Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review: A Saving Grace by Lorna Crozier

First: Went to a Karaoke bar last night. A fun time was had by all. I sang "Everything You Want" by Vertical Horizon, and a tragically shortened version of the "Muppet Show." I had put in a bid to sing "Pretty Fly For a White Guy," but my ride and I left at 2:00 am before the song was called. Moral: bribe the MC.

And now the review!

This is one of those reviews that is going to take some background. A Saving Grace by Lorna Crozier is a book of poems that goes by the conceit that they were all written by the main character of Sinclair Ross' As For Me and My House, Mrs Bentley. For those who haven't read the latter book, its conceit is that it's a journal written by Mrs Bentley, wife to the preacher Philip Bentley, and tells of their life in a small town rural prairie community some time in the early 20th century. It's a tale of crippling isolation on a number of fronts--Mrs Bentley (who never receives a first name, by the way) is desperately in love with a husband who can barely stand her, forced into a community that finds her odd, and trapped in a prairie climate that seems hellbent on removing humanity altogether.

It's not a very happy book. And it's hard to defend it against accusations of misogyny and the like. And you will, very often, find yourself wanting to shake Mrs Bentley and tell her to wise up. But what it does expertly is capture the intense isolation that rural prairie life can entail--I think that everyone who has lived it has felt that isolation at one time or another, and can relate very well to Mrs Bentley's experience.

I sat in on a grad course devoted entirely to As For Me and My House--which meant it was the only work we looked at for three straight months. You can entirely tell who has and has not read the book by this statement alone, as anyone who has read it will react with absolute horror on hearing that previous sentence. However, the main focus of the course was the secondary material on the book. The professor's "operating thesis" was that you could trace the entire body of Canadian literary criticism based on the criticism for this book, and that's largely the case--there are papers on Canadian literary canon, psychoanalysis, feminist perspectives, landscape theory, aesthetics, queer theory, realism, modernism, and even a little bit of postcolonial. Honestly, the most interesting part of the book is how important it has become in terms of prairie and national literary identity.

And that would be why Lorna Crozier chose to write a book of poems based on it. Crozier is, hands down, my favorite living poet. She's in British Columbia now, but large swathes of her poetry are based on prairie experiences, from a poem on what winter would do if it ruled the world, to a poem comparing gophers to prophets (both rely on great faith to stick their heads up!). She also heavily uses the dramatic monologue, which leans on my poetical preferences, and suits the subject matter well. I can't imagine reading this book of poems without having read As For Me and My House--there would be so much lost that I don't know if what's gained would be worth having.

But how are the poems themselves? Well, first and most importantly, Crozier nails the Mrs Bentley voice. It's a mix of bitterness and optimism, and a brittle hope. At the absolute worst, it seems to dip slightly into fan fiction (Did she and Paul...?), but even then it's witty (Paul, the philogist, was very good with his tongue.) and poignant:
I made him promise
not to say a word
And I wrote nothing down.

I wanted it to be

This passage taps into the key element of the original: ultimately, Mrs Bentley's journal--and by extension, Mrs Bentley herself-- is nothing but words, nothing but writing. We only see the parts of her she chooses to show, and an omission can be as significant as entry of a dozen pages.

Other highlights (for me) include "That Kind of Woman" in which one of the townsfolk is found in a well, clutching her baby after disappearing for three days, never crying out to be rescued. "The Painted Door," which gives Mrs Bentley's opinion on the other classic prairie story. "Sins of Omission," which gives a quick, pointform list of things she left out of her journal. "Mrs Bentley," in which she reflects on being the narrating character, yet still invisible and nameless. And "Judith," the poem that comes half way through the novel. I'm not going to spoil the significance of Judith if you hadn't read the original book, but suffice to say, I actually felt the pressure building up to this poem throughout the book, and at its first words, it bursts open like a floodgate:
It's taken me this long to write it.
Judith. A strong biblical name
for such a girl. I should say
woman, Miss Judith West.

And man, does it keep going from there. All in all, it's a wonderful book of poetry--horribly depressing though, much like the original. If you ever read As For Me and My House, and find the memory of it lingering, then I recommend reading this book, one poem at a time, until Mrs Bentley is finished with you.

Later Days.

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