Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Brenda Schmidt, Edward Willett, and Boris W. Kishchuk

“Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road”
Written by Brenda Schmidt
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-154-9

How interesting to watch a poet's repertoire grow and change over the years, and learn what's freshly inspiring him or her. For some it's nature, a new relationship, travel, or a loved one's passing. Trust Creighton, SK poet, visual artist, and naturalist Brenda Schmidt to eschew the usual … this former SK Poet Laureate has turned to the lowly culvert for inspiration in her latest title, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road, and it's a romp.

This handsome collection begins with a short essay that introduces us to the kind of writer Schmidt's become. While she and her husband are driving down the Saskatchewan map, the poet blurts out questions some may consider inane. But, she writes: "Nothing I say surprises him anymore. He knows better than anyone how difficult writers can be to travel with, due in part, perhaps, to sensory overload, all these places flying by, all these junctions, private roads and keep-out signs, the mind filtering the 100 km/hr stream of information for connections …".

Indeed, connections are key in this book. Always fascinated with culverts, Schmidt's mined her own memory and discussed culverts with a variety of folks, incorporating their experiences into poems (written in various forms) that illuminate, surprise, and entertain. We learn that culverts are used for more than controlling water flow; they're also places to make love, drink wine, and play guitar (a culvert's "got great acoustics"). Cliff swallows nest in culverts, and thieves store stolen goods in them. Children, of course, race makeshift boats toward them in spring. Who doesn't remember "the official footwear" … rubber boots with "the top two inches/folded down"? Italicized quotes throughout the poems give the collection a story-telling flow.

All the good stuff of poetry is here. There's sound, ie: "The hazard lights click like heels," and a culvert "glugged like anything". The similes include "your hair falls/like a prayer plant". I admire the liberal use of personification, ie: "The Big Dipper handles breath/gently, turns and washes it," and "The stiff-lipped/culvert is the only one/whistling here". One of the many stand-out images: "your fists wet/commas at the end of your sleeves".

Schmidt's highly attuned to nature. These poems are alive with birds and bears, and they lead us across fields and ditches. Being Saskatchewan, there's also wind. And I love the clever play on former premier Lorne Calvert's name ("There's a little Lorne Culvert in all of us!").    

There's much more going on in most of these poems than the casual reader might notice. Internal rhymes, multi-purpose line breaks, and, in the longish four-sectioned poem "A Culvert Blown into Four Pieces," one story's told via the italicized first line of each tercet, and another - with more detail - when one reads each line chronologically.

In the superb piece "Elegy," Schmidt writes: "I'm not good at this./I'm not good at anything/that involves looking back/at the meltwater slowly/filling in my boot prints". Bull. This is a skilled poet having good fun, and inviting us all to join the party.   
"I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust"
Written by Edward Willett, Illustrated by Wendi Nordell
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783178

Prolific Regina writer Edward Willett took a great idea and ran with it, and the result is his first collection of poems, I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust, a collection of twenty-one fantastical poems with illustrations by his niece, Albertan Wendi Nordell. That initial great idea? It began with former SK Poet Laureate Gerald Hill's 2016 "first lines" project, in which he e-mailed the first two lines from poems by two SK writers each week day in April and invited all Saskatchewan Writers' Guild members to use them as springboards for new poems. Willett embraced the challenge, and the result is this creative, entertaining, and occasionally spine-tingling collection of poems that no one but Willett – well-known for authoring sixty books, including twenty science fiction and fantasy novels – could pull off.

Willett claims a life-long love affair with poetry, but admits he's not known as a poet. The man is a story-teller, through and through, thus it's not surprising that each of these poems tells a miniature story, many with an apocalyptic or space-based bent. The black and white illustrations contain figures or creatures that accentuate the often haunting work, which includes titles like "This is the Way the World Ends" and "The Labyrinth of Regret".

