Remembering my father and the gift of a love of literature

My father was born on this day, April 26, in 1928. Marking his birthday for the first time since his death last July is bittersweet. My father was a difficult man, he rarely played with us or talked about his childhood—I would not even begin to appreciate why he was this way until I was in my 40s—but he gave me my love of literature. He would regularly run out on Christmas Eve and bring home books especially for me, starting me early on children’s abridged classics: Hans Brinker, Treasure Island, The three Musketeers and my very favourite, Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I have spent the past few months combing through his library as we clear out our parents’ house. I selected the books that were suitable for donation to charity, decided which were not worth saving, and brought home the books I could not part with.

My father loved history, poetry and Russian literature. Much of the poetry I had already acquired, piece by piece, over the years; the war history will, I’m confident, find new homes; and I saved for myself his Russian lit (more Gorky than I expected) and his fancy editions of Western literary classics. I have gathered his Russian collection on a small shelf in my office and hope to salvage language from these books to create an experimental composition in his memory. But, as I made my way through his library, I found a few little treasures that speak to his years in New York City in the 1950s—a magical time he was forever trying to get back, long after that New York was gone.

He was in his early 30s when he was finally able to attend university. His parents were not supportive of academic pursuits. He studied electrical engineering and would never complete his degree for lack of funds, but while he was at Columbia his great joy was to write for the student newspaper. He reviewed opera and concerts. He would have been well suited to the life of an academic if he had had the support to take an Arts degree. But that was not to be although he would go on to be a highly respected, if difficult, electrical designer and contractor. Among his books I found a program of concerts from 1950–51, along with a charming contest entry for a chance to win an “Easter outfit,” and a couple of mini pamphlets of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (the last book he gave me a few years back was a complete collection of Poe’s poetry and prose).

The process of sorting through my father’s books, left me with a clear image of him haunting secondhand bookstores throughout his life. My favourite find was a copy of a red hardcover called Modern European History by Charles Downer Hazen. Published in 1917, the first owner left his name inside the cover. I don’t know who accidentally burned through the binding, but my father left calculations inside the back cover—not simply solving math problems, it looks like he was tracking the number of pages he was reading.

My father had a thing for numbers, he tracked the temperature and the stock market figures every day right through to the end—not so much out of an interest in the markets as far as I know—but as a little bit of mental exercise. He was afraid of dying and even more afraid of mental decline. I’ll have to keep counting for him. Today he would have turned 89.

Multi-lane manifesto: Expressway by Sina Queyras

My hometown does not do expressways very well. In places where it would be obvious to have them, we are late to the game. And each one is a crap shoot, even if you know it well. The first time you have to exit and cross three lanes of traffic in very short order, your head swivelled 180 degrees, just to travel from the expressway to the road you were trying to access you have to wonder: did anyone try this out before they opened it to the public?

When I was still in university I had a summer job where I sat in a building the size of an outhouse, just off the Trans-Canada highway and tourists, just entering the city limits, could pull over and ask for directions. This was long before the era of google maps, GPS, even cell phones. We’re talking printed maps and a highlighter pen. I did my best to give instructions but, to be honest, there was—and still is—so little consistency I was often at a loss to say more than: Watch for the signs. I developed a theory that year that I still hold to. I reasoned that every civil engineering student at risk of a failing grade was given a chance to redeem themselves by designing a single interchange along one of the major thoroughfares. And that’s why no two are alike and some simply defy the imagination.

