Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review - Complete Physical, by Shane Neilson

Reading Complete Physical is something like following your family doctor around for a week, looking over his shoulder at his notes, peering into patient’s records, eavesdropping on both his conversations and his thoughts, following him on his rounds. How much distance can he manage as he tells you you’re’re dying? What moves him to a more personal involvement? What’s going on in his mind as he pokes and prods and hands you the bad news, or when he receives it himself?

Some of the pieces in this collection are as cursory as notes on the human condition as it checks into a casualty ward – ‘bowel habits and missed meds,’ ‘blood, vomit, shit.’ Some are whimsies, the Grinch stealing health from the little whos, or Dr. Gear sitting in his office advising his patients to ‘take the train, take the train’ through the intercom. Some are extended metaphors that evolve into short meditations on life, death, meaning and/or the lack thereof.

‘Reading Electrocardiograms,’ for example, begins by telling us ‘Metaphors are easy,’ and goes on to say what reading electrocardiograms isn’t – fingerprint examination, crystal ball gazing, dowsing, things the police wouldn’t be interested in. From there it shifts to what reading electrocardiograms is, and what they gesture at, moving from a terse, factual account rich with allusion, to a moment of quiet, plain spoken insight that turns from itself as soon as it’s uttered, toward a glimpse of a deeper, less reassuring awareness. An electrocardiogram, the poem declares, is a detective story.
“The private dicks are a part of it. There is a gravedigger
shovelling the Q wave’s six feet, the long plot of a pause. . .
Bedside, I peer at the tracing
and think lifestyle modification
lifestyle modification, what every heart needs
is the amplitude of truth.’

There is certain amount of play going on – ‘and what of the exploring heart, the intrepid muscle with a wandering baseline?’ – but the play serves to move things between levels of interpretation and intention. “But I’m not looking for truth,” the poem ends,
“I’m looking for closed mouth moments and the wave
Of goodbye, goodbye, which the police would be interested in.
There is an order to stay within the city,
But it is unenforceable.”

Lines present themselves and shift their position as you become aware of the possibility of multiple interpretations, as if they were symptoms, teasing you toward a diagnosis. For instance - “I have no handbook, if you are sick, I will marshal what I have, repetitions and one worn stethoscope, love like a stave.” A straightforward enough account of what a doctor who works more with intuitions about the human situation than with textbook approaches might offer, until you think about that last phrase. What does he mean, ‘love like a stave?’

A stave is a narrow strip of wood that forms part of the sides of a barrel, one part of a whole, a group effort, that manages to contain what needs containing, or it’s a cudgel, to beat some sense into you, or it’s a stanza in a poem, perhaps one that will point you toward a new way of looking at what ails you. Any or all of these definitions work, but each offers a slight twist to what the poem is saying, and together they form a pretty comprehensive remedy for most things.

Some of poems are as personal as love letters or thoughts on one’s own mortality. In ‘My Illness,’ the doctor looks inward, without the benefit of modern technology. Just some good old fashioned introspection. Throughout Complete Physical the narrator has seen himself as Isaiah did, sent to bring good news – or aid in the case of bad news - to the afflicted, and to bind up the broken hearted as much as the broken in body. ‘My Illness’ presents him with the New Testament injunction, ‘Physician, Heal Thyself.”

The beginning of the poem is opposite to the beginning of 'Reading Electrocardiograms' – what it is we’re talking about, not what it is not.
My illness is Antarctic, is brittle absolute zero,
Is the highness of high places, is a frosted four-leaf clover
Wished upon: is it over, is it over?

There are three metaphors for the narrator’s illness in these opening lines. It is cold. It is ‘the highness of high places.’ Not the high places themselves, but the thing that particularly characterises them. The ‘high places,’ in both the Judeo Christian tradition and in earlier traditions, are the places where one meets divinity. So something in his illness partakes of the divine. It is also a talisman of sorts, something with magical powers.

In 'Fairygodmother, MD,' the doctor complains about his patients wishing for everything from antibiotics to a celebratory sick leave.
“I am aloft on wish power, I am borne on the shoulders
Of a sweaty wishing public, and Wishes are for the wishing,
I want to tell them, not for the coming true."

It’s plain then, that he knows the relative futility of wishing. He has laid out his illness, It is a temperature, it is a space, whether physical or mental, or both, remains to be seen, it is something that has driven him to grasping at straws.
Fear, and it is fear,
Is left to shiver in the cold: I grow old and awake,
Rash and final. I have crashed and come to ground,
I have outlasted pain to feel, my body hovers
About what’s real and flits to what’s ahead.

There’s something interesting going on her. His illness, the doctor says, has caused him to abandon fear, to leave it shivering in the Antarctic cold, and as a result he has grown old and awake, That illness ages us is one of the terrible things about it, but here the poet claims he has grown ‘awake’ because of it, as if his pre-illness state was a kind of walking sleep. And indeed it may have been. He may suddenly have found himself awake to his own mortality, and the repercussions that awareness has on the way you think about your life, what you’ve done with it, what you plan to do with what remains of it. That it has also made him ‘rash and final,’ suggests that extreme solutions are in order.

The phrase ‘to ground,’ usually carries the implication of hiding or avoidance. A fox goes to ground, to elude the dogs. Here the poet says he has crashed and come to ground. That is, his illness has brought him down, and caused him to hide out while he comes to terms with it, and in the process, something has come over him. He has risen above his pain, outlasted it, to come to some understanding about the nature of things.
But in this fantastic, this hybrid world
Where asterisks attend perception,
When paranoia becomes a kind of love
I frisk with gloves to protect from cold.

Bundle up: up here is a trick of the light,
And I sight what is far, but never near.
Gather hurt like clothes, and grow heady from air;
on a train, it’s the landscape that’s slow.
I will go, or rather I will flee,
and you can’t catch me. . .

