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Reading the Garden

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Tilling the Darkness.

Book Cover Tilling the Darkness

 Susan Braley's Tilling the Darkness is up for giveaway until June 25—enter for your chance to win! 

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Writing my book of poems Tilling the Darkness had me turning over the clay-loam of my rural past and uncovering stories, dark and light. The soil like layers of ancient text, crumbling and startling. I think we all undergo this tilling ritual, season after season, in the finite fields of our lives.

When I began to prepare this list of recommended reading, I found that many of the titles on my mind were about gardens, budding and spent, real and symbolic. I return to these books often. So I have listed a sampling of them here, along with some comments on each. I know you’ll enjoy reading them all.


Book Cover False Creek

False Creek, by Jane Munro

Jane Munro’s poetry collection False Creek took me on a crucial journey. It’s set in Munro’s home city Vancouver, specifically in the downtown False Creek inlet. The speaker in the book, having returned after a long time away, discovers—as many of us readers would—that she doesn’t know the names for these “mountains . . . inlets . . . seaweeds . . . birds,” though they have lived in this place for millennia. The poem “False Creek” then promptly offers a teeming list of sea creatures, berries, ancient trees, and more. But this celebration of plenty is muted by a recognition of erasure: the lost longhouse, “the underground parking of children” who perished in residential schools, four-fifths of the inlet itself.  

False Creek is a courageous book. The speaker faces her own shame and grief at being complicit in this destruction: “It’s hard to see/hard to believe . . . .  I need to change – lose/my hide.” Munro offers creative ways to transform “the steady unbearable”: re-examining history in dream, where ancient baskets remind her the “New World was Old”; resurrecting the lost fish from False Creek waters in the image “Sturgeon Moon”; imagining a ladder on which we can find new thresholds as well as routes for retreat. Throughout the collection, the speaker wears an air boot as her broken foot mends. Munro, in an interview, remarks: “How slowly, incrementally, bone heals and we repair our bodies . . . . You can’t rush reconciliation.” 


Book Cover Lurch

Lurch, by Don McKay

Don McKay’s poetry collection Lurch, like Munro’s, took me to a “ruined garden,” where, he points out, the Great Auk, Dodo, Curlew, and Beothuk, no longer live. To re-enter, he says, we have to be “as pilgrims applying for visas”: “We have to boldly don/bewilderment, we have to kneel and peer . . . [be] humbled into cherishing the green world.” McKay lightens this pilgrimage with his signature wit, using words like “betweenity,” and phrases like the “haberdasherizing of what is” and “Metaphor . . . fabulously overdressed.” 

Even when we do humble ourselves, we will find that our language fails to name what we see. In fact, McKay observes the natural world is “making mind” without the poet’s “fine hypersymbolic chat.” In the section “Problems with Translation,” he marvels at how nature “burgeons without the benefit of art       . . . :/ the deep lust of basalt . . ., the Blue Jay’s chic/and subtle plumage.” No wonder his refrain is “You have to wonder”: at the trail that “erases/entire episodes each time/I turn my back,” at the pipit, who, flying high, “splits and spills something silver into ordinary arid/ prairie air.” Such wondering leads us to moments of astonishment, like the one you’ll find in the poem “Lurch.” 

Book Cover Stray Dogs

Stray Dogsby Rawi Hage

In Rawi Hage’s short story collection Stray Dogs, there is a suggestion of gardens, as in “a burst of blossoms on a cherry tree”— or is this image “hypersymbolic,” to borrow MacKay’s term? The characters in Hage’s stories, “suspended between cultures, religions, and geographies,” search restlessly for meaning and connection. I found it intriguing that the truth they seek is often mediated by cameras, cell phones, photographs, photocopies, and translation itself.

I’ll comment on the two stories in which gardens appear. In the story “Stray Dogs,” Samir, born in Jordan and studying in the United States, carries a camera but would rather write about photographs than take them. At a conference in Japan, he spends hours in his room watching a video of a garden on television. The channel, called “Healing Time,” offers “soft music . . . images of live rabbits hopping and grazing, moose strolling nonchalantly . . . rivers pouring off quiet cliffs.” 

