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May 10, 2017

Book Review: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico - An Epic Poem


Cover Nature Poem sm copy.jpgNature Poem, the new long form poem from Tommy Pico published by Penguin Random House is as brilliant a piece of social/cultural commentary as I've read in a long time. On top of that, its also as exceptional a piece of poetry you're liable to read this year. I say piece, singular, because at first it may seem like a collection of individual poems but as you read they begin to transform into a kind of stream of conscience, Homeresque, Odysseus, trying to navigate his way through the obstructions on his way home.

However, in this instance home isn't necessarily a tangible place - it's more like Pico is trying to discover his place in the world as a queer positive Native American who loves living in the city and wouldn't write a Nature Poem if you paid him. So, don't expect any New Age like peons in praise of being one with nature or some other noble savage shit. This is urban, slick, and very much part of today's world. He uses the language of twitter - hashtags - and the abbreviations common to text messages in his work - with none of the degradation of the language's power you'd expect.

In fact, you'd best leave aside any and all expectations you might have about poetry, Native Americans, and anything else before you start reading this book - because nothing will be as you expect it. For someone, whose texting and twittering skills are as close to luddite as you can get without smashing phones with hammers, the short forms and short cuts in language utilized by idiom were initially a barrier.

However, Pico's use of abbreviations became something that blended into the surroundings of his poetry. They take place in the fast pace of the urban environment where everybody is sending messages, which aren't necessarily the same as the signals they're sending, and the information is coming rapid fire and from all directions.

However, there is no dross in these texts. In fact the sparseness of the short form is like an emotional punch to solar plexus in places. Sharp and to the point the words catch you off guard as your mind catches up their implications a few seconds after you read them.

I can't write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit, makes me complicit in my tribe's erasure - Why shd I give a fuck abt "poetry"? It's a container for words like whilst, hither and tamp. It conducts something of permanent and universal interest. Poems take something like an apple, turn it into the skin, the seeds, and the core. They talk abt gravity, abt Adam, and Snow White and the stem of knowledge. To me? Apple is a NDN drag queen who dresses like a milkmaid and sings "Half Breed" by Cher

This one stanza tells me more about the state of living as a conquered/colonized person than any number of ernest political rants. How can you use the shapes and forms of the culture responsible for trying to eradicate your own to express something about yourself? Even the difference in his use of the word Apple is an interpretation defined by a cultural reference most people reading this review won't understand.
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A constant refrain running through the book is Pico's continued argument with himself and nature about writing the dreaded "Nature Poem". However, the more he struggles with everything about it, including the nature of their relationship and his desire to embrace his new urban landscape, the deeper he delves into his otherness - what separates him from those around him.

He might not have that spiritual relationship with the land New Age books stores promise us the indigenous people of North America are born with, but he can't stop talking about the land his people come from. He might be in New York City but he writes about the Viejas Reservation his Kumeyaay nation lives on in California an awful lot. However, it's in these writings that Pico best captures what's it like to be a so-called Urban Indian. The struggle to find a place among questions like, "What's your NATIONALITY?"...."but I know when he says NATIONALITY he's saying you look vaguely not like a total white boy".

Nature Poem is a brilliantly written piece of work. While the language may be a mash up of text abbreviations and urban slang, it not only doesn't detract from the poem's emotional impact, it actually increases it. Like e e cummings before him, Pico has taken the vernacular of his time and turned it into high art. If you read only one book of poetry this year, make sure this is it.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico - An Epic Poem)

May 9, 2015

Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie


Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything. Fifty years as a poet is almost unimaginable. Yet that's just what Canadian poet Agapé: Heaven & Earth, through his own Dark Matter Press, an anthology culled from the span of his career.

Of course there are many people who can claim to have written poetry for an extended period of time, but what really matters is what they have written and is it worth reading. Now some might say that judging poetry is a subjective thing. The old "I know what I like" argument. However, when examining an artist's body of work from an extended period of time, there are objective standards it can be judged against. It's all very well and good to say, well I like this or that poem, but when looking at a retrospective covering this span of years guidelines for its appreciation must be established.

First, and most importantly, is there a noticeable evolution in their work? Do they experiment with style, content and form, or do they just latch onto one approach and never change. Now, experimentation for the sake of experimentation can only take you so far. Content and a poet's ability to use words in order to communicate sensation, emotion or thought are just as important. Some poets are able to stay within one style their whole career because their command of language is such what they say is more important than how they say it.
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MacKenzie is one of those rare poets who is able to combine an adroitness with language and the ability to work in different styles effectively and seemingly effortlessly. While the poems in this volume aren't arranged chronologically, so there's no way of knowing how his style has evolved over the years, a simple examination of the writing shows his diversity. Everything from the formalized structure of haiku to long, prose like, free form verse can be found within the covers of Agapé.

It's in one of the former you get a brief insight into this poet's rather ironic sense of humour. The third poem into the book reads, "never my forte/these brief delicate flowers:/Japanese poems". Here he not only chaffs at the constraints of a highly structured format, but he also shows the self awareness to make fun of his own predilections. Mackenzie is definitely a proponent of allowing words the freedom to breath and create their own atmosphere instead of binding them up within the walls of structure. However, as he proves in this collection, it's not because he can't write a sonnet or a haiku, but that he'd prefer not to.

Instead of arranging the poems in the order they were produced throughout his career, MacKenzie and his editors, Nancy Wills and Faye Batchelor, have elected to gather them by theme or subject. What you quickly come to understand is no matter which point in his life a poem was written, this is a person who is very aware of the world around and his poetry is a reflection of that sensitivity. While the natural world is integral to his work, he is not blind to the human experience in all its pain and glory.

MacKenzie is not shy about telling us how he feels on any given subject either. He won't couch an idea or sentiment in a pretty phrase or obscure aphorism in order to soften its impact or protect a reader's sensibilities. He has no compunctions about directing a spotlight directly into the dark corners of human behaviour. At the same time he doesn't hesitate to celebrate the sublime beauty of a mountain scape at sunrise or the wonder of coming face to face with the wild.

However, that doesn't mean his poems don't have a lyricism to them. MacKenzie's use of language is wonderful. The words roll off the page and tumble around inside your brain until they gradually take shape. They bounce off each other forming thoughts and images which take up residence in your imagination and stimulate your mind and soul. Some of the poems might awe you, some might frighten you, but they can't fail to move you in some way.
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Mackenzie is not just a poet, he's a novelist, songwriter, photographer and illustrator as well. Being a multidisciplinary artist means he's open to more modes of expression than most artists. Perhaps this is why he's not fallen into the habit of letting conventions confine his poetry. Some might not appreciate his approach because, "it doesn't sound like poetry", but that's missing the point. Poetry is an expression of the human heart and soul - messy and chaotic places to begin with - so the expectation poems should fit some preconceived notion of structure and form is ridiculous.

Agapé: Heaven & Earth is a wonderful collection of poetry spanning fifty years of inspired creativity. If you've never read or heard of MacKenzie's poetry in the past, this would be the ideal collection for you to purchase. Even if you're familiar with his work it does a fine job of putting his career in perspective. As I said earlier, it is a remarkable achievement to do anything for fifty years; to be as innovative, creative and inspired a poet as MacKenzie has for that time span is astounding.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie - Celebrating Fifty Years Of Poetry<)

June 18, 2014

Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood


Over the years humanity's relationship with nature has become sort of twisted. On the one hand we admire the beauty of a spectacular sunset or soaring mountains yet we also think nothing of destroying the atmosphere with poison gases or the water table with toxic waste. Further distorting our view of the world around is how we've come to believe nature is okay as long as it knows its place. Let it interfere with our lives though and all of a sudden it becomes an act of God or some sort of natural disaster. When did we become so self-centred as to believe tornadoes, earthquakes and tidal waves are something to be taken personally? These storms would have happened regardless of our presence.

To be able to see nature as something which exists independent of humanity is not something many of us are able to accomplish. One of the ways we have of bringing ourselves closer to nature is through the work of writers and artists. There's something about seeing things through the lens provided by somebody else's work that gives us a clearer perspective on the world we live in.
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The new book Spirit Quest, published by Dark Matter Press, from poet Bob Mackenzie and visual artist Sharlena Wood is a fine example of how the arts can give us a new appreciation of the natural world. The two artists have created a series of complimentary works; Mackenzie's poems recount visits to Canada's Rocky Mountains in Western Canada he took as a child while Wood's paintings bring the passion and wildness of the region to life.

Wood has not attempted to illustrate Mackenzie's poems. Instead what she has done is provide us with images which capture nature's untamed essence. In some ways they serve as contrasts to Mackenzie's poems of the human experience of nature as seen from car windows, camp sites and family vacations. It's almost as if the two have combined to show us how the world looks from both perspectives. Mackenzie's highly personal childhood remembrances, which say as much about the warmth of his family life growing up as they do about nature, are the ring side seat to the natural world while Wood pulls us right into the wild unchecked beauty which cares nothing for our opinions.

In his poems Mackenzie recreates the impressions of the Rocky Mountains he formed as a child through the filter of his adult memory and opinions. Remarkably he manages, after the passage of time and experiences, to still convey the sense of wonder and mystery they must have instilled in the younger version of himself. In "no visible means", a poem describing mountain sheep's apparent ability to defy gravity in clinging to mountain sides, we see a perfect example of a child's awe filtered through the mind of an adult. "this space overtakes me/as no book ever can/here the gods can be felt/and I feel very small".
Bob Mackenzie Poet.jpg
While the sentiments expressed are the amazement a child would feel at seeing the mountains and their sheer size, the vocabulary is decidedly adult. However, the combination of the two is highly effective as it allows us to remember the awe we felt as children when confronted with something beyond our comprehension. By showing us this world through the eyes of his younger self Mackenzie is able to depict nature as the raw force is can be. There's never the impression that it was put there for his family's enjoyment; it exists, is seen and described without editorializing or judgement.

The same can't be said for the occasional outside interlopers into Mackenzie's private world of family and nature. The occasional glimpse we receive of other humans isn't exactly flattering. In the poem "Bears" he describes the interaction between the bears in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. "tourists come here to meet bears/brown bears so cute in daylight/at night fear bears in the dark/approaching their lamp lit tents/bears are in the camp at dusk/stalk between tent and washrooms/watch campers creep out in fear/make shadow art with their paws". The message we receive is that the majority of people seem to hold fast to the tried and true human opinion that nature is alright in its place, but it needs to know its place.

As Mackenzie uses words to describe the world of the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to capture their magical and wild spirit, Wood's visual creations for the book take us even further into the wild abandon of the region. From stark black and white images which express the power that can be found in the austerity of naked woods in winter to wild uncontrolled swirls of colour which wash across the eye, her work constantly reiterates the theme that nature exists for itself, not for our pleasure. There is a raw power to her work which sends shivers down one's spine as it captures the naked energy of both the mountains and the land around them.
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Anyone who has seen the Rocky Mountains anywhere in North America can't help but be reminded of the fact we are only a small part of the world around us. Most of us go through our lives in a sort of un easy co-existence with the natural world. We live in controlled environments where the rains and winds are at most inconveniences to be avoided and wild life is limited to the birds and small animals in our backyards. Spirit Quest is a reminder that the natural world exists in of itself without care for our concerns or worries. We are all that small person Mackenzie describes in "no visible means" whether we know it or not.

The poems and art work in this book do a masterful job of bringing both the natural world and human interaction with it to life. By showing the world through the eyes of himself as a child poet Mackenzie helps us rediscover the awe it can inspire while Wood's paintings remind us of its sheer unbridled power. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but on this occasion pictures and words have combined to create something which speaks volumes to any willing to listen.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood)

January 24, 2014

Book Review: The Silence Before the Whisper Comes by Bruce Kauffman


Why would anyone write poetry? It's not what you'd call glamourous. You're never going to make money at it. The best you can hope for is if you manage to publish a few books of poems you could possibly get picked up by some university to teach a creative writing class or get some work editing for literary magazines. The best poets I've known or read have jobs working in book stores and coffee shops in order to pay the bills. Yet, still they continue to write and produce poetry which only, perhaps, a few hundred people will ever read. Why?

The answer can be found in the poetry itself. When you read work of such sublime beauty that it takes your breath away; when you come to the end of a poem that makes you question your own abilities as a writer because you can't imagine ever being able to write what you've just read or you find your eyes involuntarily filling with tears while reading a scant twenty to thirty words, it becomes obvious why some people write poetry. They really have no other choice. When you can see and hear the world around you like they do, you have to find a means of transcribing what you're experiencing as there's no way it can remain bottled up. Some people become painters to express themselves, but some few take the far more difficult path and paint their images with words.

