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.

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: 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

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.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Can Lit

Rachel Rose
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Can Lit
                                                                                   for the pack
Let’s say it, then. Let’s make it explicit. Let’s lick the clit of it. Let’s fornicate it.
The way you fuck and the way you write are exactly the same. Isn’t it a relief to have it out in the air? Not a metaphor, but a critical difference, a preference, not a simile but a simulation, a seduction of the ideal reader with a piece about some pieces.
and some of us fake it
and get away with it
and some of us are very quiet
and regret it
and most of us are insecure about it
and some of us do it in public
and some of us are very private
and some of like to experiment
and most of us do it the same way over and over
and some of us like it rough
and some like to blog about it
and for some it’s just a way to pay the bills
and most of us would rather do it
than write about those that do it,
would rather read it than read about those who’ve read it.
Some of us make love and some of us get screwed
and some of us praise too highly the body of the beloved
overlooking the flaws, because they wish to so be praised,
they wish when their time comes, to be sung into the great book.

Let us presume that she can,
that she is capable of strapping it on
and giving as good as she gets
planting her steel-toed boots
taking her place with the Classicists, the Greeks,
the Romantics, the Beats
in any circle jerk. But there’s the rub:
she doesn’t want to.

I caught this poem like a cold, a virus from a computer, it brewed and festered for a decade, then burst its blister.

Let us presume that we have named the problem, that the bitch pack has been brought to heel. Hounds will now speak like humans. Speak!

When you broke my book in public, don’t tell me it didn’t titillate. You wouldn’t meet my eye first time we met, the night before your review came out. I held out my hand and you looked at it like a dead bird. Let me refresh: “lesbian love poems/ gushy/ unsubtle/indulges in heavy-petting/forced effusion/lacking adrenalin/sex seeming forced/ crude/overreacting/oversweet/vanity rather than negligence/I myself would rather see a little less gorging on emotion and a little more chaste, unself-centred and memorable artistry.”

Admit it. You gorged. You effused. What a flood of adrenalin! It made you hot to write. I carried that shrapnel for years, under the skin. Never mind. It worked its way out tonight.

But to say you want it chaste is a lie.

To say it didn’t turn you on, slipping it to me like that, twisting the text to suit your fantasy, is a lie. I confess, I’m aroused now, warmed by our exchange, though the only transgression I’ve performed is to repeat your words back to you.

No critic in the great white north has ever told a male writer to stop indulging in verbal heavy-petting.

O my enemy. Do I nullify? Do I gush? Do you wish me sanitized? What chaste verse will you canonize, Patron Saint of Lost Causes? O my frenemy. Do I invaginate? It’s me, Hound, come to sniff your private cracks again.

What kind of Pussy Riot is this? Let’s not skirt the issue any more. Let’s not beat around the bush.

But the question must be asked, the essential question: how, when we published first books only a year apart, when you came out swinging, did you know that you would be gatekeeper?

And why did I choose the gauze of silence?

Honestly, I couldn’t be fucked.

What kind of answer is that?

I was never so cocksure.

I didn’t call myself an expert.

I wanted to be kind.
That position doesn’t stimulate.

And there was the baby, that turning in and in, that birth the year my book came out, that push into motherhood, which is another name for silence. Suddenly I was dragging the meat home, scruffing the cubs, hackles always rising, always on alert, never looking up from the den.

I can do it if I plug my nose and swallow because it’s good for me. I can do it if I lie on my back and think of tenure.

I can do it as a means to an end, but would always rather not.

Are you feeling chased now? By the pack? O fuck.

What do you believe, lover? What sensibility do you bring to the Canadian bed? So grow some stones already. Grow a pair of scruples.

