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.

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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.

REVIEW: Where Bears Roam The Streets

Where Bears Roam the Streets
by Jeff Parker
Harper Collins (2014)
Reviewed by Lizy Mostowski

Jeff Parker captures post-Soviet, pre-Sochi Olympics Russia through the lens of both an outsider and an insider—he is not Russian-born—Parker was raised in Florida—yet he isn’t the Western journalist who coined the hashtag #sochiproblems either. He began travelling with an international writing program—Summer Literary Seminars, founded by Concordia University Professor Mikhail Iossel—to St. Petersburg in 1998, and has had a taste for Russia ever since.

This book is the fruit of ten summers’ (and a couple of winters’) worth of travelling through Russia with his friend Igor, Where Bears Roam the Streets shows two perspectives on the same experience: Parker’s own American perspective as well as Igor’s Russian perspective. Parker’s lens transitions from that of an investigative reporter, to that of a tourist, and finally to that of a writer, all while giving readers simultaneously a tour of and a guide to Russia that is both humourous and practical, allowing for lighthearted yet weighty insights, for example the difference between how Russians and Americans use the metric system: “Russian bartenders measure alcohol in the units North Americans reserve for cocaine and saturated fat.”

In writing Where the Bears Roam the Streets: A Russia Journal, Jeff Parker himself inhabits a characteristic that he recognizes in his Russian friends—what he calls “the Duality”, or put simply, the tendency to contradict yourself—he is an insider to Western readers and an outsider to Russian readers—his take of Russia is at once honest and critical. First Parker calls Bruce Hopper’s accusation that Russians are “a contradictory animal” politically incorrect and soon echoes the idea: “Russians are known simultaneously for their great capacity for hospitality to strangers and for hard-core xenophobia.” His narrative voice is always aware of itself, unafraid to reveal the spaces where he is unable to guide his reader. “Much of this performance is either beyond my Russian or untranslatable”, Parker admits when transcribing a conversation. This model of duality is used to discuss various aspects of Russian society: “I do not know any poetry by heart, and I am an English professor,” the beauty of a Russian education is allowed to shine through when Parker notes that you cannot expect an American farmer to know Whitman, but can expect a Russian farmer to pick his favourite among the Russian greats. Though memorization is not acclaimed as the best method to teach literature, Parker still allows the old model a nostalgic place in his commentary. Concurrently, Parker critiques American society and culture while drawing a realistic portrait of contemporary Russia. Both his perspective and his character as it appears throughout the book have a certain contradictory quality: he admits to being perceived as a spy to some and to others a celebrity while travelling through Russia.

Though he is not perfectly fluent in Russian, he is mistaken for a Russian by fellow Americans visiting St. Petersburg for Summer Literary Seminars: “You hardly have an accent,” they told him. Parker admits to never having mastered the Russian slang called mat, however is proud of master speaking English with a Russian accent. Whether through meticulous research, experience, or personal knowledge, Parker is a perfect translator from his Russian experience to written English, explaining linguistic nuances in Russian language as well as he explains the politics of cultural rituals in Russia. He explains krolik is “domesticated rabbit, not hare” and diminutive forms mean not only that we are friends, but “My fish are cuter.” The physical and psychological benefits of the Russian banya—the steam room, the birch beatings, the cold bath—are recognized as well as humourized in the book, “There were Russian jokes during World War II suggesting that if they could only get Hitler into a banya, they could end the war.”

Russia is portrayed in a light that is neither condemning nor valourizing—the encounters with the types of cops my parents remember from Communist Poland, the beauty of the Eastern European belief that vodka cures everything, and the shadow that is domestic abuse are all equally explored with careful attention. Parker is able to smoothly transition between serious and whimsical aspects of contemporary Russian culture. His comments on Russian society are both overt and subtle: “The problem is people have nothing to live for,” he writes in his examination of Russian “democracy”. “I saw a theatre-beggar at the coat check retrieving a mink coat,” Parker notes of a beggar that spent his earnings on a theatre ticket. “Russians confuse power with sexiness,” Parker cleverly states, noting that the post-Soviet, pre-Putin desire to escape that resulted in the stereotype of the Russian mail-order bride diminished after Putin’s election along with the desire to escape Russia. This is the book that should have been (if only it came out a year earlier) on the required reading list of every Western reporter who travelled to Sochi to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the reporters who tweeted #sochiproblems had read of Igor’s experience staying in a hotel in Britain, I doubt that we would have so many photos of Russian bathrooms with sarcastic taglines archived on the internet. Igor’s reaction to Western luxury would allow Westerners a new perspective: “‘Everyday, we were sitting and wondering why she is giving us every day two rolls,’ Igor says. ‘Like we were shitting all day.’” The culture shock that Igor experienced is well conveyed by Parker: “Did the cleaning lady imagine Russian men like them went through two rolls of toilet paper per day? Was it some kind of insult?” Through Igor and his experience, Parker is able to tell Russia’s truth that some of these journalists were not able to perforate. Cultural symbols and phenomena that seem familiar to a Western audience are translated to the reader to a Russian perspective: “McDonald’s is popular here because of its bathroom,” Igor tells Parker, “People all over the city go there to pee.” Where the Bears Roam the Streets allows Western readers to read Russian society through a lens that is neither entirely foreign nor entirely familiar to them, allowing them to experience Russia without the pretention of Western expectation.

