Saturday, March 17, 2007

meditation, mennonites, poetry & prairie thinking: Di Brandt's So this is the world & here I am in it & Patrick Friesen's Earth's Crude Gravities

Two recent books that deal with enough of and from the same issues that they may as well be talked about together, a collection of essays by Di Brandt, and a poetry collection from Patrick Friesen. Originally a Winnipeg poet and critic currently living and teaching in Brandon, Manitoba, Di Brandt is the author of a number of poetry collections and the new collection of essays So this is the world & here I am in it (2006), published as the tenth volume in NeWest Press' writer as critic series. An enviable and impressive series of single-author critical volumes by Canadian writers (predominantly poets), the series includes volumes by George Bowering, Stephen Scobie, Aritha van Herk, Frank Davey, Phyllis Webb, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Douglas Barbour and Stan Dragland (a volume by prairie poet Andrew Suknaski is forthcoming). Unfortunately, the first problem I have with Brandt's collection—well, perhaps less a problem than a disappointment—is the fact that the cover design of the previous volumes has shifted with this one. Part of any series such as this, part of the benefit of such a series, is having some kind of echo of uniformity of packaging, and the previous version I will admit I miss. Where did it go?

In essays, almost meditations (some of them), on the prairie (Brandt did spent a decade or so teaching at the University of Windsor between her Winnipeg days and Brandon days; is this a homesick essay?), James Reaney's Winnipeg, Adele Wiseman, Dorothy Livesay, David Arnason, Canadian Mennonites, twins and her own "Berlin notes," Brandt moves through a series of concerns throughout her collection, with each essay either touching on or coming back to that "wide, wide prairie." Perhaps, then, instead of an introduction, it was appropriate to begin with the piece "This land that I love, this wide, wide prairie" that begins:
It is impossible for me to write the land. This land that I love, this wide, wide prairie, this horizon, this sky, this great blue overhead, big enough to contain every dream, every longing. How it held me throughout childhood, this great blue, overhead, this wide wide prairie, how it kept me alive, its wild scent of milkweed, thistle, chamomile, lamb's quarters, pigweed, clover, yarrow, sage, yellow buttercups, purple aster, goldenrod, shepherd's purse, wafting on the hot wind, hot clods of dirt under our bare feet, black, sun soaked, radiating heat, great waves of heat standing in the air, the horizon shimmering, flies buzzing endlessly, wasps, bees, cicadas under the maple trees, dripping with sap, the caragana hedges brushing the air lazily, heavy, golden with blossoms, the delirious scent of lilacs in bloom, hot pink begonias, marigolds, sweet peas, spider queens, wild yellow roses, crimson zinnias, baby's breath, the cool fresh smell of spruce, jack pine, elms gracefully arching overhead, asparagus, cucumber, radishes, onions, peas, beans, corn, raspberries, strawberries, chokecherries, gooseberries, blackberries, yellow currants, red currants, Japanese cherries, cantaloupe, watermelon. It was heaven, the prairie was, the gift of its bounty accepted easily by us, her children, running barefoot all summer, through the garden, the fields, feet hating the constriction of shoes in the fall, the return to school desks and books and sweaty silence. The hot dry smell of wheat during harvest, the sexy smell of our own skin, bellies, thighs. The call of crows, killdeer, sparrows, kingbirds, barnswallows, robins, orioles, nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, the surprise of toads, little frogs, earthworms after rain. The bellow of cows, the cool west nuzzle of calves' noses, the grunt and snuffle of huge pink sows wallowing in dirt, the squeal of newborn piglets, soft newborn kittens in the barn. How I loved you, how I love you, how I love you.
It reads, considering her years away, almost a love-song of return, coming back to that place she didn’t even realized she missed, until she had returned again. It might be completely nit-picking, but I cringed slightly at this passage in her wonderful essay on James Reaney's Winnipeg, where she writes:
It was Reaney, of course, who popularized the term Souwesto, for the particular mannered culture of the densely settled countryside southwest of Toronto, that produced Stephen Leacock and Alice Munro and Christopher Dewdney and Nino Ricci and Don McKay, and only much later non-European writers like André Alexis and Christopher Curtis, though Reaney claims it was Greg Curnoe who coined the term.
Even though Don McKay is technically "from" Cornwall, Ontario (eastern Ontario), since he was raised there, and born in Owen Sound (northern Ontario), I might give that to her, since he did start his years of active publishing as poet and publisher while teaching at the University of Western Ontario; but what about André Alexis, writing Ottawa stories from his home base of Ottawa? I think I would have liked her to explain this more, since she is perhaps holding information that I don’t seem to also hold. How did southwestern Ontario produce Alexis?

