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Manitoba History: Reviews: Granite Lips, a Stone Throat: The Voice of the Canadian Space. Jake MacDonald, Indian River & Jim Tallosi, The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits

by Daniel S. Lenoski
St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Indian River. Jake MacDonald. Winnipeg: Queenston House, 1981. 205 pp. ISBN 0-919866-61-1.

The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits. Jim Tallosi. Winnipeg: Queenston House, 1981. 107 pp. ISBN 0-919866-57-3.

Robert Kroetsch has commented: “Hearing the silence of the world, the failure of the world to announce meaning, we tell stories.” [1] But in Canada, because the world is so large and underpopulated, and identity and language so much in question, the silence is overwhelming. In fact, in another essay Kroetsch has pointed out that it is precisely this silence which is the language of the Canadian space. [2] F. R. Scott apparently agrees:

Hidden in wonder and snow, or sudden with summer,
This land stares at the sun in huge silence
Endlessly repeating something we cannot hear.
Inarticulate, arctic,
Not written on by history, empty as paper,
It leans away from the world with songs in its lakes
Older than love and lost in the miles
This waiting is wanting. [3]

And thus in book after book we end not with man or his dialogue but—using Scott’s words—“granite lips/a stone throat.” [4] At the end of Rudy Wiebe’s novel, The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), Big Bear is turned into stone. In both Jack Hodgins’ The Invention of the World (1977) and Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese (1925) the geography swallows the major protagonist and in the latter the sound of man is re-placed by the sound of the space: the geese and the silence. Robert Kroetsch has at least three novels in which storms of rain or snow swallow characters at the end. In Ernest Buckler’s novel about the Annapolis Valley, The Mountain and the Valley (1952), David Canaan dies; it snows and he freezes to death. W. O. Mitchell’s classic novel Who Has Seen the Wind (1947) ends with a description of the prairie. If Canadian writers possess a great deal of self-consciousness at times, they are rarely forgetful of the power of the landscape to which they wish to give expression.

The authors of two of the newest books published by Queenston House also manifest this pat-tern in which author and/or character are enveloped by the enormous Canadian physical fact. In the “Introduction” to Jim Tallosi’s The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits, Gregory Grace comments that Tallosi has adopted the Shamanistic role as the voice of the land. Tallosi himself begins his book with words that indicate his sensitivity to the Canadian “silence”: “our air is tensely silent/it remains on the verge of musicland it remains to be interpreted” (p. 13). In Jake MacDonald’s Indian River, a snowstorm, then a river, swallow the anti-hero and finally—though a city boy—he is buried in the Canadian Shield. The silence has, in fact, absorbed him. We end with an abandoned fishing lodge, weed-choked cabins and soon-to-be silenced squeaks from their doors as the wind blows from the grave of the major protagonist to the buildings.

Indian River focuses on the battle between the product of civilization: technology, and its opponent: the Shield. MacDonald has chosen to set this battle in the area of South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba, near the town of “Indian River.” Bearing in mind that MacDonald has worked as a guide in the Minaki area and lives on an island near there, and that the town is apparently fictitious in Manitoba, it seems vaguely recognisable as Kenora, Ontario. The mill owned by Skall Processors and polluting the lake and river system with “Acid Red” may very well be a disguise for another allegedly “infamous” pulp and paper company in the area.

The pollution controversy is the backdrop against which the dominant character, Dom Chambrun, plays out the last climactic moments of his life. Indeed, conflict between the reality of the environment with its almost powerless would be protectors and those who would unconscionably impose upon it their mercenary or egotistical dreams is an exteriorization of the same tension existing within Dom himself. His father is the man who supplies chemicals to the mill. On the other hand, while Dom journeys to the North to take the job his father has procured for him at the mill, he never actually works there. Instead he chooses as his employer Rusty Arnold’s Indian River Lodge where he works as a fishing guide. Ultimately, nature dominates technology in Dom’s crippled personality.

It is not surprising that Dom has problems with his new profession, since he has been devoid of any direction in his own previous life in the city. Indeed, his supervisors consider him the least capable of a group composed of society’s casualties. Only “Cracked” Joe Thunder—who “doesn’t have all his paddles in the water”—is lower in the social and professional hierarchy of Indian River, and later in the novel Dom discovers that he even bears a remark-able resemblance to “Cracked” (p. 192). And like the bear who has had his ear shot off by an American tourist, Dom—who also has an injured ear—is no longer capable of living in rapport with nature. Both have lived too long amid the garbage of the industrial culture.

