Monday, October 8, 2018

Michele Sharpe on Befriending Jane Austen’s Emma

Returning to high school after nearly a year as a teenage dropout runaway, I had good intentions about attending classes and completing assignments, two resolutions I’d failed at in the past. The day I’d turned twelve, according to my adoptive mother, I’d become a disobedient monster. There was some truth to that; I’d discovered that I could do whatever I liked if willing to face the consequences, and what I liked to do was act with contempt for authority. Maybe that idea had come to me from a book, or maybe it was just my bad blood.

I wanted to go to college. I loved to read, longed to discuss books, and indulged in writing angsty poetry, but school had been disappointing and too regimented to bear. With every new school year, I’d vow to be a model student, but by October of every year, I was skipping classes, chugging beers in the girls’ room, and rolling joints in the back of science class.

On my first week back from being a runaway, I went looking for some of my favorite novels at the library, intending to bring them home to re-sharpen my wits. Here were old friends – Dostoevsky, the Brontës, and Austen. In the stacks, though, Austen’s Emma stuck out its snobby tongue at me. I’d adored all Austen’s novels except this one, and this one I’d despised, incredulous that the brilliant storyteller and satirist of Pride and Prejudice had also written a novel that was so entirely odious.

Emma, as I recalled her, was bossy, arrogant, and unlikeable. She thought she was entitled to do what she liked, and what she liked was to run the whole town; Austen told me right from the get-go that Emma and her family were “first in consequence there. All looked up to them.” Meaning, Emma was a snob. It was like a whole book about one of the annoying Mrs. Bennet-type characters in Austen’s other books, characters who were funny for a couple of scenes, but who certainly couldn’t carry a whole novel. There was no smart, sassy protagonist like Elizabeth Bennet for me to admire. There was only this stupid, spoiled girl who stuck her nose into everyone’s business and always thought she was right.

The book was without merit.

Still, the time I’d spent as a teenage runaway, working minimum wage jobs and trying to avoid my boyfriend’s fists, had changed me. I was only seventeen as I stood in the stacks, feeling superior in my loathing of Emma, when a flicker of doubt in my own judgment lit my brain for a moment. I’d been wrong about some things, like my boyfriend. Maybe I’d been wrong about Emma. I slid the book off the shelf, added it to the top of my pile, and took it home.

Home was a ten-room house. Although my adoptive family wasn’t the richest or most respected in the neighborhood – my father had gone to prison for a white-collar crime – we were far more affluent than most of the people who lived in the town. Their family had broken up by the time I returned from my wanderings, and I’d assumed a daughter/housekeeper role as my father tried to sell the house, moving my few belongings into the former maid’s room on the first floor, while the second-floor bedrooms stayed empty.

After my grim months of adulting, the silence and emptiness of the house was a relief. Slogging through my job cleaning fourteen nasty motel rooms per day was over; now I only had to clean the ten rooms of this house, most of which weren’t even in use. And the tearful process of admitting that my lover, the only person I’d known who’d also read Keats and Shelley, was a brutal woman-hater, was almost over. I snuggled into the twin size bed where my adoptive mother’s housemaids Leila, then Rita, then Louise had once slept. I almost believed I could be innocent again. Emma was still on the top of my pile. I grabbed her.

She was still bossy, arrogant, and unlikeable. She still thought she always right. And yet. There was something, somewhere that I’d read about the things you dislike in others being the things you dislike in yourself.

Chapter 1: “The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”


Chapter 8: After Knightley chastises Emma for persuading Harriet to turn down Mr. Martin’s proposal, Austen’s narrator steps in, “She did not always feel so absolutely satisfied with herself, so entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary's wrong, as Mr. Knightley.”

This, I suspected, was the slippery concept of irony that had always eluded me. Was the narrator speaking as if she were Emma, who at this point in the novel feels quite satisfied with herself and her opinions, while simultaneously poking fun at Emma’s absurdity? Had Austen expected readers to be both astute enough to recognize this double irony, and compassionate enough to excuse Emma’s youthful foolishness?

Chapter 9: “Mr. Knightley might quarrel with her, but Emma could not quarrel with herself.”

I finally understood what irony was. It was a narrative voice that could take on the point of view of a flawed character. It was a love-struck, sixteen-year-old girl, convinced she knew what love was from reading books, and refusing to quarrel with her conviction when that love, which should have always been suspect, went dangerously bad.

