The Western Light by Susan Swan fell short


Reviewed for the National Post
Published October 5, 2012

The Western Light is Susan Swan’s most autobiographical book — which presents a dilemma. Assuming Gladwell’s rule that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, each of us must be virtuosos of our own narratives. This in turns supplies us with an honest defense against critics: Only one of us is a genius on this subject. Swan is also patriot of that land where writers “write what you know,” while other novelists wave a less personal banner. This aesthetic divergence tends to be philosophically hard-wired — not unlike the recent divided sentiments over whether we should write negative reviews or “positive” ones. That example provides for a bit of foreshadowing. Because maybe what’s etched in the DNA of this book was lost in decoding, but The Western Light fell short of this reader’s retina, and left me grappling.

A prequel to The Wives of Bath, Swan’s excellent and perhaps finest book, The Western Light features the same female protagonist, Mary “Mouse” Bradford. Here, Mouse is 12 years old, and sheltered from the urbanite academia and power politics in Wives. Still, she is not wholly naive: As the daughter of a doctor, living close to the mental hospital in a small-ish town, she has first-hand experience of death, disability (including her own disfigurement, from polio) and abnormal psychology. Mouse is intrigued by an ex-pro hockey player who has killed his wife, arrives in town as a forensic psychiatric patient, and is an infamous escape artist. Most of the action revolves around the looming hospital and occurs through an unlikely friendship Mouse has with this daydream-bogeyman, John Pilkie.

Read the rest of the review here.

Review of “The Essential Tom Marshall,” for Quill and Quire

The Essential Tom MarshallThe Essential Tom Marshall

by Tom Marshall; David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje, eds.


“Everyone likes to believe that the best poetry will endure,” write David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje in the introduction to this lovingly edited collection, the ninth in The Porcupine’s Quill Essential Poets series, “but it doesn’t do so without help.” The editors, both friends of Tom Marshall, provide such help in the hope that their subject, who died in 1993, will not be forgotten in Canadian literary history.

Marshall was a prominent member of the literary scene in Kingston, Ontario, and this book provides evidence why. There are many genuine delights in this work, such as the defiant assertion in “Speedboat” that “The machine, many poets / to the contrary, is not / the enemy … All the best / hopes are for motion.” Or the gruff, neighbourly tone adopted in the opening lines of “Astrology”: “It’s an approach. Say what you like / about it. It’s an approach.”

Marshall’s work is inextricably linked with place. He is well-known for writing about his city and neighbourhood, so I was surprised to prefer pieces on other subjects. Some of the Kingston poems I found too effusive or sentimental. By contrast, poems like “The Mother” are lucid and complex in their rendering: “A dwindled heap / of raw nerves, arthritic hip. / Her weakness takes the edge / off his bitter love. / Compassion becomes possible.”

The Essential Tom Marshall embodies two aspirations: to sketch an overview of the poet’s career, including less developed youthful work, and to mount a portrait of Marshall in the Canadian canon, based on his better-known material. This slim volume succeeds more as a primer than a definitive guide, but it is nevertheless an important first step in the restoration of a poet well worth getting acquainted with.

Reviewed in Quill and Quire, September 2012 (print and online).

Globe and Mail on Canadian poetry’s unlikely renaissance

Russell Smith wrote recently in the Globe & Mail about his renewed enthusiasm for poetry! He emphasized the variety within a new generation of poets, with specific reference to The Walrus Poetry Prize, and a direct quote from me:

You know where Canadian literature is excelling? In its poetry. There hasn’t been so much challenging work around – so much that is playful, amusing, dazzling or simply exasperating – for as long as I can remember. Some of this has to do with a new generation of tough-minded editors, some of it has to do with the fading of a certain kind of weepy folksiness, and a lot of it has to do with the Internet. Quite simply, it is easier to read and share poems now, and people are actually doing it.

