Barbara Black

The Freedom in American Songs

By 
Kathleen Winter
Biblioasis, 165 pages, $19.95
2015
Reviewed by 
Barbara Black

Once in a while, a writer comes along who speaks to your heart, gut, and funny bone all at the same time. Kathleen Winter is one of those writers. 

Her story “Knives,” from her engaging short story collection The Freedom in American Songs, starts breezily—a boy with circus skills regularly strides by his birth father’s house on stilts in full view of the man’s wife, who doesn’t know about the boy’s existence. But the tone shifts at the climax in a gut-wrenching scene involving the husband, wife, secret son, and onlookers. Here, Winter spools out an extended metaphor that captures the moment the wife’s worldview shifts. The narrator says, “I glimpsed furniture and other large pieces of equipment being shifted within the darkness of her watchful eyes—stagehands clad all in black moved silently in that darkness rearranging her set.”

Winter has a comic’s timing and a dramatist’s flinty eye. Her narratives often unfold like a runaway train, honing in on the frailties of her characters and drawing them out in an off-kilter but deeply humane fashion. She puts characters together and allows their personalities to subtly or spectacularly clash, creating reverberations beyond individual lives. Her characters often have not life-affirming revelations, but misperceptions which inadvertently create a bubble of short-lived happiness until the character is disabused of this illusion. She’s a master of the ironic register. 

She’s also adept at hijacking our expectations for the story’s trajectory. In “Handsome Devil” the story points in a certain direction (an encounter with a good-looking man), but then—because of the main character’s devil-may-care attitude at being stood up—veers off on a different tack. A divorced guy “with a rum gut,” who carves duck decoys and packs a mean picnic basket, turns up at her door and an unlikely, ultimately doomed bond develops out of what is essentially a pity party. Many of her characters are seeking a connection with others. Sometimes the connections yield results, but most often, a poor choice leaves the character feeling she doesn’t belong, and the story ends with a “negative” epiphany.

A subtle thread runs through this collection: a ‘woman of a certain age’ not entirely in command of herself, susceptible to poor judgment or inadequate resolve ends up in unexpected situations. Miraculously, the narrative steers clear of bathos and tragedy, blazing a trail in that deeply satisfying place in between. A fabulously entertaining and absorbing read.

A Bitter Mood of Clouds

Bitter moods of clouds
By 
Vivian Hansen
Frontenac House, 72 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by 
Barbara Black

You may think that in the age of Twitter, poets would shun the outsized proportions of a long poem. Thank goodness some don’t. Calgary writer Vivian Hansen has chosen the ideal form for exploring the interconnectivity of generations and cultural/personal identity in her narrative long poem, A Bitter Mood of Clouds.

Hansen, whose work has explored women’s issues, landscape, and immigration, creates a vast lyrical space in which to unfold the story of Anna/Arne, a hermaphroditic predecessor, who, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, struggles with gender identity. The scope is threefold: primal, past, and present. The landscape is occupied by Nazis, Fates, ancestors, and shared dreams.

The opening lines instantly set the tone, describing Anna/Arne’s birth in the register of mythic verse. Jordemor is both midwife and the jorde-mor or mythic earthmother:

Jordemor is satisfied,
the baby’s head appearing
as a bloodied harvest moon,
...
Goddesses of disir have departed
already, shrieking

With Anna’s appearance come the Norns, pagan spirits of destiny who occupy Yggdrasil and influence human lives. They are Skyld, the future; Wyrd, the past; and Verdandi, the present. Their interpolations appear beside the main text as they observe, interfere with, and sometimes change outcomes. When the ancestors move to the new world and are severed from their culture and landscape, the Norns disappear. But they reappear at poem’s end through the narrator’s re-engagement with her past.

Hansen’s depiction of Arne and the tenderness with which his mother and family members embrace him is convincing and affecting (not polemic). His cousin Marta (the narrator’s mother), who has an affinity with supernatural/psychic phenomena, accepts him fully. When she meets the croaky-voiced “girl”:

Ham-Anna stands feral and stoney
like a hedgehog avoiding a stick …
Ham-Anna reminds her of the Norns …
… they have summoned
the source of their covenant:
it is about Kin.

The one false note, however, was the moment Arne spoke in his “own” male voice, which seemed poetically unconvincing.

I initially resisted the prosaic poems of the present, which sounded more mundane than the narrative about Arne. Without the supernatural and the “territory symbolled with swastikas,” they felt strangely eventless. But on rereading, I understood that they were essential as one of the layers in this genealogical stratum.

Throughout the work Hansen deftly weaves references to slugs—themselves hermaphrodites—their vulnerability, their resemblance to female genitalia and tongues, and their habit of leaving behind silvery trails, not unlike the faint traces of ancestors still subtly present in our lives.

With its deep sense of place (“the peculiar greenspeak of bog”), the poem builds its weight cumulatively until the separate threads weave gradually into a single, greater fabric. It’s not always easy to sustain such a momentum, but Hansen has managed it eloquently.

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