Years later, when I began to write about my teenage experience of love and violence, I came back to these memories of Emma, this understanding of irony. It was critical to recapturing my teenage arrogance, critical to forgiving myself, and critical to portraying the character of teenage-me with compassion.

Chapter 11: “How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practicing on herself, and living under!—The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!”

Before my fucked-up love affair, I was too much like Emma, too enamored of my own alleged infallibility. And that’s why I’d showered her with my contempt. Violence had broken my convictions, along with my nose, and forced me to let go of my identity as a girl who didn’t make mistakes. I lost my self-regard, my confidence, and so much more. But I’d gained an insight into human fallibility that would serve my writing. And Emma, finally, was mine.

Michele Sharpe, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, adoptee, and former trial attorney. Her essays appear in venues including The RumpusGuernicaCatapult, and The Sycamore Review. Recent poems can be found in Poet LoreNorth American ReviewStirring, and Baltimore Review. Her previous entry for the many gendered mothers is "Michele Leavitt on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane and Emily Brontë’s Catherine." The author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away, Michele is currently at work on a second memoir. More at

Monday, August 6, 2018

Kim Fahner on Bronwen Wallace

A woman writer whom I follow on Twitter recently asked for suggestions of Canadian women poets to include in her course syllabus for the fall. I watched. I went off and put some chicken and potatoes in the stove to roast for a quiet supper. I returned, looked at the feed again. I kept giving it time, certain her name would emerge. There were so many good suggestions by other women writers, but the name I was looking for—wondering how it could be so easily forgotten—was that of Bronwen Wallace. I offered her name, hoping someone new would come to her rich poetic work, as I had come to her so many years before.

Bronwen Wallace died in 1989. She was too young. I didn’t read her until I was in my mid-twenties, studying Canadian women poets at Carleton University in Brenda Carr’s class. It was there that I came to Bronwen Wallace for the first time. We read The Stubborn Particulars of Grace (1985) and I found myself reconsidering what it was that poetry could do, if you were a woman poet, and if you were trying to figure out and define yourself. I learned that she wrote ‘narrative lyric’ and ‘meditative’ poems. What seemed to just be richly woven and detailed story poems on the surface of things, were actually, on recurrent close readings, much more powerful than I’d ever imagined as a young woman in my twenties. Then, I called myself a feminist in theory, but I don’t know that I really knew what it meant in practice. When I re-read the poems now, as a confident, strong woman in my forties, they strike me in a different, sharper sort of way. Wallace was a poet who rooted her work in the ordinary rhythms of women’s lives, struggles, and friendships. She looked for what she called the ‘extraordinary’ in the patterns of what we think are our mundane, ‘ordinary’ lives and days.

One of my favourite poems of hers is “A Simple Poem for Virginia Woolf.” In it, Wallace speaks of how she imagined that poem should look in terms of both form and content:

        I wanted it simple
        and perfect round
        hard as an
        egg I thought
        only once I’d said egg
        I thought of the smell
        of bacon grease and dirty frying pans
        and whether there were enough for breakfast
        I couldn’t help it

She didn’t want to have a poem rooted in the mundane parts of domestic life, of how women navigate their relationships with work, men, children, and even (shockingly!) potential lovers. The poem speaks of how she doesn’t want it to be confessional in tone, and how she doesn’t want people to figure out which parts are doorways and windows into a poet’s personal life. In the last stanza, she writes that what she only ever wanted, when she began writing with an intention, was just a simple poem of tribute for Virginia Woolf: “it wasn’t going to mention history/or choices or women’s lives/the complexities of women’s friendships/or the countless gritty details/of an ordinary woman’s life.” What she ending up writing instead, though, is a poem that finds its strength and glory in the stories of women who haven’t had a chance to write or speak them out loud. In the details, you see, she pointed to the issues that women were concerned with, and worried over, but never really dared to voice because of patriarchal intimidation.

Wallace saw poetry as being “nearer to prayers than stories,” a belief that wove itself through all of her work. In her writing, she offered women poets a way to mine their own personal experiences and lives. She wrote of love, of caretaking (of husbands, children, and parents), illness, abuse, and about how women create intricate networks of community in their closely woven friendships. She wrote about common worries that most women deal with on a daily basis. She wrote, too, about how women often feel they must give something up to be in a relationship with a man.