Not the teeth of your tool, but the depths of your soul. The exchange of thoughts in pursuit of mutual pleasure; a critical reading that allows one door to open to another, where both are changed by the dance. Let’s have a juxtaposition of ideas, where metaphor asks so much of you that you are shattered making the leap. Like chastity belt and wolf pelt. Like apples and truth, honeycomb and song, the spine of a wave and the bones of a building where a coyote hunts city rats. Like pack and promise. Because chaste makes waste in the end. Because a kill by any other name still smells like meat.
“The dogs lick their way up the ditch” howling daintily. The dogs lick their way up the devious crotch. The dogs struggle their way up the critic’s uncomfortable haunch.

She gushed her maddened lust over the lettuce.

Do I have to chew this meat for you, too? Stroke my throat, I’ll cough it into your mouth, pre-digested so you can grow up big and strong and wise.

I took my pet lesbian to Lake Wobegone so she could rest in the rarefied air. Because once you’ve fucked every gender, you never judge a person by her member. Because those who have something to prove make lousy lovers.

Sir! There’s a trick with my sheath I’ve been learning to do. I can peel a banana, flip a coin: heads you lose, tails I win. There’s a trick with a hook I’ve been meaning to prove. Lend me your eye, citizen!

Methinks the Lady doth gush too much. Is she chaste? Does she protest?

Be still, my twat.

Listen, I’m serene; some of my best fucks are women.

“Drink piss,” dyke. “Citric bitch is dripping gism.”

What do you believe? Do you write crit to show how thick? Can you make a mistake and admit it? And if you fumble in bed or on the page, do you punch the wall, do you deny the girl, do you rage?

Try, perhaps, being vulnerable.

Do I dare step into the breach?

I hear the critics howling
each to each. I do not think that they
will sleep with me.

In short, I was afraid. That is not what I meant, at all.

I ate a tome of silence instead. My ideal reader closed her eyes. She would rather suck at the wrong book then stare at the train wreck, the glorified gore. Yawn.
What wry friction. How small the bowl, how small your heart. No wonder she turns away, half embarrassed, half depressed at that quick sucker punch, flash of wit. Is that all she can expect?

Chaste not, wanton not. What literal heavy-petting have I caught you at? Zip it.

Do I fuckify?

I am a poor white cunt who never got more than a crust of literary recognition. I graduated in Victim Studies with a minor in Abuse Memes. My role models are
the Matchstick Girl, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, all dead pale maidens. I read Our Clitics, Ourselves, Our Bodies, Our Shells, Our Poems, Your Hells.

It is all I can do to write about myself; I can’t speak for anyone else.

My role model is Snow White, who has no opinion. She’s choked by that poisoned bite. My role model is snow, that Great Canadian Hush of things not to be said. White, frigid, silent: unique only microscopically.

I see no colour or gender or difference of any kind. I am Snow Blind. Rose Dead.

O I am young & chaste & undeflowered. Empower me, please.

When I panic I gush panties O so chastely. I count genders, it soothes me, and when I’ve counted I have a nice cup of tea. Because what is chick lit to dick crit after all. Am I caustic? Am I citric? Do I shrink it?

We’ll not have any loose canon here. We’ll teach no women here. “If you want women go down the hall/What I teach is guys/Serious heterosexual guys/ I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love/Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”

You only teach texts you love and those you love are exactly like you.
You love the serious heterosexual guy you’d go fishing with. Because women can’t be men and Chinese can’t be guys and homosexuals can’t be the best and you only teach the best. It’s a math proof and the answer equals you. Because it’s all about love, true love, those whom you truly, truly love.

Isn’t that unfortunate? Isn’t that serious? Because the best by any other name is still you, squared.

Shall I quantify? Shall I cuntify? O you pricked my fine finger. It seems I woke from thick slumber with a broken rosebud but still I insist on an essentially level playing field with each of my three wishes: assistant, associate, professor. Look: I fucked the beast and lost my beauty. See how brave? I could almost be mistaken for a hero. Whine.

Call me Hansel’s sister, Hetero.

Must I prove it? I followed that trail of crumbs down the hall. I opened the door of the forbidden room. I lay down in bears’ beds, I civilized beasts, I kissed the steam from porridge, I spoke the tongue of my fatherland until I gained a working knowledge, I walked on knives, I paid to have my tongue cut out, all for love.

