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Brick Books poetry launch explores underground themes

April 29, 2014

Open Space, 510 Fort St, Victoria, B.C.

Review by Julian Gunn 

There was smoke in the streets of downtown Victoria the night of the Brick Books launch. A derelict garage a few blocks over had caught fire in the afternoon. Poets and their fans drifted towards Open Space through a hazy sunset, carrying in the smell of charred wood on their clothes. It seemed curiously appropriate, since the work we heard that Tuesday night concerned the uneasy meetings of human desires and natural forces.

Sparking off their cross-Canada tour in Victoria, the four poets of Brick Books’ Spring Collection – Victoria’s Arleen Paré and Karen Enns, Whitehorse’s Joanna Lilley, and Jane Munro, formerly of Vancouver Island and now a Vancouver resident – read to a packed house that included a strong showing of Victoria’s poetic community. Brick Books General Manager Kitty Lewis was the enthusiastic host.

“You’ve got your whole spring lineup touring together,” I’d pointed out to Lewis over coffee the day before. “Was that hard to organize?”

She smiled conspiratorially. “No, but we made it work. I told them: you need the nucleus of an audience. So as long as there were two of the four that knew some people in the city, I booked a reading.” Lewis explained that Victoria is the first stop of a tour that culminates in Fredericton, New Brunswick. This is the largest reading tour Brick Books has ever put together. And by Brick Books, in this case I mean Kitty Lewis, since after more than 20 years she still administers the whole show out of her spare bedroom. Founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland provide Brick’s artistic direction. The editors choose and edit manuscripts. The production team ensures that each book is a carefully constructed artifact. Kitty Lewis keeps it all running, and beautiful books of poetry continue to be printed and offered to readers across Canada. Sitting there in the audience, I felt lucky.

Lewis lined up the authors in reverse order of experience. Joanna Lilley began her reading from The Fleece Era by telling the audience that this was a night of firsts for her: her first book, first reading in Victoria, first time touring with the little band of poets. Lilley was born in England but lives in the Yukon. Inspired by the art around us, she spoke about living in the Yukon as a settler, a British immigrant, a vegetarian who ponders the ethics of eating only shipped-in food, and a woman who is childless by choice. Many of her poems traversed the difficult emotional territory of intimate relationships through the twinning of geographical and emotional isolation. She read “Scientist,” about a painful disconnect between partners enacted while skiing: “How is it I’m lost / yet you’re not, although / we’re on the same blank trail.”

Karen Enns began her reading from Ordinary Hours softly, but she built a quiet vocal drama. I noticed an intriguing accumulation of negations and cancellations in the poems she read, a kind of loss by definition. In “Muse,” the titular being “comes with nothing in her hands,” and is both “almost imagined” and “almost real.” Again and again Enns points to things needed, longed for, or disavowed by naming their absence. Enns’ first book, That Other Beauty, draws from her childhood in a southern Ontario Mennonite community, and these memories are also part of the poems she read from Ordinary Hours. In “For F.,” from her moving series “William Street Elegies,” a phrase as simple as “no more / and no less” reverberates with all of the other constraints the poet had precisely delineated.

Arleen Paré’s new collection isn’t in our eager hands yet, but she is a subtly compelling reader with an academic’s attention to detail and an old friend’s quiet humour. Lake of Two Mountains, which Brick calls “a hymn to a beloved lake, a praise poem in forty-five parts, a contemplation of landscape and memory.” “Call and Response,” read meditatively, evoked the dynamic relationships of place: “The Canadian Shield calls to the fault // the fault, tectonic, / replies with the Ottawa River.” Paré’s ecopoetics of the lake include the Oka crisis, the lakeside monastery (now closed), and the child who passionately internalized the place. In “How Own a Lake,” she gently interrogates that joyful claiming, asking whether the child can own “the reservation… completely unknown.”