Samir presents his published paper on Japanese photographer Daido and Czech photographer Koudelka, both of whom had taken complex photos of dogs. The audience, a group of Japanese academics, disapproves of Samir’s decision to include in his paper details from his personal and cultural experience, including Arabic views on dogs. Surely art must be independent of the “historical and the social,” they argue. Afterward, Samir recalls that Daido said: “Remembering [in photographs] . . . should be a commemoration, not a recording.” He begins to alter his relationship with his camera and the world around him.

In “The Colour of Trees,” a philosophy professor retires to a pastoral setting. In the autumn, he goes for walks with his cane and enjoys the “bright mourning of the trees” on a clifftop.  After two young lovers distracted by their phone cameras fall off the cliff to their deaths, he renounces beauty in nature, and retreats to his room to concentrate on understanding the self, “not a superficial overview . . . but  . . . the self in all its depths.”  Occasionally, he comes back to the clifftop, where he tries to take cell phones from the tourists lost in the act of taking photos of themselves with the trees. The professor is committed to an institution, where he throws his television out the window.  

After his death, it’s discovered that he was writing an “autobiography” of the German philosopher Heidegger, who in the professor’s text, is portrayed as an old man with a cane who walked to the cliffs for air. In this “autobiography” of Heidegger, the professor reports that Heidegger renounced his ties with the Nazis and expressed concern about the advanced technology he had studied while with them. After this renunciation, the professor writes, Heidegger was confined to a room full of “televisions running continuously, showing images of high mountains with birds circling their peaks.” 

When you read the full story, you may have lingering questions, as I do. Is gazing at beauty, natural or otherwise, always dangerous? Has the professor consigned himself to be a simulacrum of Heidegger, thus failing to know his own self “in all its depths”? Does the last line of the story suggest a utopian urge to be free of the reality the professor is fighting for?

I’m excited and challenged by Hage’s stories. Rereading them is more than worthwhile. 

Book Cover with/holding

with/holdingby Chantal Gibson

In the book of poems with/holding, Chantal Gibson offers no garden at all, no “cowbells,” no going back. with/holding is a fierce, urgent exposé of anti-Blackness, particularly anti-Blackness produced and proliferated on line. For Gibson, “problems in translation,” to borrow McKay’s words,” are innumerable, almost indecipherable. The speaker in her collection “sees masks everywhere”: “I think I’m seeing them so clearly/and yet/I miss the obvious/like when you talk to me/in English/and I forget/I’m reading you/in translation.” 

In an act of unmasking, Gibson generates an example of “Blackfishing” (non-Blacks digitally editing their photos to profit from Blackness). In a twelve-page “Powerpoint” poem, she dismantles this practice with devastating clarity. In another poem, she writes of a Black woman who, on reporting to write an on-line exam, is told twice by a face-recognition system that she must shine a light on her face to get access.  

In with/holding, the “lurch” for me was to find myself inside the digital world for much of the collection. The book begins with “Terms n Conditions”: “Our files are forever corrupted . . . . Our horror lies not in what/ we consume. It’s in the grinning/tyranny of copy n paste, the geno-/ciding rate we feed on our own/afflictions.” In Gibson’s poems, computer graphics magnify our afflictions. Throughout the collection, we see error messages, click buttons, banners proclaiming “Together we can change the story. SHOP NOW.”  

The long poem “Blacksquare” is inspired by the black squares (usually described as errors or distortions) that appear on the computer screen, obscuring whatever is on the page. To clean the screen, users are sometimes advised to Select True Color for correct screen resolution. Instead, Gibson preserves these black squares in a series of one-page poems, each on a black square in the centre of the page. On her pages, the “user” must listen, not obliterate. The refrain in “Blacksquare” is “we leave you”: our tinnitus . . . The Human Rights report . . . the N word . . . .  we taking our kids . . . from the slave ship to the scholar ship.”  A soul-wrenching poem.  

The three poems mentioned above are a small sample of Gibson’s incisive mapping of anti-Blackness in text and image. The most powerful graphics, for me, were the exclamation marks spilling anger and anguish down the pages, and the line “why am I so angry” recycling and overlapping even when paper runs out and the printer jams.  You’ll want to read all of the poems in with/holding.

