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Book Reviews

Types of Canadian Women, Volume II

by K.I. Press

Ragged Pen gathers together talks on poetry and memory given by Robert Finley, Patrick Friesen, Aislinn Hunter, Anne Simpson, and Jan Zwicky at the 2005 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference and fleshes them out with poems and prose appropriate to the topic. Such books are inherently problematic since they involve translation from one discursive format into another.

The translation here from stage to page is not altogether felicitous. The pieces by both Hunter and Simpson work well as standalone essays, but Friesen’s horribly titled contribution, “Memory River,” is murky and disorganized. At one point he tells us, “Memory is a trick to remind us that something may have been there, or perhaps not.” Which is perfectly useless, as statements go.

But the main problem with this book is the concept itself. Have five poets ponder an abstraction and you’re going to get what you asked for. Memory is, of course an inextricable element of lyric poetry, but dealt with explicitly it constitutes one of the chief clichés of the genre. And it is a regrettably fertile chestnut in the hands of these writers, spawning such misty offspring as “loss,” “longing,” “regret,” “wonder,” “astonishment,” “mystery,” etc.

What is truly regrettable about the general drift of these essays is that in 2006, with modern advances in psycholinguistics, cognitive science, and neurobiology, memory and language are not quite the enigmas they once were. Hunter, not coincidentally the youngest contributor, is the only one who displays any awareness of these developments, as she makes reference to such brain experts as Michael Gazzanigga and Steven Pinker.

The other contributors seem either blithely ignorant of or openly hostile toward any overlapping of the magisteria of science and art. Zwicky in particular is prone to romantically unverifiable, yet remarkably authoritative-sounding statements like “the order of the world, unmediated by human language, is not rational, causal, or systematic.” If poets and philosophers fail to keep up with scientific developments, they can only confirm the public’s view of them as irrelevant.

Another big problem is tone. These are very serious papers, probably because they were spawned by the request to consider “the poet’s responsibilities to the past, to the dead, to truth, and to history.” It would have been a positive relief to have at least one contributor with a more lucid, less lugubrious, sensibility.

Judging from the content of her third book, Winnipeg-based poet K.I. Press might just have been such a subversive voice. The conceit driving her collection, whose alternate title, according to the book’s cover, is Types of Canadian Women and of Women Who Are or Have Been Connected with Canada, Volume II, is that it is the sequel to Volume I, an illustrated biographical dictionary published in 1903. Press and Gaspereau make the most of the Edwardian connection with this book’s faux-pompous introduction, jacket notes, and overall design.

The text consists of short free-verse and prose monologues, each accompanying a period photograph of a Canadian woman. Whereas pious reverence characterizes the essays of A Ragged Pen, Press is delightfully irreverent, her writing laced with irony and wit. The book has a political theme, not surprisingly – it is in dialogue with Margaret Atwood’s famous poem “This Is a Photograph of Me,” not only in the photographs and first-person speeches, but also in the tropes of drowning or near-drowning, which the book’s humorous index informs us appear in eight pieces – but Press manages the theme nimbly, never becoming didactic.

This collection could easily have become a one-trick pony, but Press handles tone beautifully, slipping dark and disturbing pieces between the lighter bits; their effect is all the more unsettling for the contrast. It’s an ancient format, instruction through delight, but it remains resilient.

Without having read Volume I, I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the rare instances in which the update/sequel is superior, providing us with a refreshing alternative to such sombre pretentions as the poet’s responsibility to the past.