Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of A Door in the Forest, by Yve Louis

By Tara Walker

At the beginning of A Door in the Forest, Yve Louis includes an abbreviated definition of forest from renowned philologist Walter William Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language:

Forest. (F.- L) O.F. forest. -  Late L. forestis, free space of hunting ground; foresta, a wood […] – L. foris, out of doors; adv. Allied to L. fores, doors.

This dictionary definition provides a kind of map though the book: the evolution of the forest from hunting ground to a wood, then to out-of-doors … and then to doors themselves. In A Door in the Forest, the woods are both hunting ground and refuge: the forest is out-of-doors, within doors, and through doors. The conceptual locus of the forest is ripe with fairy and folk tale allusions, and Louis maneuvers deftly through this rich history. 

Not unlike the evolving definition of the word forest, Louis’ collection morphs and changes; meanings build upon meanings, as layers on/of the forest floor. Throughout this journey travels the thread of both story and poem—each is a character in the book’s developing world. The opening poem Story describes a mischievous narrative, running wild through the woods, leading “the player” on an unrestrained chase. The poem is formatted in italics, except for the one central line: “Which path? Which path is the story of me!” Presumably this voice is the player herself, trying to navigate the “maze of riddler trees.” Louis peppers her poems with these lines in italics, picking up the thread of the voice that calls “Catch-me-catch-me-if-you-can.”

The final poem, and book’s namesake, A Door in the Forest, caps this chase that sustains itself throughout the work. In this final poem, the reader—the searcher—is told that there is no retreat from the chase because “the way closes behind in tangles/of detour and cul-de-sac.” The voice of the first and last poems seems to come from the forest itself, a sage-like being possessing an omniscient perspective of human narrative.

Throughout the collection, the reader is lead into the stories of both mythological and historical figures—Louis involves everyone, from Hansel and Gretel, to Nietzsche. By telling these stories, Louis brings the struggles of these characters to life, however she also brings the writer’s struggle to life—the battle to keep creating in a world that keeps pressing the act of creation into small, restrained spaces. In Lost, the Brothers Grimm are confronted by Hansel and Gretel, who thank the men for writing them out “of that old witch’s place back there!” The Brothers, conversely,  bemoan this confrontation with their characters:

Jakob grieves: What have we created here?
What innocence destroyed?

The poet seems to grieve along with them, and in the final line she notes the loneliness of the writer’s endeavor: “For those who write a world, never to find a home.”

Louis offers a moving but delicate empathy for writers, artists and thinkers who feel left behind, misunderstood or under-represented. In Euripides Among the Athenians, Louis describes the playwright as an unappreciated visionary:

with solemn wit
you contest
their theatre sports

thin coins of applause spatter
/no one relishes
your thrusts to the heart

The poem also characterizes Euripides as having the last laugh, showing his toughness by walking away. He is described as a kind of ancient Greek rebel-without-a-cause:

/the rip in your jeans
a braggadocio

the hip.

Chaim Gantar Abandons the Song of Himself, is another poem which pulls metaphors and characters out of their familiar and original contexts and places them in new, semi-disturbing ones. The poem references Whitman’s Song of Myself, but as Louis writes in her notes, it “answers Whitman in the negative of totally different circumstances.” Gantar struggles with his identity, his self, his soul:

 soul? here soul
aspires to nothing but its own
danse macabre,
jigging in time
sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything
but the burden of memory:

Louis pulls in the famous Shakespeare quote from As You Like It, (a play set primarily in the forest) as homage to canonic literary tradition, but also as a way of creating stark contrast. In Shakespeare’s play, the monologue from “Melancholy Jacques” is a cynical shadow amid a playful comedy. Gantar, on the other hand, is not a foil to other, happier characters, but is completely alone. While the new context Louis gives Song of Myself is not completely clear, references to the Jewish Holocaust ripple throughout the poem, and remark specifically on loss of identity. Despite this loss, the subject in the poem continues to survive, stripped of self, but not necessarily hope:

Yet, even here, a leaf will unfold
sudden, and green…

even now the heart will knock,
air still push from lungs, ribs, throat

to tear an old truth
rom silence:

stone’s shocked quickening -  
I live, I wrestle with meaning.