Drawing together the evening’s underground themes, Jane Munro connected the intimate personal loss of a partner’s dementia to the cultural memory loss that allows environmental ruin. Blue Sonoma is a poet’s witness, by turns sorrowful, wondering, angry: “Don’t tempt me, old man. / Today I have four arms / and weapons in each hand,” she read. These lines come from the particularly fine sequence “Old Man Vacanas,” which arranges stark and humorous images around the centres of love, ecology, and human fate: “Language, travel, art? Props / in a little, local theatre of light.” Yet Munro is also concerned with the irreducibility of things. Her epigraph from the Upanishads reads, in part: “When fullness is taken from fullness, / Fullness still remains.”

After the readings, Victoria writer Sara Cassidy joined the poets for a friendly Q&A. A good interviewer not only brings questions but offers insights, creating a dynamic environment where  new ideas can arise. “Did it feel dangerous to write about caring for someone with dementia?” she asked Munro. “It felt necessary.” Munro answered. “Your book is full of silence,” Cassidy pointed out to Enns, “and also full of blooms.”

Throughout the smoky, slightly off-kilter night, bursts of seagull cries would suddenly punctuate the poems. They seemed to be insisting on speaking alongside the human voices. “This event came about because Karen Enns and Arlene Paré are from Victoria,” Kitty Lewis told me.  “Jane Munro lived in Sooke for years. That all made it possible.” Lewis said that the poets themselves brought the event together, even arranging the excellent refreshments. The audience enjoyed the usual wine and veggies, but also sushi and miniature cupcakes (I had two).

If you missed the reading, don’t despair. You can’t have a cupcake, but you can still hear the poets read on the Brick Books podcast, available through iTunes and YouTube.


Jane Munro’s collection Blue Sonoma is reviewed here [https://coastalspectator.uvic.ca/?p=3328].

The Publisher

Brick Books:  http://www.brickbooks.ca/

Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/brickbooks

The Poets

Joanna Lilley: http://joannalilley.blogspot.ca/

Jane Munro: http://janemunro.com

Arleen Paré: arleenpare.com

Karen Enns: http://www.brickbooks.ca/bookauthors/karen-enns/

The Interviewer

Sara Cassidy: http://www.saracassidywriter.com

 Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.  


Anthology celebrates queer families

A Family By Any Other Name

Edited by Bruce Gillespie

Touchwood Editions

229 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

A Family By Any Other Name, editor Bruce Gillespie’s latest anthology, invites its authors and readers to consider what queer families might look like now. The anthology is, above all, a snapshot of a fascinating moment in queer history – which is to say, just plain history – the incredible transformation of the position of people who identify as queer and our relationships within Canada and the United States.

Shall we refresh our memories? It has been only nine years since the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada (July 20th, if you want to throw a party). It’s eleven years since Ontario and British Columbia were the first and second provinces to recognize it (June 10th and July 8th, respectively. There’s nothing wrong with having several parties. Or one very long one.) There are still many American states where gay marriage is not legal.

Yet things have changed very quickly. Young people who identify as queer who were children when the laws changed are old enough now to be married themselves, and to have the same expectations as their straight peers about what marriage, fidelity, and family look like. And this is, on the whole, a wonderful thing. I think I’d have to be crazy not to be glad that a generation of people like me won’t be persecuted, isolated, and barred from the public recognition of their relationships.

You should know: this is a good book. The average quality of the essays here is remarkably high. I like to think people who identify as queer take it extra seriously when we set out to tell our stories, but it must also be true that Gillespie is a fine editor who knows how to inspire his contributors. A Family By Any Other Name has a lineage of its own. Gillespie has produced a whole series of anthologies examining the idea of family from all sorts of angles. Full disclosure: I am in one of them. It’s Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids (2008), co-edited by Lynne Van Luven. A Family By Any Other Name is a substantial addition to the series. It may even be Gillespie’s best.

And yet.

There are some great essays here. Victoria writer Arlene Paré contributes a meditation on the long gestation of her novel and the remaking of her family at the same time, “To Carry My Family in My Imperfect Head.” The well-known trans* author and educator S. Bear Bergman provides an exuberant account of his sprawling chosen family, “Hiddur Mitzvah.” Dale Lee Kwong’s “Created by Choice” describes the merging and multiplication of family through adoption, cultural community, faith, and profound friendship. In “What She Taught Me,” Ellen Russell describes her current partnership as a “blended family” because both partners are widowed: not children but the beloved dead are brought together in this new relationship. I cannot think of a simpler and more profound description of the infinite extension of the bonds of love.

