Monday, April 30, 2012

Intersecting Sets

Intersecting Sets: A Poet looks at Science / Alice Major
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2011.
xvi, 276 p.

I thoroughly enjoyed this set of 11 essays exploring the intersection of poetry and science. These two subjects, as well as their interactions, are two of my absolute favourite things; I love to study the neuroscience of reading literature, for example. This book was very satisfying -- literary and poetic in style, it also had a high level of "scienticity", as Major develops her themes in various areas of biology, linguistics, physics and more.

Major's premise is that for too long, Science and Art have been considered separate spheres, at odds with each other, or perhaps even antagonistic. Scientists and Artists are assumed to hold competing worldviews. Major posits, however, that the separate worlds of Science and Art are more like a Venn diagram, with lots of commonality -- points of which she explores in her essays here. Or, as the title states, she's exploring the Intersecting Sets of Science and Art.

She's a poet who was turned on to physics at a young age, thanks to reading Martin Gardner's book on Relativity, and is able to draw parallels between the literary arts and many areas of science in a very natural way. The chapters range in subject matter and tone, connecting varied areas of science and poetry, but are entirely comprehensible and sparked more and more new ideas... kind of like a fractal pattern in themselves. I really loved the chapters dealing with physics and with neuroscience (my particular areas of interest). But I learned something with each entertaining and thoughtful essay, which to me is the sign of a great read. This is one of those books I classify as "dinner party books", since you learn so many tidbits to dazzle others with at your next dinner party! (I have a whole shelf of those)

She does not claim to be a science writer, merely a poet who is interested in science, one who has kept up on developments in her layperson's role. I am also a bookish individual with a strong interest in science, and I don't think that discussions of such should be limited to "professional" scientists or science writers. Both poetry and science allow for new understandings of our world, and new ways of seeing, even if from different angles. Major's particular angle is that of a longstanding poet, and her vision of how the 'dreamy' world of poetry and the 'rational' world of science intersect was compelling. The essays do not form a rigorous argument as to any one "side" but rather range widely and expose the reader to new ideas as they arise in many contexts. I liked this approach, as it provided room for the reader to graze and discover things that they might not even realize they were interested in.

I found this book enjoyable and thoughtful. The references to scientific studies and concepts had me making notes about things to look up and learn more about. The references to creating poetry had me thinking more deeply about the collections of new poetry I've been perusing lately. And the way in which Major concludes that poets and scientists must both develop “the ability to simultaneously maintain conviction and doubt” seemed to me a description of the educated mind in general. She finishes by suggesting that the separation of poetry and science is facile, that rather than being emotion vs. rationality, both areas are full of emotion. It's an element of human life that can't fail to colour everything we do, whether we acknowledge or deny it.

(a final note: as usual with the University of Alberta Press, this book is printed on 100% recycled post-consumer paper. It also includes acknowledgement, by name, of the copyeditor & proofreader. UAP, always classy!)


For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Quick notes

Just dropping in for a quick chat tonight...I have numerous book reviews half written, and numerous books half read! Do you ever get so busy that days meld into one long stretch and before you realize it a week, or two, has gone by? I don't usually let myself get that busy but things happen, as we all know.

Looking forward to a nice weekend to post some reviews in but until then, quickly sharing some amusements of the last while  --

Best spam lately: "The full-grain leather with Nubuck wealthy was featured in the arrival of the shoe to guarantee the perfect supremacy of the shoe.A strange intonation was featured in the collar and chase and outsole of the shoe to offer celebrated visual effection to people." (doesn't that make you want to see this mythical product??)

Best movie I've seen lately: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I knew next to nothing about it when I put it on..and I LOVED it. If you too are a fan of the Paris of the great bookish 1920's, I'll bet you will really enjoy it also. Very fun for readers and romantics.