In A Door to the Forest, to live is to wrestle with meaning—to follow an evolving and convoluted narrative that serves up, intermittently, moments of both terror and joy.

Underwater Flying, gives us a close-up on the “plateau years” of Henry Lawson, one of Australia’s best known early writers. The poem shows us the underbelly of Lawson’s fame his “crumbling reefs of a marriage,” his doomed attempt at giving up alcohol, the “verses he must flog for grub,” trying to escape “blunt-edged poverty.” Two of the important women in Lawson’s life—Bertha, his wife who separated from him in 1903, and Isabel, his landlady and benefactor—are given prominent roles in the poem; once again demonstrating Louis’ talent for giving voice to those history has rendered voiceless. By providing a close-up of a less than glamorous time in the writer’s life (for example, writing of Lawson slumped into poverty and depression in his later years despite his fame) Louis also gifts him a deep and relatable humanity and sympathy, and even the reader who knows nothing of Australian history can appreciate the shards of hope scattered at the end of the poem:

-then with a flourish for the grand finale-
sells the latest sketch.
                                                      And decides to live.

A Door in the Forest is a poetic and layered path through the thick, dense wood of folklore, fable and history. Sometimes playful and sometimes grindingly painful, Louis shows us the underside of the forest—the hidden places under leaves and brush, in the hollow trunks of trees and untold stories of human loss.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Stepping down as Antipodes editor after final issue of 2018

Dear all, as most of you know, for eighteen years I have edited ANTIPODES, a US-based journal of Australian and New Zealand literature. Indeed, my history with the journal goes back to 1993, when I first became Associate Book Review Editor.
When I first began working with the journal, Bill Clinton was the new President of the US, John Major was PM of the UK, François Mitterrand President of France, Boris Yeltsin was President of a still-hopeful Russia. LeBron James was nine years old, Clayton Kershaw five. More pertinently, Paul Keating was Prime Minister of Australia, the Mabo decision just handed down, and Patrick White had only recently passed away.
It's been twenty-four years for me with the journal overall, and with my marriage and job changes, and my wish to concentrate on my own writing, it is time for a transition. I have told the Board of our sponsoring group, the American Association for Australasian Literary Studies, that I am leaving the journal as of the last issue of 2018. The Board is right now voting on a highly qualified successor and I hope to announce that name shortly.
I have most of the next few issues ready--there have been publication delays recently, and a lot of stuff is in the pipeline--but still need seven or eight literary-critical articles for the last issue. So if you want to be part of my final issue please send work my way!
It has been a great privilege and joy working with so many of you in a field that a generation ago was still seeking academic legitimacy, but that now, though hardly without issues, has a flourishing infrastructure of journals and institutional support, a talented cohort of younger scholars, and is making more and more fascinating global and textual connections within and beyond the merely 'national.' I will continue to be active in the field as a writer, even if no longer as an editor. But it is time for me to step down from ANTIPODES, and to let a new hand take over.
"All is still.
I lean on my axe. A cloud of fragrant leaves
hangs over me moveless, pierced everywhere by sky."
--Les Murray

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Grief, Renewal and Rain: a review of "Between a Wolf and a Dog" by Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain, Scribe, 2016
 ISBN (13):9781925321111

To read Blain’s final novel (The Museum of Words, a memoir, will soon released by Scribe in August, 2017), is a strange, moving and emotional experience; and not only due to the exquisite, contained language and diligent, compelling depiction of interior lives, each at a point of quiet crisis. It is also because you know that the author was in the midst of editing the work in 2015 when she received her diagnosis of a virulent brain cancer that would claim her life the following year. This real-life context makes the connection with the older woman in the novel, Hilary, and her journey towards the decision of ending her own life when her own cancer spreads to her brain, charged on a level that brings the work deeply into the here and now. It is a sort of prophetic rendering of the author’s own fate, and it makes reading Between a Wolf and a Dog all the more profound. 

