6 Similarities between Guy Gavriel Kay and Michael Ondaatje

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay

 

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?

Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).

(Michael Ondaatje doesn’t have Twitter.)

Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:

1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.

At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)

2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.

Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.

Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.

3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.

In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay  shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.

Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.”  When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.

4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.

Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.

Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.

5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.

In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.

Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.

6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.

Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?

In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:

And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?

The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]

The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.

Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.

Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses.  Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.

Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden.  Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.

Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”

In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.

“Gecko” : a poem for Michael Ondaatje

Two weeks ago, my seminar class on Michael Ondaatje got together to put on a fantastic presentation for Professor Robert Lecker. We were reading Ondaatje’s poem “Tin Roof” and instead of writing a four-page essay response, which we are supposed to do every week, Prof. Lecker told us to go do something as a group. Usually seminar students see each other in class, exchange pleasantries and ideas, and then go their separate ways without really learning about each other. The challenge was to buck the trend and surprise the prof with something we’d all organized.

We ended up agreeing to perform a tableaux, set in a bar, where we would each say a monologue that would be our existential response to the poem. We each chose a couple of lines from “Tin Roof” that inspired us. After we had written the poems/monologues over the weekend, we met on Monday to order them and come up with a strategy to put on the presentation. Various people brought in curtain drapes, candles, wine glasses, beer, wine, and whiskey. Then on the day of, we arranged the classroom into the bar setting and presented ourselves to Prof. Lecker, our audience of one, who we decked out in a Hawaiian lei.

image

Ondaatje wrote “Tin Roof” after suffering a divorce and period of silence in his writing career. He retreated to fellow poet Phyllis Webb’s cabin in Hawaii, the location where his confessional poem is set. The poem confronts despair and the violence of the poet’s existential anxieties, as he drowns in self-doubt and self-questioning, trying to seek a new foundation for his writing. The poem begins with the poet’s quest for “the solution” and ends with his realization,

I wanted poetry to be walnuts

in their green cases

but now it is the sea

and we let it drown us,

and we fly to it released

by giant catapults

of pain loneliness deceit and vanity.

The following is my personal monologue. I borrow lines from “Tin Roof” and some from other poems, such as “‘The gate in his head.'” I focus on the image of the gecko that the speaker of “Tin Roof” finds on his glass window–an image of voyeurism, the threshold between public and private lives, and a objective correlative that Ondaatje uses with some irony to critique the modernist value of impersonality.

I loved the fantastical image of this gecko turning invisible and how the gecko might have become a ghost briefly in the “Tin Roof.” Since large part of his work concerns the blurring of barriers between fiction and fact, Ondaatje is a writer who should be of interest to those intrigued by historical fantasties. I hope to include future posts about Michael Ondaatje as this seminar continues.

Prof. Lecker, who has these kinds of connections, has said he will present Ondaatje’s assistant with a copy of our monologues–which means with any luck, Ondaatje will read them himself and maybe even write back. We’ll see…

Now without further ado:

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“Gecko”

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He focuses on the gecko

almost transparent body

how he feels now

everything passing through him like light.

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Extinction of personality. Eyes come in pairs.

.

When they’re focused on the sea

volcanic edge

the gecko vanishes

and he is private again.

.

Contemplating the fall

his eyes spin into his skull:

the gate in his head,

                  .impossible to enter

                  .except in a violent way,

opens onto a rock garden.

.

The gecko another kind of snake.

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But there is no distance

between animal and man.

Both eyes are focused,

relentless lenses.

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The sun threads

through the edge of skin.

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(To miss a ghost

or an angel

you have to be looking at one.)

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Light, an annunciation

to the dogwood flowers,

impregnates glass

but passes through him like witchwind.

The sea catches it,

white siren glare.

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He could pivot here

turn from the light to the dark of the room,

walnut shells discarded at his feet

below the table with the pad.

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the question, a small thing:

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Do you want to be happy

                                          .and write?

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He wants the passion

that puts his feet on the ceiling

not on the window.

Gravity a mirror

to reverse the body.

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The tail

grows back

like a bud of bamboo.

He, smiling in the window.

