Jerry Prager’s Echoes in the Timbers is a prose poem that relates the death and inquest of Margaret Buckingham, a former slave who settled in Puslinch County in the mid-nineteenth century. The narrative is broken into several parts, each with a different speaker – including Margaret herself; her suitor, Jerry Collins; and a member of her inquest jury, Nicholas Beaver, whose house has since been moved to the grounds of the Elora Poetry Centre. Margaret actually visited Beaver House in her day, so it’s fitting that it was where Jerry first read Echoes in the Timbers in 2014 and where the published version was recently launched.

The subject of Echoes in the Timbers comes out of Jerry’s historical work on the underground railroad in southwestern Ontario, which has resulted in three non-fiction volumes, Laying the Bed, Exodus and Arrival, and the forthcoming Blood in the Mortar. Despite this historical source, however, the personalized narratives and the distinct characterizations of the narrators allow Echoes in the Timbers to personalize the unique struggles facing former slaves in Upper Canada.

Margaret’s husband Buckingham, for example, ends up losing his life in an attempt to rescue his family left behind in slavery. Jerry Collins suffers nightmares from the work that he was made to do as a child, dangling from a rope to dig wells. Margaret herself suffers from fits that first came on when she thought she would be sent away from her family, fits that might eventually have killed her.

In each of these cases, the past cannot simply be put aside by crossing the border into a new country. Past traumas constantly reappear, calling Buckingham back across the border, filling Jerry Collins’ dreams, throwing Margaret into literal fits. Though each of the characters celebrate their freedom, their stories never forget that the legacy of slavery does not suddenly end with physical freedom. It is carried with them into their new lives and their new country.

The writing is for the most part clear and direct, leaning more toward prose than poetry. Often it is only the line lengths that remind the reader that the account is intended formally as poetry. This directness adds to the sense of inquest and investigation, of historicity, but there are times, especially in Margaret’s own sections, where a more poetic sensibility appears. In her second section, for example, she says,

It was too many sheets, too many shrouds, too many ghosts, too
much snow and the earth and the woods white
with the billowings of winter; it was me
lost in the tobacco smoke
around the wood stove
in the general store…
the slow burn of whiskey heating up inside me…
swirling the memories of all the generations
of the same two families inside me

Here, and in other places, the writing moves from history to poetry, affirming the humanity as well as the historicity of the characters.

Published by the Elora Poetry Centre under its Interludes imprint, Echoes in the Timbers is a physically beautiful book, handbound on heavy laid papers in two volumes, one for the poem itself, the other for historical notes that Jerry includes for those interested in that element of the story. It is quite a limited run at only fifty copies, all numbered and signed by the author.

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.

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.

I watched Sunset Limited a few months ago, jotted down some thoughts the next morning, but then forgot about it until I was going back through my notebooks, which is why I’m only posting it now. The film is written by Cormac Mccarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s comprised of a single conversation in a small apartment — ninety minutes of dialogue relieved by only the most inconsequential action, like taking a piss or putting soup on the stove.

The premise of the film is that BLack (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has prevented White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) from jumping in front of a train. Black, who is a former convict and a deeply religious man, tries to rescue White, who is a deeply atheist professor, from his emotional and spiritual crisis.

The starkness of the film is profound. Not only is is strictly limited in place and time, but the set is sparse, almost rudimentary. There is no music or sound effects, only ambient sound, except for an eerie sort of noise that sounds when each of the men come to the crisis of his argument.

In this sense, Sunset Limited directly contrasts popular movie making, which constantly overwhelms the viewer with audio and video excess, with relentless action, and with an ever-cutting camera, to the point where dialogue and character development are almost irrelevant. Without these distractions, the script of Sunset Limited must stand entirely on its own, for ninety minutes, without relief, a task that it usually accomplishes.

The staging sometimes feels a little forced, with the characters changing locations on the set more frequently and with less motivation than would be normal for a real conversation, but the dialogue is generally natural and free, a serious accomplishment, especially considering that the conversation takes up topics — religion, morality, death, personal responsibility, and so on — that can quickly feel heavy and awkward.

The discomfort of the film is precisely in this contrast between its visual starkness and its conversational depth, in the sparseness of the space that it uses to confront the profoundness of its moral questions. In this sense the film does what McCarthy always does, relentlessly, in every book and film he writes — he present us with the moral question of what we are in ways that are difficult to avoid.

A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t like McCarthy. He always makes me uncomfortable.” And that’s true. His work is often uncomfortable because of its intensely moral character, in the sense that it confronts us with the nature of our inhumanity, which is always an uncomfortable experience.

This is why McCarthy’s voice is such an important one in American culture, because he insists that his work perform this moral function, no matter the genre, whether he is writing westerns, or cop dramas, or gangster films. He contradicts the assumption, now thoroughly ingrained in us, that art should be merely entertainment, should leave us feeling content and comfortable, should leave our understanding of ourselves largely unchallenged. What his writing does is make us sit with the questions we would rather ignore.

In the case of Sunset Limited, he makes us sit with questions of faith, morality, meaning, death, and human responsibility, makes us sit in close proximity to them, in a cramped apartment, with no other distraction, until we are forced (like his protagonists) either to flee the room or remain and be broken by them.