“Return to Methuselah”

“Return to Methuselah,” one of my short stories, is now available at Dark Fire Fiction!

It’s a dark fantasy of an immortal painter who has become fed up with his immortality.

I came up with this story after reflecting on the classical paradox of living an immortal life. An immortal can live forever, but in repayment, he must die every day, lost within his memories of those whom he has outlived. A moment often comes when an immortal realizes that dying once is better than dying a thousand times, and he asks the gods to grant him death. This story is based on that epiphany.

Although it is published on a “dark fantasy” web magazine, I was initially unaware that this was the genre I had unconsciously chosen. The idea wasn’t to write “dark fantasy,” but to use fantasy to explore themes in existentialism and art, which is what must have made it dark.

This initial premise gained depth when, in university, I learned that art is about destruction and creativity is inspired by pain. Taking classes on Canadian poetry, I learned about Leonard Cohen’s martyr-prophet persona and Michael Ondaatje’s existential struggles with the eventuality of death. The ever-present shadow of doom may cause the artist to fall into silence, but it can also inspire him/her to create art, to become ‘immortal’ as an artist. These teachings resonated with me then, because I could see their truth in the sufferings of certain people I know, who went through life-threatening situations, and afterwards created art–partly as therapy, partly due to the inspiration that a new perspective on life had given them.

But what if an artist were immortal? Would you even bother to make art, if you could expect to live on for decades and centuries? Without death, the enemy of great art is dead–but the artist’s  projects die too. That is the paradox my story explores.

 

Since Dark Fire does not have a comments section, feel free to use this post to leave your feedback. I’m curious about my public’s reaction.

More stories will become available as I send out more short stories. I have an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired short that I’m shopping around, along with some longer stories. But for now, I hope you enjoy “Return to Methuselah.”

-M.R.

desert

Photo Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rub_al_khalid_sunset_nov_07.JPG

 

 

Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

WhylahFor Black History Month, I thought I’d share a Canadian poet whose lush, cadenced verse is like Nova Scotian blues. I’m talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.

I read it studying Can lit with Professor Robert Lecker in my last semester at McGill and we had fascinating discussions in class.

Some background: Whylah Falls describes a story set in Africadia, which is Clarke’s name for black Nova Scotia. Africadians are descendents of freed Loyalist slaves who fled the American colonies during the Revolution in 1783 and wound up in Nova Scotia, where they set down roots. Although I recognized “Africadia,” which sounds like “Africville,” from the headlines, I was unaware of how deep the roots of this Nova Scotian African-Canadian community really went. Clarke makes it his duty to represent Africadians, who were an illiterate people, in his expertly crafted verse.

The conflicts–internal and external to the poet–which Clarke tackles are one of the many things that are interesting about Whylah Falls (at least from an academic standpoint). But if you took it off the shelf and read it, you might be confused about what genre it is.

Sure, it is partly poetry–but it also has several prose pieces. The table of contents is divided into Cantos like the epic poems of old, under headings like “The Adoration of Shelley” and “The Trial of Saul.” The front matter also contains a dramatis personae list of main characters, in the style of the Renaissance drama folio. This makes no mention of the blurred, grainy photographs he includes throughout the volume.

Basically, Clarke has written a classical epic about Africadia, combining the “white” tradition of the “great poets” with the more intuitive cadences of blues jazz.

Is he crazy for attempting such a mixture of genres? Before you answer, you must consider that Clarke is such a master poet that he is well capable of answering this ambitious challenge.

His rhythm and style–which for him are inseparable–form a syncopated song that follows the cadence of jazz progressions. Although I am no music know-it-all, someone in class mentioned that the scansion of his lines match certain jazz rhythms. This achieves an unforgettable effect in his love poetry, which flows with allusions to the most romantic book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. (Which even I borrowed from, last Valentine’s day)

Whylah Falls follows a man returning to his home after being educated abroad. The opening stanza of his first poem sets the mood for the book:

“At eighteen, I thought the Sixhiboux wept.

Five years younger, you were lush, beautiful

Mystery; your limbs–scrolls of deep water.

Before your home, lost in roses, I swooned,

Drunken in the village of Whylah Falls,

And brought you apple blossoms you refused,

Wanting Hank Snow woodsmoke blues and dried smelts,

Wanting some milljerk’s dumb, unlettered love.”