King of Egypt, King of Dreams by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20150129_232323Gwendolyn MacEwen’s historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams was published in 1971 and as far as I know, it is out of print-except by online order from Insomniac Press. Nonetheless I am fascinated to review it, because it stands as a powerful testimony to the tragedy of those who own a unique, transcendent vision of the universe, when faced by the demands and adversity of a society that has rejected them. This description can be applied to Akhenaton, the pharaoh known as “the Criminal” who forms the center of MacEwen’s novel, and to MacEwen herself.

Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker, tells about how the poet died of alcohol poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1987. Part of her despair sprung from her depression at the failure of her audience to bring her the success she had hoped for. Although she anticipated that her vast research into ancient Egypt, while on a Canada Council grant in Cairo, would result in a historical novel that would make her financially independent, King of Egypt, King of Dreams was greeted with a poor reception.

Perhaps this was because she had difficulty adopting to the form of the novel. MacEwen was primarily a poet. She could not make the transition from poetry to novel that Michael Ondaatje made with The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. By the 1980s, the period that Joel Deshaye in The Metaphor of Celebrity calls the “era of celebrity” in Canadian poetry was at a close; the novel was now the dominant form.

MacEwen’s vision of the poet as a magician did not successfully make the transition into the world of the novel. However, King of Egypt, King of Dreams testifies to the uniqueness of her vision. The story of Akhenaton becomes replicated in some ways in MacEwen’s own life–at least, it is tempting to see it that way. As the landscape of genre in Canadian literature did not accommodate her writing, changing times undid the visionary pharaoh Akhenaton.

Akhenaton begins life as the sickly son of the powerful, but aging, Pharaoh–the living god, Amenhotep. Greatly disappointed in his offspring, the god regards his son with anger and bitterness, causing Akhenaton to be terrified of him and develop a stutter. But after his father’s death, a new, golden man arises from the frail body of his former self.

It is not long before Akhenaton shakes up the court with his new religious vision–monotheism. He believes that there is no god but the Aton, who is lord of all that the sun’s disk surrounds. The names of all the other gods, he orders erased from inscriptions. Wherever a god’s name is recorded on the tombs and temples of the land, it is to be destroyed. Those who refuse him or challenge his judgment encounter the uncanny look of his gaze–but do his eyes reveal divinity, or madness?

Although MacEwen seems to treat Akhenaton as an example of the suffering visionary, a position with which she was no doubt in sympathy, his monotheistic religion leads to the collapse of his empire. MacEwen’s poetic career testifies to a belief the harmony found in oppositions, a more pluralist philosophy that is at odds with the Pharaoh’s conception of a single god. One man who is close to the king, and yet is distant enough from him to see how he angers his subjects, is Akhenaton’s servant It Neter Ay, the Father of Horse. From his perspective, we see Pharaoh ignore the rebellion of his empire’s tributary states, name his would-be assassin a high priest, and found the temples that he hopes will serve as testament to the glory of his god.

MacEwen’s writing style is particular and with a texture distinct from contemporary historical novelists. She writes in a poetic style that has a curious combination of mysticism and humour. Justifying her approach, she quotes from Guillaume Ferrero’s Les Lois Psychologiques:

“It is a very common belief that the further man is separated from the present in time, the more he differs from us in his thoughts and feelings; that the psychology of humanity changes from century to century like fashions or literature. […] And indeed, man does not change so quickly; his psychology at bottom remains the same.”

Occasionally the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of Akhenaton, It Neter Ay, and the king’s wife, Nefertiti, might appear peculiarly modern, but MacEwen always roots their characters firmly in the cultural milieu of ancient Egypt. One example of the mundane in the ancient past, is the casual, realist description of Ay slicing a cucumber while he ponders what Akhenaton’s ‘true nature’ is. This attitude of continuity with the past might demonstrate MacEwen’s own self-identification with these historical characters–Nefertiti’s kohl-painted eyelids are not so different from MacEwen’s, who was famous for appearing like an Egyptian at Toronto poetry readings.

Like the historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, there is but a sprinkling of the fantastic in King of Egypt, King of Dreams–but it is enough that it can be considered a historical fantasy, if Akhenaton’s divinity and the glowing presence of his body is read literally.

