At a recent Descant editorial meeting, I asked if anyone would like to review Laurie D Graham’s debut book of poetry, Rove. Descant’s volunteers are busy people and I expected to have to wait a few seconds while folks considered their schedules and whether or not they could fit in another — No, wait, there’s a hand! No, wait, that’s… two hands? Two hands waved back at me. Justin Lauzon and Jack Hostrawser, two of our newest volunteers, offered to review Rove. The boisterous meeting conversation that ensued resulted in what I’m going to call a “twoview,” a review of one book, by two people, in conversation with each other.
Here’s how they did it, according to Jack:
Why stop there? I asked Laurie D Graham, author of Rove, if she would like to respond to the twoview conversation and she agreed, despite the fact that it was end-of-term mayhem for her, as an instructor. One of the twoview fellas did look online to find out more about Laurie (of course, who wouldn’t?). I’m not going to say he was intimidated by her credentials, but he was impressed. But what Justin and Jack didn’t know, and couldn’t (easily) find out online is that Laurie D Graham has volunteered with Descant. She was the Production Editor for our Dance issue (#147), and was Guest Editor for The Hidden City issue (#160). Her twoviewers didn’t know any of this when they reviewed Rove, which I think was appropriate.
“We both took the book and read it separately, gathering notes and things like that. Then we started discussing it by email. Justin (for example) would raise a few points and give his reasons and I would respond. I think doing it by email was a helpful choice because it gave each of us the space to develop our argument before the other would see it, so we were able to be very clear and thoughtful. By the end we realized that what we had written could actually be pretty easily massaged into the format you see now.”
Nor have they seen her responses. They will be reading this for the first time, with you. As we’ve never done this before, your comments, at the end of the credits below, are appreciated.
All of us at Descant would like to congratulate Laurie, whose debut poetry collection was recently shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award.
Laurie D Graham’s Rove traces the heartbeat of Canadian prairie life as it is experienced across generations. The family farm is balanced against suburban growth in this lyrical long-poem as both are challenged by monotony, tradition, and mortality. With strikingly poignant, affecting images, Rove investigates the memory of a young woman, a family, and ultimately a town, all marked by the changing rural domestic landscape of Canada. [Justin]
Jack: Graham’s voice was strong throughout. What spoke to me was the need behind it. She figures us in the creation of this world with her imperatives–commanding us to say the lines and speak the places into existence. We become complicit in the world’s existence and I think that comes with a responsibility–or maybe the book is trying to figure it out.
Justin: She asks us to do more than just “say,” though. She tells us to see, remember, swear, look. From the first page, I found out right away that Graham writes poetry that doesn’t allow you to take the backseat. Reading her work, you’re always there, hip to hip with the speaker. It’s all in her elegant, constantly measured language. I love it.
Jack: Yeah, me too.
Laurie: Those commands you mention—“say,” “see,” “remember”— were an idea that came from my editor, Harold Rhenisch. He detected a pattern of imperatives when we were editing, and he saw that mode as a way of unifying the text. I like how it turned out: complicity is the result, and the reader becomes quite active in the space of the book. To turn towards the reader so often was a new move for me, but soon I could see that it was cutting the tone of uncertainty a bit, and helping to carry the loss that gets so big and heavy in places.
Justin: I know we’re both fiction readers, but while Rove comes close to a narrative poem, I wouldn’t classify it as that. It seems to balance between a collection of poems and a poem-cycle, something like a short story cycle, where most of the poems stand on their own, while being part of a larger picture.
Laurie: Funny you should say that: the book started out as a series of separate, titled poems, and it transformed into a long poem or a cycle of poems during editing, so it makes sense that you’d catch moments of autonomy from page to page, or traces of a former separateness.
I feel as if Graham acts as a guide in a museum, taking a tour group through a gallery of linked exhibits. Each poem feels like a new exhibit in a larger show, presenting a different piece of a small Canadian town.
Jack: I had an idea like that. It’s like, going home. Or, better, going Home. The ideal of home. Going back after fleeing the nest when you’re young, you notice how run down (metaphorically, maybe) it has become since you were a kid. And part of growing up is realizing that just as a parent can die (how? it seems so impossible) a land can die too. You wonder if it can be changed back and the answer’s always no.
Justin: I got that feeling of returning Home as well. Graham writes it almost as a memory, or a dream of a memory, where we all get to go back somewhere we once knew, but we don’t really know it anymore, and those two forces are clashing, trying to reconcile.
Laurie: I think I was putting things like memory, desire, and “Home” up against time and a system of thought that says Destroy everything if it makes you a buck. The loss that results might yield that dream-like quality or that sense of reeling you picked up.
Jack: It’s as old as Odysseus, at least – you can’t go home. It won’t be there when you arrive, even if the building still stands. The prairies are a lonely place – it’s been said over and over, but in Rove it’s clearly true. It’s… I’d call it post-apocalyptic, in the biblical sense (as in, a revelation).
Laurie: The prairie is also, overwhelmingly, a gigantic industrial complex. It has its pockets of nature and it’s sparsely peopled, but the grand colonial idea was to alter the land so that it can be a means of survival for people from elsewhere. And now, even more so, it’s a means of population management, furnishing a fair chunk of the globe with its couple of food groups. (Enter Loss, once more… And boy, don’t get me started on the prairies, eh.)
Justin: She exposes this theme as a universal experience. By the end, I actually had that feeling of missing something now lost.
Jack: Is it just me getting the Bible-allusion sense from it?
Justin: Actually, yeah. I didn’t get a sense of that.