Asterisks are used to indicate an omission, or doubtful matter. In historical linguistics they mark a hypothetical or reconstructed form that isn’t attested in a text . In other words, what you see in the place illness creates, is not necessarily to be trusted. Even so, the poet is willing to explore the terrain, given a little protection, and he invites us, with the same proviso, to explore it with him. There’s a suggestion that if we don’t, we won’t be able to keep up, to see what he sees. He returns here, to the earlier claim that he’s fleeing, going to ground, and we won’t catch him. But where is it he’s going?

"I have forsaken care for Hibernia."

Hibernia - hiberna , winter or wintry - the root of hibernate, and also the name, taken from Greek geographical accounts, for Irealnd. The narrator is already in a place about as wintry as they come, so we can assume he’s fleeing to Ireland. Why Ireland? I’ll make a leap of faith here, and say he’s fleeing to Ireland to speak to someone who will know exactly where he’s coming from and give him the support he needs to deal with it. Many poems, as I’ve said elsewhere, are part of a conversation, not just with the reader, but with other poems, or poets. ‘My Illness’ is part of conversation with W.B. Yeats, a master of the backward and forward look attendant on illness and old age, and much of the imagery in IT is answering points raised by Yeats.

In 1934 Yeats wrote the introduction to The Holy Mountain: Being the story of a Pilgrimage to Lake Manas and of Initiation on Mount Kailas in Tibet, by Bhagwan Shri Hamsa. The book tells the story of Shri Purohit Swami, who translated the book from the Marathi, and Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, as they leave the comforts of the material world in search of the Absolute. At some point in their journey, they are boarding a train. Shri Purohit Swami goes in search of third class carriage but can find no space. Yeats relates the rest of the incident – “He decided to return to his Master but found an empty carriage. His Master had left the train and was sitting upon a bench, naked but for a loin cloth. A Europeanised Indian had denounced him for wearing silk and travelling first class, and all monks and pilgrims for bringing discredit upon India by their superstitions and idleness. So he stripped of his silk clothes, saying that though they seemed to have come with his destiny, they were of no importance. Then, because the stranger was still unsatisfied, had given him his luggage and his ticket. They were able, however, to continue their journey, for just when the train was about to start, the Europeanised Indian returned and threw clothes, luggage and ticket into the carriage. He had been attacked by remorse.’

The passage throws a new light on Neilson’s lines telling us to “gather hurt like clothes,” and that “on a train, it’s the landscape that’s slow.” They don’t necessarily refer specifically to this small incident on the road to enlightenment, but they use the imagery of the insult, as if Bhagwan Shri Hamsa is answering the Europeanised man, admonishing him, giving him advice on beginning his own search for enlightenment. You may think that on a speeding train you are moving faster towards your destination, but in fact it is only that the landscape has slowed down. The train is irrelevant, in the end, to when you will arrive. The pain is also irrelevant. Gather it to yourself as you would your clothes. Though it may seem to have come with your destiny it is of no importance.

Yeats relates the end of the quest as follows – “At last, after a climb of 5,000 feet Bhagwan Shri Hamsa sat by a frozen lake, awaiting initiation: My ideal was to have a sight of the physical form of the Lord Dattatreya Himself, and to get myself initiated into the realisation of the Self. I was determined either to realise this or to die in meditation. . . The first night I experienced terrible hardships. Bitter cold, piercing winds, incessant snow, inordinate hunger and deadly solitude combined to harass the mind the body became numb and unable to bear the pangs. Snow covered me up to my breast . . .” at the end of which Bhagwan Shri Hamsa sees the Dattatreya, who initiates him into the realisation of the Self.

Yeats explainS that this realisation of the self was something, “not as it appears in dreamless sleep but as it appears . . . to conscious man,” the man awake to the “unbroken consciousness of the Self, the self that never sleeps,” returning us to Neilson’s claim that his illness has made him grow “old and awake.”The awareness of the significance of things gleaned from the illness is arrived at after the same exploration of extremes as Bhagwan Shri Hamsa suffered in his search. Yeats wrote a poem himself, called Meru, after reading Bhagwn Shri Hamsa’s book, and came to a bleak conclusion.
“. . .but man's life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality.”

The cold, the fear, the solitude, the high place, and the vision vouchsafed are shared in all three texts, but Yeats and Neilson come to an altogether bleaker conclusion.

At this point, in Hibernia, Neilson’s imagery shifts’ –
The gleaming birds there are few,
Just a few crows to curse, a tern or two,
But I see what they see: a man with asthenia,
Who steals from himself, whose one cry is elegy.

Yeats remains in the conversation here. The ‘gleaming birds’ are perhaps related to Yeats’ immortal painted birds who sing of the old man who “bends to the fire and shakes with the cold,” and whose “heart still dreams of battle and love,” or the golden bird in Sailing to Byzantium, who sings of what is past, or passing, or to come. The birds he sees are more ordinary, a few crows (omens of death, so cursing at them may be understandable in the circumstances) and a tern or two. The narrator sees himself as the birds see him, a man with asthenia - a medical term denoting symptoms of physical weakness and loss of strength. Yeats warned against the man whose one cry was a sad, mournful song –
‘And things that have grown sad are wicked,
And things that fear the dawn of the morrow
Or the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.'

My Illness ends with a summary of what the doctor has learned.

And it is always about love, warm my porotic bones,
About what is given up against what is given against,
About the poor old soul who leaks out light,
That tattered trick, and my illness is a cold chest of drawers,
My rags inside.

The lines return to the theme of the aging body. The narrator is not just weak, he is porotic, brittle. He is looking for heat. Whatever wisdom he has gained has to do with love – it is always about love, with what is given up, that is, what is given with no expectation of return, and what is given against, or what is given in pledge for some return. It is about that poor old soul who leaks out light. An odd image. Is it literally the ‘illumination’ gained that is leaking out?Yeats spoke, in 'The Cold Heaven,' of being “riddled with light,” after coming to some insight about love crossed long ago. To riddle is to pierce full of holes, so whatever illumination he had gained would certainly leak out, and something of the sort seems to be happening here. “That tattered trick” is the old man himself – “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick,” to take another image from ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ and also the physical, mortal body – “every tatter in its mortal dress.”