Together with her T.E. Lawrence Poems, this novel is also the consummation of MacEwen’s lifelong interest in the Middle East’s history and its mystery. It is also a psychologically and intellectually invested accomplishment, in which she confronts questions about visionary experience that define her career–and its untimely end.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams

Warrior Lore by Ian Cumpstey

wl-cover-smallOld Norse heroism seems to be in vogue these days, given the popularity of Thor and the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is steeped in Norse mythology. Furthermore, the classic literature of the North has been gaining academic readerships ever since the publication of the Penguin collection The Sagas of Icelanders in 2001. Add to this Jeramy Dodds’s recent translation of the Poetic Edda, a cultural treasure of classic tales about Odin, Loki, Freyr, and the rest of the Asgard gang, and the cultural milieu in which Ian Cumpstey’s Warrior Lore (Skadi Press, 2014) enters can be said to be densely populated indeed. The question is, can such a collection of Scandinavian folk ballads stand out?

While certainly Warrior Lore will encounter a much smaller audience than The Hobbit movies, it is a book to which a reader such as Tolkien himself might have been drawn. Written down around 1600 AD, these folk ballads collected and translated by Cumpstey from the original Swedish are part of the heroic tradition of poetry. This means contests of arms, kidnapped lovers, trolls, riddles, and, yes, even skiing.

Told in four-line, rhyming stanzas that are followed by a chorus line, these poems tell the warlike exploits of some of Scandinavia’s forgotten heroes. Most character names will be unfamiliar to readers, although there is one story, “The Hammer Hunt,” in which Thor and Loki make an appearance. Also, those familiar with the Norman Conquest of 1066 will appreciate the appearance of King Harald Hardrada in “Heming and King Harald.” They will also learn, when Harald dies at Heming’s hand instead of at the Battle of Stanford Bridge,  just how loosely the poets regarded historical fact.

Warrior Lore varies from Cumpstey’s earlier collection Lord Peter and Little Kerstin in its reduced emphasis on magic and fantastic beings–all except the trolls. In compensation, there is plenty of axe-swinging violence of the kind to expect from medieval Scandinavians. Although the ballads become slightly monotonous–the competition between warriors and the rhyming stanza form rarely present surprises–it is a short collection and I was impressed by the scholarship. Cumpstey traces the manuscript transmission of each story and speculates on the oral tradition behind them. For each tale that has survived down to our own time, many other tales have been forgotten. Although the ballads are not exhaustively collected, they are a window into a new world of literature, and form an accessible supplementary resource.

Lovers of Scandinavian and old Norse myths and legends will likely be the first to read Warrior Lore. Academics interested in alternative narrative traditions in the medieval European milieu–stories uninfluenced, as far as  I know, by the all-pervading Greek traditions of the Mediterranean–should be interested as well. As a student of English, I am keenly aware of just how different these ballads are from anything springing from the influence of the Graeco-Roman epics of Virgil and Homer. They also greatly differ from the tradition of tale-telling represented in The Arabian Nights and The Decameron.  Yet they are not completely different. Plot is considered primary instead of character, and the relatively straightforward narratives value the human virtues of cleverness and competition. The contest of arms between Hector and Achilles is made of the same stuff as the fight between  Heming and King Harald.

Given the academic significance of Warrior Lore, I, for one, hope that it earns its place in the constellation of similar English translations of Scandinavian poetry–and earns the attention of many more readers.

 

If you want to buy a copy of Warrior Lore, please buy it from the publisher’s website. This will better benefit the publisher and author: http://www.northerndisplayers.co.uk/

Check out Goodreads!

Ian Cumpstey
Ian Cumpstey

 

 

Poetry Launch Parties: The Veg and Scrivener

Last week’s launches for Scrivener Creative Review at Kafein last Thursday and The Veg at Le Cagibi last Friday were a success. There were many talented readers at both launches.