One of the latter is Kingston Ontario Canada resident Bruce Kauffman. His latest book of poetry, The Silence Before the Whisper Comes, published by Hidden Brook Press, is the third of his books which I've reviewed, and while I have to admit to a certain amount of chauvinism as we share the same city of residence, he has to rank among the top living poets I've had the privilege of reading. While poetry, like all art, is highly subjective in its appreciation, Kauffman's work transcends anything so trivial as its readers likes or dislikes. Like the natural world it quite often alludes to it simply is, awaiting the discerning eye to glance upon it and appreciate the qualities which quantify its existence.
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Attempting to interpret another's poetry is often a perilous journey fraught with the minefields of our own prejudices and preconceptions. We can only guess at what somebody was trying to say through the filter of our own beliefs. However, in the case of the gifted poets, no matter whether they use metaphor or analogy, the words on the page do more than simply express some thought or idea. Instead of seeking some hidden meaning within the language, listen to the effect the accumulated words have on you emotionally. A poem should be the perfect marriage of heart and mind, the latter transcribing for the former to articulate its inner workings without ladening it with extraneous baggage or complications.

Kauffman's work in this book is as good an example of a poet bringing that union to life on the page as you're likely to find anywhere. While his poems are full to the brim with ideas and thought, there's no wading through tortured intellectual process to enter the emotional core of the matter. At the same time, he doesn't spell anything out for you allowing the reader to follow their own process until they reach a conclusion. You never once feel like you're being either led by the nose to see the author's point of view or made so confused you literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Considering Kauffman's use of the natural world in his poems as a means of expressing his opinions on the world around him, I guess that's a bit ironic. However, there's also a great deal of truth in it. For while some tend to try and overload their poems with imagery or ideas Kauffman's work reminds us of the beauty of simplicity. Instead of gushing forth a torrent of words in order to impress us with his emotional depth, Kauffman manages to find a way of communicating without overwhelming us. Whether intentional or not, his work is a perfect example of the credo less is more.
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As befits any artist, he doesn't limit himself to a single subject matter. Everything, from the act of writing to describing the scene of an automobile accident are talked about. However, the way he sees, and how he describes what he sees, make it feel while he might walk through the same world you and I inhabit, his vision operates in a different focal range from the rest of us. Not that he attempts to make the world something its not. Rather he directs our eyes to see that which is hidden beneath the obvious. The obscure, the beautiful, the ugly and the pain are caught by the simple act of being in a certain place at a certain time. If you didn't know any better you'd think things were waiting for him to come along so he could describe them.

I'm reluctant to quote from any of his poems in this review, because the words taken out of their overall context will lose their meaning. Even when scouring the longer poems, and some of them do stretch over a number of pages, I find it hard to remove a segment as an example of Kauffman's work. The words feel orphaned when separated from their main body. It would be like showing you an amputated limb and trying to tell you what the rest of the body looks like. Could you tell what a painting looked like if someone cut out a small section from the outer edge, or even the middle? You might get some idea of the artist's technique, but you'd still be none the wiser as to the paintings overall appearance. However, at the conclusion of this review I've included a copy of one poem, hoping that it will give you some indication as to the quality of his work.

It's easy enough to write a poem. What's difficult is writing a poem which offers its readers a chance to experience the world in ways they never would have thought of on their own. Most poets are content with offering you glimpses into their own lives or showing you their reflections in the mirror of their paper. Bruce Kauffman is one of those rare poets who turns his vision outward and then reflects it back onto the page for us to bear witness. This is not only the work of a gifted writer, but of a gifted artist. The Silence Before the Whisper Comes can be purchased from most on line book retailers.

blue rain (by Bruce Kauffman The Silence Before the Whisper Comes Hidden Brook Press 2013 pg.28)

with this page before me
waiting to catch moisture
there are times when words
no longer freely fall
from an
ordinary sky

and on those days i take
the lavender bowl to
the barrel beneath
the corner eve of the house

i draw from barrel's surface
the wet words
floating there

then with tongs
dripping black ink
i separate and pull words
from the bowl
and place them gently
on a page

they
content
to be there

but their heart
is still floating
in yesterday's sky

Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book review: The Silence Before The Whisper Comes By Bruce Kauffman)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

June 20, 2013

Book Review: How The Light Is Spent by Gail Sidonie Sobat


The compulsion to tell stories is probably as old as humanity itself. Originally histories were recounted through the simple act of passing information from one generation to another orally. When we first started to record information it was in the form of long poems, similar to the way the stories had been told when sitting around the fire or hearth. Eventually as we grew more sophisticated prose replaced poetry and the stories became more impersonal. Instead of telling the history of a family or a village histories have turned into a listing of events. However, while it is no longer our main means of written communication, poetry is still used on occasion for the recounting of personal and family histories.

In her newest collection of poems, How the Light Is Spent published by Wintergreen Studios Press, Gail Sidonie Sobat gives us poetry relating to her family's history in Western Canada, her personal adventures travelling in Turkey and finally meditations on various people and moments in her life. Each of the book's three sections, "Badlands", "Sailing To Byzantium" and "How The Light Is Spent", provides the reader with a collection of poems who's cumulative effect is to describe events in such vividness we are left with an emotional and intellectual understanding of the histories prose could never match.

In the early part of the twentieth century Canada desperately required people willing to settle its three prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Opening the country's doors to immigrants willing to settle on the prairies resulted in a large influx of Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, into the region. Lured by the promise of free land they came to Canada and attempted to build new lives for themselves. Not only did they face the challenge of clearing the land, building housing and dealing with a harsh climate, they were treated as second class citizens and given the derisive name of Bohunk. Although originally a degradation of the word Bohemian - an area in what is now the Czech Republic - the word quickly became slang for any person of Eastern European extraction.
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In "Badlands" we find ourselves among poor immigrant farmers and coal miners. Like their counterparts in the United States the badlands in Alberta Canada are an unforgiving and fierce environment. While Sobat doesn't spend much time describing the surroundings the people in her poems live in, she still manages to convey the role it played in their lives. In "Bohunks From The Hills" she describes them thus, "those badlands are lonely lands/despite childhood joys/misplaced memories/these hills hold neither charm nor hope/remind instead that loss/is so sadly permanent."

The poems in this section follow the maternal line of her family from when they first arrived in Canada down through the generations. Occasionally a poem will be from the perspective of one of her ancestors, describing how she fell in love with the man she married, while other poems fill us in on the attitudes of other people towards the "Bohunks". As many of the immigrants ended up working in the coal mines, references to coal and the toll it took on those who dug it run through a number of the poems like a vein of the ore they suffered to bring to the surface. "coal seeps into pores, the mind/sullies a man's outlook/steals the sunlight and substitutes/a black vitriolic madness." ("Coal Mad"- How The Light Is Spent, Sobat, Gail Sidonie p8)

As we follow the lives of the women the poet describes we see how they we're shaped by the way the mines affected husbands. In one poem, "From Rosedale To Cambria Suite" we learn the details of one woman's childhood. Her father working in the mines and coming home embedded with coal. Her mother growing old before her time in the constant struggle to feed and shelter her family until finally "your mother's heart burst at last/worn out from trying to live". Her father remarried a woman with five children of her own and at ten years old she wasn't wanted, at fifteen she was sent out in the world to earn a living.

Each of the poems in this section describe another piece of the journey along the road this woman travelled in her life. From falling in love at seventeen, her boyfriend's refusal to tie himself to the mines and decision to join the army as a way of avoiding digging coal, to her being left widowed with a young daughter in 1943. As well as the poems, Sobat has included photos of the people she talks about, the photos from her family albums which inspired the work. They stand posed and smiling for the camera creating a veneer of happiness to be pasted over the truth of their history. However as the final lines in "P/O M. E. VanDeKinder" say "there are no happy endings/just the brief joys of living/and if lucky, loving/a boy from the hills even once".
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The section of the book titled "Sailing To Byzantium" deals with a description of a voyage to Turkey. While some of the poems deal with the culture shock experienced by a Westerner travelling in a culture almost completely alien to them, others deal with the feelings of wonder at being in a place so completely different from what a person is used to. In "bottle blond on the golden horn" the poet reflects on the former, "I see the bridge and the minaret/against a filthy dawn sky/cough up yesterday's dirt and grime/wonder if there's anything/clean and pure to be found/in this Janus-faced city". However in "Istanbul #2" she is much more appreciative of the city's differences. "to touch the woven fibres/made by women sold by men/in centuries-old bazaar/sip hospitable teas/with barterers smiling benignly through tooth rot", is only part of her description of the wonders of the famous street markets of Istanbul.

However, what I found most interesting about this series of poems was her using the ancient Christian name of Byzantium for the region. I wondered why she referred to what was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire by this extremely archaic name? Is it to remind us of the impermanence of all empires? Or by referring to it by the name the region has often been called in Romantic poetry does she hope to heighten the contrast between the gritty reality she finds there and any romantic notions she might have had about the area prior to her arrival. If the latter, than she is remarkably successful. The descriptions we read in her poems about Turkey, Istanbul specifically, are of a big dirty city like any other, with only hints of its former glory.

After travelling in time and across the world with Sobat, the poems in the final section of the book show her turning her eye slightly inward. Here she reflects on various people and incidences which describe the simple acts of living and how her energy, "The Light", is spent on them. Whether it a celebration of a slightly hedonistic meal in "pilgrimage to Hardware Grill", and its honouring of the earthy delights of a gourmet meal and good wine; "smiling Russell suavely/sets before us verdant greens/succulence swims in sauce/garrulous garlic wafts willfully/tastes scents textures/exotic exacting/our glasses/our hearts/are full/and we give thanks"; or the more profane "Fecal Incident on the Sunshine Coast"; "the dog took a dump in the Pacific Ocean/as we horrified, mortified watched/even the seagull flapped off in disgust"; each poem in this section is a slice of an everyday life lived,

Here she shows us history is not only made up of momentous occasions from the past, nor do we have to travel half way around the world to have new and varied experiences. In fact each moment we live, each action we take, are part of the creation of history no matter where we are or who we are with. The stories we tell each other everyday are as redolent with significance as those we've learned about the struggles of our ancestors to survive or the adventures we've experienced among other people and cultures.

History is definitely far more than just the actions of famous people written down in text books for us and others to study in school. While history texts might tell us about the famous battles and the heroes and villains who fought on every side, it's the poet who looks between the cracks and tells us about the people who ate, worked, loved and died in these wars and the families they left behind. In How The Light Is Spent Sobat has created a personal history which not only tells the story of her family and her self in this world, but helps us see the world is far more complex, beautiful and awe inspiring place than any text book could hope to tell us. This is history as it should be, told through the pen of a poet with an eye for the important details of life.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review:" How The Light Is Spent" by Gail Sidonie Sobat)

June 4, 2013

Book Review: a seed within by Bruce Kauffman


Unfortunately most of us look upon poetry as something unintelligible and not to be read for pleasure. In fact most of us probably don't even think of poetry. If reading prose as a form of entertainment has gradually lost its popular appeal because of other entertainment on offer, poetry isn't even considered an option. However if you could bring yourself to read a book of contemporary poetry I think you'd be surprised at how easy it is for you to identify with what today's poets are writing about. Like any artist he or she looks at the world around them and does their best to recreate what they see in a few carefully chosen words. For while a prose writer might take two hundred pages to expand upon a theme, a poet tries to distill the essence of their subject in a couple of hundred words or less.

Initially you may think a poet is being deliberately obscure because they never seem to say exactly what they mean. Yet, it's the abstract poems which are not only the most powerful, but which end up being able to speak to more people than the one written in so called plain English. Like the abstract painter who captures an emotional moment on canvas anybody, no matter what their life experience, can relate to, the poet finds a way for their creation to be about something everybody can relate to. You need look no further than the latest collection of poetry by Kingston Ontario Canada poet Bruce Kauffman, a seed within, published by Hidden Book Press, to see wonderful examples of poetry which will strike a chord of recognition in anybody no matter their background.
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Kauffman's poems look at the world with a kind of wide eyed wonder. That's not to say they're naive or even childlike, it's more they suggest an amazed appreciation for the variety and diversity of the human experience and the universe. It's as if the poet has been able to put himself in a place where he is able to recreate what it would be like to experience everything for the first time. To his credit Kauffman doesn't limit these expressions to things we would consider positive, but covers the full spectrum of what might be experienced emotionally, physically and spiritually during the course of a lifetime.

He accomplishes this through the simple process of observing and recording. Each poem is like a delicate specimen pinned delicately and preserved in pristine elegance under glass for us to study at our leisure. Each carefully chosen word leads into the next, building upon each other's meaning, until jigsaw puzzle like, the individual pieces coalesce into an image. Unlike a puzzle, whose component elements are meaningless fragments, these pieces have a distinct character. Like life, none of the emotions or ideas expressed by these poems occurs in a vacuum and are always the result of some action or events.

