Saturday, 6 March 2021

Meeting Mortality with Heady Images: Rahat Kurd on Kateri Lanthier

Rahat Kurd introducing Kateri Lanthier at the The Rhizomatic reading series, Thursday, October 15

I’d like to highlight the personally curated nature of The Rhizomatic—that it comes out of a shared passion for attentive reading. The goal of our series is to expand an audience for the poetry that we’ve had time to reflect on, draw meaning from, and form a real attachment to. I read Kateri Lanthier’s Siren last spring, while adjusting to life under quarantine.

Before the official public health emergency was declared, I think a deep survival instinct compelled me to order a coffee grinder, a French press, and several recent poetry titles by women in Canada. Having come through a difficult winter, I had really looked forward to being able to make travel plans in the springtime. Instead I had to accept that in the foreseeable future, my feet would not be leaving the ground. Filling my head with the voices of women poets seemed pretty much medically indicated.

Emergency, necessity, contingency, constraint. Conditions under which women have always made enduring art. Siren, Kateri Lanthier’s second collection of poems, insists on meeting the edge of her own mortality with heady images: cracked amethyst, silver and diamonds; crocuses, peonies and magnolias in full bloom—and comes as close to swooning lyricism as the contemporary register of a made-in Toronto English will allow.

To come to these poems on the page as a solitary reader is to be pulled into a sensibility both cerebral and playful—cerebral, in fact, because playful—making rich use of  allusion, internal rhyme, double entendres, among other forms of word play.

“The Year of La Jetée” was the first poem I read. From the first line—“Three fingers of moon in the glass”—I was struck by the power of mystery. The voice in this poem knows how much to conceal, and how much and when to reveal. The cadence of this mysterious voice pulls the reader in to consider the language more closely (as opposed to deliberate obfuscation, which can repel a reader’s desire to understand). I shared this poem with another friend over the summer, the poet Judith Penner, who wrote, “I love the poem as it reveals itself through re-readings, a slow emerging like the photo, surface light suggesting what’s below.”

Lanthier takes a frank, sensual pleasure in her prerogative as a poet: to structure thought in the marvellous ways that transform the prosaic and the quotidien.

I’m not sure whether it’s the vivid moments of retrospect in her work—remembering a younger self as a “waif in a snowbank”—or her acute consciousness of how closely life is always breathing next to death—that deepens her evocations of eros with a knowingness which is never weary or cynical—in fact, I would call it a lovely wisdom:

“our every kiss a power surge that sparked a rolling blackout”

It’s in both of these moods, particularly in her work with the ghazal form, that Lanthier’s musicality shines in a way that seems to channel the spirit of 19th century Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib.

I do not say this lightly, or only because Lanthier quotes Ghalib in translation in one of the epigraphs to her collection. In the ten years that I have been reading Ghalib, mostly in Urdu with a very grateful dependence on Urdu-English dictionaries, the help of my mother, and on the learned commentaries that span over 150 years on Frances Pritchett’s encyclopedic Ghalib website at Columbia, I’ve been made constantly aware of the many challenges that translation cannot overcome.

While only a few incorporate a radif or refrain, several poems in Siren embrace two major elements of the ghazal: the stand-alone couplet, and the thematic leap between couplets in a single poem, in a way that expands the lyrical capacities of English. We are living in a rich time of ghazal practitioners in English—Natasha Trethewey and Amit Majmudar come to mind, while my personal Ustad is the late Agha Shahid Ali. But even dispensing with the classical qafia/radif (rhyme/refrain) pattern, I suspect that it’s Lanthier who’s been struck by Ghalib’s particular lightning.

I’m going to ask Kateri to tell us, later on, about her experience of reading Ghalib in translation, which she wrote about in a wonderful and moving personal essay, “Lifelines: Of Heart, Lungs, Blood, and Ghazals." You can read it in the anthology
Against Death: 35 Essays On Living, published by Anvil Press in 2019, edited by Vancouver’s own Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Kateri, welcome to The Rhizomatic.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Sunday Poem



For David Rothberg

Ice by chance, by fate or divine grace,
Ice as a prayer answered or seasonal necessity… We approve.
But ice by any means possible? Ice, a commodity
manufactured, apportioned, rented, sold by the hour?

No: the end, no matter how smooth and immutable,
cannot justify the means: ammonia, compressors, chain-link fences,
the whole rotten professional petrochemical sports industry…
They just want to make us skate—and drive—round in circles.

