This is a bit of nostalgia for my wife on Valentine’s Day.

Do Like We Used To Do

Girl, let’s do like we used to do,
when I lured you with lines of verse
down secluded highschool stairs
to find what else there was to learn,
or when we floated calm as ducks
on the lake while our hands paddled
like all hell beneath the surface,
or when we dunked each other whole
in an empty baptismal tank,
went in sinners, come out less clean
than advertized, yeah girl, let’s do
like we used to do, me and you.

I keep adding and removing this section from the novel I’m writing. The problem is that I love it, but it never really seems to fit. But I love it. I’m hoping that posting it here exorcizes it for me, but I doubt it.

He turned to the girl across from him in the university cafe, a classmate who knew him just well enough not to refuse a seat at her table in the crowded room, but someone who had been assigned the same book, who could perhaps be expected to understand what he had just read. “Have you got to the scene at the scaffold?” he asked. “The scene where the Count talks about dying alone?”

He held The Count of Monte Cristo, his finger marking the place where Franz witnesses the executions in the Piazza di Popolo, where he sees one of the condemned receive a pardon at the very foot of the scaffold, and where he hears the other prisoner cry out, “Why for him and not for me? We ought to die together. I was promised that he should die with me. You have no right to put me to death alone. I will not die alone — I will not!”

And that’s true, he had thought, when he read it. We wouldn’t be so afraid to die if only we didn’t have to die alone. He had seen himself there in the university cafe, dying slowly, one breath at a time, and he had known that everyone else there was dying too, though they believed their lives were just beginning, and he saw also that they were all dying alone, that their deaths were only one more thing that they couldn’t share with one another.

This, he had decided, this passage at the foot of the scaffold, where Dumas shows us what we are, this is revelation. We should all be made to read it — every one of us — we should all be made to study it like sacred scripture, not just Dumas, but all of literature, everything, because there’s revelation in it, whether we like it not, the revelation of what we could not otherwise imagine — the revelation of ourselves to ourselves.

“They didn’t talk about that scene in the notes I read,” the girl said, using a highlighter to keep her place in the textbook she was reading.

“But did you read that part of the book? Where the criminal is going to the…”

“I don’t really have time to read the books,” she said. “I get better marks if I just study the notes. They’re less confusing,” and she was poised there, prepared to resume her labour the moment her attention was dispensed with him, she and her highlighter equally uninterested in what he might have to say, however profound, so long as it was not directly productive of better marks on papers and better grades in classes.

“All literature is revelation,” he said, unable to keep from telling her, though he knew that it would do nothing except keep the highlighter waiting a few moments longer.

I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf Canada, March 2015) is one of my favourite things — a true fairy tale — neither a too-precious tale for children nor a too-heroic piece of genre fantasy, but a story of the kind that J.R.R. Tolkien describes as being characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder,” a story of the kind that Tolkien himself accomplished only rarely, in “Leaf by Niggle” or “Smith of Wooten Major”, a story in the tradition of George MacDonald’s Lilith or Howard Pyle’s The Garden Behind the Moon or C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces.

Like these others, Ishiguro’s novel operates on a symbolic level that should be described as mythical or mythopoetic rather than simply metaphorical or allegorical. It follows a small group of characters — an old couple who cannot quite recall their past, a young boy bitten by a strange beast, a warrior with a hidden purpose, an old knight who is the last of Arthur’s roundtable — as they seek the source of a strange forgetfulness that has fallen over the land. Their story explores questions of memory and forgetfulness, especially as they relate to love and death, war and justice, presenting these familiar human questions in a way made new and strange and thereby compelling.

Though the earlier chapters contain some elements that feel out of place, the novel as a whole is also strong stylistically, as Ishiguro’s books generally are. A sense of dreaminess, of forgetfulness, seems almost palpably to hang over the prose at times, immersing the reader in the very questions of memory that lie at the heart of the novel but making these questions strange enough that we must reconsider them, must search them out again, as if we are only catching glimpses of them beyond the horizon or seeing them in a dream from which we have just awakened.

I often feel with G.K. Chesterton that “the things I believe most now are the things called fairy tales,” and in this sense Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a story that can be believed, a story that speaks profoundly to our human experience by returning to us its essential strangeness and wonder.

How is it possible to write the beautiful without writing the ugly also? And if we write both as fully as we feel them, how would the writing of it be comprehensible? Who would pretend to know it? It would surpass both the writing and the writer. It would no longer be writing but living. To read it would require entering into it bodily, like another universe, and there would be no returning from this journey, for there is no returning from the beauty and the ugliness of a life once lived.

The Essential Anne Wilkinson selected by Ingrid Ruthig is a new edition of Anne Wilkinson’s poetry published by Porcupine’s Quill as the eleventh title in their Essential Poets Series. It includes poems from Wilkinson’s two published books of poetry, Counterpoint to Sleep and The Hangman Ties the Holly, as well as from her unpublished manuscript, Heresies and Other Poems, and from her copy-books.

Wilkinson’s poetry reads as an address from poet to reader, most obviously in her frequent use of the first person, where she literally speaks as an “I” to an audience that she sometimes specifies (as in “Letter to My Children”) but most often leaves unnamed as the implied reader. This effect is reinforced by a conversational quality to her verse that is rarely informal but that nevertheless creates an intimacy in the space of the poem. For example, in “After Reading Kafka” she writes,

Here at my door I swing between obsessions:
Hall by day, corridor by night.
I am obsessed with exits, bound
to qualify the latitude of light.

This passage is almost confessional, confiding obsessions to the reader, offering an invitation into the experience of the poet, and this sense that the poem opens the poet to the reader runs throughout the collection.

Wilkinson’s poetry is also technically strong, especially in her command of pace and rhythm, sometimes playing with formal metres, sometimes including them sporadically to highlight otherwise free verse, and sometimes discarding them altogether, but always arriving at the cadence most appropriate to her subject. Her capacity to play with rhythm for effect is remarkable, as when she says,

We shut our eyes and turned once round
And were up borne by our down fall.
Such life was in us on the ground
That while we moved, earth ceased to roll,
And oceans lagged, and all the flames
Except our fire, and we were lost
In province that no settler names.

In this section she positions “up borne” and “down fall” in the second line so that both words in each phrase must be accented, though the rest of the passage keeps a fairly regular iambic rhythm, a wonderful rhythmic tension that the rest of the stanza goes on to resolve.

The strength of the collection is in the combination of these qualities, in the interplay between its intimate voice and its careful technique, and it rewards a reading that it attentive to both these elements as well. It is a strong addition to the Essential Poets Series and should serve to raise the profile of a Canadian poet who is still too often neglected.

I found this in my notebook. I don’t remember writing it, but it’s in my handwriting, and it sounds like the crap I write, so I assume it’s mine.

Stairwell

The open stairs coil to the upper floor
and to a lamp hung bright with the promise
of something higher still, some further-up
and further-on that might be reached, surely,
if the spiraled stairs could be followed past
their visible end, out along the steps
that will appear, each as they are needed,
one following the next, til they have pierced
the husk of the building and found themselves
become endless flights, urged ever further
by the light of lamps and by the windows
hanging on air, all stretching who knows where,
urging the stairs into infinity.

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