Joe Rosenblatt’s The Bird in the Stillness is broken into two unmarked sections. The first and much longer section is comprised of sonnets with a clearly defined octave and sestet but without formal meter or rhyme, centring around the figure of the Green Man. The second section, only fifteen poems, takes on a variety of forms and often references Ken Kirby, a Vancouver island landscape painter to whom one of the poems is dedicated.

It is here that my biggest criticism of the book lies, in the unmarked and unsatisfying division between the two sections. The strength of the Green Man section appears primarily when the poems are read as a single entity. Individually they don’t always have much to say, but together they form an extended meditation on birth and aging, decay and fecundity, time and spirit.

This effect, however, is entirely undercut by the Ken Kirby poems at the end, which feel tacked on, interrupting the meditation of the Green Man poems with a poetry that is tangibly different in form, in style, and in sensibility. The result is that the book stumbles past its logical conclusion, changes its register for a brief time, and then merely subsides rather than finishes.

The Bird in the Stillness needs to be two books. It needs the Ken Kirby poems to be made into something separate, a chapbook maybe, with some of Kirby’s own paintings, so that they can be what they are and leave the Green Man poems to keep the strength of their unity.

This is the second poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.


It isn’t very often anymore that I can finish a book and truthfully say that it’s like little else I’ve ever read, but Gary Barwin’s debut novel, Yiddish for Pirates, manages exactly that.

Aaron – the 500 year old Jewish pirate parrot who narrates the novel – loves a bad joke, the kind that begins something like, “So a minister, an imam, and a rabbi walk into a bar…” We all know how the joke will end, even if we don’t know the punchline. We know that the gag will probably be as painful as it is funny, that the payoff will be a bit too true for comfort – the sort of joke that tries to laugh so it won’t need to cry.

The whole of Yiddish for Pirates feels a bit like this kind of joke, one that begins, “So this 500 year old Jewish pirate parrot decides to write a novel,” and the payoff doesn’t disappoint. The book isas full of humour and adventure as a reader could want, and this allows it to address things that would perhaps otherwise be too true for our comfort – persecution, loss, exile, memory, and so on. It deftly manages this mixture of humour and tragedy, moving between the two in ways that are both poignant and provoking.

For example (and sailor take warning – here be spoilers) Aaron arrives with Christopher Columbus in the new world and meets some almost too typical natives. He soon finds, however, that they are actually long lost friends, Jews who have mistakenly sailed across the Atlantic trying to escape persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. The exiled Jews had seen the Spanish ships approaching and impersonated natives in order not to be captured and returned to Spain. The punchline – ready for it? – is that Columbus decides he should take some natives back as presents for Queen Isabella, so two of the disguised Jews end up as captives anyway.

In scenes like these, Barwin wields his humour with a finely sharpened edge, opening wounds in the places we are most tender – religious persecution, racial bigotry, colonial exploitation – until we feel a little like the pirates of his story, missing eyes and limbs and even nipples. We come to recognize how disfigured we are by our histories, by our inquisitions and conquests and colonizations, by our loves and hatreds and other losses.

Wounded as Barwin’s characters are, they seek the fountain of youth as an almost religious talisman. They variously wonder whether it will give them immorality, return their bodies to wholeness, allow them the time to find lost loves – restore them to their unwounded selves, in other words, to the people they were before the brutal humour of the world left them disfigured. Even when everything increasingly fails them, they always choose to follow this faltering hope of the fountain of youth, and whatever happens to them (or to us) in the end, Barwin does not represent that hope as entirely vain.

After all, parrots don’t live to be 500 years old without a little help. Am I right?

Yiddish for Pirates will be released in April, 2016.

By brother Nathan and his family have recently decided to move from Guelph to Manitoulin Island.  They bought some cottages on Dominion Bay, and they’ll be renting them to tourists during the summer.

Those of you who know me or who read this space regularly will be aware of how much Manitoulin Island means to me, and if you’d ever like to find out how beautiful the Island is for yourself, you can now do so at the hospitality of my family. There are three beautiful cottages just steps from the water, with access to lawn bowling and a tennis court, all within easy driving distance to the town of Mindemoya.

If you’re interested, you can find more information at www.dominionbaycottages.com. Nathan and his family would be glad to host you and your family this summer.

This is the first poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.


VRHelmetweb

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,512 other followers