The Porcupine's Quill Reader

by Tim Inkster, John Metcalf,
224 pages,
ISBN: 0889841837

What is Already Known:
A Thistledown Press Anthology

293 pages,
ISBN: 1895449537

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Quill & Thistle
by Ted Whittaker

Two collections by literary presses, each edited by triple-threat writers. I tried to come up with something enormously different to say about each collection, but I can't. They're both worth a fortnight's bed-time or bus-time reading and should be shelved together. Each is the best introduction around to discrete batches of writers loosely but not exclusively grouped in central and western Canada.
The greatest difficulty of reading fiction and poetry is that there is too much of them. Anthologists serve readers (and reviewers) as tasters serve tyrants: they reveal a product's toxicity (or lack of it). They serve another useful purpose. (Here I admit ignorance and acknowledge industry with gratitude.) Who but a few dedicated and intimately concerned writers, publishers, editors, and flacks could or would devour all the works excerpted in these two admirable collections?
Let's look first at The Porcupine's Quill Reader (PQL is the Reader's abbreviation for the name of the press, perhaps to differentiate it from a political party), the fruit of a collaboration between PQL's publisher, Tim Inkster, and his editor, the fictioneer and essayist John Metcalf. Metcalf's opening note informs us puffishly that "never before in Canada has a book documented the lighter moments of the literary life." Each story or novel chapter is prefaced by thumbnail snaps of its author, usually at a PQL promotional thrash or office party, and a gossipy one-page essay by Inkster. The subjects of these funny little bits range widely: anecdotes about the writer of the following narrative; historiettes concerning (say) the hatching and fledging of PQL in southern Ontario villages; technical arcana concerning typesetting, printing, binding, and marketing of "small press" books in Canada.
That phrase is tadpoled because, as Metcalf cautions us, he and Tim and Elke Inkster don't consider the press conventionally small. The enterprise is national because the principals "publish writers from coast to coast" and reckon importance should be judged by other criteria than size of inventory, backlist, and payroll.
The fictions assembled here share a certain formal pizzazz. Here's Metcalf again, as editor for the press: "I wanted to publish prose which was stylistically innovative. I was looking for excitement. I was looking for energy. I was looking for language that could strut and flaunt. I was looking for elegance and sophistication."
He's been true to his word, for the most part. The stories succeed for several reasons-hilarity at various pitches, precise observation, embodiment of ideas-but mainly because they're voiced. Take Ray Smith's "Waltherrot", a poker-faced explication of the results of the cultural and economic regeneration of a small German city. This is an unpromising subject, but then Smith is fond of odd topics and has for decades been honing a quietly distinctive ironic delivery.
A proud functionary describes, to a slightly less enchanted but ever so polite colleague from a town nearby, the glories of Waltherrot, to their best advantage of course-the sleek new tram line (six stations underground, with shops!), the banal civic opera house, and the wretched local music performed in it. Only a few smirking adjectives make too obvious the whole picture of idiotic babbitry. "The opera offered coffee and bar service, but its specialty were its fantastic ices: Sorbet von Stumpf, Plum Puppel, and the lurid red and orange Ice Waltherrotterdammerung. The Von Linnen Insurance Company offered substantial if rather boring meals from its staff kitchen, an uninspired but safe choice. The tables in front of the Alte Universitat were served from the administration lounge, and everything was tasteless, over-priced, and late."
PQL is home to several other established Canadian writers. Metcalf and Inkster resurrect James Reaney's "The Box Social", notable for tiny stylistic flourishes-"There the decorated shoe box lay almost ready for the box social. Every room of the house, both in their ancient and modern styles, met in parliament on its flat thin sides"-and for what is in the box. Tim Inkster observes, in the preface, that the story "provoked a firestorm of eight hundred letters...when it was published nationally...in the late 1940s."