Looking at the poem "torrent" we can see Kauffman doesn't merely describe an experience, he allows readers to see and feel what has gone into its making. He starts by describing a rainfall, first from the perspective of the rain; "comes the rain/as if it knew/knows/a world/and a heart/wait to be/cleansed", and then from the rivers and waterfalls who have been anticipating its arrival; "knew of its coming/before the shadows of clouds/carpeted themselves on bank and rock". However, the final two stanzas reveal the "torrent" being described is something more than just a simple downpour, he's been describing the process of the emotional buildup leading to tears. "but how long/ does it take/ a teardrop/ to roll/ across a/ continent/and how long/before/it reaches/there/did she/taste/its salt"

We might be able to anticipate sadness like bodies of water have foreknowledge of a rainfall. However, there is a major difference between knowing something is going to happen and actually experiencing it. The words Kauffman has used in the poem not only suggest the complexities of emotion behind a single tear, but shows us the process of its development. Through his depiction of every stage along the way, we gain a deeper appreciation of both the emotion and how its created.
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As this poem shows, Kauffman's poetry is replete with images from the natural world. Yet he doesn't use them casually or in any of the ways we've become accustomed to seeing them employed. Instead of merely using nature as merely a source of metaphor it assumes its rightful place in our world. Everything we do is played out against the backdrop of the world around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Long before humans dominated the world with our presence the rocks and stones were here, and they'll still be here after we're long gone.

For while in poems like "friendship" he uses water to describe something of the nature of the word, "friendship is the water in our lives/coming with/moving against/the dryness/of calendar/clock", in the poem "threads" the natural world is the permanent fixture against which our transience is played out. "with air and water watching/each of us/endlessly moving/along this path/from that which was to that which is/". While the poem depicts how we are a continuation of what came before by describing our life as being a single thread "from the ball of all thread of lifetimes woven" and how, no matter what we do with our lives someone or something will come after us, "and each of us/the needle guiding this thread/this colour/into this tapestry of days and nights/and leaving again/at the end/a single thread", what stays with us is the opening lines, "with air and water watching".

No matter what we do, no matter who we become, and no matter how many generations came before or might follow after us, we will never be as permanent as the natural world. Those first five words remind us we're not the centre of the universe, but only a minor player in the overall scheme of things as far as the rest of the world is concerned. We build huge monuments to ourselves but time, water and air will erode them all. In this one poem Kauffman captures how we are a continuation of what's come before us and our part in shaping what comes after us while reminding us we're only part of something even bigger.

After reading a collection of poetry like a seed within you can't help but feel regret more people aren't interested enough to read poetry. Poets like Kauffman have the ability to not only bring elements of the human condition to life in ways which would help people understand themselves better, but to put our lives into their proper perspective in regards to the world around us. You'll learn more about the world and yourself by reading this one small book of poetry than you will from watching hundreds of hours of television or reading any number of books. Not only that, you just might find yourself enjoying it.

If you happen to be in the Kingston Ontario vicinity on Wednesday June 5 2013, Kauffman will be reading from a seed within at Novel Idea bookstore, 156 Princess St. as part of a double book launch starting at 7:00p.m.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: a seed within by Bruce Kauffman)

March 26, 2013

Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment With Mr. Yeats


While many people think song lyrics and poetry are interchangeable, the truth of the matter is there are very few song writers whose work matches up against poetry. On the other hand, just because a poem is wonderful to read doesn't mean it would necessarily make a good song. For while lyrics are written with the intent of setting them to music, including such considerations as melody and rhythm, a poet rarely concerns him or herself with those issues. People like Leonard Cohen, who records his poetry as songs with little or no alteration to their lyrics or meaning, are an exception.

Maybe that's one of the reasons such a relatively small amount of pre existing poetry is set to music. Certainly there have been attempts, but considering the amount of English language poetry available, the number is insignificant. So when I heard that Mike Scott &The Waterboys had released an album of music based on the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats I was intrigued. Originally released in 2011 in the UK on Proper Records An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is now available in North America.

The album was obviously a labour of love for Scott as it wasn't something he rushed into. Over the course of two decades he gradually chose and adapted the poems used on this recording. His intent was to make a collection of songs which would sound no different from other Waterboys' recordings, with lyrics written by a guest artist. "The best thing is when people don't realize they were written a hundred years ago, but just hear them and think, 'That's a song", he's quoted as saying in the press materials accompanying the CD.
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I don't think anyone is going to mistake the language of poetry written in the early part of the twentieth century for something penned today. I'm sure there are songwriters who may write about the same subject matter, Celtic and Greek mythology and philosophers of the ancient world like Pythagorus, but I seriously doubt they would use the same turns of phrase as Yeats. However Scott and the Waterboys have certainly succeeded in turning the poems selected into modern songs. Anyone familiar with the band's sound from earlier albums This Is The Sea and Fisherman's Blues will recognize their distinctive flavour throughout this disc.

The question is does this marriage of modern post punk pop and early 20th century poetry work? Some purists might find Scott's interpretations difficult and jarring because of the nature of their sound. However, if you listen to the lyrics accompanying the music, you'll realize Scott has done a wonderful job of creating music which expresses the emotions and thoughts in the poem. The song leading off the disc, "The Hosting Of The Shee", (or Sidhe) celebrates mythical Celtic warrior heroes. marching off to war. "The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round/Our cheeks are pale, our hair unbound/Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are apart/And if any gaze on our rushing band/We come between him and the deed of his hand/We come between him and the hope of his heart."

The music accompanying these lyrics express both the thrill of watching these mythical warriors of the fairy world marching off to war while at the same time capturing the effects of their passing on the natural world. As you listen to the words of the poem come together with the music you can visualize the wild and fey army marching through the world and nature reacting to their passage. It's as frightening and jarring as you might imagine it would be witnessing the passage of such creatures.

Of course Yeats didn't just write about mystical and ancient Ireland, he wrote about what he saw around him as well. Scott makes sure we remember that by including a version of "September 1913", Yeats' poem about what's come to be known as the Dublin Lockout. Labourers had gone on strike for better working conditions and were betrayed by the church and Irish politicians. In his poem Yeats asks is this what our freedom fighters died for? Did we throw off the yoke of one master only to trade it for another? "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave".
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If that wasn't potent enough for you, Scott has also included a version of the simple yet haunting "Let The Earth Bear Witness". It's a beautiful prayer of remembrance for those who have the bravery to resist oppression in spite of the personal cost. Yeats wrote it as a general paean for all those who have given of themselves in the hopes others might have a better life. "They shall be remembered for ever/They shall be alive for ever/They shall be speaking for ever/The people shall hear them for ever/Let the sea bear witness/Let the wind bear witness/Let the earth bear witness/Let the stars bear witness".

Scott has chosen to identify the song with the Iranian people who took to the streets a couple of years ago in an attempt to change their world only to be crushed under foot by the regime. In the video for the song he sets the tune to footage of the protests and the ensuing crackdown in an effort to keep the memory of those brave people alive. Here again he and the band have created music appropriate to the poem's spirit and words by letting their simplicity and starkness speak for themselves.

In order to do proper justice to the diversity of thought and emotion found in the poetry of a man like Yeats a band has to be able to carry off not only a variety of musical styles but be willing to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the work. The Waterboys have the versatility and artistry required to take you out of this world into the realm of magic and myth and to bring you solidly back down to earth to face reality just like the poetry of Yeats did to its readers a 100 years ago. In the process of doing so they, and especially Scott as lead singer, turn themselves into conduits for the poet's thoughts and ideas. Like the best actors they remember its the message that's important, not the messenger.

An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is one of those rare treats in popular music where the words and music come together in a perfect marriage. Not only does the music reflect the emotional context of the words they accompany, but the band has also managed to find a way to create an atmosphere for each song which makes them living and breathing creations. Even better is the fact they do this while remaining true to the spirit of the poems and the poet's intentions. The words of William Butler Yeats have never sounded so alive and so real.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment with Mr. Yeats on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit for picture of The Waterboys Live In Dublin - Paul MacManus


February 9, 2013

Book Review: The Theatre Of e. e. cummings Edited by George Frimage


Most people, if they've heard of him at all, will identify the name of e. e. cummings (Edward Estlin) as the American poet who didn't like capital letters. Even in the spelling of his own name he eschewed the normal use of upper case letters. What they might not know about cummings was the body of work he produced aside from poetry. There were his works of prose recounting both his time as a volunteer ambulance driver in France during WW 1, the enormous room, and his time spent in communist Russia in 1931 in the novel Eimi. He was also a painter. In fact he had initially set out to be a painter, travelling to Paris in 1919 to study art. While he eventually focused his energies primarily on writing, he continued to paint for the rest of his life and he published several books of poetry and prose which he provided the illustrations for.

On top of this extensive library of work he also wrote four pieces for the stage; three plays and a treatment for a ballet based on the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. While there have been a number of plays produced based on cumming's poetic works, of his three actual plays, Him, Santa Claus and Anthropos, only the first has ever been staged. While all four works for the stage were each individually published initially, only Him was released in something other than a limited edition. Eventually all four were gathered together and published under the title of Three Plays and a Ballet in 1967. Out of print since 1970, it has now been reissued under the title The Theatre of e. e. cummings by Liveright Press, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company and distributed by Penguin Canada.

In his poetry cummings dealt with themes ranging from the nature of love to social/political issues of his day. While he would put down American consumerism he was also opposed to anything he saw as a threat to what he considered sacrosanct, the individuality of the artist. His experiences with Stalin's form of communism garnered while traveling in Russia were enough to convince him there wouldn't be any room in that system for free thinking. Critics on both the left and the right dismissed his work as politically naive and overly romantic. However, close reading of his poetry shows he, like almost no other American poet, showed a man in love with the ideals upon which his country was founded. While everyone else might be giving lip service to things like the freedom of the individual, cummings celebrated its true meaning.
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It didn't mean a person should be able to do what he wanted at the expense of others. Nor did it mean everybody should desire to amass material goods and personal wealth. You should be free to celebrate the act of living, loving, being and experiencing the world. His poems were chaotic explosions of words which took readers on flights of fancy. They encouraged readers to think outside the box of success being measured by the accumulation of wealth. In the four works for stage in this volume not only are these themes expressed, you will see how throughout the span of his writing life cummings continued to experiment with language and the ways it could be used for communication.

Him, the earliest piece written in 1927, is a mixture of realism and absurdity. There are two central characters, the playwright Him and his mistress Me. Interspersed between their scenes together are, we are led to believe, scenes from the play Him is currently struggling to write. However the various scenes we are presented with seem to have no relationship with each other. They range from an elaborately staged musical number based on the folk song "Frankie and Johnny" to absurdist skits with a variety of characters. At various points characters who appeared in earlier scenes show up again, but are loosely disguised as someone else. It's clear cummings wants the audience to know this is still the same character pretending to be someone else.

The action between Him and Me takes place over what is apparently a number of years and follows the ups and downs of their relationship. His struggles with the creation of his art run concurrent with their struggles with love. While he doesn't appear to have any problems expressing his passion for his art, he always resorts to absurdities and playacting when it comes to expressing how he feels about Me. As a result the play contains some of the most beautiful and stirring language concerning the creation of art and the nature of love you'll ever read. ..."And always I'm repeating a simple and dark and little formula...always myself mutters and remutters a trivial colourless microscopic idiom - I breathe, and I swing; and I whisper: "An artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED". (The Theatre of e. e. cummings (HIM) Liveright Press 2013 New York p.12)

Both Anthropos (1930) and Santa Claus (1946) are more in the line of social commentary and satire. Unlike Him both are quite short and focus on a single theme. In the first cummings uses cave men like beings, he calls them infrahumans, to comment on the role of art in society. For while three infrahumans are trying to come up with slogan to motivate their fellows one is busy creating a cave drawing depicting their life. While they eventually decide on evolution as their slogan, their means of devising it reduces it to something meaningless so it becomes just another cliche.
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In Santa Claus cummings has created a commentary on what he sees as the great imbalance in the world. We put great store in science and knowledge, but love is given short shrift. The character of Santa Claus, wandering alone and bereft, encounters Death. Death convinces him happiness can be found through Science and Knowledge. However, it's not until Santa Claus is reunited with his long lost wife and daughter, and by extension, love, he finds happiness. Subtitled "A Morality Tale", this short play is a little simplistic, but this does nothing do depreciate the author's point. Science might be able to explain things, but it can't teach us to appreciate something for its beauty. Its about finding a balance between the mind and the heart in order to fully appreciate the world.

