Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pamela Mills: Living with Doom

two words left to us
from the oldest writing:
Eden and Abyss

crevice edge crack of doom
nothing will ever be the same
is this where we look for the garden

(excerpts from Jody Aliesan's poem, "out of Sumer" in Grief Sweat, 1991)

Image: Douglas fir (4), 2008, oil on board, 36"x 24"

I paint to survive. I paint as part of this planet that longs for survival. I paint to add presence to an imagery of survival. I fear for the Earth, I fear for human flesh and mind. I see us facing an abyss of our own making, fearing the crash to earth of Eden's ancient Tree.

I paint to celebrate, to mourn, to inhabit, to seize. I paint to grab myself by the shoulders, spin myself around 'til I'm dizzy and disoriented. Then the Tree's heavy branches, the hanging deadwood precarious above me, become my reality.

This Earth holds us, created us, is the nearest thing to god that I know. And now our fingers curl and clench the earth. Will we release this squeeze, this necklace of torture? Or will we open our palms to safety?

"Doom" is a frightening word. I think we need to look it in the face, use our fears to energize us, and get to work.

-- Pamela Mills, in "Living with Doom," September 5-27, 2008, a group exhibition at the Collective Visions Gallery, Bremerton WA, USA.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


The flight from understanding blocks the occurrence of the insights that would upset its comfortable equilibrium. Nor is it content with a mere passive resistance. Though covert and devious, it is resourceful and inventive, effective and extraordinarily plausible. It admits a vast variety of forms and, when it finds some untenable, it can resort to others. If it never refuses to supply superficial minds with superficial positions, it is quite competent to work out philosophy so acute and profound that the elect strive in vain to lay bare its real inadequacies....

The flight from understanding blocks the insights that concrete situations demand. There follow unintelligent policies and inept courses of action. The situation deteriorates to demand still further insights and, as they are blocked, policies become more unintelligible and action more inept. What is worse, the deteriorating situation seems to provide the uncritical, biased mind with factual evidence in which the bias is claimed to be verified. So in ever increasing measure intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living. Human activity settles down to a decadent routine, and initiative becomes the privilege of violence.

-- Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J.Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957), #32 in The LRC 100: Canada's Most Important Books. (Web image)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

We can't see straight either

Even the most remote icy moons insist on being individuals.
-- National Geographic

not arrow channel straightedge line
resigned to get where it's going no

our blood meanders scouring cliffsides there
settling sifted sandbars here

sweeping our minds clearing our palates
dry bread crusts after sips of wine

from mouths of jars long buried mute
waiting in desert caves with swallowed scrolls

angels who grant us tastes but not
when we shake from need or look for the cup

we wander beyond thirst past hunger
in earthquake country close to the ground

playing our wrists like fiddles
going without sleep or purpose that's why

artists can't draw straight lines:
straight lines belong to rulers of all kinds

and when we get this close to the fence our hands
tremble our feet turn and run

we're almost back in the woods again
back under the rain back out in the cold

-- Jody Aliesan

As published in The Raven Chronicles, 13:2 (2008)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Axworthy: A new Arctic circle

There's too much at stake to go it alone in the North

Lloyd  Axworthy, in the Globe and Mail, 22 August 2008. Excerpts:

The Arctic is in danger of becoming a source of serious conflict among Canadians, Americans, Europeans and Russians. The consequences: The interests of northern indigenous people will be ignored, the impact of climate change on the region's delicate ecology will be overlooked, and the prospect of co-operation in creating well-governed sea routes that can open up new trade opportunities will be lost....

Canada should take the lead in persuading other Arctic nations to switch from a competitive conflict-based model to one based on co-operation. Changing our military, legalistic approach to more creative diplomatic solutions based on the rule of law and mutual interest must be a top priority. The North represents our future. It is time we began to approach the region and its people with an internationalist vision that we know from recent experience can work.

Well said

Letters to the Editor, Toronto Star

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Afghanistan goal: permanent US bases, as usual

The Afghan fire looks set to spread, but there is a way out
Far from being a noble cause, the occupation of Afghanistan is poisoning the region and will never bring peace or security.

Seumas Milne, The Guardian (UK) 21 August 2008. Excerpts:

The original aims of the invasion, it will be recalled, were the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and the destruction of al-Qaida in the aftermath of 9/11. None of those aims have been achieved. Instead, the US and its friends brought back to power an alliance of brutal and corrupt warlords, gave them new identities as democrats with phony elections, and drove the Taliban and al-Qaida leaderships over the border to Pakistan.

Far from reducing the threat of terrorism, this... has simply spread it around the region, bringing forth an increasingly potent campaign of resistance... a certain recipe for conflict without end.

