Monthly Archives: August 2010

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, by Randall Maggs

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, by Randall Maggs

Randall Maggs’ gritty poetry collection Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems casts a semi-biographical gaze on the life and times of legendary and troubled NHL goalie Terry Sawchuk. Arguably the standard by which hockey goaltenders are still measured today, with many records that have only recently been broken, Sawchuk played most of his 21 seasons in the NHL, spanning the 1950s and 60s, with little of the protective equipment in which modern goalies gird themselves. He also played in an era where backup goalies weren’t customary. This foreshadows and explains a lot.

How did Maggs formulate the balance of history, fact and imaginative interpretation to come up with his fierce and wrenching version of the Terry Sawchuk story? As he explains in the closing acknowledgements:

“What appears in the poems is based on stories told to me by those listed gratefully below or on what I have read or on what I brought to the book from my own life and playing days. As far as pure veracity is concerned, I don’t know which of the three would be the most unreliable.”

(Those listed gratefully include sports greats – players, officials and writers such as Johnny Bower, Carl Brewer, Ken Dryden, Ron Ellis, Trent Frayne, Dick Irvin, Red Storey and Stephen Brunt, as well as poetry greats Don McKay and Karen Solie.)

Maggs takes a varied approach to presenting Sawchuk the man, the figure and the legend, with different variations of dense but absorbing blank verse forms, and with a wide range of perspectives and colourful, often haunting voices. The tales, not just of action on the ice, but in the locker room, facing or avoiding the media, travelling, finding some quiet and solace on a frozen lake, run the gamut from rollicking and down to earth to dark and brooding to lyrical.

Sensitively researched and curated photographs are touchstones for several of the poems and fragments in this collection, and are arresting all on their own. In the mid-1960s, Life Magazine had a makeup artist superimpose scars and stitches on Sawchuk’s face to illustrate all of the injuries he’d incurred over his career. That picture concludes the collection, and is a wrenching poem unto itself.

The mounting inventory of Sawchuk’s mental and emotional suffering, including alcoholism and depression, is perhaps even longer than the physical injuries that either sparked or exacerbated his ongoing woes. But arching over it all and captured powerfully in Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems was the man’s unstinting determination to succeed and triumph and, in his way, transcend the harsh, grinding vocation he’d made his own and in the process, transcend time, even if only one game, one period or one play at a time.

Talk’s over at the glass, the captains
waved away. The referee holds four fingers up
and folds his arms, four seconds he wants put back
on the clock. Son of a bitch, an old defender
sags against the boards. Still, imagine the power,
to kick time’s arse like that.

The following is a dramatic short film based on Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems.

The following is an audio excerpt, courtesy of Brick Books, of Randall Maggs reading the poem “No Country for Old Men” from this fine collection.

2010 reading list (so far)

Here are the books I’ve read so far in 2010. In 2009, I read 52 books, inspired in part by great discussions and suggestions I found amongst the book blogging and reader community on Twitter. I’d like to at least match my 2009 total … but then again, are total numbers of books or pages really the point? What do you think?

  1. Sink Trap – A Georgiana Neverall Mystery
    by Christy Evans

  2. Matter
    by Meredith Quartermain

  3. Invisible
    by Paul Auster

  4. This is Water – Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
    by David Foster Wallace

  5. Man Gone Down
    by Michael Thomas

  6. The Museum of Innocence
    by Orhan Pamuk

  7. Awake
    by Elizabeth Graver

  8. The Ordeal of Oliver Airedale
    by D.T. Carlisle

  9. The Bishop’s Man
    by Linden MacIntyre

  10. Outliers
    by Malcolm Gladwell

  11. The Children’s Book
    by A.S. Byatt

  12. Solar
    by Ian McEwan

  13. The Last Woman
    by John Bemrose

  14. Nox
    by Anne Carson

  15. Chronic City
    by Jonathan Lethem

  16. So Much For That
    by Lionel Shriver

  17. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
    by Alan Bradley

  18. Coal and Roses
    by P.K. Page

  19. Pigeon
    by Karen Solie

  20. Useless Dog
    by Billy C. Clark

  21. The Certainty Dream
    by Kate Hall

  22. The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle
    by Monique Proulx
    (translated by David Homel & Fred A. Reed)

  23. The Imperfectionists
    by Tom Rachman

  24. Migration Songs
    by Anna Quon

  25. Grain
    by John Glenday

  26. The Sun-fish
    by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

  27. 2666
    by Roberto Bolano

  28. A Single Man
    by Christopher Isherwood

  29. Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems
    by Randall Maggs


A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

Truth be told, I came to this book by way of the movie (and hence the book cover art which, for sake of accuracy, is the version of the book I read, showing Colin Firth depicting central character George). I love thoughtfully made movies, but they are not my preferred avenue to discover books … but sometimes it works out for the better and this is one such case.