The final piece in this book is probably the most difficult, the outline for a ballet based on Harriet Beatrice Stowe's book Uncle Tom called simply Tom. cummings divides the story into four episodes with each one depicting an important part of the book. However, instead of merely describing the action he gives detailed descriptions of the type of movements the dancers should be performing and the emotions that motivate them "George, right-frontstage,whirlleaps inward, catching Eliza when she is about to fall - files of dogmen swoop from left- and right-midstage convergingly outward - enter, right-and left-backstage, a group of men and group of women (the Friends or Quakers) all dressed in grey; all holding bibles over their hearts" (The Theatre of e.e.cummings -Tom Liveright Press New York 2013 p. 170)

Anyone familiar with cummings' poetry will recognize the manner in which he manipulates language in order to allow it to express more then it was originally intended. The above excerpt from Tom is a mild example of how he employed those techniques in this instance to both give instructions to potential dancers and choreographers and to heighten the experience for those simply reading the piece. In fact, one of the amazing things about reading Tom is how cummings creates the sensations of dance with just his words. His words actually convey movement and have a fluidity that catches the grace and expressiveness of dance.

The Theatre Of e. e. cummings sees the return to print of four pieces in the e. e. cummings' canon that have been unavailable for far too long. Fans of his poetry will appreciate how he manages to incorporate both his sense of the absurd and his appreciation for the beauty of the world around him into his prose. Plays like Him show not only was cummings breaking new ground in poetry with his experiments with language, but the conventions of the theatre as well. Further proof, if any were necessary, that he was the first great modernist American writer.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Theatre of e. e. cummings Edited by George Firmage on Blogcritics.)



January 5, 2013

Book Review: (Poetry) The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman


The great American poet e. e. cummings said "Poetry happens to be an art". If you look up happens in the dictionary you'll find when used as a verb, as in this case, it means something that ensues as an effect or result of an action or an event. However, when used in the phrase "as it happens" it can also mean "as a matter of fact". cummings wasn't one to use words idly, he could have said "poetry is an art", but he chose not to in order to say something about the nature of poetry. As the latter definition says much the same thing as the simple "is an art" statement, I think he was leaning towards the first definition. Poetry occurs, and it is an art.

However poetry doesn't just happen to be art by default. There has been plenty of verse, blank or otherwise, put down on paper no one would consider art. Heck, there's plenty of stuff fitting that description I wouldn't dignify with the name poetry, or its authors as poets, let alone art. Poetry as art only occurs as a result of the actions of a poet of singular abilities. Kingston Ontario, Canada resident Bruce Kauffman's new book of poetry, published by Hidden Brook Press, The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf, happens to be the work of such a poet.

The creation of poetry is akin to walking a tightrope. Words are shaped with the intent of stimulating the reader's intellect in such a way they create an emotional resonance within them. If the perfect balance between brain and heart aren't maintained readers either end up feeling manipulated or nothing at all. One of the first things you'll notice upon reading any of Kauffman's poetry is how he never slips to either side. Not once do you feel like you're being pushed, or even nudged, to feel anything. Instead, as you read you find yourself walking in step with him down whatever path he's exploring, but being given the freedom to experience it for yourself. He might point out the landmarks he thinks are important, but he leaves you free to react to them as you wish.
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One of the reasons Kauffman is such a good guide is his ability to bring the world of each poem to life. Instead of simply reading the words on the page visuals are evoked in your mind. However, unlike a work of fiction where the visuals you're inspired to create establish the physical environment a work takes place in, in this case they establish an emotional landscape. Using imagery taken from the natural world he is able create pictures in our heads which accentuate the emotional content of the poem. In the poem "Reading", describing listening to an author read, Kauffman gives us the following image, "her words/with the wings/of raven/flew into the twilight/and back through/the night/hung in the air/like a snowflake/in autumn/then turned into angels/as her voice/cleared the sky"

If you've ever been to a reading you'll know how at times you can enter an almost trance like state listening to an author recite his or her work. Words really do seem to fly across the room towards you and you attempt to catch them, and their meanings with your mind. Like an early snowfall the words are beautiful as they float down to earth but it won't be long before they vanish. Kauffman was also very deliberate in his choice of a raven in this piece. In some Native American traditions Raven is the creator of life. In Kauffman's preface to the book he talks about how a certain reading series he attended served to inspire his poetry and provided the impetus for him to start writing again. Describing the words as taking flight with the wings of a raven suggests both something of the creative energy residing in them and the urge to create they inspired.

In their attempts at creating atmosphere I've noticed poets will use words in one of two very distinct methods. There are those who wash words over reader in waves. In some ways the sound of the language employed is as almost as important as the word's actual meaning in conveying the emotional intent of the poem. Like the tide there is an ebb and flow to this type of work and the words eventually peak and in theory carry the reader along on their crest. While there is a certain appeal to this kind of work I find those poets who are able to communicate emotion through the careful selection of just the right word far more effective.

Whereas the former seems to be hoping if they say enough they will eventually have an impact on their audience, the latter shows a thoughtfulness that suggests an appreciation for the power of language and the artistry required to employ it effectively. Poetry is an example of a case where less is definitely more. If you had any doubts about this reading Kauffman's collection will quickly assuage them as you see how he is able to say so much with so little.
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Look at the lines quoted from "Reading" again and how much he has managed to convey. He has managed to describe what it's like sitting in an audience at a reading, the effect the words had on him personally, and comment on the power of the poet's writing. Each word has been carefully selected for what it communicates to the reader either directly or through suggestion. At the same time there is an effortlessness to their flow making it seem like the lines occurred to the poet spontaneously while sitting in the audience. Kauffman may very well have spent hours agonizing over his word choice, but you can't tell by reading them.

Poetry, like abstract art, jazz and classical music relies on the artist's ability to communicate emotions and ideas without spelling them out. The visual artist uses colour and shape, a composer uses sound and tempo and the poet words and how they appear on the page in order to convey their individual messages. Maybe I'm prejudiced but I think the poet's task is by far the hardest. For while colour and sound can make a direct appeal to emotions words must be processed rationally in order for us to feel anything.

Therefore the poet must not only find the words to express what he wants to say, but ones which will have the greatest chance of passing her message along to as many people as possible. If what you have to say is important enough for you to endure the struggle of putting it down on paper, you are going to want as many as possible to understand what you're saying. While Kauffman's poetry is by no means easy read, it's also not obscure or incomprehensible. In each poem, readers will find their own portal leading into the heart of the subject which, in turn, will open a door to their own hearts.

Kauffmans's The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf will be available as of January 11 2013. (If you're in Kingston Ontario on that day go to the Grad Club, 162 Barrie St for the book launch starting at 8:00pm). You can obtain a copy of the book by ordering from your local book store or through various Amazon sites world wide in either hard copy or e-book. Poetry of this quality doesn't just happen, its the work of a gifted writer and artist. Even if you wouldn't normally be drawn to buying a book of poems, do yourself a favour, take a chance and read this collection and discover how words can be used to move us just as readily as music and painting.

(Article first published as Book Review: (Poetry): The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman on Blogcritics.)

December 23, 2012

Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack


I've written the occasional poem, but under no circumstances would I ever consider myself a poet. There's a world of difference between writing a poem and being a poet. However, trying to articulate exactly what separates poets from the rest of us, from other writers even, is not the easiest thing in the world either. In her latest book, With Robert Lowell and His Circle, published by the University Press of New England (UPNE), poet and author Kathleen Spivack, has managed to pull the veil back on this mystery through her look back on her years with the great 20th century American poet Robert Lowell.

In 1959 Spivack received a bursary to study with Lowell in Boston in lieu of her senior year at university. Through the process of recounting her days as first his student and then friend and confidant she not only paints a picture of this great, and greatly disturbed artist, but introduces us to the other brilliant minds she came in contact with as a result of her relationship with Lowell. From her fellow classmates in that first year's seminar, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to other lessor known but equally gifted artists, each of them are lovingly remembered as both individuals and as poets.

Initially we see these great figures through the eyes of the nervous and insecure student who finds herself alone in a strange and cold city. Boston, Harvard University, Boston University and New England are characters of equal, if not greater, significance than many of the individuals she meets. Intimidating, cold, rigidly bound by its conservative class structure and rabidly misogynist attitudes (as late as the 1980s Harvard University would boast it would rather face law suits than give equal opportunities to women) the atmosphere wasn't one guaranteed to set a young woman at ease. When combined with showing up in Boston only to find her teacher "unavailable" due to having suffered a nervous breakdown, it didn't make for a very auspicious start to her dreams of being a poet.
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Even when classes finally start she finds herself at sea. Lowell isn't what any of us would call a typical teacher. Our initial impression is of someone who is as far removed from reality as we can imagine. He obsesses about the meaning of a single line in a poem asking "What does it mean" over and over again. However it appears he's holding a conversation with himself as almost none of his students dare to interject. He also appears to be incredibly judgemental, asking whether some poet is "major or minor" with the answer being based on criteria nobody else is quite able to fathom. Imagine being a young and almost painfully shy student even daring to bring her own work to this class and having it put through this type of analyses in front of you.

However, Lowell, for all his eccentricities, does take her in hand and introduces her to those he thinks will be of help to her. In this manner Spivack is brought into the circle of poets who are both his students and associates. Through her meetings with Sexton, Plath and other female poets we are introduced to the horrors societal pressure can wrack upon a creative woman. The picture Spivack draws makes it clear how much the New England disdain, and especially Harvard University's, for women led to their downfall.Trying to conform to the dutiful housewife image expected of them by the society they found themselves in must have been bad enough. Compounding this was the indignity of seeing men of no greater talent receiving the recognition denied them through publication and acceptance. This must have been an incredibly bitter pill for them to swallow. Maybe both Plath and Sexton would have taken their own lives in the end anyway - Sexton seems to have had a fascination with suicide - but the circumstances they found themselves in couldn't have helped.

Of course it wasn't just the women who suffered. As we watch Spivack get to know Lowell over the course of the years, from 1959 until his death in 1977 from a sudden heart attack, we learn the breakdown he was suffering from when she first arrived wasn't an isolated incident. A manic-depressive, Lowell was in and out of institutions for most of the time Spivack knew him. Learning to recognize the symptoms of an approaching breakdown she would deliberately start to distance herself from him when they started to manifest. His behaviour, erratic at the best of times, during these build ups made him unbearable for her to be around. Ironically once he was committed, her house was one of the few places considered safe enough for him to visit on day release.

If Lowell was obsessive in his analysis of others work, it was nothing compared to the rigours he subjected his own writing. Spivack tells of knowing of upwards of 200 drafts existing in the case of certain poems. Even after a poem's publication Lowell would continue with his revisions, searching for the absolutely perfect word and line. Yet it wasn't necessarily the search for perfection that was so harmful. Like his contemporaries among the women poets the need to conform to society's expectations of gender played havoc on Lowell and other male poets of Spivack's acquaintance. Men were supposed to be hard drinking, stoical and above all unemotional beings who followed manly pursuits like hunting and definitely didn't do anything so effete as become poets.

While the men might have had the support of the academic establishment and those behind the scene in the literary world, they were still expected to be "men". Is it any wonder Alan Ginsberg wrote "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" in his great poem Howl? Men and women poets, people with minds beautifully tuned to the rhythms of the universe like nobody else, were slowly driven mad by having live almost dual lives. Those among them who were homosexual suffered even more, but it was just as bad for the straights as well. Poets were all in the closet as they were forced to hide sensitive natures or steal seconds in which to write the poetry that allowed them feel alive.
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Spivack was blessed, and is wonderfully honest about admitting this, with being in the right place at the right time. Initially I was rather disconcerted by the fact the book seemed more autobiographical than about those whom the title suggests its about. However, as the book progresses and we see how the lives of these amazing poets come to interweave with her own I began to appreciate her decision to take this approach. Many of the figures in this book are known to us only through poems in anthologies or through dry academic biographies. Meeting them through Spivack's memories not only lifts them out of the books and off the page, it turns them into people of flesh and blood.

It also has the wonderful effect of breathing life into their poetry. After reading about the sweat and blood they would pour into each of their creations I want to go back and read their work again. For when I do, they won't just be words on a page anymore written by some anonymous person whom I'm supposed to admire because history tells me to, they'll be poems by a real person. Somebody whose kitchen I've sat in, who I listened to as they agonized over whether a line or even a word was right and who laughed and cried like any of us, but then had the bravery to attempt to put those feelings down on paper.

Spivack does the extraordinary of making the poets in her book both ordinary and special at the same time. Ordinary, in the fact they are her friends whom she sees on a regular basis during the 1960s and 1970s, and special for the legacy of brilliance they have left for us. Lowell, who mentored Spivack and other writers, suffered and struggled to overcome the antipathy the world around them had towards his passion not only managed to produce works of genius but take others in hand and help them fulfill their potential.

Spviack's portrayal of Lowell in particular, but the others as well, is both heartfelt and honest. Unlike an "official biographer" who is boringly objective in their depictions, she has no qualms about letting her affection for her subjects shine through or letting us know how much she admired somebody. However, she's not blind to their faults either and is unstinting in her honesty when listing them. At the same time she doesn't try to hide the fact these are her impressions of these people. She does give us indications of other people's impressions of them, Lowell especially, by including quotes from her contemporaries at the end of almost every chapter which address an aspect of their character.