Best bookish character name: Mr. Barbecue Smith from Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow

Best use of collective nouns: an amazing, artistic and beautiful set of alphabet flash cards, using collective nouns -- A Raft of Otters, by Woop Studios. I want. Also as posters!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing Superstitions

As part of the celebration of National Poetry Month, Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit created a blog tour and giveaway. Today I am lucky enough to be hosting a stop on the tour -- and I hope you'll go visit all the stops on this tour so you can feel replete with poetry this month. There's been a great variety of topics and interests covered so far, and we still have half a month to go!

Well, seeing as today is Friday the 13th, I thought I'd talk a little about superstitions. How do superstitions show up in poems? Do poets have their own superstitions about writing?

I'll begin by sharing a poem which I found at the Poetry Foundation. In it, a Romanian poet alludes to the way people create superstitions by attaching meaning and causal relationships to odd or unconnected events. His is a personal superstition, attached to that much maligned creature, the house cat.


My cat washes
with her left paw,
there will be another war.

For I have observed
that whenever she washes
with her left paw
international tension grows

How can she possibly keep her eye
on all the five continents?
Could it be
that in her pupils
that Pythia now resides
who has the power
to predict
the whole of history
without a full-stop or comma?

It’s enough to make me howl
when I think that I
and the Heaven with its souls I have
in the last resort
on the whims of a cat.

Go and catch mice,
don’t unleash
more world wars,

~Marin Sorescu

“Superstition” from Selected Poems by Marin Sorescu, translated by Michael Hamburger. Published in 1983 by Bloodaxe Books.

Another poet's attempt to do the same thing, incorporating existing superstition and exploring linkages to develop new ones, is "Superstitions" by Malcolm Glass. I found that both of these poems illuminate the mindset of the wary, of those who are inclined to find meaning everywhere, and hope to ward off danger through random practices.

But more than just writing about superstitions, poets and writers often hold to many writing rituals that they are superstitious about breaking for fear of affecting their ability to produce any writing at all. I recently read an amusing article about the particular conditions a young writer feels he needs in order to create. He states that he wishes he had some cool superstitions such as “I drink two cups of lemon juice with lunch,” or “I channel the ancient goddess Sekhmet over cereal,” but unfortunately his are more mundane, like using a particular font for each kind of writing that he does. I have a few of my own, like only using purple ink to write first drafts longhand. Strange but hard to break away from! Do you have your own?

I'll finish off this brief look at the superstitions in and around poetry with a comment on the idea itself -- in a wonderful article about using superstition in writing, Aimee Nezhukumatathil states:

Some may regard it as a curious relic dating from less scientifically advanced times when people sought explanations for the apparently random workings and spinnings of nature. To others, superstition is an integral and constantly shifting part of the richness of culture in an increasingly secular world.

She goes on to say that superstition can be incorporated in a poem to create a sense of universal truth around the unexplainable. This article is a must-read for those who write poetry, and it concludes with some writing prompts. So if you are up to it, try using one of her superstition prompts to write a piece of poetry this month...and share with us if you are so inclined!

Well, I'd better go and keep my black cat from walking under a ladder and knocking the mirror off the wall. Thanks for stopping by to peruse today's post!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dear Hermes

Dear Hermes... / Michelle Smith
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2012.
79 p.

I'm a big fan of epistolary novels but hadn't realized that there was a whole genre of epistolary poetry as well! This collection has some wonderful examples of such poetry, though it is not entirely made up of the form.

Smith addresses varied gods and denizens of the classical world in these poems, mostly in letters (ie: Dear Hermes) However, there are also brief meditations in response to varied pieces of classical art as well as many singular poems about Paris or the author's prairie background. There is a consistency of tone and of perspective throughout that I found satisfying, and a quiet sense of irony and humour that leavens the classical references.

For some reason, many of the poetry collections I've read lately are strongly influenced by classical themes. Perhaps it's an example of synchronicity, as I've also been reading and studying a lot on nonfiction in that area over the past year, although not through any specific plan.

