ThimbleBerry Review by Paul Strickland
ThimbleBerry Review by Paul Strickland
A significant cross-section of northern B.C. literary and artistic talent is showcased in the Summer 2019 issue (Vol. 4) of the literary magazine, ThimbleBerry, edited by Kara-lee MacDonald of Fort St. John and Rob Budde of the University of Northern B.C.
This cross-section is primarily, as the editorial introduction explains, the work of only one of these editors, MacDonald. This is because she has experienced an “evolution in thought” pertaining to her sense of “the importance of land.” Her editorial, entitled “Bread and Dignity,” begins with this quotation from Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth: "For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity."
Evidently Budde, who Macdonald rather depreciatingly describes as “a self-proclaimed eco-poet,” has not evolved the same way as her: “It is fitting then, given this evolution in thought, for this to be the issue of Thimbleberry in which I take the editorial lead . . . . Of all our past issues . . . volume 4 has a particularly strong focus on the politics of place.”
She explains how the evolution of her thinking happened. MacDonald is the author of Eating Matters, published by Caitlin Press in 2016. This book, about the author’s struggle with bulimia, draws, despite its universal theme, the reader's attention to locations in Prince George, which means to MacDonald now that, "My consciousness had been colonized.”
It worried her then that her book might not be accessible to (her example) “the reader in Vancouver.” Now, however, she is proud of her attentiveness to the local, her “small-town view.” And this issue indicates her greater dedication "to continue to tell a history which is inseparable from the ever-present environmental and indigenous issues we are obligated to acknowledge." She concludes, "This is a volatile political and cultural moment in our region, and the arts have a central role to play in how we resolve the conflicts we are all facing."
The first piece is about place and related environmental and indigenous issues. By Adrienne Fitzpatrick, "Fish Camp, Skeena River," is a very well written description of a visit to a fish camp along the Skeena in northwestern B.C. It puts the reader right into the situation, providing information about the history of the region and Gitxsan culture. It also describes fishing techniques that may alarm a first-time visitor.
The second piece is also local, though it has nothing obvious to do with the land. It is, I believe, included to show some complications in the “politics of place.” Some of these politics come from outside that place, or are characteristics of the wider world that have washed over into that place. The piece is an evaluation by Greg Lainsbury, the author of a collection of poetry Versions of the North, of a path-breaking literary reading eight years ago in Prince George. His evaluation is titled, "Aggravating Incident/Postnorth 3: For Love, Prince George 2011.”
Lainsbury begins by criticizing what he considers the inappropriate outfit worn by a young woman poet at the Postnorth event. He says in a footnote that the woman was not trying to be distracting, but was wearing futuristic clothing (in the accompanying photo very short pants, bare midriff, and heavy boots) in line with that depicted in posters advertising the event — posters that offended some, in particular those concerned with the objectifying of women and with political correctness in general. She was taking sides in what Lainsbury refers to as “the poetry war,” for the “ideals of free expression” and against “the various practices of social amelioration.”
When I began covering the courts for a newspaper during the early 1990s, I once remarked on the clothing of women witnesses but was subsequently advised that wasn't appropriate unless the clothing contained slogans or insignia of a group involved in a charge. Ironically, at the present time, progressives believe they are avant-garde in the matter of morals and freedom to declare an identity, but then, when they criticize the art on posters for literary events or what women poets wear to those events, they sound as if they want to bring back the values of the Moral Majority movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Lainsbury's scholarly apparatus is impressive and accurate. He is also fair in his quotations from Brian Fawcett, an author originally from Prince George and still participant in its arts scene. Lainsbury cites Fawcett’s e-mag, dooneyscafe.com, as the source of the term “poetry war” as applied to the situation in Prince George, and he cites Fawcett criticizing academics leaning toward philosophies of totalitarian control. Lainsbury at least raises the question of whether too close monitoring of what people do and say at a reading will smother the spirit of the event. "It is assumed in progressive circles that event organizers are morally obligated in their planning to anticipate and then vet all aspects of an event so as to ensure that nobody feels excluded or unsafe, which to be fair does sound like a fairly admirable intention. . . . [But] can there be a laugh without a fall? Is fun fascistic? Laughter aggressive? Does utopia require coercive social engineering?"
The next three authors are entirely in line with MacDonald’s editorial purpose. George Harris, Curator and Artistic Director of Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, writes a very good, well-illustrated art feature on the wood-carving and jewelry work of Keith Kerrigan. Born in Quesnel, Kerrigan is a member of the Yaghulaanaas Clan from the Haida nation and learned basic Haida design as a teenager from his uncle, Claude Davidson.