While this book is by no means a definitive study of the work and lives of the poets you'll meet within its pages, it provides an even far more valuable service. It allows us the chance to look behind their reputations and the myths that have grown up around them to see them as the complex and interesting people they were. This book is probably the best introduction to the world of American poetry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s you're liable to read.

Article first published as Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack on Blogcritics.)

August 8, 2012

Book Review: On Edge By Bob MacKenzie


Reviewing poetry is a tricky matter. Unlike a work of prose fiction you can't usually judge the work based on an author's ability to create believable characters, write a plot or any of the other yardsticks you'd use to measure a novel's worth. While any piece of writing's impact will vary from reader to reader, poetry is by far the most subjective. Not only will different people react in radically different ways to the same poem, an individual's reactions to a poem can change depending on the mood they're in or how they are feeling on a particular day. However that's not to say there aren't ways to evaluate a poet's abilities. For most poetry the key is remembering not to intellectualize the process but to assess the work based on the reactions it triggers. Do you have an emotional or intellectual reaction, or both, to the work? Why was the poet successful, or unsuccessful, in eliciting either reaction from you?

There are poets who use imagery, draw pictures with their words, in an attempt to express something and there are poets who use words as building blocks in order to create an overall feeling or mood. Then there are those rare individuals who manage to integrate both techniques. Images and words together form a type of collage of emotions and ideas on the page. Sometimes the results are a confused mess communicating nothing. In the hands of a skilled poet though, you end up with a poem with the ability to communicate with nearly everyone. In his latest collection of poetry, On Edge, currently available through Dark Matter Press, Kingston, Ontario Canada poet Bob MacKenzie, shows his mastery of both form and content with a series of thought provoking and soul stirring poems.
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Do not be fooled by the volumes apparent slimness, sixteen poems in thirty-three pages, as its physical size in no way reflects what resides within the covers. In fact, given the intensity of the pieces and the subject matter they deal with, its the perfect length, Anymore would have been too much to ask a reader to digest. For MacKenzie has delved into territory that not only isn't often the subject of poetry but which most people don't even like to acknowledge as a fact of life in our society. Abuse, specifically the abuse children suffer at the hands of the adults supposedly responsible for protecting them from the cares of the world. MacKenzie's poems aren't content with focusing on the descent into darkness suffered by those on the receiving end, he also looks into the heart of darkness at the other end of the equation. For in order for there to be a victim there has to be someone who causes the pain.

There's nothing graphic about these poems, except maybe for the rawness of the emotions expressed in them, and perhaps they would have been less disturbing if there were some hint of deviant behaviour. For, and this is awful to say, we have become somewhat inured to stories involving the degradation of our fellow human beings, be they children or adult and have learned how to shield ourselves from feeling their pain. What MacKenzie gives us is something far more difficult to deal with. In poems like "The Sacred Heart" and "Stigmata" we witness the pain of a parent watching their child's slow descent into darkness from the injuries they suffered at the hands of another. Though these poems, and others, are told from the view point of the parent seeing their child, MacKenzie ensures we are well aware this is merely a reflection of the greater damage - what has happened to the child.
"I can only love you/only stand and hold you/until the pain is gone/until it comes again/and fills me with your pain". ("Stigmata" Bob MacKenzie On Edge p.15 Dark Matter Press Kingston Canada 2012)

In "Saint Joan" MacKenzie turns his sights on the self-righteous individuals who down through the ages have sat in judgement on what they don't understand and made decisions based on rumours, gossip, hearsay and their own personal agendas. From late in the nineteenth century until today people like these have been taking children away from their parents without thought or regard to what happens to either party. "You know you are the saviour of little children/absolved in whatever you do by your own faith/you know you are the saviour of little children/you know you must destroy all who stand in your way". ("Saint Joan", Bob MacKenzie, On Edge p.7 Dark Matter Press, Kingston Canada 2012.) Here MacKenzie not only creates an archetypical picture of what kind of person would be capable of ripping families apart, through the words he's employed in describing her he also stirs an emotional reaction in the reader and shows their so called good intentions for what they really are.

One would think from the description of the poems I've offered, and the subject matter, that On Edge would be both uniformly dark and depressing to read. However, MacKenzie is not just digging a pit for us to fall into. Nor is he one of these poets who enjoys wallowing in the dank end of the emotional pool for the effect it will have on his readers. There are clues this is not the case even before one begins to read the poems themselves. First, in his dedicating the book to those who "have dared to fight back against the intractable night" and second in his inclusion of this quote from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem", "Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in".
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While the rays of light might not be on obvious display in each poem, MacKenzie is too gifted a poet to give into cliche or compromise his writing by offering a happy ending to appease delicate sensibilities, they are there for those willing to look for it. Each poem, with a few exceptions, is infused with love for its subject. Love which is heartbreaking in its hope and unconditional acceptance of the person under attack. Love which is the cornerstone of our unknown narrator's belief in their loved one's ability to come through the darkness they're experiencing and live to see the light again. The two longest poems in the book, "The Girl" and "Edge", each in their own way, are reminders the dark does not have be the only option.

In the first he builds a picture of a girl being smothered by darkness and how it feels all encompassing. Yet even in this instance the night must end eventually and no matter how lost we might feel the day will come again. Although the ray of hope MacKenzie offers is thin, only appearing in the last stanza of the five page poem, it is enough for us to believe there is a way out. "Edge" is a different matter, as it deals with the way we perceive the world. It would be easy to look around, especially as a poet or any type of artist, and obsess on the darkness we see and feel in everything. Standing on the edge as witnesses we feel the hurts of the world and have no illusions of the cruelties the world is capable of delivering upon individuals. "I've lived too long too near the edge/stood too close to where it happens/seen what I should not have seen/and heard it all and hear it still/in living dreams I can not escape".("Edge" Bob MacKenzie On Edge p. 30 Dark Matter Press Kingston Canada 2012)

While it is easier to talk about the ills of the world, and by extension to write about it (why do you think people like Stephen King sell so many books? Darkness is popular) our eyes and senses play tricks on us, preventing us from seeing the light which gives birth to the shadows. MacKenzie, in this poem and others, makes sure to remind us, one way or another, shadows can not exist without light. In amongst the play of words and imagery that have gone into creating the darkness and shadows in each poem there exists one strand of light woven into each one's fabric.

Having personally walked through the type of darkness MacKenzie describes in his poetry I know all too well how unremitting and relentless it can appear. Yet, no matter what we are going through the world continues on as it always has, filled with its miracles and mysteries that are a wonder and a joy. While the poems in this book don't shy away from the dark, they're not in love with it either. Light is all around us, we just need to want to see it. These poems may break your heart on occasion, but you won't be allowed to forget there's more to the world than depression and darkness. There might not be any easy route out from the shadows, and MacKenzie doesn't pretend otherwise, but the path does exist.

(Article first published as Book Review (Poetry): On Edge by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.

Author Photo Credit Eriana Marcus

November 8, 2011

Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg

If there was any justice in this world Scott Wannberg would never have been able to leave his house without being hounded by the press. He would have been under a constant spotlight, his every move scrutinized, his every word pored over for controversy and his picture would have shown up on tabloid covers every week. Unfortunately poets in our society don't have the status of celebrities. In another time or another culture his abilities with words might have made him famous, or at the very least infamous. In the courts of the Chinese Emperors civil servants, or mandarins, were judged as much on their ability to compose poetry as their ability to draft policy. Unless obfuscation is considered an art form, times sure have changed.
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All of which means that outside of a relatively small number of people who were blessed with an awareness of his work, Wannberg lived out his live in obscurity. He was fifty-eight when he died on Friday August 19 2011 at his home in Florence Oregon. Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he had moved there from Los Angeles upon the closing of Dutton's bookstore, where he had been a fixture for twenty-five years, in 2008 for health and economic reasons. According to friends quoted in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times Wannberg was constantly writing poetry, whether off the cuff introductions for associates as they entered the store or more traditionally with pen and paper; it was as natural to him as breathing is to most of us. Poetry, according to one friend, allowed Wannberg the chance to formalize his natural inclination to speak in a kind of ongoing stream of consciousness narrative about the world around him.

On September 30 2011 Los Angles based independent publisher Perceval Press released Tomorrow Is Another Song, the second collection of Wannberg's poetry they have published. One of the first impressions I formed upon reading through it was there was a sense of urgency pervading his poetry that was absent form earlier work. I don't think it was any sort of prescience on Wannberg's part concerning his death, it was more like he felt America had been given a very small window of opportunity with the election of Obama, and he could feel it closing almost even before it had been opened.

In earlier poetry he had taken great pleasure in railing against the Bush/Cheney administration and everything they had represented. In biting satires which directly referenced them or in his advocation of things they opposed, he took great pride in describing a vision of America far different from the one they espoused. For Wannberg, like Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings before him, was quintessentially an American poet. He loved the potential the country represented and hated how it was failing to live up to it. In poems encouraging people to find their own song and and not being afraid to hide their light under a bushel basket, or in others where he questioned what kind of world had they created where teenagers attempted to commit suicide, he critiqued the loss of love and hope he saw around him.

I don't know what I expected from this collection of his poems, but I don't think it was, "Everybody says they want to be loved/The say it over and over and over/As soon as they finish hitting me over the head/I will get up and love them." ("Earful Of Sun") However, that was the genius of Wannberg. He was always so far ahead of us in describing what he saw that our expectations couldn't keep up with him. Anyway, why should he live up to anyone's expectations? Why should he all of a sudden start writing about sweetness and light just because the names at the top changed? Maybe, unlike the rest of us who have grown disillusioned with Obama for failing to live up to our expectations by changing the world simply by being elected, Wannberg understood the only way change can happen is if we are willing to change. With all of us yelling "What about me?" at the top of our lungs, we're never going to hear anybody else or understand it's not just the other guy who has to change, we have to as well.

Wannberg spoke/wrote in a voice most Americans (and North Americans from above the 49th parallel) will recognize. His poems are filled with cultural references we are all familiar with and he espouses the core values we all claim to hold so dear. That doesn't mean he mouths platitudes about freedom and independence. What it does mean is his poetry celebrates those who are truly independent and the freedoms nobody wants to protect. It's amazing how so many people yell about their rights to own weapons and the freedom to say how much they hate somebody because of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation and nobody thinks twice about it. Yet those same people don't believe in a woman's freedom of choice or an individual's right to hold the job of their choice no matter who they are.
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It's that hypocrisy that comes under attack in Wannberg's poetry. Unlike others he very rarely attacked individuals or their beliefs (the only exceptions are politicians and the political personalities for whom hypocrisy is a way of life) as he is genuine in his belief that we really could do a better job of being nice to each other. "The stupid angry people smash, gouge, cut, kick, and bite./They do it for love and God and country."("The Angry Stupid People") There are so many voices telling us we shouldn't enjoy ourselves, or that we should be worrying about the state of the world all the time, Wannberg had a better idea. Whether directly or indirectly his poetry encouraged us to celebrate being alive. Embrace the messy, emotional condition of being human. What other choice do you have anyway, might as well enjoy it while we're here. This was from a guy who for the last few years of his life had to travel around with an oxygen tank, yet his poetry was still filled with calls to all of us to find our songs and dance like crazy.

There is music in the American idiom he says,/and wipes his face for the last time,/and begins to think about going up to bed./Tomorrow is another song./Tomorrow will be other patients and/words to discover and stories behind such words/ that illuminate./The game, after all/is one of discovery./The day you stop finding out things/is the day/you might as well/turn yourself in for good." "The Dancer Steps Forward" Scot Wannberg

It's easy to become cynical in the face of so much bullshit. It's easy to throw rocks at those you don't agree with and it's really easy to pretend you don't care. Scot Wannberg cared and wore his heart on his sleeve for all to read. He dug deeply into the soil of America, because like all poets he knew where the bodies were buried. But he was looking to do more than just exhume its dirty secrets, he wasn't merely looking to spatter others with the dirt that flew from his shovel, he dug and dug in order to remind us of the beauty of the heart that's been submerged by two hundred odd years of rhetoric spouted in the name of politics and expediency. One person can't scrape off that much accumulated rust and corrosion, but he can give us a good idea of how to go about getting the job done. For those who have eyes to see and ears to listen Wannberg's poetry provided all the tools necessary - we just have to remember how to use them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg on Blogcritics.)

