Northern Poetry Review: Archived


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Interview: Carmine Starnino (2006)

Carmine Starnino has published Carminethree critically-acclaimed books of poetry: The New World (1997), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the QSPELL Prize for Poetry and was chosen as one of Quill & Quire’s Best Books of 1997; Credo (2000) which won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry and the David McKeen Award; and With English Subtitles (2004) which won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. He is an associate editor at Maisonneuve magazine and Books in Canada, and serves as poetry editor for Vehicule Press. He has also published A Lover’s Quarrel, which collected his reviews and essays on Canadian poetry, and The New Canon, a new anthology of fifty Canadian poets.

Dani Couture interviewed Carmine Starnino in September 2006.

W. H. Auden said, “Every poet has his dream reader: mine keeps a look out for curious prosodic fauna like bacchics and choriambs.” What does your dream reader keep a look out for?

I don’t know – are there readers famished for poems about Old English words, wine presses, and Yukon wildflowers? I rather doubt it. If anything I’ve written has given pleasure I’d like to think it was a pleasure that took readers by surprise. I don’t mean they were expecting (heaven forbid) bad poems, but that only bad poems do what you expect. I always try, one way or another, to provide a fresh entry into things; to offer something readers don’t already have, or can’t find elsewhere. Providing this sort of delight (or trying to, at least) seems to me incontestably important, or why else would readers, with all the other things fighting for their attention, take the time to read a poem? I’m always reminded of ee cumming’s remark that his poetry was in competition with “roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls).”

Auden is, of course, right to suggest that form in poetry can be enjoyed partly for the curiosity of the form itself (the sonnet as a sonnet can be an occasion of relish). But bacchics and choriambs are worthless unless they’re intrinsic to the perception that sought them out: unless they’re necessary for creating a specific kind of meaning, a meaning that those forms – and only those forms – can transform into something recognizable and strange. Somewhere in that realm of recognition and strangeness is, I’d argue, where our best poems exist. But these poems aren’t the sort that a reader can “look out” for because you never know what shape they’ll take (“Ecstasy affords the occasion,” quipped Marianne Moore, “and expediency determines the form.”) I believe in providing certain core satisfactions for the reader: a locus of linguistic energy, a life-line between subject matter and language. But I don’t really believe in “dream readers”. In fact, dream reading sounds like a poor second to the real thing: reading for pleasure, stimulation, and surprise.

So you’ve never fantasized an ideal reaction to your poems – someone reading who reads them and perfectly understands them?

I haven’t, and I don’t. I want those who come to my poetry to be both listeners and interrogators, participants in a sincere, half-skeptical conversation. It’s the same reason I’ve never understood this idea of readers needing to “give themselves over” to a poem. The near-erotic tug-of-war between art and audience – the withholding and relinquishment of affection, the hardening and melting of tolerances – is precisely what’s exciting. It’s a higher form of flirting, the constant fear that readers may not exactly buy what you’re selling is the delicious tension of writing a poem, the dare of it. And it’s that oscillating back-and-forthness that Auden’s premise of the “dream reader” kills. Poets don’t need dream readers, they need real readers – readers who sometimes criticize what they cherish and cherish what they criticize. But we’ve forgotten who these people are. Instead we make ourselves giddy whipping up new art-organisms and poem-shapes – stuff that doesn’t know who or what it’s for. Getting a poem under someone’s skin and lodging it there: does anyone give a fig about that anymore? The theory-speak idea of the “other” has, with its fetishizing of difference, killed any sense of obligation toward the collective experience, the shared sense of what it means to be human. As the late Stanley Kunitz once wrote, the true vocation of the poet is to be a generalist, “a person speaking to persons.” And for me this is the challenge, to burn through the specialism of our art and touch some rock-bottom sense of the reader’s lived experience. And it’s the boredom of that reader, his indifference to any special pleading on behalf of the “originality” of our poems, that keeps our art honest. I find it interesting, if not heartening, that no matter how aggressively certain poets merchandise themselves, the sham of their know-all, invulnerable pose – Wah, MourÈ – shatters the instant it comes in contact with the slightest sensible, layman qualm. I’ve always liked the old-school idea of poetry as simply another kind of reading material that intellectually curious folks can take an interest in. It’s an honorable notion worth preserving, and a welcome corrective to the avant-wankery of our era.

Is it enough for a poem to be a building of beautiful architecture? How much does meaning play a role and is that role completely separate from poetic conventions?

The short answer is no, it isn’t enough for a poem to be beautiful. Poets who prize form above feeling, sound above sense, are not the sorts of poets I find interesting. For me, each line in a poem must ultimately be tested for the information it brings.

The long answer is that the question of “meaning” is complex, because when ideas take poetic form – when they dress themselves in stanzas and line lengths and rhythm – they become indistinguishable from aesthetics. That is to say, what a poem “means” is indistinguishable from the designs and devices used to make that meaning. Good poets are stylists, and it’s the distinctive qualities of their style that generate memorable insights. I’ve just finished an essay on Margaret Avison for a special issue of Canadian Poetry, due out in 2007. Part of the challenge of writing it was pondering how Avison’s religious beliefs got into her poems. How is it that her language-spare, fluid, breath-sensitive, jammed-together, baroque – managed to transmit everything she felt most passionate about: the nature of redemption, the problem of suffering, the Passion and the Resurrection? These ideas seem above the head of most secular readers, but the moment such beliefs are translated into cadence they cease to become beliefs; they become another thing-art. Part of the taste for poetry therefore is the taste for this other thing, for its artificial and formal aspects.

It is very trivial to think that “amateurs” don’t have the taste for this. Those who defend the common reader from poetry often have an odd idea of who this reader is. The subject of accessibility is far more complex, and the reader far wiser, than our current theories are willing to accept. The audience-wisdom which helped establish the worth of certain key poets in our tradition – Shakespeare, Whitman, Frost, Dickinson – did so precisely because of the loveliness of their writing, and not just its meaning.

