COMING HOME: Essays, by Tim Lilburn, Anansi, 200 pages, $21.95
PERSONAL HISTORY, by Roo Borson, Pedlar Press, 106 pages, $20
J UST LOOKING: And Other Essays, by Helen Mclean, Seraphim, 122 pages, $16.95
PATHOLOGIES: A Life in Essays, by Susan Olding, Freehand, 272 pages, $24
LOVING THE DIFFICULTY, by Jane Rule, Hedgerow, 205 pages, $21.95
OPENING GAMBITS: Essays on Art and Philosophy, by Mark Kingwell, Key Porter, 293 pages, $29.95
Opaque "sung therapy" is what, for the most part, played at the Alanis Morissette concert I attended recently, save for when the hard, memorable edges of her early, affecting anthems jutted and rang out. During the long gaps between them, a weedless haze seemed to hang over me, mixed with a vague, frustrating urge to grab onto something real.
I relay this, unrelated as it may seem to the reviewing task, both because it exemplifies how mood and inclination affect the reception of art and because it best describes my experience with, and response to, Roo Borson's Personal History and Tim Lilburn's Going Home. Both authors possess award-winning talent, both have produced essays in well-combed volumes which contain poetry that isn't prose, prose that isn't poetry; fog, in other words, lacking, as Montaigne put it, "speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty … as vehement and brusque."
In attempting to resuscitate our North American lack of attentiveness and our lapsed ability to feed on place, Lilburn weds an erudite if recondite "walk beside a line of texts" with musings on how to "be in" Saskatchewan. Exegeses of the erotics of Plato, the works of John Cassian and "Europe's true erotic masterwork," The Cloud of Unknowing, along with "sporadic mulling" of the works on which these books depend, including the Odyssey, are bound in the same book with thoughts on how Buddhist-type contemplative practice can be achieved from the correction and training of desire.
Lilburn is a deep, serious thinker. These essays are difficult. Not the preferred fare, I'd say, of most Sunday afternoon readers. They are perhaps best read and studied within the confines of a seminary, augmented by the tutelage of an articulate, well-meaning scholar. A toke or two might not hurt, either.
Speaking of which, Roo Borson's essays take us too into a world of fuzziness. Hallucinogenic they are, almost. Psychedelic. Here's a description of Southern Ontario: "The abandoned silos and mills, factories and industrial stacks, loom up like shadows of themselves, like grey hulking Chartres in the pre-dawn." Here's a painting that "looks at me with its blueness and translucent whiteness until I come into the living room where it hangs on the wall."
To follow recently deceased literary critic John Leonard's practice of writing not about how "good or bad" a book is, but rather on how it is best read, I'd say Borson's should be read in a wide bath of patience. Although at times beautiful (berries weighing their canes in "graceful arcs," and the like), a preponderance of deep, unanswerable questions about art, plus palettes full of ethereal descriptives, submerge many of these essays, suffocating and ultimately rendering unsuccessful the search for substance. Despite, or perhaps because of their poetic elegance, they suffer from a lack of tangible definition. The experience is rather like reading Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. You know something important is being said, but damned if the words express it.
In contrast, little guesswork is required in Helen McLean's Just Looking. She tells us exactly what she thinks about art, and life, and aging, and looking. Over-cerebralizing, she says early on, diminishes the direct perception of what is before one's eyes. "Becoming aware of oneself as observer is the death of observation. Oh, I can still see the landscape, but it has separated itself into parts that can't be put together again. The scene has ceased to be a whole. I have particularized it to death."
The only way she has been able to unfracture the fractured, McLean tells us, is by translating it into paint and canvas; in so doing, she experiences feelings both of timelessness and loss of self. When you are addicted to looking, she says, you are forever being thrown off balance, shaken up, transported.
McLean's sweet, wise little book, reminiscent at times of Winston Churchill's Painting as Pastime, is filled with transporting observations, and very much worth reading.
Wise, too, is Susan Olding's Pathologies, filled with honest reflection on the relationship between a daughter and her father. There is no ether here, just raw - in some instances literal - sinew. For example, Olding's father, the pathologist, has just brought home a human heart: "The heart looked different, somehow, than I'd imagined. Bigger and smaller, both. Hard and soft at the same time, the ventricles like open eyes. I watched as he dried the thing off, wrapped it in a plastic bag and an old towel and placed it in a sturdy cardboard box." The book is filled with this kind of well-wrought, pithy observation about life, pain, parenting, illness and other essential components of human existence.
B.C. writer and social commentator Jane Rule, who died in 2007, also observes existence, here from a gay perspective, in her collection of beautifully lyrical pieces, Loving the Difficult. In the title essay, she frames the rest by informing us, "However hard it is, however frightening, however dubious the worldly rewards, I have lived my life doing what I want and love to do, practising in private, performing in public, offering the gifts I have against the silencing odds."
Hers are heartfelt writings filled with conviction and charming personal detail - Indian baskets, one-sided records, fishing rods, tea cups, needlepoint-covered chairs, books, paintings - all culled from a lifetime of accomplishment.
Finally, in Opening Gambit, Mark Kingwell delivers what I think is the most substantive, engaging book of the lot by rooting in logic many of the free-range questions raised by the other essayists.
Kingwell examines, and puts into perspective, some of the most interesting art, and many of the most challenging artists and topical issues, of our time. Whether quoting the late David Foster Wallace on popular culture ("the symbolic representation of what people already believe"), determining whether photographer Edward Burtynsky is a crusader for sustainability or an unwitting purveyor of eco-porn, or explaining how painter David Bierk's works are intimately related from whole to parts, these essays not only intrigue and stimulate, they confer on their readers an authoritative, in-the-know chic.
By providing the wisdom of perspective - an intellectual grounding to the conversation - Kingwell makes sharp the innately fuzzy.
Here we pick up the jagged melodies sought at the outset of this article. Not answers, because they simply aren't forthcoming, but concrete definition. Explanation we can grip onto when surrounded by haze. Despite the occasional dead end, and the vexing presence of one too many "I will explore this position in a moment, later, in the next section," Open Gambits renders what is often excruciating into something as close to satisfying as can be found in the heedless run many of us make "from one longing to another."
Nigel Beale is an Ottawa writer/broadcaster who specializes in literary journalism. Read his litblog at www.nigelbeale.com.