Hear, hear. But the kids do need to run some drills:
We have no power play and a pathetic penalty kill.
Can we not just have a practice, like other teams?
There’s the rub: we buy into it and the kids will as well.

A-ha the purist shows his true colours!
Next you’ll want to ban rubber pucks and plastic helmets.
How about refusing to consume? I’m coach. I decide.
Tomorrow it is. To Dave, my fellow Ottawan, this aside:

Seen the pond? I caught a glimpse as I drove by.
Minus twenty tonight. Imagine it all sheer and black.
Let’s skip practise, grab our skates, rope and sticks,
And ride our bikes down there first thing to tiptoe out

and test our convictions. Tap-tap. Give us a faith
sufficient to withstand, though free to crack,
a surface that inspires awe and dread.
What love does not tremble at the touch and quake?
How can it be ice if it doesn’t break?


By Richard Sanger, from Fathers at Hockey (Signal Editions Chapbook, 2020) 

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Get Them By Heart

Matthew Schneier mulls the importance of reciting poetry:

I have always found the place for the genuine in poetry to be unlocked not by just reading it but by memorizing it. And it’s a good exercise, in the midst of chaos, to give yourself over to a sound and a rhythm that is not your own. It takes time—you probably have plenty—and effort. But you feel poems differently when you get them by heart and say them out loud. You have to chew them, and their rhythms overpower yours. It frees you up, to submit to them: It’s self-abnegation by incantation, your very own ventriloquist’s act.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Speaking The Old Dialect

In an online interview for the Librissimi Toronto Italian Book Festival, Nino Ricci touches on how immigration can shape identity.
Part of what I was exploring in Lives of the Saints were the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, how we structure our own imagination as a way of making sense of our lives. People talked about America from the perspective of the old country and, even though they often had access to accurate information—they had relatives who had gone over and were writing back and were telling them what things were like—there was always that kind of mythical side to it of a promised land they were hoping to reach. One of the things that I found in my research and in interviewing immigrants is that often that dynamic ended up getting reversed through immigration. Once they had established themselves, say, in Canada, and been relatively prosperous, they then began to romanticize the land they left behind. It became a sort of lost paradise, the lost place of wholeness: “Yes, we were poor, but we had enough to eat, we were well.” I found it very poignant, that very strong sense I got from speaking with immigrants of that lost wholeness that can never be recaptured. And even when they travelled back, they couldn’t recapture it because they had become Canadianized. Their Italian was now mixed with English words that they weren’t even aware of. People saw them as old-fashioned because they were speaking the old dialect, or they saw them as no longer real residents. There’s a very poignant element to the immigrant experience in that regard that you never really wholly integrate into the new country, but you can never really go back to the old one, and that was part of what I was exploring in that first trilogy. By the time I get to Sleep, when I think of identity I think of this very complex thing, that is something we put together haphazardly with whatever materials are given to us over time. For example, I was raised in a small Southern Ontario town where the Catholicism in my head was not the Catholicism in Italy. It was post-Vatican II and it was much more streamlined and demystified. The Latin was gone, we didn’t talk about the Saints, there was no emphasis on the miracles, I lived close to the border, the TV I watched was American, the music I listened to was American. I had all these American influences which informed me, this panoply of different cultural influences that made me what I am. So, my Italianness took shape within the framework of all these other things. So, we need to think of identity in those terms, not as singular, not as defining or even as determined, but something that is shaped from what is available, from the sources that are available. I made a conscious decision to travel to Italy and re-own my culture that my parents never had access to. I spent years studying in Florence. What did my parents know of Florentine culture growing up in the villages that they grew up in? But I had access to it through them. So that’s how I think of identity now, as something that is multi-faceted, something that to a certain extent we can choose and enhance.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Open Letters Are A Graveyard of Prose

Graeme Wood enumerates the sins of the open letter. My favourite? They are badly written.
Open letters tend to be composed inclusively, so as many people as possible will sign them. They can bear no traces of their individual authors, and the easiest way to scrub those traces is to write in a numbing, anonymized style, free of idiosyncrasy and wit. (If you seek idiosyncrasy and wit, read the articles that my Atlantic colleagues who signed the letter write under their own names.) This process deadens the language, and the result in the case of the Harper’s letter is a graveyard of prose, without a single pungent phrase or sentence worthy of quotation. Humor is especially forbidden. Martin Amis signed the letter, but I have read enough Amis to know he would never have written that letter if he thought that on some literary Judgment Day he would be called before God to answer alone for its style.