At Kafein for the Scrivener evening, speakers recited their poems like real hipsters in front of the electronic keyboard in the lounge area of the basement bar. There was Eric Foley, who I met by chance at an evening poetry reading for Summer Literary Seminars. I asked him to write a review and he did. Thankfully, he did not read his take on Curationism by David Balzer, but he did read us a piece he wrote during one of his travels in Europe. Then there was Greg Santos, whose book of poetry Rabbit, Punch! from DC Books is one of the books sitting on my shelf waiting for a reviewer to scoop it up. I might be able to find someone next semester to review it, but I was disappointed we couldn’t have featured a review in this issue. I might just review the book myself, if it comes to it. Greg might have been introduced to Scrivener due to one of my Tweets, or he may have known the magazine before that, but in any case, he got published in Scrivener and showed up at the launch. We were honoured to have him.

During The Veg launch, in the back room of Le Cagibi, I unwound after making a presentation on Leonard Cohen for my final Canadian Modernism seminar. Peach schnapps in hand, I walked up on stage and made a joke about this review that my mom had preserved from the 1980s within her own signed copy of The Book of Mercy. The book review itself isn’t funny, but on the other side of the clipping is a movie poster of Chuck Norris from Code of Silence, looking hell-bent on retribution. “I guess that makes it The Book of NO Mercy,” I said, and the audience laughed.

(This is especially funny for us lit students because Leonard Cohen–and his predecessor A.M. Klein–interrogates the problem of silence, and the codes that go with it, in his poetry: for example, Cohen’s poem aptly titled “Poem” in Let Us Compare Mythologies, in which “silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.” Plus pop culture plays a big part in Beautiful Losers, so its not like Cohen himself wouldn’t find this funny.)

book of NO mercy

While on stage, I recited some of the same poems I did for CKUT Radio earlier that week–my first time on the airwaves. I don’t know if anyone listened to it, but if you want to hear it in the archives, you can listen here (24 November 2014). I also threw in an old classic that Mark, the MC, was a little obsessed by: “Saint Francis of the Amazon.” The novelty here is in how St. Francis, well known to have preached to wolves and birds, is in this poem preaching to toucans and lumpy, fat capybaras. Actually, the poem is more of an imagining of an abandoned cathedral in the middle of a jungle and the animals that come to re-inhabit it, since the humans are no longer around. I also tried to measure the reactions of some more of my more wartime poems, which blend imagery of Middle-East warfare with mythology. During the intermissions at The Veg launch, we were also serenaded by two fantastic musical groups: Kainé, Fili and the Believing Box and Tiger Lilies.

All in all it was a great week for poetry and a great way to kick back and pat one’s self on the back at the end of the semester for a job well done. Can’t wait until next semester’s launches!

To see more photos, find Scrivener and The Veg’s Facebook albums:

 

I tell my joke on stage at Le Cagibi
I tell my joke on stage at Le Cagibi

 

 

Scrivener: https://www.facebook.com/scrivenercreativereview/photos/a.878262122204366.1073741828.475701099127139/878262402204338/?type=1&theater

The Veg: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.637663966342120.1073741831.281227555319098&type=1

 

 

 

For the Sun

Haiku is a simple form.
It combines two like images to create a third.
Ezra Pound's haiku was the result of several long, many-stanza drafts.
It was about a station in the Paris metro.
He paired his imagery down to three lines.
This poem is "For the Sun."
It will be published in The Veg.
It's about a magnolia tree growing over a driveway at the far end of my street.
The title is stolen from a poem by Irving Layton.
Enjoy.


Rose magnolias
fall on pavement, making tears
a silk red carpet.


Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Mystical Vision of the Franklin Expedition in “Terror and Erebus”

Wanted: the Franklin Expedition
Wanted: the Franklin Expedition

Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.

This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.

So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.

MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.

Erebus and Terror
Erebus and Terror

MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:

Rasmussen:

King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.

But I’m not the first here.

They preceded me, they marked the way

   ………………. .with bones

White as this ice is, whiter maybe,

The white of death,

    ………………. .of purity” (41).

Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.

Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.

MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:

“Crozier, what laws govern

This final tug of war

between life and death,

the human polarities?

………………. . The ice

Is its own argument” (46).

After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).

The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:

“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?

What fool said that light was good

………………. .and darkness evil?

In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).

One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).

With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:

“the snow turns red, there are sounds

………………. .of men puking, and sounds

Of knives scraping bone.

They are eating

………………. .one of their dead” (50).

Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)

Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54).  The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).

The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.

