsurpassed German translator, achieved at the level of the word, the rehabilitation of a national language implicated in the outrages of despotism – “the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech,” the Holocaust witness Celan called it (Celan 1983 38: hindurchgehen durch die tausend Finsternisse todbringender Rede). “These words still remained/ as though they’d not been pulled out by the root,” Dragomoshchenko observes with some amazement (89). The sterility of official discourse threatens to disable all living speech:

We often fell silent mid-word that autumn.
A spectral series of things, of which
not one was able to become a thing,
but only a rut of meaning that
will never need untangling in the moisture of breath. (93)

A poet’s task, says one who alludes frequently to Ludwig Wittgenstein, is not to declaim authoritatively but to “respect the poverty of language,/ respect impoverished thoughts” (105). Dragomoshchenko develops by copiousness what Samuel Beckett sought in “lessness,” which the latter described in a 1959 letter as the attempt “to find a syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say” (Beckett 2014 211).

Dragomoshchenko finds in this miraculously productive debility a lyric logic of exchange and conversion that, free of morbidity, stoically affirms decay and limitation:

More likely, someone really did show weakness,
because there is only substitution, the slippage of histories,
syntax of the alternation of forces, little shards on the floor,
rotting irises, rats. (81)

Relying on his cherished “rhetoric of accumulation” (119), the poet stirs the sediment of Van Gogh’s irises, T.S. Eliot’s rats, de Saussure’s signifier, and Beckett’s infirmity, and he holds this cloudy beaker to the light. You will be surprised to see how it shimmers.

Dragomoshchenko was a dissenting poet rather than a poet of dissent. The political enlistment of poetry, either by the salaried scribblers of Politburo anthems or by their strident versifying denouncers, is derided in a mock-address to Cavafy:

I banished the rhapsode from government. Why?
Well…you know, this novelty, the photocopier
that finally arrived from Corinth,
it can replace rhapsodes entirely. (103)

In “To a Statesman” there is liberty in the form of a grand refusal of all political formulas; “protocols turned to dust in concrete castles” (32). The speaker of the poem shares with the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s dystopian novel Bend Sinister childhood recollections of a classmate who went on to service in a draconian regime. Like Mandelstam’s Petersburg classmate Nabokov, Dragomoshchenko regards a formally self-conscious virtuosity as defiant affirmation of personal moral freedom. The discrete phrases pick up speed among contiguities and kinships that deviate abruptly into new relations, disdaining the artistic protocols that determined admission to the Soviet Writers Union and thereby to publication. The connections that count are irrefutably embodied, indeed labial, like the lover’s shoulder tattoo he kisses “so that word may open to word” (55).

Even as it disrupts the semantic markers of historicity, temporality is the medium of this poetry that registers fluctuation at the very level of composition. To Hejinian, Dragomoshchenko “was a poet in the tradition of Lucretius, following atoms of sensation into the crinkled atmospherics of thought” (x). For this task, no simple mimetic reproduction of particulars would suffice; words are primary pigment and a word is a living thing, with “the moisture of breath,” as he says:

We will remind you: reflections were of little interest to anyone,
to see – even now – means to become what you saw.
Who didn’t we become…contemplation of time
turned into the most delicate sand
running through a woman’s fingers,
which we also had the occasion of being,
as well as other things: decay, sod,
the formula of running, in which there also hid the cause
of what could not be shared with the dead,
belonging as it did to everyone in equal measure. (75)

In a letter to Hejinian that she quotes, Dragomoshchenko relates a euphoric vision of “the world whirling in a beautiful absence of will, in which glimmers an unintelligible belief in everything, to the point of idiotic tears, when one sets out for milk in the morning and stops at every step” (xi). In “Nasturtium as Reality” he equates the verb with the idle walker’s successive, vulnerable, contingent perspective, which accumulates consonances of chance and intention: “thanks to the verb, meaning more often/ aimless walking along the sand” (135).

Mandelstam compares speech to a congested river and the poet to one darting from one hithering-thithering Chinese junk to another to light on the opposite bank (see Mandelstam 2004 105). Even in translation one can make out the fleet, limpid finesse and determination of Dragomoshchenko’s sprint from one end of a line to another. He directs an implicit protest against linguistic complacence and the ideological conscription of language, and he celebrates the incantatory traffic of signifiers between speakers and, as in the case of this captivating volume, between languages as well.

“Blessed is he who calls the flint/ the student of running water,” writes Mandelstam (Mandelstam 2004 50), and so is Dragomoshchenko blessed. “What is said is not to be said again” (135), simply because it cannot be: words are living through a peculiar cycle. In dizzying desultory strides he crosses every divide, almost Whitmanesque in his invitation to a blurring of identities: “you breathe out:/ you sign for me: dragomoshchenko” (95).

“To examine the nature of resemblance, without resorting to symmetry” (21) is the credo of a poetry that spots kinships and juxtaposes unlikely consonances without imposing a transcendent equivalence. The phrase is from the aptly titled “The Weakening of an Indication,” which ends on a note of strong weakness for the union of contraries: “The narrow sail of the sand” (23). This appropriately fragmentary sentence contains Dragomoshchenko’s special emblem (23), wisps of granular wind-borne cursives that trace memories of the sea across a desert.

Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume III. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.
Celan, Paul. Der Meridian. Frankfurt am Main: SuhrkampVerlag, 1983.
Mandelstam, Osip. Selected Poems. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.



Fortified Castles
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Talonbooks (2014)
Read by Michael Roberson (mroberso[at]ucalgary[dot]ca)

Darkly humorous and mockingly pedantic, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Fortified Castles culminates a near-decade long project, taking shape out of his earlier book FAKE MATH. Again, he utilizes the Flarfist technique of Google sculpting, but he also tempers the smirk-inspiring ironies that occur when we mine the Internet and recontextualize what we find. The title, Fortified Castles, suggests the impervious home of the elite, securing abundant wealth and tyrannical power. Indeed, Fitzpatrick invokes this meaning as a reflection on our own political economy, but, as the pieces from the title section indicate, Fitzpatrick also considers lyric poems themselves as fortifications, celebrating and safeguarding the sincere human voice. In effect, Fitzpatrick explores sincerity for the 21st Century by “wind[ing] out a purity related to / the nineteenth century” and recasting voices out of the Internet’s selfied faces and mediated interfaces. The front and back covers consist of these “cute faces,” a “Crowd series” like a Where’s Waldo exercise, but sketches no less of isolated emotional states—surprise, sadness, disappointment, skepticism, and seriousness”—in these days of “gloomy economics.”

The book contains three sections: “21st Century Monsters,” “Fortified Castles,” and “Friendship is Magic.” The first section combines the personal “I,” the collective “We,” and the apostrophic “You.” The second collects a series of “I” statements. The third focuses on a series of “We” statements. The three sections operate paratactically, juxtaposing short sentiments, in which “phrases are epithets” related to politics, economics, history, architecture, film, and popular culture. “Really, I’m just embracing culture,” Fitzpatrick writes in the first section: “We make all this.” In other words, Fitzpatrick recasts personal and collective voices because the origins of our precarious sincerity arise not from a single “frame,” but more of a “Venn diagram.” We are individually and collectively responsible, as one epigram from the book states: “All our grievances are connected.”

The first section, composed of poems in couplets, suggests that our 21st Century monsters originate from “a womb of horror we paper-mâchéd using / the pages of our sister’s new issue of Sassy.” Our monsters are not zombies, werewolves, and vampire, but terrorists, cancers, and gun-toting idiots. The second section, the title piece, offers poems with three quatrains each, breaking up the fourteen lines of a sonnet—a form at once characteristically personal and carefully fashioned. These poems proceed from personal statements such as “I Want to Enjoy Life” and “I Want to Break Things”—statements that build a kind of “striking and radical portrait,” the irony of which registers in the first line: “My story is truly personal.” In the last section, composed again of couplets, Fitzpatrick riffs from line to line, employing rhetorical devices that increase a hypotactic flow. He keeps the pace short and anxious—a “gush from the heart”—and many questions, some bleak and some optimistic, riddle this section. Near the end, Fitzpatrick asks “How might we connect our cuffs?”—recognizing the “terrifying agency” of sincerity—of meaning what we say—once we admit that we share grievances and complicities.

Matrix is looking for Game Reviews!

Matrix Magazine is now accepting game reviews!

We are looking for reviews to post in the Matrix Magazine online supplement as well as for our print version. As of now, Matrix will be printing two game reviews per issue as well as putting a number up online. There is a small honorarium for the reviews that are selected for print.

Your reviews should be:

+ About 500 words long.
+ Canadian and/or Indie games (smaller developpers) are preferred, but send us what you’re interested in.
+ Accessible to a non-expert audience.

Contact Jessica Rose Marcotte (@jekagames / jess[dot]ro[dot]marcotte[at]gmail[dot]com) with your questions and your reviews.

REVIEW: Cinema of the Present

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House
Read by Jessi MacEachern

Inserting herself into the tradition of Canadian long poems (Kroetsch, Marlatt, Davey, Ondaatje, etc.), Lisa Robertson deploys her uniquely feminist line of cultural and philosophical query within the sharp, evocative lines of her newest book, Cinema of the Present (2014).

Readers familiar with Robertson will recognize the poem’s tangible concerns with the body, thrift store fabrics, and footfalls from Occasional Work and Seven Walks (2003), Magenta Soul Whip (2009) and R’s Boat (2010). A prolific writer, she extends her own tradition through these echoes while simultaneously altering the meaning these indexed items can be said to hold. (This book features, not for the first time, an index prepared for Robertson by Pascal Poyet.) Part of what Robertson’s project teaches its reader is the inexhaustible effect of the present, the expansive moment in which the writing and reading occurs. To put it in the vocabulary of cinema, the line of figure changes frame to frame.

Robertson’s poetic lines are irreparably and beautifully altered from moment to moment, page to page. Take, for instance, the figure of “A concomitant gate” (5) which graces the opening of the poem and, according to its descriptor, naturally transforms according to what follows so that a variety of gates are present on the following pages: “A gate made of bejewelled barrettes, artificial peaches, a rotary phone” (6), “A gate made of gas pumps” (7), “A gate made of Perspex” (8), “A gate of hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes” (9). The repetition alters suddenly; the scene shifts. The preposition (“A”) remains but the object (“gate”) changes to girl, graph, jay, etc.

