I am afraid. We are entering a dark period in British Columbia and I don’t quite have the words to articulate my fear. I can point at the attacks on the World Trade Center and say “this is an act of violence and innocent people have suffered or are suffering,” the majority of people would agree with me. There are powerful visuals to back my statement and the violent action had immediate consequences. If I point to Premier Gordon Campbell’s reverse Robin Hood tactics (stealing from the poor to give to the rich) and say “this is an act of violence and innocent people have suffered, are suffering or will suffer,” I may encounter opposition. For every person, like myself, who critiques the current political climate with the language of apocalyptic metaphor (ie. Campbell’s government is the plague that is causing BC citizens to drop dead in the streets), there is someone thanking Campbell for his crack down on the province’s poor.
Every day I wake up feeling like a high school drama queen; every political decision the BC government delivers has tragic overtones. Each cutback results in more hungry children, more men and women facing unemployment and the possibility of homelessness. I’ve regressed to thinking about the issues in abstract terms: good versus evil, right versus wrong. I don’t have any answers or any constructive plans to put into action, but I’m worried about the effect drastic political decisions made today have on the future of those at or below the poverty line. I admit to having a leftist bias, but I don’t think that this bias nullifies the validity of my opinion. At the heart of my problem with the cutbacks and the government’s desire to stimulate the economy through tax breaks for big corporations is that the BC Liberals are failing to see the human factor in their budget balancing equation. Being prudent about expenditures is a responsible measure, but being prudent about expenditures at the expense of single mothers on welfare, senior citizens with limited funds, and civil servants who have devoted their careers to public service, is—in polite terms—an oversight. The government’s decision to replace our social safety net with social Darwinism lacks compassion. Did Campbell and the other seventy-six Liberals miss the day of kindergarten where the lesson was about sharing? I’m about to descend into a full scale rant, so I’ll move onto the discussion of books.
After six years of university, studying both the theory and practice of literature, I can pinpoint the single thing—quality of language aside—that determines the fundamental difference between a good poem and a bad poem. A good poem is rich in specific detail and a bad poem is full of abstractions.
By this simple criteria, I’m happy to report that Tammy Armstrong’s debut book of poetry is excellent. Her poems are lush in content, but controlled in form; each line of her book sings because there are no extraneous words holding back the flow of each poem. Many of the poems have a first person narrator, evoking an immediate intimacy. The recurring motifs of troubled family relationships, shifting landscapes described with deft word choice, and underlying presence of alcohol create potent portraits documenting the climate of declining personal fortunes. This use of landscape as metaphor for interpersonal breakdown due to problems of communication is best exemplified by the closing lines of Armstrong’s poem “Asleep in Palm Desert”:
“Splinter fingers raised—they waited beyond the porch light to pinion our/tongues—the heart of our crumbling landscape.”
(Arsenal Pulp Press)
Judy MacDonald’s follow up to her novel Jane is called Grey and subtitled “Stories for Grown-ups.” Grey is a number of thematically connected short stories that build from childhood (the first story comes across as a first memory, and the second story is about breast-feeding), high school life, first love, to retirement and old age. All the stories contain a character who experiences some sort of alienation, whether it be a disconnection to one’s parents, the inability to communicate with a significant other, or loneliness felt at the loss of a life partner. Some of the stories are short, some are long. All are sparse and skilfully crafted. The shorter stories initially frustrated me because, as MacDonald writes in the last line of “Target Equals Blank”: “Their story really starts once they get in the door”. Many of the shorter stories end with a character just entering what I thought was the meat of the situation. I was so caught up in the world of the stories that some endings seemed abrupt.
In the larger scope of the work, Grey delivers thematic punch; the smaller stories do connect together to ignite the collection. At the conclusion of the collection, I reached an understanding of the shorter pieces and my frustration dissipated. “boygirlhappy” is a beautiful story where the characters get past alienation and find the answers within themselves and each other. In the story “Award Winning,” there is a perfect sentence that encapsulates what many of MacDonald’s characters feel: “Drunk on humiliation.”
Out of desolation and misunderstanding, Grey exudes a quiet hopefulness. I’m going to meditate on this positive quality and try to make sense of my world. •