As Harris describes it, Kerrigan’s immersion in Haida art shows in his designs: "In 2005, he carved a canoe bowl named after the elongated ends that resemble the bow and stern of a canoe," Harris writes. "The bowl featured the images of a raven and a butterfly and later he carved a ladle incised with the image of a baby eagle. In 2011, an encounter with 19th century Haida art at the Art Gallery of Alberta renewed his interest in feast dishes and he has experimented with painting hand-turned wooden bowls since." Numerous high-quality colour photos of Kerrigan’s art show it to be beautiful indeed.
Also included, further on in ThimbleBerry, is Harris's descriptive essay on the work of Dawson Creek artist mary mottishaw. Her work "regularly tackles relationships between the land and human beings . . . . In the Peace River district, oil and gas related operations take place in a proximity to farming and human habitation that some find deeply concerning. Site C Dam construction, opposed by many, is also close by." Again, Harris's essay is generously illustrated by photographs of mottishaw's unusual creations, which even include lichens from rocks. Harris ends by saying, "Her work reminds us to be mindful observers of the world and to understand the repercussions of what we do . . . . While we can reduce a point on a map to a simple dot, we cannot escape the consequences of the actions wrought upon it."
Prince George musician and poet Taron Keim's free-verse poem, "feral,” is an extended metaphor or conceit. It describes from the first-person perspective his emotional state as a wildfire. The conceit is detailed — details that would be familiar to a northerner especially, but also to a limited extent (considering last summer) to a resident of Vancouver:
A wildfire burns in my guts. . .
lodgepole pine stench eyes water nose drips . . . .
my smouldering ire; a fire within fires . . . .
An important non-fiction essay on indigenous rights is titled "Gin 'waadluwaan gud 'ahl kwaagiidang — Everything depends on everything else." It's by Koot-Ges, Wilps Txaatk'anlaxhatkw, Patrika McEvoy, Nisga'a, Tsimshian, Haida [Part of the Lelu Island struggle, St'aala Kun of Haida Gwaii, mother of three. This “composite” author is listed simply as a Patrika McEvoy in the list of contributors, and her composite name, which includes features of her biography, fits her linguistically composite (English and Xaad Kil or Old Massett Haida) prose piece on the Unist’ot’en blockade of the Gateway Pipeline. This is one of those long-standing issues in “the politics of [northern] place” that is connected to both aboriginal claims and environmental issues.
Here I’m citing mainly the English part of Mcvoy’s piece:
There is a huge concern with where we are in 2019. We have seen the full-scale
militarized police occupation of our relatives' unceded lands, the Unist'ot'ten clan of the Wet’suwet'en
people. We watched reconciliation crumble . . . .
It feels like we as indigenous people are standing in a bloody pool with the bodies of our lost
ones from Canada's direct genocide, begging for our rights. Instead, we have the “rule of law”
being upheld. . . . .
We see our lands being destroyed for Canada's economic interest. We are lucky to see even
.001 per cent of this economic interest come back to us, 'wa'ahlaaw . . . . "
The next two pieces have nothing to do, either directly or indirectly, with MacDonald’s concerns for the politics of place. The first is a sensitive review, by Adrienne Fitzpatrick, of a book of poems entitled Undiscovered Country, by prominent local poet Al Rempel. As the title indicates, Rempel is a Hamletian character pondering the significance of, as Hamlet puts it, “The undiscovered country from whose Bourn no traveller returns.” The usual interpretation of Hamlet’s thinking is that life is dark and painful, but we don’t want to die and escape this darkness and pain because we fear the other country of death.
Fitzpatrick notes what MacDonald noted in her own poems — that the poet’s work is subtly “colonized” by the local, most often in Rempel by the northern cold and the winter darkness:
It's a taking stock of time, when we review our losses and triumphs, and maybe the darkness
draws us in just it draws the shadows out. On the way to work is where they greet Rempel . . . .
. . Undiscovered Country finds the author embracing and evading grief, fear, despair, and
mortality. His words give shape to the shadows that come up to the side of the road when
you're driving in the dark — and to the music of the beautiful, brutal world that is just
outside the window, outside the door.
But a meditation on death, with a title echoing Shakespeare, no matter how it is “colonized,” is still mainly a cosmopolitan artifact. The next poet is even more cosmopolitan. Rodante Acuna Jr. says about his poems, “I’m not sure how they relate to the north.” He’s a surrealistic poet, comparing his work to that of Lorca (books), Bunuel (movies) and Dali (paintings). He’s good a surprising the reader with his figures, and at moving his poems towards surprisingly conventional resolutions — for example, in “Drunken Scientific Love Poem,” towards an expression of adoration for his “beloved.”
“A lot of Opportunity” (pun on the word “lot”) is an essay on the evolution of an area of downtown Prince George that has evolved as a cultural centre, with sports arena, library, art gallery, swimming pool and convention centre. The swimming pool is now being removed, as well as a nearby hotel, and there’s much local discussion of what should be built in their place. The author, Andrew Kurjata, suggests that the area should continue to be dedicated to culture and to feature decorative architecture and designs derived from the art and history of the local Lheidli T’enneh.
