All of us journey from the womb to the tomb; some are moved to contemplate the womb, some the tomb, and some the journey itself: from incubus to floating gardens and dream museums to shadowy carrying places and timely departures.
Douglas LePan's Macalister or Dying in the Dark (Quarry Press, 100 pages, $14.95) is likely to resonate for most readers, especially during the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, as we try to make our peace with memories of German and Japanese enemy fire.
What was it all about, the Canadian presence in occupied Europe? What makes someone enlist to fight in a war being fought elsewhere, between countries not one's own? And to volunteer for some secret service operations where the survival rate is only fifty per cent? Macalister's mother and wife think he was ill prepared for secret service duty and should not have been sent; the war historian thinks that nothing would have changed the outcome, because all who enlisted wanted to be there and the enemy would have got them anyway.
The re-creation is fiction but Macalister is not. John Kenneth Macalister (1914-1944) was a Canadian Rhodes scholar at Oxford, who joined the British Intelligence Corps in 1940. He was executed by the Gestapo at Buchenwald in 1944. The author is his comrade, Douglas LePan, a World War II veteran who later served in the Canadian foreign service and taught at Queen's and the University of Toronto. The voices of the questioner-narrator, who in many ways is LePan himself, and of Macalister's wife and mother, are haunted by the silence of his death. "Speak to me," they cry, and in their different ways they speak and are spoken to. Wife and mother remember touching details of his body, the way he inflected a falsetto "Ah" at the end of his sentences. All three hear details of the torture inflicted on his body and spirit, narrated with LePan's poetry and passion. At the end of it, whether LePan meant it so or not, I realized why there is, and has to be, a Canadian presence in Bosnia today.
So why does anyone enlist? Some do it for money, going into a profession like any other, which is as honourable or dishonourable as one makes it; still others do so for king and country; others, like Hemingway's generation, had a compulsive desire to be where the action was, and to be heroes. But Hemingway was an American; we, in Canada, are both more naive and more noble, moved by ethical principles, or grandiose faith in freedom and justice, which is why our soldiers are peacekeepers in Bosnia, and Macalister is seen by LePan as an antihero rather than as hero. Naively and nobly, we believe in larger causes.
Macalister is quintessentially Canadian and the images in the text are figurative in many ways: his appearance (myopic soft brown eyes); his everyday practicality (he wanted his recruitment expedited because his Rhodes scholarship had run out); his initial hesitancy (he enlists, withdraws, enlists again); his determination to make up for that indecisiveness (he volunteers for a dangerous mission); and at the core his essential idealism-LePan calls it courage-that one cannot stand by when "everything seemed to hang trembling in the balance." LePan's lilting prose can also have terrifying echoes, as shown in Macalister's slow execution by strangulation as he hung trembling on a meat hook.
Like many stories of the German-Allies war, this is heavily weighted on the side of the Allies-"Hitler laughs and laughs" while watching the execution, but there is recognition of individual kindnesses-a German corporal who picked up and returned the glasses without which Macalister would have been blind-and awareness that it would be ludicrous "to believe that every German soldier is guilty of all the crimes of the regime it is his lot to serve."
LePan distinguishes between dying in the dark and dying in the light; the latter is an assertion of a larger cause, "something greater than himself which he was ready, if need be, to die for." Despite the title, I see Macalister as dying in the light. But death through AIDS is dying in the dark, with nothing to hold on to. Ian Stephens's first essay, "Weary State of Grace" in his Diary of a Trademark (The Muses' Company, 90 pages, $12.00), is a powerful overflow of emotions, reactions, satiric comments, and pathos; details of the symptoms and hospital procedures are documented with frightening clinical exactitude; the man's inner tickings are recorded with brutal honesty. In the seventy pages of prose and poetry that follow, since the speaker and those around him are breathing death, it is difficult for a reviewer to dare say anything negative without risking being bludgeoned with the labels of prude and homophobe. But I will say it anyway-celebration of sexual and drug-induced violations of one's own or another's body is not acceptable in life or in literature; that they occur in same-sex or seemingly consensual relationships should make no difference. Rape is rape, and pornography is pornography. Let the Furies begin their pummelling of me.