The final image is something of a jolt. We are out of the high cold places, the fantastic hybrid world of the visionary, the rich allusive territory of Hibernia. We are confronted with a chest of drawers. “My illness is a cold chest of drawers, my rags inside.” I propose that the narrator has left Hibernia and returned to ordinary life. His illness has given him a vision of the future of his mortal coil and it isn’t pretty. It’s not that he didn’t know what was coming, at some level; it’s just that he knows now at every level. He understands. The image of the chest of drawers is a twist on ‘from the cradle to the grave,’ playing on the child put to bed in a dresser drawer, and the tatters that make up the old man returned to it. It also plays with Wallace Stevens’ notable use of that particular item of furniture in 'The Emperor of Ice Cream.'
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Stevens’ narrator instructs someone to take an embroidered cloth from the chest of drawers and cover the corpse with it but Neilson’s drawers hold only the rags that are the remains of his mortal self, not even sufficient to cover his mortal remains. However surrounded one is by illness and death the spectre of one’s own aged self, revealing its vulnerabilities, and its inevitable end, doesn’t necessarily haunt the edges of every dealing with a patient. It takes some betrayal by one’s own body to drive the point home.

If Complete Physical comes across as a little uneven it is perhaps because it’s like a Doctor Who version of an old-fashioned black medical bag, bigger on the inside than on the outside, a catch all for whatever the doctor thinks might come in useful, holding everything from a thermometer to an MRI machine. A rummage through it is likely to turn up just the thing you need to help you think about the issue at hand. “I am priestly,” the doctor tells us, in ‘Curing Blindness,’ “leveraging hope and faith and that grand panacea, love, against death. . . What I tell you is like connecting dots: there are points of light, and if you cannot see them, I will heal your blindness.”

an Interview with Shane Neilson

T.T. One of your reviewers claimed poets and doctors share an obsession with death. Would you comment on that?

S.N. Poets have their own individual obsessions, but I'd have to say that love and its corollary sex, and also death, are the big three for most of us. We're always dying in thine eyes. There is an idea that poetry can and should be about anything, and I think that's true, I'd hate to limit poetry, but I must confess that I get bored by poems about butterflies (though I've written my share) and I need the big subjects to validate the depth of what poetry aspires to achieve. But doctors... in a sense, we deal in death. All illness are a prelude to it, are intimations of mortality, are threats to the mortal coil. It'd be an overstatement to say that all my patients are afraid of death when they come in with their undiagnosed symptoms, but looming over my title as physician is the power to deliver terrible, terrible news. I palliate several patients a year, and derive poems from that process.

T.T. In one of your ‘How Poems Work’ articles for Arc Magazine you say “Poems themselves, through their own control over experience, can also give the poet/patient control not over the ailment but over the experience.” Your poems work hard on that distinction between ailment and experience, and also on the issue of control. Can you expand on your comment

S.N. There is the idea that poems are exercises in control. (I certainly believe it- the wild poem is much more likely to be a failure.) That the poem is, as Yeats says, something "intended, complete." So the poet, when writing about personal calamity, imposes order on the disorder of illness. Poetry can validate the experience of illness without imposing the identity of illness. Patients mostly refuse to be thought of as diseased, as being of or consisting of their illnesses. I remember a paranoid schizophrenic candidly discussing that the diagnosis he had received was just a "label"- something to make sense of his life, but not to define it. A tool but not a deed. So the illness experience recognizes pain and suffering, but it doesn't leak into selfhood. Many illnesses can be managed, but they can't be controlled. Most people don't choose to be sick. And choice is necessary for control. So the poem can only promise understanding, appreciation, and celebration, especially naming, but never control over a disease. Poems just aren't that powerful... they are limited in that way.

T.T. In your essay ‘The Pre-Poem Moment’ you asked "The origin of poetry is presumed to be song; but what is the origin of the poem? Can you answer for your own poems?

S.N. I specifically didn't answer this question for my own poems in the Pre-Poem Moment essay because I felt, as an anthologist, that I shouldn't inject myself into the anthology in that way. I felt for that project that I should give the stage over to my contributors, and write about them, about what they were collectively trying to do, as opposed to dramatizing myself. But of course in the writing of that introductory essay I necessarily mined some personal convictions. And those convictions can be further distilled into a single thought: that each poem has its own genesis if it is to be a true poem, that each individual poem needs its own history to survive. So every poem of mine has a necessarily distinct process. This may sound precious, but every poem for me is a feeling out, a bungling sortie, a reconnaissance into something unknown and somehow unknowable. There is occasionally a trick to be pulled- poems based on personal biography, or historical biographies, and these are more obviously derivative from incident... but ultimately, with me, the poem boils down to emotion, and it must not be sentimental or manipulative, but honest and in the honesty hopefully resilient.

T.T. In your work on Alden Nowlan you quote him saying “Ever since I got sick I've become less and less hypocritical and more and more honest. Since we're all of us going to be out of the world so soon it seems silly not to tell one another what we really think and feel.” That seems to about sum up your approach. Anything you’d like to add to that?

S.N. I chose this Nowlan quote because it does summarize my own philosophy. Though in my poetry there's usually very little about what I think ( an exception could be made for Complete Physical, which involves my professional life). I'm usually writing about what I myself feel, or empathizing with what another feels in the case of dramatic monologues. Nowlan really changed what he wrote when he became ill; it was revolutionary, illness and the reprieve, for him. For myself, I just learned from this change, from this demonstrable, obvious change. Nowlan did the suffering for me. Then I did my own share of suffering later, but that's another history.

T.T. What about Nowlan as an influence? Or anyone else?

S.N. Influences? This could go on and on. Nowlan first, for the emotional power and how not to write sentimentally. I'd have to say Lowell, because of the bipolar disorder I suppose, but mostly the poetry- sublime, glittering poetry. Milton Acorn, for the lyric impulse, and for the lesson that political poetry is mostly unsuccessful. Illness too. Al Moritz, because I envy his intellectual heft. I just can't write that way, and so I covet him. To pick a generational contemporary, Ken Babstock for the glorious sound. Mandelstam for the music of pure metaphor. I won't name drop any more.