There is also an uncanny similarity among many of these narratives; a similarity that I don’t think would have been present before 2003. Almost all of these stories are primarily about being part of a couple. This couple is usually legally married, and often raising children. If they’re polyamorous, or have unusual rules or configurations in their households, this isn’t usually part of the essay’s focus. A playful exception is “I, Didi,” which describes Dorianne Emmerton’s decision to partner, but not co-parent or cohabitate, with her beloved. Another is Bergman’s essay, describing the shabbos dinners he and his partner host. These dinners are the foundation of an expansive family built on all imaginable configurations of love and commitment: “now we have this kid of our own, a kid whose family tree is practically bent double with relatives of assorted kinds—blood, marriage, wine and glitter.”

Each of the writers in By Any Other Name is funny and thoughtful about  his/her/their own particular struggles, some of which are more likely to be found in queer relationships – the struggle to conceive a child, or the awkward act of donating sperm. It’s just that most of these essays tend to assume the two-person partnership as the family unit. If they extend the discussion further, it’s often to the parents of the spouses. And the chosen family, the queer network of friends and frenemies and supporters and allies? It’s here, but it’s in the background. Several writers make appreciative reference to those communities, but in the end they focus on their spouses and children.

I don’t want any of that delicious talk of spouses and children to stop, but I do want us to remember to spend some time talking about building and celebrating that other love. I think it’s still here, for these writers and for me – it’s just that it was never that easy to describe. We never really had the right language, and now marriage has overshadowed our other loves, at least for the time being. I would have liked, for example, to have seen stories here about the extended communities that came together to face the HIV/AIDS epidemic just a generation ago.

So: the world has changed – right now, in these places, queer lives are better. Being better, they are more ordinary. This is a victory. And yet. I want us to give honour and attention to those who still can’t, or who once couldn’t, or who just won’t, enter into conventional structures of love and connection. I want us to do more than remember. I want us to bring those crazy ideas into the culture at large. I don’t just want queer relationships to be changed by marriage. I want us to change what marriage means. And everything else, too, while we’re at it. As my mom would say: the whole fam damily.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.  

Mormon wives “speak” through poems

Poet Marita Dachsel is the author of the new collection Glossolalia, and of the previous collection All Things Said & Done. Glossolalia is a re-imagining of the lives and voices of the 34 wives of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Julian Gunn interviewed Daschel at the end of April for the Coastal Spectator. See the poet’s blog at maritadachsel.blogspot.ca.

Glossolalia is a long-term project. What was its genesis?

I’ve always been interested in fringe religions, and in 2006 the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful was in the news again. BC has long been home to strange sects and cults, and for the most part they are left alone. I thought that if the FLDS would just give up polygamy, then they could live in peace. I wondered why they practised it, and soon learned that it was a vital part of their faith that had been introduced by Joseph Smith back in the 1840s.

Did you always see Glossolalia as a book about all of Smith’s wives? (Or some version of all, since you mention that the exact count is unknown.)

I could understand why modern women born into Mormon Fundamentalism would choose polygamy—it’s their culture, it’s all they know—but I wondered about those women who agreed, who started it all. I read biographies on Joseph’s wives and began to write poems inspired by their lives. It was perfect timing, as I had finished my first collection, All Things Said & Done, and wasn’t sure what I’d do next with my poetry. I soon knew that I wanted to a whole book on them. At the time, I had no idea it would take six years, but I quickly fell into the rabbit hole of research and obsession.

Often, you have only one poem with which to evoke some aspect of each woman. How did you know what would do justice to each one?

Some were definitely easier [to capture] than others. Some came immediately. I’d “hear” their voice in my head and I knew what they’d disclose. Others took a long time of trial and error—the voice, the form, the story all had to click. “Emma Hale Smith,” for example, was the very first poem I wrote for this series, but it wasn’t right. It was really important to me to do her justice and consequently, it took six years of writing her to finally get her poem work the way I wanted it to.

