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Dear Editor,
If I might be permitted a belated response, I'm writing to express my disappointment with W.J. Keith's review of Nick Mount's When Canadian Literature Moved to New York in the October 2005 of Books in Canada. While it's true that Mount's main focus is on Canadian writers who sought (and frequently found) literary success in New York during the 1880s and 1890s, his overall argument has implications for our understanding of Canadian literature of all periods, implications that Keith's review downplays. Worse, Keith seems determined to press Mount's argument into service of the very literary-historical narrative that Mount seek to challenge-the tragic tale of Canadian writers "impelled" to seek their "fame and fortune" in the States, leaving behind an ungrateful and philistine nation.
The tale that Mount tells is rather more upbeat: ". . . the decision by so many Canadian writers of these years to move to American cities wasn't about giving up one national literary culture for another; it was about moving from the margins to the centres of a continental literary culture" (p13). Moreover, far from giving up their "Canadian identity", these writers often sold stories with "Canadian" settings and themes to a market hungry for rugged nature tales. Although centred in New York, this market, as Mount points out, "included Canada."
In his penultimate paragraph, Keith does mention "one of Mount's radical arguments," but I think he misreads it when he suggests that Mount thinks that the literary exodus "laid a viable foundation for Canadian literary development." The work of these expatriate writers is not a precursor to Canadian literature, but an important part of it, and the reasons for excluding it from traditional Canadian literary histories are not coherently artistic. Mount's argument is "radical" indeed, since it does not seek to bring these authors into the canon, but rather attacks the very shaky aesthetic grounds on which it has been built.
This is the sharp point of Mount's opening quip-"They laid Bliss Carman in his grave and Canadian literature began almost immediately," which Keith quotes as an example of Mount's "keen sense of humor." In Mount's wry joke, "Canadian Literature", as a definable entity, doesn't begin with the commercial or critical success of its authors but rather with the possession of a poet's remains. Carman's literal connection with the Canadian soil stands in for the symbolic connection which an author had to have to be considered truly "Canadian" by early (and perhaps some present) canon-makers. In fact, whole reams of Carman's output are ignored in conventional Canadian literary histories mainly because he was not in Canada when he produced it.
When Mount compares the work of Palmer Cox ("the Brownie man") and Lucy Maud Montgomery and finds both artistically deficient, his intention isn't, as Keith rather simplistically puts it, to show "that Montgomery shouldn't have been admitted to the canon in the first place." Mount is more concerned with discovering the reasons why Montgomery's work has been successfully turned into an international commodity with Canadian "branding" while Palmer Cox's has not, given that they can not be distinguished on either aesthetic or commercial grounds. Mount's conclusion is that "the wrong kind of literary expatriates and the wrong works by the right expatriates were generally excluded from Canadian literature by recourse to the canonical axiom that Canadian writing is informed by the Canadian soil, and the writing severed from that soil ceased to be truly Canadian"(p153). Mount shows us that arbitrary rules of "Canadian content" have always bedeviled Canada's cultural output.
I write because I'm fearful that those who take this lukewarm review at face value will decide not to read Canadian Literature, believing it to be the narrowly focused, dry academic book that Keith-despite his suggestions to the contrary-treats it as. Notwithstanding its historical subject matter and scholarly focus, When Canadian Literature Moved to New York deserves to be read by everyone interested in the current and lively debates about the nature of Canadian literature, about cultural and literary nationalism, and about our complex and beleaguered relationship with the United States.
Martin Wallace,

