On The Go

Of course, me, myself, I’m not going anywhere. Nowhere my own feet can’t take me. I bike to a friend’s house to sit in the shade of her fence: I’m on the other side of the yard, sipping from the thermos of coffee I brought from home. I walk for an hour through a nearby park to smell pine trees and see new birds and feel the earth push back under my feet. I walk to the bakery for four loaves of bread: that will keep us a while. I am so tired of eating bread I’ve baked with my own hands.

This post wasn’t going to be about COVID-19, but everything is about COVID-19.

When I was young – and then too, I could only roam as far as my feet would take me – I was very ordered about my reading. I read one book at a time. I would start a book, I would finish a book. I didn’t stop reading books if I didn’t like them. This makes sense to me when I stop and think about it. I had a lot of time to read then. Now, less so. A full-time job and house administration take a lot of hours out of the day. So I dip into books. A few minutes here, 40 minutes there if I’m lucky. So I have different books for different rooms and different times.

Four books on a dark brown wood table. Clockwise from top left: the Beastie Boys Book; Reproduction, by Ian Williams; Treaty Number, by Armand Garnet Ruffo; and  =The Gospel of Breaking, by Jillian Christmas.

Dining Room: Non-Fiction

The Beastie Boys Book is a difficult book to read. Physically, I mean. It’s a several-hundred-pages-long hard cover printed on thick paper. I can only read it comfortably if I’m sitting at a table, and one of the few times I do that is during the bi-weekly Homo Phono zoom parties. So yeah, once more, I am that person at the party reading a book. But it makes perfect sense to me to read a book about music while listening to excellent music and shoulder dancing in a chair.

This paragraph will end negatively, but it’s really a great book. This is a band I know a lot about, but I’m still learning tons, not only about them, but about the hardcore and hip-hop scenes of various time periods and cities. Their writing voices are genuine and fun. The piece by Kate Schellenbach, who was kicked out of the band just before they got big, was a welcome addition. Amongst all the fun, though, I do feel something is lacking. They apologize for their sexism (and have been apologizing for decades) and they tip their hat towards the fact that being middle-class white dudes played a role in making them one of the most popular rap acts ever. But I don’t think they do enough self-examination in either case. Maybe it’s that their shame around their former sexism is so well worn at this point that it comes across a bit facile. And maybe an in-depth examination of how racism played out through rap is not for them to do; they’ve never pretended to be intellectuals, just friends having fun. So maybe that’s for some pop music academic to really take on. I don’t know. I do know I love them, like know all the lyrics to their first four albums love them, but in the last few years something has started not sitting right, and this book is amplifying that. It’s not you, baby, it’s me.

Bathroom: Fiction

Reproduction is also several hundred pages long, but is a soft cover printed on less bougie paper, so is an excellent book for tub reading. Honestly, I picked this one up mostly because the Giller Prize has never let me down. Reproduction is no exception. It’s the story of a family that builds by accretion rather than design. From the deft use of language, you can tell that Williams is a poet first. Sure, from time-to-time, the more experimental aspects feel more distracting than expanding. But I was quickly pulled into the story and all its characters. It’s the book I’d think I could read for a few minutes, and then would lose another half hour. But don’t take just my word for it, plenty of people said nice things about it, not to mention that Giller.

Everywhere, in brief moments: Poetry

The Gospel of Breaking and Treaty # are books that float around the house a bit. I find poetry easier to read in short bursts than other forms.

In 2019, I had the pleasure of seeing Armand Garnet Ruffo read from Treaty # at Versefest here in Ottawa, an event I was sad to miss this year. I bought the book after his reading, and then by chance ended up eating dinner with him, so it was a banner day all ’round. His poems read clearly on the surface, which is to say, I’ve never finished one of his poems and thought Well, I have no idea what was going on THERE. They aren’t poems that refract language through metaphor and push words past their capacity to mean, but they reach deeply into memory and place, weaving the deep past of family and location into the present, as in “Dinner Party” (scroll down a bit). That’s not to say they don’t play with language. They do, as in the first poem of the collection, a prose poem that opens the first section “Impetus Ungainly,” which takes the language of Treaty No. 9, the treaty that covers his family’s homeland, and reverses many of the words, so that your brain alternately glides and struggles along the lines of text. I’m only about half-way through the collection at this point. The poems can seem simple on the surface, I think, but they take me a long time to digest, and I’ve re-read a few already. It’s not a quick read, but something to savour.

I have to admit that I only bought the gospel of breaking because its author, Jillian Christmas, was supposed to tour with Vivek Shraya, someone whose writing I admire very much (and whom I got to interview last year!). Their tour got COVID cancelled, but I bought both Christmas’ book as well as My Art is Killing Me, by Amber Dawn, the third writer on the tour. But as it turns out, it’s a smart move to read work admired by people whose work you admire! It’s great. Christmas pushes words around. Across most pages, the words stop and spill, turning almost every poem into something felt physically. And now, just looking her up, I see she’s a slam poet, and the physicality of her poems makes sense. They move as they might if breath were behind them. Don’t take just my word for it, smart people have written more about her writing.

Before my multiple book-reading started, I think I felt reading needed laser focus, and how could I manage to keep track of characters, of story lines, of the emotional tenor across various books? Turns out it’s easy. Now when I open a book I’ve started, I feel a small click as it all falls into place, and it always feels like coming home.

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