The way Clarke breaks each line and the diverse, evocative vocabulary are testament to his mastery of language. As you might have guessed, his book is not only filled with love poetry dedicated to people, but to the place of Whylah Falls itself and the river that runs through it.

Whylah Fall‘s characters are also brilliantly inspiring, the salt of the earth, so to speak. Who could forget the following description of Cora in the kitchen?

Cooking is faith. Cora opens her antique  cookbook, a private bible, enumerating Imperial measures, English orders,–pinches, pecks, cups, teaspoons, of this or that–and intones, “I create not food but love. The table is community. Plates are round rooves; glasses, iced trees; cutlery, silver streams.”

This alchemy of cooking is only possible in Whylah Falls. Even if you do not think you are likely to pick up a book about an African-Canadian minority group in Nova Scotia, you can still see that the imagery in its vital power can awaken the soul.

The story of Whylah Falls eventually centers around the shooting death of Othello Clemence, whose murderer is acquitted on self-defense. The fake newspaper clippings Clarke includes are brilliant and funny, showing a more humorous face to our poet. But his poems about the murder’s effect on the community blend beauty with violence to produce an elegiac effect:

“His breath went emergency in his lungs,

His felled heart grasped impossibly at light;

A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth.

Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”

Ranging from the mournful to the humorous, the sassy to the extravagant, and the sensual to the religious, Whylah Falls has something for every reader this Black History Month. If you read it on Valentine’s Day, you have the added benefit of reading some of this luscious verse to your beloved. Just remember that “the language we swill with loneliness is liquor, is love, a turmoil in the bones.”

Excerpts are from: “The River Pilgrim: a letter,” “How to Live in a Garden,” “Eulogy,” and “I Love You/More than Words.”

P.S. Check out this stimulating interview about Africadian identity.

George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls
George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls

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Photo Credits:

Cover: http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=3706

George Elliott Clarke: http://www.playwrightscanada.com/index.php/authors/a-d/george-elliott-clarke.html

“Anticlimax”

My most recent poem to be published was printed in Read this Dammit!‘s January edition: “Janus: God of the Gateways.” You can pick up a copy on McGill campus in the news racks in the Leacock Building or at the MacLennan Library. I am quite happy that I was able to read it at the Paper’s Edge Coffee House at Burritoville last Friday. I was also able to read scene 1 of my novel,  in which I feel quite confident. For your reading pleasure, here it my poem. Sorry if it’s a bit of a let down. It should speak to everyone who has ever raised his or her hopes too far for nothing, whether for a material pleasure or a relationship.

Remember my previous poem “I See You Too?” This one takes a similar but different angle.

Anticlimax”

I feel

there should be greater

harmony in the spheres

now that I have you.

Or that my neurons would

have spilled endorphins

to swell me with pleasures

now inexplicable.

           But you sit there an object

           idle and gilt, shallow

           as a French courtier. Well.

French courtier 2
A French courtier dressed in the latest Parisian fashion of his time. Can’t you just sense the depth of this guy’s soul? Probably goes about his deep as his pantyhose.
French courtier 1
Another eighteenth-century French courtier. Ta-daa! Cricket cricket.

Picture Credits:

Courtier 1: http://www.art.com/products/p4091119739-sa-i4723321/french-courtier.htm

Courtier 2: http://blog.ut.ee/tartu-student-fashion-through-time/

Top 10 Things I Learned While Studying English Literature at McGill University

McGill University
McGill University

Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.

Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.

Here we go.

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1. Writing is murder.

murder sceneWhen I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.

Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.

2. Cadence comes before meaning.

Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.

Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.

3. Texts are physical and unstable.

books

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.

One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.

4. Form matters.

Poe's The Raven is inspired by a single obsessive image. Also, see his short stories The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart
Poe’s “The Raven” is inspired by a single obsessive image. Also, see his short stories “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.

5. Things happen and are done in texts.

Eternal Wanderer: a famous painting of the sublime alps, often a cover for editions of Frankenstein. Also an apt name for a literature student.
Eternal Wanderer: a famous painting of a gentleman hiker in the sublime Alps, often a cover for editions of Frankenstein. An apt name for a literature student.

When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…

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6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.

A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting cobbe shakesyour language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.

However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.

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7. You can analyze anything.

Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.

GGK
Guy Gavriel Kay

8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.

I learned this in my first semester.

“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”

The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.

9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.