T.T. Would you comment on the two versions of ‘My Illness? Although they share an amount of material the first one is obviously not just a draught of the second. ’ What do you believe the second does that the first didn’t? What else was going on?

S.N. I'm not sure what happened with "My Illness." I think that I had something important to say, metaphorically, about myself. I felt I had to get that poem right. And I still feel that both are approximations. Both versions share some lines, lines I felt were central. But both head out in their directions. I shared the versions with Steven Heighton, who felt that both had their own integrity and that I should include them both. So I went with that advice. I felt that with these poems I had to disclose my own perspective, my own diagnosis, with my readers. My own sadness and infirmity. And so these poems had the most riding on them. I guess I decided to split the difference. As for what the second does that the first doesn't, I'd just say that the incompleteness, or the emotional weight of trying to say something, and failing, caused me to revisit what I'll call pain and resulted in a formulation. As I've said, the objective with each poem was the same, though the methods were different.

T.T. Many of the poems in this collection deal, either directly or indirectly, with pain. In ‘My Illness, Revisited’ you write “There is no pain, because there is no choice.” On first consideration that seems like an odd remark, but there is an issue of choice in pain. Would you expand on that, and on how the problem of pain colours your work? Your attempts, as you put it, to map it. Its attempts to map you.

S.N. My comment "There is no pain, because there is no choice" was meant to be very, very specific to this -my- individual situation. Some people clearly choose pain. You don't have to be a sadist to do so. In this case, I meant that there wasn't any pain, or I wasn't feeling pain, because I didn't ultimately choose where I ended up, what I was reduced to. I had no complicity. There was no compounding, no "insult to injury." I was suffering, and forced by my illness to that position. If there was an element of choice, then I was oblivious to it, and remain so. Some people sink so low that the very idea of choice becomes inapplicable. But as for your general comment on pain, I think that's perceptive- pain is clearly one of my predilections. I'm writing a suite of pain poems for Arc magazine, which they may or may not use in their Science issue. In fact I think I have two sacred words in all my poetry -all poets have a sacred word or two- and to these words I've devoted my life and afford them the proper respect. Those two interrelated words are pain and love. I feel this so strongly that I get angry when I see these words superfluously used in others' poetry. As for maps, pain possesses us. I wrote "All Pain can be Controlled" out of anger at a religious television show host, who purported that all pain can indeed be controlled. He was against euthanasia, and so am I, if I had to choose a binary, but I'm here to tell you, as a physician with some amount of experience, that most of it can't be controlled. But in poems I say its name.

T.T. Illness provides potent metaphors for the human condition. Some of your poems – The death of Josie’ comes to mind immediately – seem to play with what Susan Sontag characterised as “the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character.” She went on to talk about the way that idea is extended to “assert that the character causes the disease – because it has not expressed itself.” I had a much older friend once who told me “We get the diseases we need,” which seems related. Anything you’d like to say on either part of her observation, or on the wider idea of illness as a metaphor?

S.N. I'm hesitant to say that illness develops character. I think it harnesses character, or dramatizes character. We are who we are. And illness can never be allowed to usurp our true identity, which usually resists the state of being ill. Some people deny; some people accept. And on the ground, it's hard to convince people that their illnesses can be expressed poetically. Some people are emphatic in their suffering. But poems can be their best expression, and in "The Death of Josie" I tried to capture a personality who was very tough, and who I tried to honour. The key is in capturing the personality. Or the character.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Errands into the maze: Work in Progress (3)

Glenn's latest. Perhaps NSFW. Errands into the maze: Work in Progress (3): “I’m not going to hit you with this,” Evie said and laid the sleek, strangely compelling instrument down on the bed. Hugh looked up..."

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Spring Ghazals

The Spring Ghazals is a collection of poems about loss & love, & memory & time. The poems in this book were written between the spring of 2008 & winter 2010 by poet Jack Hayes.
Jack Hayes lives in Idaho with his wife, writer & composer Eberle Umbach.
In addition to his poetic vocation, Jack Hayes is a blues musician who has an active performance schedule. Mr Hayes studied with David Huddle & Alan Broughton at the University of Vermont & with Charles Wright & Gregory Orr at the University of Virginia.

"If you don't know the poetry of Jack Hayes, you should." Aaron M. Wilson
Soulless Machine

"Hayes book is a testimony to the power of poetry to distil and reexamine experience." Jessica Fox-Wilson Everything Feeds Process

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Cover

We finally have a cover we feel lives up to the tone and the themes of Peter's book. My thanks to our design team, to Marianne and Andrew Pfeiffer for permission to use the cloisonne zodiac signs from their magnificent dodecahedron, and to Pearse Saines Pinch for the beautiful job he did photographing them. And yes, Peter's novel really does manage to contain that much energy, and that much lush colour.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tactile Map 2

A/N: This was copied from my blog, thus the lack of appropriate punctuation. My personal grammatical ideologies and or failings are in no way representative of the views or practices of Tangerine Tree Press.

people are complaining that my last posts on the alchemy map didn't really demonstrate where i'm going with it. which is fair enough. it probably has something to do with the fact that i'm all little fuzzy on the point myself.

i have these fabulous period zodiac symbols that marianne and andrew pfeiffer are kindly allowing us to use and which i'm hoping to incorporate into a decorative border for the map. they're very vividly coloured and very vibrant and i'm hoping to bring a lot of that visual energy to the map, although i've no hope of doing anything half as nice as the pfeiffer's cloisonne (which is just mind-blowingly gorgeous as you can see).

beyond that my inspiration is coming from the braille/tactile maps used by aurelie in the alchemy of chance and from those lovely but hideously inaccurate historical maps like the munster map. see, history was good for something.

so while the tactile element is most relevant to the story and most interesting to me (i'm really fascinated with multi-sensory experiences) i'm trying to make this map as visually exciting as possible too (mostly because i expect to use a photo of it more than the original, sadface).

and here's one of the zodiac signs, leo of course. image © marianne and andrew pfeiffer, photograph © pearse saines.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Alchemy Of Chance - Reader's Reviews

“As clever as a soufflé, as satisfying as a cassoulet and as characterful as a just-so Roquefort. Délicieux! (May I propose that the publisher packages it with a postprandial cigar?)”