If you permit me to digress a bit, your question is particularly interesting in context of the pistol-whipping my anthology, The New Canon, has received. The accusation, as voiced by Alex Good and Robin Mathews, is that I’ve published an anthology of poets who’ve turned their backs on the world for the sake of a well-turned phrase. It’s true that with this new generation we find a vigorous reinvestment in verbal resources that were stifled in the seventies; poems that live inside their linguistic action, for whom language is so important it gets the whole of their attention. But if they’re read as works of disinterested artistic play – as Good and Mathews do, in their different ways – it’s because we still have trouble seeing emotion as syntax, as an arrangement of consonant and vowels. What moves me, for example, in Diana Brebner’s anti-cancer cry “Port” (though Patton’s “The Vine Maple” or Steven Heighton’s “Address Book” or Elise Partridge’s “Buying the Farm” might serve my argument just as well) is hardly its sentiment, but the astringent mode of its narrative, the varying tones and tensions of its grief-logic. Poems are driven by emotion, yes, but the poetryness of poetry, if you well, is about finding equivalences between sound and feeling.

Mathews especially seemed quite worked up about the lack of engagement with current issues. But there’s an argument to be made, a good one, that The New Canon represents not a shunning of politics, but a corrective to political rhetoric. The development of a fresh, mettlesome language is itself a rebuke to the dangerous crowd-control cliches our governments feed us. And what’s especially galling is that the book also has exactly what they were looking for. There’s Mark Abley’s eco-mindedness, which we also see in Christopher Patton and Eric Miller. Anne Simpson’s sonnets confront 9/11. Steve Heighton’s “Machine Gunner” is an unnerving depiction of the military mind, and Bruce Taylor’s “Social Studies” is an irreverent, comfort-jolting reassessment of Canadian identity. Walid Bitar is Lebanese-Canadian whose poems provide a deeply ambivalent, unsettling investigation into varieties of 21st political terror – a topic that George Murray’s eerie, surrealistic poems also keep in their sight. Then there’s the brandished subtleties of John Barton’s gay-inflected narratives and the agitated wordplay George Eliot Clarke’s racial anger.

If Good and Mathews are deaf to the moral outcry, political fight or emotional performance in these poems then it’s yet another sign of our continued confusion, as Canadians, at why poetry is written the way it is. To complain that The New Canon poems aren’t “about” anything while pointedly ignoring how the poets’ aesthetic decisions make possible the kind of meaning you seek is obscenely slack reading.

In your lengthy introduction to The New Canon, you wrote, “Poems cannot be radical or conservative; they can only be faithful to the experience they stalk and the formal means they invent to catch it.” That you use the word “stalk” seems to suggest that what is sought isn’t always pinned down. How integral is form to the capture of the moment the poet is attempting to document or recount?

Forgive me for saying this, but I’m tired of all the defeatist talk about poetry. It’s really trendy to mourn about the various ways in which experience defeats language (Lilburn has based his entire solipsistic, ur-shaman career on that notion). More interesting to me than what form can’t do is what it can – and has – done. Words work. That is, they make us cry, laugh. Words can alter ideas, stop them, or mint new ones. It’s true that as a poet you don’t know how a poem is going to turn out, that it rarely turns out how you were hoping it would, and that more often you produce something mindless and ornamental and unnecessary. But it’s amazing how many poems we have that represent life fairly and justly and memorably. Why does that happen? Why does poetry work? What I’ve figured out is good poetry, although grounded in experience, somehow draws a surplus from experience. The creative spree of the exertion, of words being handled, produces an effect over and above what the “message” actually requires. Language doesn’t get in the way of words approximating what we’re feeling – timidity does. Bad poetry, or at least one way of defining it, is poetry that let those gaps or shortfalls spook the language to the point where it fights to a standstill.

So what I meant by “stalk” is the feeling of exulting, of going with it – the skimming-along of discovery, a close-as-you-can-possibly-manage amplification through rhythms and sounds, through lines that are structured to move in ways that reflect what you’re trying to get across. And form alone is responsible for that. Form makes meaning, and makes it stay put. Expressed in drab language, ideas just melt into air. The form need not to be traditional. It can be homemade. Just as long as whatever you’ve jerry rigged is solid enough to apply some structure to the vagueness and carelessness of speech, to create what Yeats called “sweet sounds together.” So when you ask how important form is, it’s a little like asking whether snow melts because of the nature of snow or because of the temperature applied to the snow. We know that the melting snow requires both. Form and content works the same way.

Also in your introduction, you stated that you “urged yourself to love new things”. Is there a particular poem in the anthology that you had to push yourself to appreciate?

Well, I wouldn’t say I “push”, but there are poets I definitely needed to work at. Kevin Connolly is an example of someone I underestimated until Anansi published drift. After reading that book, all the vocal signatures of his poetry – the nimble syntax, the cunning opaqueness and dissonance – suddenly made sense. Same for Eric Miller. He wrote poems in which I could hear a lot going on, but was suspicious of much of it, and it wasn’t until I was putting together the anthology that I could give myself permission to feel its effects. And then of course, there’s the much talked-about inclusion of Christian Bök. Eunoia’s intellectual and emotional settings were all one-trick, but “Geodes” struck me as far more plausible musically. His dry-stone method of fitting words together – and often beautiful image-clusters it created – seemed to have more verity, more cunning, more life. That’s why I put him in the book. In this way, reading for the anthology became a complex relationship between what I knew and what I didn’t. My relationship to poetry has always been an entirely physical one – and like love, you can’t will certain feelings into existence. It’s a coup de foudre. But after a while you get sick of the reflection it gives you of yourself and get antsy. One of the knocks against me, for example, is the predictability of my tastes, which I’ve always found a bit harsh. My tastes have always been betwixt and between. Prynne as much as Pound, Basil Bunting and Stevie Smith, Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas, Christina Rossetti, James Schuyler, Charles Bruce, A.G. Bailey and Anne Wilkinson. I’ve always been attracted to the rogue reputations, the on-the-margin careers, the odd ducks. And so I’m happy to answer that, yes, when it came to the anthology, there were poets – Lezoff, is another example – who not only refused the terms of my expectations, but slightly reconditioned them.

As an editor, do your tastes evolve? Do you think, if you set out to do the same collection in ten years, working with the same age constraint–poets born between 1955 and 1975–you would ultimately choose the same poems again?