Despite all the research that I did on the women and early Mormonism, not all the poems are based on biography. In the early years of the project, I was a little too tied to the truth, but learned to let that go. I’m not a historian; I’m a poet. My main goal was to write engaging poetry. Sometimes that meant skimming from the women’s lives; sometimes it meant making things up completely.

You use many different formal techniques in the collection. Was there a process by which you decided what techniques you would use, or was it done by intuition and experimentation?

My process was pretty loose. I’d start by reading about the woman, noting ideas or phrases as I went. I’d write a rough draft or two to see if I could get her voice right. If could, great! Then I’d work on the content and form—one usually informing the other. If I couldn’t get her voice right, then I’d either read some more about her, or move on to another wife. Repeat as necessary.

Like “Emma,” “Lucy Walker” is another [voice] that took a lot of trial and error. A few wives had told their own stories during their lives and I was particularly struck with hers—so full of heartache, confusion, and manipulation. I tried to capture it, but the poem always fell flat. Finally, I realized that I didn’t have to do what she already had done, that I could use her words. I played with her text a lot, but nothing was satisfying. Then I came across Jen Bervin’s amazing Nets and it was like a revelation to me. (She ‘erased’ many of Shakespeare’s sonnets into beautifully spare poems.) What I loved about her take on erasure was that we could still see the original poems, just in lighter text. For Lucy, I wanted her real story to still be available to the reader, but I liked the idea of it being deliberately crossed out, as if she were editing her own story. The private truth versus the public record.

How do you find blogging as a medium, as compared to poetry and conventional essays?

I really enjoy reading other people’s blogs, but I’m a terrible blogger. I don’t make the time to do it properly, so lately my blog has become not much more than a place for shameless self-promotion. A few years ago, I did an interview series with writing mothers that I really enjoyed and it still brings the most readers to the blog. I think that when I find time, I’ll revisit that form—return to interviews and discussions. When done well, blogging is an immediate conversation. It’s topical, yet focused. It creates community. I think I write too slowly and have too many interruptions to do the form justice right now, but I am so thankful that others do.

Video night experiment succeeds

Video Art @ Garrick’s Head Pub, Victoria, BC
Featuring works by Rick Raxlen, Janet Rogers, Scott Amos, Carolyn Doucette, Pamela Millar, Alejandro Valbuena, Constance Cook, Carrotkid Films, and Morgan Tams.

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

I recently attended an experiment. There were no electrodes involved, though electronics played a key role. Open Space Gallery, MediaNet, and the Garrick’s Head Pub hosted a showcase of local video artists.

The Garrick’s Head expansion crowns Bastion Square and has a friendly, over-scale feeling, with a mixture of ordinary seating and enormous banqueting tables attended by stools. Our party of three occupied a corner of one such edifice, facing the large screens arrayed along the south wall above the bar. Another filmmaker (not part of the show, but very friendly) and an artistic associate sat down across from us, and another pair of viewers joined us further down. There was a general sense of creative camaraderie. The evening was a little ad hoc, in that there were no printed programs, but Doug the MC very kindly lent me his script so that I could make notes on the titles and creators of the works.

The night began with Morgan Tams’ Killer’s Crossing, subtitled “A Pacific Northwestern”–a surreal cow-metal rock opera in miniature, with words and music by Brooke Gallupe (of the late lamented Immaculate Machine). Richard Raxlen‘s playful envisioning of Jane Siberry’s “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog” followed. Raxlen showed two pieces; the second was a visual accompaniment to “Mumbles,” the jazz tune known for its cheerfully incomprehensible vocals, a kind of virtuoso glossolalia. Raxlen’s jumpy, layered lines and half-seen figures worked similarly at the edge of interpretability.

The pub noise sometimes presented a challenge during the quieter or more verbal pieces. Victoria Poet Laureate Janet Rogers‘ contribution, Just Watch, used a simple juxtaposition to powerful effect. Tiny silhouetted figures crossed an unstable surface that seemed to rise and fall above a brightly coloured static scene. I won’t explain the trick of it here, since I found the disorientation so effective, but it’s worth seeking out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really hear what the speaker in the video was saying.