REVIEW: The Geography of Pluto

The Geography of Pluto
By Christopher DiRaddo
Cormorant Books (2014)

Read by Su J. Sokol

The surface terrain of The Geography of Pluto, Christopher DiRaddo’s debut novel, is a deceptively familiar landscape. Will, the main character, is gay, Italian, a geography teacher, and the only son of a devoted mother. He seeks connection in his life, suffers loss, and gains understanding of himself and the world. We even have a kind of “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy” plot device.

Yet, despite these ordinary trappings, this is not your run-of-the mill novel. It’s the story of a gay man growing into middle adulthood in a very particular place — Montréal. DiRaddo writes about Montréal as though it were a character in the story, bringing it to life even for readers who aren’t familiar with the bars and stretches of sidewalk that his characters inhabit. The tone DiRaddo evokes is unmistakably Canadian, with long, cold winters and drawn-out moments of darkness and light. Even Will’s pet peeve — people who air their dirty laundry in public places — exhibits a very Canadian sensibility.

What is also noteworthy about this novel is its versatility. It can be categorized as an urban story, as gay literature, or as a mainstream Canadian novel, equally comfortable on any of those shelves. This is a neat trick. In this niche world, it’s easy for books that try to be many things to end up falling through the cracks. Somehow, DiRaddo has not only managed to avoid this hazard, he’s done the opposite by creating bridges. Because of this,The Geography of Pluto has helped to bring gay literature into the Canadian mainstream. It is able to do this precisely because the story is written in an ordinary literary style about an ordinary person facing challenges that are also, by and large, ordinary, no less so for the fact that they are difficult and poignant. At the same time, DiRaddo has succeeded in mainstreaming this story without sanitizing or heteronormalizing his characters’ lives.

The title of DiRaddo’s book — The Geography of Pluto — brings to mind that popular-culture bestseller of the nineties: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Are gay men from Pluto or are we simply “all one race, the human race”, as the popular aphorism would have it? The beauty of this book is that it helps to answer that question in all its complexity with a resounding “both.” Will’s story is universal, and the ordinary way in which it is told emphasizes this universality while making it accessible to a large constellation of readers. Yet, the content of Will’s story diverges from the usual narratives found in the majority literary culture. For some, this will be a sneak peak into an alien world; for others it will feel like their story has finally been brought from the margins to the centre. In the end, whether the reader is familiar with the geography of Pluto or whether this is a first visit to foreign territory, it will still be a voyage well worth taking.

REVIEW: The Uncertainty Principle

The Uncertainty Principle
by Roxanna Bennett
Tightrope Books (2014)

Read by Julie Mannell

Roxanna Bennett’s debut poetry collection The Uncertainty Principle is a solitary basket of trinkets and memory souvenirs exposed through solemn confession—inviting you to participate in its unrealized possibilities, the magnetic imagining of a mystical mind.

The confession and fantasy starts with a poem that pays homage to the father of confession, Leonard Cohen, but the voice is not Cohen’s; this is not Cohen’s longing. There are portraits of men and it is not difficult to perceive the voice behind the words sitting alone at a bar, looking at strangers, and constructing elaborate fables of potential romance, adventure, and some kind of actualization of the wholeness the voice so unabashedly yearns for.

While the poems possess both whimsy in their fantasy and frank bodily imagery of gorged aortas, fresh organs, and shocks of skin, it rests in the emotional displacement of the present. I don’t believe this is an accident on the part of the writer, it gives the text room to conceive and reflect, that intense space of breathing, turning inwards in awareness of that breath and how it has rhythmically kept time in conjunction with past feelings, both positive and negative, while allowing for a possible reconstitution of breath in the many futures yet unrealized.