Exactly the same, writing and loving. Which is both a relief and a source of anxiety, depending. I’m sorry I faked it. Too bad I was such a tentative lay. Sorry I didn’t swallow. Sorry this poem won’t leave me alone. Such a sticky, uncomfortable feeling, like an unexpected period, you know? Like coming in your pants in line at a book signing. Tonight I can’t sleep. I’ve had to pull over three times just to take dictation from my muse, I’m so hot and bothered by this ideology.

Exactly the same.

Hey, critic, just who are you trying to get off here?

Too bad your groping is adolescent. So sad our rage is incandescent.

Really it’s just the rock bands every writer wants to be in: The Narcissists, The Didactics, The Lazy Bastards.

“The only animal that takes off its clothes and reports to the mirror” took off its clothes and sniffed the air, pregnant with the scent of blood and snow. The only animal that writes literary criticism opened its legs. The only animal that provides its young with summer camp put down its mirror and reported to the ethics committee.

Hey, I’m just a misunderstood pundit surrounded by a pack of bitches who lick below the belt. If we could barbecue something together I’m sure we could find common ground. If you could pour a sense of humor I’d clink with you because who wants to be misquoted when all I really love is the written word and everything I do, I do for love. Let’s settle this once and for all with artisanal beer.

How do you do it, then: make love to the language? When you touch the alphabet, when you disrobe the vowels, when you arrange the letters, bend or break the line,
when you rune the incantation, tell me, what faith animates?

“The art of losing’s not too hard to master.
Though it may look like (write it!) like disaster.”

Thanks for criticizing it to make it neuter. Because what doesn’t kill it makes it stronger.

The art of fucking isn’t hard to master.

“Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them,” said Rilke.

Only love. So critic: be useful. Touch the body of work with sure but careful hands. If the body of work is unlike your own, be less sure and more careful.

And what if we empower old women instead? Post-menopausal, overfed, well-read, opinionated. Becoming unattractive and therefore unafraid.

What if we hold open the door and step out of the way? Mentor ourselves as we wish we’d been mentored, then pass it on? What if there’s a flowering of deep listening? What if the body of literature down the hall is so much greater than you ever imagined?

What if there’s a canon of chaste men? What if there’s a pack of fierce bitches charging under a critical moon?

Hey there, great empowerer, gentle flamethrower! Seriously, dude: try again.
As what kind of lover will I be remembered?

As what kind of lover will you be remembered?

With reference/borrowed lines from T.S. Eliot, “Prufrock,”
Franz Wright, “The Only Animal,”
Elizabeth Bishop “The Art of Losing”
Carmine Starnino, The Montreal Gazette, May 13, 2000.
Zachariah Wells “Citric Bitch’s Thinking is Shit.”
David Gillmour “On Building Strong Stomachs” Hazlitt/Random House.
Michael Ondaatje “There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning to Do” and “the linguistic war between men and women.”
Margaret Atwood “You Fit Into Me.”
Plath, “Lady Lazarus.”
Stein, “A Rose By Any Other Name.”

REVIEW: Chris Eaton, a Biography

Chris Eaton, a Biography
By Chris Eaton
BookThug (2013)

Read by Caitlin Stall-Paquet

Chris Eaton, a Biography, is not that. Just below this title appear the words ‘A Novel by Chris Eaton’. This juxtaposition reveals much about the book right off the bat. Its blurb divulges some of the inspiration for the book: that is, mainly, the question “What happens when we Google ourselves?” Chris Eaton, a Biography is an attempt to answer this question through an endless-seeming thread of stories and pieces of lives. It might be a biography after all. The thing is just that it’s fiction.

On the first page, a vague narrator tells us about one Chris Eaton amongst many others, about his family and its men that went to war “And oh, how they died!” That sentence not only hooks from the start, but also sums up the book. We are invited to episodically follow various ridiculously extravagant and eccentric people or boring, vain and selfish ones throughout their lives that, big surprise, end in death. But that exclamation point also forewarns as to the incredible humour with which this often sincere and painful book is carried out.