What is most alluring about Robertson’s poetry is this effect of uncanny resonance. Her best lines are capable of sending the reader into an entirely constructed nostalgia, a tonal technique that is at once familiar and unsettling. The 800 frames, or lines, of memory progress like strips of film according to the tri-fold and ever-changing desire of the writer, speaker and reader. Whether the projection takes place in a library, cafe, or classroom, the city and the body intervene with the flickering image in order to make the experience severely intimate. When Robertson writes, “You need a hat against anger” (84), the reader is reminded of a mother’s advice upon going out into the cold, though the prescription is less practical than this. Emotion takes precedence in the writing. Emotion is the stubborn and strange partner of intellect and a necessary ingredient for interpretation of this speaker’s surroundings. Closely scrutinized emotion hardens into a multi-refractory substance that exists in changed duration for each frame: “You were annotating the idea of a long elastic present that could include violence and passivity and patience as well as cities, as would a crystal of quartz” (85).

Robertson’s “cinematic present,” the rapid and necessary change permitted by the metaphor of film, is the conceptual constraint of project. The result is an unfalteringly close and radical theorization of the (feminist) subject’s place in time.

REVIEW: Universal Bureau of Copyrights

Universal Bureau of Copyrights
Bertrand Laverdure, trans. Oana Avasilichioaei
BookThug (2014)
Read by Klara du Plessis

The elegant English translation of Bertrand Laverdure’s novel, Universal Bureau of Copyrights (Oana Avasilichioaei, 2014), pivots on the contradictory premise that when imagination becomes reality and wild thoughts materialize, free will is lost rather than celebrated.

In an alternate world, “every word, every material, every object, every letter, every spark of life, every idea, every character, has their copyright” (103), implying that “you have no ownership over what constitutes you” (105). You imagine something and it happens to you; a stranger imagines something and it happens to you. As the term “Copyright” suggests, both in the original and the translation, the legal authority for one party to reproduce is simultaneously the prohibition for another party to do the same. Creativity is institutionalized to be a safe place, yet reveals itself as a house of horrors.

In the novel’s metafictional reality, the unnamed protagonist is subjected to imagination. In a picaresque sequence of events, he is systematically maimed, losing a leg, first his little fingers, then both his arms; his clothes disappear and, in a gesture of lost self-worth, he considers wearing a random sweater drenched in vomit. Metamorphosing through subtraction, loss of physicality becomes symbolic of his establishment as a character rather than as an independent human being. He is passively written, rather than writing himself. Being written means submitting to the whim of the writer, to imagination, to a future already copyrighted for him. He does not necessarily benefit from the writing, victimized by haphazard brutality: “I’m sure the main character’s stump should have grown back […] but you can bet your ass there’s some negligence in the writing of this scene” (45).

Injury is consistently positioned as the concluding act of a chapter. If violence is the final thought in a world where imagination reigns and the character is conscious of the fact that he is being created by the writer, then Laverdure is passing harsh judgment on the creative process. In a peek “behind the scenes of the book” (64), imagination is posited as disease.

Metafiction exposes the author’s craft and attempts to destabilize the power dynamic in favour of writer over written. Comically, a character costumed as Jokey Smurf recurs throughout as prankster and terrorist, sadistically offering an explosive gift box to unwitting targets. His character simultaneously stands for free will and fate, spontaneity and premeditation, independent individual and author’s pawn. Considering the Smurf costume, the protagonist asks: “Who takes the time to don the garb of Jokey Smurf? On the contrary, one would have thought Smurfs to be empty entities, remotely operated and inflated by a deus ex machina author” (64). And in the world of Universal Bureau of Copyrights he is correct. Jokey isn’t a one-dimensional addition to the novel. Rather, by wearing a costume, a character submits to playing a part in the narrative Laverdure creates while Laverdure questions the possibility of equality between author and character.

REVIEW: The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance

The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance
Emily Horne & Tim Maly
Coach House Books (2014)
Read by Veronica Belafi

Emily Horne and Tim Maly’s The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance (2014) invites readers to observe and question daily institutional structures. “Who’s watching you?” the authors ask. “Can you correctly identify a panopticon?” they tease (n.p.).

Jeremy Bentham’s 1891 Panopticon; or The Inspection House outlines a design to “make one particular class of people—convicted criminals—live very publicly” (15). With its collection of one-way windows and a central observatory tower, Bentham’s panopticon affirms the watchman’s presence to his ring of inmates: “They become their own jailers, forced into docility by clever construction techniques” (15). Michel Foucault popularized the panopticon in Discipline & Punish (1975), using Bentham’s detailed design to examine social structures and power dynamics in a larger cultural context. For Foucault, an increasingly disciplinary society means rethinking disciplinary practices. Anyone, therefore, “can provide the observation that will produce the necessary effects of anxiety and paranoia in the prisoner” (19).

Horne and Maly’s Inspection House “is about what Bentham was selling, what Foucault bought—and says we all bought—and why Foucault seems especially relevant today” (26). As Horne and Maly distil these concepts for us within the context of our modern world, they address an audience that is perhaps, now more than ever, ready to question—or at least recognize—the ideologies built into the structures and systems that make up our modern cities. Readers might begin with the question: How does all of this theory apply in a post-911, surveillance-heavy world where names like the publicized Edward Snowden and the fictional Piper Chapman become common conversation tags? Horne and Maly pose this challenge: “Who’s watching you? Can you watch back?” (n.p.).

