Thursday, June 28, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Beth Goobie, Randy Lundy, and Dave Margoshes

“breathing at dusk”
Written by Beth Goobie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95 ISBN 9-781550-509151

Beth Goobie, poet and fiction writer, is her own hard act to follow. With twenty-five books - including the Governor General-nominated young adult novel Mission Impossible - preceding her latest title, readers have come to expect work that sets the bar high in terms of both content and technique. In breathing at dusk, Goobie's 2017 poetry collection with Coteau Books, the Saskatoon writer again addresses some difficult themes - chiefly childhood sexual abuse - and delivers work that pours light on the darkness of her own Ontario childhood, while reconciling - often through music and nature - that it's possible to heal from the unthinkable.

I scan the Contents page and note three titles which might be considered taglines for Goobie's work, present and past: "the other face," "living with what remained," and "the mind coming home to itself".  In this and previous books she reveals that her Christian father - a piano teacher - prostituted her from an early age, and that incest, violence, being drugged, and participating in religious cult-like activities were her childhood norm. As with "talk therapy," writing about one's trauma is considered an emotionally health-making activity, and what Goobie manages to do is share just enough: she makes the unimaginable horrors imaginable - without gratuitous details or melodrama - and writing is, I expect, her process of "living with what remain(s)".

What remains are piecemeal memories, "like a child's puzzle," and a recognition that in order to survive, the author existed in different planes. In the poem "waking," we read "what i remember most/is waking on the edge of myself,/uncertain of what i was/and what i was not". The small "i" here is significant in these autobiographical poems.    

To understand just how good Goobie is, one must study her language. A bridge is described as a "concrete overture of one shore greeting its opposite". In the same poem, "your skin again feels spoken alive,/quilted with the sensation of come-and-go wind". At age fourteen Goobie was "watching/unfamiliar faces form like window frost/under [her] sketch pencil". And a terrific line like "the sun's warm footprint tracked the story of itself," deserves its own meditation. 

Though unthinkable evil existed in the drugged-and-passed-around nights of her youth, Goobie recalls some of the good magic of her childhood home and community, too, ie: "the scent of cut grass and lilac murmuring along the hall" and cicadas - "tiny prophets announcing the beginning/of their sun-winged world,/proclaiming their territory of light".

But the father, the father. With drugs and a kind of malevolent hypnosis - "when i call little turtle,'/you come out and do what i say," Goobie's father manipulated his eldest child "while the camera filmed all of it".

This writer's voice, whenever and however it is heard - whether through novels, short stories, or poetry - straddles the fine line between horror and hope. Although "sorrow is a fundamental luggage/that refuses to be left behind," Goobie is "a lark throating a delicate sky". A survivor. Long may she be heard.    

“Blackbird Song”

Written by Randy Lundy
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-775572

It's been a fair while since the poetry-reading public's heard from writer and University of Regina (Campion College) professor Randy Lundy, but the outstanding blurbs on his third poetry collection, Blackbird Song, will definitely whet the appetites of his fans, and they should draw several new readers to these spare, contemplative poems scored with birds, prairie memories, and the moon in many different incarnations. Top Canadian poets like Lorna Crozier ("Wow, I say again and again"), Patrick Lane (he includes Lundy among "the masters"), and Don McKay ("visionary") sing sweet praises, and Linda Hogan writes that these poems "are grounded constellations created of fire and ice". When senior poets' blurbs are poetry in and of themselves, you know you're doing something right.

And Lundy is certainly doing something right. Firstly, he's turning inward, and asking questions both of himself and the universe that may be unanswerable, ie: "are you waiting for the appearance of that something whose appearance/would be its own vanishing?". He's creating unique images and juxtaposing words in fresh ways. Some of these poems are brief and reminiscent of haiku. Many are odes: to lovers; to "bread fresh from the oven" and the hands that prepared it; to trees across the seasons, and to ancestors. The poet recalls the strong women in his family, including grandmothers "who skinned trapped animals, tanned hides; and cut the/throats of sheep to let them bleed out".