In “The Woman in this Poem,” the focus is on a woman who has an overly domesticated life, but who dreams of having an imagined lover as an escape. She is tired of the monotony, of how she “begins/to chop the onions for the pot-roast,” and how she fantasizes of escaping her conservatively scripted marriage:  “all through dinner/her mouth will laugh and chatter/while she walks with her lover/on a beach somewhere.” Wallace writes of women who give up their independence and spirit for the sake of an old fashioned dream of what marriage and family ought to look like, as scripted by 1950s Leave it to Beaver episodes from America, and perhaps enforced by men with archaic views of feminism, intimacy, partnership, and family. As she says, women readers of her poetry, “like the woman in this poem/begin to feel/our own deaths/rising slow within us.” What she does, as a poet, as a woman, is ask her readers (male and female) to consider that they do not need to make themselves small in a relationship just because those are traditional and conservative norms that have historically been followed in western society. She speaks of diversity within relationship, of being independent and joined collaboratively in a respectful manner. She, back in the 1980s, pointed out that women should be free to be independent and spirited within their intimate and familial relationships. It shouldn’t be a sacrificial story. 

This is what I love about Bronwen Wallace. As a strong, single woman in my 40s, I know I won’t give something up in any intimate relationship with a man. That requires a strong, independent, and confident partner who doesn’t want to erase me bit by bit to bend to his view of what a partnership should be. Wallace’s work rooted me in a feminism that didn’t really mature until I was in my late 30s and early 40s. Thank God I read her work in my twenties, but only understood it as a woman, and not as a girl. Her lessons reverberate, and make me glad of my own narrative lyric and confessional poetry. Her work inspires and speaks to me still.

Kim Fahner was the fourth poet laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury (2016-18), and also the first woman to be appointed to the role. Kim has published four volumes of poetry, including her latest, Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press, 2017). Her play, Sparrows Over Slag, had a staged reading at PlaySmelter New Work Theatre Festival (in collaboration with Pat the Dog Theatre Creation), in May 2018 at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. She is currently working on her second novel and completing a play-in-progress. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and PEN Canada. She blogs at The Republic of Poetry at Her website is

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ronna Bloom on Rhea Tregebov

In one of the last incarnations of the Bohemian Embassy on Queen Street, I got up for the first time to read poems. The room was packed and I knew no one.

When I put my foot up on the small step to get on the stage, I heard a voice in my head say, ‘this is the next thing you’re gonna do.’ I read in an understated, almost nonchalant way I thought I should, and someone yelled, louder. I realized no one would ever know these poems the way I knew them, so I belted them out. The doing itself was enough, but the response came back like meeting myself in a wave.

A woman I'd never met, Rhea Tregebov, came over and said something nice about the poems. I said, “you look familiar.” She said, “that’s 'cause I look like you.” I was awkward and she was friendly. But boldly, I asked if she’d talk to me about my poems. She said yes. (Yes!) I bought her book The Proving Grounds, sat in the Future Bakery, opened it and read the first poem:

Faith in the Weather
                        for my sister-in-law, Judy Tregebov,
                        killed in a car crash January 1987

I have to travel through so much weather to get to you.
I’m travelling at 30,000 feet, at 600 miles an hour,
my suitcases full, flying into sadness.

The Proving Grounds (Vehicule Press, 1991)

I was a flood of feeling –– both from the pain of the poem and the permission to write it. 'You can say this?’ I thought. Here in this expression of love and grief, was permission to write directly about loss, and implicitly whatever matters to you –– to me –– right now. A door opened I had no idea was closed, or maybe was no door. It was all open.

When we met I showed her five short poems. She said, “these are publishable.” What a shock these words were the first time. She coaxed me along, invited me into the world.

My niece died the next year and something else tore out into the writing, no doubt given permission by Rhea’s work and warmth. The next thing she urged, "Go to Banff." She was urging me toward the Banff Writing Studio, five weeks of writing in the mountains.

She suggested each step so lightly, like she was offering me a coffee, and each one felt like mounting a ziggurat. But her saying things made them possible.

One season she was Writer in Residence at the North York Public library and I took her workshop with a bunch of other beginning writers and wrote poems. She invited Stan Dragland into the library to talk. I wrote down everything he said on a scrap of pink paper and carried it for years. Then I went to Banff. It was there I realized I did not have to explain leaving a meal to write a poem. I did not have to explain myself.