In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of "Erebus and Terror"
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of “Erebus and Terror”

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Works Cited:

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.

Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2

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Photo Credits:

Poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin%27s_lost_expedition

Erebus and Terror: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Franklin

 

MythCon 45 Day 1: Prose, Genre, and Tolkien’s Genius

Wheaton

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This is a series documenting my intellectual journey at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College, in Norton, MA (8-11 August 2014). Although I will attempt to summarize the arguments made by presenters, the series does not replace the presenters’ scholarship, but will represent my attitudes towards the topics.

Having arrived early the Thursday, I had already killed a lot of time on campus and slept over one night by the time I showed up for the first presentation at MythCon 45. Early friday afternoon, I attended “Perception and Ambiguity in Tolkien’s Prose Style” by Christopher (Chip) Crane. It drew me straight out of my lethargic state of mind and into the full-blown academic rhythm of the conference, which I had been anticipating for months.

The classroom in the science building where Chip presented was fairly empty when I arrived, but filled up quickly. I was surprised that so many had come to hear about style, which could seem to be a dry topic, even if it was Tolkien’s style. However, Chip Crane’s quantitative analysis of Tolkien’s prose style proved to a fascinating, highly relevant topic.

TolkienHaving read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a long, long time ago, I knew the passages Crane talked about: when describing a possibly magic phenomenon, Tolkien frequently adopts words and phrases like “seems,” “as if,” “[comma] 0r,” “maybe,” and “perhaps.” Crane has run digital searches to quantify the frequency of these terms in many of Tolkien’s works. The results show more hits on “seems” in LOTR, where it appears almost once for every page, than in The Silmarillion, for example.

Any serious stylist knows “seems” is a vague word, subject to deletion via the red pen. However, to say Tolkien was a good stylist is to be just as vague. He was more specifically a master, and a philologist to boot–one who studies the evolution of words. If he uses “seems” so much, it is no accident.

But why use “seems?” Could it merely be academic precision, or a symptom of polite British sensibility? Perhaps the One Ring seemed to Frodo to exude an aura of pure evil … but what Frodo subjectively perceived may have had no basis in reality. Or, perhaps Tolkien meant, eh-hem, that the Ring may have just perhaps exuded such an aura, if you don’t mind my saying so, good sir.

The answer of course is more complicated than subscribing any one reason for all the instances of “perhaps” or “seems.” Sometimes the ambiguity is academic and polite. But it is also a rhetorical strategy, Crane argued, to let the reader decide for themselves whether there is magic–or rather, more accurately, to guide the reader to the conclusion that magic is happening. He might say, for instance, in Father Giles of Ham,  that “giants seem less unlikely [at night].”

Even in “On Faerie-Stories,” Tolkien employs this ambiguity. He says, for instance, that Beowulf is a Christian story of a pagan past, “or an attempt at one,” an example of his academic carefulness. It seems to me that this use of language opens up Tolkien’s text to more various interpretations, since his above sentence would still be considered logically correct, if Beowulf was a successful Christian-Pagan poem. In his fiction, Tolkien creates ambiguity around some of the central moments of LOTR. Creating these spaces, he gives readers more room to form their own meanings.

In Materiality and Sociology of Text, a class I had several years ago at McGill, we explored how readers sometimes can “poach” meaning from a text by forming interpretations outside of the narrator’s ideology. Although Tolkien’s tales must rely on the authority of the teller to give them truth-value, using these ambiguous turns-of-phrase empower the reader. Perhaps they hint that Tolkien may have believed that finding meaning in literature is a dialectical process, that the power of meaning-creation that authors have is not absolute, that readers form their own equally legitimate meanings.

Upon leaving Chip Crane’s talk, energized with a new enthusiasm for Tolkien, I came to Joe Christopher’s presentation of “Tolkien as a Generic Poet.” I have not often had the opportunity to read Tolkien’s poetry, although his best (and worst!) work is certainly embedded in LOTR: everything from Aragorn’s prophecy to Tom Bombadil’s nonsense verse. What I found most fascinating in Christopher’s presentation was his juxtaposition of Tolkien with the Modernists.