Scott Amos‘ highly textured experiments in Primordial Soup stirred O’Toole to comment wistfully that it was “Very NFB,” and it did have the exploratory feeling of the golden era of NFB film-making. (A YouTube description notes that Primordial Soup is “an experiment with acrylic paints, India inks and drain cleaner on an old 16mm film.”) In contrast, Paul Whittington‘s L19 Disposed is a bleakly funny dystopian animation that accomplishes a lot of (non-verbal) storytelling in two and a half minutes.

Originally shown on Bravo!, Alejandro Valbuena’s Caffeine uses a cafe and the delicious drug it dispenses to frame dance sequences. My favorite segments reminded me of the risk-taking momentum of Québécois dance troupe La La La Human Steps. Caffeine was followed by Carolyn Doucette’s Little Plank Walk, in which live-action foraging to chanted vocals gave way suddenly and delightfully to experimental saxophonage and edgy animation. Pamela Millar’s Blue Minute Bridge is a metallic noise poem, a visual and auditory dissection of the Johnson Street Bridge, previously screened as part of the BC Spirit Festivals. The evening ended with Constance Cook‘s Anarchist Footwear, a playful depiction of a community’s feet that filled me with reminiscences.

Even with minor sound issues, the night was a success. Many of the video pieces shown are available online through YouTube, Vimeo, and other sources. I recommend that you look them up.

Julian Gunn is a local writer with eclectic tastes.



Painters inspire new perceptions

On Friday, March 15th, Deluge Contemporary Art (located at 636 Yates Street) hosted the opening of Drama of Perception, an exhibit of the work of three contemporary painters: Stephanie Aitken, Katie Lyle, and Shelley Penfold, all former students of the University of Victoria Visual Arts Graduate Program. Deluge, located in the upper story of Victoria’s original fire hall, sponsors the Antimatter Film Festival and aims to represent “a vanguard of visual and media arts in Victoria.” The curator for the exhibit is Sandra Meigs, a visual arts professor at the University of Victoria; Julian Gunn interviewed her about the artists and the show. Drama of Perception runs until April 15, 2013.

Sandra, how did the exhibition come about? How did you come to hang the work of these three painters together, and what kind of context do they create for each other?

I’ve been teaching painting at UVic for twenty years. I’ve known Deborah De Boer, the gallery director at Deluge, over the course of that time and I’ve always admired the way she supports artists in Victoria. Her gallery space is lovely and a really good focused space for viewing art.

About a year ago Deborah asked me if I’d curate a show of painters. She said she’d be interested to see what paintings I put together because I “have an interesting mind.” All three of these painters work in a way that is free of referential structures and strategic methods of construction. By that I mean that they form their images from something other than direct referencing of things in the world. Stephanie paints from her head, using her own made-up drawings to paint from. And Shelley leaves her canvases outside and lets nature take its own course on them before bringing them into the studio and then reads herself into them. Oh sure, Katie Lyle paints women, and may have stacks of magazine images and photos of women in her studio, but she rarely paints directly from them. It is more like she has digested the world, and then transferred it into herself.

Stephanie, Katie and Shelley were all in our Grad Program at different times. They are living in Vancouver and that also interests me. The art scene in Vancouver is not overwhelmingly supportive of painting, but I know there are a lot of great painters living there, so I thought this might be a way to get to know some of what’s happening there in painting. And that certainly worked, as I went twice to visit the artists’ studios. One of the artists is going to arrange for me to do more studio visits with other painters over there soon.

You note that when you look at these paintings, you “have total conviction that the forms . . . exist in the world.” I found that particularly true of Stephanie Aitken’s paintings, which often seemed haunted by real-world perspectives–partially occluded views–flattened into a plane, which makes me think immediately of photography. Although the forms themselves have a genuine immediacy and are not mimetic, can you speak to the subterranean role of mediated viewpoint in Aitken’s paintings?