So what then is the difference between Stephens's graphic descriptions of sex and Esta Spalding's, in Carrying Place (House of Anansi, 85 pages, $12.95) that makes me apostrophize over her volume? Both have violent sexual assault, but in Spalding, the child-persona's violator is her uncle, in the proverbial closet, and boys she grew up with; both books have, by a strange coincidence, the image of a dead cow, but whereas Stephens's band leader, Bobby, intends to stake its head and "wave it around during one of his band's gigs," for Spalding, it is an initiation into the pain she must suffer later. There are a disturbing number of references to death and maggots in her poems, but they are part of a pattern of growth that the poems delineate. One poem, that stands outside the pattern in the fifty-two-poem collection is "Alexander Supertramp". It is a tribute to Christopher McCandless, a pacifist, who entered the Alaska wilderness in the spring of 1992 and after 113 days was found dead in an abandoned bus. "I will not shoot the bear...I will not burn the forest...when I am starving, I kill a moose/This is an act the night cannot forgive." Spalding uses actual phrases from McCandless's diary to weave his story (much like LePan).
The death of individuals has its own poignancy, but the dying of a living culture is far more difficult to cope with, both for those within it and for those who must answer for its dying. Like LePan's haunting image of "two birds coupling/ in storm in tempest," Duncan Mercredi's Wolf and Shadows (Pemmican Publications, 81 pages, $7.95) has haunting images of a happier past in the distant background, while in the foreground is the city with its drugs, drinks, and destitution. Rich with familiar phrases from the Bible, the section titled "god shrugged and turned his back" is excruciating in its hopelessness; "the pain of rejection by two nations" is etched deep on the psyche of the speaker and his people. But Mercredi is insistent about ending on a note of hope, titling his last section "song and dance (rebirth)". His "searching for visions II" reminds me of the last poem in my Trishanku, affirming that "these kids there gonna be okay." Our children will not only survive, says Mercredi, but "when they're ready, they gonna/ take us places we never dreamed of." This section abounds with images of dance and joy, of shadows without fear, of crazy buffalo, meadow lark, and big bear dancing to the universal music "where dreams begin."
In the craft of poetry, the place where dreams begin is amorphous; in lyrical poetry, even more than in narrative poetry, the poet must dive in, grapple with maenads' hair of words, and surface to the stunning blue of sea and sky. Immersing oneself in the landscape of one's chosen region helps, as can be seen in Dream Museum by Liliane Welch of New Brunswick (Sono Nis Press, 120 pages, $12.95), Timely Departure by Randall Maggs of Newfoundland (Breakwater, 63 pages, $9.95) and Incubus: The Dark Side of the Light (Oberon Press, 74 pages, $11.95), by George McWhirter, whose chosen landscape is Mexico. Though they also write of anecdotes, the poems that paint pictures of villages, barns, and sea spring to life.
Welch's landscape moves from New Brunswick to Europe, and is enriched with allusions to the Old Masters and literary icons. McWhirter's Incubus is set in Cuautla and Amilcingo. Descriptive poems with short lines and short stanzas give the impression of haikus; each is a moment of experience. Interspersed between these are narrative poems about persons and events that give a light and shadow effect to the whole collection.
D.G. Jones, in The Floating Garden (Coach House, 105 pages, $12.95), is a careful connoisseur of words. He uses a fine brush for his visuals but what I liked best about his poems is the "autumnal economy" with which he links classical tropes with topical clichés from television commercials to satirize our society, in the section titled "How to Paint in the Recession". Life is a collage, he says, and during the recession where "we lose our/customers honestly/one at a time," one would do well to conjure up" fractal co-ordinates" "the best that money can buy," using glue, scissors, and colourful popular magazines. We are in a recession but wait, "there's a future for the/half-unemployed, the part-time unhappy/the tearful successes who leave footprints/in the wet snow."