Interim: Essays and Meditations

by Patrick Friesen
143 pages,
ISBN: 097397270X

The Reservoir: Essays

by Eric Miller
95 pages,
ISBN: 1894800702

Strange Ghosts: Essays

by Darren Greer
174 pages,
ISBN: 1896951635

Post Your Opinion
On Misapprehensions that Blight and Bless Us
by T.F. Rigelhof

My fingers were tightly crossed that this year's Governor General's jury for non-fiction would show at least a little of the literary taste and sense of adventure of the Fiction crew and nominate either Eric Miller's The Reservoir or Darren Greer's Strange Ghosts (preferably both): they deserve far wider readership and greater critical acclaim than collections of literary essays generally find in this country. Canadian writers should not have to recast the truth of their lives into short stories to find an audience beyond family, friends, and former students.
Miller, the author of last year's much-lauded (and personal favourite) poetry collection, In the Scaffolding (Goose Lane 2005), observes natural and human phenomena from odd angles and under unusual magnifications. He reports on his own life as a late 20th century man with lyrical intensity and philosophical maturity in The Reservoir, a collection of four interlinked pieces. As a prose writer, Eric Miller bears comparison with W.G. Sebald: both writers have similar intelligences, but Miller is, if anything, more graceful and energetic in his pursuit of personal and collective memories of traumas and their aftermath.
Miller's opening piece "The Fifth of April 1793" is, at first glance, furthest from both Sebald and the personal territory of father-son relationships the author explores in the trio of 20th century excursions that follow it. In his opener, Miller studies a miniature portrait of Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, and then a single page from her journal. He identifies with both to the extent that he "sometimes feel[s him]self Simcoe" before subsiding "into happy masculine spectatorship." What does he find in her that is worth such attentiveness? His attachment begins in a shared response to Spenser's allegorised "Bower of Bliss" in The Faerie Queen, but extends to this:

"Elizabeth Simcoe's fifth of April 1793 deserves to be preserved as a specimen day from the annals of humanity. A heat wave: an ambiguous and cherished dog: a dance; an identity¨mistaken. Simcoe laughingly divines the limits of analysis, a dry diagnostician despite the torrid temperature. Who does not inhabit a wrong Upper Canada, founded on expropriations, confounded by perverse signals, apprehensive in its snobberies, tamed and aroused by the rules of the dance, some of its animal retainers arbitrarily liquidated, euphoria nevertheless welling with the sweetness of balsam sap from every nightfall pore? The mosquito hawk cries in the night, or the whippoorwill. We mistake fear for pleasure, pleasure for fear. . . . What blights us¨is that our blessing?
Let's dance."

What misapprehensions most blight and bless us, here and now? Miller claims his own space within Sebald's world in "The Berlin Creepy Show", an account of a more recent heat-fuelled day "that struggled to get massive binoculars into focus, and with such obsessive adjustments that it never succeeded." The author and his companion Anna, whose "relatives endured the fortunes of resistance in Europe¨torture at a Gestapo-requisitioned hotel, internment in camps, stunting hunger on cold streets, forced labour irgendwo in Europa," visit the Bunker Anhalter Bahnhof under whose fatade an aged actor was impersonating Homer in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire. Miller is led by a Dracula-caped guide to a creepy subterranean tourist trap and a modest Fuhrerbunker that had been built "in the eventuality of Hitler being trapped during an air raid in this neighbourhood." The ghastliness revives memories of the disturbing summer when he was eleven and his mother "almost died on the operating table," and he helped clean out another ghastly space as his father "moved his Toronto law office from the first to the fourth floor of an old warehouse overlooking three parking lots and the back-alley dumpsters of five restaurants" in a makeshift attempt to stay occupied. Miller's wholly distinctive title essay "The Reservoir", and its companion piece "Fredericton and Fatherhood", interweave elegant, affectionate, unaffected reflections on paternal and filial relationships of remarkable breadth and intensity. Here's a sample:

"A baby refutes two lies that have great currency these days. The first lie¨an artist's, a lover's and a scholar's lie¨insists that some other time or place was authoritative, and that this time or place is degenerate, depleted, banal, inadequate, untrue. . . . The second lie that a baby infallibly detects, controverts by its very being, is that our epoch is inevitably an epoch of speed."