Caroline Scott - SW France

"Lives, feeling their way around a screen which hides as it reveals, passing with pinpoint tenderness from blinkeredness to double vision to seeing and looking both ways."

Nigel Watson - Swansea, Wales

That Time is Past - Work in progress

“It was Hugh and he’s buried her here in the bloody garden,” he said.
They discussed this possibility for a while. Then they spotted an open upstairs window and, below, a trellis over which spumed an orgasm of wisteria.
When the back door opened and a blaze of light violated the composed shadow patterns of the garden, Felix was about six feet up the fragile wooden scaffolding while Ivan stood below, smoking. Felix, alarmed by the sudden uproarious glare of publicity, lost his footing and tumbled back down to earth.
“It’s only a game,” Ivan explained in Italian to the two watching carabinieri.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 8 May 2005.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Work in Progress

Check out the extract from Glenn's revisions of That Time Is Past -

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tactile/Collage Map of France

The beginnings of a tactile collage map to go along with Peter S. Brooks' The Alchemy of Chance. With tea. I'm just beginning to map out the lay of the land, coastlines and the like. France won't know what happened to it. The little coloured squares you can see on it now just denote what goes in each grid square. Ultimately... it will look really cool, that's the plan. What the precise mechanism I'll use to achieve that end I'm not sure. But it will be colourful and touchy-feely. I went to DeSerres yesterday to look at supplies but I'm wobbling between a variety of different ideas. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Coming Soon - An Interiew with Shane Neilson

Coming Soon - an interview with Shane Neilson, family physician and poet, about his new collection called 'Complete Physical,' to be followed by a review and a discussion of two versions of a poem called 'My Illness.'

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Introducing Dafydd Williams

A navy and cream Citroën DS flashed down the outside lane of the M4, the outskirts of Cardiff through the rear windscreen, Portsmouth and the night-ferry to St. Malo over the bonnet. Dafydd Williams had covered this stretch of road a thousand times before, growing up in Cardiff, studying in Newport, working in London. Now he had a month off and he was going to France for most of it. But that was about the only reference point he had for this journey, apart from a ten year-old postcard from Nantes and three recent ones from places he’d barely heard of.

Two weekends previously, he’d been summoned from London by his father Emlyn to the parental home up on Caerphilly Mountain, just beyond the northern outskirts of Cardiff. Father wanted to ‘have a chat’. And he got straight down to it, standing in the kitchen over a whisky on the Friday night as soon as Mother had gone to bed.

“I want you to go to France and find Sean.”
“Dad. It’s been more than ten years. He could be anywhere.”
“He sent us three more postcards. Last Summer.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I’m telling you now. It’s not as if you come and see us much. Or call. You didn’t even come home for Christmas.”
“It’s not home any more. Anyway, I’ve been busy… Why now?”
“Your mother needs to know he’s all right.”
“She’s not my mother.”
“You know what I mean. And she’s certainly his mother. I’ll pay your expenses.”
“I’m really not up for this. Can’t you hire someone?”
“For goodness sake, he’s your brother.”
“Half brother. And that’s the last time I let you know I’ve got a couple of months off. I’m thirty six. Too old for emotional blackmail.”
“Well I’m disappointed in you, is all I can say.”

Dafydd was in-between projects, the last one wrapped, the next one – a new move into drama - tightly planned. A moderately successful film-maker, with a reputation for quirky TV documentaries on arcane connections between the Celtic lands of Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia, all he intended to do, during this his favourite time of the year, was read in the garden and maybe spend a few days on the coast.

He pulled a chair from under the kitchen table.

“OK. What have we got to go on? This is not a yes, by the way.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

That Time is Past - Those Romantic Young Boys

We're in the process of negotiating for a novel called That Time is Past, by Glenn Haybittle - a comedy about a group of young men hanging out in Italy and fancying themselves the incarnations of Shelley, Byron et al. Glenn says its a novel about men and their deadly romantic projections on the female image. Lady Lydia thinks "Young men seem to be at rather a loss nowadays," and the book is somehow about that. I think it's about love in an age of ennui. Whatever it's about, it's sharp, funny, and devastatingly astute.
Glenn is still revising, and over the next few months we'll be dishing up bits of the process for your consideration. When you form an opinion about what it's about, let us know.

"Are you one of the yacht people?" the man asked in a grave accusatory voice....
"Yacht people? Who are the yacht people?" said Jake, fingering the coral beads on his neck.
"You don't know Isabella?"
"I've only just arrived here."
"You're not a suspect then?" ...
"A suspect?" asked Jake.
"The police think there may be a murderer on the loose."
"I've got no blood on my hands. I've just been sitting here reading about the death of Shelley..."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Swimming Ginger by Gary Geddes

Swimming Ginger

Artists have never been as guilty as historians, of turning the destiny of mankind over to sociological or environmental forces, but Gary Geddes goes further than most in redressing the historical tendency to downgrade the “nature and scope of individual agency.”(1) War and Other Measures personalised one of Canada’s perennial political issues by giving voice to an individual Quebecois living in a language not his own, The Terracotta Army conjured up the comments and opinions of individual soldiers in a vast pottery army, designed to protect the emperor Quin Shi Huang in the afterlife, and in ‘Sandra Lee Scheuer’, Geddes managed to distil the political conscience of an era into a brief poem about the life and death of one girl.

