by Kathryn Woodward
IN ONE OF the stories in Robyn Sarah`s A Nice Gazebo, a cat, Hamlin, is nearlythe central character. We know her well, an ordinary unadorned calico. ButHamlin is more than just a soiler of kitty litter. She has presence: "She filled theplace with it," just as Sarah, a Montreal poet, fills her book withpresence, endowing her characters, even inanimate ones (the gazebo, a smokedmeat sandwich) with distinction. The result is a book of quiet dignity. We readit thankfully, as if being handed a gift.
It is slim, a feeler. One senses atentativeness, a wait-and-see, which should be overcome, for these arewonderful tales, already recognized - only the title story is previouslyunpublished. This story contains sentences one wants to preserve on file cards:"The Hasidic men I pass on the street are stem and remote behind theirbeards, safe from scrutiny in their resemblance to one another." Its themeis patterning, the tediousness of conjugating verbs, of growing up, of livinglife. Inside a nice gazebo (this one sits in Fletcher`s Field), upon a stageavailable to anybody lovers, vagrants, play-acting children, play-acting adults- one can momentarily break patterns. In "A Nice Gazebo" a specialfriend has merely drifted - without drama - away. The narrator longs for thegazebo`s magic.
In "The Pond, Phase One," twowomen who are satisfied with their marriages discuss quite casually theirinterest in other men. They move easily from talking of children and plans forthe next day to speaking "fondly and ruefully of the state of theirmarriages; tentatively of the men they are currently in love with." Theirlives seem as fluid as the stream one of them will soon divert to fill thepond, and inclined to the same easy diversion. In "New Management," ayoung man walks to Benny`s Delicatessen to break his Yom Kippur fast; in thathalf hour or so his Jewishness goes on trial. "A Minor Incident" isalso about Jewishness, about where exactly is the beginning that ends up as aHolocaust. "Furniture" and "Heading into Winter" documentsevered love affairs; the latter features Hamlin the cat. In the end, withwinter arrived, Hamlin does what cats do after a setback: goes about herbusiness as if nothing has happened. Humans are not quite so lucky, but in thiscase imitation provides healing, and proves the sincerest form of empathy.
In "Premiere Arabesque," myfavourite story in this collection, a young girl uses music to escape the kindof family one encounters as a child and hopes never to see again. The family isdrawn with the poet`s sure choice of words ("the hairless scrubbed handsand short thick fingers - her father"), but the lines, indeed the lines inall these stories, follow one another with a straightforwardness that is themark of a true storyteller. One hopes Robyn Sarah is busy on a fat sequel to A NiceGazebo.