Thursday, May 19, 2016

Three reviews: Braidek, Maxwell, and Shepherd

“A Map in my Blood”
by Carla Braidek
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-096-2

Saskatchewan writer Carla Braidek’s most recent poetry demonstrates deep gratitude for the boreal forest in which she lives and the enviable life she’s made there, but, like anyone with the gift of imagination and the fancy of a dreamer, her emotional pendulum can’t help but swing toward “What if?”. Even the book’s title, A Map in my Blood, hints at the restlessness that currents beneath poems that celebrate the natural world and its creatures, family, food, the work of the land, childhood innocence, and rural living.

The opening poem, “Where Do I Begin,” sets the bar high. “Beginning” here can refer to the book itself or the spinning of a life’s tale. It’s also a phrase commonly used to express exasperation. I admire how the Big River poet begins with ordinary details-a broken ankle, helping fix a deck-then she takes an existential leap and asks: “how do we know where a moment begins?” This questioning ferries readers to a deeper level. A spark fires, we’re engaged, and committed to asking ourselves the same question about the details of our own lives. Making our own small worlds universally resonate is the key to successful poetry.

The poems swing between serenity and anxiousness, and at both extremes Braidek treats us to original images, ie: “anemones ghost the lane by the bridge\rain dapples stones until appaloosa blankets\rumple on hills beyond the pasture gate”. In “Fingers Like Wings,” she describes how work gloves that have fallen from pockets “trail on the path like bread crumbs marking, not the way back, but the place we fly forward from, fingers splayed into wind”. I love “a pot of daisies rises on the veranda\one small sun reluctant to let summer go,” and her gorgeous image honoring “a man who keeps the sun in his pocket”. He is a gardener and preserver whose “jars\glow on their shelves with the intensity\of a midsummer rainbow”. Easy to see this, and feel the quiet joy it transmits.

Braidek delivers glorious sensorial leaps, ie: “good wishes smell\faintly of oranges,” and a good deal of musicality, ie: “my neighbour’s corn is disappearing\ear by ear into the night”.

The restlessness is often indicated by hunger, ie: “one day I wake up ravenous,” and is voiced in lines like “she struggles with possibilities\flips pages in her mind,” and “a void wants to be filled”.

We all hunger, but what’s described in “The Rock,” a narrative told in one long paragraph, is as close to my idea of utopia as it comes: a day on one’s own property with time to sit on the deck and watch the children play, then move to the campfire where vegetables and “moose strips” are roasted. The “dogs skulk at the edge of the yard, half crazy with the smell of fresh meat,” and as evening arrives the guitars and fiddles comes out, and the children settle onto laps by the fire. If only that were the tune of “all our lives\being sung,” what a happier world this would be.       


“Wind Leaves Absence”
by Mary Maxwell
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-100-6

I read Saskatoon poet (and nurse) Mary Maxwell’s first book, Wind Leaves Absence, with interest and no small amount of admiration. Many first books of what’s often called confessional poetry-I prefer the word intimate-are a compendium of high\low events experienced over the writer’s lifetime, and what results is a wildly disparate package. While diversity can make for a lively read, we often see more seasoned writers tackle exclusive subjects, examining from multiple angles and probing more deeply to illuminate, better understand, and process. Maxwell daringly takes on the landscape of grief, specifically the pain experienced upon the deaths of her father, two brothers (who died in car accidents two years apart), friends, and patients. Religion–in particular the Catholicism she grew up with and appears to wrestle with (“miserable prayers”)–is also front and centre in this collection.

In the first few poems the writer establishes mood with phrases that emotionally thrum, like bells in a deserted monastery: “the wilderness between words,” “Trousers fall from hangers\collapse on the floor,” and “Pushing his walker through wet matted leaves.” She does a spot-on job of portraying the hopelessness of dementia, ie: her father must navigate “the daily maze of the kitchen”.

I found two memory-loss poems particularly moving. In “Line on Paper,” when her father tries to draw a beloved horse, Sandy, he manages the initial line to indicate the horse’s neck, then “He puts the pencil down, looks at me\doesn’t know\what the next line should be”. In the five-line poem “Birthday,” he is signing a card for his wife and pauses because he “[doesn’t] remember how to spell wonderful”. This is powerful because it objectively shows her father’s decline. I expect that Maxwell’s nursing background–those in the medical field cannot dwell on the inevitable losses–has had a positive influence on her poetry: there’s no melodrama here. This is just the way it is. But sometimes the medical frankness is rattling, ie: in “Old Man’s Friend,” after the poet’s father chokes and is admitted to hospital, the presiding doctor declares that pneumonia will move in. He “closes the chart,” and says “We call it the old man’s friend’”. 