As might be expected due to its vague subject matter, this novel is a cornucopia of anecdotes, adventures, comedies, tragedies and facts both true and completely made up, but all very real within the world of the story. Eaton has an amazing way of telling the reader that he is lying by weaving myth into reality quite obviously and successfully. One of the characters who has lived underground his whole life tells us that he does not know if he is under “New York, or Arkansas, or Colorado, or Atlantis” or even is this dimension. Eaton places mythical mysteries along the same lines as things (and locations) we accept as self-evident truths, throwing his hoard of Chris Eatons into the mix, while retaining perfect tone and wit. The result is an addictive, often insane and incredibly creative version of the world that could very well be true, but for some reason isn’t quite.

There is much about Eaton’s writing that ties its ambitions to the great authors who have had fascinations with “everything,” be it David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov or Roberto Bolaño. There is a similar passion and obsessiveness in Eaton’s writing. Regrettably, however, Eaton tends to lapse out of the narration’s thread and too explicitly defines the story’s themes through direct address. Eaton needs to trust his reader in these moments rather than directing a giant figure to “the point.” It’s a shame, but only a small one because even at those moments, the writing is smart and engaging and makes the reader want to search for the clues that tie all of the threads together. Ultimately, Eaton’s book has probably sent many readers back to the great question engine of our era, the true hub of fact and fiction: Google.

REVIEW: The Devil and the Detective

The Devil and the Detective
By John Goldbach
Coach House Books (2013)

Read by Tom Burke

John Goldbach’s debut novel, The Devil and the Detective, cannot easily be folded into one genre. It’s a detective novel at its core, yes, but it’s not an iconic Raymond Chandler detective story. It’s not really in the vein of an offbeat Jonathan Ames caper, either. It’s noir, yes, but, as Padgett Powell’s dust jacket blurb purports, “it’s noirtire, or satoir.”

The story begins with a straightforward detective novel-punch. “Robert. Bob. Bob James. The Detective,” a.k.a., our whiskey-pickled protagonist narrator, receives a phone call in the middle of the night. There’s been a murder. James’ newest client, Elaine Andrews, exclaims, “Gerald has been stabbed in the chest!”

Cue the bullheaded, contemplative gumshoe who accepts the gig with little to go on, other than his own chronic fatigue and high-octane head fog. But don’t let the ham-handed actions of the protagonist be confused with the sharpness of his narration. Goldbach’s writing is tight and aware throughout.

The plot takes interesting turns—deceit, corruption, brutality, sex, etc. But the book isn’t just plot-driven; Goldbach’s exploration of the human condition takes interesting turns as well—love, loss, lust, friendship, aloneness, etc. Indeed, there is a curious thrust of emotion that fuels the novel’s urgency, and it does so in subtle, highly effective ways. Desperation is a key theme of the book—a detective’s desperation, a seductress’s desperation, life and death desperation, and, more to the point, how desperation motivates and modifies human behavior.

Goldbach bends heavily towards philosophical inquiry. But instead of weighing down the narrative, he provides relatively bite-sized philosophical tidbits within the text. This kind of philosophical discourse is sometimes delivered via the narrator’s internalizations, but the bulk of the rumination appears in dialogue between the detective and his trusty flower-delivery-boy-sidekick, Darren. Darren—a young dude with an old hatchback—may not be the first character one would expect to engage in any sort of philosophical conversation, but Goldbach makes it work.

The sum total of this story’s detective-narrator’s philosophical contemplation of existence and morality has weight. Bob James is a bona fide loner, but in the end, his empathy outweighs all else. Smart twists in the story require the detective to exercise his resolve—to not only make decisions, but to act on them, too.

Like the empathetic loner Bob James, The Devil and the Detective is a book that treats its readers very well. The novella-type length feels right for this story. It’s highly engaging and moves quickly; I read it in one sitting. The prose is ultra clean. Its ideas may appear simple on the page, but they’re actually quite dense. Plus, the book is funny, smart-funny, great-funny, it’s its own kind of funny, like jokes about Rick James and Magnum P.I., and a drunk’s irresistible compulsion towards ice water to combat his hangovers.