In case you didn’t already know, this isn’t Brandt's first book of criticism, following on the heels of her Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 1996) and Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narratives in Canadian Literature (Winnipeg MB: University of Manitoba Press, 1993), not to mention the more recent book she co-edited with critic Barbara Godard, the wonderfully compelling Re:Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 2005). Reading any writer write about other writers, other writing, is as much reading their own considerations of writing than anything else they might mention. As she writes in her essays on bees:
What, after all, is text? "The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swamp, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree," writes Gary Snyder, "can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of traces of previous riverbeds is text."
Part of a group of what could only be called Canadian "meditative" poets, along the lines (perhaps) of Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky and Roo Borson, former Winnipeg poet Patrick Friesen has lived in Vancouver now for about a decade, working his meditative long lines in the best way he knows how, in his thirteenth poetry collection Earth's Crude Gravities (Madiera Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2007). Another poet working from the Mennonite background of Manitoba rural, he also published a collection of essays last year, Interim: Essays & Mediations (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2006) [see my review in a forthcoming issue of The Antigonish Review]. It's been interesting to see his slow shift from the overtly-Mennonite content poems of his earlier works, moving more subtle and more meditative into the Winnipeg content and shift to the longer lines of what I think is still his finest poetry collection, St. Mary at Main (Winnipeg MB: The Muses' Company, 1998), and slowly into his post-Manitoba work, including this current collection of poems. In Earth's Crude Gravities, Friesen moves back through meditative poems more overtly talking about religion, and the religion of his childhood; perhaps not a content he'd particularly left behind over the past few books, but one that hasn’t been as forefront in a while, working through the certainties and uncertainties that come with his current considerations on his own thinkings on religion, and his own beliefs. Is this a man coming to terms with his own beliefs, or simply reevaluating them?

vanity of the road

I follow the red ribbon
into my father's bible
to the underlined words
as for man his days are as grass
and I know how he died
with what dark understanding
with what slow embrace
of the loss of love
and every godly storm
that shook his fields
for the wind passeth over it
and it is gone

and the ribbon streams
into the underlined words
of my bible
there is nothing better
for a man than that he
should eat and drink
and that he should make
his soul enjoy good
in his labour
and reading further
into the red lines
all go unto one place
I don’t know my death
only that it will be mine alone
only that I have been split
into one man

and the ribbon runs
through the dog's barking
one hot summer
the bread torn by hands
and chewed with pleasure
it runs through my blood and
the dust on my feet and
the vanity of the road
for the wind passeth over it

and the place thereof
shall know it no more

Still, for the way the words flow, I think the most interesting poems of Friesen's are the ones with the longer lines, working out a rhythm that the shorter poems just don’t have in the same way.

fall (the revelations)

the smell of apples and tomatoes in crates a bonfire in the garden burning
withered potato plants
mother leaning over the cauldron's steam and father as daylight falls raking
last vines into the fire

inside the home a bible on the table and linoleum waiting for his knees the
piano tuned to sabbath
and the child in rapture with jesus with a white horse behold the pale horse
and seven thunders sounding

the child in wonder at the woman in purple her hands filled with
abomination and drunk on blasphemy
the beauty of fornication and the trumpets of the city and the boy in love
with spirit and the bride

dogs whoremongers and the morning star fair and shapely and subtle of
heart with her solace of love
he steps from the yard the young man lurks near the door of words in the
dark and black of night

there is so much on earth and in heaven and time at hand for his thirst for
the sorcery of world
at home the anxious voice of love calling but he turns toward the cinnamon
the aloes and the myrrh

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