These mostly quiet poems often reveal life’s disquieting ironies, ie: funeral orchids have “choked\fallen over\gone dry” while in another room “birthday flowers\loudly proclaim spring”. After a night of summer joy-riding a friend’s daughter remains unresponsive in hospital. When the poet walks home from this scene, “Cars roar past, music\blaring, girls laughing”. In “Sweet Old Lady,” the author\nurse finds a diabetic woman’s apartment filled with candy while her feet have “gone black,” the “sweetness eating [her] alive”.   

Maxwell does not obscure the raw realties of death, nor does she makes saints of her dead. In a poem titled “Fool,” she writes “I’m standing in line at The Bay to buy\a pair of pants for my brother’s corpse”. She shows us that just as winter “falters into spring,” so must we move on after unfathomable grief, and writing it all out is good medicine.  

by Kelly Shepherd
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-104-4

I was looking for “shifts” in Kelly Shepherd’s poetry collection, and I found them. Shepherd lives and teaches in Edmonton, and his gritty book, Shift, is testament to the fact that his hands have worked more than a pen. The author’s been part of the multitude that migrated to Fort McMurray for work, and he shows us many sides of that “orange-hardhat” dynamic, from workers “loading into buses before dawn, getting paid to build something\we don’t understand for someone we don’t know” to the “endless crumpled sky” and a “landscape\painting on the lunchroom wall” that is “of another place, not here”.  

Shift, then, refers in part to shift work, or a work-shift. I also found it in poems like “Honing,” about cement grinding\smoothing.The shift here comes when the narrator recognizes that the “ugly, utilitarian, dusty” cement “[opens] itself up and\the stones glimmer like stars”. There are dramatic shifts in weather during all-day drives, that moment “when the steering wheel started to bloom” and “the windshield blinked in the sun”. In the title poem, the shift concerns a diving grebe and a duck’s lift off a lake: “the shift from element to element”.
The poems differ in subject-from northern labour poems to meditations on spring, or an apple, and what a tire might sing if it could. Shepherd zooms from grit to romance and back again, fast as a bear. Some poems are short as haiku, others, like “Ed Rempel’s Dog,” (which tells the story of a farmer upset with his hogs for eating the chickens, so he threw his German shepherd into the pen “to teach those pigs a lesson,” and you might guess the outcome) read like postcard fiction. There are several found poems, and numerous pieces written in couplets, tercets or quatrains. The poem titled “Fort McMurray Acrostic (found: public washroom)” can be quoted in its entirety here:


This is a playful hat-tip to Syncrude, of course, but in other poems the author affects a more serious attitude toward the oil sands and the physical dangers incumbent in hard labour. In “The Straight Lines of Cities” he considers how “no one thinks about” the work that goes into making “the sidewalk under our feet.” How the cobblestones were fitted together. The “bent-axle\wheelbarrows and sweat-fogged safety glasses” behind the work. And no one knows about the lad who contributed his index finger, via a circular saw, to the project’s completion.

Birds, animals, and flora also frequently star, and I applaud how Shepherd compounds (via hyphenation) plants and animals in his work. He writes of “deer-coloured grass,” “coyote-coloured earth,” and “fish\-shaped leaves in the wind.” This is a writer who does the watching few have time for, then presents his observations to the world in fresh ways, ie: “With his tail the squirrel ratchets himself up the tree.” See how he’s taken a mechanical tool\action, and paired it with nature?

The excerpts above speak for themselves; this is damn fine work.     


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Two Reviews: Del Suelo and Jonathan A. Allan

“I Am Free”
by Del Suelo
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-50-8
When I began I Am Free - Saskatchewan writer, wanderer, and musician Del Suelo’s “slow-art” project that combines text and an audio CD in a compact hardcover package - I was perplexed. What was this? Autobiography, I surmised. But by the second essay - or chapter, or linked story - a plot evolved and it began to read more like a novella. Knowing the genre of a text isn’t critical to its enjoyment, but as both a writer and reviewer I’m perhaps unfairly keen to “name that genre”. I quickly came to appreciate the blurred lines and the vagueness (ie: we never learn which Saskatchewan city the story’s set in), especially as they emulate the dream-like text.