When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.

If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.

Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings  emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.

10. Reading poetry must affect you.

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.

Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.

Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.

Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.

Goethe's Faust
Goethe’s Faust

Photo Credits:

McGill: http://www.alumnilive365.mcgill.ca/2012/10/31/rankings-what-do-they-mean-to-students/

Murder: http://ogdenutahcriminaldefense.com/murder-and-manslaughter/

Books: http://mysynonym.com/2009/02/amazons-kindle-2/

Poe: http://americanliteraturedrescher2.wikispaces.com/D.+Edgar+Alan+Poe

Eternal Wanderer: http://eardstapa.wordpress.com/the-poem-the-wanderer/

Shakespeare: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobbe_portrait

Guy Gavriel Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html

Faust: http://www.hberlioz.com/paintings/BerliozWorks3b.html

 

“Ice Breaker”

Last Monday, the Fall edition of the McGill student literary journal STEPS was published, with my poem in it!

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It’s a reflection on arctic blizzards and hallucination–seeing things in randomness when there’s no one else around to contradict you.

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Bonus marks: Can you spot the allusions to Frankenstein and Don Quixote? If you can, are they really there? Don’t worry, I won’t gainsay you.

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Ice Breaker”

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         He was a man        broken

         by disasters

 .

seen running across

the crumbling arctic

tilting      at rotating illusions

as clouds of yesterday

fogged      his mind

 .

his dogs dead

          his body alone     with the Aurora

          where the compass does not settle

 .

                     what would a compass mean anyway

                     in this         expanse

 .

he sees spirits         floating

made of fallen snow

this far North, the world is how he sees it

no one will say         no

 .

warmth as

winter’s         caress

                     frees him

                       to die

 .

he gathers ice

a funeral pyre

wishes bright wings

Poetry Reading at Le Cagibi!

This Monday marked the occasion of my second ever poetry reading, where I recited “Ice Breaker” (which is this Friday’s post), “St. Francis of the Amazon,” “Seagull,” and my final, uproarious poem “Anticlimax.” The venue was in the backroom of Le Cagibi (pronounced KAH-jeh-bey, or “KGB” in phonetic Quebecois French), a hipster, student-populated restaurant on St. Laurent. A fine venue as any, with some real character: a coffered tin roof, a wall of shelves holding candles, figurines of cats, and a strange trinitarian painting of the Virgin Mary, as well as a weathered set of metal chairs and tables with stripped paint. There was also a very non-mainstream, postmodern electric violinist with some haunting reverb and a celloist with a similar style. Excellent poets this year, with some excellently cadenced voices, stylistically and auditorially. Here is a recording of some of the voices (not me, alas) from CKUT. Just follow the link to CKUT from The Veg‘s Facebook post (click “Post” to see it). Then on the CKUT page, see the recording for 25 November 2013.

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The journals and websites are here:

http://thevegmagazine.tumblr.com/post/48846110496/vol-9-no-3-winter-2013

https://www.facebook.com/thevegmagazine

http://stepsmagazine.wordpress.com/

https://www.facebook.com/StepsMagazine

(Current issues seem to be inaccessible at the moment, but I am in the Veg’s Spring 2013 issue as well.)

.I’m looking forward for future events such as this one, but don’t know when the next will be because I’m graduating this semester! It was certainly an honour to read, to see my poetry and artwork in print, and to participate in literary life at McGill University, an institution that has turned out such infamous poets as Leonard Cohen, Irving Layon, A.M. Klein, and William Shatner (each with their own very different styles, to be sure!). Peace out!

Me at Le Cagibi, a hipster Montreal restaurant, reciting one of my poems this Monday for the launch of McGill's two brilliant student magazines STEPS and The Veg.
Me at Le Cagibi, a hipster Montreal restaurant, reciting one of my poems this Monday for the launch of McGill’s two brilliant student magazines STEPS and The Veg.

Vegetables of the Romantic Period

Here are simply a few humorous pictures I drew last semester for The Veg magazine, a McGill student literary magazine (not actually vegetable-themed, but that’s kind of a running joke…) You will recognize that the vegetables are all based on Romantic poets. Worth a laugh, I think. Kinda fits too–weren’t the Romantics nature poets? Now they belong to nature completely. In fact, you can grow them in your garden.