Despair and loneliness are major players here. Take the poem "Virtuality," partly inspired by Barbara Langhorst's line: "It wasn't the flu/the sad stones in my heart simply ran out of room". Willett takes this and gives us a melancholy character who "exchange[s]/the real life for the virtual" - hopefully his "second life" will be happier. In the piece "Facing the Silence," "Hope crumbles to dust" as a "tsunami of night" blackens out the world, and a couple, waiting for certain extinction, sit in a cabin "where normal still reigns:/the steam from our tea mugs,/the crackle of fire". This well-wrought poem and the accompanying illustration make a highly effective pairing.  

But it's not all darkness and foreboding: the book ends with a rollicking poem inspired in part by the lines - and cowboy poetry rhythm - of Ken Mitchell. In Willett's poem people live in "colonies out 'mongst the stars," and the protagonist, Old Bill, "was born in a starship" and rides a robotic horse. Willett's turned to lines from Stephen Scriver and Joanne Weber to inspire "Saint Billy," about a man whom God wants to saint so "he can talk to all them sinners" about things like "their drivin' after/drinkin' and their gamblin' and their/droppin' of the final g's on words".

The poet's written several of his own quotable lines, ie: "Now, please don't think we're prejudiced/against vampires," and I loved the small stanza he's made using the first two lines from a Sheri Benning Poem: "In the near dark,/when she's almost asleep/there are stories".

I've read about 90% of the books the quotes were drawn from – Willett's also used one of my lines in this collection – and it's fascinating to see how he's spun these lines into something fresh … and most unexpected. 


"Possessions: Their Role in Anger, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, and Death"
by Boris W. Kishchuk
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927570-42-5

I love games: card, word, trivia, etc., and I've usually been fortunate to have someone in my circle who also enjoys a friendly but spirited competition. Why share that in a review of Saskatoon writer Boris W. Kishchuk's latest nonfiction title, Possessions: Their Role in Anger, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, and Death? Read on.

In the preface to this exquisitely-researched book Kishchuk writes that he's wondered "why people kill each other," and he wins my attention. This text examines "the psychology of possession". The author investigates our desire to possess from myriad angles, including religious and economic reasons, and presents numerous diverse examples of how the human penchant for possessing has led to crime, brutality, murder and war. At the end of this page-turner Kishchuk reveals that his original title idea was The Curse of Possessions. He could have called it Read This and Never Lose at "Jeopardy" Again!

Kishchuk's previous titles demonstrate his eclectic range of interests: Long Term Care in Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Crown Corporations, and Connecting with Ukraine. Possessions is "more reflective in nature," and I greatly appreciate the way this author reflects and how he's organized his fascinating stories/examples. The breadth of information presented is humbling, from religious beliefs regarding possession to biographies of those who used what they possessed – ie: wealth, knowledge, generosity, or power - for good, ie: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, and Alexander Fleming.

Chapter 2 considers "Greed and Possessions," with examples of both personal and corporate greed. Regarding the former, the author includes stories about Bernard Madoff and Imelda Marcos – see what I mean about range? – and corporate avarice is represented by the likes of Bre-X and Nortel. 

You know those news-makers and historical Canadian or international events that you feel you should know more about, but never take the time to research? I have several on my list, and reading Possessions has filled many of those gaps. In succinct, interesting, and easy-to-read stories – rather like sound-bytes - I learned (or-relearned) about everything from the Columbine High School shootings to ethnic cleansing and genocide in Cambodia.  

Chapters 5 and 6 are phenomenal: the Crusades … The Troubles … the Islamic State … the Roman Empire … the Vikings … the Mongol Invasion of Europe … the British Empire … World Wars … The Aga Khan … Jim Crow … Putin … Ghandi … Mandela … Louis Pasteur … Robbie Burns, etc. Who knew that the Viking era only lasted for 300 years (780-1080), or that at one time the British Empire occupied or controlled "over 90 of the world's 203 countries," or that during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the southern US, "it was understood that white motorists always had the right of way at street intersections"? Boris W. Kishchuk. That's who.  

Possessions is a concise, fast-paced education. I feel enlightened. Now if I could commit all this information to memory, Wally - my partner in life and opponent in TV "Jeopardy" - would never beat me in a game again.  

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