REVIEWS: vol 5, issue 1

By Jordan Tannahill (House of Anansi Press)

Reviewed by Adam Meisner

Jordan Tannahill’s first novel, Liminal, joins a long tradition of queer fictionalized autobiography. Marcel Proust (who Tannahill references early in his novel), Denton Welch, Edmund White, and Édouard Louis come to mind. Unlike these forebearers, though, Tannahill writes autoficton that is more playful: in the author’s note that prefaces the book, he offers the caveat that, “while I have drawn inspiration from real people I know, I can assure the reader that without exception the real people are better in every way.”

Tannahill builds intimacy with readers through his compelling narrator, “Jordan.” He has an encyclopedic knowledge of subjects as diverse as robotics and contemporary art, he shares the most delightful anecdotes from his life in prose that sometimes reads as poetry, and his life experiences are as dynamic as they are diverse. Oh, and he’s funny, too. But the novel is also about a very intimate subject: death. More specifically, it’s about the impending death of the narrator’s mother. The novel’s intimacy is heightened when Tannahill uses direct address and refers to his reader as “you,” as though addressing his actual mother reading the book. 

The novel traces Tannahill’s life as it intersects with and departs from his mother’s. He details how his single mother raised him, encouraged his early interest in theatre, and introduced him to the first gay people he ever met. And even when he moves to Toronto to study acting, and later to London to pursue new artistic ventures, her influence remains central to his life. 

I found Liminal especially intimate for the close parallels between my own life and Tannahill’s (or at least the version of Tannahill presented in the book): we both grew up in Ottawa’s eastern suburbs, attended the same arts high school, came out queer as teenagers in that city, and then moved to Toronto to study theatre at university—though we’ve never met in real life. (I can only imagine how important it would have been for a younger version of myself to read a book like this—to see that queer artists came from my quiet corner of the world.) But the similarities between our lives are rather superficial, and the novel offers the pleasures of recognition more broadly, toward anyone who has grappled with such basic questions as what it means to be alive, to have a body, to experience the death of a loved one, and to die. 

At the end of the novel, however, the “you” of Tannahill’s direct address shifts, and he comes to write in an almost liturgical register: “And let us forgive each other for our different routes to the same end. In fact, let us love each other more for them. And if you tell me what you have discovered along your path, I will listen. And I will tell you what I have discovered along my path, if you will listen.” It’s difficult not to listen to writing this good.

Pemmican Wars
By Katherena Vermette (Highwater Press)

Reviewed by Amy Kenny

For someone named Echo, the protagonist of Katherena Vermette’s first graphic novel doesn’t say much. That makes sense though, in a story about a thirteen-year old girl looking and listening to the past to gain some sense of identity in the present. 

Pemmican Wars is the first volume in the series A Girl Called Echo. Written by Vermette, a Governor General Award–winning writer, the book is slight, coming in at forty-four pages (forty-seven if you count those containing a pemmican recipe and historical timeline).

Echo is Métis, living in Winnipeg, with what appears to be a foster family while her mother is in a group home of sorts. She moves through her days with her eyes downcast and her earbuds planted firmly in place. She dresses like she fronts a nineties grunge band (cargo pants and Nirvana T-shirts), listens exclusively to the music her mother grew up with (Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and speaks monosyllabically to everyone around her (there are only about sixty words in the book’s first twenty pages, nine of which are hers).

Though it’s not clear why Echo and her mother have been separated, it is clear she’s not handling it well. A panel on page 30 that shows Echo in profile also illustrates why a comic doesn’t need to rely on text to get its point across. Having just been called to dinner by her foster parent, Echo leans her head against the wall and closes her eyes in the perfect visual representation of what it’s like to be exhausted by simply having to be present in your life some days. 