Horne and Maly conspire with their readers—not changing, but instead, fostering an inquisitive perspective on architectural and institutional surveillance policies. Their words are honest, at the very least; their content, a little unsettling; their research, historically grounded and all the more concrete; and the real-world applications of their theories are too thought-provoking to ignore. From their discussions of late eighteenth century penitentiaries and labour laws, to detention sites like Guantanamo Bay, to liminal border- and port-trading zones, to the city planning of London’s Ring of Steel, to the drones and CCTV cameras that troll public spaces, to the very personal “peer-to-peer” social network surveillances enabled by our “smart” phones, Horne and Maly promote a brand of transparency that has our ears perked and our eyes peeled. Their pointed introduction, “To Whom It Ought to Concern,” places readers in a state of instant and constant awareness for the rest of the book. To maintain this state is in our best interest:

Use this guide to help you identify, classify and resist the panopticons and pseudo-panopticons you come across in your daily life. An understanding of the genus is critical to understanding the ecology of surveillance culture.

We wish you luck,
Emily & Tim

REVIEW: The Quiet

The Quiet
Anne-Marie Turza
Anansi (2014)
Read by Rachel Wyatt

In her debut collection of poetry, Anne-Marie Turza ranges in scope from the microscopic to the lengths of the CN tower that could span into the depths of Russia’s lake Baikal. Despite the collection’s title, she offers a clutter of ideas, images and connections that are anything but quiet.

Structurally, the collection is framed by three sections entitled “The Quiet”. These sections are made up of untitled poems that pay minute attention to the world. Several of these ask “And its sound?”; others describe the delicate anatomy of insects or even smaller, microscopic scaled creatures. The tone in these poems shifts from the found encyclopedic text in i:ii, describing the Thin-Legged Wolf Spider to the languorous metaphors of the tardigrade “lumber[ing] slowly … [m]outh circular and open, curiously like a Christmas orange” (i:v). Many poems in these sections ask questions without antecedents, each new poem obscuring the object of the questioning further, its sound “[a]s in the toothed whale” (i:i), pointed and “A nerve ran through it, like the long nerve in the eyetooth of a cat” (ii:ii), its “bright carapace” an “antennae of dissolving bone” (iii:vi).

The collection refuses to reveal its structural principles. Poems from “The Quiet” range from the focus and quiet of “A man is sewing button holes into the wings of moths” (i:vii), to the feverish pitch of ii:i where the speakers “lived in that quiet, above megrims in second story windows, painted our mouths with ketchup, our eyelids with sweet relish, wore singlets made from the dyed hair of miniature horses.”

The intervening sections have similar range, from the moment of suspended quiet that describes the light streaming through a window in “Levin Hunting”, to the carefully weighed, short lines describing the microflora of an eyelash in “Animalcules”, to the frenetic shifting focus of “Black Cap Winter” (which describes lobsters, sunken ships, earthworms lost in the progress of glaciers to coal dust), and then back to the rolling gait of “Dear God – And When I Say God, I Mean The God” that elegantly dances through a snail “shitting on its own head,” to the “god of the conditional,” the “thick-kneed god,” to the “god who wears shoes big, who shambles—“. Sentences with burgeoning commas trip up the pace, or verbs that can be tied to more than one noun add a timorous ambiguity:

Feelers in lengthy syncopation, eyes

Deep occupied manholes.
Here one can live at any dark system’s edge—

Underwater canyons, sewers, storms, stars—
Know little about, and die of it, being old.
” (Black Cap Winter)

Turza’s collection plucks several themes like the strings of a lute: themes of god or gods, dust and its quiet, insects and the character Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but refuses to resolve itself to any finite relationship between them, resting instead on their dissonance. Its poems hold up the beauty of the unbeautiful and imperfect, make the familiar unfamiliar, and shift through almost as many voices as there are poems.

REVIEW and INTERVIEW: The Things I Heard About You

The Things I Heard About You
by Alex Leslie
Nightwood (2014)
Read by Fazeela Jiwa

The poems of The Things I Heard About You (2014)are arranged into four-part sequences that begin with an original and then shed words three times until only one phrase or one word remains. The constant presence of “smaller” at the end of each version continuously dares the author to distil words, and is influenced by John Thompson’s claim in Stilt Jack, “I know how small a poem can be.”

It would seem fitting to describe these iterations as Russian dolls, except that analogy implies that each version looks like the original, only smaller. Instead, Leslie’s distillation and rearrangement of the original words opens new worlds within the same story. Subsequent versions may be smaller but despite this, the startling re-combinations of words and phrases explore the creases of the first iteration.

“Pacific phone book” for example: the first piece in this sequence tells the story of a narrator flipping through a moist phone book to find someone they used to know, a cancer survivor who “decided to be positive and therefore became humourless.” The mood is heavy with some resentment at a friend who “fell away.” As the words shed, empathy emerges “I open the story at cancer… you left to maul wet loss. Therefore, place fell away.” The last and smallest version simplifies the narrator’s emotions; at the root of resentment there is only a stark desire for simple intimacy: “Dreamed you crossed and washed me.” In all of the poems in this book, the smaller lines delve into the deeper context of the story, and as Larissa Lai observes on the back cover, they often express the opposite of what is first presented. This technique highlights how much of any experience is always unsaid, but also how much can be said with just a few winnowed words.