The Afghan war certainly cannot be won, but the bitterly unpopular 2005 agreement for indefinite bases in the country left no doubt that the US is planning to stay for the long haul. NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, made clear... that western interests in Afghanistan went well beyond good governance to the strategic interest in having a permanent military presence in a state that borders central Asia, China, Iran and Pakistan.

The only way to end the war is the withdrawal of foreign troops as part of a political settlement negotiated with all the significant players in the country, including the Taliban, and guaranteed by the regional powers and neighbouring states. A large majority of Afghans say they back negotiations with the Taliban, even in western-conducted opinion polls. The Taliban themselves insist they will only talk once foreign troops have withdrawn. If that were the only obstacle, it could surely be choreographed as a parallel process. But given the scale of commitments made by the US and NATO, the fire of the Afghan war seems bound to spread further.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tell it like it is Department

In his new book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues that the country's foreign policy is a direct result of the American way of life. The only way of changing that policy, he contends, is changing the way Americans live. Excerpts:

Where do you think American foreign policy has gone wrong?
I've come to believe that U.S. foreign policy is broadly conceived to reflect the will of the American people.

Yet the majority of people don't support continuing the war in Iraq.
Not that the majority of people thought that invading Iraq was a good idea either, but they were satisfied and wanted to protect the American way of life, which requires access to massive amounts of oil. Tacitly, at least, the American people are complicit and responsible for the policies made in Washington. Nothing is going to change unless we are willing to make substantive changes in the way that we live our lives.

Is there any chance that such a revolution in thinking is in the offing?
I doubt that there will be any change.... That reflects a very familiar strand of thought in American foreign policy back to the Native Americans, which says that "they" will always have to change to accommodate our way of living.

Is it possible to realize the limits of power without overreaching?
Every great power has an exaggerated sense of itself. It's only when you meet failure that introspection is possible. We bumped into failure in Vietnam, which was the beginning of this paradigm shift. Despite its incredible near-term impact on the country, what strikes me now in 2008 is how short-lived the lessons of Vietnam were, how quickly they were swept aside.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Moonrise and 'Moving Moonlight'

Friday dusk: Walked down to Kits Point for the sunset. Then strolled east along the seawall to a grove of birches, sat down in the grass to rest against one of them, and watched the Full Moon rise over Burrard Bridge, rose-pink in the Belt of Venus. Lights came on across the bay, wavering streaks on the moving water. As it climbed, the Moon turned yellow, then white. When the first stars came clear, it was time to walk home -- under the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, with Arcturus ahead in Bootes. (Image: Maureen Jervis)

Saturday evening: Moving Moonlight, based on the Atayal aboriginal song 'Watching the Moon,' played softly on four marimbas by the Taiwanese Ju Percussion Group. The rest of their show was sunflash and lightning -- five women and five men flying around drums, gongs, and cymbals of all kinds and sizes, as well as ceramic urns, kitchen pots, and metal cans. In one piece they sat on the floor playing detached drumheads -- turning, rolling, and tossing these to one another, using the floor itself as a drum. In another, fast hand clapping, foot stamping, and hands slapping bodies accompanied movements derived from traditional dance and martial arts. Syncopation, counterpoint, echoplay, plus joyful theatricality, mime, visual/aural jokes, and two energetic encores for a grateful audience; usually I'm reserved about standing ovations, but this one was easy. (Venue: UBC's Chan Centre, main stage Festival Vancouver; their photo.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sir John A. and 'the most basic of all Canadian problems'

He was not a crusader with a mission. Equally he was not a rationalist who believed that government was a series of general objectives which could be attained by the application of timeless and universal rules. He thumped no tubs and banged no pulpits. He was far too concerned with the intricate details of concrete problems, far too interested in the curious and manifold complexities of human situations, to follow an ideal faithfully or to settle everything by scrupulous reference to a given set of rules. For him government was neither a quest for political justice nor an exercise in political arithmetic. Government was a craft, which one learnt chiefly by doing and by watching others do.... There were no text-books and no divine revelations. The craft had its traditions, its conventions, its techniques, its stock of forms and variations -- all of which were historical products. It found the raw material in the problems of a particular landscape and a particular people. It was the task of a politician to work within the tradition, and to respect the limitations and exploit the possibilities of the medium. He might remain a competent craftsman; he might become a great, creative artist. But he should never aspire to the alien roles of prophet, philosopher, or engineer.... 

Within two years of accepting an important office in government, he had been compelled to take up the most basic of all Canadian problems, the problem of survival against the imperialist designs of the United States; and for the next fifteen years this was a problem which left him undisturbed for only the briefest of intervals.

-- Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician (1952), #31 in The LRC 100: Canada's Most Important Books1856 image: Library and Archives Canada, from the collection Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's Patriot Statesman

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

After Raven carried water up for snow, she slid down the icefields to make fire

We have to think it out. The gods
no longer speak to us, or when they do
they ask the impossible. This dream path
is marked with stones and shells
strange and luminous, but if we
pick them up to take home we steal
our way back. Madonnas, angels
intricately carved out of bone or glittering
in geode reliquaries must not be touched.

Farther and farther away we find ourselves
from where we ought to be, must go
by a certain time: performance call,
audience waiting. Back in the auditorium
among creaking seats lies tangled the unraveled
emergency rope we wore crocheted into a coat,
only one shoulder left, and the red lines
cross downstage worn thin by pacing.

The boat is sinking, the heart sinks
but at the end of the lap a hand reaches down
of the one before us who won the race
we didn't know we were swimming.
His fingers are cut off at the palm, but
enough joints left to hook you and he
pulls you out with a smile. You didn't know
you could swim that well, to come in second.

On the way to the bridge, in a block
of burnt out houses torched by the landlord
small children wait for you on the bank
with a fish in their hands, red flanked sockeye
dying in a jar. You make haste to throw it
back into the water but the bank slopes out
and you wonder whether it will only roll in the dust.

The high narrow bridge gleams
over the brilliant city, you ride a train
atop a rattling car and when any scaffolding
threatens to scoop you off, you dodge
successfully, dropping the cup
watching it turn, blinking and shining
all the way down into the outgoing tide
where it belongs.

-- Jody Aliesan

As published in The Raven Chronicles, 13:2:08

Friday, August 8, 2008

In the beginning...

"In the beginning was the drum. The woman went into the forest and heard the drum. It entered her heart and was beating there. She went into the forest again. The drum entered her womb and was beating there. And so human beings were born into the world." Thus spoke a storyteller at Explosion Africaine, held in UBC's elegant yellow cedar sound box, the Chan Centre, celebrating traditional music and dance of Guinea, West Africa. Fourteen drummers, singers, athletic acrobat-dancers and mimes (the gifts overlap) sent me into that hypnotic sensory-saturated social trance provided by indigenous music everywhere. For teaching me how to hear the hallucinatory patterns that rise above polyrhythms, thank you, Clare. Explosion Africaine's core ensemble consists of djembe drums and a group of bass drums called doundoun, sangban, and kenkeni, plus marimbas and hand-held percussion instruments. This music was born before colonization in an area of West Africa called Wassalon, now parts of Guinea, Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal. Here's a review from the Georgia Straight. The event was part of Festival Vancouver (their photo).

Monday, August 4, 2008

The fine art of literary sabotage

Your penance, pious sir, served cold.

Way back in 1986, when I was living in the US, I began a two-and-a-half year ordeal of anguish and torment known at the time as major clinical depression. Suicidal, aggravated by anxiety. It was triggered by too much change, too fast, including change of residence and community, financial vulnerability, and, all in one week, the discovery that my partner was unfaithful coupled with the first cluster of heart attacks and strokes that ended my father's life. During the worst of it I was able to sleep maybe one out of three nights, wept uncontrollably, lost weight to the point of anorexia, could not hold down a job, lived in spare rooms or on couches in the homes of compassionate friends, and was unable to understand a calendar or prepare a meal. I could go on, but you get the idea. It was chemical-imbalance hell.

But it was an exceptionally vivid hell, an ongoing hyponogogic state of living out, while awake, the dreams denied to me in sleep. I was uncoupled from structure, wandering through the jungle of a mind projected outward into heightened awareness of the unrelenting sensory bombardment that is life without filters. Meet my friend Psychosis.

One way open to me for hanging on to some sense of the person I used to be -- and would never be again, because the experience permanently rewired me -- was to try to describe what I was staggering through. I ended up writing what became a book, half of it while groping my way through that wasteland, the other half after emerging: so that I would recognize the symptoms if they crept up again; so others would have some kind of map if they were still lost; because I had found nothing in print to help me except medical literature written from the outside. Those who have survived that brain tornado usually want to forget it as soon as possible. There are few accounts available.

I called the book Grief Sweat, after the sweat bath healing ritual of the Irish and other indigenous peoples, including those in what is now North America. I offered it to a publisher, it was accepted, and released to the public in early 1991. At first all went well.

"It's being said...."

But a few weeks after publication, while I was in their offices signing copies, one of the owners hovered near me and mentioned, tentatively, that "It's being said that this book is very different from your past work." I said well, yes, I was mentally ill when I wrote it, totally crazy, I would probably not write anything like it again, and that was fine with me. But then she said, "It's being suggested that you didn't write it." I was startled: "Who said that?" She responded that the identity of the person didn't matter. She just needed to know whether it was mine. "Of course," I said, "Who else would have written it?" I offered to show her my rough drafts, but she shook her head and turned away. I had to leave it at that.