June 16, 2011

Audio Book Review: Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach Read by Samuel L. Jackson

It's not often that a book for very young children will cause such a sensation that even before it is released it has best seller written all over it. Of course the secret to any book's success is its ability to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and while there have been a few young adult books that have managed that trick it hardly seems possible that a bed time story for children could have the same luck. However, Adam Mansbach's newest title, Go The Fuck To Sleep published by Akashic Books on June 14 2011 is being snapped up all over the English speaking world.
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As you can tell by its title Go The Fuck To Sleep isn't your typical bedtime story. In fact this isn't a book most parents are going to be reading aloud at night to their children, yet that hasn't stopped them from snatching up copies anyway. Of course sales haven't been hurt by the fact the audio book version is being read by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who first gained renown for his portrayal of street smart, and usually foul mouthed, characters. Even before the book had been released recordings of Jackson reading the book had gone viral all over the Internet, including recordings like the one below taken from a radio interview.
[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]
Anybody who has ever tried to convince a young child of the necessity for them to go to bed and fall asleep is going to be able to identify with the parent in this story's attempts to convince his young child to "go the fuck to sleep". Right from the opening stanza you know this is not your typical bed time nursery rhyme. For even though each of the opening few verses begin with delightful images of the world settling down for the night, each ends with the same plaintive request for the toddler to "go the fuck to sleep". As we progress through the poem the poor parent is presented with everyone of the typical child's stalling efforts; from I need a drink of water to I have to go the bathroom; and with each his "go the fuck to sleep" becomes more and more insistent and desperate. Of course, just when he thinks it's safe for him and his wife to settle down with a movie for the night, for a little time to themselves, their reverie is shattered resulting in one final desperate plea to their darling bundle of joy.

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Now I'm sure there are going to be plenty of you out there shocked at the idea of anybody telling their child to "go the fuck to sleep". It's mean, abusive and sends out all the wrong messages for this day and age. Everybody from the religious right to dishrag liberals are bound to find this offensive and just plain wrong. Well I hate to tell you this, but letting parents know its perfectly understandable they're going to occasionally lose patience with their darling bundles of joy, that once in a while it will all become too much for them, is going to do more to reduce the incidence of child abuse than anything else. Knowing you're not alone in being frustrated by your inability to induce order on a two year old will do wonders for a person's morale and make them feel like less of a failure as a parent.

Picture some poor single mother or working poor couple who come home at the end of the day after working some awful job in order to try and feed, shelter and clothe their child. No matter what anybody says there is bound to be some small kernel of resentment buried deep inside them over what they have to do to make sure this small person survives. How much closer to the surface will that come if at the end of the day when all they want to do is relax and maybe recapture some of what it was that brought them together in the first place, the demands for attention never stop? Anger, and guilt over the anger, will swell inside of them. From there its only a short step to resentment pouring out and manifesting itself in nasty ways.
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Now imagine these same people listening to Samuel L Jackson, street wise, tough enough not to take shit from anybody, reduced to a quivering wreck and pleading with his two year old to "go the fuck to sleep". At first they might laugh as they hear all the familiar ploys being used against him and his response, but gradually, they'll begin to find something else aside from humour in what they're listening to. For while Jackson's reading of the story remains hilarious throughout, it soon becomes obvious he's completely under the thumb of the child at the centre of his tale. No matter who you are, children are going to dominate. They are the kings and queens of their domains and parents are there merely to wait upon their every need. Which of course is how it should be at this age. Barely able to express themselves beyond desires for basic necessities a young child is completely dependent upon the adults in its life to keep it alive.

The wonderful thing about Jackson's reading of Go The Fuck To Sleep is how even though his frustration continues to rise over the course of the poem, not once do you ever have the feeling he's either threatening the child or even becoming angry. Sure he growls on occasion, but you hear the love that underlying every "Go the fuck to sleep" he utters. It's obvious that not only would he never dream of harming a hair on the child's head, he's willing to do everything necessary to make sure she's kept safe and happy. He's not about to spank a two year old for not being able to sleep, nor is he going to turn over her care to some nanny so he doesn't have to do any of the hard work in raising a child.

The example he's setting for any parent listening is a far better lesson in parenting than any that will most likely be offered by the self righteous who will be offended by the language used in this book. Not only is it rooted in a reality easily recognized by anybody who has ever tried to put a young child to bed, it couldn't be more obvious that his heart is overflowing with love for the child being addressed. It's perfectly natural for a parent to experience frustration and anger at times when raising a child, it's what a parent does with those feelings is important. Denying there would ever be a time when somebody would want to tell a child to "go the fuck to sleep" is to deny reality and make people feel needlessly guilty when they experience those feelings. When we do that it's the children who end up suffering the most as they are left in the hands of confused and bewildered parents who feel like failures. I'm sure there will be those who call this book an obscenity and demand it be banned, but the real obscenity is what happens to children when we attempt to deny the effect of our feelings upon them. We can only hope every parent buys a copy of Go The Fuck To Sleep and learns the valuable lesson it has to offer.

January 16, 2011

Music/Spoken Word Review: Viggo Mortensen -Canciones De Invierno

Our local university radio station has a spoken word program every week. Almost each program features excerpts from a live poetry reading the show's host organizes once a month. What has struck me the few times I've listened to the program is people's inability to read their own work aloud. Not only are the majority unable to communicate any of the emotion they might have been feeling when writing, or sense of what their poems are about, a great many of them fail to even pay attention to the structure of their piece. It's like they take a deep breath before they start reading and then blurt it out in one long sentence in an attempt to get something unpleasant over with.

I understand that not all poets are going to be good performers, but I would think if you were going to read your poems aloud to an audience you would make the effort to read them over beforehand. That way you could at least ensure reading through it without having to stop due to misreading a stanza because you ran two thoughts together accidently. It doesn't seem to matter how seasoned a poet the person is either, for while many of the poets on the radio show mentioned above might not have much experience, I've been bored into a stupor by so-called "professional" poets on countless occasions. While I don't expect a performance, I'd hope if somebody was going to read their work they could sound like they were interested in it. However, given the number of times I've sat through monotone recitations it seems like that might be too much to ask for.
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The difference between those who put some thought into their presentation and those who don't become intensely obvious when you listen to someone like Viggo Mortensen. His latest CD release, Canciones De Invierno from Perceval Press, combines readings of the poems from the book of the same name and some of Mortensen's compositions for piano. Included with the CD is a small booklet containing the poems, and their English translations, recited on this recording plus a selection of other works by the author.

I'm sure you couldn't help notice the words English translation in the last paragraph in reference to the poems; well that's because all of the poems are read in Spanish. I confess I hadn't known that when I asked for a copy of the disc to review, and I might not have done so if I had, for I can't speak a word of the language. However, after having listened to the disc a couple of times now, language is less an issue then I had first anticipated it being. Sure I'm not getting a word by word literal translation while listening to the poems being read as trying to keep up by reading the English version is nowhere near as effective a means as lets say watching a subtitled movie. However you still are able to come to a basic understanding of what's being said in the moment, and then an even clearer one when you read them over afterword.
Of course it also helps that Mortensen does a superb job of reading his poetry. While it doesn't make much of a difference when it come to a literal comprehension of the poem when you're as uni-lingual as myself, his readings communicate on an emotional level as well as intellectual. I don't mean that his voice breaks with tears or anything as melodramatic as that, rather it's what he does with his inflections, tones and intonations that give the listener an indication of his state of mind when listening to him read. I have to admit that on occasion his abilities actually worked against comprehension as it was easy to become caught up in the sound of his voice and let yourself be carried away by its cadences. It might have been your intention to read the translation a pace with his recitation, but then you are caught up in the sound of his voice and before you know it the poem has ended without you having even glanced at the English.

I was forcibly reminded of a conversation I once had about opera with somebody. I had commented that I couldn't understand how you could enjoy it without comprehending what was being sung. In reply I was told the words weren't important, it was the music that mattered. It's only been in recent years as I've begun listening to music with lyrics sung in languages other than English that I've been able to let go of having to know what's being said in order to appreciate a piece of music. It's very much like learning how to appreciate anything in the abstract and allowing a piece to move you for what it does and not what it is.
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The expressiveness of Mortensen's voice is such that it imparts textures and layers of imagery to his readings in much the same way a painter would with paint on a canvas. Inflection, intonation, rhythm and cadence work together in much the same way music does for an opera singer in helping to convey the emotional message of a poem. You may not understand a poem's literal meaning but you will appreciate it none the less. The fact that he has included a variety of his piano pieces on the CD goes a long way in assisting the listener in accepting the poems in this manner. For while they may not be directly associated with the spoken word aspect of the recording, they establish an atmosphere conducive to this approach.

In some ways his music is very similar to his poetry in style and expression. There are no mad progressions of notes or rousing choruses to manipulate your emotions. Instead there are seemingly simple arrangements of chords which carry the listener with them as they journey through the emotional landscape Mortensen is mapping. It would be easy to think of the music as sad or even moody. but the truth is, like the poems, it is more conducive to introspection than any particular emotion. As you listen you'll be aware of your thoughts drifting away from the music and then circling back again. In fact you may not even return to awareness until your reverie is gently interrupted by the sound of his voice beginning the next poem. Like the sound of the Spanish, for those of us who don't speak the language, the music is another river of sound for us to float along, absorbing what we will, when we want.

Canciones De Invierno is a collection of music and poetry that proves language is no barrier to communication. While many poets have trouble getting their message across even when speaking the same language as their audience, it seems no matter what language he's speaking in Viggo Mortensen faces no such difficulty. While I'm sure those who understand Spanish will appreciate this work more, don't let a lack of fluency stop you from enjoying this collection. There really is something for everyone in it. Canciones De Invierno can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

(Article first published as Music Review: Viggo Mortensen - Canciones De Invierno (Spoken Word) on Blogcritics.)

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen

When the snows come the world becomes a different place. Even in our big cities we notice how the first fall of the year mutes the sounds of everything from traffic noise to people's voices. It's almost as if there is a collective holding of breath, an age old instinctive response to winter and its potential for danger that overtakes us as we wait to see what are we going to have to cope with. For winter never used to be something we are occasionally mildly inconvenienced by but a time when survival could not be taken for granted. A blizzard didn't just meant travel plans were jeopardized, it meant the possibility of freezing to death if you were caught out in the open or starving to death if you hadn't enough food put by.

Like the other creatures around us humans would spend the rest of the year preparing to survive winter. Spring, summer and fall would be for: planting, nurturing and finally harvesting of crops; either fattening up animals for slaughter and smoking in the fall or hunting and salting meat to be used over the winter; and chopping the wood needed for heating and cooking. Once the winter came you just hoped you had stored enough aside to see you through and were lucky enough to augment your stash with occasional fresh meat from hunting. As the days shortened and the cold deepened, activities would be limited, and hours on end would be spent indoors huddled around fires to keep warm.

It's no wonder many of North America's indigenous people came to associate winter with introspection and the process of travelling inward on the voyage of self-discovery. It was also the time many nations reserved for the telling of stories and reflecting on the life lessons they contained. Winter was a time for finding safe paths through both the external landscape and the internal as well. In his latest volume of poetry and photography, Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs published by Perceval Press, Viggo Mortensen has brought together works which capture both the raw beauty of the season and the ancient imperative to travel within it has been known to inspire.
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Those at all familiar with Mortensen's poetry and photography will know of his ability to capture moments in time with both. Whether an instant of emotion shaped in words or a piece of the world caught and immobilized with the click of a shutter he has the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to see, hear and record what others often miss. We can all look at the same vista or think the same thoughts, but it's what we are able to do with that information that separates the artists from the rest of us. Some might choose to shape our opinions of what is in front of their eyes by the use of certain words or shooting a scene in a specific way. Others, like Mortensen, will allow us to shape our own thoughts on what they have recorded, and of the person doing the recording.

While we've come to expect a certain baring of the soul from poets in their declarations on love, beauty, nature and whatever else captures their fancy, Mortensen's work has always been somewhat different. While he does not shy away from emotion, he's not inclined towards sentimentality, the standard avowing of eternal love or raptures on the beauty of nature. Instead these are honest attempts to describe what is in front of him, with either representations of actual physical reality or abstractions brought to life through symbolism and imagery, woven together with a thread of introspection. At first glance, or on a casual read, his poems might appear to be no more than descriptions, but listen to the words as you read them in your head and you will hear what he feels. It's how he chooses to describe something that provides the editorial. He has no need to do anything so obvious as proclaim at the top his lungs, when every word he speaks resounds with his feelings.

In the poem "Libertad/Freedom" (each poem is in both Spanish and English) from this collection, he attempts to reassure an unnamed partner. "It's not/so you'll accept/and agree/it's not/to lose you/or let you go/that I give you/what I love" he concludes after detailing the various means he has of ensuring that she enjoy what he loves, "Freedom", and reassuring her that it doesn't mean he wants to be rid of her. "It's not/that I don't hear you/or believe in us/it's not/because I tire/or surrender/that I show you/a door". While some might not understand how his listing of the various ways he would give her her freedom is a love poem, I've yet to read anything proclaim trust for another as much as this piece does, and trust is the most heartfelt avowal of love I know.
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Ever since somebody wrote down that God gave humans dominion over nature we've been either screwing the world over or, just as damaging, sentimentalizing nature as something beautiful that was created for our pleasure. Those of us who live with winter are given yearly reminders of just how little control we actually are able to exert over nature and how there's nothing remotely cute or cuddly about her. While not all the photographs in Winter Songs are of nature, the majority of the work is taken from two series of images Mortensen has been working on for a couple of years: The Road, shots I imagine that were taken while on location for the movie of the same name, and Forward. Previously I had been struck by his ability to capture the primordial essence of the forest in his work. Here he takes us beyond the woods to give us work that is unstinting in its depiction of nature as a force not only beyond our control but way beyond our understanding.