Beowulf Manuscript
Beowulf Manuscript

Modernism, as one of its maxims, has Ezra Pound’s Chinese translation: “Let there be daily renovation,” or in plain parlance, “make it new.” The Modernist poet looks at old forms of poetry and renews the old forms, such as ballad, sonnet, and aubade. While the Inklings, who generally held by a common Christianity, were not involved with Modernist scepticism and doubt, they were not un-modern. In Charles Williams’ words, it was better to be modern than minor. They addressed the Modern age and even if they did not fit in with T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, they were still products of the same age, the same shaping forces.

Tolkien was less emotionally involved in his anti-modernism than C.S. Lewis, and knew the classics not through modern poets, but by training. He wrote alliterative verse in Old English style, such as “Sigurd and Gudrun.” He took the Poetic Edda and Nibelungenlied as his models. His poetry also includes the use of such various forms as the clerihew and nursery rhyme. (At MythCon on Sunday evening, there was an award handed out for the greatest clerihew written during the conference.)

Did Tolkien succeed in making it new? I would answer using a qualified “yes.” No, he did not renew poetic form into something unseen or unheard of before. But he did succeed in producing imitations and translations that could only have come from a mind thoroughly engrossed in a literary era that to us “normal” scholars feels so distant and remote. Like Pound, he was a translator. And from his knowledge, building on some Victorian and early twentieth-century precedents, he composed a sprawling fantastic romance about an all-powerful Ring, which was set in a meticulously thought-out secondary world based on a fictional history he had constructed in order to explain languages he had invented–for fun.

So he did fulfill Pound’s Chinese maxim, although the most unique part of his work was most likely his prose, instead of his poetry.

BeowulfMichael Drout’s presentation of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf capped the evening, and what a memorable talk it was! Drout is an editor for The Tolkien Encyclopedia and even helped edit the edition of Beowulf in question, which includes the Tolkien short story “Sellic Spell” (O.E. for “Happy Story”). Drout has been credited with “discovering” the Beowulf translation, but maintains that Christopher Tolkien had donated the translation a long time ago to the Bodlein Library–Drout simply helped make the material available to a readership, among his other editorial duties.

Tolkien’s translation is a perfect example of his ability to write in the style of the Anglo-Saxons. However, his beautiful alliterative verse translation of Beowulf was omitted from the published text, so what readers are presented with is his prose. In return, explained Drout, the reader gets a precise prose translation of the Old English according to how Tolkien interpreted it; you will see Hrothgar’s vassals called “knights,” for example. Although leather and chainmail does not fit our Victorian image of the knight in shining, plate-steel armour, it is technically the correct term.

Tolkien originally did not wish for his Beowulf to be published, but it is available anyway. Christopher Tolkien’s comments on the text are invaluable, however, and give you an idea about how the author’s mind worked. He was nothing short of genius. For instance, he argued against the translation of the Old English term for “whale-road,” arguing that it could not have referred to a whale precisely, but to a species related to the porpoise that lived in those times in the North. “Dolphin’s riding,” is Tolkien’s sarcastic suggestion.

Tolkien also interpreted the metonymic use of the word “point” to mean “sword” as incorrect. In the passage in question, Beowulf is wrapped in the coils of Grendel’s mother. In a most lively manner, Drout acted out Beowulf’s situation during his presentation using a wooden sword, demonstrating that the only way for Beowulf to escape the death grip was to stab his foe with the point (a.k.a. tip) of the sword.

So deep was Tolkien’s knowledge of Beowulf that he argued the characters in Heorot–like Hrothgar and Unferth–belonged to a cycle of heroic poems similar to the medieval romances of Arthur and his knights. Without any evidence whatsoever, Tolkien believed he was right. No scholar of the present age would dare make such extravagant claims today. The absence of historical documents did not faze him, with the result that “Sellic Spell” is his own story, written by him, which is supposed to be a translation of what the original source text of Beowulf would have been like–making it, if Tolkien was miraculously correct, the oldest story in English, even older than the actual oldest story in English. And, of course, he translated “Sellic Spell” into Old English!

