Common readers, as Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, are an endangered species. Our lineage is respectable enough, and one of our most attractive traits is, or used to be, our evangelical character. We like to spread around, as widely as possible, the good news about the best books, for their own sakes, on their own terms.
But that aesthetic gospel has been put to the question by a set of competing critical theories. Lola Lemire Tostevin is a significant Canadian apologist for these other ways of thinking about writing. She has gathered and published a set of her articles, reviews, letters, and interviews, even a speech. Subject to Criticism is a fair crib-a Cultural Criticism for Dummies-for those who, for example, though they may have the imaginative strength to read Phyllis Webb or even Christopher Dewdney, perhaps may not yet have the time or the tripes to take on feminist critics or the deconstructionists.
It is lucky for her readers that Tostevin writes mainly in her second language, since she constantly interprets her readings from the first. She keeps right up to date with feminist theory and other less gynocentric Big Ideas, many of which these days come from France. In "Breaking the Hold on the Story: A Feminine Economy of Language", she offers a potted history of critical theory in the sixties and seventies. Even if one doesn't assent to a structuralist, feminist, or deconstructionist point of view in literary criticism, her essay is still valuable. The major authors are mentioned and the vectors of influence among them (at least until the mid-eighties) are established. The account can at least inform one's choice to test the waters and determine whether her soundings of their depths are accurate.
Now for a kvetch. A critic wedded to a theory, especially consciously, may try to gum it to someone's work and may then misread that work, not always creatively. In Tostevin's review of the art of Miriam Mandel (a poet, sometimes crazy, who killed herself), we find this exhortation: "poetry should strive toward a space, or language, where social codes, laws, and traditional concepts are exploded so that they can be revised or at least `revisioned'." The real job of the critic is disregarded. Mandel is faulted, finally, for her autobiographical subject-matter (which, as with any poet with a scrap of authenticity, probably chose her), not on what she does with it. A map of Hell is still valid, even if it does not provide directions to Purgatory, let alone Heaven.
However, when Tostevin comes across writers she admires, she's quite capable of learning from them, challenging them as peers, and appreciating them properly. The most important pieces in Subject to Criticism deal with other middle-aged Canadian poets, Fred Wah, Christopher Dewdney, Daphne Marlatt, and bp Nichol. All four at some time in their careers have, without umbrellas, been rained on by the French symbolists and surrealists, or by Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, and a few other American poets, some more hermetic than others, who chose, ostensibly for purposes of astonishment and enlightenment: a) to fracture and reset the several units of meaning that set thought and image into movement; and b) to shun the referential in poetic discourse (writing thereby as if in mid-air, or as if looking off to one side).
Tostevin praises enthusiastically the art of her friends and interlocutors (she interviews Dewdney and Wah) and, wherever necessary or possible, publicizes their poetic options to stretch or destroy linguistic convention. Of Marlatt she observes (typically): "Marlatt's writing often diffuses originary meaning of words through wordplay and proliferates meaning through etymological breakdown of words." She gets Dewdney to say that "anyone composing art using words eventually begins to develop a perceptual appendix or addendum. Because language is so close to consciousness, this eventually becomes a parasitic relationship where language spills over the bounds of reference and takes on a quasi-magical existence in consciousness, as if it had more capability than it does." She gets Wah to say, "I'm more interested in syntax, the syntagm, as a unit of composition, than...in the line...Yet both units...require resolution, require movement instead of shape so I try to break through the syntax, play with it, cut through it, break it up a lot of the time." And she quotes Wah on Nichol: "If bp feels like breaking up sentences he breaks up sentences, and there's this swirl of breaking things up so they can be put back together again, so they can be resolved." This is like one of her own observations on Nichol: "The result is a profusion of meanings, rhymes, puns, plays of signifying references that can `whip order into / a yelping pack of probabilities.' " (This is the kind of talk that you don't want Frank to get hold of, but trust me, it makes some sense when, clean, sober, sitting upright, and with the thermostat not cranked too high, you read these poets over and over.)
One of the several genres employed in Subject to Criticism is the letter, specifically a few cross-country letters between Tostevin and her friend and colleague Smaro Kamboureli. These are largely unglamourous accounts of the literary life; two shop-keepers sweep the floor, iron the stock, bemoan the bottom line. However, the epistolary conversations are entirely in keeping with Tostevin's bold, inclusive purpose-to put it all in, from formal prose to casual chat. She says elsewhere, "Each genre carries the seed of who the writer is. The ideas and subjects present throughout establish a certain lineage within the ever-changing boundaries of one woman's writing."
In the essay on bp Nichol, Tostevin cites his apprehension of the Japanese genre utanikki, a poetic journal. She tries her hand at this form in Cartouches, a small, mongrel book of poems, but with a mutt's hybrid vigour. First comes "Small Amulets", a brief section of quiet, almost-sonnets on the death of the poet's beloved father.
We move then to Egypt, where, in the best utanikki fashion, journal entries (some fictionalized) in poetic prose about a standard, touristy hotel-and-boat trip to the main cities and sites down the Nile alternate with tiny vertical lyrics to complete the picture of a near-total foreignness. Tostevin's major theme here is familiar enough: the ancient cradle of writing, of speech stilled by hand, at first pictured as permanently as mortal hands could draw it-inked on papyrus, or in temples and on tombs incised-"the saying of walls," she calls it, and "Time and space, / water and desert...."
After being visited by the squitters, Tostevin hooks back home, with meditations on death-no, on deaths, especially those of her father and of bp Nichol-and on the writing life. "I dream that I am a fish: ancient Egypt's symbol / of silence." For those who remain, in the silence, I suppose, in the "Broken rhythm between breaths..." there can always be "a starting over a writing down, a new becoming, ongoing till the end."
The faculties essential in superflux to the greatest, endlessly re-readable writing-"cognitive energy, linguistic acuity, and power of invention" (Harold Bloom again)-are, in lesser measure, also the real property of more modest talents. At its best, the criticism of Lola Tostevin is tough, fair, and lucid, her poetry lovely, nape-tingling work. It bears re-reading, repays the attention given.
Ted Whittaker, an occasional reviewer of books, lives in Toronto and tries to read the right stuff.