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.
As in The Malahat Review, 190, Spring 2015, 105-106
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The Koffler Gallery presents Erratics featuring archive-based installations by novelist Martha Baillie and artist/curator Malka Greene with writer Alan Resnick
Toronto, ON, March 19, 2015 – The Koffler Gallery opens its Spring 2015 season at its downtown home at Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw Street, Toronto, with Erratics. The exhibition runs from April 16 to June 14, 2015, opening with a free public reception on Thursday 16 April, from 6 to 9 PM.
Curated by Koffler Gallery Director/Curator Mona Filip, Erratics explores the tensions between memory and fiction by bringing together two archives where photography takes a central role in an attempt to uncover hidden narratives. Staged as museological displays conveying two personal stories, these collections of images, texts and records reveal both the impossibility of fully knowing the past and the effectiveness of literary imagination in grappling with history.
Toronto author Martha Baillie adds further layers to her most recent book, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, through a multi-media installation. In Baillie’s hypnotic novel, an archivist seeks the truth about Schlögel’s life through letters, documents and photographs providing glimpses into his journey from a small German town to exploring the Canadian North and finding himself lost in time. Over six hundred postcards, voice recordings and a musical composition created by Nic Gotham give material substance to Baillie’s literary plot that addresses our fraught relationship to the historic past.
In His Father Over Time, Toronto artist and curator Malka Greene mines a store of materials belonging to the late Dr. Morris Resnick – a World War II reconnaissance photographer who also avidly documented his life and times. Similar to an archivist, Greene pieces together the threads of this private story, working with television writer and satirist Alan Resnick, Morris’s son. Resnick explores his relationship with his father and family through the process and responds with a personal series of texts. Where information may lack or memories fail to fill the gaps over time, fiction takes over.
Erratics is a Featured Exhibition in the 2015 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
For more information and a full list of the Koffler’s Spring 2015 programs, please visit kofflerarts.org
Winter in Tilting
Remember what it was like to be sung to sleep. If you are fortunate, the memory will be more recent than childhood. The repeated lines of words and music are like paths. These paths are circular, and the rings they make are linked together like those of a chain. You walk along these paths and are led by them in circles which lead from one to the other, further and further away. The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song.
— From “Field” in About Looking, by John Berger
❝In the winter of 1988, I was living in the outport of Tilting, Fogo Island, on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, for my initial research on the architecture, material culture, and cultural landscape of the community. Fieldwork from this and subsequent years was published in Tilting: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village. In this new book, I share my memory of a slide hauling trip in the winter of 1988 from Tilting to the south coast of Fogo Island with Andrew and Neil McGrath, their horse Brandy and my Newfoundland dog Sophie. Together, we made our way to the area below Thousand Island Pond so that Neil and Andrew could harvest wood for heating their houses.
We left early in the morning, following one of the slide paths from Tilting across many ridges, heights, barrens, marshes, ponds, and brooks, and through landscape features locally known as drokes, throats, skirts, leads, necks and pinches. The weather was variable, and the light was always changing. At the time, I was not particularly attuned to the subtleties of Newfoundland’s topography and flora, so many places along the slide path looked the same to me at first. Had I been alone on the path during a “whiteout,” a blinding storm of snow and mist and wind, I would likely have become disoriented and lost. Stories abound in Tilting of those who nearly perished in such storms. Only after living in Newfoundland for many years did I begin to appreciate the scale, colours, scents, and sounds of this rugged and at times inhospitable landscape.❞ — from the Introduction
When I first came to Newfoundland—about 60 years ago—I was enchanted with the place. Pure magic! And not a bit like the New Brunswick that I had left behind! But today I read Robert Mellin’s Winter in Tilting: Slide Hauling in a Newfoundland Outport. And I am back in my home province listening to my father and my uncle discussing hauling logs out of the New Brunswick wood lots. And Robert got it right. The conversations lasted for hours. This book is full of the love of people, land and craft. His paintings illuminate this little place called Tilting that Robert has so taken to his heart. And as I first saw Newfoundland—Magic!—Mary Pratt*
- Trails, Tales, Tunes Festival in Norris Point NL, May 16 and 17
- Reading with Robert Mellin & Brenda Leifso at Ben McNally Books in Toronto, Monday 22 June 2015 at 6PM
- Launch Party at Fishers’ Loft Inn with Robert Mellin, in Port Rexton NL, 9 July 2015