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Vegetables of the Romantic Period 2
Charles YamParsley Bysshe ShelleySamuel Taylor Cabbage
Vegetables of the Romantic Period 1
Elizabeth Carrot BrowningGourd ByronJohn Beets

 

“What Walmart Smells Like”

walmart

Being forced through the automatic doors of a Walmart one evening last winter with my family, I decided to deconstruct the experience of the torture that is globalized shopping by paying close attention to the most potent, yet misunderstood of the five senses.

I hope you enjoy this post, as a break from my usual three- or four page-long ruminations on books and history. Sorry, if you find that the sterile colour scheme in the above photo clashes with my parchment paper background, which suggests the wonderful vanilla smell of old books … but I do this for the sake of poetry. After all, a few verses can help you notice things you’ve ignored before. All good art should renew one’s perspective of the mundane.

“What Walmart Smells Like” appeared in a McGill University campus journal The Veg last April. I am very proud of it, my first published poem.

I wrote most of the images, including others that did not make the cut, on a piece of packing cardboard I found lying in an aisle under a shelf at a Walmart store. I loved playing with the conflict inherent in trying to actually smell anything distinct in the vacuous space of the warehouse that Walmart really is. Vacuous in many senses, though here I focus on smell. Scents triggers memories and memories are our identity. What that could imply, I leave for you to figure out.


 

“What Walmart Smells Like”

 

Distant, watered-down.

Trouble.

 

A lonely coldness,

an empty chill.

 

Freezer coolant.

Your aunt’s strawberry scented candles. Your mom’s cookie dough.

Freezer coolant. Sweet bread, pastries, cinnamon buns

in the bakery, with carrot raisin

muffins,

 

croissants. McDonalds’ frying lipids cross

with carcinogenic smoke,

converging and stale

 

fructose;

Like when solid candies melt together,

or you spill a dead Sprite,

and one week later

your boots are still sticky

 

books, laminated,

smelling like bathrooms, baskets,

and cotton mats,

homely enough to carry some memory

beneath their fibre

 

optics. Electronics

out of bubble papered cardboard boxes.

Unwrapping acetate-cased silicon chips,

perfume of static

 

and cologne. Or dampness

under jackets, when they cross you

in the aisle.

Then a sharp soapy attack

in the cleansing section

 

sterilizes the senses

of the one who senses the sterilized.

 

 

Photo Credits:

Walmart: http://www.impowerable.com/protect-the-planet/how-mcdonalds-and-wal-mart-affect-your-food/

Special Post: Honours thesis added to brightweavings.com

Today, I make a special announcement: my Honours thesis “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” has been added to Kay’s official website at brightweavings.com.

This thesis is the fruit of over two years of thought, and one year of hard research, writing, and re-writing. It represents the summit of my achievement as an English literature undergraduate at McGill, and now it is online for the world to see!

 

You can read it if you wish here, or read my summary version, if you just want to read the basic ideas here.

 

Thank you Deborah, for the time out of you schedule to post my thesis online. You are a silver thread, brightly woven, in the Tapestry of the website!

I met Guy Gavriel Kay at the Alire stand during Salon du livre in November. He signed all my books--and my Honours Thesis proposal.
I met Guy Gavriel Kay at the Alire stand during Salon du livre in November. He signed all my books–and my Honours Thesis proposal.

Cordially, A.M. Klein: Letter Writing in the Good Old Days: An Unofficial Review of A.M. Klein: The Letters

AM Klein

 

Some of the greatest works of English literature are not found in survey anthologies.

 

They are never taught in courses, though if you consulted them, you could add depth to your understanding of a given author. They record the daily tribulations of the saints we call canonical writers. More useful than poems, but more lyrical than narrative, they are flashes of insight into the lives of the bards of Britain, the United States, and Canada.

 

They are letters.

 

We tend to call poets ‘men of letters.’ But rarely do we pause to understand what that could mean, if we mean by letters the epistolary variety.

 

Letters are a dying art. Nowadays, our letters are literally letters. OMG, LOL, OMFG, ROFL. These cabalistic expressions enable us to keep our interlocutors at arm’s length while we communicate through thumb and keypad. People text rather than e-mail, rather then send a paper-and-pen letter through the post. Gradually, our communication is being disembodied from its material forms, transferred into 1s and 0s in binary code, words floating through the air like so much insubstantial ether.

