by Andrea McKenzie
In Arleen Paré’s first book, Paper Trail, published by NeWest Press, she examines the everyday ritual of people dreaming themselves into and out of working. Nearing the end of her long career, a sentence, in the public service, Paré dissects the surreal and all-too-real aspects of life in the office.
The book is a series of fleeting or consuming observations, memories, thoughts and mental schedules that flow into each other like the days of the week. Paré leads us through her inner files, a briefcase filled with poetry, poetic prose, memoir and fiction. She records the misconceptions about work, both inside and outside of the office, in relation to who we are. There are sections of her book that focus on the social graces of work life and the unwritten code of fitting in, and using appropriate, airy topics for conversations with colleagues.
There are dense pages and white spaces, like work and the life in-between work. Paré looks at work as a commodity for life and how we calculate our happiness. She gives us the plight of a career woman, shifting gears between different roles that include mother, wife, daughter, and civil servant. Interestingly, she brings in another examination of how the roles of women and their existence differ in comparison with her mother’s generation.
She pairs the surreal, seemingly arbitrary working world with the concrete, practicality of life, and the surreal experiences of life with the encroaching reality of work; measuring security and what her work allows her to have in life. She uses a Cinderella complex to draw a parallel in the idea of work, security, and perceptions being impermanent.
In the midst of all this, she has short, unexpected conversations or daydreams with her own personal Kafka, which is developed throughout the book, trying to find answers, a balance or an anchor, and preparing for this transformation of leaving work.
The notion of working as part of our freewill, and subjecting ourselves to the weight, fear, demand and criticism of our work is a crucial part. She writes about trying to write herself out of her office where she feels boxed in, drawing on the story of a man who spends twenty years in a jail cell and was afraid to leave it when the door was finally opened. He wouldn’t leave. There is an invisible chain that links the civil servant to his or her desk, and the security of a full pension dangling in front of them like a gold carrot.
From there, she launches into the lists of survival kit items for everyday, to survive the office wilderness. Her briefcase is both a burden and a necessity. Paré also identifies herself and her work through the personal sacrifices, self-preservation and resourcefulness of her Parénts’ working lives. In the same vein, Paré likens work to religion and takes another look at these beliefs and values.
In Paper Trail, Paré writes another story between the musings of her work poems, writing herself into a real fiction.
Poet Explores Colours Coming Out of the Blue in New Work
By Andrea McKenzie
On December 1st, Betsy Warland, a Vancouver-based writer and the director of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, will read from her most recent work, a book of poetry titled Only This Blue at the Martin Batchelor Gallery 5:30 pm to 7 pm.
Only This Blue is a long poem that explores coping with a life-threatening experience through the guidance of colour. Warland experiments with usage of words and poetic structure, such as line breaks and white space to create depth and meaning. The narrator of the long poem struggles with the effects of an illness, and learns a new and uneven landscape through the use of words and colour. There are four dominant colours in the poem: green, red, yellow and, finally, blue. Warland uses colour to identify a language for her experience.
The concept of the long poem was not something Warland had initially designed. The colours came as she was going through treatment. She had been writing non-fiction for four years and facing a life-threatening experience brought her back to poetry, as she said she had a need to write “closer to home”. The book was originally meant to be written in four suites of colours, and then gradually became one long, united poem. Her inspiration of colour stems from the colours of nature. Blue is the colour of the sky, and “the sky is unknowable and yet it holds great comfort and wisdom”. Colour “became a major guide for me.”
“I don’t have a negative association with any colour, as they represent the natural world for me. When going through a life-threatening experience, it is important to find a companion or relationship. As a child, a great companion to me was nature. When we are going through a crisis it can provoke fear in other people but nature is never afraid of you,” said Warland. “Now I live in an urban environment, but I value the natural world still thriving amidst the concrete.
There is a significant absence of blue throughout the poem, until the end of the book, when blue appears as a symbol of knowledge and calm; a realization and acceptance of the illness and knowing there is nothing we are able to control.
“There is a tendency when facing a big unknown to seek structure and answers. Once you go through something like that, you realize that you don’t know what will happen. This is our human condition – our awareness of uncertainty– and learning to embrace that is freeing; is a relief! For me, blue bridges everything, as it holds all colours.”
Warland has published nine books, which includes – What holds us Here (1998) and serpent (w)rite (1987) – a memoir, Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000), and essays, Proper Deafinitions (1990).
A Broken Mirror, Fallen Leaf: Crossing the Cultural Divide
by Andrea McKenzie
As Yvonne Blomer explains, the title for her first book of poetry published by Ekstasis Editions, a broken mirror, fallen leaf, depicts the idea that we cannot go back from a journey without transformation.
Crossing borders is more than boarding a plane and crossing geographical borders. It is embracing another world – the people, language, culture – and accepting yourself as always being a fraction separate from that world. Her book explores the barrier between cultural images that both divides and bridges the experience of being a Caucasian woman living in Japan. She has the advantage of being an outsider to eavesdrop on situations that are both foreign and startlingly human.
The book itself is divided into four sections, or seasons, of her journey: Four Seasons, Gaijin da (foreign person), Small Japan, and The Path Leading Home. In Four Seasons, Blomer looks at these quiet barriers and an intimacy that occurs with the natural world, as seen in her poem “Crabs”. The armchair reader is given a glimpse of sensual and historical Japan in “Onsen 1”, and is treated to a ‘fly on the wall’ account of tender relationship rituals holding everyday gestures of beauty and surprise.
In many of her poems, the language is sparse and full, all at once, such as in “Ofuco”. There are near haikus, and small moments not to be forgotten that hold the universe, as in the poem “Ways of Seeing a Firefly”. The variation of poem structures serves to capture each scene in its own organic rhythm.
Blomer also reveals a confessional side to her poetry, as in her connection with her own husband while adjusting to a new world and becoming more familiar with this landscape. Still, the reader is aware of a sharpness in the contrast that is felt as an outsider invited, but not entirely belonging, as shown in the poem “Four Seasons in Japan”.
The second part of the book, Gaijin da, is a series of poems that are a kind of awakening. These poems are jolting, yet subtle, and lend a braver, closer look at the surroundings and mysteries of Japan, such as in “Through the Temple with Buddha.” Blomer delves into a more observational scope with these poems, and the sketches of the local people and activities. She engages and comments largely on her own strangeness and peculiar presence to the Japanese, as seen in “The Bats Came in Place of the Swallows”. Her four-part Ghazals piece together these abstract lines, trying to make sense of disjointed ideas, sights and movements.
Blomer has included a glossary in her book to help the reader navigate through this other world. This added touch is a necessity, but also a gesture of invitation by the author to join her, and to stumble over these foreign sounds and make sense of them.
A broken mirror, fallen leaf is a journey in which a new life is adopted and, as with any new experience, we are never quite the same.
*A broken mirror, fallen leaf is short-listed for the 2007 Gerald Lampert award, which is a prestigious award developed by the League of Canadian Poets to recognize the best first book of poetry in Canada.
Published in Monday Magazine, April 24, 2007