new hystericisms

provocations and sundries by three anxious ladies.

Category: bibliophilia

dear Hermes Review

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The CWILA numbers were a wake up call for “anyone interested in gender equity in the literary arts,” showing much higher percentages of book reviews in Canadian literary journals by men than women. Responding to the question, where are the female reviewers?  Room Magazine has added more reviews and I would very much like to respond and be a part of changing those numbers (and I will be!) but for all the doting and/or griping I do over books with my co-writer, I have yet to sit down and actually write a review. So I am doing one on here first. Book review lite. Also, it’s the perfect book for us, with its ode to Dionysus whose female followers were called “maenads” or “the maddedned ones” (73) and were often described as frenetic, ecstatic, and violent. According to one myth, they even ripped Orpheus limb from limb. Obviously, this was because Orpheus had sworn off the ladies and, you know, without Orpheus’ virile member, their wombs would have nothing to weigh them down and would begin to rise up toward their brains. Anyway, I digress.

Review: dear Hermes, by Michelle Smith  (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012)

dear Hermes begins with the line, “no stars danced at my birth” (“The traveller writes by the light of the liar’s star”) and ends with images of “dead rabbits” and “bruised tulips” (“A still life, with books”).  Between those bookends, however, is not merely the arc of a life, but an endless cycle of more births, more deaths, continuous entrances and exits. The poems in Michelle Smith’s debut collection explore Greek mythology, family history, and questions of immortality. As the title suggests, many of the poems are letters addressed to Greek gods, beings who, though immortal, “bled time and again” (“The traveller writes from her childhood home”), letters addressed by one “double-bound by birth and tragedy” (“the traveller writes from the edge of Aegean”). Smith’s poetry traces the line between life and death, takes us unexpectedly to babies with arthritic hands, newborns lying next to urns.

Throughout all the lives and afterlives in these poems, time behaves erractically: rushing,  crawling counter-clockwise, standing still:

“time is as malleable as air, and air is as palpable as water,
the water that brings the sky down to stone and skin, and everything
is made as slippery as the roots of the trees that grip the ground
of the village ruins as the sun sinks under a blurred horizon of hills
that look like overturned bowls”
(Dartmour)

In this image, the life-giving roots juxtaposed with the village ruins blur the lines between life and death much like the described blur of the horizon, the precarious line of the in-between. This theme sometimes manifests in the text itself as well. In “ile de la cite,” the anaphora in roman text sits still between the lyrical italicized section, much like the “still, silent heart of paris, the city’s past, present, future” it describes.

The varied tones of the poems provide a good balance, and many of the letter poems are quite funny. The titles are often humourous in their long length: “the traveller writes after a few drinks with Ceres,” for example. In that poem, Smith  plays around with  Zeus’ “postcard poetry, fatal and sauve”:

“what with your hair of golden August wheat,
your slender ankles. (or so says Zeus,
ever the exonerator of injustices
he files away under Indiscretions: Minor)”

Some of these poems feel stronger, more polished, than some of the heavier-handed meditations on death. I expected “you are too romantic, mon cherie” to have more of a twist of irony that never seemed to come. The collection has perhaps one too many image of tears and lips, “how glittering tears in starlight burn,” and at times it can feel a bit romantic.

An effective technique in these poems is the moments of displaced humour. There is the lighthearted inappropriateness of giggling in a monk’s cell in “The Annunciation” but also the visceral fear of the section in “bear dance” when “He tries to make it funny, to ignore his sense/ of hairs on the back of her neck standing on end/ when he enters.” That section of the poem ends:

“her mother’s voice rattles on
and rattles off against her skull
and a red neon sign flashes vacancy
across her white-as-a-sheet cheek”

The assonance saves the white as a sheet idiom and it’s haunting, eerie, how this girl is hollowed out. While dear Hermes has some awkward narration/ hyperbaton and some romanticization,  it is  an engaging dialogue with life, death, fear, and grief. By turns funny and halting, the collection finds new ways to grapple with the notion that “Either way you long to live forever. Either way, you lose” (How to lift the heart into the throat”).

Check out Room’s invitation to Become A Reviewer

Buy Michelle Smith’s debut collection here

Find more information on the numbers mentioned above at The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts website

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Indulging the Provocateur: Privilege and the Culture of Male Arrogance in the Publishing Industry

Sometime last year, The Guardian online posted an article about V.S. Naipaul in which the Nobel laureate explains that he is a much, much better writer than all the ladies. Even Jane Austen. Especially Jane Austen, because Austen is one of those writers who is obviously a lady, Naipaul explains. To wit, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think it unequal to me.” Women: sentimental, narrow-minded kitchen things. You know, the usual stuff. Leaving aside his particular antipathy for Jane Austen, a writer of a different period who, incidentally, at least had a sense of humour, this interview with Naipaul should have annoyed people. I should have thought that Nobel laureates are, for the most part, forward-thinking people who at least try to control their biases. Women’s issues not your thing? That’s fine, but let’s not aid in the undoing of progress.