As an editor, fixed positions are fatal. To use Don Paterson’s terms, you have to think of yourself as a verb, not a noun. Part of the problem is that it’s very easy to fall back on nounness, to live your life exercising the same intellectual skill set provided by your past enthusiasms. Having said that however, if I’ve done my job then, yes, I would hope that some of the poets would need to be selected again because the work has survived, the poems have stayed good despite my changing relationship to them. So if I could do that in ten years, I would hold my head up high. But there’s no doubt that my interests would shift, and indeed I’ve already fallen out with a few poets in the anthology, poets for whom my honest attempt at a sympathetic reading didn’t “stick”. No reason to name names, but I will say that Jason Camlot, Adam Levin, and Craig Poile are three poets I’d be tempted to include if I had to resurvey the field. I also think I’d take a closer look at Lisa Robertson.


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Review: Seaway

Seaway: new and selected poems, by Todd Swift

Reviewed by Tom Phillips

Gleaned from his four previous collections and garnished with more than a dozen new poems, Todd Swift’s ‘Seaway’ is both a ‘greatest hits’ collection for those who’ve already read this verbally athletic Canadian-born poet at length and a comprehensive introduction for those on the European side of the Atlantic who have had, so far, only the occasional chance to get a taste of his work at the jostling, competitive buffet known as English language poetry. As such, it is long overdue. Swift, after all, has been a tireless champion of a distinctively cosmopolitan, open-minded, post-modernist strand of contemporary writing for quite some time and his work as an editor and ferociously scrupulous blogger in Budapest, Paris and, latterly, London has all too frequently occluded his reputation as a poet with a singular ability to be simultaneously learned, playful and profound. Not for nothing does Salmon Poetry’s Kevin Higgins mention Ezra Pound in his introduction to this book: in his ‘booming’ of others, Swift is tireless; in his own work, he has a similarly joyous, border-ignoring interest in what makes a good poem tick. Fortunately (and unlike Pound), he also shows himself to be smart enough not to be taken in by false messiahs.

‘Seaway’, in short, is the work of someone with a sure grasp of the modernist ‘tradition’ and a healthily inquisitive attitude to what poetry can and can’t do, fired, perhaps, by Auden’s finest posture: “Poetry makes nothing happen.”

Here, then, are poems like ‘Tomsk’, which skitters between post-Soviet tourist information bureau hype and ancient Greece, ringing the changes on Yeats’ Byzantium and deploying language with the same tough relish:

“…the Siberian Athens, known for its lacy wooden

buildings, furs, gold, and universities.”

– Local Tourist Guide

 

What are lacy buildings? Was there ever

a cold Socrates, a Parthenon gilded in ice?

What long poetry, what Pythagorean tears

scattered in these bitter white winds?

What polar bears bit at what rinds?

Did Plato and Aristotle, pulled by a team

of snow-caped malamutes, decamp in Tomsk

to envision gold-smeared Greece

reborn in a frozen swamp, newly lit

by Diogenes’ lamp? Did they flame

the chill-gnawed Siberian landscape

with images of icon and geometry?

 

What exists love says should be:

a dolphin-grey, a book-kissed, city.

Elsewhere, too, there’s ‘The New Fedora’ with its staunchly in-the-moment detail, the formalist neo-romance of ‘Water, Running’ and the breathless ‘The Great Rose Windows’ about the stained-glass wonders of Chartres cathedral. Not to mention the smart one-liners, peppering the whole collection: “Send for the boys who do not care.”

Words matter throughout. That might sound like a very obvious thing to say about a poetry collection but then, when it comes down to it, few contemporary English language collections exhibit the combination of verbal precision and improvisation which Swift deploys in poems like the tour-de-force ‘One Hundred Lines’. We all want some clever, all-embracing metaphor to explain the lives we live now. As ‘Modest Proposal’ from 2007’s ‘Winter Tennis’ would have it of contemporary poetry: “Every word counts, he said. / And then he counted them.”

What counts in Swift’s case, then, is his fashioning of a particular, disjointed sense of ‘the world’ and its difficult relationship with wherever we might call home — home, at various times, being where we were born, where we happen to be living or where we might possibly die. How we exist in several different places at once and survive abstract relationships which nuance our day-to-day relationships with those different places is very much a part of Swift’s subject matter here, the ‘Seaway’ of the title coming to seem like a metaphor for the great architectural changes most of us have no say in determining. Curiously, for all their vertiginous imaginative leaps, reading these immaculately crafted poems and knowing that Swift is out there somewhere fashioning stray experiences into verse makes more of the world seem like home.


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Interview: Robin McGrath (2010)

Born in Newfoundland in 1949, McGrathjust prior to Confederation, Robin McGrath has had a diverse and prolific career as a writer. She earned a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1983 and her first publications were scholarly works on Canadian Inuit literature. By the 1990s, she began publishing fiction and poetry, with Trouble and Desire, a collection of short fiction, in 1995, and Escaped Domestics, a collection of poetry, in 1998. But in the first decade of the 21st century the floodgates really opened for her creatively via Donovan’s Station (novel, 2002), Covenant of Salt (poetry, 2005), and Winterhouse (novel, 2009). As well, she published two collections of folklore from “the Rock”: Nursery Rhymes of Newfoundland and Labrador (2004) and All In Together: Rhymes, Ditties, and Jingles of Newfoundland and Labrador (2009). She has also written young adult novels, the most recent being Livyers World in 2007. On top of this, McGrath has published several works on the province’s history and culture, including Salt Fish and Schmattes: A History of the Jews of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1760 (2006). Coasting Trade, a poetic performance piece, was released as a CD in 2006. Currently, she lives with her husband in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.

As a telling note to this brief bio., I feel I ought to relate the following: Recently, I was looking for her books at a second-hand bookstore in downtown St. John’s and I wasn’t having much luck, even though the store’s shelves were crammed tight. When I asked the shop-keeper if he happened to have any McGrath titles around, he answered, “No. People tend to hold onto her books.” It seems to me that’s one of the finest compliments a writer can receive.

Jacob Bachinger interviewed Robin McGrath via email in the autumn of 2010.

 

You’ve been publishing prolifically for the past ten years, with some years seeing two new McGrath titles.   Has “the Muse” been beating you with an inspiration stick?  

