Reviews

Saskbooks Reviews, June 22, 2018

How interesting to watch a poet’s repertoire grow and change over the years, and learn what’s freshly inspiring him or her. For some it’s nature, a new relationship, travel, or a loved one’s passing. Trust Creighton, SK poet, visual artist, and naturalist Brenda Schmidt to eschew the usual … this SK Poet Laureate has turned to the lowly culvert for inspiration in her latest title, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road, and it’s a romp.

This handsome collection begins with a short essay that introduces us to the kind of writer Schmidt’s become. While she and her husband are driving down the Saskatchewan map, the poet blurts out questions some may consider inane. But, she writes: “Nothing I say surprises him anymore. He knows better than anyone how difficult writers can be to travel with, due in part, perhaps, to sensory overload, all these places flying by, all these junctions, private roads and keep-out signs, the mind filtering the 100 km/hr stream of information for connections. . .”

Indeed, connections are key in this book. Always fascinated with culverts, Schmidt’s mined her own memory and discussed culverts with a variety of folks, incorporating their experiences into poems (written in various forms) that illuminate, surprise, and entertain. We learn that culverts are used for more than controlling water flow; they’re also places to make love, drink wine, and play guitar (a culvert’s “got great acoustics”). Cliff swallows nest in culverts, and thieves store stolen goods in them. Children, of course, race makeshift boats toward them in spring. Who doesn’t remember “the official footwear” . . . rubber boots with “the top two inches/folded down”? Italicized quotes throughout the poems give the collection a story-telling flow.

All the good stuff of poetry is here. There’s sound, ie: “The hazard lights click like heels,” and a culvert “glugged like anything”. The similes include “your hair falls/like a prayer plant”. I admire the liberal use of personification, i.e., “The Big Dipper handles breath/gently, turns and washes it,” and “The stiff-lipped/culvert is the only one/whistling here”. One of the many stand-out images: “your fists wet/commas at the end of your sleeves”.

Schmidt’s highly attuned to nature. These poems are alive with birds and bears, and they lead us across fields and ditches. Being Saskatchewan, there’s also wind. And I love the clever play on former premier Lorne Calvert’s name (“There’s a little Lorne Culvert in all of us!”).

There’s much more going on in most of these poems than the casual reader might notice. Internal rhymes, multi-purpose line breaks, and, in the longish four-sectioned poem “A Culvert Blown into Four Pieces,” one story’s told via the italicized first line of each tercet, and another  with more detail — when one reads each line chronologically.

In the superb piece “Elegy,” Schmidt writes: “I’m not good at this./I’m not good at anything/that involves looking back/at the meltwater slowly/filling in my boot prints”. Bull. This is a skilled poet having good fun, and inviting us all to join the party.

 — Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks Reviews 

 

Alberta Views, December 2018

Autant

Let us suppose that there once lived, in an invented town in Alberta’s Peace River country, an invented family by the name of Garance, some of whose members were distinctly odd. Their oddness consisted in their having abilities that most people do not have, They were afflicted—or perhaps blessed is the word—with a talent for hearing other people’s thoughts, and a propensity for conversing with beings that other people could not see. One family member, mistrustful of these gifts, dismissed them as “strange thoughts,” or, when really disturbed, as “black moths.” Years after the story’s main action, it is found that the attics of local houses and public buildings are filled to bursting with vile-smelling dead moths.

If you have been able to follow this attempt at introduction so far, you are probably saying to yourself: Aha. Magic realism. If so, then you are right. The genre made famous by South American writers has been attempted before by Alberta authors, most successfully, perhaps, in Robert Kroetsch’s wonderful What the Crow Said. It is a genre that, for the right reader, can delight with the exuberance of its invention.

Autant, named for the town where the story takes place, is the work of Paulette Dubé, a writer who grew up in Legal, Alberta, and now lives in Jasper. Her story, though darker than Kroetsch’s is certainly up to scratch when it comes to exuberant invention. It is also a thing unto itself, a peculiar combination of good humour and catastrophe that is not easy to describe.

The Garances are not your typical rural Alberta family, supposing such a thing exists. Nor are some of the other characters anyone you are apt to run into in this province. They include, for starters, both God and Coyote. When these two meet in a bar, each has a pointy that he wants to prove to the other. Each also has emissaries, rather inept ones, whom he intends to send down to earth to complicate the lives of the Garances and their neighbours. The cast also includes neighbours both good and dissolute and very large swarms of bees. The bees will intervene in the action, a break from their regular job, which is to fly around collecting stories for God—who has a taste for news but is too busy to do his own eavesdropping.

There are a great many characters and a lot of plot to keep track of in this very short novel, but for the most part the author holds it all together. It must be admitted that magic realism, which asks us to believe in the unbelievable, at least temporarily, is not to the taste of every reader. It is a genre that is best approached with a certain spirit of adventure, a certain willingness to be enchanted. In Autant, Dubé has created a world and a mythology to go with it. It is a gutsy performance.

— Merna Summers