Over the years we became friends. I'd see her encourage plants and flowers on a hillside home she used to live in in Toronto. I remember her standing on its steep slope on Austin Terrace, by the zooming cars of Bathurst Street, like a goat in the city.

Rhea wrote a suite of poems that won The Malahat Long Poem prize and was set in that neighborhood. Poems that looked and saw what and who was in front of her. Attention and compassion.

Bathurst Station (Below)

In the subway the world's
sad musicians come to play. The Irish
balladeer; the Russian with his ribboned
shirt and balalaika; the Peruvian moving
his breath over panpipes; his two dolls
dance together, bride and groom,
wedded at the head like his old life,
this new one. They are playing home, home
underneath these foreign streets,
their songs drifting thin, riding;
our indifferent feet beside them,
above their heads.

Mapping the Chaos, (Vehicule Press, 1995)

In one of her books is the epigram every poem is a love poem. Having written this now, I look it up and see I got it wrong. A book of love poems, it says. (The Proving Grounds) What I'm remembering instead is a teaching I gleaned from her work: every poem is a love poem because in my mind to write with attention to the truth of what is there is an act of love. Her poems sharpen my eyes and open my heart.

Now, years later, as I shuttle over the Bloor Street viaduct on the subway from the east end to the west, I often think of her poem, "Elegy for the Gift (Elegy for the Light)."

Elegy for the Gift (Elegy for the Light)

Sometimes, when the subway car
comes briefly out of the tunnel,
we don't look up, miss the light.
And it's as though inattentive,
we'd never had that moment
of brightness. A life might be full
of such small losses or full,
equally, of small dense gifts:
the child on that same car
dipping her face into her mother's
that perfect regard.

The Strength of Materials (Wolsak and Wynn 2001)

Rhea Tregebov's poetry comes to me like an invitation and admonition, as if to say don’t miss this! I've tended to focus sometimes too much on writing what my insides looks like. She reminds me to look up also at what's out there. And then to write.

Ronna Bloom is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The More (Pedlar Press, 2017). Her poems have been recorded for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and translated into Spanish and Bengali. She has collaborated with musicians, filmmakers, doctors, students, academics, spiritual leaders, and architects. Ronna is currently the Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital and the Sinai Health System.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Drew Kiser on Sylvia Plath

I started thinking there was something seriously wrong with my body the winter I first heard her voice. An irrepressibly feminine 19-year-old boy, I had a habit of cropping “women things” out of my selfies and redacting them from my fiction—my love of lingerie and long hair had no place in my work, and only homophobic caricatures of gay men still crossed their legs like I did. I strove to pare away any part of me that jeopardized the virility I needed to be modern gay, the Sean Cody machismo I believed was a prerequisite if I ever hoped to earn love. That winter, I couldn’t sleep without imagining a tenderness I feared I was forbidden from. I harassed the guys who ignored me on Grindr. I began drinking in earnest.

Walking into Literature of the 20th Century one November morning, they were projecting the audio from Plath’s 1962 reading of “Daddy” over images of crystal balls, black horses, and undersaturated childhood photos of the author. If the poem is great, Plath’s reading is a masterpiece: her voice is haughty without sounding confrontational, violent without any rage.
I would have given up my legs for that voice. I used to spend hours attempting to correct my own, trying to grind down its insistent, imperious edge, hoping to dock an octave overnight just as cleanly as a breeder clips a Doberman’s tail. In middle school I would listen to men’s voices on TV and try to imitate them, forcing a hollow, floppy alto. It didn’t stick. With Plath, I found a voice whose power I could recognize, the timbre feminine without being soft. I had finally found something in my range.
The rest of the semester found me listening to Plath read “Lady Lazarus” or “Daddy” while sewing or knitting hats. As if the universe could smell my new source of confidence, I met a handsome man in D.C. whose brute charm drew me to the city every weekend as fast as Amtrak could take me. I wrote whole stories based off single lines of hers: “I am a miner” finds a masculine gay man struggling to control his otiose and insouciant boyfriend; “The vampire who said he was you” follows a transwoman in a cabin in winter, staving off real and imagined demons. These were violent, confessional worlds I was styling, more Hieronymus Bosch than Love, Simon, and I shared them with absolutely no one, certainly not my lover. I couldn’t admit I didn’t just like her. In the atavistic reaches of my reptile brain, I had become her.