Tolkien’s genius enabled him to have the confidence–perhaps warranted, perhaps not–to commit what in today’s terms would perhaps be called crimes of historical fantasy. But we forgive him for it because he was so good. Tolkien may not have been a Modernist, but he was exceptionally good at being the precise antithesis of a Modernist. He was so at the service of those older texts that he believed his original work to belong to the tradition of Old English rather than to the modern tradition.

The world will never see another of his kin.

Mars Science Center, Wheaton College, where most of the talks happened
Mars Science Center, Wheaton College, where most of the talks happened

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Next Week: My Journey at MythCon 45 Continues!

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Photo Credits:

Beowulf and Sellic Spell: http://www.fantifica.com/literatura/noticias/beowulf-tolkien-traduccion/

Beowulf MS: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf

Tolkien: http://www.gallerynucleus.com/blog/lotr/archive?month=09&year=2013

Julian the Magician by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20140717_155257Julian the Magician is the work of a poet of the mythic, the magical, and the exotic: Gwendolyn MacEwen. Although she is better known for her poetry–and mostly, I suspect, by academics rather than the general public–I recommend reading her today. Her style is a “sort of powerful poetic mad half-abandoned prose somewhere between [Kenneth] Patchen and Virginia Woolf,” and is filled with mystical significance and humour. Julian the Magician is an early example of Canadian literary fantasy.

Set in a vaguely Renaissance setting–not exactly medieval, since Julian has studied Paracelsus–Julian the Magician concerns the travels of a miracle maker who believes he is Christ. He has studied alchemy, myth, and Kabbalah, but has dropped those disciplines in favour of sorcery. The work of a magician is similar to that of the illusionist, but more specifically, Julian’s art is “the means of inducing the state of suspended logic” (16). His job is to “[unscrew] hinges on all doors” that block belief and thus let his audience come to believe in his magic (20). The problem is that the people become fanatic about his supposedly godlike powers.

Wandering the countryside in a cart, Julian journeys with Peter, his young assistant, Johann, a bitter man, and Aubrey. Julian’s journey mirrors that of Christ, MacEwen putting her own spin on the baptism, the wedding feast at Cana, and lastly, the trial and Crucifixion. The difference is that though Christ was God incarnate, Julian is simply a magician, and does not want to be thought of as anything more than human. In one scene, for example, the audience sees him turn water into wine, but Peter is convinced that the liquid in the jugs is still water.

When Peter reads over Julian’s journals, which the magician keeps private, Julian’s mind is revealed to be … incomprehensible. His thought processes are intensely metaphoric, similar to his abandoned speech, which his followers struggle to understand. Gradually, it becomes apparent to the wise reader that Julian’s magic is an analogy for the poet’s ability to manipulate words and string them into mysterious meaning. The poet’s role is to suspend reality–but the poet should never be deemed godlike. If so, she/he endures the same fate at society’s hands as Julian and Christ suffer.

When Julian becomes framed for murder, a crime that could unravel the belief he has sown into a community, the only solution is to endure crucifixion at the hands of his accusers. Will the faith of the community be shattered forever? What legacy survives the magician’s death? You will have to read the book to discover your own answer.

“Without time and location,” states MacEwen in the role of the editor of Julian’s journal, “we cannot place his figure anywhere in history.” The historical period and place where Julian plies his trade is unspecific to make it universal, a reflection of all magicians and poets in all times. It is the poet and the magician’s tragedy that their revelations, filled with the greatest significance for them, become incomprehensible to future readers and generations. But since Insomniac still offers this hard-to-find book for purchase online, at least Julian the Magician can find that readership now, sixty years after its first publication. A new generation can now discover MacEwen and be initiated into Julian’s mysteries…

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

20140730_163408Every once in a while, I pick up a book that inspires me into creativity and haunts my dreams. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is one such book, a celebration of the alien, the urban, and the grotesque.

New Crobuzon is a corrupt city with an underground network of criminals–only a part of whom reside in Parliament and control the ruthless militia. Furthermore, its hundreds-of-years-old decaying architecture sprawls amid the bones of a vast, ancient beast. It is home to humans, xenians, and Remade, a class of condemned criminals whose body parts are replaced by animals limbs as a kind of cruel, creative punishment. The human architecture has been replaced in certain districts by the xenian architecture of khepri, vodyanoi frog-men, and the cactacae, each of whom form their own societies within the complex city landscape.