The structure lends itself well to Leslie’s nostalgic content; many of the poems present memories or dreams that are similarly layered in structure. The narrator of “Everyone who sits up here is gay” analyzes graffiti on a wall while cutting class and smoking in the sun. The smaller versions then reveal thoughts on lust and gender, the more internal aspects of this teenage memory. Similarly, “Dump stories” remembers an enigmatic figure from the narrator’s past, “Dumpster diver, scrounger, hoarder, fairy-tale monster, the things I heard about you.” Shrinking, the words people used to describe the man fall away and the narrator questions, “how did you become scrap.” It ends with only one evocative image, “Thumbprint,” a detail that highlights the man’s humanity and identity amidst the assumptions that others heave upon him.

I read The Things I Heard About You differently each time, inspired to make my own reconfigurations of the words, like reading smallest to biggest or reading all the smallest versions together as one poem. No matter how readers engage with it, Leslie’s innovative form and imagery promises to stir.

Fazeela Jiwa had the opportunity to interview Alex Leslie about The Things I Heard About You. Here is what they discussed:

1) You say that your technique in The Things I Heard About You was influenced by John Thompson’s line in Stilt Jack, “I know how small a poem can be.” So, how small can a poem be? Is the one-word poem in the last version of “Dump stories” as small as it seems?

The pieces operate differently in relation to size/length. I was trying to work with the idea of distillation rather than erasure — so smaller can be bigger, in the sense that the piece’s root or core becomes more exposed. In some pieces, the words become increasingly abstract or oblique. For me, with my background as a fiction writer, there is this huge legacy of the idea of the “le mot juste,” which translates as “the right word” and comes from Flaubert — this idea that there is a right way to word things that will perfectly capture something. This is an idea and process I’ve struggled with in my writing, right from my first published stories. I wrote these pieces in part in resistance to that but, as things tend to go, really this
project drew me into exploring this even more, and now I’m working on a book of stories again. So it goes. The piece that concludes with the word “Thumbprint” is for me about the irreducibility of any human
being. The piece struggles with rumours, hearsay, shattered descriptions of a community outcast, and concludes with “Thumbprint.” The piece expands and contracts and finally expands to all the connotations and meanings held within one word.

2) What was the impetus to shed words and make your poem smaller? How did you choose which words to shed?

It’s interesting because I read a review in which the reviewer speculated that I purposefully made the first piece ornate in order to break it down — this reading had never occurred to me! In reality the first piece was written to evoke a particular photograph. These are all photographs I’ve taken over the last few years that contain stories for me. Of course while writing the initial pieces I knew that I would be going through this process, but I focused on bringing in all the associations, thoughts and colours I could, and there was no forward planning while writing each initial piece. I then went through a strict procedure where I wrote each piece in the sequence from the first piece. I say “strict” because in the first part of the process the words had to be in the same order as they were in the first piece — I conceived of this in a much more strict way than the end product…so it goes. These pieces sat around for a while and when I returned to them I edited for sound, rhythm and texture. I shifted words throughout the sections and played with punctuation to place sound-emphasis on different words (we read meaning through the sound in sentences…in this sense all written sentences are dialogue). This was an intuitive method and I can’t pin down a way I made “decisions” — many pieces surprised me in where they went. A few pieces told me where they needed to go right away. Some pieces were abandoned completely because the process didn’t work, even if the initial
section worked. When you edit your own work you really don’t know what you’ll find.

3) I visited the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last month and learned that he designed a program that would take his sentences, identify its parts, and then reconfigure them into new phrases and images. He described it as a way of reaching into his subconscious and having access to the wild images of the dreamscape “without doing the boring work of falling asleep.” I found your technique reminiscent of that – how did you react to the imagery that rearranging your own words created?

Yes, absolutely, I agree with this. I think that this is the greatest thing I’ve learned from experimental and process-based writing — you experience that you are absolutely not an individual separate from the generative processes of language. Your language will surprise you and teach you how you see and think. I don’t agree with Bowie’s statement about accessing the dreamscape because I believe that we are always dreaming on some level. Description is entirely subjective, emotional, contextual. Writing for me is a way to separate out the layers of experience and say “look at this!” I include memory — all forms of
memory, including sense memory — in this. When you take your own words as “given” and you work with them, you find out you are composed of many different things. And it never ends.

4) The graphics associated with the sequences are striking, how do they fit with your words?

Full credit goes to Carleton Wilson. He has done a lot of work with my publisher Nightwood and with my editor Silas White. Because my book is part of the experimental poetry imprint blewointment and so Silas asked Carleton to create images to accompany my pieces. I had the opportunity to work with Carleton on these images late in the process of creation and we collaborated on the concept of the cover, which I love. Everybody should check out Carleton’s website and hire him to design their books, he is just the best: http://www.booktypography.ca

5) The ocean is a recurring symbol in your work, a seemingly ambivalent one that is alternatingly alienating and comforting in its power. Why is the ocean important in your writing?