Because at 19, she was me. Aching for greatness, stressing over boys, and falling victim, on random days, to an oppressive, selective numbness. Not to mention we share a taste in men. She fell for a fellow poet whose physical size stood testament to his literary heft: Ted Hughes, whose bulk promised Plath a warm sort of oblivion. She fell in love, moved camp to the United Kingdom, counted all the trees on their new property and explored her poetic depths with fresh vigor. Years of growth and greatness followed. She started keeping bees. Then, during the coldest winter in British history, Hughes chose the other woman. Betrayed by the embodiment of inconstant masculinity, could I be blamed for seeing, in her pain, my own? Winter feels the same every year.

In March my lover stopped responding. I quickly fell ill. I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone about how raw it hurt, how it felt to wane so suddenly. In desperate need of some structure, I set myself a task: I would memorize two of her poems a week until I felt better. I wrote out the poems by hand, carried them around in my breast pocket, muttered them at the dining hall and during down time between class. Piece by piece, I replaced my voice with hers. I, too, started thinking of myself as “infinitely precious,” a weapon of cruelty, of beauty. When she writes “I do not fear” the pit, it is because she has “been there… I know it with my great tap root,” it’s reassuring. She touched it and survived. That month I wrote about snowy hellscapes, the apocalypse, poison; I killed my lover with an axe, he killed me with a Metro car, and children were plucked from their beds by pale, toothless monsters, never to be heard from again. I got my strength back and, when spring finally came, I started putting flowers in my hair.
It was years before I actually bought Ariel. By then I was wearing more dresses, experimenting with makeup, referring to myself—at least, in anonymous surveys—as trans. What shocked me was not how sharp the poems looked on the page, but how tender. I never noticed “Nick and the Candle-Stick” was sweet, never saw—in “Morning Song”— a paean to love between mothers and daughters. Plath’s reading voice is so fierce you don’t realize the words are lovely. Following her example, I let myself melt, and learned to appreciate my power as well as capacity for mercy.

My ideal silhouette is sharp and slim. My ideal self wears silver. My ideal hair is thick and wound in a chignon. I still struggle to write my truth, still struggle to understand where I fit in a queer world obsessed with guileless manhood. But thanks to her, I am starting to put the pieces together. Across decades, genders, and continents, a voice like hers carries.

Drew Kiser is a writer based in Le Havre, France. His works have appeared in Spider Mirror, Vanilla Sex Magazine, and Maudlin House. He can be reached on Twitter @drewkiser666.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Amy Lauren on Alison Bechdel

For most of my life, I couldn’t stomach the thought of calling myself a lesbian. The word struck my young Southern Baptist ears as forbidden, and I’d only heard it spat from angry men in pulpits, as one would utter a slur. If I ever claimed it for myself, I thought, there would be no recourse.

Like any lesbian in Mississippi, I wanted to want men, seeking the vision for my life long planned before me: the family, the children. Instead, Fun Home answered:

“But how could he…end up saying ‘no’ to his own life? I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”
― Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

In my junior year of college, increasingly more depressed that my attempts to straighten myself out never quite succeeded, I met a girl. She made me blush, and grin, and laugh in a new way. The first time we kissed, I understood why everyone described kissing as so much more than mere obligation.

In an undergraduate creative writing class, I wrote a couple of poems expressing my feelings for her. In writing for class or just myself, I didn’t dare refer to her as my girlfriend. That might prove my lifelong hypothesis and solidify my newfound joy into a serious problem. I wrote about the strain of a strict upbringing against my desires, and at one point nearly cut off my relationship out of fear for my family’s eventual response.

My professor noticed the trend in my writing, an unusual subject among the religious student body. At that point, I was so shy and hesitant to share my writing with anyone that I didn’t speak much, to him or my classmates. But at the end of the semester, he recommended that I read Bechdel’s Fun Home, that it seemed like something I might enjoy. Unfamiliar with the name, I borrowed a copy. Had I known the story ahead of time, I might not have dared to read it. Once I began, however, it was impossible to put down.

"I felt as if I'd been stripped naked myself, inexplicably ashamed, like Adam and Eve."

