In which I discuss the skinny volumes which accompany me on my travels, while the heavier volumes (like Stephen King’s It and an omnibus of Shirley Jackson’s short works) remain at home.
On a late August afternoon, I’m taking the Queen Street streetcar, in the stretch between Beach and Parliament, where the sun always shines hotter. Plus, it’s rained. A short but fierce fall. I’m reading an occasional page in Solmaz Sharif’s Look.
She uses the United States’ Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, which is updated montly to reflect a rapidly shifting landscape of nomenclature. Here, ‘look’ is a term used in mine warfare, to mean “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence”.
Solmaz Sharif plays in the gap between those ink marks on a page and reality. In her poems, “DAMAGE AREA does not include night sweats / or retching at the smell of barbeque” (from “Lay”).
These are the kinds of poems that I need to read with space between them.
“I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness
By shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.
Am I grateful to be here? Someone occasionally asks
If I love this country.”
These thoughts on helplessness appear in “Desired Appreciation”.
Maybe part of reason that I need spaces between these pages is that I am revisiting the question of whether to give up, laying it alongside the idea that this poet is not giving up, determining to read another page, marking for later the question of whether reading is part of giving up.
How this poet, too, uses space on the page is significant. A set of verses which opens “Dear Shahim”.
“Sometimes, I write you
letters I don’t send. I don’t mean
to cause alarm, I just want the ones
you open to
like a hill of poppies.
That space around the hill of poppies is the antithesis of giving up. The letters themselves, too.
Waiting for a bus near the Downsview subway station at the city’s edge, I have Angie Abdou’s The Canterbury Trail in hand.
The airport is across the way and summer haze hangs heavily around the chainlink fence. The characters are celebrating a fresh snow.
Would one have described Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as good reading for a commute, because the characters are travelling as well, because there are many voices and stories within?
Perhaps not. And, really, this isn’t such a skinny book. But this is a story characterized by transience.
In a small way: everyone is heading up the mountain, making preparations (despite the additional burden of a hangover – of various kinds for various characters) and clocking the kilometres away from Coalton.
Also, in a large way: everyone is on the move, looking for an epiphany with which to dot their daily lives.
The eighteen Pilgrims are named in a list on the back of the dedication page (the four-legged characters too) for easy reference, with their handles. Flipping through and scanning the chapter titles, I worried whether I could keep their narratives straight, but even though the focus of a later chapter might be someone new, the surrounding characters may have already been introduced in their respective chapters.
This is the story of a community ultimately (and the connections between the members intensifies as readers gain glimpses of their past too) and this becomes increasingly clear. (Even as, later, one wonders whether it’s more of a story about being alone than being together. Which is surprisingly existentialish, but, then, it’s not so surprising, when you think about it.)
“If you don’t have a story, you don’t have anything.” Paul Ragusa provides the epigraph for the novel’s first part (Earle Birney and E.J. Pratt for the second and third parts, respectively). An Olympian and two poets. Everyone has a story.
Here, rather than religion, many of the characters seek another kind of high; as in Chaucer’s tales, where the travellers ostensibly were driven by their religious beliefs, they were preoccupied with worldly affairs in fact.
The way one chooses to ascend and descend the mountain varies substantially amongst the pilgrims; each has a unique perspective and their motives vary widely. They are not all in pursuit of the pure ascent and descent: some are tagging along and others are obstacles, some lead and others try to take their place while others step off-stage entirely. There are class differences and individuals are judged according to other standards as well.
As a backdrop, the mountain serves as stage but also representative of a more powerful force than any of these individual voices.
What’s in your bookbag today?