REVIEW: Bone and Bread

Bone and Bread

By Saleema Nawaz
House of Anansi (2013)

Read by Fazeela Jiwa

Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel, Bone and Bread, explores the “deep trenches” of familial bonds. Sisters Beena and Sadhana are orphaned early in their lives; their father dies of a heart attack in his Montreal bagel shop and, years later, their mother chokes on a meal prepared for her by her daughters. This trauma manifests itself throughout the lives of both sisters in opposing but intertwined ways.
The novel opens with a contemporary tragedy: it’s been six months since Sadhana died suddenly in her Montreal apartment. At this time, Beena and her 18-year-old son, Quinn, live in Ottawa, avoiding each other in silent guilt.

Nawaz contextualizes Sadhana’s death by revealing, little by little, the chronology of Beena’s life, and every memory revealed contours Beena’s present-day narrative. Movement between time periods occurs without warning, as Beena’s past is intricately connected to her present. Nawaz repeats the spaces of the past in the present; the bagel shop, the apartment above it, and the streets of the Mile End are common settings throughout.

In the tangled web of Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, feelings of intense closeness and frigid separation exist simultaneously. Nawaz captures the complexity of blood bonds as the fundamental tension between intimacy and distance, and her tale is littered with examples. For instance, Beena and Sadhana’s menstrual cycles are synced. As teenagers, they stop bleeding at the same time, but for vastly different reasons: Beena has become pregnant at 16 after a tryst with one of the “bagel boys” from Uncle’s shop, while Sadhana battles her first round with anorexia. In the same hospital that night, they are separated by their conditions: one nears death as the other gives life.

Later, the sisters and Quinn move into their own tiny apartment. Here, their physical proximity is countered with emotional distance, a chasm created by “Mama’s absence” combined with secrets and lies. Beena muses, “Maybe too much closeness keeps people apart…Self-preservation.” This is Nawaz’s culminating analysis of the blood bond: bound by histories of death and illness that no outsider can comprehend, the sisters use silence to build walls and define their identities.

Bone and Bread is a deeply interior novel. Despite Nawaz’s eloquent descriptions of Beena’s existential crises, Beena’s dialogue is benign and sparse throughout the book, giving the impression that much is left un-communicated. The heavy silences that pervade muffle what little is communicated, resulting in misunderstanding and obfuscation.

Though at times relieving, silence is never the resolution. If the noise represents the weight of everything unspoken in Beena’s life, then her relief is fleeting because it is fabricated—in her life, silence becomes just as jarring as noise. In this novel full of mis(sed)communication, Nawaz infuses the act of dialogue with healing. The end of the novel hints at a more communicative future. In the character of Quinn, who “thinks he can get to the bottom of everything if we just keep everything if we just keep talking,” Nawaz imbues hope.

REVIEW: The Politics of Knives

The Politics of Knives

By Jonathan Ball
Coach House Books (2012)

Read by Katherine Sehl

Jonathan Ball’s oeuvre is quickly subsuming every form of art, his previous poetry collection, Clockfire (2010), having explored the violence of theatre and in Ex Machina (2009)—a book about books. The Politics of Knives chooses film as its medium of focus and as with his previous publications, Ball interrogates the medium by bringing its mechanics under scrutiny and exploring the ways in which it enacts violence through its mode of communication.

The conceptual framework behind the book and much of his other work is in part Ball’s extension of a meditation Žižek puts forth in his book Violence: “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” As Ball explains in an interview with Open Book Toronto, “I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative.” For Ball, there is a parallel to be drawn between the way language and narrative are elicited for the same purpose as violence: to impose an order on things.

The project behind The Politics of Knives, then, is twofold: to poetically examine the violence of cinematic narrative while remaining conscious of the capacity language has for violence in doing so. As a result, language becomes slippery and ruptured. Near-narratives either falter and break off or linger edgily on syntactical ambiguity and the poetic line cuts sharply, like a knife.