Of course there is beauty to be found, how can we not be awed by a full moon caught swelling in all her splendour behind the stark silhouettes of tree limbs or a radiant sky of oranges, whites and deep sapphires? However it's difficult to suppress the shiver that runs up your spine when you look at these and other images as their beauty hints at a wildness which cares nothing for our wants or needs. This is driven home with even greater firmness in those images where the human element intrudes as they only serve to emphasize the elements' indifference to our presence. Winding roads travelling through the middle of nowhere in snow dusted landscapes with distinguishing landmarks hidden or blurred by snow, fog and mists are a reminder of how little we matter. No matter how beautiful the image may look sitting static on the page of a book, try and imagine yourself being in that landscape and see how you feel.

Look long enough and hard enough and you might begin to have some idea of what winter must have meant to people who came before us. While they were able to appreciate the wonder of a snow covered glade shining blue in the night, the atmosphere responsible for creating those conditions could also spell their death. Respect and admiration go hand in hand in Mortensen's photographs ensuring his vision isn't coloured or impaired like so many other shots of nature by the need to tame them for human consumption.

Winter is a time when the world around us slows down and takes the rest it needs to come forth rejuvenated for another year. The dormant period where the old dies away in order to prepare the way for new is essential for ensuring life. At one time humans understood this by equating it as a time for introspection and learning in order to prepare themselves for walking in the world around them when it came back to life. In Winter Songs, through his poems and photography, Viggo Mortensen exemplifies the spirit of that belief. Spend some time leafing through the book, pausing to gaze at an image or absorbing a poem, over the remaining months of winter and see what happens. We may no longer be allowed to hibernate and reflect for the winter, but within the pages of this book some of that experience will come to life for you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/ Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother

Say poetry and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to their days in high school trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rot gut whisky would never even cross their minds.

Until his death in 1994 American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated them. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.

Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs, for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work..
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Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach California 1980) give one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped giving doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.

Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he's captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whisky, who writes all his poetry these days.

However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski's increasingly angry rejoinders - in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings - both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the twentieth century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There's no beating around the bush with Bukowski's poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe. Whether he's describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he's spending the night with a women.
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Needless to say a poetry reading isn't the most visually exciting thing you'll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, its fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he's smoking his ever present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn't. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as its not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good looking or otherwise conventional types we're normally attracted to.

There's a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It's that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there's the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that's not quite safe - like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse we're aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone's head off.

Each disc comes with bonus features that weren't available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowsik's work (God he must be laughing about that) its well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits and others that are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain't like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you'll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

DVD Review: Tony Palmer's Leonard Cohen - Bird On A Wire

In 1972 Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen was at the height of his popularity both in his native country and abroad. The antithesis of the rock and roll gods who normally dominate popular music and fill venues where ever they play, Cohen captivated audiences and listeners with the unabashed sexuality and intellect of his work. Even today, with him well into his seventies, he remains a charismatic figure and retains the ability to enthral audiences the world over. Somehow, even those who might not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to grasp the nuances of his words, are held as if in thrall when he climbs on stage. A true troubadour of the heart and soul nothing seems to impede his ability to communicate with an audience.

However, what we have witnessed over the last couple of years, whether in person or on DVD, are a master in his declining years. Though, even now there are few performers today able to match his power to connect with an audience, what must it have been like to see him when he was at the peak of his prowess? While the release last year of footage taken from his performance at Isle Of Wight in 1970 gave us some idea as to his abilities, the conditions in which the concert took place - due to rioting by the audience and other crazy circumstances he ended up not taking the stage until around two in the morning - did not make it ideal for viewing him at his best. While it was amazing to see him calm down close to half a million people who had gone as far as setting fire to the stage after nearly five days of bedlam, it wasn't what anyone would call a typical Cohen concert, if there could be such a thing, from the period.

Two years after that performance Cohen embarked on a twenty city tour that would take him from Dublin Ireland to Jerusalem accompanied by a film crew under the direction of British documentarian, film,theatre and opera director, author and critic, Tony Palmer. Probably best known for his astounding seventeen part television history of Pop Music, All You Need Is Love, by 1972 Palmer had already directed twenty-three movies including concert films of Cream, (Cream Farewell Concert 1968) Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and the documentary Ginger Baker In Africa. For some reason though, Cohen wasn't happy with Palmer's edit of the footage and requested it be re-edited by a person of his choice. Unfortunately the result was so botched that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who had commissioned the film, refused delivery and it was never broadcast.
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Fast forward to 2009 when Palmer was informed that the original footage, something like two hundred cans of film, had been found in a warehouse. While some of the footage was in dubious condition, the sound was in perfect shape. So Palmer set to the painstaking task of sorting and restoring miles of film with the result that almost forty years after it was originally shot Bird On A Wire, has been released on DVD, distributed by MVD Entertainment. While the story behind the movie is almost enough to make it worth seeing in itself, you'll soon discover this is no mere curiosity piece. Rather it is a masterful piece of work by a gifted and experienced documentary film maker.

The film follows Cohen and his band off and on stage as they wend there way east across Europe from Great Britain until their final two concerts in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Palmer has chosen to open the film with footage of the second to last concert in Tel Aviv, where once again we find Cohen in the position of having to try and pour oil onto troubled waters. This time it's not the audience who riot, but the security personnel who go over the top. At one point during the concert Cohen invited audience members at the back to come and sit down in what he saw as an open space in front of the stage so they could hear and see better. Perhaps he should have checked with the bouncers before hand, for when people started to come down to the front of the stage and sit, they were forcibly removed. In spite of Cohen's pleas for restraint things quickly descended into chaos and the concert couldn't go on.

What we don't know at the time, and which gradually becomes clear over the course of the film, is at some point early on in the tour something had gone wrong with the sound equipment they were using. As a result the band had to make do without the use of on stage monitors - meaning they were virtually unable to hear themselves - and the whole system eventually feeding back if they exceeded a certain volume. On one occasion we saw Cohen invite those in the furthest reaches of an auditorium who were having difficulty in hearing to come up and sit on stage with the band so they could hear. It's a testament to the respect audiences held Cohen in, that when he asked that only those who were truly having difficulties come up on stage, they listened to him. Instead of the mad rush you might have expected upon the issuing of this invitation, only those who weren't able to hear came forward while everybody else stayed in their seats.
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While that is a rather extreme example, it typifies how well the film captured the rapport Cohen had with his audience. Some of the lighter moments included him chiding the audience for starting to clap for a song after he'd only played a few chords, reminding them that all his songs sound the same because he only knows a couple of chords so how could they possibly know what song he's about to sing? What's truly remarkable about those moments are how warmly the audience responded and the affectionate laughter that met these and other self-deprecating comments he would make.

Aside from the fact that some of the footage was in black and white and it was obviously shot on film, such was Palmer's skill as a director there were times while watching it is easy to forget the footage that is nearly forty years old. It was far harder to maneuver cameras and crew in those days, yet somehow he and his people managed to not only capture remarkably intimate concert footage, they were obviously so unobtrusive Cohen and those around him acted as if they were unaware they were being filmed. (There is one memorable moment, however, where Cohen is talking to a very pretty women visiting back stage and he turns to face the camera and comment on how hard it is to chat someone while being filmed) As a result the footage taken offstage captures life on tour; backstage before and after a show, in transit, interviews with the press, and the interaction between the band members; far better than I've ever seen it depicted.

While all of this is interesting, what really makes Bird On A Wire a treasure is what we see of Cohen himself. The expression wearing your heart on your sleeve might have been coined for him at this stage in his life as he can't hide how he's feeling from anybody, including his audience at times. However, at the same time he exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand up in front of his audience and almost reprimand them like a parent would a misguided child and they actually listen to him.
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Like all artists he's plagued by the desire for his work to be perfect, and if it can't be it shouldn't be seen. At one point he stops his show in Jerusalem because he's not happy with the quality of his performance and takes the band off stage, uncertain as to whether or not he'll continue with the show. It's not about pride, or if it is it's the right kind, because he refuses to cheat the audience by giving them anything less than what he considers his best. He eventually does go back on, and the audience doesn't want him to leave. Eventually he has to come back on stage after multiple encores to tell the audience that he and all his band are back stage crying right now and couldn't possibly do another song.

While there are none of the special features we've all come to expect from modern DVD packages included on the disc, there are some lovely surprises in the packaging, Aside from a nice sized booklet with each page containing collages of pictures, quotes, and clips from newspaper articles about Cohen, a replica of the poster for the film and what looks to be a postcard sized replica of promotional artwork of Cohen from the 1970s are also included. Naturally the image quality and the sound reproduction are limited by the condition the film was found in and the technology used to shoot it in the first place. However, all things considered, and this is a sign of a remarkable restoration job, they are probably better quality than anybody had any right to hope.

Bird On A Wire by Tony Palmer should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to make a documentary about a concert tour. Its combination of impeccably filmed concert footage and fly on the wall off stage reporting makes it probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. It succeeds in presenting an intimate portrait of one pop music's more enigmatic and charismatic figures. This is Leonard Cohen as you may never have seen him before and definitely won't ever again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire on Blogcritics.)

April 26, 2010

DVD Review: Six Centuries Of Verse

Sometimes when you think of the opportunities for the sharing of information and the dissemination of knowledge that are being neglected and compare it to what's normally on offer through today's mass media, it's hard not to be appalled at the waste of technology and resources. Humans have created so much that is beautiful and awe inspiring in the past few thousand years, yet the chances of seeing any of it outside the confines of educational programming are minimal. Instead of using the media as a means of celebrating our genius and inspiring people with examples of our potential for greatness, it's main use appears to be as a means of advertisement. What else can we assume when keeping sponsors happy with high ratings is apparently the major factor in deciding what is aired or isn't aired?

Even more demoralizing is how the majority of the shows created which might make a difference and expose people to some of the marvels of creation are as likely to alienate viewers as enthral them. For instead of dispelling the beliefs that intelligence and appreciation of the arts are not only suspect but the preserve of an elite segment of society alone, they end perpetuating both lies. Either the material is presented in such a reverential manner the viewers can't help be intimidated or believe it has nothing to say to them or their lives, or it comes across as being beyond their abilities to understand.
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British television has rightfully garnered a far better reputation for presenting intelligent programming than its American counterpart. However, that doesn't mean they aren't subject to falling into some of the same traps as their counterparts across the Atlantic ocean when it comes to dealing with the arts. That was brought home to me again while watching the new three disc DVD package Six Centuries Of Verse being released on April 27th/10 by Acorn Media through its Athena label. Originally broadcast by Thames television in 1985, airing on public television in North America in the 1990's, the sixteen episodes of the series trace the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the 1980's. Each of the episodes deals with a specific period in history, the poets and the style of poetry associated with it.

Hosted by Sir John Gielgud, the series also features assorted British and American actors reciting the poetry from the different eras. While there are names we would normally associate with this type of thing amongst the cast, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, there are also a couple of surprises, Lee Remick and Stacy Keach, actors more well known for their association with popular television shows and movies than the classics or poetry. When I read the names of the last two amongst those listed, I had hopes the creators of the series had attempted to make it appeal to a wider audience than usual for an arts related program, especially one that deals with poetry.

Unfortunately that ended up not being the case as right from the outset the atmosphere created was one of cloistered elitism. While there is no doubt that Gielgud had one of the finest voices of his generation and was a marvellous actor, the very qualities that made him renowned actually worked against him. He is too perfect in his speaking, and very British, two things that are most associated with the upper classes and higher education and most likely to give people the impression the material at hand is meant only for people like that. Filming him in what looks to be the drawing room of your typical English manor house and its environs only served to increase that impression.
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Thankfully they had the sense to ensure that the audience could at least understand the excerpts from Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the early episodes through the use of subtitles in the case of the former and reading a translation into modern verse of the latter. However, while I understand the desire to present the material in a chronological order, it might have been a better idea to find a way of starting with something more accessible. Poetry in of itself is incomprehensible to so many people that starting off with pieces in a "foreign" language is sure to frighten them away. Perhaps it would have better to have an introductory episode where they gave samples of poems from later eras which could entice viewers into watching. Then, when you do travel back in time to the roots of English language poetry, there's not really the need to spend more than one episode on examples of Old and Middle English verse. It's rather too much to expect people to sit through an entire episode on Chaucer, as even translated his work isn't something people are liable to read outside of the classroom these days anyway.