That’s an interesting idea. Yes, they do seem occluded, one could say looked at through one eye because they lack spatial depth, also altered, as though looking through a fish-eye lens. I think of them as totemic heads that have no back or sides but that are nonetheless authoritative. Their flatness is their virtue and strength and everything good about them. Like a veil that has all the power of the kingdom behind it. I don’t see them as mediated viewpoints. On the contrary, I think they are completely unmediated. That is, they exist without the intervention of any other Thing.

On a similar note, your discussion of Katie Lyle’s portraits was fascinating. At a cursory glance, her paintings might appear to be rather inexpertly rendered portraiture. However, in your monograph you describe Lyle’s long process of “working in” these images, and closer examination shows evidence of careful relationships among the small geometric forms, the lines and arcs, that compose the features of these faces. So Lyle’s paintings are, in a sense, performative works–she is performing a certain kind of painting and also undermining our assumptions about it. How might you advise a viewer to approach this performative element in Lyle’s work?

I guess. Sure, you could say they are performative. Her work is a recording of its own formation. I imagine a beautiful portrait, an at-once captured likeness in paint, and a genuinely radiant young woman showing all her heart and soul, free of touch ups and fakery, at her most absolute real. Then I imagine Katie having made that portrait and repainting it over and over, trying to capture some fleeting essence of the young woman. I imagine that as Katie paints, Katie is also thinking about painting and about all we have seen of painting. I imagine Katie wants to kick painting, to rock it, to destroy and challenge all of our assumptions about beauty in art so as to get closer to the woman’s essence. So, the paintings are a mash-up of radiant young woman meets painting, full on. The geometric forms are new. I think those are very new paintings. I think that is Katie’s way of pushing the painting back even more into a kind of formal depravity that begs for its own beauty.

Actually, all of these questions may be about process and its relation to final form. It seems that there are two distinct stages to Shelley Penfold’s process of creating her paintings. First, there is the phase of putting the canvas itself into situations where it will become weathered and altered–an object with a certain independence. Second, there is the phase where her own gestures become important as she adds marks. Both stages contain random and chosen elements, but can you speak about the relationship of the two? Or if we want to shed the temporal aspect, the relationship of the marks on the surface to the features of the surface itself?

Yeah. I don’t actually think much about those paintings is random. I think Shelley has a lot of control over where she puts them outside, what the weather is going to do to them, what colours she put on them first or adds later. That is the main attraction of the work to me, which is that I can’t figure out what is random and what is chosen, so I choose to think it’s all chosen. Who knows why a sailboat got into that scene in “Fountain of Youth”. Or, why “Blue Lightening” looks like it has a turkey drumstick in it. Or why there’s no man in Mr. Mister. How lovely! That’s how the imagination works. No explanation needed. Also what I find fascinating about them is the play between the marks and the surface. Which is which? A pour of brown enamel is equally a surface and a mark. A scratching of distressed dye on fabric is equally a surface and a mark. Sometimes there is the odd gestural line as in “Blue Lightening” which is very much a mark, but there aren’t many of them. Just ones you could count on one hand. And that makes these grouping of paintings seem most basic or base to me, of essence to humanity.

“As I persist in doubt and knowingness, I am closest to my living perceptual experiences of the world.” That’s your comment about viewing these works, and it comes close to a Buddhist statement about using meditation to achieve an immediate relationship to the world. Is this a goal of artistic production for you? A goal for you, as a viewer of art?

Absolutely! For me, working in the studio is a state of mind that is focused on the moment. Making art is having freedom from thought and an engagement with the world through each and every breath of movement in space between the canvas, the palette, the brush, and the hand, the being. To get in that zone is to set the thinnest possible membrane of separation between the world and me. We become one, you see. Think about the studio as a giant meditating mind. The Artist is in there kicking stuff around and trying to get rid of chatter to make the one form that essential in that moment.

Looking at art can be meditative if the art doesn’t try to complete too much for me. If it is me who is completing it, then it works. That allows me the engagement of doubt and knowing that makes me aware of myself completing it and of not completing it.  A constant, endless meditation.