Canadian poet Sina Queyras completed her 2009 collection Expressways while here at the University of Calgary on a residency. I’m curious as to whether our ad hoc roadway system coloured this poetic critique of the social and ecological impact of the spreading network of asphalt arteries and veins that criss-cross our nations.  Her poems speak to the memory of a romanticized landscape of the past on a collision course with an increasingly isolated, technologically driven future. The opening piece “Solitary” sets the tone, with the call to consider what is a risk with the continued push to interconnect places, at the cost of connection to the land and to one another. The final stanzas read:

Wagon train, trail of tears, what aggregate composition,
What filleted history, what strata, what subplates,
What tectonic metaphor, what recoil, what never

Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, then endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the clover leaf,

Perspective of elevation, the royalty of those views,
The Schuylkill, the Hudson, the Niagara, the skylines,
The people in their houses, passing women, men

Dressing, men unearthing, smoke pluming, what
Future? What the apple tree remembered? Not
Even the sound of fruit. If a body is no longer a body,

Where is memory? If a text is no longer a text,
Where is body? If a city is no longer a city, what road?
If future no longer has future, where does it look?

She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back.
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.

As ever, I am not an effective critic of poetry. I like it, I read it. Sometimes, but entirely by accident, I write it. But I do know when poet’s work works for me. This collection is a strong, cohesive, and passionate manifesto evoking the poem as a means to challenge the ethics of the expressway—in its concrete and abstract context. A call to recognize what is at stake:

This poem resembles urban sprawl. This poem resembles the freedom to charge a fee. The fee occurs in the gaps. It is an event. It is not without precedent. It is a moment in which you pay money. It is a tribute to freedom of choice.
(from “Acceptable Dissociations”)

At times Queyras echoes of the Romantic poets, even borrows their words. The text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals provides the material for “Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere” which, falling mid-way through the collection, casts a pastoral mood, a look back to the dream of a simpler time, closer to nature. But it is an ideal. The Industrial Revolution was, by 1800, set the groundwork for the technological and economic developments that would ultimately allow for the building of major roadways, and the vehicles to fill them. Other pieces are firmly bound to the present, most notably “Crash” which is assembled from fragments salvaged from google searches. Others stare directly at the future—here darkly, there with a vision of reclamation.

Expressway works as a rhythmic, lyrical cautionary tale. A call to undo harm. But, roads seem to be growing wider, interchanges multiplying. Especially here in North America where spaces are wide and the car is still king. That is, Queyras argues no reason not to strain to hear above the din of the traffic.

I am weary. I walk and walk and meanwhile the expressway hums . . .

What for weary? We all hum.

I am weary. I have so little hope.

Weary, maybe. But, no hope? For that there is never an appropriate time.

Sina Queyras lives in Montreal. Last fall I had the opportunity to hear her read from her latest work. This reflection/review was written in recognition of National Poetry Month in Canada and the US.

Expressway is published by Coach House Books.

Looking ahead to adventure, challenge, and healing

As I write this, it is mid-afternoon on Saturday, April 15, and it’s +3C with light snow. I am truly quite finished with this endless, last gasp of winter. In one month’s time I will be in Australia (where it will already be the 16th and, if all goes well, the “extreme walk” into the outback I have traveled to take part in will be well under way). I am excited and a little nervous about the challenge ahead, but above all I am looking forward to being “off the grid” for the better part of two weeks with plenty of time to process some of the internal baggage I’ve been carrying as I undertake this long and demanding journey into a landscape I never imagined I would have the opportunity to experience.

Some of my regular readers may know that two years ago, following a trip to South Africa, I nearly lost my life. I should have known better, but I was sorely ill-prepared for the effects of extended travel on planes and buses. I did everything wrong and failed to recognize the warning signs of impending danger. After surviving this critical event, I found myself afraid of risking extensive physical activity, even after receiving a clean bill of health on all counts. This is, I learned, a not uncommon, if misguided, response.

One of my first longer training sessions.
Better weather earlier this week. Did not last.

Naturally, I ended up hopelessly out of shape. In pushing myself into an enthusiastic training regime earlier this year, I soon found myself with an inflamed bursa and torn meniscus on my right knee. Cue the physiotherapist. My knee has responded very well—I am walking without pain for the first time in months and now, if only the weather would cooperate just a little, I will be as good to go as I am likely to be.

Which will hopefully be good enough.

