Nothing But Brush Strokes:
Selected Prose

155 pages,
ISBN: 0920897894

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Gulf Island Webb
by Ted Whittaker

This book appears as part of a series (in this instance a partial misnomer), "The Writer as Critic", edited by Smaro Kamboureli. Some of the pieces included are not conventionally critical, except in so far as all writing is at bottom about writing. In addition to the critical essays, there are "Notes on the Creative Process" (a brace of these), a set of photo collages, snippets of autobiography, and a short political fantasy in which Vancouver Island and its courtiers, the Gulf Islands, physically secede from the West Coast and get underway into the Pacific.
She's a great recycler, this Phyllis Webb. Or maybe we should blame her editors, her harvesters. Two books of her gathered, short, occasional prose have appeared, in more than four decades in public print-and a few collections of poems, some recombined with others to swell the indexes and to keep the words before the needful world.
In a brief foreword to the pieces here, she lists the diversity of occasions that provoked their composition. Among the critical or quasi-critical works, we find several repeated from an earlier collection, Talking (Quadrant Editions, 1982, now out of print). I wish, though, that she or Kamboureli had brought forward from Talking a splendid essay on inquisition, "The Question as an Instrument of Torture". Among our poets, Webb possesses one of that clan's more bracing social consciences. Her readers deserve to be reminded of what she had to say on such an urgent topic.
Another sub-genre thinly represented here is the review. Webb used to toss these out like magician's doves (they make up about half of Talking), but here we have just a few, and they don't stick firmly to convention. There is a short structural and thematic analysis of Gabrielle Roy's Windflower, which first appeared as the afterword to the New Canadian Library edition. "Imaginations Companion" takes a brief, admiring measure of three collections of poems by Sharon Thesen. A bit of logrolling? Thesen had introduced Webb's second batch of Selected Poems (Talonbooks, 1982). "This isn't exactly a garland for Sharon Thesen," Webb says disingenuously, but the little essay, as a nice conceit, shows to best advantage the florilegial aspect of Thesen's imagination (one of several, we may suppose-check the lack of an apostrophe in the title) as it entwines about her work.
Of the three most impressive critical essays in Nothing But Brush Strokes, two deal with single authors. A revised transcript of a 1970 radio talk, the academically titled "Waterlily and Multifoliate Rose: Cyclic Notions in Proust" follows the major theme of return in A la recherche du temps perdu with an unnecessary apology: "I must be brief and a little brutal." Brief, yes, brutal, no, because the elegance of the presentation is obvious. With recurring apologies for omissions, Webb darts through the great work, slowing for the odd illustrative citation. Perhaps it is her own ability or need simply to anchor herself at last at home-living near and walking on a Gulf Island beach-that ripens her to appreciate fully the long search that Proust details. This, at last, is for "that reality which there is grave danger we might die without ever having known and yet which is simply our life." The essay is about patterns of coming back, but its own structure is basically linear. For me, that structure works better in critical discourse than (say) the pile-it-up, grab-bag way of displaying one's apprehensions.
This other method, though, is what Webb uses in writing about the late sections of Robin Blaser's long serial poem "Image-Nation". Here all stops are pulled out; mature artist responds, at times in kind, to mature artist. The first part of the essay is written conventionally, accounting for the work in very general terms: the gross differences in technique over thirty years, etc. Then these notational constraints are pitched away. "Notes, Impressions, Guidelines, and Data Clusters" are the modes of expression. The critic becomes what she beholds. Many of Blaser's effects, as Webb observes, are achieved through a manipulation of textures, aural, visual, conceptual. She mimics this strategy, tacking up swatches of poetry, between which she poses her reactions, in chiselled paragraphs, lists, sentence fragments. The danger with this approach, criticism as tentative (a pleasant little scalpel of a word she cuts with elsewhere), is that the reader can lose the distinction between critic and author. There's a capitalizing of important words (pace Charles Olson or Ez Great and Terrible). I believe they are part of the commentary, some of them:

resonates in her central position on the poem's third and last page
We cannot avoid her
sun and starlight, wife of Tammuz, goddess of
even among the ruins of the real