Dear Editor,
Poetry readers are indebted to Books in Canada for making considerable space for the reviewing of The Ishtar Gate (December 2005), the selected and new poems of the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner, beautifully edited by Stephanie Bolster. And indebted to Richard Carter for his serious and considered attention to Brebner's work.
But many will be saddened that this retrospective of Brebner's work was approached in so one-dimensional a fashion and therefore never got around to talking about most elements of Brebner's achievement. Carter's commentary on Brebner's work is neither frivolous nor shallow. But he unfortunately decides at the start that Brebner's work is "abstract", quotes a particularly abstract poem in whole, and then spends the entire review on this single topic, going so far as to wonder why a poet would treat "sensory attachment with such suspicion."
Brebner? The mind staggers.
There is no doubt that Brebner is a richly philosophical and often metaphysical writer. She is concerned with that unknown and unknowable world that surrounds, underlies, and haunts us. But to suggest her work is abstract, lacking emotion, or, oh so simplistic, not sensual, is curious indeed. Like the work of her beloved Auden and Brodsky, the metaphysics of Brebner's work is most often a question, rarely an answer, and her poetry is positively suffused with the physical world, deeply in love with nature, rich in sensuality, sexuality, colour, and sensation-from early poems such as "The Sparrow Drawer", through the nature-soaked brilliance of many poems in The Golden Lotus, to later tragedy-tinged bravura performances of the embodied will such as "The Blue Light of the Neutron Pool" or "Port". Try reading those final two and finding Brebner afraid of emotion, abstract.
Diana was a friend; my own objectivity is flawed. Mr. Carter wrote a serious review, but the piece got on a hobbyhorse, the wrong one, and never got off. Brebner did, however, respond to this single-sided reading of her work in advance, in her poem "To the Poet Who Told Me to Think Less and Feel More", which begins, "I will not assume that you / are an expert about feeling."
Still, the discussion is good to have if it leads more readers to this wonderful book to see for themselves, and from there back to the individual collections of one of Canada's most original and persisting voices. Brebner didn't write like anyone else, and that always takes some getting used to. She couldn't have if she had tried, because she was trying to find her way through the world she loved, and had too little time.
David Manicom,
Gatineau, Quebec

Dear Editor,
David Manicom is quite right that many of Diana Brebner's poems are not abstract, and that I focused on those that are to the exclusion of others. I owe him thanks for pointing out the murk in my review, and for giving me a chance to clear it. What struck me after reading her poems carefully was that the best ones tapped their life, not from the physical presence of things, but from her moods and thoughts, not from the outer "real world" but from her depth-charged inner one. I stand by this contention-though I agree that "abstract" is a poor word to describe it. Manicom argues "The Blue Light of the Neutron Pool", among other poems, is "rich in sensuality", and certainly it brims with concreteness. Yet compare the following phrase taken from that poem-

. . . Later, the loons
will greet us in the grey morning, the clouds
on the water.

-with the example from David O'Meara's sestina "The War against Television":

A stark, clear sheet beat straight down and didn't
direction, the wet edge of it inching onward . . .

O'Meara's words, using spondees, assonance and an effective line break galvanize his image to life; you can practically feel the water. Brebner's, by contrast, remark on physical things, but never unearth the feeling of their individual presence. While O'Meara's poem has a striking sensory lure, Brebner's hunts an inner intensity: penetrating smell, touch or colour matters less than attuning to an inner joy. "Every green / branch and living thing springs up, every / fish becomes a silver word", she writes in the same poem. Every? We're not going to experience the impression just one of those branches or fish or living things has made on her. But their particularity doesn't matter-they're symptoms of an exhilaration that sees beyond their immediacy and captures something greater.
Was I wrong to focus on this contrast between inner life and outer world? Maybe. But part of a reviewer's job is divining what's most important (either stunning, intriguing or worth disputing), and to leave the rest aside for book-length study. Manicom expected a retrospective-and a broader approach would've given readers a better basic sense of Brebner's work. Yet I'd rather write a coherent piece on one key theme than a jumbled piece on many.
Manicom seems to think I disliked Brebner's work (I like many of her poems); scorned her unusual approach (I admire it). Luckily, such a mixup is easily put right. Scrutinizing my comment that Brebner was suspicious of sensory attachment (after all, how could I know whether she suspected such attachment or not?) was just. But he is unjust in presuming that I think I am "an expert about feeling" (I actually praised the understated emotion in her work, not derided it, as Manicom claims), and mistaken, I believe, if he really thinks Brebner's poems are "suffused with the physical world."

Richard Carter

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