Tuesday, June 22, 2004

On recent reissues: Gerry Gilbert’s Moby Jane & Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea

It seems the days of Canadian publishing are rife with reissues, with two Gwendolyn MacEwen books of fiction recently reissued by Toronto’s Insomniac Press (including her long out-of-print white elephant, the novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams), a reissue this fall of Roy Kiyooka’s transcanada letters by Edmonton’s NeWest Press (along with a new second volume of letters, Pacific Rim Letters), rumours of a 30th anniversary reissue of Andrew Suknaski’s Wood Mountain Poems in 2006, & the recent publication of Gerry Gilbert’s Moby Jane by Coach House Books, & Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea by Signal Editions, Vehicule Press. Republishing or reissuing books in Canadian literature is usually a thing few & far between, given that older books don’t get the sales or attention a newer one might, & the fact that (I believe) funding bodies don’t necessarily help fund the publication of non-new titles. Apart from the ongoing New Canadian Library Series at McClelland & Stewart, there really hasn’t been that much before. John Metcalf tried it a few years ago through The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc., putting titles by Irving Layton, Ray Smith & others back in print, but again, sales were not forthcoming, so it seems the project was abandoned (or at least pared back). Whatever the reasoning, it’s impressive for Stan Bevington, Jay MillAr & others to champion Moby Jane through Coach House Books, & Simon Dardick & Carmine Starnino (with help from Stephen Brockwell) to champion Mountain Tea through Signal Editions / Vehicule Press.

Originally published by Coach House Press in 1987, Vancouver poet & broadcaster Gerry Gilbert’s Moby Jane is a continuation of his ongoing & lifelong poetic project. (Moby Jane is but one of two recent Coach House Books reissues, including the combined British & Canadian edition of bpNichol’s Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, edited with an introduction & notes by Nelson Ball.) Considered one of the “downtown Vancouver poets” in the early 1960s, close to TISH but not necessarily part of the group, Gilbert’s band of loose outcasts also included John Newlove, Roy Kiyooka & Maxine Gadd. Still publishing, but wary of editing & (seemingly) the bane of publishers (he hasn’t had a new trade collection appear in some time), he also turned down a part in Talonbooks’ group of selected poems collections for 1980. This new edition of Moby Jane appears exactly as the previous, the way Gilbert intended, the only difference being the bar code & small tag of publisher & price on the back cover, slight colophon on the inside back in a different font than the rest.

For those who haven’t experienced Gilbert’s writing, the only way to talk about it briefly would be to call it ongoing & expansive, opening the form as wide as it can get. Written as a diary or journal of his writing & life, most of his work side-by-side sit as a never complete utaniki (a journal written as a mixture of poetry & prose). The book begins with the poem “Sounding” on the front cover, to the final piece, “Zig Zag Blues” on the back. Check out this fragment of the poem “The Hunt” (n.p.):

was diefenbaker canadian
is the smilin’ buddha buddhist?

dief ends
a prairie lawyer

dief the chief
a good poem

follow john ...
& all the king’s horses & all the king’s men ...

He ran about the same age as hitler
but more like wc fields than charlie chaplin

unbelievable failure
politics as negative myth

he spoke up
but he talked down

Gilbert inhabits his city & country completely, moving as he does completely through the white whale of the poem that is Moby Jane. It’s good to see Gilbert back in print, but will there be any more? A reissue of Sex & The Single Mushroom (although I think his Year of the Rush published by underwhich editions might still be in print)? Or even a new collection at some point? While actively resisting the structures that might further his career (& admittedly uneven in his works, often accused of “publishing everything he writes”), Gilbert has never wavered from his commitment to the writing, making him one of Canada’s often-overlooked masters. Another fragment, this one from the beginning of the poem “getting to sleep” from the section “YVR BUF YYZ” (n.p.), writing:

I don’t know anything about greed
but I want what I know

I might have known the scanner’d find the knife built into my–
how do you say? –bag
did they really mean it when I said I’d throw it away if necessary?

but I never guessed immigration’d want to read my orange
my seed is my soul

does it show?
my seat is my soil

there I grow again

Montreal poet Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea, originally published by McClelland & Stewart in 1984 as Mountain Tea & Other Poems, is the third & final of his poetry collections that build into each other, after the collections In Gildenstern County (Delta Can, 1973) & Leeway Grass (Delta Can, 1970). As individual in what he does as Gilbert, Van Toorn works the far-flung opposite end of the craft, once spending months & even years working hundreds of drafts of poems, & perhaps destroying himself in the process.

The previous edition, nominated for the Governor General’s Award, appeared just after his stroke, an event that helped derail his writing career. But for a brief chapbook privately published by Stephen Brockwell’s The Rideau River Press, writing is something he has done almost nothing of since. Long out of print & completely unavailable, Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea is a collection of homespun classicism, roughneck wisdom, formal studies & his own translations of poems by Tu Fu, Pien Chih-Lin, Li Po, Sylvain Garneau & others. On the translations, the previous edition includes the commentary, “Concerning the translations in this book, Peter Van Toorn writes: ‘I aim at a text which will be native to the genius of contemporary English in Canada. My antecedents may be fond in the ‘imitations’ of Pound & Lowell. This kind of free interpretation should stand as a self-contained, autonomous poem: a transmutation or transposition, a new work in its own right – like the latest ad-lib of a ‘standard; in jazz. There exists no generally agreed-upon term for this kind of interpretation; but it aims to produce what the poem whose work is being translated might have done had he been writing in English in Canada at the present time.’ These remarks are elaborated in the essay, ‘The Pain Called Babel’ (The Antigonish Review, #53, Spring 1983).”

Van Toorn’s poetry is a lovely mixture of reverence & irreverence, working in & respecting the forms he uses, but still able to mess around the structures & language. Very much a signature book for Van Toorn & his style, much the way John Thompson’s Stilt Jack was (since reprinted in a lovely Collected Poems & Translations of Thompson’s by Goose Lane Editions in 1995), the book starts with, as David Solway writes in his introduction, Van Toorn’s signature poem, “In Gildenstern County.” Check out the opening to the first part, “1. Wawa: Slipped Beat” (p 21):

In guildenstern county
where there’s hardly any wind
to go by
you can smell the poem in a thing for miles
when wind wins.
handsdown, right out of nowhere: given
good grass out front,
bad brush behind.
Even so,
not counting wind in the pines,
wind in the brakeslams,
there’s hardly any
to go by. Go
by, put arms around, smoke on, ride off, bounce
on a blanket about. Just
miles and miles
to crash
and keep crashing through.

Most of the collection is made up of poems in the “Mountain Tea” section, including the translations, resonating an almost spiritual thread through pieces such as “Mountain Going,” “Mountain Wine,” “Mountain Nurse,” “Mountain Study” & “Mountain Fox.” For the sake of clarity & completion, I’ll include the poem “Mountain Cure” (p 108), in full:

How you take my breath away from this book
which I keep in front of me for its salt,
so I will not hear your eye lashes swim
out in the waves they make round this table,
finely combing the air they move round in,
so I will not feel the hard red peppers
turning in my tongue, but keep my fingers
on my pen in my pocket, and my eyes
on the plane hanging like a big ball point
in a corner of the sky, and keep my heart
standing up straight as any bank building,
and keep the red hot bird toes off the roof,
and keep my wandering voice in book ends,
and keep my breath from lying down with you.

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