Post Your Opinion
Fellow Travellers
by Phil Hall

A. WHY ARE we two? B. I have created you because I find that my opinions of Gary Geddes`s poetry and prose are widely divergent, that I am an avid fan while also wanting to be a sort of "constructive heckler." A. Which am I to be? B. Your choice. I am borrowing this format from James Dickey who discussed Randall Jarrell this way. A. Is it any coincidence that today is July 19, 1990: the anniversary of the triumph of the Sandinistas over Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979? 1 mean, especially considering that you want to discuss Geddes`s two latest books: Letters from Managua: Meditations on Politics and Art (Quarry Press, 112 pages, $12.95 paper) and Light of Burning Towers: Poems New and Selected (Vehicule Press, 160 pages, $12.95 paper). B. Yes, it`s coincidence. I have advance page proofs right here. You`ve read them. But that`s a lie about the date: the 19th was two days ago and we have been combining our notions about Geddes`s work for weeks now. A. All right. I guess you`re going to he the constructive heckler. I only thought that the coincidence of the date would be a good dramatic way to begin. A white lie. B. There are too many of those already. Writers need to be more vigilant of white lies. Especially white writers who write about cultures other than their own. Especially when they imagine dramatically voices of colours other than their own. A. Sure, but you can`t fault Geddes on that score, can you? He is scrupulously respectful of his subjects, isn`t he? And the dramatic monologue he favours is a solid technique of empathy. B. But when it is used as a vehicle for crossing cultural borders its authenticity is diminished and its empathy diluted. A. Geddes has passionately aligned himself and his work with the struggles for political and individual freedoms here and elsewhere in the world, notably Chile and Nicaragua. Sadly, few other Canadian writers have had the guts or the inclination to do so. B. I know. A. Well, you can`t ask any writer to swerve from where her intrinsic subjects take her (or him, in this case). B. True. But if you were the ghost of a terracotta warrior or a Chilean or Nicaraguan -- would you necessarily feel the same way? A. You`re being overly sensitive. Geddes`s poems are not full of vicarious horror; they are full of sharp, crafted compassion. His poems identify and point up a natural solidarity with all it means to be human. And they don`t wimp out by being travel movies of Geddes`s own ego. B. Okay. But if Robert Browning decided to become a brigadista, wouldn`t the Browning Societies feel compelled to inspect the Emperor`s clothes? A. You mean interview Geddes? Good idea. Horse`s mouth and all that. B. He`s out of the country. On a reading tour to New Zealand and Australia. A. He travels a lot. For research and readings. In fact, Letters from Managua comes out of a trip to Nicaragua to attend an international book fair. B. That`s right. So if I can`t get an audience with Don Quixote... A. ...you interview Sancho Panza? B. Yup. Jim Smith. Jim`s a poet who lives in Toronto, and he was one of the forces behind ArtNica, an artists-in-support-of-Nicaragua group. He went to Nicaragua with Geddes and others, and throughout this book of essays by Geddes, Jim`s raucous enthusiasm and devil-may-care epithets run like a bathetic sub-plot. He`s the sidekick. He`s Walter Brennan: You ever been stung by a dead bee? He`s Sancho Panza. Says he doesn`t mind. A. What does he say about Geddes`s essays and poems? B. Well, he says that the work is committed but too cautious, generally. And I tend to agree. Cautious in its decorum and control. Considering his subject matter, the politeness in some poems feels odd. This is not as true for what I consider his best books: War and Other Measures and Letter from the Master of Horse. In these, his tone and telling are suited to their narratives. Elsewhere, at times, they are suspect. A. You just don`t appreciate the distance that the poet sustains between himself and his material. You want a confessional. He wants craft. B. He works at a poem until it is cleaner than its subject. A. Oh, come on! George Woodcock -- no less -- says that Geddes is Our "best political poet." B. He would. I`d pick Tom Wayman. A. You would. But this is not a popularity contest. Let`s get back to Jim Smith and the essays in Letters from Managua. B. They are very good. They are written in the present tense, are letters, and they abound with useful and poignant insights into the nature of the Beast (the U.S./CIA/Contra war against Nicaragua), as well as into how politics and art cohabit. Jim`s presence in almost every essay adds humour by way of his intolerant savvy... A. But? B. No huts about it: a well-written, useful book. Useful because it is crammed with window- opening quotes: "For the first time in my life, I realized with surprise, I had come across a government I could support ... because I wanted its efforts ... to succeed." (Salman Rushdie on the now-ousted Sandinista government). A. Geddes here is in the role of enthusiast and popularizer. The effect of all the quotes is a colloquium-like atmosphere moderated by Geddes. It`s also useful to have the essays brought together because, well, as I said before, in this country such books are few and far between. B. When You say "popularizer," do you mean that the essays are light, a bit superficial? You know that none of the arguments about politics and art are startlingly original. A. They were written for newspapers and journals. They were written "in the field" and revised quickly -- that`s their nature. The book festival in Managua was only last summer, 1989. Letters from Managua is not George Lukacs and not the last word -- was never meant to be. B. I aid that I agree: constructive heckling, remember? (Maybe this is a joint letter to Geddes himself?) A. Geddes, or as he says in one interview, his deep-name is He-Who-Sings-For-His-Own-Life. B. That brings me to another heckle. He-Who-Sings-For-His-Own-Life should maybe force his song to evolve. From the earliest successful books to these new ones I don`t see a change of basic style. The skills have been honed, but they are simple skills: clarity, compassion, dramatization, lines that obey phrasing, stanzas that either tend toward the same number of lines or else break the way paragraphs do. Unlike the evolving work of many other writers (Al Purdy is probably our best example), Geddes`s poetry has not improved markedly or gotten markedly worse or deeper -only clearer. Reading these selected and new poems is like looking out one window for years while the author cleans and cleans it. A. The subjects, though, have evolved and deepened, surely. The poet`s home-concerns have led him far afield. There have been risks involved in this embracing of wider themes. Al Purdy says that Geddes`s poem "Sandra Lee Scheuer" is one that "most poets wait a lifetime for." B. Yes. Bur that`s a pretty careful poem. It intends to offend no one but please everyone -- even at the crime scene! For my money, it may not have been worth the wait, or should have been given a wait. Especially when I cringe reading the lines that metaphorically equate getting shot through the neck with being proposed to by the assassin. He was going down on one knee as if he might propose. His declaration, unmistakable, articulate flowering within her, passing through her neck I mean, what end does bullet-as-love serve here except to reduce the impact and import of such murder? Except to draw sympathy toward the shooter? Except to use both woman-as-victim and woman-as-romantic-object in the same breath? A. Hold it. Is this a thesis or a review? You know damn well that that poem comes down strongly and subtly on the side of the woman and all victims. You know that this book is full of poems you`d defend if we switched roles. B. True. We have too few fellow travellers as friends to start carping overmuch about a line here or there... A. So could I sign us out here on a positive note: Geddes may he far better than most of us realize yet. His poems may be so clear and seemingly effortless, so much about our world`s primary concerns and places of strife now, so self effacing, that we can`t tell whether the glass of water he offers us is full or empty. B. Or whether Don Quixote is wearing any clothes. A. Or where Robert Browning is, because he`s dressed in camouflage fatigues. B. Or which of us is which...

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