I now make the joke when I introduce my work that the saltwater has soaked into my brain. I grew up on the West coast, have lived on the coast (literally within walking/biking distance) my entire life. How does that not become a part of you? I am very struck when I travel somewhere landlocked that the ocean is not there, to my left, all the time. It’s simply a core part of my consciousness. It comes up in my writing all the time. Last year I biked several times a week to university and my route crossed two arms of the Fraser River and
followed the Pacific ocean all the way to university. I got to know the fog, tides and weather systems very well. I have probably breathed more rain than air in my life. I do believe in the power of the ocean and it is a force that I return to again and again in my writing. I try not to control my writing too much — if I’m going somewhere, I let myself go there. I go to the ocean again and again.

This summer I was very honoured to be invited to respond to the work of Chief Dan George by the Tsleil Waututh for their Salish Sea festival, which protests oil pipeline development in their territory and works to protect their waters. I wrote a poem for the festival and was glad to be invited by them to go on a canoe trip across the water to where the Kinder Morgan plant is and witness a ceremony. This experience really impressed on me the centrality of water in my life — also a good reminder that the land here is unceded, meaning that there were never any treaties or negotiations with the original Indigenous people here. You can read my poem from that event here: https://alexleslie.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/dear-rivers/

6) As a reader, I felt inspired by your reconfiguring and experimented with rearranging the sequences of your poems. I read some of them backwards, and I read all of the smallest together in their own sequence. What do you think of my experimentation?

Oh, I’d never thought of reading them laterally according to position in the sequence. I need to go try to do that. I have heard the suggestion of reading them from smallest to largest, just to see how that would be, but audiences seem to enjoy listening for the changes from biggest to smallest. I love the idea of reading them laterally. I’d be curious to hear about the results of that experiment. It’s interesting, because when a writer from the Rusty Toque spoke to me, she emphasized that the pieces really spoke to her as a sequence overall, that the book had an arc and emotional journey for her. I think that the fragmented and oblique nature of the work invites these cross-readings and more “wholistic” readings if I can use that term —
the pieces are presented as speaking to each other and so readers feel invited to join into the process and continue the process of meaning-making, which I love. You can read the Rusty Toque interview here: http://www.therustytoque.com/rusty-talk/alex-leslie-poet-fiction-writer.

REVIEW: Beginning with the Mirror

Beginning with the Mirror
by Peter Dubé,
Lethe Press (2014)
Reviewed by Su J. Sokol

Peter Dubé’s latest book is a layered, nuanced work that engages both the intellect and the heart. Beginning with the Mirror consists of ten short pieces, but calling the book a collection of stories seems too haphazard a way of describing how these interstitial tales of love and desire fit together. Although the book is not linear, there is a definite progression from the first piece to the last, a progression that is perceived before it is fully comprehended.

The title of each piece, with the exception of “Funnel Cloud,” is a single word. There is a simple beauty to this, although the words themselves—Blazon, Egress, Corvidae—hint at depth and complexity. Dubé delivers this promise of depth by weaving together layers of meaning within the stories. For instance, “Blazon” speaks of the destructive power of unfulfilled desire, with fire serving as metaphor. At the same time, “Blazon” is a story about metaphor. The challenge is to see how these concepts connect. Moreover, each story reveals additional complexities to Dubé’s vision, forcing earlier ideas to realign themselves to a new whole. Reading this book is much like watching a visual artist add layers of paint, transforming not only the finished piece, but what you thought you’d glimpsed earlier.

Fortunately, this is not a painful process with Dubé’s beautiful prose to enjoy:
The absence of the sound of metal is everywhere. (“Foliage”)
A tall palm takes all of his light, draping him in feathering shadow. (“Echo”);
I watched as my fear raced to meet my fascination.(“Corvidae”)

Dubé acquaints us with pain as well as beauty. “Needle,” the most gritty and realistic of the stories, communicates an anguish mixed with regret that stays with the reader long after the tale is told. Yet, it also makes us feel more alive. In “Corvidae,” one of my favourites, longing and sadness is tempered with the possibility of transcendence. “Egress,” which recalls a key scene in Dubé’s novel,The City’s Gates, is another favourite for its social action theme. It describes a discouraging social reality while pointing to the “egress”—the title thus aiding with interpretation.

Beginning with the Mirror may not be for everyone, particularly those who prefer simple narrative plots. Even such readers may find it hard to resist these stories of desire and crossing between worlds, ideas that are communicated not just in the plot but in the lusciousness of the language, the loving detail with which the scenes are drawn, and the surrealism that flashes across the pages.

Dubé’s book is also about life. It begins with tales of fire, water, air, and earth then laces these stories with concepts of nature, human creation and existential truth, the physical and the transcendent, life and death. Through all this, Dubé’s characters are faced with choices, the same choices we all face: Whether and how much to feel, to love, to communicate. Whether to act and in so doing, to live.