I always thought every writer had an inexhaustible flood of idea and the only thing stopping them was the lack of time to get it all down on paper, but recently I’ve felt the water diminishing.  The ideas are still there but I don’t seem as driven to realize them as I was.  It’s not writer’s block, exactly.  I think it’s related to my moving to Labrador four years ago.  I’ve finished all the things I started before I arrived here but I’m not really ready to start writing from this new place. Labrador is a different country, particularly Central Labrador where I live.  It’s a trapping culture, not a fishing culture.  It’s more like the Yukon than the Avalon. I’ve just finished reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which is set in Central Labrador, and what she knows about trapping you could fit in your eye.  She doesn’t even know the difference between babitch and sinew.  I don’t care how many books she sells, I don’t want to write like that.

In the introduction to All In Together, you write about how so many people that you knew as a child “believed in decorating even the most common exchanges with ditties, fragments of verse, limericks, parodies, riddles, counting games, and catch phrases.”  Do you think that’s particular to Newfoundland and Labrador?  Did those decorations help to make you a poet?  

I don’t think of poetry as “decoration.”  I think I take it more seriously than that.  But perhaps it demystified the genre for me.  As a teacher, I found that a lot of students were intimidated by the idea of poetry–afraid they wouldn’t or couldn’t understand it.  I never worried about that.  If people are quoting Wordsworth or Shakespeare at you all the time, in a context, you eventually figure out what they mean by it.  I think what the rhymes did was show me how narrative and even fairly complex abstract ideas can be boiled down into a compact form.

I think that perhaps oral rhymes and word games are more popular in Newfoundland than elsewhere in North America.  When I was growing up, I met lots of intelligent people who couldn’t read or write, and even today we still have the highest rate of illiteracy in the country.  In a place like that, oral poetry can flourish. I read somewhere once that Newfoundlanders have a greater active vocabulary than people in other parts of the country–we know and use 30% more words than CFAs [Come-From-Aways], and of course many of those words were invented by us, which is why we need our own dictionary.  I’ve heard it said that Inuit “speak” poetry.  I think Newfoundlanders do too.  You just have to listen to a really lively conversation between two locals in a bar or down on the wharf and you will hear poetry, not all of it in rhyme.

You’ve collected a number of nursery rhymes in particular.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s something disappearing from the lives of children today.  Do you think children still receive rhymes and ditties? 

I’ve collected plenty of rhymes from children, so I can’t say they are disappearing from their lives, but I do think there was a fracturing of the tradition at around the time televisions became universal, in the late 1950s. It’s like alleys, what you might call marbles.  When I was a kid, everyone owned alleys, and played a variety of games with them.  They are still widely available in any dollar store you go into and I expect alleys can be found in just about every household in North America, but I don’t see kids playing with them.  They are used for flower arrangements or something.  I saw some the other day on someone’s dining room table, and they were for bazzing at moose in the vegetable garden.  Sooner or later, though, some kid is going to figure out a new game for them and we’ll see kids playing alleys again. Parents and teachers assure me that kids invent and quote plenty of rhymes, but they are ruder than they used to be.  I doubt that—we knew plenty of rude ones.  If there’s a gap, it’s in the dissemination of more classical rhymes and poems.  Nobody is learning the type of verse you used to find in the old Royal Readers.

In the early stage of your career, you focused on scholarly studies of Canadian Inuit literature.  Does Inuit literature have an influence on your poetry?

It certainly gave me an appreciation for orality, which most likely led to my rhyme collecting, and it definitely led me to see humour as an important element of poetry.  Inuit use humour to sharpen even the most serious subject.  Death, despair, impotence, starvation, are all subjects Inuit poets deal with, and there’s always a touch of wit or self-deprecation there.  I think I would have been afraid to bring the ridiculous to my observations of the sublime if it hadn’t been for my familiarity with so many brilliant Inuit poets.

A theme in Escaped Domestics, which is further developed in Covenant of Salt, is the connection between Jewish traditions and Newfoundland traditions. Could you tell me more about this? 

Most people see Newfoundland and Labrador society as homogenous, and I’ve read that in textbooks too, that we’re all white Irish.  That simply isn’t true.  We have aboriginal heritage, Jewish and Lebanese ancestors, Italian and Norwegian, some Chinese.  It’s true there aren’t a lot of black people in our family trees, but there’s plenty of French, Welsh, you name it.  In my own case, my connections are Jewish so that’s what emerges in my work.  Newfoundland and Labrador is an overwhelmingly Christian society, but of course the old Testament is incorporated into Christianity so you might say I focus on the older elements of the tradition.

We’ve talked of traditions that have had an influence on your work, but what about individual poets?  Whose work is important to you? 

I grew up with significant exposure to the 18th and 19th and early twentieth century poets–the usual stuff found in most anthologies or undergraduate courses–Pope, Wordsworth, Blake, Browning, Yeats and so on.  I was made to memorize reams of their stuff.  I liked it then and I still do.  But I think I’ve been more directly influenced by modern Canadian poets–A.M. Klein, Pat Lane, Alden Nolan, and Al Purdy.  Particularly Purdy.  We were good friends, and it was Al who made me write things down instead of talking out my stories and poems.  He used to clap his hand over my mouth when I got launched on something that obviously deserved more writerly attention and he’d say “send it to me in the mail.”  So I did, and that’s how I started to make the transition from academic to creative writing. The Newfoundland poets that I admire and go back to are the late Irving Fogwell, and more recently Mary Dalton, Don Austen, Agnes Walsh, and Tom Dawe.  I think Carmelita McGrath (who is not related to me, though we come from the same part of the island) is greatly underrated. Like me, she writes in a variety of genres, which may account for that.  Perhaps people see us as dabblers.  We aren’t.

You’ve said that you feel your poetry is your most successful work.  Do you still feel that way, especially now that you’ve had a few novels behind you? How do you define that success? 

I don’t remember having said that but perhaps I did.  I probably meant my most “satisfying” work rather than successful. I’ve won some awards and sold some books and reviewers have been kind, but I’m hardly a popular success.  However, I do feel that my poetry has legs.  I don’t go back and reread my own novels or histories unless I have to for some reason, but I still like some of the poetry I’ve written and I enjoy reading it to an audience.  I dislike reading from my fiction and non-fiction, but I actually look forward to poetry readings because I can feel the approval coming from the listeners.  They laugh, they nod. I often get spontaneous applause, so I know other people are getting what I’ve done.  I’m no intellectual, despite my academic success, so my poetry is accessible.  Ordinary people understand me.  It would be terrible if all poets were like that, but there’s room for a few of us mere mortals.  I’d love to be like Mary Dalton.  Some of her stuff is so hard you could break your teeth on it, but she can also write poems that your average fishplant worker can understand and appreciate.