Swimming Ginger takes an early 12th century Chinese scroll depicting life in the capital city of Bianliang just before it was sacked by invading Jin Tartars as a starting point. The scroll, thought to be the work of Zhang Zeduan, depicts the celebration of the Quingming Festival on the banks of Bian River, beginning in quiet countryside and ending somewhere in the city centre. Chye Kiang Heng, in his analysis of the scroll, notes that every detail is studied separately with equal attention as if seen through a telescope and then pieced together again to form a composite whole. “Rather than an objective study of the physical world, Zhang Zeduan has composed a subjective understanding of the capital, one laden with his own values and worldview. In it the artist went beyond crafting a narrative, beyond the description of an urban setting and its multifarious activities; he seemed to be seeking and probing the order of things. Social and economic orders were woven into the formal structure of his composition.”(2)

Geddes obviously shares the artist’s interest in the order of things but believes the best way to elucidate it is to focus on the individuals that constitute it - the mass of people getting and spending, and the crowd flowing over Shuncheng Granary Bridge. It is easy, as you range over the big picture, either of history or of a society, for the individual to be reduced to a tiny figure moving across the parchment, and for his few lines to be lost in the larger, anonymous story, but Geddes has managed to bring those lines into sharp focus. An apothecary, a girl who works in the ginger guild, a woodcutter, a young man about to enter the civil service, a pickle seller, a storyteller and the artist who painted the scroll, among others, all have their say about the major and minor concerns of their small lives.

The poems in Swimming Ginger share something of the style and concerns of Song Dynasty poetry– the frank first person narration, the colloquialisms and use of the vernacular, the inclusion of erotic material, the concern with the ordinary and the mundane, and with the particularities of the world, and not least, a tendency to social critique. Mei Yaochen’s theme, for instance, in lines like - “The potter uses all the clay before his door/ yet has not one tile for his own house. Those whose ten fingers never touched clay/live in tall houses with fish-scale tiles” – echo throughout Geddes’ collection, in the voices of his narrators.

Sedan chairs, parasols, fancy
eateries. Rights and privileges
of the well-to-do mean nothing

as I bend beneath the weight
of history and firewood.

In his introduction to The Terracotta Army Geddes says of the sculptor who made the figures, “Lao Bi was a strange mixture of artist and anarchist, wit and iconoclast, as capable of understanding the psychology of his subjects as he was of capturing their appearance and essence in clay. Bi’s iconoclasm – a peculiar term to apply to a sculptor, who is a maker rather than a breaker of images – lay in his determination to insist on the individual characteristics of the men he sculpted, in his resistance to the pressures to mass-produce an army of clones or look-alikes.” He might have been speaking of his own approach to the residents of Bianliang. The poems in this collection preserve what he calls “the sanctity of the idiosyncratic self,” insisting that the individual, as historian D.G. Shaw has put it, is “where meaning gets made and unmade, and where history is waged and witnessed.” (3)

The eponymous poem, Swimming Ginger, tells the story of a young woman employed at the ginger guild, beginning as she sets off for work in the third watch of the night – around eleven. She begins with an observation about her job –

Three weeks at the ginger guild
marks a girl for life.

- but she doesn’t say how or why this is. She only comments on the effect the mark has.

turn when you pass by, smiles
or expressions of distaste.

Whatever the nature of the mark, it’s discernable by casual passers-by. Something visible or able to be smelled, but she doesn’t specify. Instead, she tells us she goes out of her way to avoid the attention it draws, and, as if to deflect even the reader’s attention she diverts us with a description of her route, what she sees and what she would see if she passed by a little later.

I take

the back streets on my way
to work. Third Watch, no one’s
out this early on Jieshen Alley
sorting gold, gems, coloured

silk. Only hawkers of tripe, lung,
sheep’s head, clams, udder,
dove, quail, rabbit. Several wave.
Others try to sell me produce.

She’s moving through the night market, where men up to their olfactory nerves in blood and offal don’t seem to notice whatever is amiss. Her comfort amongst the butchers suggests she smells of something noticeable, and since she’s told us it’s her work at the guild that has marked her we can assume she smells of ginger.

In spite of her own attempt to change the subject, the narrator suddenly reverts to her opening comment for one cryptic sentence, almost as if the thought of it had intruded on the market scene in spite of her efforts. It’s not the job that pops up though. It’s the commodity she works with. The ginger guild, like all other Chinese guilds of the time, was set up to protect the merchants from exploitation by the government, but it presumably exercised control over the product they sold as well, perhaps sorting and grading the roots, and parcelling them for distribution. The narrator doesn’t bother to tell us what, exactly, she does. Her thoughts run to the uses of the root, without sharing them with the reader either, before veering back to the things she’s passing, the wine merchants, the Calabash Mutton Stew Shop, and then the bird dealers.

Fourteen things done with ginger,
two unspeakable. I can’t afford
wine on Crossroads Street or
Xu’s infamous mutton stew,

but I like to watch the merchants
trading hawks and falcons, claws
slicing into leather wrist straps,
What don’t they know, these birds

of prey, fierce eyes that miss nothing?

So far the ginger girl’s story has raised some not very significant seeming questions about her work and her scent and piqued our curiosity about all the things done with ginger, but her awareness of the watchfulness of the birds suggests perhaps something more is going on.

They note my peregrinations
on the weekend, slipping from town
on my lover’s wupan, hidden

under sacks, head and shoulders
nestled among unsold cabbages;
They watch us bathe in back eddies,
couple like mink beside the river.

You taste like ginger crab, my lover

There was a re-emergence of Confucian ideals in the Song dynasty, which included ideals about women. A woman was subject to the three obediences – – to her father when young, to her husband when married, to her sons when widowed, and sexual purity was to be preserved at all costs. Women of social standing went out only if accompanied by chaperones or servants. In this context the ginger girl slips away with her lover. She specifies his boat is a wupan is a smallish craft with a shallow draught that can slide easily into the backwaters. She indicates that he sells produce in the city, that he carries it in sacks and has left over cabbages. She lets us know the smell and taste of ginger has permeated her body. These details are somehow more important than those about her work in the guild. She hides herself as they leave the city, passing, with the rest of the water traffic on the scroll, through the East Water Gate, but once beyond the city she loses herself, for a brief period, in other possibilities.