In fact, the situation in Indian River is an inversion of the pattern we find in so much contemporary literature about Natives. In works such as Hubert Evans’ The Mist on the River (1954), George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), and many of W. P. Kinsella’s short stories, we encounter Native characters living in the city who are misfits there and also unable to go back to the natural life. In contrast Indian River has at its core a white man who has “gone Indian,” gone back to the land, but is incapable either of adapting there, or of returning to the city. Late in the novel Elena points out that Dom is too white to save “Cracked Joe.” He is too much a part of all that has destroyed Joe. And he is too white for Elena to live with. It is perhaps significant that after his body is found he is enclosed in a plastic bag and put in the ice house for a time—like the enormous fish used for the lodge’s promotional films. The fish is clearly Dom’s double.

The “doppleganger thing. You meet yourself in another form” [5]—the doubling and tripling of characters (especially by using mirrors)—has become somewhat of a conventional literary device in contemporary Canadian writing. It is easily discovered in the work of Kroetsch, Audrey Thomas, Michael Ondaatjee and Jack Hodgins. In Indian River Dom not only blurs into “Cracked Joe,” the celebrity fish and the bear with one ear, but also the Cowboy and Rusty Arnold. Rusty’s friendship with his father resembles that of Dom with his. And in Dom the Cowboy sees himself many years earlier. Even Elena resembles Dom in the sense that she feels the same conflict between self and responsibility.

One of the problems with the novel, however, is that MacDonald has not adequately developed the moral struggles in either Elena or Dom. Certainly, one of the strengths of the book is that it is not written by the kind of academic interested more in style than in people. Rather than exploring new wildernesses of the pen, MacDonald prefers to cast his aesthetic hook into new regions of the psyche. And he does understand the lingo of the man on the street or in the woods for that matter. Nevertheless, both Dom and Elena are too shallow, especially the latter. Dom is not the only person interested in learning more about her. Despite being a woman who has lived at Wounded Knee during the A.I.M. demonstrations, who wears an enigmatic broach on her wrist, whose first name means “light,” whose surname is Thunder, and who we are told crackles with sensuality, Elena’s potential as a character is not realized.

There are also problems with the portrayal of Dom. It is absolutely incredible—as irresponsible as he is—that Dom would fall asleep watching a CBC documentary on the Indian River controversy when he has borrowed a T.V. to watch it and sits on the bed of a woman to whom he desperately wants to make love.

On the other hand, though the characters rather lack depth, they do live—with the possible exception of Rusty—and MacDonald succeeds in creating on the page a distinctive milieu: one that exists in similar form in northern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. The description of the beer parlor at the beginning of Chapter Two seems particularly apt and the descriptions of the Northern sky are striking, especially the following one:

Two thousand feet above the Precambrian Shield a small floating plane droned through the evening sky. Far in the west the sun was low, cloud obscured. Floating cumuli, lit like paper lanterns, hung above a landscape of a thousand wilderness lakes. In the west beneath the setting sun, splinters of brazen light struck down through the smoky clouds and reflected on the hammered surface of the lakes. In the east, where a large spring moon was rising, the lakes were like pieces of a fallen sky amidst the darkening forest. (p. 20)

We might say that the author succeeds in recreating the region on the page in the same way that Hodgins has for the small towns of Vancouver Island and W. P. Kinsella for the contemporary Indian reserve in Alberta.

To invent the world of this novel, the author uses many of the same contemporary devices found in Hodgins’ The Invention of the World. In Indian River we discover letters, film, TV programs (Adrienne Clarkson makes a cameo appearance), lists, songs, poems, magazine articles, pamphlets, quick changes of time and place. Though third person narration dominates, the narrative technique is at times polyvocal. However MacDonald does not always effectively use quick changes of voice, time and place. In one chapter in particular the change in setting and slight change in voice are clumsy; so much so that the repetition of five lines of prose is required to re-establish coherence (pp. 188 & 191). If it may be argued that the purpose of the interruption is to create suspense, MacDonald only succeeds in confusing, even irritating the reader. The editors at Queenston House should have recognized and deleted such stylistic and structural awkwardness (and this is only one example).

There are also too many historical chapters that fill in the family backgrounds of the characters. One senses that both the history of Mr. Pike and also that of Veto Petrone could be much shorter, less obtrusive and more richly employed later. A writer working with similar voices, Hodgins, is far better at polyvocal switches and at changing time and place.