INTERVIEW: Marianne Apostolides, author of Sophrosyne

Interview of Marianne Apostolides, author of the novel Sophrosyne
Questions and introduction by Rick Meier

Marianne Apostolides’s beautifully unconventional new novel Sophrosyne (BookThug, 2014) follows Aleksandros (or Alex), a philosophy student writing his senior thesis on the Socratic virtue of sophrosyne — a Greek word for which there is no suitable English translation. Alex is a handsome youth: an accomplished athlete and a promising student (he is eventually nominated for a Fulbright grant); but his personal and intellectual endeavors remain haunted by the memory of his now-absent mother, the mysterious ‘you’ to whom the novel is addressed: a belly-dancer whose stage name is Sophrosyne.

While the initial pulse of the book is established by Alex’s need to understand his past, the second half is shaped by a new drive: Aleksandros’ burgeoning relationship with Meiko, a Japanese-American student he meets in an art gallery. Through this relationship, the novel breaks open. Alex’s self-enclosed thoughts are challenged by Meiko’s Eastern-influenced understanding of desire, vitality, and sophrosyne. Meiko’s perceptual framework quietly exists throughout the book through five works of calligraphy that precede several chapters. These works are not introduced; they simply appear in the book, silent and beautiful, urging readers to be patient — to wait for the meaning to be revealed.

Lyrical, darkly erotic, and bursting with ideas, Sophrosyne is a novel about the pursuit of wisdom itself, and the ways we reach out for understanding — motivated not always by an inborn love of truth, but by a need to exorcise dark memories and unspeakable longing.

I caught up with Marianne Apostolides on the eve of the Toronto launch of Sophrosyne to talk about some of the ideas behind the novel, the process of producing a fifth book, and her collaboration with painter/calligrapher Noriko Maeda.

I’ve heard Sophrosyne described as a “posthumanist novel.” Can you tell us a bit about how you first became interested in posthumanism, and how those ideas found their way into the book?

A friend of mine, who’s a curator of photography, first mentioned the theory to me while we took in a show at MoCCA. Photography is playing with the concept far more than fiction; even if photographers aren’t labeling their work ‘posthuman,’ the aesthetic/ ethic is moving away from postmodernism into a new perspective of the ‘human animal’ and our relationship to self, society, nature and the divine (however loosely defined). My friend suggested I read Donna Haraway’s recently-published book When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). From there, I began to read more; the theory allowed me to crystallize and comprehend some of the changes I’d already sensed within the art world — and within the ‘real’ world — namely: how do we define ourselves, as the human animal, in a world in which ‘God’ is absent, technology is omnipresent, and the global environment is in a state of collapse…. These are not the coordinates that gave rise to modernism/ postmodernism. Frankly, they’re not the coordinates that gave rise to humanism, either, with our sense that mankind is above all other beast — graced by God with a conscious mind, which allows us to manipulate/ replicate laws of nature.
I need to be clear, though: this book is not didactic or dry. Hardly… It’s actually an incredibly sensual exploration of a messed-up guy and his relationship to women — including his mother.
But, within those relationships, I’m also exploring the meaning of mankind in a ‘posthuman’ age. More specifically, I’m examining the interaction between our conscious mind and our physical appetites/ desires. Those explorations arise naturally in the novel, since Alex is an undergrad studying philosophy. Certain conversations flow smoothly into the realm of ides, especially as he talks with his thesis advisor — a guy who’s a bit of a prick, and whose dry sense of humour lends some lightness to the novel.
Oh, and then there’s the sex scene centered around Plato’s Phaedrus, and masturbation to The Iliad, and a conversation about posthumanism conducted with a dead woman. Stuff like that.

Do you have a least favourite English definition of sophrosyne? A least favourite?

I think ‘self-control’ and ‘temperance’ would be my least favourites: ‘self-control’ because it seems like a moralistic denial of all desire — as if desire were inherently wrong; and ‘temperance’ because it’s such an insipid word….
As for favourites: I like ‘self-restraint,’ because the word ‘restraint’ is inherently raunchy — containing the sense of seduction which sophrosyne must encompass. Sadly, ‘self-restraint’ isn’t a great definition because, in true sophrosyne, desire isn’t lashed as much as held within potency/ balance…. ‘Rightness of mind’ is the most literal translation of the Greek word, but then we arrive at the question: what is ‘mind’? It certainly isn’t cognition/ cogitation…. Sophrosyne shares a root with the words frantic, frenetic, and schizophrenic: these are what happens when the ‘mind’ is not in ‘rightness.’
Have you noticed I haven’t answered your question?
If you want a preferred translation, the one I like is ‘self-possession’: the self in possession of its self — as it relates to the body, to thought, to the external world and its own desire….

Can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to include calligraphy in the novel?

Sure. This novel is more concerned with language/ thought — in a physical, immediate sense — than it is with plot. As a result, the reader isn’t carried along on the surface of prose; instead, s/he’s brought inside a viscosity/ density/ weirdness….
Poetry can do that exceedingly well, but prose lacks the tools at poetry’s disposal. One of those ‘tools’ is the rupture of syntax. Well, I borrowed that technique, adapting it for the novel — mainly through my use of ‘and’ ‘but’ and ‘because’ at the start of sentences, leaving the reader to wonder where the referent of these words might be. This interruption of causality is essential to the book — and to the questions it wants to explore.

The second tool is what led me to calligraphy ….