How fatiguing. (I should add that the text isn't all, by any means, as incestuous as this.)
I'm not going into what Webb says about Blaser; no room here. If you had The Holy Forest (his collected poems, which she also reviewed in these pages in 1993) in one hand and this set of jottings in the other, you would possess an authentic visitor's visa, if not a passport, to the last few "Image-Nations".
Early in Nothing But Brush Strokes, Webb inserts a query by the poet Gary Geddes, who's fussing about the poetic line. Another reprint from Talking follows, a 1981 clutch of notes on the same subject. These, even more than her thoughts on Blaser, are unfinished word-play, diaristic letters to herself (or back to Geddes perhaps), put with no excuse before the rest of us. The subject, however, is certainly worth considering: the intent behind the gesture of the poetic discourse as evidenced in the line, and, as a sometime political corollary, the gender of that discourse. "Certainties: that the long line (in English) is aggressive, with much `voice'. Assertive, at least. It comes from assurance (or hysteria), high tide, full moon, open mouth, big-mouthed Whitman, yawp, yawp, and Ginsberg-howling. Male."
The title of this book alludes to a line in a little fantasy about an Australian painting. The fantasy, as Webb names it, is in these pages usually her surest mode of expression. She works this leaven into her criticism. "Poetry and Psychobiography" is a 1993 lecture and a shot just across the bow of the lives of the poets and other scribblers, style moderne, aimed to ward off their authors' prurient tendency ever to be "playing doctor, specialist psychiatry." Having first boarded a few examples of the genre, Webb's relieved at least that "psychiatry and psychotherapy have for years been shaking off the Freudian chains, and this relaxation is reflected in biography." What a wonderful set of gleaming epistemological instruments with which to prise apart the sorry existences of the artists (and of course their works).
"But poetic knowing is always in advance of the poet, a writer recently said to me; poetry has been my companion in my journey to myself, but it's always half a step ahead of me." She finishes with a flourish, a "last minute magical mystery tour," a trio of glimpses of three mentors, Gide, Rilke, and Eliot, each in biographical situ. Gide lectures her about a work by Giorgione: "in front of this painting you think of nothing else, and that is characteristic of a masterpiece." Eliot berates her for enjoying the biographers as they paddled about in his psyche, gossiping about him and his first wife. She peers over Rilke's shoulder as he writes a letter about ancient works of art. "The masters from whom they originate are nothing; no misunderstood fame colours their pure forms; no history casts a shadow over their naked clarity-!They are."
Our author foreworded her 1980 book of poems Wilson's Bowl with this admission: "My poems are born out of great struggles of silence." What a tower of reticence stands behind that statement. Indeed, very few butterflies, poetic or prosaic, have escaped the Webb. In the pieces I'm writing about here, she refers often to her familiarity with depression and self-imposed isolation. Perhaps it is a wonder she has written and published as much as she has, and as well.
"A Correspondence", an essay about the impeded marriage of two true minds, about epistolary intimates who shared a passion for Haida art, who never met, and who both committed suicide, accepts their deaths without comment; the intensity of the revelation, however, is almost unbearable.
I don't want to hand this review over to the stork and leave you with the notion that Nothing But Brush Strokes is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged Eeyore. She's a tough old bird, entirely without public self-pity, a "law-abiding anarchist", to use her phrase. Nobody but a battler lives through almost seventy years, much of it depression-dogged, and produces poetry and, yes, prose of such general excellence as that written by Phyllis Webb. She's also quietly hilarious: witness her reminiscences in "Tibetan Desire" about getting ripped (in the sixties?) with Leonard Cohen; and note too here and there across this book her wry comments on Canada and especially on her patria chica, the West Coast. She also reinvents herself. A couple of years ago, she took up watercolours. Bolder still, she publishes here eight of her own photo collages, and strong, unfussy images they are. (Again the recycling: one collage features in part a carved circular tidepool called Wilson's Bowl; it is named for the anthropologist Duff Wilson, one of the pair of star-crossed scholars in "A Correspondence".)
"I...began to see in a subtly different way...as the months passed so did my almost chronic depression. Painting my Prozac. Collages my keeper." Worry about what wells she may for too long have neglected to dig or tap doesn't get her down much, it's good to report. I think this may have something to do with her burnished skepticism, her sharp awareness of the vanity of human wishes. Her serenity is almost Shakespearean, or even Eastern, though she's such a rooted Westerner. Webb quotes Charles Lamb's "Dream Children" to close a brief meditation called "Might-have-been: The Tedious Shores": "We are nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence and a name."

Ted Whittaker's mother read The Water-Babies to him beside a Saltspring Island tide pool when he was five years old.


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