Thursday, November 1, 2018

Three New Book Reviews: For the Changing Moon (Anna Marie Sewell), Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky), and The Musician's Compass: A 12-step Programme (by Del Suelo)

"For the Changing Moon"

by Anna Marie Sewell

Published by Thistledown Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-168-6

I'd been looking forward to multi-disciplinary artist Anna Marie Sewell's second poetry collection, For the Changing Moon. She'd impressed with her debut, Fifth World Drum, and in her capacity as Edmonton's poet laureate, I once observed her deliver an outstanding performance poem she'd created on the spot, based on a few words provided by the audience. It was a kind of magic few possess.  

In Sewell's newly-released collection of poems (and songs) we again find an assured and original voice, and the kind of literary abracadabra (ie: superb use of linebreaks) only a skilled writer can pull off. "We are in large part composed of slanting/sun" she writes in "The Mortal Summer". Sometimes playful, sometimes prayerful, sometimes angry, sometimes tinged with grief (particularly for lost family members and for injustices suffered by First Peoples and the impoverished) or inspired by legend, these eclectic pieces prove that Sewell knows her way around language, the map, and the moon.

Each of the book's five sections contains a kind of moon, ie: "Moon of Wolves," and among my favourite poems is "Kinds of Moon," in which Sewell introduces us to moons not usually (or ever?) considered, ie: "the moon of marching activists," the "moon of skin diseases," and the "insipid little moon of tailored grass". What fun to read.

Of the several poems honouring the memories of loved ones, including the poet's sister, this homage to a mother stands out: "She is tiny now, my mother/and jokes in the morning, when/her teeth aren't in, how she whistles/like a little bird". Inspiration also comes from disparate people and places, ie: Sewell's poem "Start Making Sense" provides a twist on David Byrne's "Stop Making Sense," and the gorgeous lines "so much turns on the breath of fog/falling over a broad green stream" - from her piece "One Moon, Many Faces" - echo William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow".

There's much clever internal rhyme and plays on words, ie: "Streets of Seoul, Sewell seule," and there's even a musicality in how these poems were ordered. For example, in "Bush-whacking," the riverside-hiking children "pipe and flutter, unconsciously magpie" and later they "shriek and whimper". The next poem is delectably quiet: it's based on how light falls upon six small cups on a windowsill. Holy dynamics. I also see this louder/quieter pairing in the neighbouring poems "She Sang" (about a wounded, musical sister) and "Light on the Wings," which, among other things, praises red ash berries.  

The multi-lingual inclusions (ie: Spanish and Anishinaabemowin) and named communities (ie: Edmonton, Lake Chapala, Kyoto) revere the places and people the Alberta poet's connected to, both spiritually and ancestrally.

This fine collection deserves close reading. It's a haven for all those who, like the poet, wander and wonder beneath the chameleon moon on "Turtle Island". There are no answers re: the big why-of-it-all, but the poet/lyricist has "built a room/safe for the moon/to come home to" and "it has to be enough". I say it is enough. It is very enough indeed.


“Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis"
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-775633

Not many writers get their books blurbed by Margaret Atwood, but BC writers and scholars Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky earned that honour with their small and powerful hat-trick of essays, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. These "Truth-filled mediations about grace in the face of mortality" (Atwood) are well-researched, highly educational, and eminently thought-provoking warnings about the fate of our world and species.

Bringhurst authored the first essay, "The Mind of the Wild". He maintains that there's much we should - but have not - learned from "the wild," which "is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination". What's this wild he speaks of? "Everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control," or, more succinctly, "earth living its life to the full". Bringhurst argues that humans are essentially committing suicide with our attempts to ""tame" the already "sane" natural world.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the combination of exceptional writing, science (ie: the role cyanobacteria played in changing earth's atmosphere) and statistics, and Bringhurst's ability to bring it all home with his use of concrete examples, ie: when the sun's diameter expands to epic proportions, a couple of billion years from now, "Your books, your bones, your lichen-covered headstones, and your dreams will be a plasma of broken atoms". He advocates "letting the facts form a poem in your mind" (a quote from physicist Michael Faraday, 1858) and getting into the wild, all on your lonesome, to "calibrate your mind". As one who regularly practices "forest breathing," this makes clear sense to me.