A Single Man, the mid-1960s short novel by Christopher Isherwood, captures the delicate minutiae of one person’s day, along with that person’s welling emotions and surprising spirit. George is a literature professor at a college in Southern California, set in the time in which the book was written and published. He is grappling with the sudden death of his longtime lover, Jim. While going about his day and his usual encounters in his neighbourhood and workplace, he is struggling from moment to moment with, well, how to *get* from moment to moment in the face of pervasive grief. I won’t spoil either the book or the movie by saying that each interprets differently George’s success in this struggle. In both, the end of George’s day is both ironic but oddly life affirming. In both, it’s entrancing to share the protagonist’s 24-hour journey.

Migration Songs, by Anna Quon

Migration Songs, by Anna Quon

Migration Songs by Anna Quon is a most worthy addition to the CanLit mosaic. The book’s own mosaic is a sympathetic and memorable cast of characters of varying pedigrees contending with literal and figurative migrations in their respective personal journeys.

By the dictionary definitions, a migration is the seasonal passage of groups of animals for survival, feeding and breeding, or the movement of a person or persons from one country or locality to another. While one sounds natural, normal, organic and positive, the other sounds possibly artificial, forced or prompted by negative reasons. This dichotomy distinguishes the types of migrations of various characters surrounding the troublingly static main character, who is finally compelled and inspired to set her own migration in motion.

The narrator of Migration Songs is reclusive, rueful Joan, a 30-something variously un- or underemployed loner. She sits at the eye of a storm of swirling and intersecting migration paths that enfold and perhaps protect, but increasingly intimidate, confuse and paralyze her. Joan’s mother Gillian is a fiercely determined Chinese-Canadian immigrant who forged her own migration from her parents’ tradition by resisting an arranged marriage to find her own choice of partner, David, who in turn migrates from England to start a new life with his wife. He had perhaps already set his personal migration in motion before even meeting Gillian by diverging from his British upbringing to become an avid if perhaps naive Maoist. David and Gillian’s transition into marriage and parenthood ultimately separates into divergent personal migrations.

As influential as her parents are to Joan is Edna, a feisty Hungarian immigrant who works as a live-in housekeeper in Joan’s family’s neighbourhood. Edna becomes a de facto parent, mentor and champion for the often fragile Joan. The true extent to which Edna’s own life was a series of daunting migrations – not just from one country to another, but over and through harrowing personal terrain – does not emerge until Edna has aged, has moved to a retirement home and is starting to descend into dementia. When Joan is finally in a position to both repay Edna’s devotion and pay tribute to her personal courage, she is able to set in motion her own migration, unfurl her own migration song and confidently take hold of her own life.

While there is much to recommend this book, Quon particularly excels at capturing the perceptions and wonderment and misapprehensions of a child as she traces Joan’s life and arrested maturity. While fragile, Joan is still extraordinarily faithful and stalwart, and even determined in her fashion. Quon has managed to create an indelible character in Joan who is comparable to young, troubled but striving heroines from Anne Shirley to Madeleine McCarthy of The Way the Crow Flies to Thebes Troutman of The Flying Troutmans.

Is having migrated in one form or another (through parentage, heritage, what one calls home) a self-fulfilling or self-denying construct? Some survive and thrive when they migrate, others allow the fact of having migrated in one form or another – or maybe to have been denied the opportunity to migrate – to always impede them. As frustrating as Joan’s inertia and reticence can be at points throughout the book, the reader is always rooting for her, hoping she’ll ultimately find some direction for her own migration.

Author Anna Quon offers some inspiring insights into her own journey or migration to write this book in the following interview:

The Sun-fish, by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

The Sun-fish, by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

Eilean Ni Chuilleanain has apparently been accused by one past reviewer of lacking “killer instinct”, whatever that is supposed to mean when one is crafting poetry. (At any rate, Ni Chuilleanain turns that phrase to striking advantage in one of the most vibrant pieces in this collection.) The poems in The Sun-fish are dense, demand undivided attention and are often understated, sometimes to a fault. However, Ni Chuilleanain’s simultaneously grounded and transcendent verse pays off with fresh, sometimes pointed insights into human resilience.

Deserving winner of the 2010 International Griffin Poetry Prize, The Sun-fish even shades into the acerbic with selections such as the delightfully sly “Vertigo” (“How did such smart women acquire such a mother?”). “The Sister” is a haunting selection, which Ni Chuilleanain read at the Griffin Poetry Prize readings in the spring of 2010:

Reflective reading will reward the patient reader of this deceptively slim but surprisingly rich and deep collection.