Exhibit A: The Walrus magazine, a general-interest journal that bravely publishes poems every month, has been spreading the word online about their “readers’ choice” competition. They asked for submissions of individual poems, then their poetry editor, the truculent Michael Lista, selected his five favourites (blind – that is, he saw no names). Lista has posted the five finalists and is asking for a public vote on the best. (You can vote at the Walrus’s website; voting ends Sept. 30.) The winner gets $1,000. More importantly, the poem will be widely linked to and forwarded, which means it will be read, unlike prize-winning poems of my youth.

Also unlike the prize-winning poems of my youth – which tended to be about aurora borealis and the great noble sorrow of being descended from rugged settlers – the ones selected for this shortlist are amazingly, some might say frustratingly, dense and intellectual. They are not about birds. (Well, only one is.) All of them contain at least one utterly cryptic and barely grammatical conglomeration of words, as if the goal of the best poetry is to flirt with the nonsensical, to see if some suggestions of meaning – maybe just some mood or personal association – will be sparked by the centrifugal force created by a bunch of words wildly spinning together. “We leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian/ disbelief tidings,” writes Stevie Howell, for example. Obsidian disbelief tidings aren’t things I’m familiar with or can picture in any way, but then I think in a frustratingly direct manner.

Whole thing here.


Review: The Book of Marvels by Lorna Crozier

Stevie Howell review CrozierReviewed for the National Post
September 7, 2012

The Book of Marvels
By Lorna Crozier
Greystone Books
132 pp; $19.95

The day I was to begin reading Lorna Crozier’s The Book of Marvels, I tripped up the stairs at the subway, hurling my body, an un-sipped iced coffee, and this volume in three directions; it was the opposite of marvellous. But it was amazing how breaking out an old pair of shoes could have thrown off the foot’s muscle memory — how the mind undershot those pointier toes. It was a marvel, too, that an elbow didn’t break (all that coffee can leach calcium from the bone …), that the gauzy dress didn’t tear, that sticky liquid didn’t decoupage the book shut.

These musings are along the lines of what you will find within Lorna Crozier’s The Book of Marvels, a slim compendium of 85 vignettes on “everyday things” — a doorknob, a bowl, a shovel, the navel. Topics are traversed in roughly 75-150 words, and the range, juxtaposed with the brevity of each blurb, is dizzying: after all, there are expansive things that could be said about the distinctions between design and invention, between utility and beauty. But what makes this book work is Crozier’s lens: as a poet, she has long been adept at capturing small, ephemeral scenes; here, she examines materials in a broader phenomenological way, and taps into their cultural significance and antiquity.

Read the rest of the review here…

My poem “Rip Torn” Nominated for 2012 The Walrus Poetry Prize

Walrus peoetry prize copy

 Rip Torn

Almosted into marble by the Medusa-eyed hoi polloi,
The Queen’s stone jowls, éraillure of crow’s feet,
are freshly quarried—fifty years late,
her face is lithic-flaked into a new lustrous, toothy smile,

as electricity excites mercury vapour, she is light-boxed,
backlit, mounted, thrust every few paces in the chambers
of the London tube. Her
cumulonimbus-hued bust, the size of Easter Island moai,

is shit-grinning over diamonds, on exhibit for the great
unwashed to grub up drool over. Jewels encased in
UV-proof acrylic vitrines, whettingly
argon-sandwiched, cannot be made stonier by our

brutish, countryside-bred, dazed unblink. We share
our sheep’s hypoxic shrug at the Lorenz curve of the earth,
we leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian
disbelief tidings, genetic-fervent for useless, shiny things.

The Janus of the Jubilee and Olympics has the Queen
loitering in tunnels, her visage pinned to brick; a tattered
flag to the proclaimed, uncharted
country of herself billows above the footbridge—

the gammon display reminiscent of Styrofoam castles,
glue and sand. Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom, Iraq
under Saddam. But my companion says no,
she looks like an albino Grinch. She looks like Rip Torn

in a Swarovski choker and cotton candy wig.