Monday, May 25, 2015

BOOK REVIEWS: Mark Abley's The Tongues of Earth; Robert Currie's The Days Run Away; and Sheena Simonson's Wascana Lake Through 4 Seasons

“The Tongues of Earth”

by Mark Abley

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-506105

     A swallow’s “Cirque du Soleil”. Prairie fowl “swimming over their reflections”. The belief in “a

skinny horse\the colour of burnt almonds\frying in the noonday sun”.

     If you are a master poet and thus possess the literary chops, numerous book publications, and the

lifetime inquisitiveness that’s required, one day a publisher may honour you by releasing your “New

and Selected Poems.” This is the pinnacle, and I commend Coteau Books for recognizing that

Montreal poet, journalist, editor and non-fiction writer Mark Abley is worthy of such a title.

     The Tongues of Earth represents the best of what poetry can do: enlighten, entertain, empathize,

and lift us from our familiarity for moments at a time to offer a bird’s eye view – or an insider’s view

– into what it might be like to live a different life.   

     This is a large, sweeping map of a book. Abley transports us to disparate locations that include the

caves of prehistoric art in Chauvet, France; a cathedral in Girona, Spain; Montreal’s Chinese herbal

shops “with powdered\centipedes and gallbladders in jars;” and to Banff’s towering Mount Rundle,

where “the dust you arouse turns to smoke in the wind.”

      He knows well the tenor of his own impeccable voice, but he also wields ventriloquistic skills and

credibly represents a Guangzhou engineering student who, in a letter to his father, explains why his

passion for a waitress named Lo Chung is preempting his return home for the New Year festival; a

stuffed Labrador Duck in a museum; and the British writer and artist Samuel Palmer (d. 1881). I

admire the confidence of this. The daring.

     Some of these poems, like the imagistic and gentle “White on White,” are akin to landscape

painting. Word and image come together as brushstrokes: “I face a February morning by a lake\below

a gull at work in the delighted air\as the wet snow settles, flake by flake”.

      Direct and off-rhymes add to the book’s melodic tone, and several of Abley’s titles hint at his ear

for finding unusual music in unexpected places, ie: “”Egret Song,” “Oxford Sonata,” and “Small

Night Music”. In the latter, “a passing truck hurts the night\like a raw throat coughing.”

     The poems in this collection take several shapes, from easy-on-the-eyes couplets to the concrete

poem, “Into Thin Air,” about the extinct Imperial Woodpecker. In this piece, each of Abley’s three-

stanza’d sections are triangles: the long beginning lines progressively whittle down to a single word.

The shapes cleverly emulate the bird’s “pointed tail disappearing”. See how much fun poets have?

     There’s so much to commend in this collection, from an ode to a mother (that I will use in creative

writing classes) to the hilarity of “Vas Elegy,” a vasectomy poem. “The Not Quite Great” is an

evocative poem that represents those who are, well, not quite great. Another poem, “Goodsoil,”

consists entirely of SK place names.

     This is masterful writing. Friends, if you read only one book of poetry this year, The Tongues of

Earth, would be an excellent choice.   


“The Days Run Away”
by Robert Currie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-506082
     The cover image on Robert Currie’s new poetry collection, The Days Run Away, features two galloping horses in silhouette. This image and the book’s title are apt metaphors for the Regina writer’s latest, a strong body of mostly narrative pieces that document the passing of time and the poet’s people, including his close friend and fellow SK writer, Gary Hyland

     As Hyland (to whom the book is dedicated) was, Currie is a celebrated fixture on the SK-writing landscape. He is a founding member of the Saskatchewan Festival of Words and twice served as Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate. The longtime former teacher at Moose Jaw’s Central Collegiate knows his way around several genres; his oeuvre includes poetry, short story collections and novels.

     These poems are almost exclusively small stories told in “the people’s” language. They communicate. And they pack emotional punch. While reading, I kept imagining Currie delivering these diverse story-poems to a captive audience in a comfortable setting - where one’s allowed to have a beer, and fits right in wearing blue jeans. Folks would be nodding in recognition of shared experiences - attraction to a girl prettier than Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor; childhood eavesdropping on parental fighting; fishing with Len Thomson red and whites.

     Many of the poems begin with people, ie: “My cousin Lionel;” “His father;” “The boy who kneels on the dry hillside.” The latter, from the heart-wrenching poem “Hamid,” reveals a last line that feels like a punch. There’s no sentimentality, just straight ahead reporting of a cultural tragedy.   

     Within the first of the book’s five sections, two poems illustrate Currie’s imagination at full gallop. In “Beyond the Open Window,” a blocked writer’s disengaged arm flies out a window and erratically meanders down a street, essentially taking itself for a walk before it “shudders\and hoists itself upright, the hand\raising a thumb as if it might want\to hitchhike home to me.” In “Ghost Ship,” a creaking ship with a flaming-haired figurehead “sails through the fog that hangs\at five to nine in the schoolyard” above tag-playing children.