I have some trouble believing that the water is diminishing for you. May I ask what you’re working on now?

I’ve spent much of the last six months working on Hammered by the Waves, my late father’s translation of Henri de la Chaume’s travel journals. It’s in the book stores now, though it hasn’t been formally launched, so I’ve only just got clear of that and I haven’t started on a new book yet. I have an idea for a novel set in St. John’s in 1959, but it needs more thought and a lot more research, so I don’t know if it will happen or not. In the meantime, I plan to spend much of the winter working on my press. I have a Vandercook SL15 letterset galley press, on which I can set type and print linocuts. I’ve just finished a series of 18 linocuts for an exhibition, so now I’d like to do more text printing. I find typesetting concentrates my mind. Some of the fonts I have are fairly limited, and I find myself thinking “does this line really need all those vowels?” or “why do I need to include the word zombie when I’ve just run out of the letter zed?” I have a theory that if poets had to typeset all their work by hand, they would write a lot less and the poems might be better. Ask me at the end of the winter if that’s true.


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Review: Between Dusk and Night

Between Dusk and Night, by Emily McGiffin

Reviewed by Lori A. May

In Emily McGiffin’s textured collection, Between Dusk and Night, we are challenged to find meaningful connection between humanity and nature, a renewed respect between Human and Earth.

There is a weighty loneliness to these poems. McGiffin’s speaker drifts in and out of her own life, and in and out of remote landscapes and riversides, searching for immediate and long-term purpose. Quirks of the human mind and an observation of human behavior intertwine in a kaleidoscope of listlessness; in “Setting Out,” the subject reaches her breaking point and distances herself from the physical and mental chain that has been weighing her down — all the while admitting her escape is likely the first of many, as we so seldom outrun ourselves.

This search for meaning, the hunt for satiation of desire and want is explored in “As Air.” The first two stanzas express the desire for personal peace, the longing for freedom within the prison of skin, the weight of being human:

If you could know how I crave

weightlessness,

 

the state that is almost

non-existence.

McGiffin delights with her use of white space and imagery combined to create a tantalizing visual on the page. Too, with precise enjambment, the poet shifts meaning from one verse to the next. As an example, in “Wokkpash,” the poet brings to life the isolation of driving along a barren highway and the uncertainty the day brings:

…there is no one

here. Tomorrow does not exist.

The overall tone of the collection sees McGiffin feverishly trying to connect us humans with our Earth and open sky. In “Note on Astronomy,” vastness is observed and noted alongside our insignificance and inability to truly consume the life around us:

It’s what we’ve hoped for:

a means of converting the deep cold dark

to a friendly giant….

Mixed in with succinct verse is the hybridization of poetry-meets-prose; in “Insects in Lamplight after Rain,” paragraphs and dialogue unfold unexpectedly into a six-page narrative. Yet the reader needn’t be jolted from the absence of verse; McGiffin eloquently employs her poetic technique and emphasis on language throughout this sojourn, pushing form and bridging genres.

Language is, indeed, the heart of McGiffin’s delivery. In “After a Journey,” the poet examines what is spoken outside of human language, again connecting Earth with her people:

There is a language roots write through the soil;

you’ve begun to learn it, pressing your ear

night after night to the earth

until their words are almost of your body

after so much conspiring with your sleeping bones.

Subjects fade in and out of dusk, fog, and orderly existence. As readers, we navigate the terrain laid out for us, consumed in its labyrinth of realities, ever-reminded of our insignificance as humans, but comforted by our shared loneliness and the ever-present guardianship of Earth.

Between Dusk and Night exposes the vulnerability of humankind and explores our miniscule presence amid natural wonder. While the poems speak to our isolation amid one another, and indeed from the living things around us, there is a comforting resolution suggested, buried beneath loose grains of earth if only we seek to uncover it. While McGiffin paints humankind as disconnected and ever-seeking companionship, in this collection nature is personified and wildlife comes to speak, guide, and influence strangers in their paths, “unseen but sharing, for a small time, the same journey.”


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Interview: Suzanne Buffam (2010)

Suzanne Buffam was buffamborn and raised in Canada. Her previous collection of poetry, Past Imperfect, was published by House of Anansi Press, and won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry published in Canada that year. She lives in Chicago, and teaches at the University of Chicago. Her new poetry title this year is The Irrationalist.

Alessandro Porco interviewed Suzanne Buffam in August, 2010.

 

Hi, Suzanne. I’d like to kick off the interview by asking about the book’s title. In the poem “Trying” you provide a gloss on one source for the book’s title: in his Poetics, Aristotle says that “it is exclusively the irrational upon which the wonderful depends for its chief effects.” But it seems there’s something else at work in your own take on the irrational: rather than a condition of exceptionalism, the irrational, as it plays out in your own poems, is kind of ordinary. Could you maybe talk about the title more, and that interplay between poetry, irrationalism, and the ordinary?

Well, I do think Aristotle’s onto something when he points out the uneasy relationship between the faculties of reason and wonder. I just happen to find ordinary things like streetlights and clouds no less wonderful than exceptional things like killing your father and sleeping with your mother. While everything may ultimately boil down to some single, elegant, mathematical equation, there still seems to be an excess of mystery in the universe that can’t be accounted for by reason alone. Poetry, as I see it, is a way of exploring this excess.

As for the title, I’ve been struck by how many reviews so far have pointed to that quote from Aristotle as providing a key to the book’s general stance. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the title, but at the same time I hope to write poems that don’t resolve into paraphrasable maxims. There are lots of quotes from various folks in the book, some quite contradictory with one another, and the book’s title, as I envision it, gives me license to hold conflicting views at once without worrying about whether or not they resolve into any coherent philosophy.