In any case, I enjoyed this collection and its combination of classicism, nature imagery and response to myth and to art. I also really liked the choice of form for most of these poems. As stated on the cover, this collection "exemplifies the lyric self on a poetic grand tour, or pilgrimage, to meet the world." The narrator of the poems is known as "the traveller" and addresses various gods and men -- ie: Hermes, Persephone, Hera, Eros, and Chronos, in one of my favourites which begins:

dear Chronos --

how do you tell time here?

by the sound of waves,
of water slipping up and washing away,
eternal return?

Even in poems which are more personal and reflect both Smith's family history and the idea of memory, classical references abound. In "A Whole Language Surrendered" she discusses her ancestors, immigrants to Canada. It opens with some words about lost words, an evocative verse or two which really caught me:

The words for star, love, hunger.
All sunk deep in the Atlantic. ...

The story of my great-great-grandparents
is hidden in the domain of Hades and Persephone,
whose realm must resemble a great library
of lost tales that is more vast than even the prairies
and their wild leaping from one horizon to the next.

There were a number of poems which I reread and savoured. One, entitled "A Story about a Cat named Clarence", was very moving. It related the relationship of young, gifted girl to her grandmother, and the power of memory between them. It had layers of meaning and I felt past and present combine through -- sentimental though it may sound -- their love for one another and for that long ago cat. All in addition to highlighting the power of stories. I loved this one.

This was a collection in which I found poems to soothe my need for imagery and for twists of the language. I was interested in the stories it told and the echoes set going in my mind as I was reading, and I would recommend it to other poetry readers I know.

This was published by the University of Alberta Press, and once again I must state my admiration for their use of 100% post-consumer Enviro Paper, something they've been consistent in doing, and their equally consistent habit of crediting the proofreader and copyeditor by name. I've admired this in other books they've produced and just wish more publishers would acknowledge the background workers in their credits as well. I love checking it out to see who was involved. It really does make the book feel like a group effort.


For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

True: a novel by Riikka Pulkkinen

True / Riikka Pulkkinen; translated by Lola M. Rogers.
New York: Other Press, c2012.
368 p.

This was the first work I've read by Riikka Pulkkinen, thanks to Net Galley. It's available now in hard copy via Other Press if you are interested in picking up a copy yourself -- I love the cover design which was similar to the one I've used for this post. The magenta colour, the dress....very evocative of the tale. The particular cover I'm showing is the Australian version, and I really liked how they used a handwriting font for the title and author. I think it ties in well with the search for truth from the past, with dresses and documents so important to various discoveries.

Pulkkinen is a Finnish writer, and this novel is set primarily in Finland, with characters who are fully aware of political upheavals in Europe, and travel to France to catch some of the 60's spirit. The story moves back and forth in time, from the current day perspective of Anna, a young woman, to that of her grandparents when they were in their prime. Her grandfather, an artist, had a clichéd affair with Eeva, his daughter's nanny many years ago -- the repercussions of which are now being stirred up again, as her grandmother Elsa is dying of cancer and tells Anna about it.

The story explores relationships past and present, between people now far distant from one another and between people at different ages. For example, much is made of Anna's relationship with her grandfather and their habit when Anna was quite young of travelling on city buses and making up stories about the other passengers. She wonders if this kind of easy communication is possible any longer now that she is a woman with concerns and preoccupations of her own; she is absorbed by her own suffering and unable to retain that sense of connection with her grandfather. As she discovers more about his past she is able to feel more of an adult understanding between them. The question of how much the family members all know and yet don't know about each other is raised poetically:
Relationships between people are like dense forests. Or maybe it’s the people themselves who are forests, trail after trail opening up within them, trails that are kept hidden from others, opening only by chance to those who happen upon them.
Despite the fact that this novel is about betrayal, death, depression, sadness, loss and much more, it is not a dark story. It feels spacious, open and yet complex... it shifts between time periods seamlessly, and draws the connections between people with a sure hand. It's a family saga, but leans more toward the story of the past than the current day one. The characters from the 60's -- Elsa, her husband Martti, Eeva -- are complex and their stories are finely detailed. The current day family is not so complete, with most of the attention going to Anna, with her competent and efficient sister's presence fading as the story goes on.