In the panel accompanying this quote, Bechdel writes of a childhood memory seeing beautiful women on a calendar, and her body responding. The passage resonated in a deep place within me, one neglected and alienated for so long. For so long, it had seemed like surely no one else had shared my queer experiences. After Bechdel described the joy of sex with her first lover with beautiful tenderness, something inside me could no longer buy into the hurtful lies I’d been told about predatory gay women.

Not only did her experiences resemble mine, but her father’s life in the closet also mirrored what I sought, with its opposite-gender marriage and kids. Then her father kills himself. Though Bechdel doesn’t meet her wife in the story of Fun Home, accepting her sexuality answers many of her childhood questions. As Bechdel writes that accepting her identity felt “like finding myself fluent in a language I'd never been taught,” she offered me vocabulary to describe the sensation of kissing another woman.

In her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel offered company on my lonely journey, as I read so many fully developed characters. There were angry lesbians, funny lesbians, kind lesbians, and so many varieties of lesbian. For the first time, I understood the importance of seeing oneself represented in art. For the first time, in art, I saw so many women like myself, and who I could become.

Most of my poetry centers on my experiences as a lesbian, and from time to time, another student at my alma mater will write me to say how much they’ve related to it. “I’m just glad to know there’s someone else like me in this city,” one girl said. If only one person benefitted from my poetry, as I did from Fun Home, that would be more than enough.

The first woman I kissed sits next to me as I write this now, and we’re marrying in exactly three weeks. I'm so thankful to be a lesbian.

A Mississippi poet, Amy Lauren authored Prodigal (Bottlecap Press, 2017) and God With Us (Headmistress Press, 2017). Her poetry appears in publications including Cordite Poetry Review, New Orleans Review, and Sinister Wisdom. Read more at

