Everybody's Reading

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "100 Days" by Juliane Okot Bitek





"The poems in 100 Days pose incisive questions that deepen our resolve to witness. Striking through official discourse, the poetry is multiscalar and delicately local in its attentiveness. The one hundred days recounted here, 'should be days to think / to consider / to see / to witness.' With these poems we learn about the impossibility of persisting, and yet persisting, through everyday horror. In her writing, Okot Bitek shows how ripening markets, colonialism, caste and class division, austerity, war and political turmoil contribute to violence, gendered violence and to the conditions for genocide the world over. With a generous familiarity, Okot Bitek engages and transmutes an African and East-African sense of community, aspects of diaspora, and transitory belonging within North American systems and experience. Her poetry compels us to do our own work to account, relate and strengthen. We remain determined to create and therefore to act. Although the poems specify land and people closer to her Ugandan homeland, Okot Bitek’s insights resonate in relation to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere arund the world. However at home we may be in the traditional and ancestral territories of Indigenous Peoples, this poetic project is aware of ongoing disjuncture. It question the rote offerings of an insincere, immaterial and governmental 'reconciliation'"(Cecily Nicholson, “Foreword”).


The latest title in the University of Alberta Press’ “Robert Kroetsch Series” is Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2016), a collection of one hundred poems through one hundred days of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, counting down through poems beginning with “Day 100,” living the narrative out in reverse. As the book is described on Bitek’s website, 100 Days is “a poetic response to the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Inspired by the photographs of Wangechi Mutu, [as] Juliane wrote a poem a day for a hundred days and posted them on this website and on social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.” To open her “Author’s Note” at the end of the collection, she describes the project in more detail:


"AT THE BEGINNING OF APRIL 2014, Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan American artist, posted daily photographs tagged #Kwibuka20 #100Days on Facebook and Twitter. I knew immediately that they presented an opportunity for me to engage with the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, a period that I’ve thought about for the last twenty years. I contacted her and we began a collaboration of sorts; I wrote a poem and she posted a photograph for all the hundred days that has come to symbolize the worst days of the genocide in Rwanda. One hundred days of killing, one hundred days of witnessing, one hundred days of everything else that seemed to matter and then it didn’t, it couldn’t. And just lke that, twenty years has passed and there was a need to remember."


Bitek’s poems are fierce, directly straightforward and unreleting, composing her poems in an unadorned manner that increase in tension through the accumulation. As she writes in “Day 88”: “someday we will grasp / the emptiness / inside one hundred days [.]” There is a proclaiming element to her lines that give the impression that this is a collection to be heard in performance as much as read on the page, and an honesty and comprehension of her subject matter that allows her to speak, openly and directly:


Day 57


We were halfway to dead when we were reminded
that we were halfway to dead

we were hovering suspecting tripping
or tiptoeing over the terrain
lest any semblance of confidence betrayed us again

ghosts flitted about
attentive to our progress
Chrissie knew
Chrissie could see
having never left ourselves
we were never going to arrive



Part of what makes the collection so engaging is in the way she focuses on intimate spaces and details, refusing to utilize the form for a simple re-telling of history (which, frustratingly, so many poets tend to do) but engaging the smaller moments. The witness here is personal and deeply felt, even when she writes on large abstracts, proclaiming in broad gestures, exploring through the lyric a human tragedy so brutal and extensive that it becomes unfathomable. “[E]ven time measured in machete strokes” she writes, at the end of “Day 91,” “can never be accurate [.]”


Day 59


So I must talk about what happened
talk that you may understand

because you want to understand
because you say
you want to make a difference
because all of it
begins with my telling of it

you want me to talk about what happened
you want me to tell
what was never mine to tell



About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at
robmclennan.blogspot.com.


Monday, 18 April 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "A Pillow Book" by Suzanne Buffam



"F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote lists. Abraham Lincoln took midnight walks. Tallulah Bankhead paid a series of young caddies to hold her hand in the dark, as did Marcel Proust. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb so he could read after dark. I put a piece of paper under my pillow at night, and when I could not sleep, I wrote in the dark, wrote Henry David Thoreau, who once spent a fortnight in a roofless cabin with his head on a pillow of bricks" (Suzanne Buffam, A Pillow Book). 