Some of the poems are cautionary. The voice does not want to present fantasy and carelessly throw you to the wind. It wants you to be aware, ever aware, of the dangers of possibility, while it urges you to move forward through the reflections and into the explosive and often catastrophic maw of time.

This is the voice of a person who does not just examine ash or reflect on its divination, but, with childlike curiosity, “slips from slaughter’s nest [and] follow[s] the trail of ashes” (21) to an elusive endpoint she simply calls “home” (21). When the narrative occupies the body of “every cum covered porn star you’ve ever jacked off to,” (25) she is still looking beyond the present into future possibilities which roar forward through adamant instruction and unabashed demand: “subdue your hunger, eat the rage you carry” (27).

This is as much a book of desire as it is a tale of warning. Perhaps the sentiments that carry throughout each poem are best articulated in the opening line to the poem Inamorata: “If it’s love you covet don’t forget what you paid for” (29).

Take Bennett’s box of people, in it there is a universality to the specificity, bad boyfriends and good boyfriends, mental and physical illness, mothers and fathers—both dead and alive, both good and bad—grandparents, births of children, children growing, pets…also both dead and alive. Take the box of souvenirs and sympathize with the millions of homes the voice enters, occupies, and leaves. Then sit at a bar, order yourself a drink, talk to a stranger, and, cautiously, hope for the best.

Bitches Be Crazy

Bitches Be Crazy by Chandra Mayor

“Bitches be crazy,” the butch says, shaking
her head. Her grey tie is tight around her neck
like her own fingers pressing greedily into
the windpipe of the Hot Nurse just before
she comes. This butch is made of Lego,
her shoulders stiff, neatly snapped
into place each morning. She is always
rehearsing for the longed-for camera,
the good dyke porn. She imagines
she is turning her head to attend to the tight
body of the hired redhead, the one who is rumoured
to smell like candy; her whole body will pivot
at the waist. Her nails trimmed, her small
fingers pointed and melded together like GI Joe
in the basement, her arm will piston at the shoulder.
She is a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot with a secret
lever in the small of her back. In her head she counts:
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
She reminds herself: “I am fucking the shit out
of her,” and the sound of her own voice excites
her, makes her hard.

Now she leans forward on the couch to take
another hit off the bong, slippery smoke and thick
glass hard against her lips. In her mind she is sorting
and stroking her dildos: the dolphin, the rabbit,
the buzzing nest of bullets and batteries. The thick
black cock with corded veins for the Yoga Teacher
when she bends her hard over the ledge of bed.
The world is best when bisected, sorted
into two tidy bins with fitted lids:
The girls who want her cock.
The bros who do not.

There are other creatures who come
to her in nightmares, women who fuck
themselves gorgeously with their own messy
hands. They open their mouths wide and grunt.
There are no pretty, breathy moans.
They are laughing at her. They are slick
and glistening wetly with sweat like enormous
slugs, sucking and smacking, rubbing each
other urgently. In the nightmare, this butch
is a tiny red speck of ant, her tie is a taut leash
and her insect fingers scrabble uselessly at the knot.
All their cunts are cavernous maws, undulating,
inescapable, and slap down onto her face. She can’t
breathe, she panics and she cries. She is drowning
in salt and mucus, the muscles of her sleeping thighs
clamped together until they ache and seize.

Back on the couch in her apartment with her bros,
she knows she is not asleep now. She knows
it is the smoke that has blurred her precise
edges, smudged the clean gaze of the camera,
accelerated her pulse until it races. It sounds
like a hockey card smacking the spinning spokes
of a BMX. She thinks of the girl with long hair and
tattoos, the one who left a red handprint
on the butch’s smooth egg face when she slapped
her at the bar. The butch took a picture of her
red check with her phone, shows it now
to everyone in the room. “I’m taking out
a protective order against that crazy bitch,”
she says. “I don’t know what she’ll do next.
What if she burns down my apartment?
What if she’s waiting for me tonight, outside
my door, with a fucking bat?” The friends
nod; they are stoned and they don’t really care.
The butch feels her cheeks flush, and she is angry.
The sting, the speed, the surety of that flat-handed
slap; the dark room of witnesses, whispering; the girl
laughing. Someone has to teach her a lesson, tie
her burning hands behind her back, seal up all
her duplicitous mouths. The butch smiles, tucks
her shirt a little tighter under her belt.
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4