Monday, April 30, 2018

Tanis MacDonald on Alice Munro

The Writer Next Door

That July, I was fourteen and visiting my lifelong bestie who had moved to London, Ontario. The southwestern Ontario landscape was working its strange humid way on me. I felt hung about with sandbags, encumbered and slow and strangely panicky. It wasn’t because I was not made welcome. On the contrary, my bestie and her two sisters were sweet and accommodating; the youngest gave up her bedroom for me and moved in with her middle sister for the duration of my visit. But I couldn’t quite keep up with the pace of that household; they planned group activities and trips and took photos of the fun we were having. It was so foreign to me: all the money spent, the merrymaking, the bizarre landscape of Ontario Place. I was stunningly, sickeningly homesick. And then there was Alice.
Claiming Alice Munro as an early influence is a bit like claiming God as your co-pilot. Believe me, I know all about praising of Munro’s skill so unequivocally that there’s no room to do anything but agree or pronounce yourself a hater. But where I’m going with this has nothing to do with literary elitism or hero worship. I was sexually assaulted when I was twelve. After that, it was hard for me to be the kid I was supposed to be or the young adult I was supposed to be growing into, because the assault and the incalculable effort it took for me to be a functioning person afterward made me into an old woman almost immediately. Extreme violence is a time machine. It was hard to listen to my parents because they seemed so naïve about the evil that lurked in the world, but I needed their protection for at least six more years until I was eighteen. The term PTSD wasn’t in common use at the time, or at least it wasn’t in use in my grade seven class, and in the manner of vicious but useful irony, my slow shuffle through the world looked like adolescent angst to nearly everyone.
The summer I was staying with my bestie’s family, her mother gave me a book. I don’t know why she did it; maybe she knew that something had to be done about my sadness. The book was Dance of the Happy Shades, and she noted breezily that the author had lived next door for a while. Munro moved to London in 1974, commuting first to York University where she taught creative writing before serving as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. My bestie’s mother was a sophisticate whose girlhood in Montreal marked her as more savvy than the other mothers I knew, so she might have read Dance of The Happy Shades. Then again, she could have bought a copy of the book because she had met the author over their shared back fence.
Though the word “Happy” in the title made me suspicious, I was hooked by the idea of the writer who had lived next door, and I started reading that night. I could not believe what I was seeing. How could this writer do it? How could she write so evocatively about what I knew so intimately but would not say, could not write down, and would never detail even in casual conversation with friends: the everyday but completely private world of outdated appliances and dirty knees and clothes that didn’t quite fit and money that was enough but never really enough and relatives’ farmhouses where I’d be sent to the cellar for a jar of beets or pickles and hear things (mice? snakes?) moving stealthily maybe around the very jar I was about to pick up. How did Alice Munro see inside my head? The book didn’t cure my sadness, though I snapped awake: what the hell was going on in this book about working-class girls that didn’t offer moralistic summaries? I remained out of tune with my bestie’s home life but now I was listening to something else: an external voice that was weirdly, unimaginably interior.
These girls in Munro’s book had their own selves in a way I hadn’t read before. They screwed up and knew humiliation and shame. They were not fake-wise or especially good or innocent, but instead they were solidly real in their puzzlements about being female in an often contemptuous vicious world. The stories also pointed out aspects of masculinity with which I was already familiar: silent exasperated fathers, aggressive boyfriends, creepy older dudes with their come-ons.
I started staring out of the window of my borrowed bedroom at the house next door, the house where Munro had lived; she was long gone, moved to Clinton, Ontario, but I stared anyway, trying to sync up the stories and the place. I re-read Dance of the Happy Shades when I got home, and a year later, I had a huge fight with my boyfriend about Lives of Girls and Women when he made the mistake of assuming he knew the content from a glance at the cover. I’ll never forget his confident know-nothingness and my responding fury. The state of being female was something I had spent most of my life ignoring, but violence had made me acutely aware that being female and ignoring it could kill me. I wasn’t much like Munro’s bold young protagonists, but Munro’s psychic landscape was undeniably mine: embarrassing aunts, sudden violence, ground-down people trapped by their own terrible hope in the capitalist crises of the mid-twentieth century. Munro was at the very start of her career; she would shortly be so lauded that it seems faintly ridiculous now to emphasize the influence of those early books. But at the time, I had never read anything like them.
When I returned to academic study as an adult, lured by feminist theory, I discovered that there was an entire course dedicated to Munro’s work, so I registered and re-read obsessively before the course began. My student colleagues were cavalier; asked why they were taking the course, they shrugged and said it fit their schedule. I was an overachieving ball of class anxiety. When my turn came to say why I had chosen the course, I did not know how to lie or be casual; I said, “I’ve been reading Munro for twenty years.” I saw the professor’s face brighten at the same time as everyone else rolled their eyes.
Everything about Munro – and about me as a reader – is too much: her bazillion awards, her international reputation, the critical footprint made by her many books. My background isn’t that different from any artist who has had their life shaped by violence and its lived contradictions. Reading Munro made me resilient; her observations about injustice and possibility and time allowed me to recognize myself without fear or apology. This took a long time to develop, and when I was seventeen, I thought a lot about Del’s insight at the end of Lives of Girls and Women: “The future could be furnished without love or scholarships.” I thought of this even when I was surrounded by love and scholarships: I knew how quickly things could change.
Munro’s early stories feature women and girls who are recognizably classed in their attitudes and embarrassments: always working-class, always small-town, always aware that there is something they are missing. When I was a younger reader, I liked Munro’s girls and young women because they were enraged by mannerisms and expressions the way I was, because they were as suspicious of people’s motives as I was, because they were whole people trapped in the bodies of minors, and because they suspected the political truth about female oppression but couldn’t quite articulate it, just as I could not. I also liked the way Munro’s young heroines articulated their small revelations without implying that their insight would change their circumstances. I liked how they never hesitated to turn their exacting gazes on older women who acted, by blood or by circumstance, as guides.
Stopped at an intersection in Stratford, on the way to see Seana McKenna in The Matchmaker in July 2012, my mother in the passenger seat of my car, I watched Alice Munro cross the street in front of us. She leaned on a younger woman’s arm, and she looked frail, the way my mother was starting to look. I almost didn’t say anything, but finally settled for a brief declaration of the miraculous. “That’s Alice Munro,” I said, with a casualness I didn’t feel. My mother craned her neck to see. Together we observed Munro’s slow progress across the road. I had nothing else to say. My mother had only three years to live, but we didn’t know that then. My father had been dead for eight years, and my bestie’s mother who gave me the book had died of cancer twenty years before. My abuser, the last I heard, is still alive. I’m clumsy with a narrative stutter the way Munro’s writing never is. I don’t want to belabour the point: I’m just not able to leave it as is.

This essay is an excerpt from Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City, appearing from Wolsak and Wynn in May 2018.