You’re totally right that the book cannot be contained by that single quote — in fact, that’s what motivated my question, as you’re poems continually resist pathologizing the irrational in a way that’s, well, inevitable in Aristotle’s structuralism. So what’s interesting is precisely your swerve away from Aristotle’s definition. Having said that, I do want to push the idea of the ordinary and everyday a little more, but talk about those ideas in terms of form and genre — in particular, the anecdote, which you seem to be the master of inserting at just the right moment and of making matter in unexpected ways. For example, there’s the little tale of Harriet Beecher “on the Tunisian front” in the poem “Placebo”; or, in “Trying”, talk of Schopenhauer’s walks. Can you talk a little about this aspect of your work?

Thank you for swerving away from Aristotle’s structuralism. I’m much more comfortable talking about “the ordinary.” As for anecdotes, I tend to read in a pretty erratic way — say, a book about heaven one week, a book about the concept of zero another—and often what catch my eye and stick in my memory are stories like the ones you mention above. There’s something about little snippets of individual lives –especially the lives of famous or eccentric individuals (lives that otherwise seem so remote) — that contain the texture of lived experience and embody a feeling in a way that no abstract formulation could ever achieve. When I come across something I’m drawn to, even if I don’t know why (and often I don’t), I’ll write it down and carry it around in my notebook until I find the right home for it. This sometimes takes years. The anecdote about Henry Beecher (a distant relative of Harriet’s, as a matter of fact) came from an exhibit I saw about pain at an art gallery in Berlin several years ago. I had no idea where or if or how I’d ever use it, but I found it extremely suggestive, and one day when I was reading William James’ The Will to Believe something clicked and the rest of the poem, “Placebo,” began to constellate. Recently at a reading I gave in Ontario, a woman in the audience pointed out that the poems in my first book are more rich in images than my new poems (and therefore, in her opinion, superior!), and I think she’s probably right — about the images, at any rate. To some extent, it seems that here anecdotes may have replaced images — but perhaps work in similar ways. It may simply boil down to that fundamental principal, “show don’t tell,” that writing teachers are always hammering down. Stories are a way of showing — even when you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re being shown.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say a more rich imagery in Past Imperfect automatically renders it superior to The Irrationalist (with all due respect to said audience member). I find the latter— image rich or not— far more compelling than the former, for what it’s worth. Maybe, as you say, anecdotes have replaced images, but I actually think it’s something else: a more cerebral wit (which isn’t to say passionless) takes hold in The Irrationalist, especially in a sequence like “Little Commentaries.” I think that’s the quality I most admire in the collection. Would you agree? And could you talk about “Little Commentaries” a little.

Thanks, Alex. That’s nice of you to say. I don’t feel able to judge the quality of wit in these poems myself, but I’m happy to talk a little about them in practical terms. I wrote them over the course of a few months, usually several a day, on a sort of sabbatical in Mexico, after a long dry spell of not writing much at all. The title had been on my mind for several years — copped from the title of Copernicus’ radical little pamphlet, Commentariolus, a model of intellectual compression in which he lays out an early version of his heliocentric theory of the universe in about forty hand-stitched pages, passed around among his friends. Basically, the aim of this sequence was to compose the most compact, and most surprising, poems possible on a range of topics so vast and various as to demonstrate that, as Copernicus’ theory makes plain, “there is no one center of the universe.”

I’d like to shift gears a little. The Irrationalist is published in American and Canadian editions: the former with Canarium books, the latter with Anansi. There are some textual variations — not in the poems themselves but in the overall presentation (e.g. blurbs, notes). Most notably, each edition has a unique cover. Could you talk about your decision to publish the two editions? I’m especially fascinated by the cover images, each framing one’s reading of the book in a different way.

The decision to publish two editions was based on the fact that I’ve been living in the U.S. for going on seven years now — and therefore feel myself increasingly engaged with the literary community here — and / but still feel very much invested in literary life in Canada as well (I grew up in Vancouver, studied in Victoria and Montreal, and lived for a while in Nova Scotia as well). Unfortunately, unless you are very famous, like, say, Anne Carson or Margaret Atwood, and in spite of considerable in-roads made possible by the internet, the border between the two cultures remains fairly impermeable. This may in part be due to a sort of provincialism that applies on both sides of the border — but I think as likely results from the sheer abundance of presses, large and small, that are publishing poetry these days, and thus the near impossibility of getting one’s bearings in a literary landscape outside of one’s own. My first book, for example — published exclusively by Anansi — received a wide readership and generous reviews in Canada, but was really only read down here by friends or friends of friends. This time around I’ve been lucky to retain my relationship with Anansi — a press I love and respect — while forging a new relationship with an exciting new press, Canarium Books, down here in the States. The two editions contain a number of minor variations — as you point out, there are notes in the Canadian version, and none in the American; the blurbs are different; internal layout is different; there is even one extra poem in the Canarium version; and, of course, the covers are so different they must necessarily inform somewhat different readings of the work inside. Having put the book together from the inside out, though, it’s very hard for me to gage just what these differences might amount to. As much as packaging is important, though, my long-range image of the book consists of torn scraps discovered in the belly of a moose.

Well, thank you, Suzanne, for answering questions about The Irrationalist. To end the interview, I was hoping you could talk a little more about your time living and learning in the United States, as a Canadian — you are, of course, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and currently you teach at the University of Chicago. A few years ago, on a conference panel, I suggested that much Canadian poetry is, in part, produced by way of American institutions, a fact that debunks (or at least upsets) nationalist arguments in favor of a distinctly Canadian aesthetic or phenomenology. (Naturally, the idea wasn’t warmly received — at least not by Canadians, anyway.) But I think your work is a good case-study for what I was describing. Any thoughts? And thanks again for your generous answers!

Well, Emily Dickinson was an American poet who read almost exclusively British writers: Keats, Shakespeare, The King James Bible . . . Did this make her any less American?


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Review: Reticent Bodies

Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani

Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig

 

New poetry collections lacking craft yet overripe with irony and self-regard are, sadly, ubiquitous. Conversely, those that do not trigger a chorus of snores or complaints are few and far between. That one of those ‘few’ might even sit a reader up straight in her chair, or tilt her perspective of the world, seems too much to expect. However, four years ago in Lichen Arts & Letters Preview, Toronto’s Moez Surani published work that hinted at a writer worth keeping an eye on. Now, his debut book of poetry, Reticent Bodies, shows that he has been honing an imaginative and imagistic use of language, as well as developing his own ‘tilt factor.’