This little venture is a mere 223 km/11 day hike over mountain ranges. What could possibly go wrong? (Don’t answer that!) If you are interested, I invite you to check out the site—the Larapinta Extreme Walk is a fundraising event created by fellow book blogger Tony Messenger (Messenger’s Booker) in support of a vital Aboriginal women’s initiative. Donations can be made if desired; every little bit helps.

Where I’m heading to. From: http://www.larapintaextremewalk.com.au/

As much as I am looking forward to this experience as an opportunity to reflect, grieve, journal and, with luck, open up the writer’s block that has dogged me these past few months, I am also very excited to have the opportunity for some serious bookish conversation along the way. And before I head home I will have a few days each in Melbourne and Sydney, where I already have tentative plans to catch up with other readers and literary-minded folk, as well as an online photography friend I have known for years but never met.

So wish me well as I continue to train, and as I get the reading, reviews, and writing I’m presently committed to completed in advance of my trip.

Looking back in anger: A personal reflection on World Bipolar Day

You might as well haul up
This wave’s green peak on wire
To prevent fall, or anchor the fluent air
In quartz, as crack your skull to keep
These two most perishable lovers from the touch
That will kindle angels’ envy, scorch and drop
Their fond hearts charred as any match.

Seek no stony camera-eye to fix
The passing dazzle of each face
In black and white, or put on ice
Mouth’s instant flare for future looks;
Stars shoot their petals, and suns run to seed,
However you may sweat to hold such darling wrecks
Hived like honey in your head.

—from Sylvia Plath, “Epitaph for Flower and Fire”

I have known mania, and the imagery in this poem sparks with an intensity that excites and disturbs. When I encounter the words of one of the many poets known (or thought) to share (or have shared) the same affliction, I often find an undercurrent that causes me to flinch for just a second. Not that it diminishes the beauty or power of their words in any way—it is rather an echo in the dark, a faint recognition flashing by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2012

It is World Bipolar Day, and this is the first time I have stopped to recognize the fact. I have spoken in, and around, my own bipolar diagnosis, but I have never addressed it formally in my writing. Even now I find myself uncomfortable discussing it. On the one hand, I am fortunate. I respond well to medication. I am, to use that distasteful term, “high-functioning.” But I do harbor a deep anger toward this condition that was part of my life many years before I finally careened through a brutal month of manic psychosis and found myself committed, and ultimately diagnosed, at the age of 36. I was, in classic bipolar fashion, the last person to suspect that I had a mental illness. Even though I, and those around me, knew something was terribly wrong, the stigma and lack of understanding around mood disorders—not to mention the radically impaired insight the sufferer has when they are ill—stands as a barrier to timely intervention. And then there is the matter of actually accessing care. One almost has to crash completely—by which time it can be too late.

Between my first manic episode in 1997 and the second in 2014, I experienced more than sixteen years of stability. I transitioned, became a single male parent, built a career out of nothing, and eventually became the Program Manager at an agency dedicated to working with survivors of acquired brain injury. I loved my job. Looking back, I can now see how the last few years of that period were marked by an increasing tendency toward hypomania. With my psychiatrist’s support I cut my medication back. And then things started to fall apart at work—things beyond my control, but it fell to me to try to pull things together. Then I started to fall apart at work, until I spiraled into full blown mania. Not psychotic, but it matters little. The damage was done.

The agency I worked for, dedicated as they are to supporting clients with disabilities including co-morbid mental illnesses, treated me with distrust bordering on contempt. My only contact with them has been conducted through a workplace advocate and my insurance worker. When return to work was discussed they refused to consider any possibility that I could work there again. Almost three years later with long term disability finally at an end, they still have my personal belongings.

Nine years of employment and dedication to that job now stand as a gaping hole in my life—a life already filled with gaping holes. And that is one of the reasons I hesitate to talk about mental illness (although I have never hidden my diagnosis). What can I say? Bipolar is not my identity any more than transgender is. Both fuck up your life. Leave wounds that do not heal. Find you fumbling through mid-life with little to show for your years but a lot of things you can’t talk about. And periods of time you cannot even remember.

