Sunday, November 25, 2007

Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter & Sheila Watson

“What a scene about nothing,” he said. “The individual unconscious scorns such
He sat down by the rose bushes.
-- Sheila Watson, “Brother Oedipus,” Sheila Watson: A Collection
Thursday night the Garneau Pub on 109th Street, getting most of the way through Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter (Anansi, 1976); after reading that interview with him recently in The Power To Bend Spoons [see my review/note about it here], it made me pull the book off my office shelf, one of the books I brought west with me to read, or reread. A list of them on my shelf that get longer even as it gets shorter, too. The Beauty of the Husband: a fictional essay in 29 tangoes by Anne Carson (Vintage, 2001), Sheila Watson, A Collection (Open Letter, Third Series, #1, Winter 1974-5), IN VISIBLE INK: crypto-fictions by Aritha Van Herk (NeWest Press/writer as critic: III, 1991), The Doomed Bridegroom by Myrna Kostash [see my previous note on her here](NeWest Press, 1998), Icefields by Thomas Wharton (NeWest, 1995) and The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Black Sparrow Press, 1989); there is never enough time in the world. All my whats and little wherefores.

I press myself into her belly. Her breath into my white shirt. Her cool breath against my sweating forehead so I can feel the bubbles evaporate. I lift her arms and leave them empty above us and bend and pull the brown dress up to her stomach and then up into her arms. Step back and watch her against the corner of my room her hands above her holding the brown dress she has lifted over her head in a ball. Turns her back to me and leans her face now against the dress she brings down to her face. Cool brown back. Till I attack her into the wall my cock cushioned my hands at the front of the thigh pulling her at me we are hardly breathing her crazy flesh twisted into corners me slipping out from the move and our hands meet as we put it in quick christ quickly back in again. In. Breathing towards the final liquid of the body, the liquid snap, till we slow and slow and freeze in this corner. As if this is the last entrance of air into the room that was a vacuum that is now empty of the other histories. (p 61)
Thinking more and more about the lyric novel and what I want to do with it, or even as a way of re-entering the mindframe of writing fiction, I’m brought continually back to Michael Ondaatje, which in hindsight, surprises me a little. Why had I been gone for so long? I hadn’t read any of his fiction since 1992, when The English Patient came out; I had read everything he had done up to that point, and nothing more. Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje’s novel about the jazz musician, Buddy Bolden.

He was the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. Unconcerned with the crack of the lip he threw out and held immense notes, could reach a force on the first note that attacked the ear. He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they revolved in his lung then spat out in the chosen key. The way the side of his mouth would drag a net of air in and dress it in notes and make it last and last, yearning to leave it up there in the sky like air transformed into cloud. He could see the air, could tell where it was freshest in a room by the colour. (p 14)
It is the sense of the fragment merged with the obvious lyric that I love, prose and poetry merging and twirling into each other like dna strands; the combination could only be stronger. Rereading parts of the Sheila Watson biography by F.T. Flahiff, always someone to kill the doves: A Life of Sheila Watson (NeWest Press, 2005), the following evening [see my review of such here], and finding this fragment about her influence:

In 1985, aside from Seventy-One Poems, he [George Bowering] edited and published a collection of essays on The Double Hook, including one by himself in which he hailed the novel as “the watershed of contemporary Canadian fiction.” And in Bowering’s B.C., he speaks of The Double Hook as “the best novel to come out of the province,” concluding the section he devotes to her with the claim that “more than any other Canadian novel, it is loved and referred to by the innovative poets and fiction writers who have arrived on the Canadian scene since 1959.” “I call the interesting stuff written since 1959 the ‘Sheila Watson canon,’” he wrote in Craft Slices. He includes Robert Kroetsch among those who, in his words, “have followed on Watson’s break-through,” along with the Leonard Cohen of Beautiful Losers, “Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol, Victor Levy-Beaulieu, Nicole Brossard, and Louky Bersianik.” Bowering was even more succinct at the close of a letter he had written to her in 1982:

On Thursday I got a phone call from Coach House Press, talked with Frank Davey, Michael [Ondaatje], and bp[Nichol]. Wonderful age we’re in.

& it’s yrs (p 287)

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