The novel’s timeline takes place largely over one day in Sydney. We meet the aging filmmaker and widow Hilary, and her two warring daughters: Ester, a family therapist and once-famous singer/songwriter April. Ester’s ex-husband, Lawrence is facing crises of his own; the stories, and histories of each character intertwine in intimate, devastating ways that have seemingly reached an impasse—an impasse that will shift as Hilary makes a decision that will change all their lives.

The opening of the novel is termed “now,” and Blain positions us in medias res, with an urgent immediacy. The opening words tell us, however: “This is the dream: Lawrence is alone.” The now is, therefore, also a dream: a landscape that hovers “between a wolf and a dog,” between night and dawn—a time of wandering spirits and insight, of portals to other, myth-like realms. If it is a dream, then the idea of “now” is something porous and fluid, shifting and working on a logic that defies rationality. This dream “now” is also a time of confusion and darkness, a place where monsters stir. The entwined stories within the small world depicted in the book each possess a degree of other-worldliness, a myth-like quality—each character wrestles and navigates their way through this terrain, of both the possibility for transformation, and also defeat at the hands of inner demons. 

The stories are framed with this: a dream where a man is alone. This alone-ness is the position of 
Hero; he finds himself separated from others and embarking on a journey that at first he cannot understand. It is ultimately a journey—so quest literature and myth tells us—that will end in some sort of subjugation of self in order to release the existence of a truer, higher sense of self, a nobler self, one that is truly heroic. Lawrence is given this chance when he is asked—demanded, in fact—to “discover” Hilary’s suicide from a heroin overdose, and be the intermediary between her gesture and April and Ester, Hilary’s grown daughters. “‘I need your help,’ she tells him. ‘And I figure if there is anyone in the world who owes a debt to me and my daughters, it’s you.” (208) The hero is also an anti-hero—someone who is not becoming great, but atoning for his abject failure to connect with and nurture others. There is a celebration of ordinary, street-version humility in this: the heroic act is executed quietly, behind doors, and occurs when we rise privately to the challenge of paying our debts.

Although the context is mythic in scope, creating a vast and dream-like interior life wherein each character needs to find their way, the stories stay contained within clear parameters of an external casing of mostly interior rooms (a shack, a therapist office, a bedroom, a car). These interior rooms are where order is sought, strategies unveiled or discussed. The wildness happens in the cold river, the rain, in water. And throughout the novel, it is always raining. This choice is rich with profound symbolic resonances: purging, a flood, baptism, new life, drowning and death, fertility and also renewal. This feels important in a novel that unravels itself slowly and surely towards a death, that within the strictures that fate lays out for us, there is—even in the darkest moments—the possibility of some kind of agency, some kind of heroism. This seems to be what Ester holds out to her clients, her daughters, and that April pursues when, towards the end of the book, she decides to “‘… go round there [to Ester's]. Maybe tomorrow. I will stay at the door until she talks to me. I’ll camp there,’ she laughs. ‘Maybe even take placards and a tent.’” (251)

Blain’s writing is both surgical and compassionate, lyrical without sentimentality. She deftly and quickly establishes characters with depth, and a compelling way of pulling us with each one of them on their different journeys. I read this book quickly—without meaning to, because it was in-between many books needed to be read, articles to be written. I did not want to put it down. So I didn’t, and then even at the end I re-read the final two chapters another three times before I could finally close the cover. I commenced Blain’s novel feeling jaded by reading, and ended refreshed and inspired. These sound like grand words, but I have to say that I would have said them anyhow, were Georgia Blain still alive and working on her next novel. And I know I echo the feelings of many when I say I wish writing her next novel was exactly what she was doing.