There's another award for which I'd nominate Darren Greer: a Best Second Novel Award for Still Life with June (2003)¨arguably the best second effort in Canadian fiction since Barbara Gowdy's Falling Angels (1989). Like Gowdy, Greer has a remarkable capacity for creating hilarious, redemptive tales filled with seemingly lost, out-of-kilter characters whose lives are peculiarly saturated with paradises fleetingly glimpsed. Like Gowdy, Greer wants his readers to "contemplate" possibilities of humanity flourishing in the most improbable situations. Still Life with June focused on an aspiring writer's life at the "Sally Ann Cocaine Corral¨a shelter for former drug addicts, alcoholics and criminals" in an Ottawa wracked and wrecked by corporate greed and haunted by AIDS. The best of the sixteen essays in Strange Ghosts speak publicly about private matters hinted at in the fiction. Like Cameron, his fictional protagonist, Darren Greer is gay, HIV-positive, and intimately acquainted with drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, but he's also one of the most joyously alive, vibrant young writers in the country. He positively exults in his craft. And craftiness. A compulsively readable and appealing mixture of memoir, travelogue, polemics, politics, and aesthetics, Strange Ghosts covers a lot of ground: geographical (Paris, Baghdad, Venice, Bangkok, New York, Ottawa, Toronto, Greenfield, Nova Scotia); artistic (Tennessee Williams's novel Moise and the World, the death portrait of Felix Partz of General Idea, Marcel Duchamp, Oscar Wilde, his own novels and plays); and emotional (growing up gay in rural Nova Scotia with a non-accepting father, dealing with addictions, coping with being HIV-positive, bonding with cats, dogs, lovers, baseball fans ). When Greer is writing at the height of his skill¨as in "Remembering Felix Partz"¨he is utterly stunning.

"I chose to stay in treatment, despite the HIV diagnosis. A few weeks later I found myself, on a Sunday afternoon, in the National Gallery of Canada once again, looking at one particular exhibit. That was the year Felix Partz and the Canadian art-making team General Idea placed three gigantic AZT capsules on the floor of one room of the gallery. On the walls of the room were glued smaller replicas of the capsules¨they were about the size of footballs, dissected and arranged in the pattern of days in the month on a calendrical page¨one page of capsules for each month of the year. There had been some public furor about the cost of this exhibit. I agreed the first time I saw it. I might have been gay, but I didn't think much about AIDS then. Half a million dollars for this? This time, however, things were different. My doctor had started me on a regimen of AZT. I stood in that room of giant capsules and cried. I got it. Boy, did I get it. Modern art had spoken to me, in an awfully narrow, shared band of experience¨not one that everyone would want to share."

It's never quite clear where the next paragraph will take you, who you will meet, and what you'll discover about his world and your own. Not everything is equally well-observed (some of the travel pieces try too hard to be commercial and lapse into Saturday newspaper supplement conventionality) but Greer's remarkably in touch with himself and truthful about the people in his life and the artworks he feels offer redemption. And he's smart enough to know when to be ironic and when to play it straight.

Patrick Friesen has published twelve books of poetry and written two full-length stage plays. Reading the prose pieces collected as Interim: Essays & Meditations, one wishes the counts were reversed: two pieces dealing with stage plays¨"How Like An Angel Came I Down", which is his response to Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and "Desire and Prayer", which are his notes on the production of his own The Shunning¨stand head, shoulders, and heart above the two dozen other pieces in this omnium gatherum. He's lean, muscular, probing, and magnanimous when he writes of Angels:

"I love the ending. I wish I'd written it. It seems obvious enough now, like it's been done somewhere before. Maybe it has. The nerve of it. Thinking of the ceiling in a stage play. Balconies, ladders, stairs, yes. But a ceiling? Another wall. A wall to heaven. Heaven, or outer space, taken so naturalistically . . . a visitation from another sphere, another kind of power than Americans are accustomed to . . . It's not one angel in the title, it's angels. Batallions of them, like UFOs. Blue Angels, maybe, like some acrobatic air force squadron of jet fighters. Guardian angels, holding hands, the blue ring of the ozone layer."

Elsewhere, as he ruminates on Russian and Canadian poets, his travels in and outside Canada, his Mennonite upbringing in rural Manitoba, his university days in Winnipeg and much else, he seems altogether too uncertain which audience, if any, he's addressing beyond family, friends, former students, and himself. ˛

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