What I did appreciate about the program was their attempts to place the material in an appropriate physical context. Poems that were set in certain obvious locales, like prison cells or in a forest, were recited in those locations, giving the audience a much better chance of understanding not only the poem, but how poetry is able to convey emotion and ideas in a way that prose can't. While some of the actors gave into the impulse sometimes to "perform" the poems they were reciting, the times they chose to simply recite the material and strove to convey the poems meaning to the listeners were far more effective.

While Six Centuries Of Verse does a reasonable job of representing the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the modern day (although their omission of the "Beat" poets like Allan Ginsberg and modernists like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was strange) it, like other programs of its type, failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by television to reach a wide audience. Surely there must be a way of presenting poetry, and the arts in general, so that it can be appreciated by more than just those who are all ready interested in it? If even I, who appreciate most of the works presented over the three discs found my attention wandering, what does that say about its appeal to an audience who'd rather be watching American Idol? If we're really serious about the arts being for more than just a few, we need to find a way of overcoming the elitist stereotype associated with them. Unfortunately this set, while making a few steps in the right direction, still doesn't manage to make that breakthrough.

December 24, 2009

Book Review: Top Ten Reads Of 2009

While taste in any art form is highly subjective there are still bench marks one can use when judging a works quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?

In my case its a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be after the fact as we are digesting what we have imbibed that we'd realize just how much an affect the title had had on us.

The following list of titles are the ten from all that I read that were published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Not all of them are novels, there is one collection of poetry, one collection that mixes poetry and short stories, and one which is more reliant on images than words to make its point. Still each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and just as importantly provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun. After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warier Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. Imagine writing a love story where it is prohibited for your characters to actually even spend time together alone let alone hold hands. How would they even meet and fall in love if single men and women aren't even allowed to have contact? Even having your characters meet by chance on a busy street risks the book running afoul of the censors in Iran and seeing your book forbidden. Iranian author Mandanipur guides us through the convoluted path authors must follow living under the current theocracy in his homeland if they wish their books to see the light of day. Dotted with moments of surprising humour we are given a peak behind the veil hiding life in Iran from the rest of the world which while confirming a lot of what we suspected about the hardships of life there, also offers plenty of surprises as well. A beautiful story about love, art, creativity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff. Ever since I first read Tanya Huff, I've been a big fan of her fantasy work. She's one of the few authors I know who are equally at home in the world of military science fiction, horror, epic fantasy, and the newer genre of urban fantasy. The Enchantment Emporium falls into the latter category, taking place in the least likely locale I can thing of, Calgary Alberta, home of oil men and cattle ranches. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a confrontation between twelve dragon lords a leaping, a sorcerer, and one of younger members of the Gale family. Not quite human, Gale boys demonstrate their power by turning into stags, and Gale woman mix spells into pastry dough, are even they up to preventing what looks like the apocalypse? As is usual for Huff, she provides a great mix of humour, action, and characters who, no matter how powerful or outlandish they might be, are easy to identify with. A great fun read leavened with the right amount of tension to keep ti compelling.

The Lees Of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. Best known for his epic series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, Erikson's offshoot series featuring the dark duo of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, is a delightfully tongue in cheek look at the depths of depravity men will stoop to in order to fight evil. While the urbane and cultured Bauchelain deals primarily in controlling demons, poor Korbal Broach is endlessly searching for the means to create progeny through alternative means as he is lacking the necessary anatomy to propagate the species in the usual way. That he prefers to use the still living internal organs of others to form his "children" has of course upset the families of his "donors", forcing the duo and their servant Emancipor Reece, to be constantly on the move. In this episode they have taken to the seas in an attempt to escape the forces of righteousness nipping at their heals, only to find that an evil even greater than themselves has found its way on board ship with them. Filled with some of the funniest dark and gruesome humour imaginable, you'll find it difficult not to cheer on our evil duo as they are only trying to make their way in a world which doesn't seem to understand them.

Strange Movie Full Of Death by Scot Wannberg. For anybody who still thinks that poetry is boring and can't be read for pleasure, I defy you to read Scott Wannberg's most recent collection and still feel the same way when your done. Funny, sad, emotionally honest, and more in touch with reality than the most realistic novel, his poetry will not only move you, it will make you think, laugh out loud, and cry - sometimes all within one poem. A reminder, if anyone needs it, that poetry in the hands of a master like Wannberg can do in a few verses what it take most novelists two hundred pages.

US Future States Atlas by Dan Mills. Satire comes in many forms, and this collection of Dan Mills' work proves that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. In response to George Bush Junior's lame excuses for the invasion of Iraq, Mills has divided the world up into its component parts if it were all part of the United States Empire. Each new "state" comes complete with descriptions of the benefits derived by the original United States from occupying it, and lists the reasons its annexation was a necessity. Brilliant, scary, and intelligent, it would be sidesplittingly funny if there wasn't such the ring of truth to it. Its as accurate a reflection of America's "me first" attitude towards the rest of the world as I've ever seen depicted in any media. This is a mirror not many people are going to like looking in, but if you have the courage to do so you might begin to understand the resentment so many other countries feel towards the United States.

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the fourth instalment of the adventures of the cynical opposite to Dumas' heroic characters, Captain Alatriste, translated into English from Spanish. Once again Perez-Reverte has not only recreated 17th century Spain in all its corrupt decrepitude. After loyally serving his king in battlefields across Europe and through skulduggery in his service, Alatriste is loath to give up his romance with an actress of some repute simply because his majesty's wandering eye has settled upon her. However, things are not always what they seem, and soon he finds himself caught up in a plot which could result in regicide. Full of Perez-Reverte's usual satirical flowery language, not only is the book a great adventure, but a wonderful depiction of the intricate dance of life in a royal court where honour and loyalty are for sale to the highest bidder, and integrity is a dangerous characteristic to possess.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Mixing real historical figures together in a novel with fictional characters is always a risky procedure as its so much harder to give their characters the same depth as your fictional creations as you're constrained by the truth and your knowledge of their actual behaviour. However not only does Kingsolver manage to bring people like Leo Tolstoy, Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera to life with the same ease as her fictional lead, they become key figures in her analysis of the fickle nature of fame and how it can be used against a person. Spanning the depression to post war American and McCarthyism, Kingsolver's latest book looks at how public opinion is manipulated by the government and the press to believe that black is white and there is nothing in between. Scary, heartbreaking, and depressing, its a timely reminder of the dangers of how quickly people forget their own history and their eagerness to condemn those they don't understand.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is a writer who happens to be a Native American. Sure he writes about what he knows best, what it's like to be a Native American in the twenty-first century, but he also writes about what the twenty-first century is for everybody. In this collection of short fiction and poems he gives us glimpses into the lives of people who are desperate for answers to questions they're not even that sure they understand. Whether its the Native American man who watched his father die of alcoholism, or the son of a Republican senator who gay bashes his old high-school best friend, they are all looking to find their way back to the things they wish they could believe in. Somehow Alexie manages to find humour in some of the situations, and even if it sometimes feels like we're all laughing in the dark together, it's better than crying in a corner alone. Alexie is one of today's pre-eminent social commentators, and this collection is one more proof of that claim.

Gods Of War by Ashok Banker. Best known for his modern retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana, in this novel Banker shows that he can look into the future as easily as he can the past with this story of the end result of mankind's pride - pride in science, pride in their petty accomplishments, and pride in thinking we are all that matters. Five very different people from four cultures are chosen by the elephant headed god Ganesha as representatives of humankind to bear witness. Witness to the assault upon the city of the gods by unknown forces in what looks to be a war that has been on going for some time. When science and reason take on belief and faith in an all out war there are no winners and perhaps it's time for Shiva to open his third eye and end this "day", so the next world can begin. A combination of fascinating characters and a riveting story keeps the reader glued to each page as Banker pushes the envelope of both form and content. while raising issues that most of us would rather not think about.

November 21, 2009

Book Review: War Dances By Sherman Alexie

What is a short story? Technically it's a story that's not more than a certain amount of words or pages in length, usually a great deal shorter than even the shortest of novels. Yet there's more to it than just the number of words it contains. The good short story writers are able to give readers of their few pages insight into the world around them that many writers of full length novels never manage to do. Of course our expectations when it comes to short stories are different than those we have for a full length novel. Instead of a long drawn out and slow developing plot over the course of which we gradually get to know a group of characters, we are usually plunked down into the middle of somebody's life and watch as they grapple with one particular incident.

For all we know once we leave, after the story is done, they continue on to do other things, but that's not what caught the author's attention about them anyway. Short stories aren't much for extraneous details about a person's life, but at the same time we still somehow manage to get to know the person in the story well enough by its end we are able to come to a conclusion about them and their life. How short story writers are able to do that is a bit of a mystery, one that I've never really taken the time to solve, and actually one that I'm not that interested in solving. Would you ask a stage magician to reveal the secret behind some great illusion that has left you spell bound? Well the same goes for a short story writer as far as I'm concerned - I don't want to know how they did it, I just want to enjoy the results of their labour.

While Sherman Alexie has published three of full length novels, as well as writing a couple of screen plays, the majority of his work has either been short stories or poetry. His latest collection from the Grove/Atlantic press, War Dances is pretty much evenly split between poems and short stories, and there's not a wasted word or thought among them. When you only dole out so many words you can't afford for even one to sound faintly off, let alone discordant. In this collection Alexie is completely in tune with his subject matter, with each word and thought working together to give us twenty-three snap shots of life.

As well as being a writer, Alexie also happens to be a member of the Spokane nation, a Native American, so naturally quite a number of his stories and poetry deal with that reality. That doesn't mean your going to find stories filled with eagle feathers and sweat lodges, but you will find references to things like dying a natural Indian death of alcohol and diabetes. In the title story of the collection, "War Dances", after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a man recalls his father dying of the above mentioned natural causes, and in the midst of his own worries about his health he goes over in his mind the things his father went through - endured - before his life finally ended.

Alexie is far too subtle a writer to simply write out a standard list of indignities suffered at the hands of a racist society. Instead with satire and humor he is able to make the same points, but without hitting us over the head too hard. At one point in "War Dances" he interrupts the story with what his character calls an exit interview for my father, a list of questions about his life. My favorite was, "F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the sign of a superior mind "is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time". Do you believe this is true? And is it also true that you once said, "The only time white people tell the truth is when they keep their mouths shut"?

However Alexie doesn't just write about American Indians, he also writes about the general emptiness of some people's lives. "The Ballad Of Paul Nonetheless" is the story of a rather vacuous businessman who specializes in vintage clothing. While there's nothing wrong with his profession, there's something wrong with his soul. "He was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits", we're told as Paul sings the refrain from a stupid Hall and Oates song after glimpsing a beautiful woman in an airport. It's not actually the woman herself that attracts him as much as her red Puma running shoes. He had fallen in love with them when he first saw them advertised, and on a beautiful woman's feet they were even more spectacular.

Paul, who claims to love his wife and three daughters, still has managed to sleep with eight other women aside from his wife during the course of their marriage, which could explain why they are separated. Paul doesn't have any core values, he believes pop music and popular culture to be the great unifying force among Americans. How can we be so different he thinks, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? How can anything be a unifying force for a man who is a serial adulator but is also convinced he loves his wife?

Alexie has captured the essence of man living in a fantasy world with Paul, and the scary thing is that we can see the potential for this character everywhere. Popular culture defines us in ways we don't even know - it's what we talk about with colleagues at work, its one of the few things that we have left in common with most people that we come in contact with. What does that say about us when a thirty minute situation comedy is the glue that binds a society together? When the only things we really have in common with the people we share a country with aren't ideals but twenty minutes of mindless comedy and ten minutes of commercials?

Not all of the stories or poems are as satirical as the two I've described, in fact some are really quite splendid in how they capture moments of beauty with the commonplace. His poem "Ode To Small-town Sweethearts" captures the joy/pain/foolishness of adolescent love/lust with the right touch of reality mixed with sentimentality so that everybody reading it - no matter what their background - can immediately relate to and understand the experience being described. "Mortals have always fought the gods/And braved epic storms for love and/or lust/So don't be afraid to speak honestly/About how you obeyed beauty's call./And though your triumph was small/ You can still sing of your teenage odyssey."

In some ways short stories are the insects caught in amber of literature in that they preserve moments in time and space for us to examine from all angles. In his most recent collection, War Dances, Sherman Alexie proves once again that he's a master of shining a light through amber and letting us see the insects from all sides. Sometimes the stories he tells are filled with bitter truths that will hurt going down or that some people aren't going to want to read. Yet at the same time there is a gentleness to his stories, on occasion, which show a willingness to believe that there are things that all of us share, and some experiences are universal no matter how far apart we may appear to be. That's the ultimate magic trick behind a short story and Sherman Alexie is a conjurer without equal.

November 10, 2009

Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.