Monday, January 15, 2007

Robert Bringhurst's The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks
Vocation means, of course, a call. Diplomas are written, vocations are spoken. To find a vocation means to be summoned: called to exceed your qualifications, whatever they may be; called to explore and to fulfill your capabilities. Those who have vocations inhabit a world where doing and being are one and the same because continuous learning unites them. I have learned, as a frequent visitor to universities, that the university itself is often such a world, for its students as much as for its faculty—and that one of the greater challenges of life in North America today is not so much to find as to maintain one's vocation after leaving university. ("The Vocation of Being," pp 47-48)
Much like the work of prairie poet Tim Lilburn, I find the essays by British Columbia poet and thinker Robert Bringhurst far more compelling than his work as a poet; not to say that he isn’t an accomplished poet, he has published numerous works as both poet and translator of poetry, including The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1987), Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music (1987), and a translation of Ghandl's Nine Visits to the Mythworld, which was nominated for the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001. As well, for years a book designer, including many McClelland & Stewart titles over the years, his book The Elements of Typographic Style is said to be one of the most influential texts on typographic design (I know for a fact that greenboathouse books editor/publisher Jason Dewinetz considers the book to be essential to the point of Biblical). I haven’t seen that book, but where I am completely taken with the words and ideas of Robert Bringhurst is in his most recent book, The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2006).

In a series of essays originally delivered as talks to various audiences throughout a decade of lecturing, Bringhurst talks through and about the history of languages and cultures and, in the first essay, presents the argument that if you are studying Native North American literature, you should, just as anyone would learn Latin or Greek in an equivalent class in the classics, have to learn a Native North American language. It's actually an argument so simple that it becomes completely overlooked otherwise, and completely brilliant. Bringhurst works his lectures from a point of not only respect and pure education, but from that place of passionate learning for its own sake, wanting to know more about the world around him because that is how the world responds to him. As he writes as part of that first essay:
I would like to go back now, for a moment, to the map of Canada.

A literary map of this country would be first of all a map of languages, several layers deep. On the base layers, there would be no sign at all of English and French. At least sixty-five, perhaps as many as eighty, different languages, of at least ten different major families, were spoken in this country when Jacques Cartier arrived. Each and every one of them had a history and a literature. It is with them, or what remains of them, that the study of Canadian literature must start. So the question is, what does remain?

I have been chided once or twice for using the phrase "the Haida holocaust." To me the term seems apt. The Haida lost more than ninety per cent of their population in less than a century. In Haida Gwaii the epidemics that brought this about are still, as they should be, a sensitive subject. Any suggestion that others have suffered as much – even comparisons to the experience of the Jews – can cause offense. But this is not at all an isolated case. In 1492, there were perhaps ten million people in the are we know now as the USA and Canada. By 1900, the census figures tell us, the total aboriginal population in this same vast stretch of country was much less than half a million. Decimated is too mild a word. While the colonial population has risen steeply in both countries, the total indigenous population has shrunk by a factor of twenty-five or thirty. Disease had a lot to do with it – smallpox, measles, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever. These were abetted, of course, by repeated eviction and forced relocation, and by deliberate diseducation, massive destruction of resources and, in consequence, outright starvation. Declared or not, a war was going on. And its most effective weapons, whether or not anyone ever intended to use them as such, were biological. ("The Polyphonic Mind," pp 24-25)
After spending many hours with this collection, I would very much like to find a copy of his previous collection of essays, The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing & Meaning (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2004). Anyone who is interested in the form of language and not only how we got there, but what we should be doing with it should read this book; and multiple readings are a must. Without preaching but with prodding, he tells us how we are supposed to learn to keep ourselves alive.

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