In Gibson’s closing section, “In Lieu of Flowers,” the speaker suggests readers learn “how to bear witness,” “unmask Nostalgia,” “clear your history.” They describe how they have Photoshopped the ravaged back of “Whipped Peter,” a slave, who in 1863, was beaten by an overseer. Addressing Peter, they say: “[I] removed/each tally mark with the Eraser/Tool, restored your skin with the/Clone Stamp, and touched you up/with the Healing Brush.”   

Book Cover Noopiming

Noopiming, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson 

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s novel, Noopiming, begins with a similar scene of healing—in a ruined garden. Her character Mashkawaji lies cradled in a frozen lake while she recovers from trauma; her loved ones come to sing to her, sprinkle tobacco above her. The title Noopiming is the Anishinaabemowin word for “the bush,” and the subtitle is “The Cure for White Ladies.” 

Noopiming is Simpson’s invitation, to First Nations peoples and also to others, to re-imagine the bush as nourishing and restorative. It is also her wry, compassionate, innovative rewriting of the narrative that Susanna Moodie (a “white lady”) offers in her 1852 memoir Roughing It in the Bush.

In the 1830s, Simpson’s ancestors, called the Alderville Nation or the Mississauga Nishnaabeg, settled in the Peterborough area. Around the same time, Moodie’s family purchased the sugar bush covering the land on which this Nation lived. Moodie describes her “backwoods” home as a “prisonhouse,” a “waste place of the earth.” In contrast, Adik, one of Mashkawaji’s guardians, hears “the sound of hope in the green leaves . . . moving in the wind.” 

Moodie rejoices as the country loudly urbanizes with train and steam engine. Simpson’s characters, who live in our time, long for a quiet place to sleep. Without dream, they cannot reconnect with ancestors. They are also cut off from the natural world: they are forbidden to tap maple trees in the city; they may not carve at the Peterborough petroglyph site, even though communing with the confluence of water, wind, rain and rock is crucial to their spiritual lives.  

Like Gibson, Simpson radicalizes the layout of her text. I was immediately refreshed by the white fields of her pages, even before I realized their purpose. She creates the open, silent space her characters crave—a new kind of garden. Many pages have only single lines, short poems, brief paragraphs. Simpson calls these mostly-empty pages “interstitial spaces,” breaths or pauses so that readers can sit with the fragments and think them through. This sparseness is a deliberate contrast to the density and jangle of web sites and 24/7 newscasts. 

Simpson’s garden is visionary. It accommodates fluidity between species; Ninaatag, a maple tree, and Asin, a human, are friends. Trauma is acknowledged but not foregrounded. Characters share joy and care for each other, making things “as right as they can be”: “aabawe the first warmth of spring/aabawe a loosening of the mind/aabawe to forgive.” All characters are described as “they.” In an amusing section, migrating geese work hard to tolerate group members while flying for a long time in formation. The folding of time and place, past and present opens the world that Simpson is building; for example, Akiwenzii, an old man facing mortality, carves a mark next to ancient carvings. His mark may be the beginning of the chemical sign for polyethelene, but it may also be the sign for a molecule abundant in the far-off Orion Nebula. 

Even with this tolerance and openness, the characters still face exclusion and loneliness, and are often snapped back into what Simpson calls “concentric trauma.”  They are asked to hand out naxolone kits in their community, for instance. But they also record the sounds of water flowing, of ice breaking, and bring them back to the city. They find YouTube videos of fires when fires are forbidden.  

Meet them in their imperfect but curative garden.


Book Cover Tilling the Darkness

Learn more about Tilling the Darkness: 

In Susan Braley’s debut poetry collection, Tilling the Darkness, a young woman born into a family of eleven navigates the inequities of gender roles on the farm and in the church. In this dramatic rural setting—birth and death sudden in the barn, the seasons vivid over the fields—she experiences first-hand how swiftly seedlings become stalks ploughed down, how easily she and her sisters are discounted. Tilling the Darkness explores how we all undertake this tilling ritual, season after season, in the finite field of our lives. Our darkness may be a calamity we seek to escape—a grave, a war, a grief—and our wish is the promise of renewal. In these powerful poems, it is often women who, even in the face of injury and erasure, turn dark to light. Braley’s poetry traces how this woman, after leaving the farm, comes to appreciate the complex, bountiful legacy of her early life.

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