Zwicky's cerebral contribution, "A Ship from Delos," is dedicated to virtue and the good example set by Socrates. (Like that famous Athenian, Zwicky is a philosopher, and she believes that her hero - who was "condemned to death for crimes against the state," - was innocent, and has much to teach us.) On this eve of "Catastrophic global ecological collapse," she decries that politicians and policy-makers are not acting quickly enough. Nor are we regular humans of the first-world who "live comfortable air-conditioned lives, surrounded by a vast array of plastics and energy-consuming conveniences, who drive SUVS, have several children, eat a lot of meat, and travel frequently by air". Despite the grim ecological forecast, "industrialized humans are not destroying everything. Being will be here. Beauty will be here". She suggests that a cocktail of awareness, humility, courage, self-control, compassion, justice, contemplative practice, and a sense of humour is what the world needs now. Buying thrift-store clothing, eating locally, and walking rather than driving are just a few of the ways we can practice self-control in the 21st century.

The final piece, a collaboration between the authors, focuses on Harvard's Dr. Steven Pinker's overly sunny view and his habit of "[bending] the facts" re: Homo sapiens' fate.  

Bringhurst encourages us to "[think] like an ecosystem". Yes. Only then can we "go down singing". 
“The Musician's Compass: A 12-Step Programme”
by Del Suelo
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783321

Regina writer and Juno Award-winning musician (with band The Dead South) Erik Mehlsen - who writes under the pseudonym "Del Suelo" - explains in the author's note for his second book, The Musician's Compass: A 12-Step Programme, that he wrote this text because "the music industry is an environment that fosters mental illness, and [he] had no idea how to talk about it". That said, and first person voice aside, he maintains that this isn't a memoir. What it is: 131 gritty fictional pages about a band.

For many in the arts, what begins as a passion can become terribly hard and unsexy work. Suelo presents a grueling day-in-the-life of a young (and at times extremely juvenile) four-piece Canadian rock band on tour in Germany. He peels back the lid on the rock and roll road trip, and it's a bleak, barely-holding-it-together experience, complete with a groupie who overdoses on cocaine, band in-fighting, severe sleep deprivation, excessive drinking and marijuana imbibing, reeking clothes, and a narrator (Dev) who’s almost ready to pack in his bass-playing days, yet when he steps on the stage he's "a god, creating thunder".

Suelo has a gift for physical description and turning out some strong and original similes. The admirable writing starts with this description of drummer Mikey's hair: "an unkempt lawn shrub the colour of a rusting El Camino". A nickname "spread like scabies in a hippie commune". An untuned guitar sounds like the musician's playing "a homemade cigar-box guitar inside a tin can". 

The band, "North By Choice" - named after a "particularly dank BC sativa strain" band member Rat's been "growing in his basement" - is in Berlin when the story begins. I sat up when I read that one young female fan "has curves like a freshly poured skatepark". Post-show, the protagonist connects with German fan Marleen and the band and their entourage go clubbing. There's non-stop beer and chaos, and after doing a line of coke with Marleen, Dev follows her "into a room of roaring black punctuated only by the blinding flash of a strobe light." Moments later the pair are "in the centre of a dense, moist, multi-human organism". 

The author's abilities with description extends to his detailing of rooms, cities, and even the interior of the band's rented van: "The aroma of rotting cheese and stale wine wafts out. There are cracker crumbs and gummy candies all over the floor". (And the driver, Dev, has scraped the hell out of the rental.) 

The band members say things like "Can I borrow your lightski?", but on occasion, disillusioned Dev comes up with something quite profound, ie: "Sundays only seem cozy if you live somewhere and know people".

If you've ever desired a microscopic look at the ins and outs of a rock and roll band - from sound checks to merch table to finding a band poster in which someone's "drawn a moustache and swastika" - on a face, read this. Über dark, screamingly loud, and scathingly real.   





No comments:

Post a Comment