Tanis MacDonald’s memoir in essays, Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City, will be published by Wolsak and Wynn in Spring 2018. She is also the co-editor (with Ariel Gordon and Rosanna Deerchild) of anthology GUSH: menstrual manifestos for our times (Frontenac House, 2018). Her creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared recently in Lemon Hound, Prairie Fire, Event, and The New Quarterly, and is forthcoming in Far Villages: Welcome Essays for New and Beginner Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). Tanis is also the author of three books of poetry with the fourth, Mobile, forthcoming with Book*hug Press in 2019. She is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dominique Russell on Louise Glück

There was a time when all I wanted was silence. Or, rather, silence enveloped me. I don’t know if I chose it or it chose me, but I didn’t want to have to speak. So much had been said already, enough that, surrounded by poems, I could just point to express what I needed someone to know.

It was, of course, the culmination of a habit of silence and observation, a lifelong training in self-effacement, self-denial, shutting up.

Into this silence Louise Glück’s work fell. I don’t know how I discovered her, but once I knew of Ararat’s existence, it was a book I had to have. I sent for it, on my student budget, a beautiful hardcover from the US. It was searing, at a time when I felt wounds open enough to need that kind of cauterizing.

Encased in grief, Glück’s relentlessly harsh voice expressed for me sorrows and fury that I didn’t dare let myself feel. It was like throwing my voice, from an interior silence, from an unknown even to myself. Glück describes my experience better than I can:

I’ll tell you
what I wanted to be—
a device that listened.
Not inert: still.
A piece of wood. A stone.

Guck’s voice is so sharp, it brings to mind cutting, and, as critic Dwight Garner points out, the fact that her father helped invent the X-acto knife is a “cosmically sublime detail:”

I am prepared now to force
clarity upon you.

After or before—I’m not sure of the chronology anymore—I memorized the book, my eldest brother died of a brain tumor. I had traveled back and forth from Toronto to Ottawa to be with him in the eleven months he lived after his diagnosis. I remember him as calm, almost indifferent to his fate, though I know that can’t have been the case. Still, our conversations were flat, mundane. He ate chocolate against doctor’s orders. We went for walks in the woods, holding his boys’ hands. He had staples in his head. We got used to that. You can get used to anything. You quickly adapt, make bargains: ok this. Here and no further. This is ok.

But time and disease are relentless in their advance. As Glück tells us, “there has never been a parent/kept alive by a child’s love.” Nor a brother by a sister’s, nor a friend by a friend’s. It’s a truth you discover every time in the experience of loss. The longing to go backwards, the nostalgia for what seems like the worst time—it was impossible to explain to my circle of friends, untouched then by death. Glück understood, and her cold, harsh voice kept me company in my solitary grief:

She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sick room, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward.

When I wrote my way out of my grief, there was no trace of Glück’s influence. My experience of family, however difficult in the years of my eldest brother’s sudden absence, was of a coming together, of support and of beauty, as my other brother made, and kept, a promise to be there for my dead brother’s children, his infinite patience and hard work holding us together. Despite their theme, there was something sweet in my poems, written over a period of two months of cloistered grieving.

It wasn’t Glück who helped me out of my period of silence definitively, it was a therapist whose ministrations of Reiki and an admonition to write, to just write, just write every day brought me out of a deeper grief, out of a stopping up of guilt and self-loathing.

What has stayed with me from Glück, and what guides my writing like a distant star, is a line from “Lament.” Like most of her work, it can best be understood in the context of the whole poem, so I’ll quote it here:

Suddenly, after you die, those friends
who never agreed about anything
agree about your character.
They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing
the same score:
you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.
No harmony. No counterpoint. Except
they’re not performers;
real tears are shed.

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise
you’d be overcome with revulsion.
But when that’s passed,
when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes
because, after a day like this,
shut in with orthodoxy,
the sun’s amazingly bright,
though it’s late afternoon, September—
when the exodus begins,
that’s when you’d feel
pangs of envy.

Your friends the living embrace one another,
gossip a little on the sidewalk
as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze
ruffles the women’s shawls—
this, this, is the meaning of
“a fortunate life”: it means
to exist in the present.

A fortunate life means to exist in the present. To write from the blessings of love and family, of being alive, a body in this particular time, the small pleasures of taste, hearing and touch, to write about sex and children, with an awareness of life’s fragility and the relentless cruelty of time. It’s not an easy project: an aspiration.

Dominique Russell is an activist, teacher and writer. Her collection, Instructions for Dreamers, will be published by Swimmers Group this year.