I turned to the author’s own website ( for explication, and learned that Del Suelo (aka Eric Mehlsen) describes the text portion of his mesmerizing book\CD combo as a novel. The CD’s ten songs correspond to their same-named chapters. In Del Suelo’s words: “The songs and prose lean on each other in a way that together create a sense of depth that I’ve never been able to formulate with either medium.” Well said, young man.

The first chapter, “By Myself,” introduces Del Suelo’s narrator and protagonist – an urban office worker dissatisfied with his white collar career and uninspired life – meditating on the tiny cactus he bought on impulse. “It took thousands of years for it to become a resilient, symmetrical masterpiece – and now it sits on display as an ornament in my office.” He walks home through the snowy streets beneath a low-lying sun and observes his surroundings. “There’s a pile of snow-covered leaves in the front yard of one of the houses I pass …” It’s non-dramatic, everyday stuff.  

Like many of us who live alone, the narrator makes simple meals and plops on the sofa before settling into whatever’s caught his attention on Netflix. He’s lonely, and wades into melancholy. And then there’s an all-night supermarket; a papaya; and a girl with a “vintage lavender jacket with a cheap faux-fur collar,” a lip ring, and a counter-culture lifestyle. Hello!
By the end of chapter two I’m tempted to play the CD to discover what the author’s created to accompany this text, but no, reading first, then listening.

Del Suelo’s penned a compelling story. His work’s often poetic (ie: deep melancholy is “like the blackened forest after a fire, or the ruins of a village after a storm”) and frequently insightful (ie: the narrator smokes because he likes “the mild comfort of having something to with [his] hands.”). The book quietly makes a case against accepting the status quo – degree, job, home, materialism. It promotes living solely as “a human with a heartbeat.”

Then there’s the music. I played the CD, then played it twice more. Sublime. The author wrote most of the songs, sings them, and plays all but drums on each. He also produced the recordings. I Am Free is some kind of masterpiece. I’m illumined, Del Suelo. More, please. 

“*Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus”
By Jonathan A. Allan
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95  ISBN 9-780889-773844
I’m going to take a leap here and suggest that the asterisk that appears on the cover and in the title of writer and academic Jonathan A. Allan’s provocative new book – the first in a series of books about the body by University of Regina Press - is not by chance. *Reading from Behind pokes fun and slings puns at that most base of body parts, the anus, while also situating it – in all seriousness - within a cultural and literary context. In his ballsy, er, assiduous text, Allan laments how society’s historically been phallic-centric, and he attempts to get to the bottom (it’s impossible to help myself) of why the anus gets short shrift.

True to his scholarly quest, Allan addresses the anus “head on”: there are sixty pages of comprehensive notes and references here - plus an index - following the eight chapters (with delightful names, ie: “Topping from the Bottom: Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy” and “Spanking Colonialism”). Clearly, this book was not written without significant research.  
So why the in-depth study? Allan - the Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University explains that “It truly is everywhere, the ass,” and it “captivates us”. He asks us to consider it beyond popular cultural references, ie: Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez’s “iconic behinds,” and question what is both said and unsaid about this “governing symbol”. What, for example, might an “anal theory” look like re: discussions about literature, film, and visual texts? What’s brought to light when it’s disassociated from its most prevalent sexual association: male homosexuality? Allan looks at myth, masculinity, and much more as he probes (see?) his subject, and he “works to relieve the burden of [anal] paranoia”.

This impassioned text gives readers much to consider, whether it’s the “innocent homosexuality” in books including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, male-male romance novels (“The ass, like the romance novel, is not nearly as simple as we might imagine …”), the shame suffered by male virgins past late-adolescence, or how Brokeback Mountain “swung the closet doors wide open” to expose the “radical queerness of American literature. In the chapter titled “Spanking Colonialism” he analyzes the power-inverting paintings of Cree artist Kent Monkman.

Non-academic readers might well find this a particularly dense book, but the author’s frequent tongue-in-cheekness (ie: “We shall come to see, by the book’s end, that [the anus] is a remarkably complex organ, sign, and symbol that appears repeatedly in literature and culture” helps lighten the critical load, and aids accessibility and enjoyment.

Allan is currently working on another body-part book - Uncut: The Foreskin Archive (“a cultural study of the foreskin that brings together literary criticism, religious studies, the biomedical sciences, and critical theory”) – and he is both contributing to and editing Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen. Clearly, this is not a writer who shies away from “taboo” subjects, and bottom’s up to that.