Here too is what Inkster calls a "sketch of Montreal", Hugh Hood's "The River Behind Things". This is churned out in easy journalistic prose, slack to begin with, the stuff of travel brochures, at times vitiated by pestilential clichés. But you stop, look at it again for the attention to minute particulars, which is Hood's strength; that's there too. A man takes his small son to a rural amusement park, deserted on a summer weekday. They dance to a jukebox in an empty hall. Later the same year, on an unseasonably warm Christmas afternoon, he returns, alone, and, watching a man break ice with a pole, is rapt away by a view of the river north and west of the city, underscoring an earlier claim that "landscape has no special grace in itself." The language heightens at last: "...all at once the scene composed itself into meaning. Everything in my range of vision was softened or obscured by mist, except those agitated thin black limbs. I raised my eyes to the source of the river, several miles westward where the lake contracts. Shore, water, air were all enveloped and changed, the city inexistent. Far off northwest, the high hills rose ghostly from the melting ice and snow."
So much for the senior vice-presidents (well, Clark Blaise and Leon Rooke and Leo Simpson are here too, just as eminently). All the women and the rest of the men represented are younger, newer writers, but all their stories are remarkably competent. The editors have picked tales of endurance or of little triumphs to reprint in these pages, many of them extracted from award-shortlisted or award-winning books.
I'll mention two now, a chapter from Keath Fraser's huge novel Popular Anatomy, and Gil Adamson's "Bishop and the Aunties", from Help Me, Jacques Cousteau.
Fraser's story is a flat-out delight, an interior monologue framed as a letter to his dead mother by Aloysius Irving, a scheming immigrant kid in Vancouver, an incipient Duddy Kravitz from India, who's planning entrepreneurial coups while learning to skate on Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. "Here is my current list of possible good earners: Foreign Trade, bottled tap water to sell in the leisure market, crushed glass, and Mr. Singh (I am hoping). The not so good list: perfume for high school girls, bootlegged mickeys at dances, trade in your skateboard scheme, selling jewellery out of my briefcase in the underground mall...."
When he opens his mouth to talk to a friend while lying on the ice, his talk possesses a slightly different fluency: "`.my father...was coffee merchant and we drank coffee to the heart's content. Very cruel country now, but before Amin, before death, my country was welcome and green. We sipped coffee in hammocks like this. Then we put down cups and fled for our lives like the nobody's business.'" The difference is poignant, deeply so. But Aloysius skates freely at last; for now, his dreams keep pace. "My business story is a pretty one, like these figure eights I am cutting in the ice. Landlording is my goal. You can hear the ice cracking, but it is safe. The pylons warn us of the chopped-open water. I forget on purpose to turn, to wave at my benefactress in the rising mists. My dream of a new city is flying me above this cold country."
Gil Adamson does another take on childhood. Her unsexed, poetic, slightly monstrous young narrator looks out (or looks back, we're never sure), but not far, the figure of her proprioception being her rascally Uncle Bishop, he of the tall stories and godawfully calamitous love life with a succession of "aunties". One of these "grew one white hair, an event which Bishop said he found creepy."
Bishop, as the narrator hears him, has done and seen marvels, but at present is a genial, dirty Halifax drunk, who communes with huge stray dogs. He's a clapped-out hero, a drunk "someone...threw into the river after beating him up." He washes up on shore, is brought home in a wheelbarrow by small boys. Un point, c'est tout, for this first part of the tale, at least.
But now begins a story within a story, this one about the great helplessness of love. "Bishop is becoming a story of his own," according to the narrator's waking dream. Bishop's brother "has pretty much had it with Bishop and his women," but for all that, he visits him in his distress, and together they sit up drinking all night long, getting rat-faced until the rosy-fingered dawn, Bishop confabulating and eventually staggering away to sleep it off in the tub. His brother drives home, hung over. "Dad slows when he goes over a bridge and sees the syrupy brown water where his brother passed like a snapped branch, singing and moaning and calling the last auntie by all her secret names. The names he whispered in her ear, and in the ear of the aunties before her, and in the ear of every small child falling asleep dreaming of the Arctic and the open sea and the many strange possibilities of life."