Jack: It all seems like a post-Eden narrative. The way Graham interrogates memory, that desire for “home” and the lonely desolation of the plains. Or maybe the plains today versus some imagined ancient version. There is this theme of mortality, like the town is an Eden that has fallen – a lot of sublime prairie imagery marred by dealerships and plastic bags.
Justin: It’s amazing, though, that despite all these expansive, old-as-literature themes, she still writes in such an elegant way that has me turning the page, always excited about the next poem.
Jack: Yeah, I know. The narrative thread that binds each little movement is strong and I like that a lot. But it’s still very much poetry and she develops it beautifully into an important revelation: by the end, as the speaker’s father (I couldn’t figure that out) is dying, it begins to seem like there was never a fall at all, but only our denial of death and the end of things.
Justin: As far as I can tell, it’s the speaker’s mother who is in the hospital – there are poems with ‘Dad’ in the hospital scenes, and I’m quite sure it’s a parent that has fallen ill.
Jack: Okay. That sounds right. Either way, the point is still the same. The speaker is beginning to discover that death can be (and is) a beautiful thing. Sublime is the word; death smacks us around and forces us to admit we are only deceiving ourselves by pretending we are in control.
Laurie: Funny that you saw the father and death. That’s a reading I wouldn’t have predicted. In my head, it’s actually the mother suffering amnesia, but one by no means has to read it that way. I think I was trying to frame it as a sort of potential death or near-death, anyway. My hope through the last third of the book is that one can perceive things variously and interpret what one needs to interpret, at will.
Justin: There is so much to learn from Graham’s writing, both as a reader and a writer. It’s baffling how she is able to use so few words to create such vast meaning. From the miniscule idiosyncrasies of prairie life to learning how to grapple with mortality, her writing captures that sublime force you mentioned before, and that I think we’re all trying to find.
Jack: I really felt that the book came together with this piece, near the middle where the book shifts:
If there’s calm in belonging.
Like when there’s a storm and the power goes out:
if there’s a thinning, nothing to do but look out your window,
the trees that make you,
bending. Cacophony of throat and ribcage; the lodged
song out of tune.
Something about need and order. And loss can behave like blessing,
but it’s always loss.
It’s hard to explain it without trying to explain everything, at least how I’m reading it, but the enjambment and the wording are great. “The trees that make you, / bending…” is so kinetic and unnerving. You get used to trees as solemn and massive things. Then you see them being thrashed around in a storm and it just seems wrong. A “song out of tune,” for sure.
Justin: I enjoyed how she describes the land against the changing times, always in tight, specific lines: “See the grass-green, the oil refinery, the tight grey brickwork of a city/shamed to forgetfulness. Big Bear, look, these brick lanes/are the reason you were starved off.” The memory of the land – just wonderful.
Jack: Definitely. Remembering becomes an act of loyalty. [Laurie:That’s a great line. I’m writing that one down.] These memories are your inheritances, it seems to say, and you don’t get to negotiate. A lonesome prairie highway comes with trash and old grocery bags. There is a dead magpie in the ditch. See, the book says. This is the truth, look at it. What are we remembering for—is it for those gone, or to pacify ourselves? Cafeteria workers smoke behind the school. People buy suburban homes. A few, spare trees are left around a Pontiac dealership. The book explains that these things must also be remembered.
Justin: She’s a wonderful wordsmith, but I found at times she may have pushed the poetic language a little farther than it was willing to stretch. There’s a line I’m still trying to understand: “And an ache like the poverty of old juice on a store-shelf/ for a moment. Then it’s not.” There were a few of these moments in the book, and it brought me out of the narrative to puzzle over how a beautiful combination of words could confuse me so.
Jack: I remember that line. You’re right. Looking back, yeah, you could make that argument. There are points where it felt as if the book reached just like you’re saying and the mystery verged on just being vague. It might be intentional, though, playing on that interrogation of memory we talked about earlier.
Justin: Definitely. But that’s one of the problems I have with the text – there’s sometimes a lack of clarity. Very rarely, but it happens. Some poems seem superfluous to the meaning of the rest. They are not always as focused as I’d like them to be. Near the middle of the book, Graham starts a poem with “Whistling,” taking us through a variety of images that are seemingly unrelated to the place or subject in the poems that surround them. The few instances like this one are slightly jarring for the reader. That said, I’m still astonished that this is her first book. On the whole, it doesn’t feel like it at all.
Laurie: I know what you’re talking about here. I think you’re right: there were some groups of moments and images that simply refused to come clear. They wouldn’t wash in any way that led to sense. The section that starts with “Whistling” is a good example. We’re aimless through there, in my head at least: in the bush, then in a parking lot, wandering against traffic, then beside water, in the childhood backyard. Or rather than aimless, we’re concerned with things other than what’s picked up by the senses. It has something to do with those “trees that make you / bending.” I too felt, and still feel, frustrated through the places you mention, come to think of it.
Jack: I am inclined to overlook those problematic moments just on account of how powerfully her speaker carried me along. Right up to the excellent ending, I was turning page after page. A child points out the window at the scenery going by. “Look,” it says, but we don’t look at the prairie. We can’t go home, but perhaps we can make another. If more poetry like this fell into my lap, I would read a lot more poetry.
Justin Lauzon is a writer and teacher from Oakville, deeply interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, The Alternate Take, here.
Jack Hostrawser is an award-winning writer of mostly realist fiction who has begun exploring the world of poetry. His writing has been featured in The Fieldstone Review, Steel Bananas, Existere and In The Hills Magazine (read that story here).
Laurie D Graham grew up in Sherwood Park, Alberta, and now lives in London, Ontario, where she is a poet, book reviewer, teacher, and editor of Brick, A Literary Journal. Her work has appeared in numerous Canadian journals and anthologies, and her first book, Rove, has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award.