So this is why I find it hard to write about my experience with mental illness. There was a time, following my diagnosis, that I devoured everything I could find, just as, a year later I hunted for books on gender identity. Two pieces of a puzzle I had inhabited—the periodic mood swings and the persistent, life-long feeling that I was not the female person everyone else knew me to be—had finally fallen into place. I had two, if you wish to be specific, explanations that come neatly labelled and defined within the covers of the DSM. It was, for a while, a source of relief.

Today I rarely read any literature that deals with mental illness or gender. But I am aware, more than ever, of being doubly stigmatized. And, most painfully, within the spaces where you would expect acceptance—in the human services profession and within the queer community. Thus the anger.

And what is this anger? Grief. The deep griefs I carry, layered now with more recent bereavements. It has become, for me, an existential bitterness that plagues me, an inauthenticity that defines the way I intersect with the world.

The legacy of mental illness is this: after diagnosis I was advised not to dwell on the disease, not to talk to others with bipolar; I was not deemed “sick” enough to warrant outpatient support or psychiatric follow up. I was left, like so many others, to flounder in the dark. It would take seventeen years and a spectacular career-destroying crash before I was able to access proper psychiatric and psychological support. I am still lucky. I am stabilized. And the forced detour into what may become an early semi-retirement has afforded me a space to write.

Now I need to find a way to write my way through this weight of grief. And begin to heal.

I’ll leave the last word to Sylvia Plath, with the final (fifth) stanza of the poem quoted above:

Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick,
Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen,
And a languor of wax congeals the vein
No matter how fiercely lit; staunch contracts break
And recoil in the altering light: the radiant limb
Blows ash in each lover’s eye; the ardent look
Blackens flesh to bone and devours them.

—You can find out more about the International Bipolar Foundation here, and a prose poem I wrote to honour a dear friend who lost her desperate and brave battle to bipolar last year can be found here.

For World Poetry Day, excerpts from a few books on my bedside table

In honour of World Poetry Day (which at the moment, in my time zone, is still happening), I thought I would take a moment to look at some of the poetry currently on my bedside table. I sometimes write about the poetry I read, but do not feel equipped to formally review it. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying it, of course.

I read a lot of poetry in translation. It can, perhaps, be a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem in another language, but that’s not a reason to deny its worth. Poetry opens up worlds of experience in a way prose typically cannot. And when competing (or rather, complementary) translations emerge, I like to think of that as an opportunity to re-experience a piece of literature reflected through a somewhat different prism.

I have a fondness for collections, complete or selected, that allow me to sample a poet’s work across their career, and delight in the magic of opening a book randomly, finding words that strike home. The following pieces are taken from the works I have been spending time with lately:

Water binds me to your name.
Nothings is left of me except you.
Nothing is left of you except me—
a stranger caressing the thighs of a stranger.
O stranger, what will we do with what is left
of the stillness and the brief sleep between two myths?
Nothing carries us: neither path nor home.
Was this the same path from the beginning?
Or did our dreams find a Mongolian horse on a hill
and exchange us for him?
What shall we do?
What shall we do without exile?

—Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, without Exile?”, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, collected in Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press)

* * *

I’m a Child of this Century

I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
And wait for the caravan of the mad

—Abdellatif Laâbi, from Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated from French by André Naffi-Sahely (Caranet Press)

* * *

Every day wakes up to some abuse
in my monologue is
embedded the legend of my sorrow,
with thousand year-old grief
I prevailed over my dirty life,
but not over the rationality of the winter cold . . .

In taprooms you rip off
the tattered shreds of your tragedy,
no forest, no merit, no archangel . . .

Above your poetry a swarm of birds mows
mows and mows a life imploring . . .
nothing for anyone
in the proximity of this dream,
nothing for worldly lovers . . .

