I was ten when I first felt brave enough to say,
"sometimes, I just feel like I want to go home...
but I don't know where home is"
I was ten when I first felt brave enough to say,
Zoe Whittall on her recent “zeitgeist” book, sexual harassment in CanLit, how reviews for books by queer writers has changed since her early work, and what she is looking for in submissions to Room’s fiction contest this year.
“Trees, for me, are like humans,” writes Cassie, the young protagonist of Katherine Koller’s debut coming-of-age novel, Art Lessons. The first-person narrative opens with Cassie as a seven-year-old budding artist and traces her inner life for the next decade, trading the colourful crayons of her childhood for charcoal sticks, blossoming and changing like the trees she sketches over time.
As the story progresses and Cassie becomes more emotionally mature, so does her voice. The earlier chapters are defined by short, simplistic observations about the happenings around her; as Cassie grows older, her thoughts reveal a heightened understanding of how art is the thread that connects people near and far, “making lines like a net on the map of the world.” Just as when a tree is rooted and transplanted, but keeps its history within the heartwood—which Darryl, an old friend, describes as “the memory of the tree”—Cassie’s art is a vessel for shared memories.
While Cassie refers to literal trees—the ones that give life to her sketchbook—it’s the family tree that nourishes her, gives her strength, and helps her grow. It’s no surprise that Cassie becomes an artist in her own right; her mother makes quilts, while Babci—named after the Polish term for grandmother, babcia—is a talented seamstress. Cassie sees Babci’s arms as branches “giving her the air she needs,” while Babci’s hands are “seed cones” that take root in her heart, filling it with “purpose, wit and compassion.”
The image of a grandmother holding her granddaughter’s hands is an endearing moment, but also echoes the intergenerational artistry that nurtured both women to become fearless creators; Babci uses her hands to sew, much like Cassie uses hers to draw. Koller’s novel takes a refreshing angle on how a young woman becomes an artist, mentored and encouraged by other women who teach her not only about art, but about life. The look that Cassie’s mother gives her children is likened to how Cassie feels when she looks at her own art. “It’s the look you give your creation,” Cassie writes.
As a book that is meant to appeal to both young adult and adult readers, Koller’s writing style, like Cassie, evolves drastically from start to finish, which some readers may find challenging to follow. That said, Koller’s novel explores universal concepts of what it means to exist and grow, to root and transplant—as an artist, a woman, a human, a living thing. Art Lessons has the potential to take root in your heart—let it.
Nadia Siu Van is a Toronto-based writer and editor with an MA in English from Wilfrid Laurier University. She is currently the reviews editor at Shameless magazine, and has written for publications such as Ricepaper, Hyphen, and U of T Magazine.
Ut pictura poesis (“Just as painting, so, too, poetry”), perhaps the most famous line of Horace’s Epistola ad Pisones (“Letter to the Piso Brothers”), is quoted toward the middle of Susan McCaslin’s fourteenth poetry collection, and could well have served as the book’s third epigraph (the collection opens on two quotations: one from Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne, the other from the painter himself). In this book, McCaslin explores Cézanne’s life and work, combining ekphrasis, character sketches, and lyric meditation. Beyond the post-impressionist himself, the poet is interested in considering his reception among other painters, philosophers, and writers, including the book’s speaker, an incarnation of McCaslin, whose peregrinations in France and British Columbia provide a structural backbone to the collection.
Not surprisingly, McCaslin considers some of Cézanne’s iconic paintings in a number of ekphrastic poems, which delight in their detailed, sometimes startling descriptions. So, for example, are “light-sculpted bathers / softened into a complex attention” in “Cézanne’s Sacre Coeur [sic] (Mont Sainte-Victoire),” while grasses are “chartreuse” in “Cézanne’s Baigneuses.” No less compelling are the poet’s portraits of Cézanne’s family and friends, like “La Mère,” which opens with a physical description:
Sombre in black
smudged gypsy cheekbones
white kerchief forming a slight widow’s peak
Why did he later douse her only portrait
in heavy black paint?
From there, the poem moves on to the rift between Cézanne and his family, illustrated by a biographical anecdote: “All we know / is that when Hortense burned his mother’s effects / he stumbled alone on the roadways / for hours”.
These portraits and references are accompanied by reflections on the painter’s place in art history. McCaslin also uses Cézanne’s life and paintings as a way to reflect on her writing. In “On Attending the Hungarian Sinfonetta’s Stabat Mater Concert (Église Saint Espirit [sic], Aix-en-Provence),” this reflection extends to a comparison with music, implicitly capable of something beyond the reach of poetry and the visual arts:
Sitting in the nave with Cézanne
who here regularly unaccountably attended mass
(convention? some deeper call?)