"There are two kinds of insomniacs: those who fall asleep easily, only to wake up hours later to toss on their pillows until dawn; and those who toss on their pillows from the start, only to drift off just long enough to be roused at dawn by the crows. A little game I like to play, when I crawl into bed at the end of a long day of anything, these days, is to guess which kind, tonight, I will be" (Buffam, A Pillow Book).

Canadian poet and Chicago resident Suzanne Buffam’s third trade poetry collection, A Pillow Book (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2016), is a book of lists and a study of sleep, or, a lack thereof, akin to Anne Carson’s “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)” that appeared in an issue of Prairie Fire (Vol. 25, No. 3, Autumn 2004), before being included in Carson’s Decreation (New York NY: Knopf, 2005), or even angela rawlings’ collage-study Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006). As Carson wrote: “I want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner–I admit I have never been what is called ‘a good sleeper’ and perhaps we can return later to that curious concept–but as a reader.” Buffam’s, also, is very much a praise similar to Carson’s—as reader, admirer and not necessarily practitioner—and written as much as a series of observations amid a history of sleep and, specifically, pillows, which suggest structural echoes to Ottawa poet Brecken Hancock’s prose poem-history of bathtubs and bathing, The Art of Plumbing (above/ground press, 2013), a work later included in her remarkable Broom Broom (Ottawa ON: Coach House Books, 2014). As Buffam writes: “I am awake, begins a seventeeth-century British meditation intended for the dead of night, but ‘tis not time to rise, neither have I yet slept enough. I am awake, yet not in paine, anguish or feare, as thousands are.”

Following her two earlier poetry collections—Past Imperfect (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2005) and The Irrationalist (Anansi, 2010)—both of which were structured more traditionally as collections of shorter lyrics, A Pillow Book is striking for its structure as a single, extended series of observations and explorations, most of which exist as titleless and seemingly standalone prose pieces of varying lengths. One section, for example, includes but a single sentence: “Men and women sleep on the same pillow, says a Mongolian proverb, but they have different dreams.” Some elements of her two prior collections hinted at such kinds of longer, extended prose structures, but hadn’t the ambition of A Pillow Book. The collection (and title) plays off and explores Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, an infamous work of prose and poetry fragments (made further known due to Peter Greenaway’s 1996 film) often referred to as the first Japanese novel, composed as a “book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002.” (Wikipedia). Buffam’s collection riffs off both content and form of Sei Shōnagon’s work through an accumulation of short sections, most of which exist as prose (or prose poems), some of which are written as short sketches and/or lists. As she writes: “Sei was her father’s name, Shōnagon her father’s rank. For a brief span of time at the turn of the tenth century, we know that she spent her nights behind a thin paper screen, recording her fugitive aperçus by candlelight with an ink stick on rice paper behind the bolted Heian gates. We know that she slept, when she managed to do so, on a small, hollow pillow mad of polished bamboo.” 

"Many lovers came to see Shōnagon, but few seemed to please her. Those who did, tact prevented her from praising. Anyone turning to her Pillow Book in search of courtly dirty-talk or cozy boudoir scenes by candlelight will turn away unsatisfied. The raciest scene in my abridged bedside edition consists of a woman taking a nap alone under bedclothes that smell faintly of sweat. It is, by and large, a dry read. So many Senior Courtiers of the Sixth Rank, Chamberlains of the Right and of the Left, Middle Counselors, Minor Chancellors, and Chancellors’ Messagers attend so many Festivals of the Fourth Day of the Fourth Month, of the Eighth Day of the Eighth Month, of the Blue Horses, of the Kamo, and of the Cherry Trees, wearing so many unlined robes of green, yellow, plum, scarlet, crimson, violet, rose, and cherry silk, in palm-leaf and wickerwork carriages, bearing herbal balls, hare-sticks, zithers, and thirteen-pipe flutes, it is hard to endure more than a page or two at a stretch. Therein lies much of  its appeal for me. It affords sufficient distraction on one’s pillow at night to transport one to a late Kurosawa dream sequence, but also enough repetitive and inconsequential minutiae to conjure, on a good night, the infinitely gentle god of sleep."