This process is most evident in the poem “Psycho” which rather evidently, is a poetic “re-watching” of Hitchcock’s classic horror film. Much like the steady lens of a camera, the poem presents images intended to educe setting and possibly tone: “Water falls thrumming, hard on motel. Vacancy wet, / mother in window” (39).

As Norman Bates (the soon-to-be-knife wielder) looks on through a peephole into Marion’s room, the reader and riled poetic narrator are forced into complicity, “in holes place our eyes”… “watching as he watches” (43). When the poem reaches the dramatic murder scene, although the camera’s passive gaze is still coldly persistent, the reader/watcher has transgressed from merely watching to violently entering the narrative, conflated with the scene’s murderer: “She’s dead while the camera / keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean” (45).

All of the collection’s poems are connected by themes of violence, but they range in form, voice, and content. The titular piece of the collection enacts a violence of censorship, appearing as if some government agency used black censor bars to occlude portions of the poetic text. “K. Enters the Castle” following Kafka’s The Castle, imagines K. entering the Castle by becoming a camera.

As with all of Ball’s books, The Politics of Knives was released under Creative Commons license, with remixes allowed and encouraged—an appropriate gesture that enables Ball’s readers to brandish their own knives on his text.

REVIEW: 1996

By Sara Peters
House of Anansi (2013)

Read by Sarah Burgoyne

“From the beginning / you should know I’m embellishing / but was I ever twelve?” –Sara Peters’ 1996.

The violent pinks and blues in cascading chevrons on the front cover of Sara Peters’ debut collection, 1996, is the reader’s first clue that these poems are not afraid to be in your face. What is striking about Peters’ debut collection is her ability to marry the childlike and the sinister. Peters’ poetry shifts the gaze from the luminous kitchen of traditional childhood poetry to the ragged screen door against which June bugs slam like dark and threatening secrets. Realities of vulnerability, beauty and cruelty are brought to a child’s eye-level, in which the reader is simultaneously on the “brink” of everything and has already gone too far.

Peters presents us with traditional-looking lyrics cranked to scalding at points where two sisters practice for their “future rapes,” and the mother of Jérémy Bastien (a four year-old beaten to death in Montreal in 2008) dresses him in long sleeves to hide his wounds, turning the radio on full-blast. The poet lets night enter her poetry, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Bishop (like Peters, a child of Nova Scotia) and Frank Bidart whose poem “Ellen West” one cannot help but think of when reading Peters’ “Mary Ellen Spook”, which is based on the life of 67-times exorcised Anneliese Michel. Peters’ poetry aligns itself with Bishop’s in its miniaturist’s attention to detail; each image is as meticulous as the lettuce which in “I Understood Our Time Was Running Out” is chosen “carefully / as a ball gown, comparing ruffles.” The precision and simplicity of Peters’ writing leaves no room for affectation, making the poems refreshingly insightful and new, bringing to light that second (yes, there is one) when “the sparkling water goes still.”

1996 creates a new symbolic language for thinking about childhood. The “X’s” that remain on the child’s calves after the ballet laces are taken off, the sunburn in the part of a young girl’s hair, and the seabound doll torso “armless legless sucked and beaten clean” function as name tags. What’s more is there is no surprise or naiveté in the voice of Peters’ speakers, giving the poems a certain agelessness that echoes the line from “Mary Ellen Spook”: “and always / these questions.” The undomestication at work in 1996 is enough to cause any reader to rethink a purely optimistic aestheticization of childhood. The questions 1996 confronts us with are tragic, volatile, and utterly important.

1996 takes Canadian poetry off the beaten track, running it hotter than we can stand. Childhood sheds its pretty scales to reveal bones as sharp as needles. As a new voice, Sara Peters is refreshing, brave and profound. She pulls us through the familiar field but does not lead us to a magical grove or secret wardrobe, but rather to a house “burning unattended in the dark.”