Though I dress like a man
and learn to hold the steering oar
hard to starboard for hauling


One of the less obvious aspects of the poem, is its play with history. Our heroine ‘perambulates,’ as she puts it, through the city, following almost exactly the route taken by her contemporary Meng Yuanlao, a well off young civil servant in his late teens, who recorded his walk in a memoir called Record of a Dream of Splendour in the Eastern Capital, after the city had fallen to the Jin and he had fled south. Her footsteps follow in his. She walks down the same streets, through the same markets, past the same vendors, selling the same goods. Her restrictions shadow his freedom, the things she risks everything for are his to take for granted. When catastrophe strikes, he picks up and moves elsewhere. She doesn’t have the same option. She dresses like a man and steers her own course knowing this is the case.

I know the time is brief
before my belly starts to swell
and the merciless raptors single
me out, pick up the scent.

It is the final lines that bring the meaning of the entire piece into focus. The narrator, we have discovered, smells of ginger. What is it about the scent – invigorating, fiery and spicy, used in the perfume trade to give a warm top note to a blend - that makes some people smile, perhaps knowingly, and others to express their distaste? The smell is a pleasant one, and ginger was an indispensible part of life, for both medicinal and culinary reasons, so we can only assume it was something it was used for, not the smell itself, that caused the reaction. Fourteen things done with ginger, she says, almost as an aside. Two of them unspeakable. These are the things she has learned at the Ginger Guild, the things that have marked her, as surely as the smell of the root has. Ginger reputedly brings women “into season,” and was taken as a sexual stimulant and as an aid to conception. It was also used to encourage late or delayed menstruation. Any of these options would be common knowledge and likely to provoke one or the other response from a knowing audience. Perhaps the title “Swimming Ginger” provides a further clue to the narrator’s situation. That she’s pregnant she freely admits. That there is ginger oozing out of her pores is definitely implied, suggesting we’re to understand that ‘swimming’ here, is used, at least in part, in the sense of ‘abundant, copious, overflowing.’ To induce a miscarriage, one takes a large quantity of ginger over several days. She doesn’t ever come right out and say any of this. To the very end, she is both telling and not telling her story.

The girl who works in the Ginger Guild – we never do learn her name. For all the intimacy of her story she is completely guarded in the way she shares it - has somehow managed to slip, temporarily, out of the constraints imposed by her gender and the expectations of society. She is living in what the narrator of ‘A Recipe for Change,’ a later poem in the collection, calls

A pause. A brief interregnum
when freedom, when anything,
seems possible...

but when catastrophe strikes there will be no possibility of real escape for her. If the ginger doesn’t do its job, the raptors are gathering, and she’ll pay a steep price for her freedom. That the Ginger Guild girl and her story work as metaphors for the change the narrator of the later poem predicts is perhaps obvious, but she’s no less real for that.

(1) David Gary Shaw. Happy In Our Chains? Agency And Language In The Postmodern Age – History and Theory, Volume 40, Issue 4, Pages 1-9
(2) Heng Chye Kiang. Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats:The Development of Medieval Chinese Cityscapes. NUS Press. 1999
(3) David Gary Shaw

Fourteen Things Done with Ginger
Although the narrator of ‘Swimming Ginger’ shared many things with Professor Geddes, I suspect the fourteen things one can do with ginger (two of them unspeakable) were not among them. Fortunately, we were able to ferret out the secret.

1.Brew it with sugar as a remedy for a cold or dice it with an egg to stop coughing.
2.Give it to infants to soothe their colic and their mother’s nerves.
3.Hang it on the front door to ward off evil spirits.
4.Give it to pregnant women for relief of morning sickness.
5.Give it to the elderly to relieve pain in their joints.
6.Grind it to a paste and apply to the temples to relieve headache.
7.Eat it while travelling, to prevent motion sickness or seasickness.
8.Give it to those prone to fouling the air with their wind to prevent the formation of gases, and to those who haven’t taken this precaution to facilitate the expulsion of their gases.
9.Give it to those with retentive bowels, to facilitate clearing.
10.Give it to your husband to improve his dyspepsia and his disposition.
11.Give it to your lover to increase lustful yearnings and guarantee success in love.
12.Stuff the body cavities of a corpse after its organs have been removed with powdered ginger and wadding, to forestall putrefaction.
13.Brew it into a strong tea and drink four cups a day for two days to bring on menses.
14.Take it in even larger quantities to induce a miscarriage.

An Interview With Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 35 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including Letter of the Master of Horse, War & Other Measures, The Terracotta Army, No Easy Exit, The Celebrated Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, and his most recent collection, Swimming Ginger. He has been awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, The Lieutenant Governor's award for Literary Excellence. the Gabriella Mistral Prize, The National Poetry Prize, and The E.J. Pratt Medal and Prize for Poetry, among many others.

TT - In the forward to Swimming Ginger you mention that a copy of the Quingming Shanghe Tu scroll came into your possession on the banks of the Yangtze River, just after September 11th 2001. What was your initial response to it? Was that response coloured by current events? If so, in what way?

Gary Geddes - I was quite speechless when I opened that scroll alongside the Lesser Gorges in China. The history of Chinese art, as I knew it, was all misty landscapes and distant mountain peaks. Nature, mostly. So a highly detailed urban realism seemed to me rather miraculous.
Having heard of the attacks on New York the day I was riding on a donkey cart through Gaocheng, the ruins of an ancient Muslim city in western China that was covered and rendered uninhabitable by desert sand, I was particularly sensitive to images of destruction; so, the Qingming scroll had a double impact on me, especially when I learned that the city of Bianliang, which it is sometimes said to represent, was trashed shortly after by the invading Jin. And, of course, time, the great ravager, and fire, would have done their thorough work regardless.

TT- ‘Silk River’ begins with the artist tending his carrots when news of the Emperor’s commission arrives, and ‘Another Nine for Qu Yuan’ passes on Voltaire’s advice to “cultivate your garden.” All the poems in this collection share a disillusionment in the face of knowledge about the world, and something of the loss of an ideal place. How much of your own world view is reflected here?