On the other hand, to blame MacDonald for not being Hodgins is perhaps somewhat unjust. This is his first novel. In fact, on the level of pure story he may at least approximate the achievement of Hodgins. Indian River, for the most part, grips the reader firmly until the Epilogue. The latter confirms the emphasis on story rather than pattern and works against the contemporary tendencies towards multiple endings as in Ondaatjee or Richard Brautigan, or non-endings as in Audrey Thomas. In Indian River all the loose threads are tied up in the Epilogue. Whatever problems it has, Indian River leaves us with the memory of the voice of the wind: the true north, strong, free and eternal. Man has died or has moved on. The Northern bush has repossessed the polluted clearing in the forest.

If Indian River deals with the technological society’s concept of the relationship between man and Northern space—man over nature—and the latter’s answer to that, Queenston House’s other newest book, The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits deals more directly with what both books find desirable—man as part of nature. For Jim Tallosi geography is more than what the Logos-dominated consciousness brought by the Europeans has attempted to make it: maps, lines, ranges, divisions or political units. Orillia is a bird before it is a city (“Places I,” p. 15). The landscape bloodied the imagination before it became a map (“The Surveyor,” p. 18). Tallosi speaks “a language/made of river, smoke and trees/fires, flesh and feathers” (“The North,” p. 69). Thus, in “Painted Stone Portage,” in contrast to those who have trans-formed the “holy place” into “a highway for trade,” sacrificing self, he enters the rock to release its spiritual motive power (p. 47). In “On the Lighthouse Point” he compares himself to a polished stone and listens to the surrounding communal voice:

the lake lets out
another breath
and god speaks
another word

mollusks, corals, brachipods
all animals once
now,
they’re funny sounding words
unbedded
in smooth washed stones —
the water moves them
they fall stiffly
as part of the cumulative voice (p. 51)

In another poem the speaker sees the fallen rock and its relationship to its source as a metaphor for his life. He is also fallen and seeking communion. It is significant here, however, that he names his origins with a word that has both religious and geographical meaning:

things
fallen from a mass
to form
a scene
of scattered order

from what mass
am I
fallen? (p. 40)

Perhaps the voice here is even a part of inanimate nature itself.

In The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits the speaker constantly apostrophizes the animate and inanimate. Personification is everywhere. In “Totem” the author is a hawk and it is the hawk who speaks. Even the snow speaks.

come while I snow
smothering grey lights
in corners I cannot touch

At night
touch my white
brightness (“A Poem and a Fragment,” p. 79)

However, if Tallosi is concerned about giving voice to the Northern space between Winnipeg and the District of Keewatin, what also emerges is the beauty of sky, ice, stone and crystal—not unlike in F. R. Scott’s poems about the unpopulated silence. [6] Tallosi is certainly conscious of the cruelty of the environment and of man within it:

The horizon is a circling thing
it encloses many circled things
that lose their flesh in fall.

A skeleton, supple limbed
as boy in spring
moves through the birches      (“Tower Poem,” p. 33)

Nevertheless, most often flesh, blood and worms are viewed through a distancing, crystallizing medium rather than close enough to radiate the vanishing warmth as in the work of another Manitoba poet, Pat Friesen. The colours in Friesen’s first two books were for the most part earth tones. In Tallosi’s book blue—the colour of the Blessed Virgin—is al-most ubiquitous. The sky has not fallen, the earth has become sky. Accordingly, Friesen’s first book was called “the land’s i am,” Tallosi’s first book is called, significantly, “The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits” and the trapper here does not merely trap animals, he transforms them into beautiful sounds and sights. Thus, if a skeleton moves through the birches he is, after all, supple limbed as a boy in spring. If the hawk in “How Shall the Hawk” has been cut apart, his body is strangely beautiful and his imagination still sits on a rock, “a half-formed blue animal/speechless, unsure of its death” (p. 36). And if in “West Hawk Lake” the end of beauty is darkness, it is also wisdom. Life and death are complementary parts of a ritualistic dance in this book.

In fact, Tallosi can perhaps be criticized for excessively romanticizing and thereby losing contact with the smell of mortality. “Home Street” is far too lush or too pure to be representative of the place in West Winnipeg. The reality is, most often, narrow lots with two-story frame houses desperately searching for the sky. Tallosi transforms this mundane environment smelling of yesterday’s meatloaf into crystals or lilacs.