But it didn't get left at that. In the months that followed, an older and respected patron asked loudly, in public, in my face, whether I had written Grief Sweat. She then dismissed my offer to provide context for a specific poem by shouting at me with hostility and walking away in disgust, saying, "He's right. Somebody else wrote it." Another person informed me that two poems in the book, in separate sections, had the same title, as if that were evidence of fraud. I simply explained that I had done that on purpose, because they mirrored one another, wondering whether anyone would notice, and that now she had done so. Even my new sweetheart reported to me, with great discomfort, that she had been told that this book was "different," and that the difference was a problem. Later I overheard someone speculate that this new person in my life might be the real author.

I didn't know what else to do but keep my dignity. At the time it seemed that to demand to know who was spreading the rumour, to confront them, to refute the lie, to speak out from the hurt I was feeling, would only be to descend to the level of whomever was taking this low road of gossip and insinuation, the individual who wasn't courageous enough to speak to me directly in the first place. To suggest that what a writer has produced is not authentically her own work is the worst thing that can be done to her. I thought that maybe, if I didn't dignify and anchor this slander with defense or repudiation, it would fade.

But it didn't. I now believe that the innuendo directly influenced the publisher's decision to not submit the book for any awards except one that wasn't a good match. Why take the risk that it would turn out to be plagiarized, or ghostwritten? It also may be the reason for an abrupt decline in sales of Grief Sweat after that and the lack of response to a chapbook published the following year. Attendance at my readings plummeted. I was embarrassed when a sponsor reserved an auditorium and only four people showed up. I turned away from poetry to study Irish traditional singing and carry out a long research project on the Great Famine that resulted in a non-fiction manuscript.

When in 1998 I was approached by a supportive press about a chapbook and happened to have enough poems for a collection published that year, they called me one day with some urgency wondering whether I had seen a certain review of it and were relieved when I said no. But by then I had Internet access, so I searched for it on the Web. The reviewer sneered at the new book, dismissing it as thin, weak, and disappointing. He wrote triumphantly that it was not on the level of Grief Sweat, as if that confirmed all suspicion. Another reviewer called the new book "long-awaited." I had no idea.

"I only said...."

Meanwhile, I found out who had started the rumour. Two friends suggested I go with them to one of his readings. I had once thought him a friend, or at least a close colleague. He and his cohort of buddies avoided me afterwards, chortling among themselves in a corner of the room. Another poet whose work I admired stopped to say that she liked Grief Sweat; she didn't care what they were saying. I thanked her, without asking the pressing question: What are they saying?

I wanted to leave, but my companions insisted that we go to an after-reading party, and, once there, to wait until nearly everyone else had gone home. So I was sitting on a hassock, a cat on my lap, when it happened. The host, standing next to the guest of honour, nudged him and whispered, "Go ahead, ask her." But the guilty party withered, hunched his shoulders, looked down, stepped back, and stammered, "I only said it was different from the manuscript I saw." "Oh?" I said. The host covered this embarrassment by saying quickly, "Jody, you're one of my favourite poets." "Thank you," I said, standing up, putting the cat down, and agreeing with my companions that it was time to go.

"Oh?" I said. Because he had never seen the manuscript. Early in my ordeal I had shown him a handful of new poems, asking whether it would be considered ethical to combine them in a collection with others from a limited-edition chapbook that was long out of print. But two years and many poems later, when I inquired whether he had time to look at the finished manuscript, he said he didn't. So he had never seen it.

Now I knew who had done the deed. But I still don't know why, except the usual possibilities of envy or competition, elevating oneself by degrading another. In the years following, the perpetrator tried in his way to make amends, without ever apologizing or taking responsibility for the damage he had done. The damage continues, because for those who have picked up even a faint whiff of his slander, there will continue to be doubts about what is probably the best book I have written, or will write.

I have no respect for him. In my humble opinion, he is small, pathetic, and false to the core.

A coda to this story is at the opposite end of the spectrum. During the first year after it was published, I was congratulated on the street by a poet/publisher who said she was glad Grief Sweat had brought me so much fame and fortune. I was puzzled and said only, "Thank you," as she walked away. I should have caught up with her and asked, "What fame and fortune?" Not long after that, a poet and filmmaker gave me a lift after a performance and said they were happy to hear my book had won a major prize. I said, puzzled again, that none of my books had ever won any prize. I asked, hopefully, whether it could have done that without my knowing? They shook their heads and we all lapsed into silence. It turned out that another rumour was circulating that Grief Sweat had won the National Book Award. Years later an interviewer began her questions with that assumption, which I quickly corrected. So who started the second rumour? It seemed to have been generated from the guilt field of the first.
-- Jody Aliesan