Image of Emptiness (first image)

Poets engage in visual play, using the expanse of the page. If they want, they can surround the words by blankness, allowing the language to radiate/ reverberate/ ripple. Well, novelists don’t generally have that ability. We need to send forth a stream of words — tens of thousands of words relentlessly driven in straight lines across the page! Depending on what you’re doing with the form called ‘novel,’ that can be just fine. But in a novel like Sophrosyne — one in which the reader must ride atop this monstrous, living thing called language — the text must provide a way to extend the reader’s attentiveness across the words. Visual images allowed me to do that.
Although I knew I wanted to break up the text with images, I wasn’t sure what those images would be, or how they’d be integrated into the narrative (…not another facile imitation of W.G. Sebald, please…). After over a year of working on the novel, I finally discovered that Alex’s love interest was a Japanese woman named Meiko. Immediately, I knew she’d be a painter/ calligrapher; the visuals suddenly became organic to the story.

You write that Noriko’s calligraphy “became the axis around which [Sophrosyne] took form.” Can you tell us a bit more about that?

For over three years, I struggled with the structure of the book. I’d written many scenes between Alex and his mom, each of which portrayed the increasingly disturbing intensity of their relationship. The scenes had energy, but the book, as a whole, was dead — sealed inside this dark, erotic relationship. That sense of enclosure was exacerbated by the novel’s main constraint: namely, that text consists of Alex’s thoughts, as directed toward his mom. (I.e., the second person ‘you’ infuses the narrative.)
This constraint became a challenge for me, as a writer: how do I introduce a new character — giving her depth and pulse — without writing really bad, expository back-story. (…We’ve all seen those moments in Hollywood movies; you can almost hear the music swell….)
Anyway, the solution to this challenge was calligraphy….

Image of Dance (second image)

I soon realize I’d precede certain chapters with a calligraphic image, inserting the artwork before Meiko is introduced as a character. Without explanation, the reader is shown beautiful works of calligraphy. S/he needs to take these images as given, trusting that their significance will become apparent, in time. Only slowly do readers realize this artwork relates to Meiko; by then, they’ve already come to know this woman through the works she’s created.
When I toyed with that structure, the book became more balanced — not weighted so heavily toward Alex and his mom, or toward Greek philosophy/ thought. In other words, the visual language of Japanese calligraphy brought the book, as a whole, into tension with itself — not only the tension among the characters, but also among the various ways of perceiving the world.

You say that Noriko Maeda’s description of mu, 無— translated as ‘nothingness’ — gave you a new perspective on sophrosyne. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

After contacting Noriko Maeda — asking whether she’d be willing to include her work in my book — I was invited to her home. She said we could discuss the book; I could then explain, specifically, how her calligraphy was going to be incorporated.
The problem was: I didn’t have a clue how my (unruly) manuscript was going to use the works of a master calligrapher…. The book was still two years from being complete; its structure was still evading me. Or, to be more accurate, its lack of structure was mocking me…. This was a very dark time in the five-year process of writing this book….

Image of Nothingness #1 (3rd image)

And yet, I arrived at the home of Noriko Maeda, a world-renowned calligrapher. Somehow I had to take my place as an artist beside her. She made it easy for me; her artistic intelligence is sparkling and somewhat devilish…. Anyway, we shared a home-made lunch then got to work. I suggested several words that might be rendered as Japanese kanji/ calligraphy. Each word was taken from a fragment of Japanese philosophy — fragments which related to my all-too-vague sense of the concept sophrosyne.

Image of Nothingness #2 (4th image)

As I suggested English words to translate/ depict, Noriko would wave her hand, as if swatting away a mosquito. ‘No, no: that word isn’t alive. I can’t do anything with that word….’
Then I mentioned ‘nothingness’ — a prominent concept in Japanese philosophy. This got Noriko interested…. She showed me a series of paintings she’d completed several years before, all of the same kanji: mu, 無, ‘nothingness.’ These paintings were varied in tone, in colour, in smear, sensation…. I loved them, but ‘love’ is rarely the basis for the structure of a novel…. Then Noriko showed me the kanji ‘nothingness’ in its ancient script, before it evolved into the form it takes now. It appears as a pictograph of an old-fashioned scale — the kind in which two plates are suspended on either side of a central pole.

Image of Nothingness #3 (5th image)

This, Noriko said, is the original image of nothingness: not non-ness, but potency, balance — where all is held in abundant stillness….
Once I saw such a clear depiction of the concept, I sensed the ways in which ‘nothingness’ and ‘sophrosyne’ informed each other. They are not synonymous; instead, they are a dynamic coupling.

What, if anything, has publishing your fifth book taught you about writing?

1. Writing does not ever get easier…. And I mean ever.
2. Writing is not sane/ healthy.
3. Oddly linked with point #2: writing is a glorious way to structure a life….
4. BookThug is a welcome exception to a disturbing reality in the publishing industry: namely, that publishers usually buy a ‘product’ — i.e., a manuscript — rather than developing a relationship with an author, as BookThug has done with me…. The gruelling experience of writing this book exposed, at various points over the past five years, how utterly I rely on the trust/ respect that BookThug has given me. My writing can take substantive risks because of it; without it, my career, this book, and my life as a writer simply wouldn’t exist.

For more information about the painter/ calligrapher Noriko Maeda, please see her website: norikomaeda.com.