Something that I've noticed about many multigenerational sagas is that the middle generation gets short shrift. Anna's mother and Elsa's daughter, Elenoora, is a bit of a mystery. Information both about her reaction to the revelation of the affair, and the memories she's repressed about Eeva, is a little scant for my taste... I would have liked to dig into her feelings a little more. She was very reserved in her relationships with her parents and her children, and her interior landscape never fully came to life for me.

In any case, I did find this a good read, though it took me a little while to get into it. It began slowly, but was so full of gorgeous depictions of Finland and of the dreamy state of mind that Eeva existed within that I really did find it absorbing. It gave me a picture of a tangled and dark emotional dilemma, even while the Finnish setting seemed saturated with light, something I didn't really associate with Finland. The language was also very quotable.

At various points in the story, different characters claim to know what is true:
True rebellion is enjoying your existence no matter the circumstances.

Art turns empty when it's only about one truth. That's what I think. It's best to keep art open to the struggle between different points of view.

But I still believe, even now, that true revolutions last a lifetime -- they're always quiet, and they happen when no one's looking.

Anna herself is searching desperately for some kind of truth to guide her way out of depressive sorrow. She's looking for certainties about the past and about how to live now. But in her search she reflects on a child's perception of life, and how this may be the ultimate experience of possible truth:
A child's reality is made of dreams and play. A lie can weave into the mix imperceptibly. Or maybe that was what reality was like for people in general. Dreams, play, lies.

Other reviews:

Iris on Books says that "Pulkkinen’s style is beautiful and thoughtful, and she spends quite a lot of time featuring detailed contemplations on life through the eyes of several characters."

Teresa at Shelf Love states that "In poetic, but not fussy prose, Pulkkinen captures the way family members are deeply intimate, knowing each other inside and out, able to recognize the moles on each other’s bodies and the particular feeling of a hand, but also entirely independent, even sometimes strangers to each other."

Mary states "The author takes the novel beyond the specifics of this family and into the universal by including many aphorisms and sometimes ponderous insights throughout the novel."

Sunday, April 01, 2012

April is the Poet-est Month

I'm sorry that I must begin by disagreeing with T.S. Eliot, I don't believe that April is the cruelest least not now that it is also National Poetry Month -- both in the US and in Canada! I always enjoy celebrating poetry even more so than usual during April, and I'll be sharing some reviews of new poetry collections that I've read this month, along with my regular posts.

To kick off Poetry Month, though, I want to share a few links to some great poetry initiatives out there (only a few of the hundreds I could share)

Firstly, on Twitter, if you are there, please join the #todayspoem movement! This was started by @Bookgaga and consists of posting links or lines from favourite poems (she's also created a poetry based Pinterest board!) It is a great way to share and find out others' favourites. I've really been enjoying it.

Then, if you feel like listening to some wonderful poets reading their own work, check out Brick Books' huge collection of poetry podcasts. It's a pretty neat way of encountering some new poetry.

I'm also participating in the 2012 National Poetry Month Blog Tour hosted by Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit (a great supporter of everything poetic). Hope you'll take a look at the schedule and follow along with the wide variety of poetry based posts this month. I'll be posting something special on Friday the 13th...

There are endless resources and celebrations and activities for Poetry Month -- just check out the page for tons of links. Or explore The Poets House (which makes me wish I lived in New York!) If you have teens or are a teacher (or like me, just find it fascinating) you could also take a look at Poetry in Voice, a very cool project that has kids competing to recite poetry. Wish it would have existed when I was in high school...though I probably would have been too shy to participate anyhow ;)

If you have your own favourite poetry links to share, please do so. I'd love to hear what they are.

Happy National Poetry Month to everyone! Hope this month encourages you to see things differently and celebrate the world's beauty in all its forms.