There's a fine-and an arguable-line between the short form called prose poetry and the equally short form called postcard fiction. One might try to make a distinction by emphasis: an explicitly reflective quality, say, versus dramatic action, but in the end, writing is writing is writing, genres blur (each making use of common techniques), until such category distinctions are at best prissy and inaccurate. Despite certain current-day Canadian prejudices against them, these are old forms. Short poetic meditations in prose, bizarre or resonant anecdotes, and the briefest of personal essays nearly two thousand years old can be found, for instance, in the literature of China. Ken Rivard's new book, self-classified as postcard fiction, could just as easily be called prose poetry.
In any case, the pleasure is in opening one door after another onto lives quickly drawn, sketches of characters caught in odd moments neither random nor monumental. An inner life is glimpsed in strangers we usually see only from the outside, the outward form often indicated by no more than an occupation as label: this man a sidewalk vendor, that one a chef. But the chef confides in a blue jay named Sally, and the sidewalk vendor, apparently not doing too well with sales, gets a reprieve in the form of a well-to-do passerby who sends him and his son along to lunch while he watches over the stand, saying, "I remember my own hunger, when I had nothing to sell." A tearful fireman, having saved the life of a teenage boy, lies on his bed afterwards in the firehouse, imagining himself slumped, eyes closed on the floor of a charred bedroom. "The fire is extinguished by someone whose eyes stay dry and open."
It's this interpenetration of lives, this ever-latent potential for changing places, that I find the most engaging quality of the collection, though adroit descriptions are another:
"The first woman, dressed in purple behind the counter, listens intently to one of her customers. Her arms are folded in such a way that from her neck to her waist, she looks like a huge ear. `I live for others,' she proclaims. Her only self-indulgence is probably her dyed red hair. A few moments earlier she whispered to me, `Starting tomorrow, I stop being everyone's ear.' " ("Women in my Room")
In "Green Jean Team", a couple vacationing beside a lake are determined to bring their antagonism to a head:
"The husband stomps his way around their campfire and his tantrum might last for some time. Meanwhile, the wife crouches on the sand, and curls her legs into a campfire pose. Her hair is tied in two pigtails with dark green wool like the stems of a house plant, and her gold-framed eyeglasses are lowered onto the tip of her nose, as if she were preparing to study her husband's outbursts."
This is not to say that the writing does not occasionally stray into poetic hyperbole or euphe-mism ("the carving of anger into his wrists," presumably referring to a suicide attempt), or a thin surrealism combined with overstressed metaphorical torque, as when the sky is first seen as "a sink filled with dirty dishes" by a philanderer about to consult a "medium" (who, to his credit, happens to be the janitor of a chapel) and afterwards is replaced by "a dozen white-skirted women scattering, scattering." It seems to me that the complicated oddity of the situation deserves more than a quick fix of imagery.
But no two moments in this book are the same, and the reader will be drawn on by curiosity as to what, or who, might appear next. Sometimes the interpenetration of lives takes the form of ultimate misunderstandings, as when, in "The Leaf", a mentally handicapped girl, singing beautifully in her own world but off-key in the world at large, mistakes people's raised eyebrows for encouragement.
Three of these pieces will remain with me as exemplary, funny, and mysterious. In "Girls and Saints", a priest cures two eleven-year-old girls of liking boys, a miracle that will last for one day. "The Last Apollo Muffler Song" poses a retired hockey player, Lanny MacDonald, at the grand opening of a new muffler store with a father who has just learned of his own impending death, and a daughter who's teased by Lanny for having a doubled letter in her name; the "plot", brief as it is, unfolds with classic Canadian understatement, laconic and intimate. And in "Pepsi Cola and Peter Pan", a five-year-old, believing literally everything his father tells him, begins the long learned process of disillusion, as his excitement is first of all trained on the front door waiting for the Pepsi representative to show up with a fifty-dollar prize for finding him drinking Pepsi while watching "Peter Pan" on television, and then, in the wake of his father's misinterpreted cynicism, his barely blunted enthusiasm is redirected toward the sky, from which, as we all know, money falls.
Despite wishing that the collection overall had been edited more closely, I feel that the strongest pieces are quite wonderful, and that moments of unusual perception and fine writing appear throughout. The ordering into internally consistent sections has clearly been attended to with care, and the illustrations by Jeff Wiebe, co-ordinated with the stories, emphasize the homey and approachable feel of the book.
Roo Borson's most recent books are Night Walk: Selected Poems (Oxford University Press) and Water Memory (McClelland & Stewart). She lives in Toronto, and is a member of the collaborative poetry group Pain Not Bread.