Gary Geddes - I think my awareness of injustice, the imbalance between poor and rich, those who represent privilege and power, has always played a role in my poetry, doubtless a product of growing up rather poor and dysfunctional in the working-class world of Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

TT - The narrator of ‘Marginalia’ says, “I stalk the margins.” Swimming Ginger as a whole does the same, dealing, for the most part, with marginalised characters, the rogues and rascals of the picaresque tradition, commenting as they do, on a less than ideal society, in humorous detail. Do you believe in the power of satire, or of literature in general, as an instrument for political change?

Gary Geddes - I like the idea of micro- rather than macro-history, focussing on those who have fallen between the cracks. I think this is reflected throughout Swimming Ginger, though my aim was to write good poems, not political tracts. Who knows how much impact poetry has these days on the shape of history. I believe, as Frank Kermode suggests, that the function of poetry is "to make history strange." I also believe that all writing is persuasive at some level, that it's a branch of rhetoric. I have just published a book of essays called Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry & Narrative (Kalamalka Press in Vernon), where these ideas are given more coherent and expanded form. James Scully has said that the term "political poetry" is not a contradiction in terms, but an "instructive redundancy." which is similar to what I've said above. On the other hand Yeats argued that he used rhetoric for his argument with the world; and poetry, for his argument with himself. The debate goes on. Meanwhile, there is the dimension of language, technique. A poet must have more than content driving his work; and I hope that I have invented a few original tropes and turned some memorable phrases along the way.

TT - You refer to Samuel Johnson’s poem on the 10th satire of Juvenal – The Vanity of Human Wishes - in your comments about the figures of the terracotta army. What struck me was the way you share Johnson’s apparent sympathy with his subjects. Such a vast army buried underground has to stand as the ultimate comment on human futility and the quest for greatness but you look at the soldiers as individuals with stories to tell. The same is true in Swimming Ginger. You choose a few characters out of the great crowd swarming across the scroll, and let them tell their stories. Johnson’s work had a moral. What were you aiming at when you picked the individuals out of the mass and let them speak?

Gary Geddes - I had no single aim in writing Swimming Ginger. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the scroll, so I waited and let the figures come to me when they were ready. Meanwhile, I read more about Chinese history during the Sung and later periods, which gave me both information and ideas of how to proceed. The artist's long spiel came first, then the other sections. I also became aware of my own age and narrowing options, which are perhaps reflected in "Nine More for Qu Yuan." If you read The Terracotta Army alongside SG, you will see how the two books complement each other, playing with the links between art and politics.

TT - You’re known as a political poet but much of your work doesn’t seem particularly political. Is it the case that in some situations simply focusing on the individual makes a political statement?

Gary Geddes - I never thought of myself as a political poet, only someone concerned about social inequities and injustice. Wordsworth's "Daffodils" sounds like a manifesto now in the face of environmental degradation. And the love poems of Kahil Gibran seem to me the only answer to problems in the Middle East. How do we begin to love and respect one another. I just spent parts of a year in sub-Saharan Africa interviewing victims traumatized by war, rape and violence, wondering how they dealt with the pain and anger, how they managed to heal themselves. This journey will come out as non-fiction, but it is all part and parcel of my particular way of relating to the world. So, yes, I do see poetry as a healing art. We are all wounded, broken at some level; poetry speaks to the wound in us, and in society.

TT – Any final words about the poetic enterprise? At least your part in it.

Gary Geddes - We all write what is given to us to write. I wander the world, including the little watery world I now inhabit on Thetis Island, looking, paying attention to people, objects, places. Some of them demand my attention more than others. A few even take me by the throat and demand to have their stories told. I am a compliant fellow; sometimes I do what I'm told.
Art touches me as much as anything. Its beauty, its forms. That it survives seems to me both astonishing and magical. I hope one or two of my own creations will suffer the same fate. If not, I hope they will make someone else's passage more meaningful. I'm too close to these poems to say anything very valuable about them; they happened to me, but I am only beginning to feel where they work and where they feel too thin. Now and then I'm surprised and delighted by what I find.

The Alchemy Of Chance

Northern France March 1975

Legs astride, long skirt tucked into her knickers, Aurélie Pêguissoux spat on her hands and swung an old Gilpin axe. It struck the waiting log dead centre. As the two halves fell aside, and the blade embedded itself in the supporting roundel, a satisfying clonk echoed across the woods and the quiet wintry meadows of the lower Seine valley.

Minutes later, she emerged from a woodshed with her arms full of splits and walked towards the terrace of a riverside cottage where her parents sat playing Scrabble.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance

This has been a banner day. We have a signed contract from our first author and a manuscript ready to go to the copy editor. The Alchemy of Chance, by Peter S. Brooks, is a wonderful tale, a literary and culinary mystery of the heart, starring a blind map-maker at the centre of a web of synchronicity.

In the Spring of 1977, 28 year-old Aurélie Pêguissoux sets off on the train from Paris to Brittany, with her braille books, tactile Scrabble kit and cello, to rediscover the places and loved-ones of her childhood summers, and come to terms with her recent loss of sight.

Starting out in Brest, she visits her extended family in towns dotted along the North Brittany coast. She terminates her journey in Dinard, unaware that her lifelong fascinations with twins and the stars are about to come to an unlikely climax, tangled up with a group of strangers converging on Newquay, Dinard's twin town.

Dafydd, a Welsh film-maker sent to France by his father to find his brother Sean, who went missing there ten years before, is also in Dinard, his only lead, a trail of cryptic postcards.

Aurélie and Dafydd bump into each other, and set out together on the search for Sean. By cracking the clues on the cards they manage to find his house, but not him. On the way back to Paris something in the stars prompts Aurélie to suggest a change of direction.

The Alchemy of Chance is a Romance - in the literary sense of a quest story - about the beautiful, messy, impossible coincidences that shape our lives and make the results of even our simplest actions and decisions unknowable. We're thrilled to be a part of its journey from Peter's imagination to yours.