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Review: Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait, by Robert Kroetsch

A disclaimer: This book is not an autobiography. It is a gesture toward a self-portrait, which I take to be quite a different kettle of fish." - Robert Kroetsch


Too bad for readers, too bad for writers and abso-deffo too bad for poet, novelist, critical theorist, ex-professorial old-age pensioner, mischievous trickster and certifiable genius Robert Kroetsch, perhaps one of a half-dozen - oh, okay, maybe eight, tops - distinguished word-workers permanently ensconced in the penthouse of lyrical perfectitude, especially when it comes to versifyin', particularly when it comes to his freshest collection, the bloody brilliant Too Bad.

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Too much. Simply way too much too good too great:

Dear Mark Twain- Sir, I know you are not Mark Twain, you are Samuel Langhorne Clemens, of Hannibal, Missouri. But you are Mark Twain. I have a question. My wife and I, when we lived in Iowa City, followed the Mississippi down to your Hannibal. Yes, I know, you're from Missouri, show me. A pilgrimage of sorts. We watched the river, watched for Huck and Jim. Watched for you. No rafts in sight. The steamboats were for tourists. We found, in that 1960s town, a white picket fence. A sign said, Painted by Tom Sawyer. The paint was fresh. Tell us now, Sir, if you will, Who among us is not a fiction?

Dear Robert Kroetsch- Sir, I know you are not 2000's Rita K. Hornbook, you are Robert P. Kroetsch, of AB's Leduc. Yes, I know: Born in Heisler. 1927. A good year for liars. One of the best. Luminous lifer. Except when you left your province. But you always returned. My wife and I, we read everything you write. We know you better than you know yourself. That's not true. Douglas Barbour is. Tell the truth. Dream a fiction. Conjure a universe, enclosured, opened to a sea of faith, costing not less than everything. Invent us, quickly, invent us, again. (Eli Mandel? OC RPK's caught your soul!) Yes, we know: There's Eliot, Valéry, Dickinson, WCW, Arnold, Wittgen- stein; then, everybody else, et. ilk. Hallelujah! Tercet, achingly rich triadic variation, wobbly iambic P? Ne plus ultra-conscious. Terminal magpie? Precision's formal exemplar, exquisitely controlled. All poets lie. Ain't that the truth? Who would believe us otherwise? I have no wife. Call her Huck. Lyrics 96, Sir, your masterpiece signed.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Kroetsch's go-to guy, laid it on the eternal line in The Book of Disquiet: "I do not know if I exist . . . it seems possible to me that I might be someone else's dream . . . I might be a character in a novel, moving through the long waves of someone else's literary style. . ."

The oft-lauded award-winning author of nine novels ( What the Crow Said, Badlands, Alibi and The Studhorse Man), 14 volumes of verse ( The Hornbooks of Rita K., Field Notes, Seed Catalogue) and a quintet of non-fiction bedazzlers, The Lovely Treachery of Words its crown jewel, universally revered for his felicitously gorgeous entries in The Book of Eternity? With a little "Guesswork," the maestro recalibrates his poetic register to sing the body electric:

"Lucretius says, of course there are gods; but the gods / are as helpless as we. He doesn't quite say it, but perhaps / we should offer them pity. Done in by creation itself. // I mean the gods. Not us. Well us too. / The gods moved into books. Who wrote the books? / We wrote the books. In whose dream, then, are we dreaming?"

A disclaimer: This piece is not a review. It is a gesture toward an appreciation, which I take to be quite a different ball of worms :).

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p.s. Too bad readers will find themselves lost for good in the subterranean depths of a consummately compressed cosmos where the sky's no limit . . . NOT

p.p.s. Alright, already: Geoffrey Hill, Anne Carson, Robin Robertson, Daphne Marlatt, Leonard Cohen, Nicole Brossard. George Bowering. Happy? Me, too, thanks to RPK's endlessly transforming and transcendent oeuvre

Contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is completing her 30th work, a poetry collection slated for release later this year. She worships the page upon which RPK writes; and, she especially delights in the wee note he once sent her to thank her for a rather more trad review of his Rita book.

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