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December Books

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Issue: 66 Section: Literature & Ideas Topics: poetry, fiction

December 28, 2009

December Books

New works by Hall, Rogers and With

by Shane Patrick Murphy, Megan Stewart

The Certainty Dream
Kate Hall
Coach House Books: Toronto, 2009

I’m normally skeptical of a book of poetry containing multiple references to contemporary metaphysicists and epistemologists. Academic poets can be such stiff writers, getting stuck in a search for canonical purpose and intellectual weight. Their poems get “workshopped” until they are systematically drained of all their energy and inspiration.

This is not the case with Kate Hall, whose finished poetry sounds much more like Wallace Stevens than GWF Hegel. Some lines from the last poem capture the feel of this book as a whole:

“this became the dream his dream in which I did not allow him to speak
and the dream in which I imagined him speechless before me”

In Hall’s dreams, Thomas Aquinas is a self-help author. Hume is a tour-guide for bird watchers. Descartes is going to a Halloween party. Elephants and disembodied voices arrive in the mail.

The Certainty Dream weaves its way through absurdist outbursts and giddy indulgences of graduate-level philosophy while remaining rooted in the immediacy and, yes, the certainty of everyday life.

While Hall had me reaching out to Wikipedia to decode some of her academic name-dropping (I still don’t know if she means David Sosa, Ernest Sosa, or maybe Sammy Sosa), but she provides enough context and imagery to avoid turning her book into an academic in-joke.

Hall seems to be working in the same emerging style as her editor, Toronto poetry guru Kevin Connolly, whose Revolver was a Griffin Poetry Prize nominee last year. Like Connolly, Hall’s poems unfold with wit, colourful layers, and no overwhelming sense of ego or pomp.

Shane Patrick Murphy

Paper Radio
Damian Rogers
ECW: Toronto, 2009

If poems are word-compilations that broadcast music from the page, it’s hard not to like Damian Rogers’ idea of poetry as a paper radio. The former arts editor at Toronto’s Eye Weekly uses this musical metaphor to transmit a disparate set of themes, ranging from inter-personal and family tensions to a preoccupation with Shakers.

There are moments of genuine intensity here, but Rogers plays it fairly safe in her debut collection. Her clever quips are some of the most memorable parts: “Your problem is my problem—which is why I hate hearing about it.” Or, “No one tells the truth anymore and we’re grateful—though the lies bore us to tears.”

When Rogers sets aside her bleak humour, she earnestly shares intimate moments and everyday epiphanies through characters that remain silhouettes, without much detail to draw us close to them. And occasionally the Shakers, with all their dance-mad celibacy, sound like a poet looking for quirky inspiration.

But Rogers’ sense of humour and quick pacing makes this an upbeat, melodic, and highly-experimental debut. We’ll be looking forward to future work by Rogers where she’ll inevitably sharpen the tuning and crank this radio’s volume.

Shane Patrick Murphy

Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison
Cathleen With
Viking Canada: Toronto, 2009

Having Faith isn’t about trust, belief, or religion. It’s about a girl having a baby girl while in prison.

Trista is one-quarter Inuvialuit and 15 when she has Faith, a premature child who is deaf, brain-damaged and diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Born into a violent night following punches to her mother’s belly and the bloody death of a store cashier, Faith spends the first three months of her life in a juvenile detention facility before being shipped south to a foster family.

Her mother spends those same months deluded, detached or drugged. As Trista gropes through her days at the Polar Girls' Prison, each brings greater loss and self-disappointment as her plans for motherhood are dashed as quickly as her approaching court sentence.

As Trista draws further into herself, novelist Cathleen With is at her best. It’s unclear what Trista remembers and lets ruminate in her head and what she shares with the staff and other girls at the prison. These monologues can be disorienting, but through the course of the narration, they become more frequent, more confusing and we can appreciate Trista’s own bewilderment, loneliness and longing.

The author lived and taught in Inuvik and here builds an insulated world of snow drifts, ice roads, wolf trim on parkys and the dark, northern secrets of molestation, alcoholism, gambling and neglect.

At the Writers and Readers Festival in Vancouver last year, With said she has seen girls “just go sideways.”

“They would talk about their life as if it were going to be over by the time they were 30. Suicide. Drugs. Whatever. Better get on with life.”

Born to a 13-year-old mother in Jackfish Bay, a remote, fictional town outside of Iqaluit, Trista inherits a world where men slip little girls fivers to get them off.

“Sometimes you don’t even know what the sexual assault is,” said With in Vancouver. And speaking for the young abused characters in Having Faith, “Oh, that happened too. Maybe that’s why I can’t get my shit together.”

Trista’s voice is urgent and desperate and sometimes buoyant. With opens the door for her redemption, but this novel offers little reprieve. The prose evokes cold climes, ghosts that haunt and forgive, sunless days and frozen bodies in the permafrost, but With’s scenes foster a sense of faith—a confidence in survival, strong women, intuition and love.

Trista inherits aspects of her grandmothers’ cultural knowledge and skill—but barely. She cherishes their values and generosity, but doesn’t have the social support or maturity to embrace it. With has surrounded Trista in female role models who flash through the narration as potential futures for the inmates at the detention facility.

Having Faith speaks to trust and spirit, but Trista learns it’s also about having faith in family and the friends we chose as family.

With received acclaim for Skids, a short story collection about kids living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and again in Polar Girls, With brings us a harrowing and mesmerizing voice of a young Canadian fighting to survive on the margins of society.

Megan Stewart

Megan Stewart is an independent journalist in Vancouver, where she is completing her graduate degree at the University of British Columbia.

Shane Patrick Murphy is the former executive editor of the McGill Law Journal. He is slowly getting around to writing his first novel, Still I Dream of Grandeur.

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Comments

I need Cathleen With

Please I need any telephone number or address to know and contact with Cathleen With...I need to invite her to my country Saudi Arabia. I'm big fan of her writing and I wish if I could meet her one day..Wish you all the best.

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