The collection is comprised of four parts. The first section, “Kingston Poems”, leaps into the hyper-imagistic, using an epigraph snipped from Neruda’s “I’m Explaining A Few Things” as its gateway. With both stage and mood set, Surani’s “The Captain’s Garden” begins:

11:30 pm

Carry myself across the library

hold open his volume

read and reread

something revolving

as I revisit the line caught

in a pencilled circle and the tug

of a woman’s adjoining scrawl

 

This is what’s happened to us […]

 

Just as the late-night silence and “the tug of a woman’s adjoining scrawl” has “caught” the narrator, the tight focus and the mystery behind “what’s happened” catches the reader.

If well-crafted poetry demonstrates skill with form, music / play in language, and layers of meaning or mood, Surani has a good grasp of the tools of his trade. He captures singular moments like this first one, building a larger tableau, with poems that are not the long lyric. Rather, they lean toward pared-down necessary elements that work toward a flash of clarity.

The second poem, “‘A Quiet Man’”, attempts to recreate what photographer Eugene Louie (who is quoted at the end) failed to capture on film — the image of the Tibetan Thupten Ngodup, who, in 1998, publicly protested China’s occupation of his homeland by setting himself on fire. The result is powerful and painful.

Body expanding into bright rhythms

arms raised

carrying the amorphous billow

spine flinging this way

and that loosening

minute bones that

slept within neck

 

a shrieking lamp

 

dancing in New Delhi

 

Ankles flipping

like coins

 

Ankles snapping

like a shutter

eyelid or

tip of pen releasing and

 

slamming back into case

 

Expanding and contracting on itself, the poem evokes sound as well as picture, and toward the end, echoes of Atwood’s hook-and-eye poem can be detected. The final five lines replay in the mind with a violence that’s difficult to ignore.

Throughout “Kingston Poems” Surani explores a variety of forms, lengths and situations. He examines and documents moments ranging from the contemplative (as in the first poem) to the revelatory (such as “Transit Friend”, about a fellow streetcar traveller) to the stenographic (“The Necessary Questions”, in which the poet magpies an overheard discussion between a writer and a reader). Striking images are plentiful: “All night // blowing rain // suicidal acrobats / weaving through high branches”, “His is a dignity I believe to be sewn into his chin”, and “leaving me / in my basket of laughter.” Even more tantalizing are glimpses of ‘off-the-wall’ set amid controlled intensity. The poem “The Missing Exchange” is a good example. It begins with the hilarious observation

It has occurred to me

that Jane Austen persistently avoids

talk of massive erections dragged

like luggage through the house […]

Halfway along, the comic shell of this piece cracks open — a reveal heightened by precision of word choice and uncomfortably placed line breaks.

There is never any rupture in the

manners that chain the air like

humidity. No

garden relief

 

after shoving glares.

The frantic couple

miming hallelujah

and cartwheeling off together […]

 

This is now tragicomedy charged with the toll of emotional restraint, confronting the desperation of

[…] that reserved man

dragging himself from the kitchen

pulling free of his trousers

his pained whisper,

 

“Yes, my love.

I told you it was all in bloom.”

 

Then once again the mood modulates into “Several Idiomatic Demonstrations Of ‘Carbuncle.’” Multiple riffs redefine the word, egging on the reader to join in the fun. Something darker surfaces, but resubmerges too quickly to be identified.

Somewhere near Clarington, the engine began to carbuncle […]

 

When she drinks too quickly she enters that familiar carbuncular sphere.

 

“Breaking up with me because you hold some sort of grudge against

women for original sin is ridiculous — it’s a fucking myth — you get

angry for no particular reason and shut everyone out — “ “Carbuncle,”

he muttered, leaving the room.

The second section, “Fictions”, brings the reader to an interlude of sorts. It consists of two sequences that drop articles and dismantle poetry into a loose gathering of short lines and broken phrases. The first, “Ally Dolle” — with its mention of Etta James, 12-bar blues, and nightclubs, and its soundbite feel — evokes a bluesy, rhythmic mood that borders on the hypnotic, even though its narrative tends to the obscure. “White Tub”, the next sequence, slides into a more personal, almost hermetic space. “Some moods // cannot be re-visited with comedy / so they’re left to accumulate. / Tableaux of grim mannequins / figures stunned from dialogue.”

The final two sections, “Poems Against England” and “Reels of Joy”, have the feel of the unplanned roadtrip, with visits to allusive literary and global locales. Gravity and direction often seem relegated to the backseat, but the result can be amusing, as in “Packing For Montreal” where “the apples […] are upset that I am leaving. / They have been ignoring me.” The ride can also be intense — a trip to Moscow prompts ruminations on Anna Karenina, “men throwing themselves into trains” and “one / hundred sessions of rushed love.” And when the reader arrives at “ — The Last Poem / I Can Remember With Any –”, in which the narrator asks “What has happened / to Ondaatje’s Vietnam poem,” then goes on to describe “their pitch // irritating my slim glass my slim date / attempting casual gestures but // intrusive torso shoulders blocking / conversation then falls with the cloth upset // -ing soup and maitre d’ hand apologies / hauls away the exhausted // sack of hysteria and my girlfriend […]”, it is clear that language has stubbornly taken the wheel and a breathless, experimental momentum has been reached.

Throughout the book, epigraphs and allusions to the (mostly Western) canon testify to a string of influences — Neruda, Eliot, Flaubert, Rilke, Lowell, Kant, Basho, and numerous others. As with many first collections, they also signify the young poet’s literary rite of passage. While it is a natural and worthy progression, by book’s end the constant reminders of that journey can become tiresome. Twice “Was ist Aufklärung”, referencing Immanuel Kant’s essay of the same name, might sidetrack the unfamiliar reader off the intended trail. Eliot’s “Prufrock” resonates loud and clear within “How Do You Imaginate The Future”

Let us buy

a red boat

 

you

& I

 

and push it

into bluest water.

 

The colours will be elemental

(‘yellowest sunlight’)[…]

 

without doing anything astonishing to it. And the poem “Debt” is little more than a deep bow to Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” — the first two of its four brief stanzas are identical, and unfortunately, homage for its own sake is not enough.

