Robert Finley, Patrick Freisen,
Aisllinn Hunter, Anne Simpson
& Jan Zwicky,
A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory
(Gaspereau, 2006)

What exactly is memory, anyway? How do we go about remembering things? Come to think of it, do we really remember or is memory, as some scientists are saying now, actually a recreation of the event, a creative act that changes slightly with each revisiting of a person or event?

In this book, five well-known Canadian poets, all with university connections, explore the juncture between poetry and memory. The jumping-off point for the book was a panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Program Conference of 2005. The discussion was called "Constructs of Memory" and its guiding question was "What are the poet's responsibilities to the past, to the dead, to truth and to history?"

Recognizing that the talk could venture maybe just a short ways into the abstract, each of the five participants provided poems to illustrate their central positions.

Robert Finley addresses the past as creation. His first couple of major projects, he writes, concern historical figures -- Columbus's 1492 voyage and a sort of oral history of the city of Halifax. In the Halifax work, he ran into trouble speaking for the people he was writing about and found a partial solution in a study of photographs of the city in that era. He discovered that his answer was not to speak for these people but to speak to them, to mediate between past and present. In supporting this view, he brings in arguments from the philosophers Heidegger and Gemma Fiumara.

From the discussion of Finley's essay, you can see we're dealing with an academic issue here. The approaches these authors use and the ideas they raise are not the ones that will come up when you talk about either memory or poetry over a beer. To be honest, a couple of the authors make the academic error of marshalling a vast number of references and sources to prove a small point, the university equivalent of dropping a safe on a mouse.

When the authors are on, though, the results are worth reading. Anne Simpson takes a mythological approach, using the story of Eurydice and Orpheus to make her point. Before she gets to it, though, she brings in Martin Buber, Ludwig Wittgenstein and a couple of critics. Once she gets past her sources and into her own ideas, she comes up with a piece that will start you nodding and thinking.

A Ragged Pen is a good book for academics and college libraries. It probably won't thrill an average reader but, then again, it's not meant to.

by Michael Scott Cain
30 December 2006

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