Echo only begins to smile and speak in full sentences when she slips back in time to the Pemmican Wars on the prairies in the 1800s. It’s never stated whether Echo is time-travelling or just getting lost in her own imagination. Either way, she’s immediately accepted in the past by a girl named Marie who doesn’t even flinch at how out-of-place Echo looks in her torn pants and T-shirt with the word “weird” printed on it. Instead, Marie leads Echo across the land and teaches her about Metis culture—something Echo is only abstractly aware of as significant to her own story.  

These lessons take place in tandem with those being taught in Echo’s history class, a world where she fits in decidedly less well. In a noticeably diverse school—where the history classroom is decorated with a Métis flag, the English teacher is trans, and Echo’s classmates are just as likely to wear hijabs as baseball caps—Echo sticks out. 

This sense of alienation is also achieved without words, by way of the artwork of Scott B. Henderson (The Chronicles of Era, 7 Generations). His work is made doubly beautiful by the inking of Donovan Yaciuk, who renders modern-day Winnipeg in washed-out beiges, while nineteenth century Saskatchewan radiates rich red and orange hues. Whether lit by sunset or campfire, the panels of the past seem to glow, making them more authentic and appealing than Echo’s “real” life. 

The book is short (there are more words in this review), which makes it tough to tell where the series is going, but that’s not to say it’s not worth following. Pemmican Wars feels like a handshake of an introduction. It’s too brief to get a fulsome sense of what the story is all about, but intriguing enough to make you want to dig deeper. 

By Jeff Latosik (McClelland & Stewart)

Reviewed by Jason Wiens

The title of Jeff Latosik’s latest volume of poetry, Dreampad, evokes Freud’s “mystic writing pad,” an analogy for the relationship between writing and memory. Indeed, writing memory is a central concern of Dreampad, the poetry arising out of “a trick I like to do. I make all that isn’t / come to in a half-life of being dreamed and as I do the days / patch through in a way that’s hard to damp and fade.” The poems are most successful when they attempt to enact the syntax of memory and dream through jarring disjunctions and enjambments, as in the opening title poem: “I gather up some days / and make a living beat to layer over.  Then the grid / populates as memory.” Less successful, to my mind at least, are the poems that wander into more conventional anecdotal reflection. A poem like “Pack,” for instance, skillfully and lyrically conflates different memories of wasps and hornets, to arrive at a figurative conclusion—“I’m old, so fast, the hornet’s still there, buzzing.” But one might wonder why the writer relates this through poetry rather than, say, microfiction. 

Many of these are poems about Toronto, as the speaker at times wanders flâneur-like through that city’s streets, its various landmarks provoking narratives such as “that St. George campus belfry where we did our masters” or “you / once making ice flakes with your hockey stops / in Nathan Phillips Square.” Intriguingly, Latosik addresses the impact of runaway capital on the housing market, and consequently on the shape of the city: “The buildings now are architecturally twisted / like they’re being half-nelsoned for cash.” Dreampad’s disjunctions work to evoke the contradictions that arise when property becomes pure speculation, an abattoir closed “all because of porcine diarrhea and condo developers, / two things that wouldn’t have otherwise / explained each other.” A poem like “The Home Checklist” mines the lexicon of real estate—“Some general comingling of space / and location”—to humorous effect: “Ranked school but perhaps / out of earshot.” The poem’s conclusion evokes the mad panic of bidding wars and FOMO: “if a deal can be struck / then we’ll go over asking. / What was it, again, / that we were asking?” 

If the fading dream of home ownership is one concern of Latosik’s generation, employment precarity is another, alluded to in poems like “The Adjunct,” “Where the jobs flaked and blew away,” and “tomorrow’s ok but the one after that sort of trembles, leaf-like.” These are poems of a generation who can still remember when they first heard of the internet (“in a Burger King”), and who can remember a time of pre-digital photography. We now all exist, as one poem puts it, “in the photostream,” and “what we try to keep becomes / a kind of condensation.” “Dichten = condensare” was Pound’s famous dictum about poetry, but Freud also described dreams as works of condensation. Dreampad invokes both of these senses, translating dream and memory, individual and collective,  into a condensate of lyric investigations.     

