Nonfiction Review by Susan Olding
Stan Dragland, The Bricoleur & His Sentences (St. John’s: Pedlar, 2014). Paperbound, 190 pp., $22.
The conclusion of Stan Dragland’s The Bricoleur & His Sentences is a chapter called “How to Use This Book.” If you’re the sort of reader who flattens the frontispiece, starts at sentence one, and proceeds systematically to sentence number ten thousand and seventy three (The End.), then the placement of this guideline may leave you perplexed or even annoyed. But if you’re the type of reader who perambulates, who enters a book through a side door, exits through a window, and sneaks back through a skylight at three a.m., who stumbles your way to this section or that before breakfast and then again after supper, who finds yourself reading the same sentence again and again and noticing something different every time; if you’re the sort of reader who savours the sounds of sentences, who relishes the shapes they make, their tropes, their schemes, their forms—in short, if you’re a reader like me—then Dragland’s handy blueprint will present itself precisely when you need it most. How to use this book? Any which way you choose, he says. But he also invites you to join the project. Inscribe some of your own best-loved sentences. Go ahead. Don’t be shy. He’s left some blank pages so you can do it.
Just don’t make a purposeful search for those favourite lines. Not if you want to remain true to the spirit of this book. Instead, remain receptive. Putter. Wander. Watch and wait. For a bricoleuris not a collector. He has none of the collector’s urge to target, pin down, or own the object of his curiosity, none of the collector’s need to force the issue. “I’ve embraced uncertainty, the haphazard, as a discipline, trusting in what is given,” Dragland says. True, “[t]here is no real finding without fully engaged looking.” But the temper, the tone of that engagement is open. No need to narrow the aperture.
This is the essayist’s stance, if “stance” is not too static a word to describe a mind forever seeking to represent itself in motion. Don’t mind me, the essayist says, I’m just scrounging around here. Bringing home bits and pieces of this and that. Driftwood, old tires, beach glass, stones. Whatever. Essayists as a group are known for this kind of wayward wandering. But I wonder if sometimes our stance may be a pose, or (more charitably) a helpful disguise, allowing us to hide our delight in form. Our puttering may not be directed at any end, but for people who supposedly abjure pattern and design, we take inordinate joy in discovering connections. “Following the brush,” the Japanese call it. Fill in a background with jottings or listings; eventually, a subject emerges.
The subject here is the bricoleur himself, and what goes into the making of such a man. The cover typography hints at the text’s parallel structure: “the bricoleur” and “his sentences” divided precisely midline by an inverted ampersand, just as the book divides between commentary and the sentences themselves. Yet the division is suspect, for the bricoleur is everywhere within his sentences, as he well knows. Mistrustful of the insistent “I,” in this idiosyncratic volume, Dragland nevertheless assembles an intellectual autobiography. His teachers are poets, including Margaret Avison, Roo Borson, Phil Hall, Jay Macpherson, Don McKay, Mary Oliver, Michael Ondaatje, Colleen Thibaudeau. Other teachers are scholars, such as Edward P.nJ. Corbett (author of an influential text on rhetoric) and Northrop Frye (who needs no introduction). Those great systematizers of language on its micro and macro levels might seem, at first glance, peculiar mentors for a man of Dragland’s temperament and aesthetic inclinations. But in fact, the magpie mind discovers treasures in every field. Besides, there is another side to his character.
Bricoleur. Bricklayer. The play on words is intentional. After all, the author is arguably CanLit’s hardest-working mason, having founded both an important literary press and a magazine called Brick. What’s more, in addition to penning ten books of his own, for almost thirty years, Stan Dragland thrived (or at least survived) in academia. “Maverick” scholar or not, you can’t do that kind of work without some periods of dogged application. Bricoleur—the collagist, lover of fragments and random accidents. Bricklayer—the methodical builder. Are these, in fact, so antithetical?
That is just one of the questions this fascinating assemblage raised for me. Do these sentences tell a story or state an argument? If they do, it is an oblique one. No matter. There’s something magical in the age-old classification of tropes and schemes, something magical in the way these sentences jostle up against each other. There’s fun in finding Christopher Smart in bed with Gertrude Stein; Warren Zevon wedged between Margaret Avison and Seamus Heaney; Ken Babstock on the same park bench as E. B. White. “It’s a lonely activity, writing. Even the most successful of us, doing what we feel called to do, may feel like orphans unless we chance to happen upon our spiritual family.” How to read a person? the book begins. Chart what he accumulates, say Ondaatje, Oliver, McKay. Reading this bricoleur’s accumulation of sentences, I felt companioned. I’d wander with him anywhere in the fields of language. Erudite, yet earthy. Confidential, yet not confessional. Part commonplace book, part essay, part memoir, part literary appreciation, The Bricoleur & His Sentences is as playful, perceptive, and profound as the spirit that animates it.