Leonard Cohen delivers unique holiness

By Julian Gunn

My plan was to see the exhibition of Leonard Cohen’s prints at a leisurely hour on Saturday morning, after some strong coffee and a wander up Oak Bay avenue. I knew that the Avenue Gallery resided there, theoretically stuffed with the evidence of Cohen’s vision, tucked between a Starbucks and Ivy’s Bookshop. I’d asked my friend J. to come along, but his schedule was less flexible than mine, so he called the gallery Friday night to see if he could run by after work (the sneak!)—and they told him the show was over. The newspaper and the website showed the wrong end date.

He texted me the news. I railed against fate in a few brief bursts of angry typing, and then J. updated me: the gallery owner had revealed that there were still a few stacks of prints standing up against the walls. We could see them if we wanted to, provided we arrived before five-thirty. It was almost five. We bolted to Oak Bay in J.’s car, Poncho.

It was true: the show was down and the gallery folk were in the midst of redecorating for the next exhibition. The whole room smelled of fresh paint and thwarted longing. The remaining works of Cohen stood on the floor in three close files of matching frames. The large and medium prints rested against the back wall, and the small ones were almost under our feet near the cash desk. J. knelt down and with reverence parted the frames. There it was, Leonard’s sigil and stamp, the Unified Heart: two interlocking hearts in a circle, a modified Star of David.

I’ll level with you, friends. I believe that Leonard Cohen is a saint. I don’t adhere to any faiths with saints in them, but I know a holy fool when I see one.  If  you were at his concert with me on Wednesday night, you saw him too, frail as a bird in a black suit, tipping his hat to us and the beautiful, terrible joke of mortal life. (That Voice. Inimitable. Sinking over six decades from a quavering tenor into an almost subsonic bass tremor rolling through the flesh of the earth itself. That Voice, now beginning to grow ghostly. It frightened me, but it made him laugh.) I say frail, yet he played three encores. We didn’t leave the Save-on-Foods arena (which Cohen described as “this difficult space”) until almost midnight.

Still, we are here to talk about Art. In parallel with Cohen’s gig, the Avenue Gallery exhibited a travelling display of his work. Or so I surmise—I never actually saw it on the walls. The question I was asked to contemplate was a reasonable one: was it Leonard Cohen’s great gift for visual art, or only his massive fame, that merited a display of his prints? We know he can write a song, but can he draw?

It is an article of faith with me (I have faith in any number of things, if not a central bureaucracy of divinity) that anything made with true attention, honesty, and compassion will produce beauty. I think you can tell. I think that it shows.

I think it shows in Cohen’s prints. There’s skill in the execution: a thick calligraphic line that twists to form a face, slightly abstracted Grecian forms for beloved women. There’s clumsiness too–the same lumpy pixellation that confused me in the art for his album Dear Heather.

The visual art’s precise analogy is his music. I think even we who love Leonard above rubies can agree that Mr. Cohen didn’t start out as a great musician or vocalist. He began instead as someone with a profound gift of attention—to the sudden flaring of the sacred in the ordinary world, to the nuances of desire and longing, to his own internal states. There’s a kind of narcissism in his work, but it is a wrenchingly humble self-contemplation that deserves a better name. Likewise, his visual work is full of self-portraits, but these are not self-aggrandizing images. Quick tracings of the deep canyons in an old man’s face, they bear wry inscriptions:

always somewhat
off balance
but peaceful
in his work
in his vertigo
an old man
with his pen
deeply familiar
with his

That gift of attention, worked on by years of effort and humility, has produced something more than artfulness, though I think his songs are great art. The only word that comes close enough is holy, if there were some version of that word that insisted on only precisely the feeling of bliss and peace and mutual surrender. The songs have been transformed further by the musicians Cohen brought together to tour with him. The liquid violin of Alexandru Bublitchi, the incredible fingerwork of Javier Mas, the playful and sure percussion of Rafael Gayol, the golden vocals and songwriting gifts of Sharon Robinson—these would all be worth a ticket in themselves. We had all those, and we had him too.

“It kind of fits, though, doesn’t it?” J. pointed out as we rushed to the Gallery in pursuit of the remaining fragment of the art show. “Somehow it’s better this way, to come too late and to almost miss it. It’s like something from his songs.” And he was right.


Julian Gunn is a Victoria writer and music lover.