Fruit of rottenness,
a wicked sun . . .
Temple ruins, broken pieces gathering
on the rediscovered shore . . .
in gloomy courtyards books opening . . .
Verses on abandoned walls . . .

. . . not the perfect one,
not the dead man, who drove you into the cities . . .
Trust in your song.
You plough the earth with your fragments,
cold begot you . . .
You, left behind by your creators . . .

—Thomas Bernhard, from Collected Poems, translated from German by James Reidel (forthcoming from Seagull Books)

Thoughts on writing about Witness by Robert Rient for Minor Literature[s]

For all its sins, Twitter is still a terrific way to connect with readers, writers, translators and small publishers and, in the process, hear about books you might otherwise miss. Witness by Polish writer and psychologist, Robert Rient, is a case in point. I came to know of it by way of the translator, Frank Garrett, and was immediately intrigued by this story of a man who grew up gay and Jehovah’s Witness in Catholic Poland. I ordered the book and, as soon as it arrived, I had a quick look and immediately knew it was the type of book for which I would want to pitch a critical review.

I am intrigued by original approaches to memoir writing, that is, rrient-witnessintentional writing about ones’ own experience. In Witness, the story is carried by Luke, the writer’s younger self—the boy and young man torn between his faith community and his sexuality—and Robert, the grown man who marks his break with his past and his rebirth as a whole person, true to himself, by taking a new name and identity. Woven through these two narratives is a fascinating look inside the Jehovah’s Witness church. As someone with a dual identity history, albeit different in nature, I found a lot to admire in the telling of this story, as well as in Robert’s honesty and the powerful transformation he chooses to make to mark his move forward into a new authentic life.

My review is now live at Minor Literature[s]. Thank you to Tomoé Hill for entertaining my contribution.

On being lonely, and attempting to write my way out: A brief reflection

Words are lumpy, awkward, and unwieldy these days. Frozen, they neither form nor flow. I would like to blame it on the times, the weather—anything but this emptiness I can’t shake.

I used to say: I’m a loner, but I’m never lonely.

These days I’m lonely, even when I am not alone.

8460394828_a318b259c7_bI am reluctant to write about this. I can remember listening to others complain about being lonely—even when their lives were filled with activities and people—and wonder how they could talk that way. More critically, I blamed them. It must be something in them, I reasoned, a bitterness or despondency that drives others away.

And now that person is me.

I understand the sense of alienation—and the way it can so easily be reflected in a coldness borne of anger and pain. Loneliness engenders a void that fills the space between the self and others. A space that grows and pushes the lonely person farther away.

I’ve been reading about loneliness of late. In an essay published on Aeon last July, Cody Delistraty argues that for all its pain, loneliness can build character. It can be a positive experience.

Assuming one emerges, that is.

Depression, cognitive damage, and suicide are very real risks for those for whom loneliness becomes chronic. Delistraty’s thesis is self-serving. He goes to Paris seeking a period of solitude and finds himself irritated by a lonely woman who desperately craves someone to talk to. Choosing to isolate one’s self for a period of time—to recharge, to create, to write—is a deliberate, and hopefully productive, act. In The Lonely City, for example, Olivia Laing chronicles her experience being alone in New York City. I read it last year and related to her observations, but at that time I was still grounded by two important people in my life. One year later, both of them are gone.

And loneliness is very hard to bear.

As a loner, I was always careful to balance my tendency to isolate against work that was people focused. When I unexpectedly had to leave my workplace several years ago, I instantly became aware of the void that had developed over years of living closeted, as a man with no past. Unable to work, I sought to find a community where I could be out, be myself, but that seems to be a space that exists most authentically only when I write. In my experience, the LGBT “community”—at least in my age range, in my city—is not as supportive of diversity as one might imagine.

So if it is in writing that I find the freedom to be myself, how to exist beyond the page? Alone?

I will have to find a way to write through, above and beyond this loneliness, I suppose.

And find out where it takes me.

*Photograph by Joseph Schreiber, copyright 2013