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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.

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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

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.”