      Another highlight is the lyrical and almost prayer-like “Let Me”. It begins: “Let me leave\the Seventh Avenue pavement\and step among trees, sawdust\and wood chips a carpet\along the Wakamow Trail,\snow in dark hollows\where the sun never reaches.”     

     “What We Did” delivers on the nostalgia front. The poet recounts using clothespins to “clip cardboard strips to bicycle forks, our spokes howling” and animating stick-men hand-drawn “in the corners of Big Little Books.” He remembers a time when he’d completed “all the good pictures” in his colouring book. 

     The best writing makes us feel. I challenge anyone to read “Her Wedding Day” and not empathize with the mocked bride’s humiliation, or sense the unnamed man’s loneliness as he eats his microwaved meal alone and listens to the sounds his house makes in “The End of the Weekend.” 

     I agree with writer John Donlan, who provided what we call a “blurb” for the book’s back cover: “[Currie’s] stories belong to all of us.” 

“Wascana Lake Through 4 Seasons”
by Sheena Simonson
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-40-9

     When I learned I was reviewing the hardcover photography book Wascana Lake Through 4 Seasons, I thought: Cool, after I’m done, it will make an excellent gift for someone. I’m a born-and-raised Saskatchewanian who now lives on Vancouver Island, and let me tell you, folks, Sheena Simonson’s wonderful publication is so evocative of my home province, this book’s not leaving home.

     Simonson’s compendium tells the story of a province - historically, socially, seasonally, recreationally, and flora and fauna-wise - not just the story of how Wascana Lake came to be, and how that urban body of water delights visitors year-round.

      In her afterword to this beautifully-designed and easy-to-read book, the author-photographer explains that some “328 kilometres of trail were covered in order to come up with the final 325 images”. The vibrant photos – some full page spreads, others collages - document Simonson’s “oasis,” and were shot in Wascana Centre between the Albert Memorial Bridge and the Broad Street Bridge.

     There are myriad photos of the behemoth Legislative Building – particularly impressive in the hoarfrosted winter scenes and when foregrounded by the lake at sunset - and its surrounding gardens. There are birds and blossoms, insects and art work, bridges and the bubbles that one usually doesn’t stop to look closely enough at to realize their individual beauty in the foam. Good photographs make us slow down.  

      What amazes is the diversity of plant and bird life in Wascana Park. What amazes is the amount of research that went into this book, and how useful a resource it will be for everything from tree and duck identification to learning fun facts, ie: black ash wood has acoustic properties and is used to make guitars, and American elm trees are used for making hockey sticks. What amazes is the effectiveness of single green branches against the backdrop blue of sky.  

     This book educates readers about clouds and the difference between fog and mist. We learn about photosynthesis, thunderstorms, and “leaf litter.” There’s much about how Wascana Lake was created out of necessity for water after the railroad was established in 1882, and the Queen City grew. A dam forged a reservoir, and the water was used for steam engines. It was also “hauled by wagon to water stock”.  

     James. F. Bryant, a former SK Minister of Public Works, had the foresight to “deepen the lake and widen the Albert Street Bridge”. In 1931 “2107 people excavated 91,200 cubic metres of dirt with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, and horse-drawn wagons. Large equipment was not used …”. The result: a deeper lake, the creation of Willow and Spruce Islands, and jobs for the unemployed during hard times. In 2003-2004 “The Big Dig” – an $18-million project that further deepened and revitalized Wascana Lake – resulted in more islands and the Albert Street Promenade.     

     Simonson begins her book with a Henry David Thoreau quote: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Sheena Simonson, I like what you see, and am grateful you’ve shared it.  












  1. Thank you Shelley for your kind and enthusiastic review of Wascana Lake Through 4 Seasons. I am glad that you enjoyed it, and am pleased that it found a place in your home :)

    Wascana Centre, particularly the area surrounding and including Wascana Lake between the bridges, is something I have been passionate about and I wanted to share its beauty with others (both those who already appreciate it and those who have yet to discover it). In the process of researching to write the text, I also learned just how much interesting history is associated with the building of the lake and park and also with the buildings and monuments that decorate the landscape. Also, through the process of viewing the landscape through the lens of a camera, I realized just how much diversity of fascinating plant and wildlife there is in that little ecosystem as well!

    I would like to express gratitude to those who have written about the area before (notated in my bibliography) whose words provided context for my photographs, to those who provided expertise in nature identification and in the content of the text, and also to my publisher Your Nickel's Worth Publishing and printer Friesens for an excellent output.

    Thanks again for your review.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to write, Sheena, and the positive review was well-earned: your book is most impressive! Congratulations.