PUNY SORROWS (Almost a book review)

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

Finale, Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts
Jillian Christmas
Zaccheus Jackson http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/zaccheus-jackson-firecracker-east-van-poet-dead-at-36-1.2752118
Brendan McCleod

Miriam Toews
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Price: $29.95, 336 pp

Ruth Ozeki
422 pages. Viking. $28.95.

My summer vacation came to a sharp end with the news that Vancouver Slam Poet Zaccheus Jackson died in Toronto. Hit by a freight train, in Toronto, Wednesday August 27, the CBC calls it an accident, but it’s hard for me to not to think he was walking the line, having a stare-down with the abyss. Yes, that’s hyper-inflated language, and not the happy ending everyone was wanting for this young man who called himself an “East-Vancouver-ghetto” poet. He was making it as a survivor of abuse, neglect, addiction, and jail.  Working with young people, steering them away from the same desperate journey before it took their lives, was the legacy of which he was most proud. Dying young was not supposed to be his story.

My sister and me probably heard his last public performance at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts on a triple bill with Jillian Christmas and Brendon McLeod, on August 17, 2014 in a stunning amphitheatre in Sechelt B.C. Miriam Toews read earlier in the weekend, and Jillian did a piece on the choices facing Robin Williams, his suicide dominating the news all week, before Zaccheus closed out the Festival. (Author’s note – This Festival is likely one of the best in the country, so if you ever get a chance to go to the west coast make sure the Festival is on your itinerary)

At one point in his performance, he shaded his eyes to look at the middle and middle upper class seniors and near-seniors that filled the theatre, and he, to my way of thinking dissociated.

Dissociated, came apart.

However generous and sympathetic an audience, it was a long way from the East-side; him looking at us flabby white folks with all our puny sorrows. He may have wondered why there were so few indigenous people in the large audience. Or whether his passionately rapid-fire delivered lines about his pain, and those of other indigenous people, were making a difference or selling tickets. Maybe he was just tired.

Anyone who talks, performs words at top speed is at risk to stumble, but recovery is usually quick and unnoticed if you start and finish well, which he did – receiving a standing ovation.

I was at the Festival particularly for this one show, (also to hear cohort Miriam Toews) and looking for spoken word artists to perform in Winnipeg next June at the PortAH!ge Poetry Festival.  I decided not to stop to talk to him, figuring a performance is not the best place to talk about a future gig. I sent him a FB message following the Festival, and never heard from him.

My sister and I did go to hear Miriam interviewed, talk, and read a bit from AMPS. The Sunshine Coast Festival is unique in that writers are given an hour to read, talk, answer questions, or not. Miriam’s presentation was set up as an interview with Hal Wake, the Director of the Vancouver Writers’ Festival.  Possibly the only reason I mention these circumstances, is because Miriam’s father and her sister both died by train.

I read All My Puny Sorrows before leaving to meet my first grandchild in Victoria, visit with my son and daughter-in-law. My son gave me a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I started reading in Halfmoon Bay and finished here in Winnipeg yesterday.

These are very different books. Toews’ reads like a confessional stream-of-consciousness memoir, her speed of delivery akin to Zaccheus’s with the narrator stopping now and again to take a breath wanting so much to tell-us her story, to ask-us, what is the right answer, did she do wrong by her sister by not helping her to commit suicide.  As I got into the book, I imagined AMPS as a one-woman monologue delivered on a bare stage, maybe with a desk and a chair, like Spalding Gray’s many solo productions.

Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is reflective, measured, well-structured, and working with a wider array of tools than Toews in AMPS, switiching 1st and 3rd person voices with free indirect discourse, for example.  The story is wrapped up in the voice of Ruth, who pieces the story together from items found in floatsam on the beach of her small BC island, likely drifting in from the Japanese tsunami of 2011.   The anxious reader as writer tricks of the day are bearable because they don’t get in  the way of a really good story.

Suicide and mental illness seem to look different to Ozeiki, an ordained Buddhist priest, as she recounts the last years in the life of a WWII kamikaze pilot, Ruth, interpreting his diary and letters which survived him and washed up on her beach.   Living an examined life, with references to Proust (the letters are written in French), his decision becomes whether to fly his plane into the American battleship, or into the waves, and is seen as disciplined, thoughtful and courageous.

This suicide is contrasted to the lame failures of his nephew who fails in taking his own life. His wife passes off his attempts as “accidents.” His daughter is watchful, and figures if he can do it she can do it too. Nao keeps a diary, and intends to document the life her 104 year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun living on the side of the mountain before she kills herself.     Instead, Jiko convinces Nao and her father who shows up just in time, to chose life, while on her death bed.  We hear the “suicide is selfish,” argument from one of the characters, but hard to dismiss as the conclusion of the novel and it’s author. Even so it’s the book I’ve enjoyed reading the most since Christmas, and I recommend it. AMPS with more questions than answers as another view would be a good companion volume.

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