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].
Brick Books: http://www.brickbooks.ca/
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/brickbooks
Joanna Lilley: http://joannalilley.blogspot.ca/
Jane Munro: http://janemunro.com
Arleen Paré: arleenpare.com
Karen Enns: http://www.brickbooks.ca/bookauthors/karen-enns/
Sara Cassidy: http://www.saracassidywriter.com
Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.