Sean Virgo has drawn What is Already Known (the title is Patrick Lane's) into ten sections of poems and brief fictions. He has chosen these from the work of more than a hundred writers, whose 180 titles have been published by Thistledown during the past twenty years. Here is his comment on his method: "The decision to weave, rather than to assemble, this anthology...has allowed a collaboration to unfold between all these writers. Different minds, different voices reinforce and ignite one another, disclosing ironies and contexts that were not there before." This also demands more of a reader. Patrick Lane's work is easy to find. He heads up almost every section with a brief untitled utterance, each gnomic as a pebble.
Virgo doesn't grace the sections with titles either, but one can see a thematic thread-perhaps, in some instances, no more than a thread-connecting the poems and tales apposed in a given section. To reduce is to falsify, but the fourth section, for example, could take the name "Blood Ties", a phrase from Lane's headnote. All thirteen pieces thereafter are "about" people in families, relating to each other (or not relating). That's plain enough. Some are sunny, some are dire. None is as devastating as Terry Jordan's "It's a Hard Cow", a brutal narrative of equipoised retribution on a Saskatchewan farm. Read it. As they say in the Guide Michelin, "vaut le detour."
The pleasures to be extracted from Virgo's method of collage are akin to those one gets from reading in high school an anthology in which everything is grouped thematically, and the themes are the big-ticket subjects adolescents care deeply about. But here the enjoyment is more sophisticated, even if rarefied. I found myself wondering whether or not a given theme does hold for an entire section (it does); and whether Patrick Lane's semi-referential epigraphs can be at all elucidated by the more formally translucent works that follow them (they can).
You just can't conveniently get at the statements of anyone but Lane. Everyone else's offerings, from those by tyros to those by veterans (among the latter: Lorna Crozier, Lesley Choyce, Leona Gom, Andrew Suknaski, Tom Wayman), are scattered throughout the book, in one or several of the sections. A pre-text set of acknowledgements and permissions refers to a post-script list of brief biographies, an index manqué (how many selections by whom and on what pages), and a publishing chronology. This keeps the text free of clutter but also makes a page-flipping chore for the assiduous reader.
One can find an arresting work by a given writer-I instance "When Light Transforms Flesh (Bow River, Calgary)" by Robert Hilles-and be moved at the cadenced, ambulatory, amusing prose-form of it, wonder what else this winner of a Governor General's award may have been allowed to bring to the overall work, and then cheat by turning to his four other poems immediately; alternatively, one may choose simply to be surprised and delighted as more selections appear on a turned page, without warning, far away in another section of the book.
There's plenty of Flatland prose and poetry in What is Already Known, but it is no more a "prairie" anthology than the PQL Reader is a south-central Ontario gatherum. Virgo lays it out. "[Thistledown's editors] have searched out the authentic voices of the region and allowed them a chance to be heard throughout Canada. Almost as importantly they have, over time, brought in compatible voices from other parts, overseas even, to extend the horizons."
Virgo's editorial method mirrors Metcalf's-at best, it produces similarly exciting results. "Poetry and fiction are not sub-species of journalism, memoir, or rhetoric. They are the creation of life. `Self-expression,' to quote John McGahern, `is no expression at all.' There are very few anecdotal pieces in this book; there are none, I hope, which depend for their effect on a neat, self-serving (There-aren't I smart (or sensitive!)) ending. You will find almost nothing that contains the word `I' in the first few lines.
"And no examples of cheap indignation or sentimentality, the life-shrivelling curses of our time."
The best poems are readable over and again; some remain in the mind. I'm thinking of those dealing out passion and death, bunched among several related fictions in the sixth and seventh sections, behind Lane's two runes, "The Mole cries as he sleeps," and "Love again." It is appropriate to cite here Peter Ormshaw's fearsome narrative "Picking Up Mom", in which an initially carefree teenaged athlete collects his mother from the hospital after her x-rays. Perhaps she's dying of cancer. Something's very wrong, at least: she's weeping. But it's hidden, all unspoken or deflected. He literally picks her up-the false happiness of fear and denial swirl around them-"and she's yelling at me to put her down/but she's so light/my heart is so light."
I do not respond to Virgo's poetic choices-with exceptions, I've named a few-as fully as I do to the fiction. Many of the poems, and there are well over a hundred, display an acceptable if unexciting quantum of observational precision. The ruck of them give up their delight and sense in one careful reading; what holds the attention may be a thought within a poem, a line, a phrased image, not the whole.
The stories best exemplify Virgo's dictum that "it is the voice, in the end, which makes writing live.
"The final truth, overriding all other judgements, is that only good writing-the original cadence, the disciplined form, the respect for our wonder-filled, hybrid, precise, and suggestive language, its exquisite crudeness-makes writing good. The final truth, and the enduring one. `Posterity,' as Flaubert delighted to say, `has a weakness for Style.'"
In "Stealing George", M.A.C. Farrant's lumpenproletarian tale of love and companionship , a huge, uncooked energy is prime. The narrator, Sybilla, tells us, "Some people think it's funny for Cindy and me to be friends. She's this short, fat Indian and me, I'm this skinny white chick got dyed yellow hair. But I say, fuck 'em all in the tits. Cindy and me, we once shared the girl's dorm at Alderwood and that makes us friends for life. She was in for B & E's. Me, for having a drunken Mom. They said I was acting unruly." This story's pretty simple. Cindy and Sybilla plot to kidnap Cindy's baby from a hospital (Sybilla takes in and repairs stray cats-why not baby George?), find out that, since he really is getting better in there-they "took the wires offa" him-the two young desperadoes don't have to snatch him after all. Cindy stays at the hospital, happy: "They gonna let me feed him." Sybilla takes off with a likely stranger in a "muscle car", a man with whom she and her two barnacle babies and Cindy have recently hitched a ride. Whew. The narrative is breathless, bordering on the manic. Farrant's ear for the diction of the North American underclass and his eye for what and for how far his characters see-not enough, not past the next few minutes, in this case-is wrenchingly accurate.
Most of the other short fictions set together here meet the same high standard as this one. They shun the facile, totally, and though I find many of them pretty hard to take, I have to admit that Virgo's assessment of his selections-perhaps even the grimmest of them-is usually accurate (I'm taking his generalizations out of context, limiting them to the fiction, but the misreading is useful here):
"I find a briskness, a cheerful energy in the tone and inventiveness on these pages which I can only call light-hearted. Even the sense of loss-of death, failure, resignation, disappointment-which threads this selection is the reverse of morbidity or depression. It is, rather, a distinctive insistence on feeling at home in the world-of paying attention, even in mourning, to the ancestors, the animals, the land, the buildings, the lovers, the cities, which explain and reflect us."

Ted Whittaker is an occasional freelance book reviewer who lives in Toronto.


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