The Hyper-Ambitious Miniaturist

In a review of Lydia Davis' Essays, James Ley places the U.S. writer's rise inside a period when "hyper-ambitious male novelists" were trapped "in a creative arms race to see who could write the mightiest, brainiest, zeitgeistiest tome." Davis, he argues, went hard in the opposite direction.
She excels as a miniaturist. Though she has published one novel, The End of the Story (1995), she betrays not the slightest interest in making any kind of grand statement. Her stories rarely extend beyond a few pages. Many consist of a single paragraph. Some are no more than a line or two. There is no striving for cultural definitiveness, no panoramic vision or flaunting of intellectual pretensions. Davis’ fiction is narrow in focus and precise in execution, written with an eye for the unusual angle. She is a major writer who produces almost exclusively ‘minor’ work.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Talking to a Portrait—An Excerpt

French world champion cyclist Alfred Letourneur pulling an Airstream Liner trailer on a runway at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, 1947

For over thirty years, Rosalind Pepall helped plan and organize dozens of major exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In Talking to a Portrait—released this week—Pepall distills that experience into fifteen essays that explore the unexpected turns and obsessions of her job as curator. 

She writes about artists falling in and out of love, family tragedies, the creation of the Stanley Cup, the secrets of Tiffany, Antiques Roadshow, watercolour sketchbooks of the Canadian north, a beautiful prayer room in Montreal, gondolas flying through windows in Venice. 

In the following essay taken from the book—titled "It Rides along the Highway like a Stream of Air, but Will It Fit into the Museum?"—we see how curating isn't always the intellectual, sedate activity we might imagine it to be. Sometimes it’s closer to madcap, adrenaline-filled troubleshooting.

In 1930s America, radical changes in industrial design produced calculators that looked like diesel engines,Top-O-Stove potato bakers that resembled zeppelins, and Zephyr irons that looked like rocket ships ready for takeoff from the ironing board. With their sweeping lines, rounded corners and gleaming metal, these items evoked fast cars, speeding trains and soaring airplanes. Consumers mired in the Depression embraced this streamlined aesthetic wholeheartedly as a sign of an exciting and hopeful future. Blenders, toasters, weighing scales, hair dryers, electric saws—all manner of household appliances were redesigned to suit the new modernist look. Two hundred such items were presented in the travelling exhibition American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow.When the show came to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2007, I was the Canadian curator in charge of its installation.

There is nothing particularly glamorous about a Thor Silver Line electric saw, a Silvertone Rocket radio, or a Presto Streamlined stapler except their names. In the new millennium, the objects themselves seemed quaint. The exhibition needed a jolt: something big, shiny and eye-catching.

How about an airplane? I thought.

I put in a call to the Canadian Aviation Museum—housed in a huge airfield hangar on the outskirts of Ottawa—and arranged a visit. Among the bombers and a bush plane with a canoe attached to its side, I spied a shiny aluminum Lockheed 10a Electra. Lockheed had manufactured the twin-engine plane from 1934 to 1941, and this particular one had seen many years of use by Trans-Canada Airlines, the precursor to Air Canada. The company’s logo, a red-and-green maple leaf with “TCA” in gold letters in the middle, was painted on the plane’s nose. Also, Amelia Earhart had flown a variation of the Electra Model 10 in 1937 on her legendary fatal flight around the world.

Perfect, I thought. A vintage 1930s airplane with a compelling story and a Canadian connection.

But would the Aviation Museum lend it to the show, and would the Electra fit inside the museum? The wing tips could be removed and the Ottawa museum was planning to relocate the plane anyway, according to its curator. Armed with the Electra’s exact measurements, I returned to Montreal delighted with my discovery.

Back at the museum, the news from head of installations Paul Tellier was discouraging. Yes, we could remove two panels of a glass exterior wall, dismantle the Electra’s wingtips, and fit her length into the museum. But the two huge spherical engines on either side of the airplane’s body could not be removed and together were just three feet too wide for the exterior wall. “Pas possible!” said Tellier, shaking his head.

