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September Books

Issue: 54 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry, literature, fiction

September 3, 2008

September Books

New works by Venart and Stiles

by Linda Besner, Robert Kotyk

Woodshedding
S.E. Venart
Brick: London, 2007.

If her work is any indication, S.E. Venart’s poems are made up of dispatches from a writing life that is underway with admirable vigilance. Woodshedding, her first collection, ferrets out space for its intellectual labours around the contemplation of the ordinary, but time moves neither too fast, nor too slow; the poems emerge from life’s infrequent furrows of solitude with refreshing tranquility.

The poet shares this pursuit with bird-watchers, monks and joggers: inhabitants of what Venart calls “privileged openings,” pockets of inspiration that open up with circumstance (“There are sudden canopies/of silence between the low tones/of speedboats”), but which become worthy of safeguarding when the moment lingers (“Touch, I think, is mostly overrated.//It makes for only the luckiest/misunderstandings. I prefer the syllables of birds.”).

The full end-stop between the line about touch and the next reflects the exalted status that Venart affords to this sense of aloneness and sequestration, but the poems encourage a certain level of interior play even amid the hustle and bustle of one’s daily commute. This dual mode, mingling worldly tumult with the concerns of the self, can be heard in a line from “Sightings”: “I’m back in the city, stopped for a red light, reading the off-ramp’s/sprayed messages,” which echoes an earlier poem, “Lanes,” ending with “The sun overcoming me. . . /throwing light down on me as I bring/flesh and soul together, and fall/again into the moving traffic of myself.”

When a musician friend of mine makes a trip “out to the woodshed,” he means to remain there; anywhere, that is, so long as he cannot be reached by phone, e-mail, Facebook message, or any of the other brazenly intrusive gizmos of this early 21st century; for as long as it takes to learn a part on his tuba.

References to musicianship pervade Venart’s work-—her own epigraph invokes the improvisatory play of a jazz musician—-but as another definition of the collection’s title included in the epigraph attests, “woodshedding” also refers to the administration of a “sound parental thrashing.” Venart perhaps means that her work reveals itself only with the avoidance of easy pleasures and through an embrace of an ascetic self-discipline. If so, her collection reflects this principle with uncommon beauty and maturity.

– Robert Kotyk

Taking the Stairs
John Stiles
Nightwood: Gibson's Landing, BC, 2008.

Stiles' protagonist, Jarod, is a struggling writer whose phone is simply ringing off the hook with job offers. His friend Elliot wants to pay him exorbitant amounts of money to write a screenplay, and it's all Jarod can do to evade his would-be benefactor so he's free to endlessly re-read his abortive short story attempts and fret about his unfinished novel. High doses of implausibility and inaction can kill just about any novel and Stiles' choice of subject matter only furthers these problems.

The “writing about writing” genre is an extremely tricky one to make engaging and Jarod spends a tedious amount of time bellyaching about what a chore it is to stuff his work into envelopes and mail it off to literary magazines.

Although Taking the Stairs is written in the first person, Jarod's personality remains curiously opaque. He fights with his girlfriend; he works odd jobs; he holds circuitous telephone conversations with people he's trying to avoid. Stiles has included in Taking the Stairs several excerpts from Jarod's oeuvres, which are bad without being atrocious enough for comic effect and it's unclear just how much we are meant to sympathize with Jarod.

Stylistically, there's not much here to save this book from itself. “He says that when people jump off bridges, they land on their feet and their legs get jammed up inside their bodies and have to be pulled back out with a huge set of tongs,” is as interesting as it gets, unless you count the anatomical curiosity of the phrase, “She looks fine with her round spanish ass in a tight, tasteful blouse.” Must be quite the figure.

– Linda Besner

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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