Still in uniform, but one of earth and tar:
coral epaulettes, strings of sand for hair,
a longtail for a screaming, out-of-focus hat.
Weary, but with discombobulated grin,
he passes with your annual epiphany,
learned to love French like one of his brothers.
He was between bonfires and church bells
on Confederation day – allowed himself
to be hung with Riel, for the experience,
stowed away to stand with Billy Bishop
when he looked up at an azure sky to say
“Bet you don’t get mud and horseshit
on you up there.” Brock shook his head
over church-run schools meant to take
the Indian out of the Indians, the ban on
the sun dance, the potlatch, three Chinese
lives per mile of railway. His warm smile
grew into a laugh at the wind-slap of a subway
train arriving, and he thought “You and your
journey back and forth. It isn’t that you
can’t stay, it’s that you don’t know how to cling
to anything.” His hands behind his back,
he walked in the snow with Trudeau.
He still slumbers in parts of the land,
a song and a bullet in his heart.

 

from The Least Important Man


I recently participated in Brains, Words and Voices a charming new reading series located in a former coffin factory in Toronto. An atmosphere of respectful tribute to older poems (recited from memory) is all yours for a donation on admission that includes red wine and pizza. I brought the first Canadian poem to the proceedings by reading some Alden Nowlan, who made an impression on me as early as high school. You can follow this link to a YouTube channel for various readers, but do check out the series for the real experience.


I have mixed feelings about e-books. Generally speaking, they’re among the things helping bleed out independent bookstores. Imperfect as it is, my own solution is to continue to buy so-called real books as gifts, or if it’s a favourite author I want to sit as a tangible object in my hands, or if it’s simply a well-designed book. This year I’ve picked up Stoner (my favourite novel of the year so far) The Summer Book, Chess Story and other attractive New York Review Books. Getting an e-reader as a gift is a little like being body-snatched: you remember the person you were, but it’s also recognizably easier to have David Copperfield in your bag on a slim device. So, only certain books on an e-reader then, as an imperfect solution.

At the same time, one of the pleasant side-effects of these devices is a resurrection (or at least much wider distribution) of older titles, now public domain and widely produced as e-books to be read and discussed again. I recently enjoyed The Beetle, published at the same time as Dracula and initially outselling it. It’s loaded with paranoia about foreigners jerome(“This is London, not a dog-hole in the desert.”) but putting that aside as part of its era (and glaringly obvious), it’s quite an entertaining story, written in an often-elegant 19th century voice: “I’ve never seen a man more in need of the good offices of soap and water.” It’s also interesting, historically speaking, to read a book set at a time in England the characters can wire ahead to have “the Arab” stopped at a train station. Because, naturally, there’s only one in England.

But for me, the best of these resurrections so far is Jerome K. Jerome, who is somewhat misrepresented as a humour author. His essays are certainly amusing (“He listened to me in rapt ecstasy. I might have been music.”) but he’s often capable of deeply perceptive comments about our habits, far-sighted: “Will it matter to the ages whether, once upon a time, the Union Jack or the Tricolour floated over the battlements of Badajoz? Yet we poured our blood into its ditches to decide the question.” Or this, for example: “Why, if the universe be ordered by a Creator to whom all things are possible, the protoplasmic cell? Why not the man that is to be? Shall all generations be so much human waste that he may live? Am I but another layer of the soil preparing for him?” And finally: “Looking back the little distance that our dim eyes can penetrate the past, what do we find? Civilizations, built up with infinite care, swept aside and lost.”

Current whatever-crossed-my-mind essay collections owe something to writers like Jerome, who’s still as relevant and perceptive as any of them. He often sounds flippant and trivial before closing in on something more significant. “On the Nobility of Ourselves” has these thoughts: “History notes the wrong; but the patient suffering, the heroic endeavour, that, slowly and silently, as the soft processes of Nature re-clothing with verdure the passion-wasted land, obliterate that wrong, she has no eyes for. In the days of cruelty and oppression — not altogether yet of the past, one fears — must have lived, gentle-hearted men and women, healing with their help and sympathy the wounds that else the world had died of. After the thief, riding with jingle of sword and spur, comes, mounted on his ass, the good Samaritan. The pyramid of the world’s evil — God help us! Its rises high, shutting out almost the sun. But the record of man’s good deeds, it lies written in the laughter of the children, in the light of lovers’ eyes, in the dreams of the young men; it shall not be forgotten… Hate and Anger shriek to one another across the ages, but the voices of Love and Comfort are none the less existent that they speak in whispers, ear to ear.”

And, yes, it’s necessary to mentally note that “man” isn’t the term that would be appropriate today. And one of his essays begins with a long, tedious, entirely dated description of how flighty women can be before he settles into something else. But again, these are books from a completely different era, and don’t deserve to be swept into the dustbin because of it. His two collections (Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow) weave together an easygoing intelligence, humour and impressive observations, making him as thoroughly enjoyable as he is worthy of your time. At one point a “put out the stars” reference seemed to me to be the inspiration for the famous W.H Auden poem, Funeral Blues. Based on these collections, I’m looking forward to another non-fiction title of his, Diary of a Pilgrimage and I’ll look at his fiction too. All these titles are available from The Floating Press (recommended as an e-book publisher).


As a fan of films, and particularly older films, founditmoviesI’m very glad to have a poem in a new anthology called I Found It at the Movies, edited by Ruth Roach Pierson. I’ll be reading (just the one poem) to help launch it on May 1st, 7:30pm as part of Livewords at the Black Swan Tavern with a pile of other poets: Sue Chenette, Glen Downie, Catherine Graham, Maureen Hynes, Tanis MacDonald, A. F. Moritz, Blaise Moritz, Jim Nason, Lillian Necakov, Molly Peacock, Jim Smith, Adam Sol, Richard Teleky, Kurt Zubatiuk. 


Burning Blake

03Mar14

There have been interesting things going on over at blakeHazlitt, named for William Hazlitt. Glad to have my new poem Burning Blake posted over in the poetry department, where you’ll find new work is posted every week.


As many of my friends know, I enjoy the escapism of Doctor Who: a benevolant alien with many faces travelling through time and space. While not a perfect show it’s a very creative one, and it often insists humanity is essentially worthy, and an individual is important. It turned fifty last year, and while there were various forms of celebration, I think this animation I recently discovered by Richard Swarbrick is a terrific one. After fifty years, there’s quite a bit of mythology built up, and yet it all remains quite accessible. Neil Gaiman, explaining why he wrote a particular episode, said “I like mythologies, and I knew what a Dalek was and what planet it came from, or what TARDIS stood for when I was five, before I knew who Thor or Anubis were.”




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