Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review #9: Another Gravity by Don McKay

(A review of a poetry collection by Canada's most accomplished poet -- and, I believe, one of the best writing in the English language today.)

Another Gravity won the Governor General’s award for poetry, Canada’s premier book prize. McKay also won in 1991 with his collection, Night Field.

McKay’s nine books of poetry are all marked by a rigorous intelligence, a profound feel for language and a lightness of touch. McKay has the uncanny ability to bring together the complex and meaningful with the mundane. In “Sometimes a Voice (1)”, a few friends shingle a boathouse roof, drinking beer and “discussing gravity”. But the simple scene turns into the contemplation of a friend’s disappearance, his hammer stuck inside his boots.

There is a constant play in this book between gravity and its opposite, whether expressed as air, sky, wind, wings or feathers. But the primary focus of attention here is the moon, which appears in numerous poems, not as a sentimental reflection of romantic notions, but as another form of gravity, a guide in the art of reflection.

McKay’s sheer delight in language is infectious. The poems are sprinkled with startling, original turns of phrase: the moon is a “black belly-button swirl”; a dream of eiders diving into the Arctic Ocean leaves his “whole mind applauding”; a luna moth is “a scrap of wedding dress”.

In “Angle of Attack”, McKay states his approach clearly: “we needed duct tape, a philosophy of feathers / and a plan: what to / fall for, gracefully, / and without too much / deliberation, how to mix / the mysticism with the ash and live / next door to nothing, / and with art.”

There is no doubt McKay belongs in the top rank of poets writing in English today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review #8: Towards a Just Society edited by Thomas S. Axworthy and Pierre Elliott Trudeau

In this political season, a review of a classic Canadian political work by our greatest Prime Minister

For anyone interested in Canada’s political history in the second half of the twentieth century, this collection of essays is essential reading. Subtitled “The Trudeau Years”, the book covers the period from 1968 to 1984 when Trudeau was Prime Minister, except for a short hiatus when Progressive Conservative Joe Clark was elected.

The essays present the Liberal party view of national and international relations during the period with a special focus on the persistent and vexatious Quebec question. A number of highly placed Liberals are included: Marc Lalonde writes on energy policy, John Roberts on the environment, and Jean Chretien on Canada’s endless constitutional dance marathon. The lead essay, titled “The Tempest Bursting: Canada in 1992” by Axworthy and Trudeau, reveals profound intelligence at work and is excellent at placing Trudeau within the historical liberal context beginning with the Greeks.

Canadian politics is apocalyptic – every major question seems to threaten the actual existence of the country: Quebec nationalism, the growth of provincial power, Western disaffection, U.S. relations. Also, Canada’s locus of power is centralized in the Ontario-Quebec axis, unlike the U.S. where power tends to reside on the two coasts.

Trudeau understood these realities – for him, a ‘just’ society is one that offers “equality of opportunity” to every citizen and all his economic and language policies grew out of this view, including his arguments against Quebec nationalism which are absolutely irrefutable and stand the test of time.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review #7: Three Views of Crystal Water by Katherine Govier

(Since Japan has been much in the news lately, here is an excellent novel set in Japan before the war.)

Vera, 13, lives in Vancouver with her grandfather, James Lowinger, a pearl merchant. Loneliness has driven Vera’s mother to jump off a bridge while her shiftless father travels the world chasing his next moneymaking scheme. Set in the 1930s, this novel is the story of a girl who has (as Ikkanshi, the sword polisher, will later tell her) “beginner’s mind”, both ignorant and clear of preconceptions. When her grandfather too dies, Vera ends up on a remote island in Japan with her Japanese ‘stepmother’ where slowly she is accepted into the all-female community of pearl divers, grows up, falls in love and nearly becomes ensnared in the politics of an increasingly militaristic Japan.

Filled with intriguing lore on pearls, their history and magic, and traditional Japanese swords, this coming-of-age story is told with a subtle and elegant simplicity, the writing exquisite and clear as sparkling water. When Vera helps Ikkanshi test an ancient sword by holding it in a stream to see if it can cut floating leaves, Govier explains, “they focused only on the task itself, and not its meaning,” thereby imparting a feel for an archetypal Japanese artistic view without having to state it baldly. Later, in a final testament, Vera’s grandfather tells the wondrous story of how he traded everything for a single pearl of incomparable size and possibility only to see it all disappear in an attempt to attain perfection. This fine novel creates a world of depth and feeling, one that brings together the mountains and seas of Japan, the sea’s nacreous jewels and the intriguing life of a young, spirited woman.