Xiphoid Process
By Kevin Connolly (House of Anansi Press)

Reviewed by Christopher Doda

In Xiphoid Process, his fifth collection of poetry, Kevin Connolly has outdone himself. Or you might say that he has indone himself. “This book is rife with plunder,” as he puts it in his endnotes, both from outside sources—like other poets, comedians, songwriters, and emails—and from his own previous works. Long-time readers will recognize in the opening section poems titled after each of his first four books, “Drift,” “Revolver,” “Asphalt Cigar,” and “Happyland,” and lines from each repurposed therein and the final section, “Arena Rock,” is a series of poems based on rock lyrics spanning from U2 to Pink Floyd to Bon Jovi to Journey. 

The overall theme of the book revolves around the futility of life’s plans in the face of unforeseen events. By pulling fragments, bits, and ephemera into these pages and situating them out of their original context,  Connolly, gives us the finite nature of life or a piece of art or both. Or as he puts it in “Asphalt Cigar,” “Think of death as a heavy backdrop collapsing on the diva.” Or, more succinctly: “Few outcomes are more suspect / than those that appear certain” (“Halfway There”). But when he says in “Drift,” “The thing about pain is it’s poetic: sad grammar of full and empty,” it’s hard to tell if he’s being facetious: after all, trying to tease meaning out of Connolly’s poems is a bit pointless, as his quasi-surrealism defies conventional sense in favour of a wash of unusual images that pile up and overlap during the course of a piece, often rendering a poem as a kind of Rorschach test. You will see in them what you wish to see based on your own preconceived views. I see uncertainty in the face of randomness, but you may have other ideas. 

We might agree that the title poem is a wry, allusion-laden catalogue of things subject to change, and usually not for the better, especially around aging (“To hell with equanimity, I fucking hated turning fifty”), something the author clearly does not care for (which might explain his comically outdated author photo). Later the notion of temporality finds a place in “Love Removal Machine” (the Cult, of course): he says, “Common sense holds you can’t doubt you’re doubting. / But find me anything interesting that’s done at least that,” wondering whether pop-culture touchstones or fading memories even need to be reliable in order to be valid. In short, Connolly has crafted a book that explores the impermanence of permanence and the permanence of impermanence. 

Janieta Eyre: Incarnations
Edited by Suzanne Zelazo (Coach House Books)

Reviewed by Julia Polyck-O’Neill

Artist Janieta Eyre’s beguiling images, in full colour throughout Incarnations, ask, how can photographs respond to the invisible forces that inform inner life? How, in the age of the selfie, can serial self-portraits refute the notion of the self? And how can photography go beyond its capacity for the faithful replication of reality? These are the goals informing Eyre’s extended photographic project and the literary responses assembled by editor Suzanne Zelazo. Such a challenging premise intentionally confounds and inspires the viewer. 

In Incarnations, the dialogue between written word and visual language is especially compelling. In addition to her own essay and Eyre’s reflections, Zelazo includes creative texts from Lynn Crosbie and Christian Bök, and idea-rich, critical analyses from David Dorenbaum, Lori Waxman, and RM Vaughan. Bringing these voices into orbit with the images, art histories, and psychoanalytic themes, Zelazo surmises that, “like Eyre, all five contributing authors insist on subjectivity as equal parts perverse, grotesque, and heartbreakingly beautiful.” Zelazo thoughtfully summarizes these “layers of conversation” in her introduction to the collection, and she provides the reader a list of critical terms and ideas such as intersubjectivity (the sharing of consciousness), feminist forms of embodiment and looking, and the politics of performativity (the ways that individuals are constituted by speech and actions), key themes found in Eyre’s ambiguous, striking images.