Disappointed but undaunted, I searched for some other object or vehicle that could make a bold visual impression. Flipping through the exhibit’s catalogue, I came upon a black-and-white photograph of a cyclist, vigorously pedalling—pulling an Airstream trailer behind him. The motorhome glistened in the sun, all smooth sculptural curves and bright aluminum, and typified modern aerodynamic design. Light enough to be pulled by a bicycle as a publicity stunt, its hand-riveted panels were derived from airplane construction. The trailer rode along the highway “like a stream of air” according to the founder of Airstream Trailers, Wallace Byam, when he introduced his first aluminum Clipper model in 1936. The luxury home on wheels was produced in great numbers in the post-war 1940s. Fully equipped for dining and sleeping in a compact functional space, it presented modern travel as fun, adventurous, comfortable and cheap. Designed to be resistant to changes in temperature, the post-war series of Airstream Liners were built with outer and inner aluminum shells (Aero-core fibreglass insulation sandwiched between) over a pipe-frame chassis. No screws or nails were used on the body (they loosened with road wear). The Airstream trailer epitomized supreme craftsmanship in industrial design. It was a work of art fit for a museum.

But how to lay my hands on a vintage model in pristine condition? Through the North American Vintage Airstream Club, I found myself talking to Fred Coldwell, its Denver-based historian and the proud owner of a 1948Wee Wind, one of the smallest models that Airstream produced. The sixteen-foot trailer had all the typical French world champion cyclist Alfred Letourneur pulling an Airstream Liner trailer on a runway at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, Airstream features: Air-O-Lite windows, curved entrance door, castbronze nameplates. There were no toilet or bathing facilities in this early model but it had a single bed, two chairs, a fold-up Formicatopped table for dining, and a rear double bed/sofa with the original Gruda, California, upholstery. The aluminum and stainless-steel kitchen galley included sink, storage compartments, a three-burner stove and icebox,and even a tiny built-in receptacle for used matches. A wooden closet, a chest of drawers and a butane heater with castiron front grille completed the trailer. Fred had lovingly preserved his Airstream, which he called Ruby after its original owner, and he offered to drive her from Colorado to Montreal for the show.

Perfect, I thought. But as the months passed, Fred had second thoughts about taking Ruby on the road. Less than two weeks before the show was set to begin, he emailed to say that he was not up to making the four-day trip to Montreal and back. I couldn’t blame him—but he had left me in the lurch.

I put in a frantic call to Airstream’s vintage-model shop in Jackson Center, Ohio.

“Would you have a trailer from the 1940s that you could lend to an exhibition in Montreal?” I asked.

“Hm, when is your show?” said the communications director, Rick March.

“In two weeks!” I replied.

“I think we might have one, let me check,” replied Rick.

Several long minutes later, he returned.

“Okay, ah… we’ve got a 1948 Airstream Liner, twenty-four feet


“I’ll take it!” I said quickly.

“—but the interior’s gutted,” he continued, “and I can’t in good conscience let you exhibit an unfurnished shell.”

“We’ll lock the door,” I said.

“Well, okay, but there are windows—I don’t want anyone to see the inside.”

“We’ll make curtains and cover the windows,” I said.

“Curtains? Hmm… I don’t know…”

After much coaxing, Rick agreed. Airstream Inc. saved the show. With no time to shop for vintage 1940s printed textiles, museum conservator Estelle Richard began sewing off-white linen curtains to hang inside every window.

Six days before the vernissage, the 1948 Airstream Liner arrived in Montreal from Ohio. With all hands on deck, the trailer was unloaded from the transport truck to street level. Part of the museum’s side-entrance glass wall had been removed in advance and our carpenters had built a wooden ramp to wheel the trailer inside. But as the museum’s technicians pushed it up the ramp, they stopped and groaned. It was too high for the opening! The culprit was a small chimney sticking out from the top of the roof. The height measurements we received had not included this unassuming appendage. But when I looked back at photographs of the trailer, its top air-vents closing flush with the roofline, there was the chimney, but hardly visible.

The Airstream representative and the museum’s technicians stood around scratching their heads. Measurements down to the last millimetre were checked. The removal of the chimney was debated. The clock was ticking. Finally, some clever fellow suggested deflating the tires. More measurements were taken and the tires were slightly deflated. Inch by inch, the aluminum shell was guided through the open wall and rolled into the museum galleries.

“Ça y est!” exclaimed the technicians. “That’s it!”

On the street, a crowd of passers-by clapped and cheered. When the exhibition opened, the trailer looked spectacular. It filled the space like an outsized modernist sculpture and formed an arresting backdrop to the power tools, electric fans and outboard motors.

Little did visitors know how bumpy the ride had been—anything but a smooth stream of air.