At the same time, Tallosi’s strength is crystal clear, simple, hard-edged creation. In The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits the best poems are those which speak of North, wind, cold, ice, sky, stone, stars and streams: an elemental world. On the few occasions when he focuses on the city or on man the poems are rather ordinary, and thin. [7]

The same strengths and weaknesses are found in the illustrations of Real Berard. [8] His strong, definite lines, sweeping black curves and geometrical shapes are perfect for the type of landscape he is most often illustrating. Here is the same hard edge simplicity we very often meet in Tallosi, but at the same time it is manifested in abstract shapes that strip away accidentals and recall the art of the people indigenous to the north. Because of his art form Berard can use abstract images and yet, to a degree, retain concreteness and force in his illustrations. This is much more of a problem for Tallosi because his medium is lexical and words are further removed from the actual world than purely visual counters, except when they are conveying sounds.

The dust jacket of The Trapper anti the Fur-Faced Spirits declares that together Tallosi and Berard produce “a perfect harmony of verbal and visual art forms.” Despite the quality of much of their work as artists independent of each other, this is not true; nor is the book enhanced by considering each poem and its facing illustration as a harmonious set piece. Most often such one-to-one matching of poem and illustration in an attempt to make them operate in harmony limits imaginative choice and imaginative possibility. It even produces conflict.

The words of a good poem give birth to a surrounding magical mystery. The illustration that accompanies any poem similarly generates its own non-verbal poem, its own mystery. But the magic can easily be limited in both if we use one as the mirror reflection of the other. For example, in Tallosi’s book the illustration for “the City’s Deciduous Trees” is far less rich than its companion:

the trees have begun
their silent gesture of splendour
to the city

in the suburb
of all places
a blue blue spruce
is silhouetted
by gold leaved oaks
without wind
they make no motions
toward each other (p. 80).

The black and white illustration on the next page neither evokes colours nor wind. Thus, it looks much more like the gloomy barreness of Winter than the majestic variety of Fall.

Similarly, “What Does The Land Dream” contains more than the dark picture of snow, trees and cabin that faces it. There are no deer to starve, nor mice to dance as in the poem. Nor can we know that the trees are dreaming. Clearly, in both cases the illustration, viewed as expression of the poem, limits the poem. Of course, the opposite can also be the case. When Shaman speaks as hawk in “Totem” the identification of the two persons is not quite made by the words. “I” is separated from “Hawk” by “am.” We are also aware here that the poet is using personification as a rhetorical weapon. But in the illustration on the next page, there is no “am,” only man and Hawk, but as One. Berard’s brilliant illustration reveals a synthesis of Hawk, eyes, totem pole, sun: circle within circle, overlapping with silhouetting vertical lines. Illustrations can much more easily achieve the blend of meaning hindered by the chronology words depend upon to mean at all. The poem “Totem” is a story with images within. The illustration is new image with images within. “Painted stone Portage” is another case where poem and illustration are somewhat at odds to the detriment of the former. Tallosi can only tell us that “the fur-faced Spirits/Maymaygwasillive inside the rock” (p. 47). On the opposite page Berard shows them there, inside the rock.

Rather than view the poems and illustrations as a “harmony” then, it is far better to see them as foils to one another, recognizing that each art form serves to highlight the particular differences in the other. Accordingly, the details in each become more important because of the presence of the other and the multiple meanings of each are sustained, enhanced and given variety.

In The Trapper and the Fur-Faced Spirits and Indian River Queenston House has produced two works of literary merit by two young writers who show some promise. Both books exhibit the attempt at integration of voice and lanscape that is not exclusively Canadian, but seems an especially crucial and almost ubiquitous element in Canadian writing. As the Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz has pointed out “Even adult people, if the question is put, ‘Who are you?’ will touch their bodies.” [9] That is perhaps especially so when identity is made tenuous by a large, underpopulated and sometimes inimical physical fact and where language is ambiguous. The authorial voices in these books rise organically from the surrounding silence.

Notes

1. “Prologue,” Beyond Nationalism: The Canadian Literary Scent’ in Global Perspective, Mosaic XIV, No. 2 (Spring 1981), V.

2. “Introduction,” Boundary 2, Vol. III, No. 1 (Fall 1974), 1-2.

3. The Collected Poems of F. R. Scott (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1981), p. 58.

4. “Old Song,” in Ibid., p. 38.

5. Kroetsch, “A Conversation with Margaret Laurence,” in Creation (Toronto: New Press, 1970), p. 54.

6. In particular, I am thinking here of “North Stream,” “Old Song” and “Abstract.”

7. There are two exceptions: “The Homestead” and the only love poem, “Though I Spoke.”

8. Still, the rather cute bottle of vodka on p. 104 is an extremely sociable personality.

9. Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths (New York: Spring Publications, 1972), p. 106.

Page revised: 1 February 2020

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