The sum of the writings in Incarnations is a platform for an informed appreciation of Eyre’s complex and multifarious work. Each contribution, organized as a creative written preface to an individual photographic collection, takes the self-portraits it addresses in a particular direction. Lynn Crosbie’s poem “Antlers,” for instance, helps draw out the complex relationships within many of the images. Crosbie’s misreading of the word “alters” as “antlers” gives a poignant poetic twist to the not-quite-mirror-image figures in the photographic collection Lady Lazarus (1997–2000), such as Police (1999), one of Eyre’s eerie “twin” images replicated in Burning Cake (1999). Meanwhile, Christian Bök’s “Our Lady of the Blackbirds” engages with the images from Eyre’s Motherhood (2000–2003) by picking up image themes and titles, using a serial method to move through the surrealist photographs. Bök’s precise, rhythmic poems invoke a range of nostalgic imagery with such passages as “The Damsels, / who demand / to stand, like a triplet of bishops / in blindfolds, / prepare to be / scolded” in “The Book of Small Souls,” providing lyric and aesthetic contrast to Eyre’s skewed and unsettling domestic scenes.

Although the short essays and long poems contribute significantly to the depth of ideas and reach of the book, Eyre’s photographs, with their gorgeous, acid-toned visual riddles, are its standout feature; see, for example, the clever costuming in the collection The Mute Book, which seems to challenge notions of stable identity by explicitly dividing the figure into sections. The self-portraits are emotionally arresting and spectacular. They suggest quick parallels with the legacies of montage and self-portrait-oriented feminist artists familiar and not, such as Cindy Sherman, Suzy Lake, Francesca Woodman, and Hannah Maynard, as Zelazo mentions. This context is useful in reconciling Eyre’s images with her explications, as she prefers to foreground the highly personal aspects of her work and the intentionality of her practice. 

This evocative text offers much to contemplate. 


I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well: Collected Stories
By Norman Levine (Biblioasis)

Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock

In “Soap Opera,” one of the best of the late Norman Levine’s many remarkable short stories, there is this exchange between an ailing elderly mother and her middle-aged writer son—a man who, not coincidentally, resembles Levine himself in numerous ways:

I sat her up. Got some juice and a straw. She didn’t have the strength to hold it. When she finished and wiped her lips she said, “It is not necessary to put this in a story.”

“I only write about people I like.”

She wasn’t convinced.

The mother is right to be skeptical: the forty-plus semi-autobiographical stories collected here include many moments of love and affection, but for the most part, Levine’s writerly eye is trained on the more sombre end of the emotional spectrum: disappointment, frustration, grief, and loss. If you end up liking someone in a Levine story, it is almost in spite of them.

But then, what the mother herself says is also a kind of lie: it is very necessary to include moments like that in a story. The work of Norman Levine—who grew up in Ottawa, served in the RCAF in World War II, and then moved to England in 1949, where he died in 2005 at the age of eighty-one—is built upon the inclusion of moments other writers might scrub from their manuscripts or leave out altogether. His protagonists, who are invariably men whose biographies match that of their creator, are mostly passive observers, human Swiffer mops to whom every idle conversation and scrap of banal experience adheres, to be later turned into utterly non-banal art. Levine is a master of small moments that accumulate and become something haunting and significant. It’s a trick he pulls off again and again, so that readers, even if they occasionally feel they are treading on well-trod thematic and narrative ground while in the middle of a story, will come to the end wanting to go back and read it all over again, to see how he pulled it off.

Biblioasis assembles these stories in an elegant and very reader-friendly package, though the lack of bibliographic information is puzzling. Also curious is the decision to give this collection the same title as one of the collections Levine published during his lifetime. The heartfelt foreword by editor John Metcalf, a long-time friend of Levine’s, positions his work “at the very centre of achievement in Canadian short story writing”—which not only might surprise fans of Alice Munro, but also feels off the mark. The attraction of these stories is that they are not central to anything: in his life and in his art, Norman Levine lived in the margins, and uncovered there a whole world of grim, stoic beauty. 

Posted on June 8, 2018 .