Andrew Burton’s poetry returns us to the cosmopolitan — a conventional love poem, and a conventionally nostalgic picture of a room with a fireplace, dog, Persian run and friends gathering for food and music. The powerful concluding lines of the second poem are, "Over distant hills across the river / The sun is setting."
“Alexa, Help Me” is a comic rendition of Virginia O’Dine’s relationship with her Amazon home assistant. The rendition is in the form of a dramatic dialogue, Alexa acting like her familiar self and O’Dine, in the guise of the character “Joanne,” trapped on an ice-flow that has detached from Antarctica and floating into a storm. Joanne says: “Alexa, help me.” Alexa replies: “Would you like me to play a song or read a story?”
Allan Wilson’s poems “Town of Gestures” and “Northcoast Pacific Cannery” are successful, highly metaphoric depictions of the local, including the politics of the local in their suggestive references to environmental depletion and racial conflict. Charles Fraser’s poem “River of Tears,” about the Nechako, also expresses such themes but more with a tone of protest:
The Nechako (Dakelh " Big River")
Continues to be colonized
Controlled by corporate interests . . .
The Nechako keeps her dead
This river of tears
Knows where the bodies are
Protects them forever
From the cruelty of man . . .
In profiling three local musicians, Naomi Kavka, in "Geography, Harmony, Community: A Review of Music to Come," says, "These are women writing albums about women. All three — Britt AM (Britt Meierhofer), Genevieve Jade and Amy Blanding — are leaders in the music community, as entrepreneurs, educators, activists, and performers." Information is provided about local venues where these musicians appear, and internet platforms where their music can be found and heard.
Husband and wife, Jeremy and Erin Stewart, present a sort of annotated album of intentionally amateur-looking photos (sometimes unbalanced, sometimes too dark) depicting a family visit to Lakelse Lake, the Terrace Hotsprings. The prose commentary focuses on the impressions generated in Erin (memories of family visits over many years, disturbingly fading) and Jeremy (sense of the impermanence of the grandiose commercial dreams that took shape around the hotsprings.) The two sets of impressions fit together well.
“There is a Reason,” by Jennifer Annais Pighin, returns us to the politics of place. Pighin protests the “capitalistic mindset” that deters us from knowing when enough development, enough population, is enough. She praises the scientists, youth and indigenous people who are sounding the alarm.
The next two pieces, by Solomon Goudsward and Gillian Wigmore, are prose episodes from everyday life, depictions of seemingly inconsequential events and transient feelings. Goudsward’s piece is about anger, and the joys in certain circumstances of nursing it. “Lost to Time,” by Wigmore, considers what happens to almost forgotten childhood toys and includes thoughts about where they might be now. The toy in question is the plastic doll, “Wheezy,” who when new emitted a “pert little sneeze” when her stomach was compressed, but with years of use came up with only a “sick cough.” Wheezy, “deformed by love,” was eventually dressed in a sleeper, so that her tattered body was hidden and only her face, which was “sweet,” could be seen. When Wigmore tries many years later to locate Wheezy, among her kids’ toys, she finds only the sleeper. The piece ends with a comic obituary.
Ken Belford’s poem, "The answer to everything," starts:
I wanted to say something
about the tools i left behind,
if snyder made his own axe handles
like i did when i lived in the mountains
of if he just wrote about it . . . .
This poem is not about a short term form
or what happiness means because
happiness is not the goal of poetry . . . .
After coming to the border
and asking for asylum
i remembered there are no straight lines . . . .
When I stepped out of line, out of
all the languages, all the stories
i remembered the answer to everything —
there's always something wrong
Belford’s poem will resonate with locals and others familiar with Barry McKinnon’s book-length poem, I Wanted to Say Something. McKinnon’s book and Belford’s poem start at the same place and go different ways. McKinnon’s poetry is a search for lines that tell his story accurately. Belford’s poem is an attempt to circumvent language to get at a story that can only, language being what it is, be hinted at.
MacDonald’s personal-polemical introduction notwithstanding, I can’t say I perceived any shift of emphasis in this issue of Thimbleberry. I think this is a good thing; MacDonald has given the magazine its usual eclectic mix of high quality local writing and art.
ThimbleBerry is available for $12 at Books and Company, the UNBC bookstore and other locations in Prince George and district.
Paul, in his 28 years as a full-time journalist and 6.5 years as a freelance journalist, Paul has worked for newspapers in Nevada, Medicine Hat, and Prince George. Besides being an investigative reporter, he is a poet, a short story writer, and an essayist. He presently resides in Prince George and haunts all the literary scenes that appear in town.