The article annoyed me. My co-writer, also annoyed, posted a link to the offending piece of writing on her Facebook wall. The comments can be summed up thus: Why are you so offended? He’s a provocateur.

Here’s the thing: he’s not a provocateur. He’s a schmuck.

Provocateur is a word that covers all manner of men’s sins. It’s a French word, masculine, and there’s no feminine equivalent in common use in English. She’s not a provocatrice; she’s a bitch, am I right?

No. Fuck you. Excuse my French.

Why am I talking about this year-old article? It’s suddenly relevant. It’s relevant because of a recent debate in Canadian publishing that began with a ten-year-old article of Jan Zwicky’s and evolved into a discussion of gender. Specifically, what the denouement of the debate actually speaks to is the industry’s championing of the male perspective, encouragement of male arrogance and indulgence of provocateurs.

Once upon a time, Jan Zwicky wrote an article called “The Ethics of the Negative Review.” In it, she says that writing a vitriolic review of a book is a needless exercise that serves no one. Though it has been much misinterpreted, what Zwicky’s article is saying is that if a book does not engage you, your review of it will not be intelligent. Silence can be more powerful, she says. Nowhere does she say that all reviews have to positive; on the contrary, and as she goes on to clarify in a more recent essay, there is a difference between “respectful disagreement” and “adolescent snark.”

The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts website recently republished the article as part of a wider discussion on women and reviews. Soon after, Michael Lista, some guy, wrote an article in the National Post that might be described as “thick,” which creatively employs a certain logical fallacy known as a straw-man argument in order to respond, point by point, to Zwicky. He uses numbers and everything. There’s a joke in here somewhere.

What’s striking about the article by self-styled provocateur and local guy Michael Lista is, yes, his anger. His inability to differentiate between debate and vitriol is just as evident in the form of his article. It’s a clever, though not intelligent essai in systematic meanness. Here, then, is the point at which the debate devolved into kvetching tweets from a few (only a few) rather stupid men who felt that if they couldn’t get their hate on in canliterary mags, well, then, they should just move to America, where they’ve got the uteruses under control and guns in every pen! Or whatever. Logic. It’s a thing.

At the time, my co-writer and I wondered why these men were positively demanding their right to be disrespectful, claiming their right to be cruel. Cruel, not critical. The two are not the same, and everybody – even, deep down, that guy Michael Lista – knows it. Cruelty is not a gendered trait, and no matter what anyone tells you, and people will tell you, this has nothing to do with biological imperative. Claiming as prerogative being heard above all and being right, god damn it, however, smacks of male privilege and the publishing industry’s culture of male arrogance. One need only look as far as the recent Fareed Zakaria or Jonah Lehrer debacles to see this in action.

It’s not far from this kind of arrogance to the disrespect that occasions pointlessly nasty reviews. And don’t kid yourself. It is an issue of respect. Undergirding the kind of reviews these writers demand to have published is the notion that what they have to say has more value than the work in question, which itself is of so little significance that it sometimes is not even quoted directly. The review ceases to be a review at all and becomes a sort of self-congratulatory personal essay on the reviewer’s own merits, thrown into relief by the failure of the, etc. Take, for instance, this Salon.com article on Stephen King. The writer of the piece, the first person ever to cast doubt on the literary merits of King’s canon, has read a book or two in his day, let him tell you. Also, he has a son who one time read King when he was, like, a baby, but now he reads books by Pynchon and Bolano and DFW. Books for grown-up men. There it is: the line in the sand, this impulse to be on the winning side. Naipaul, for instance, distinguishes between his writing – “literary” – and “women’s writing.” At least he’s honest about it; at least we can see, here, what we are up against.

Reviews like this define and neatly cordon off what is “literary” or worthwhile from everything else, and the rhetoric of humiliation writers like Lista employ serves to police the bounds: disagree with me. I dare you.

Is this really what the state of reviews has come to? Instead of intelligent discussion and critical engagement, these men are arguing for the literary equivalent of pounding their bare torsos with their fists. Why? It’s true that it’s much easier to write a slick gloss than it is to actually appraise something seriously. Are they afraid that behind the snark, the provocation, they don’t have anything interesting to say?

Yes, fear. The schoolyard bully’s fear that if he starts pulling punches, people will see him for what he really is.

And what is that, exactly?

Flickr image via shelisrael1, who does not endorse the use to which I’ve put his photo.

Did you mean ‘New Historicism’?

Did you mean New Historicism? Because if you did, we could recommend some books for you, but that’s not why we’re here. Welcome to New Hystericisms, where we will elucidate the finer points of 20-something dementia and hysteric living.