I wonder who wouldn’t turn to music—
this tingling in the cells
Elsewhere, Cézanne’s France and the speaker’s home in British Columbia converge in the poems “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Golden Ears” and “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Mount Baker.” In the former, the speaker wonders how Cézanne would react to the Canadian landscape: “If Cézanne could be airlifted here / would he be undone?” Similarly, she looks to Cézanne’s artistic career as a mirror for her own in the second of these poems: “His mont and my mountain / precedent antecedent to / us late coming artists and poets”. These digressions stray somewhat from the sparkle of some of the earlier, more focused poems, but provide a nice sense of space in the volume. Part art criticism, part biography, part lyric journey, Painter, Poet, Mountain studies the intersection of inspiration, experience, and creation that is inherent to various forms of artistic expression.
Annick MacAskill’s poetry has appeared in journals including Room, The Fiddlehead, Arc, and CV2. Other work has been longlisted for the CBC’s Canada Writes Poetry Prize. She is the author of the chapbook Brotherly Love: Poems of Sappho and Charaxos (Frog Hollow Press, 2016). She currently lives in Kitchener.
“Where are our time machines?” asks the narrator in “Dear Sara I,” the first poem of Adèle Barclay’s debut collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You. Pulsing with an old-world, occult feel, Barclay’s poetry draws the reader back in time with its tarot readers, bearded ladies, riding caps, griffins, and witchery. Alcohol, cigarettes, and erotic desire lend a theatrical, 1920s-era noir feel to the reading.
Yet Barclay’s poems are both contemporary and relevant. Millennial anxieties are a common thread (“I’m so tired / I can’t even curate / a good life” or “our stupid hands / scratching at glass screens”), as is the desire for digital-era connection (“I watched the new Grimes video / hoping to find you in feathers”). The wry, often humorous voice of the narrator feels intimate and familiar, like that of the friend you’re in a semi-permanent state of physical separation with but still speak to every day, by “dial-up telepathy,” text messages, and handwritten letters. But here, the longing is also carnal, marked by blood, bruises, blisters, and body heat. If I Were in a Cage wonders aloud whether closeness is sustainable from afar.
A variety of expertly rendered settings reinforce this question. Within the first two poems, Barclay moves from the “slick jaws / of Brooklyn” to small-town Ontario, where “a grunge trio’s name / references Alice Munro.” In Montréal, “darkness in winter is anyone’s game,” while the Pacific Northwest is all “witchery, rain, chanterelles, and moss.” “I have destinations / to tally” writes Barclay, and whether it’s San Bernardino, Paris, Michigan, or rural Alberta, her deftly observed details safeguard the reader’s perception of each place.
“There’s language / and then there’s language” claims the narrator in “Grammar by the Minute,” and Barclay’s language is both keen and vivid (“The faucet / is a siren, the pipes freeze a rusted melody”), while sensations are contorted (“I’ve / turned Saturn / in my mouth / like an olive pit”) to defy our expectations. At times, it feels like Barclay is a magician pulling back the curtains of perception and memory to reveal something more enduring. The opening poem is one of six Dear Sara’s interspersed throughout this collection, and by “Dear Sara VI,” the final poem, time has passed and place names have changed, but it’s love that appears to endure. In its exploration of intimacy, If I Were in a Cage is at its most reverent and mystical.
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt’s fiction has recently appeared in (parenthetical), Matrix, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, and Room’s Canadian Gothic issue (39.3). She lives in Montréal, where she is at work on her first novel. Visit her at carlyrosalie.com or follow her on Twitter @carlyrosalie.
If I think about what I’m doing, I’ll never get off the plane. After all, it’s ridiculous to believe a computer program can predict two strangers will develop a meaningful relationship. It’s even more ridiculous to test that prediction by flying halfway across the country after a few dozen hours on Skype.
You know you’re ethnic as hell when your own smart devices immediately autocorrect your Korean name. Apparently, according to Apple, Jiyoon is incorrect. Instead, their devices offer a plethora of alternatives; the most notable being Jason, June, Jouoom (this one remains the most mysterious of the bunch), and even Jamie.
We are thrilled to announce the winners of our 2018 Creative Non-Fiction Contest, as selected by our esteemed judge Stacey May Fowles—novelist, sportswriter, and the author of essay collection, Baseball Life Advice. Please join us in congratulating the writers!
Vivek Shraya is an artist. Fluent in many mediums including music and the written word, Shraya is also the author of even this page is white, She of the Mountains and her upcoming book I’m Afraid of Men. Shraya released her album Part-Time Woman in 2017 and is one half of the music duo Too Attached, who blew the roof off Room Magazine’s Growing Room 2018 Festival Launch Party earlier this year. I had the pleasure of meeting the powerhouse that is Vivek Shraya at that launch party and jumped at the chance to speak with her again.
Currently on Newsstands
Room 41.3, Queer
Edited by Leah Golob
In this issue:
Adèle Barclay, Joelle Barron, Nicole Breit, Mary Chen, Lucas Crawford, Jen Currin, Pamela Dodds, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Jess Goldman, hannah harris-sutro, Leah Horlick, Sam Jowett, Ness Lee, Annick MacAskill, Alessandra Naccarato, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Marika Prokosh, Amal Rana, Siobhan Roca Payne, Leah Sandals, Hana Shafi, Arielle Spence, Samantha Sternberg, Sanchari Sur, K.B. Thors, Corey Turner, Jackie Wykes.