Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Review #28: A Fool and Forty Acres by Geoff Heinricks

Thinking of starting your own vineyard? Read this engaging account first, by a former journalist who took the plunge.

Subtitled “Conjuring a Vineyard Three Thousand Miles from Burgundy”, this is a delightful account of the author’s experiences growing wine grapes in Prince Edward County of Ontario. The county offers a limestone-based soil typical of certain areas of France, ideal for growing the Pinot Noir grape, which is used to make red wine. Also, the presence of Lake Ontario nearby ensures less severe winters. Heinricks, a Toronto journalist, decided to move to Prince Edward County with his family after realizing vineyard land in the Niagara region had grown too expensive. The author is a bit of a fanatic (the good sort), willing to throw his entire being into his pet project, for example, using a pick and shovel to dig holes in the shallow limestone soil and grafting thousands of rootstock himself for planting.

Heinricks writes well and gives the reader a strong taste of his sense of excitement, including a fair bit of history on the area. He starts each chapter with a quote from local poet Al Purdy (and includes several visits with Purdy). Essentially, however, this is a tale of one’s man’s battle against the elements for love of the grape. It’s all about work and weather: “…a brief span of three or more days can combine the weather of all four seasons.” The obstacles to success are legion: insects, diseases such as phylloxera, pests including voles and robins, and the wind-borne insecticide of his neighbors drifting into his vineyard. But in the end, the reader gets the feeling Heinricks will succeed and has thoroughly enjoyed the struggle.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review #27: Civil Elegies and Other Poems by Dennis Lee

A classic collection of poetry by one of Canada's finest poets.

Dennis Lee, one of Canada’s most widely acclaimed poets, received the Governor General’s Award for Civil Elegies in 1972. Lee is perhaps best known for his zany poetry for children, although his adult work exhibits the craft and intelligence of a top-flight poet.

The collection is divided into two parts: ‘Coming Back’, sixteen poems that touch on relationships and language; and ‘Civil Elegies’, a tightly knit series of nine longer poems that explore the meaning of Canada.

For Lee, poetry is about paying attention to the world around him: “Outside, the rasp of a snow-shovel / grates in the dark. / Lovely / sound, I hang onto it.”

But every moment brings the possibility of profound questions in the midst of ordinary life: “Forty-five years, and / still the point eludes him whenever he stops to think.”

In the second half of the book, he turns outward to society, discovering he is, among other things, a citizen. He seems to be writing under the pressure of a moral imperative, internally driven to penetrate what Canada was, is and could be. Humanity is represented by the downtown crowds he observes in the vast square in front of Toronto’s city hall.

The ‘Civil Elegies’ poems are also a struggle with emptiness and meaning, as much about the human condition as the Canadian condition. In their raw questioning, in their naked revelations of a soul trying impossibly to fix its place in the world, the poems offer both great solace and great pain.