The book's divided into three sections, and as the title and elegant line art cover- image of a blackbird suggest, birds predominate. In the opening piece, "January," we read that the author's mother, "exists for me/the way the owl/perches/on black spruce". We find birds in similes ("Night comes swiftly like the wing of a blackbird") and metaphors, ie: a great grey owl is a "low-winter-snowcloud" - this is the kind of writing that's earned Lundy such brilliant kudos. I love his north-returning geese, "dragging their shadows".

These are also poems of place: the Cypress Hills, Buffalo Pound Lake, and the moon - yes, the moon, or "night sun," is perhaps Lundy's best-described domain. He treats us to a "hand-drum-full-moon," and the "Birchbark-silver peel of a waning/almost-gone-now moon". 

Reading these quiet (and sometimes self-deprecating) mediations is akin to hearing the poet think out loud - indeed, the words think or thinking appear in several of these poems; even the mountains are "thinking themselves into being./Thinking magma-flow, thinking/the liquid fire at the core of/everything," and a winter elm tree's engaged in "Deep thinking at the core". Readers should also engage in the thinking these poems inspire: read the pieces slowly, perhaps sit with them individually. Savour the images. Like the red-winged blackbird on the cover, these poems are most effective when given adequate space.

But take the poet's sage advice, too: "Try not to think. Try the meditation of heart-mind. If you listen/closely, you will hear the oxidized hinges on the doors of perception/squeak, opening and closing, swinging an inch or two, in the just-now rise of wind".

“A Calendar of Reckoning”
by Dave Margoshes
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95.95  ISBN 9-781550-509373

Readers can sometimes glean the foci of a book even before reading the first page. With A Calendar of Reckoning, the new poetry collection by multi-genre and widely-published writer Dave Margoshes, clues rise from the cover image - a dog facing a window (surely symbolic) and the opaqueness (clouds? Heaven?) beyond - and the title. Reckoning is a strong, old-fashioned word with Biblical overtones. It implies a measuring up ­­­- to God, perhaps, or to one's self. I expect time will be addressed ("Calendar"); the seasons, and possibly aging. And the dog? If I know Dave - and I do - there'll be at least one homage to a dog.

The Saskatoon-area writer's organized this latest impressive collection into four sections, and indeed the poems in each section are distinct. In the first, Margoshes delivers a chronological retrospective of his life from birth to "The Heart in its Dotage". Here we meet the thin, daydreaming boy: "Gradually, with the passage of time, the world I imagined/narrowed, and I put on weight, grew into myself". He includes several poems about family members and their ghosts; and other ghosts, like poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn "strolling on the beach, hands clasped".

Aging and illness are addressed, but more than specific infirmaries it is the unknown that preoccupies this attentive poet. In "The Terrible Hour," he addresses it thus: "This is the hour of the uncertainties,/the vague distance. You are standing/on a corner in cold rain waiting for a streetcar,/a cigarette in your lips, the match too wet/to strike". So effective. And this is why Margoshes wins awards. Check out "Still Life".

The "Topsy-Turvy" section features poems that stretch logic and demonstrate a strong sense of play, including post-modern knocks at the act of writing, ie: "The poem mutters/under its breath, whines, sits on its haunches;" humour: "An egg/can't be too careful;" prayers: "This is a prayer made of dry leaves;" inspiration drawn from other writers; and square-dancing trees. Favourite: "Thirty-Nine Kinds of Light". Brilliant.
In the third section the story-telling Margoshes really kicks in, with different personas (including Adam) and narratives - one concerns a grammatically-challenged plant worker who sets out to write a book, and instead contemplates "what I done, what I didn't do". Reckoning, I reckon, as so many of the narrators here do, and often at windows: seven poems mention windows. (And yes, dogs appear throughout, most movingly in "After the Death of the Dog".)

Aside from "Three Songs of Dementia" (even Dracula succumbs) and a four-part personification piece ("The River"), section four's populated with philosophical one-stanza poems, which brings me round to this earlier gem: "There comes a time, finally,/when you see the world/for what it is: a memory". A thought to meditate on - perhaps by a window - and a sound reason to make our ride here worthwhile.

I'm grateful for the many books - including this latest - that Margoshes has ingeniously brought into this world, and made us all the richer for reading.