We are introduced to the life of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an unconventional scientist within this vast, minutely detailed world, a universe where various branches of science–mechanical, biological, computational, and thaumaturgic–all thrive. Miéville’s science fantasy world is one where miracle-making, amputation, and difference engines can coexist without contradiction, a hodgepodge patchwork of different systems, just like New Crobuzon itself is a motley ecosystem of various coexisting species.

Ancient Egyptian Khepri
Ancient Egyptian Khepri

Isaac’s lover is Lin, a khepri. It is a scandalous kind of love for a human to be enamoured with a xenian. She is half-human, half-insect, her body apparently human-looking–below her head-scarab, that is. The males of her race are oversized beetles without sentient brains, only good for reproduction, and so she has bitterly left her home to become an independent artist.  She and Isaac keep their relationship secret, although it is an open secret among their friends in artistic community.

Isaac and Lin’s lives get complicated, however, when Isaac encounters a garuda, a half-man, half-bird xenian, named Yagharek, who has lost his wings. Yagharek hires Isaac to find a way to get him into the air again. Isaac, being the pioneering scientist he is, agrees to the challenge. Meanwhile, a shady employer hires Lin to produce a sculpture unlike any she has ever created, a very portrait of the grotesque.

As Isaac searches for a way to make Yagharek fly again, he peruses all the technologies and scientific systems at his disposal. It’s his specialty to combine disparate ideas to create new technology. His unified field theory proposes that there is a  center where all the sciences converge, like how all the skyrails and trains in New Crobuzon converge on Perdido Street Station, the giant tower of sprawling architecture that forms the city’s central hub.

While Isaac gathers data to build wings for Yag, it swiftly becomes apparent, however, that in trying to analyze and document the physiognomies of all manner of flying creatures, he may have wandered out of his depth. A terrible danger arises out of his unsavoury deals with the criminal underworld, and it will lead to a nightmare from which the entire city will not be able to awaken.

A Thai garuda
A Thai garuda

I came to learn about this book while researching my Honours thesis. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendelsohn calls Perdido Street Station an immersive fantasy, because the protagonist, Isaac, takes all the strangeness in the setting for granted. The scientific principles that formulate how the world functions makes that world “arguable.” The reader is therefore “immersed” in the perspective of  a New Crobuzon native. As a scientist, Isaac can combine technologies in ways never conceived of before, and even set their forces in paradoxical contradiction to each other. The word “grotesque” means “attaching to an object qualities that do not belong to it,” for example, a wingless garuda, or a human with his head turned around 180 degrees. Isaac’s science–crisis theory–is itself a kind of grotesque of science, fusing magic and technology.

As if these ideas–strange concepts of science and art, religion and magic, the urban and biological–were not enough, China Miéville paints such a vivid, believable, and detailed picture of New Crobuzon that it was impossible for me not to imagine some scenes as paintings. His style is poetic, especially during Yagharek’s first-person scenes at the end of each part of the novel, where he appears as a lost soul at war with his own deformation, wandering the dirty city streets, longing for the feeling of wind in his feathers.

The epigraph to Perdido Street Station is from Philip K. Dick’s We can Build You: “I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.” New Crobuzon is itself a character. Just as the war against the vampiric creatures that will be unleashed tests Isaac’s relationship to his city, Yagharek loses touch with the sky, which is his home. Readers grow to be highly sympathetic towards old Yag, forgetting sometimes that he lost his wings because he committed a crime.

I have only just scratched the surface in describing the complex, sprawling, political, and fascinating world Miéville creates. I forgot to mention the Ambassador to Hell, for example, and, my favourite extra-dimensional entity, the Weaver, a giant crooning spider whose metaphoric structure of speech left me imagining him in a fedora snapping to Beat poetry. You’ll have to read Perdido Street Station to taste the rest of this whacky world. I’ll say it certainly made me hungry for more. Maybe I will read Iron Council next…

China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station
China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station

Photo Credits:

Garuda: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thai_Garuda_emblem.png

China Miéville: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_Mi%C3%A9ville.jpg

Khepri: http://www.zin.ru/animalia/coleoptera/rus/chimera.htm