Sprinkled with personal moments of partner and daughter amid proverbs, historical tidbits on the pillow and sleep, as well as a book that works its way through Shōnagon’s thousand year old work, Buffam composes the fragments that make up A Pillow Book through and against an inability to sleep, sketching out short observations, lists and other fragments against what she aims toward but somehow misses—sleep itself: 

"Not a memoir. Not an epic. Not a scholarly essay. Not a shopping list. Not a diary. Not an etiquette manual. Not a gossip column. Not a prayer. Not a secret letter sent through the silent palace hallways before dawn. Lacking as it does a table of contents, an index, plot, or any discernable chronology or structure, with almost a thousand pages of surviving material, translated, retranslated, and republished in ever-shifting editions, what are the chances, I sometimes wonder, that any two people ever read the same Pillow Book?"

And, as Buffam suggests, hers is an entirely different creature than, say, Canadian-turned-American poet Alan Davies’ Sei Shōnagon (Ottawa ON: hole books, 1995), a chapbook composed as a sequence of one hundred and eighty-three tercets which barely reference the title (and alluded source material), writing:

Longing for sweet daybreak
and saying nothing of it
we hang a brazier on our mouth

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of Adaptation of "Parade's End"

A Review by Robert Richardson of the DVD of Parade’s End, written by Tom Stoppard (based on the novels of Ford Madox Ford), directed by Susanna White. BBC/HBO, 2012

I did not watch the adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End when it was broadcast in 2012. I wanted to read the sequence of four novels before encountering the five episodes written by Tom Stoppard for this BBC/HBO production. Having recently finished the books, I obtained the DVD and had the enjoyable experience of seeing it unfold on five consecutive evenings.

With his script for television, Stoppard stripped Ford’s Modernist complexities down to a basic narrative, and was very effective in bringing all his experience to rendering both characters and events. He was mostly faithful to the books and included just a few of his own inventions. Even so, with 800+ pages to play with I remain unconvinced they were all necessary.

Where Stoppard departed from Ford in a more radical and contentious way was with his treatment of the final novel, The Last Post. It was, in effect, to ignore it.  In this he is not alone. Graham Greene left it out when he edited an edition of Parade’s End for Bodley Head in 1962-63, arguing it was a “disaster.” Stoppard’s script imports a few aspects of The Last Post into the final episode, which otherwise is his dramatisation of the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up.  He dilutes the “rounding off” of Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop living together with the completely different situation of merely meeting up again in London at the end of the First World War, albeit with a mutual acceptance of their relationship becoming more established. To me, this completed the grandeur of Parade’s End in too much of an offhand and rushed way.

The “problem” of the final novel is that the main character of the previous three, Christopher Tietjens, is largely absent. Surprisingly, his older brother, Mark, now paralysed and dumb from a stroke, is centre stage, in the form of his thoughts taking shape as stream of consciousness monologues. In the totality of the four novels, this is, I think, some of Ford’s best writing. The Last Post also shows Christopher and Valentine living in the Sussex countryside and expecting a child. I presume Stoppard considered and rejected techniques such as flash-forward sequences to this rural life. In the final episode, I just wish he had taken up the challenge and found a solution. . By adopting the Graham Greene line, Stoppard missed the opportunity of contrasting the desire for a sane and peaceful existence with the madness of the First World War.

What Stoppard does achieve is valuable: he successfully reveals Ford’s characters and the narrative they inhabit against the backdrop of such a significant moment in history as the First World War. This is combined with references to feminist politics through the suffragette Valentine Wannop, who is surely one of the nicest, most spirited and idealistic characters in twentieth-century literature.

The best drama happens when all components are strong and nothing lets the side down. This is true with Parade’s End.  As well as Stoppard’s impressive script, the directing and acting are superb, with Benedict Cumberbatch giving a subtle and perceptive performance as the buttoned-up Christopher; Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia, a deft portrayal of scheming cruelty fused with frivolity and frustration; and Adelaide Clemens as Valentine, showing her both earnest and emotional. The costumes and production values in general are of the same high level.

Professor Imelda Whelehan, who is a leading authority on Adaptation Studies and an academic I know and admire, once emphasised to me the importance of realising it should not matter whether or not we read a book before seeing its adaptation. Despite this, as far as Parade’s End is concerned I am pleased to have experienced the books first, because Stoppard’s editing out of the final novel would have influenced in a negative way the enjoyment of Ford’s more luxurious exposition.


About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in ‘Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium’ (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of ‘Homage to Imagism’ (AMS Press, New York).
www.bobzlenz.com

You can read Robert Richardson’s previous review of the four novels of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End here.