 

But take a poet like A.M. Klein (1909-1972). A Montreal writer, one of the leading poets in Canada in his day, Klein is author of Hath Not A Jew and a mock-epic satire on the Third Reich called The Hitleriad. His poem “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” is a profound reflection of what it was like to be a Canadian poet in the ’40s, a solitary calling devoid of much recognition. A strongly felt love of language suffuses all his work.

 

What were letters from him like, back in the day?  A.M. Klein: The Letters, edited by Elizabeth Popham preserves these artifacts from being lost to history. Take the following sample:

* * * *

To Leon Edel

 

July 25, 1951

 

Mr Dear Leon,

 

Many thanks for the reprint of the Henry James article. It makes fascinating reading—the kind I like since it combines literary knowledge and taste with acute cerebration. Twenty-three! It shall henceforward be a number mystical to me, undreamed of by Pythagoras.

(Aside: Can it be that James had in mind a current vulgarism: twenty-three, skiddo! —Impossible, by definition.)

And I must not leave unmentioned the fine turn of phrase which throughout your essay adds urbanity to detection.

—When do you propose to come this way? It is now many years since you have visited dear Hochelaga. Come—I can’t give you the key to the city, it’s been stolen—but many welcome signs, I am sure, will greet you.

 

Cordially,

Abe

 

Please remember me to Mrs. Edel

* * * *

 

Now here is a man who respects you in his letters, who isn’t afraid to burst out in exclamations, but keeps it all wrapped up with a nice closure at the end. Classical references, multiple syllable words, and even a reference to Montreal as Hochelaga—the name of the Native American settlement that was built on the grounds of McGill University, but disappeared by the late 16th century. All in a few lines.

 

A.M. Klein was also a man of character. Take the following excerpt from a letter to Robert M. MacGregor from New Directions Press, concerning the anti-Semitic remarks of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a novelist. Klein worked as a lawyer and at one point was asked to represent Céline. It is dated November 16th 1953:

* * * *

[…] It seems to me … that if I did so, you would be putting Mr. Céline in a most embarrassing position, if not committing him a downright injustice.

Mr. Céline’s opinions touching Jews are notorious; during the war nobody was more rabid in his anti-Semitism than he, and he would resent it, I am sure, if you tainted his right of property with the name, or even the intervention, of a Jew. Despite my admiration for his extraordinary talent – ‘Satan, too’ is no mediocrity – to me the notion of ‘Céline –Klein’s client’ – is, to say the least, an absurdity. I am accordingly returning your documents. […]

 

Yours truly,

A.M. Klein

* * * *

Remember that World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust are but 8 years past at this point. I can picture Klein at his desk, not wanting to have anything to do with this Mr. Céline, but penning his letter nonetheless. Rare is the person who has the humility to consider the dignity of his enemy. And he does it incredibly well, diplomatically. Sometimes, the letters of an author can be like small golden nuggets, revelatory.

Letters were once the main vehicles for communication. They took a long time, but you could make it worth your while by penning pages of stories to relate to your distant friends and family. They were even a literary form. I don’t know if in the age of texting and e-mail, something of this art form might be salvaged, but it is good to take a pause once in a while to admire some finely written letters. The twentieth century was not the only century of great letter writing. Check out the great letters of the eighteenth century here: http://www.history1700s.com/etext/blletters.shtml

To close on a lighter note, consider the following letter of a poet to a poet: A.M. Klein to Irving Layton, considering the ‘Margolian affair’ the summary of which is that Klein owes Layton some mullah for an incident whose details are not mentioned—perhaps with good reason—in the letter.

* * * *

Nov. 21, 1951

Dear Irving,

Now that the checks in re the famous Margolian affair have gone through, and despite your waiver, expressed some time ago, of all rights and emoluments therein, I feel that my battle – witnessed by St. Goldberg – would have been in vain, causeless, purposeless, did I not now turn over to you the fifty dollars La Margolian wanted for herself.

I enclose, therefore, two checks – one for yourself in the sum of $35.00, being the exact price paid for certain Margolian habilments – so runs my sense of justice! – and one for fifteen dollars payable to the T. Eaton Co. Ltd., wherewith Betty is to buy herself that pressure cooker. (And don’t you, Irving, go using it for books!)

It is expressly understood, of course, that though the temptation may be great, La Margolian is not to be the first dish softened in the said cooker.

Moral: There is some good, even in relatives!

With all good wishes

Cordially,

Abe