The book’s second half is less compelling than the first. In part it’s due to a weakening sense of direction and weight. Poems here appear more anecdotal, less purposeful, and there is a perceived distancing from deep emotion. A sense of this is encapsulated in the poem “Realpolitik”: “I will not mourn the dying and deformed / because an idealist cannot be happy. / And I want to be happy.” The lessened impact also stems from the presence of a handful of ephemeral and unstartling pieces — for example, “Debt” (aside from its aforementioned homage), “Nocturne,” “Untitled 2,” and “Leonard Cohen” (more homage) — which simply don’t carry their weight in the grander scheme. As well, a few confounding semantic miscues — e.g. “what I have done is march my intellect in moods / across the length of a dime […]” and “[r]olling / and rolling in / cones of sleep” — fail to produce immediate, clear imagery. Nevertheless these remain relatively minor quibbles when looking at the whole and what it promises for subsequent collections.

All in all, Reticent Bodies is a heartening discovery, and each subsequent reading will yield a quiet pleasure. Just as his work four years ago suggested, Surani is a writer striving to express his view of the world in his own way, and he’s finding his ‘tilt.’ Readers will anticipate more.


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Review: The Scare in the Crow

The Scare in the Crow, by Tammy Armstrong

Reviewed by Jason “Ocean” Dennie

 

The title of Tammy Armstrong’s fourth collection of published poetry, from Goose Lane Editions certainly offers a hint as to what we can expect inside from this GG Award-nominee. From the opening pages of The Scare in the Crow, it is clear the reader will accompany the poet down some shadowy country roads.   Morose and morbid are two apt adjectives that best characterize the tone in these poems. There is very little sunshine throughout her five chapters — a “grotesque menagerie” of dim skies, funerals, formaldehyde, zombies and goitres bleed forth from her pen instead.

The only chinks in her brooding Dickinsonian armour seem to appear in canoe trips up and down the river or when she is out slogging around with her dogs. The poem, “Canoe Lessons” is deftly peppered with well-crafted imagery such as the “corrugated river,” “knock-kneed docks,” and the “apologetic stillness of islands.” Natural settings like these are the backdrops that figure predominantly in the book, thought they aren’t situated in the deep wilderness but instead border “homes where nobody comes out — all the rooms beaming lilac television glow.” It is nature revealed along ski trails and shorelines and perhaps deep in big back yards that span acres. Credit is certainly due for attempting to pen a book of moody nature poems, for it isn’t a simple task, and the feel-good sentimentality typically associated with the genre is often ridiculed in the poetry world.

It’s a nearly impossible task to quantify the vagaries of the wilderness, so our dalliances with its outer limits must sometimes serve as a reasonable compromise. Armstrong recognizes this in her poem, “On Renaming Mountains” where her bull moose “offers no allegory.” This recognition of a poet’s limitations, however, finds her exacting very little solace from this half-world of hers. There is not much in the way of conjured emotions in the poems beyond a tranquilized indifference. A case in point is the final piece in the book, entitled “Where it Softened,” which recounts having fallen through thin river ice. One would think that such a traumatic event like this would leave a person with some emotional reaction — surrendering to the drama or some wistful insight into its wider significance. Instead, only a hint of this leaks out when she writes:

by the time we reached the road

 

something gave,

wind spooled through the fir boughs foreign.

 

This, outside, stilled my complaining

A reviewer by the name of Jacqueline Turner once described Unravel (a previous collection by Armstrong) as “heavy with words”, and it’s easy to agree. Poets are naturally lovers of words — they have to be — but there are times poets cross into a perplexing verbosity that leaves readers frustrated and befuddled. Words that have a low frequency of usage need not always be the default literary choice. Say it and mean it, but don’t flaunt the fact you have a thick dictionary weighing down the corner of your desk. Most readers of poetry are not bumpkins, but words like glossolalia, octavalent and sobriquet run the risk of not winning people over to the poem. “He croups a threnody” was one of several severe head-scratchers encountered in the book. Perhaps in a self-conscious slip, she writes in “Here: Soft-footed” that “my words are never my own these days.”

How long readers will remain interested in this volume will depend on how long they choose to prolong their own discovery of the poet’s morbid curiosity with the dead, the ravaged. Her stellar ability, however, to tease poetry from seemingly mundane objects could be enough to satiate a majority of the readership. Particularly impressive are her ruminations upon unattractive considerations we may normally take for granted such as graffiti beneath a bridge, a motorcycle tarp, even fibreglass geese dangling from the ceiling of a downtown shopping centre.

Most of the poems in The Scare in the Crow require at least a second, if not third reading, in order to digest the full import of the message behind them. Few of them really grab you on the first go. A number of pieces are in fact entirely disorienting right from the start, as if the reader is cutting halfway into a conversation that the poet is having with someone else. Armstrong writes as if we are already familiar with the intimate contours of her world. Nevertheless, there are still several powerful pieces that do make this collection a worthy enterprise and a fulfilling read. “Hyla Amphibia” is a strong piece that recounts the rescue of wayward frogs from a construction site. The underdog analogies of “Porcupine” will also win readers over (“the one rejected with tisking tongues”), as well as “Girls with Sharp Scalpels”, another ‘amphibious’ poem that takes us back to high school biology dissections.

“Up-river a House Breaks from Its Foundation” is a brilliant poem, perhaps the best of the bunch. Its tantalizing imagery spurs the reader on to wanting more, disappointed the poem is only a page and a half long. As a derelict house floats down the river, Armstrong writes,

a bungalow drama.

half-sunk in turbined slew,

shambolic patio furniture

thistled with shadow,

new kitchen curtains waving queeny goodbyes:

some envy in that kind of leave-taking.

 

Gifted lines that pack a punch from other poems include some of the following:

your mind, once steadied before the rift, was an eroded vesper (“From Fundy Bank”)

doe-eared shadows henna the hunter moon (“And She is No Stranger Now”)

twitch light spindled swampland cottonwood (“Where They Don’t Belong”)

the fetishes of our extinct gods (“Beauty to the Alligator’s Beast”)

All in all, a worthy and admirable undertaking that deserves attention if one cares to spend time sitting with the crisp melancholy of Armstrong’s fantasia.