by J.S. Porter
Where Seas and Fables Meet:
Parables, Aphorisms, Fragments, Thought
[ Toronto: Guernica, 2015 ]
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk from Kentucky, had the ambition of writing A Book of Everything: “I have always wanted to write about everything…a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of everything. That has its own life.” He wrote these words twelve years before his death in Bangkok by accidental electrocution in 1968. With The Asian Journal (posthumous), Merton was finally able to realize his ambition – a book of everything – his last photographs, speeches, prayers, travel notes, reading notes and poems.
Still early in his career, B.W. Powe in Where Seas and Fables Meet has written a book of everything. A book of stories, analysis and theory, Wilde Things, Marginalia and Delphic Ironies. Along the way, he writes an essay on the film director Stanley Kubrick and positions Kafka as the one indispensable seer of our time.
The Wilde Things are a kind of homage to Oscar Wilde – jokes, puns, paradoxes and witticisms. Powe at play. (He thinks Wilde should be called Whitman and Whitman Wilde.) The Delphic Ironies tend to be Powe in thought. And the stories, Powe imagining. He blends paradox, technology-probes, story and dream into an exuberant affirmation of human possibility. While you’re reading, keep in mind the closest parallel I can think of – the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces which also joins poetry and politics, journalism and storytelling. “A neo-romantic hyper-modernist,” a bricoleur with his bricolage, Powe embraces the world, both the physical and the electric. He’s a magpie picking up life-sustaining seeds wherever he can find them.
The stories for me are the most enchanting part of the book. (Powe uses the words fable, parable, and story interchangeably.) One story has to do with the mystery of finding a copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Story by the open-pit fireplace of a cottage by a lake. No one claims to have put it there. Another has to do with why Thomas Aquinas abandoned his writing and didn’t complete his Summa Theologica.
My favourite stories are: 1. The story of Grace, a young French girl, who believes in spite of her psychiatrist and the asylum in which she finds herself that “All is well.” (Was the story inspired by Julian of Norwich’s words, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well?”) 2. The story of the boy and the angel, entitled “The Sad Angel.” A boy plays with an angel until he grows up and goes to school and leaves behind childish things. Years later on a vacation in Brazil he sees a sad angel in a cathedral. For a moment it seems that the boy, now a man, might, through a work of art, regain his childhood loss. But the moment passes. He doesn’t recover the source of his first enchantment. (Did Powe have Dennis Lee’s Nicholas Knock and the honkabeest in the back of his mind?) 3. The Story of the Yoga teacher with the posture of a tree called “The Tree of Paradise.”
In this story, a stretching woman in a tree-like balancing position in her backyard suddenly feels “a warm blow to her right cheek” and falls, breaking her leg. Different theories ensue: The son believes she was hit by a comet; then he modifies his point of view a little by saying she was hit by a light. The husband believes she lost her footing and fell over backwards. The woman believes that she fell from a tree while reaching for a red maple leaf, a symbol of love. Which story is true? As in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, you can pick the one that is richest for you. The woman goes on to found a Yoga school called Comet Yoga.
These three stories demonstrate the power of story – the power to transport, to cast spells, and to enrapture. In a mini-essay on story called “The Story,” which itself transforms from a lecture on the deadening effects of elaboration and explanation to a parable on story’s power and its capacity to incorporate explanation into new formations of narrative. This short piece brings to mind Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Against Interpretation,” where the intellect tries to tame art, but art slips through its nooses.
Ovid and the Canadian Ovid, Marshall McLuhan, are the guiding spirits of this book. Things change, viewpoints change, the self changes and you must resist the Structure (Powe’s word) that would calcify, shackle or inhibit the free-flow of the imagination.
“We are all under sentence of death,” as Walter Pater reminds us in his conclusion to The Renaissance, “but with a sort of indefinite reprieve.”
“[W]e have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among ‘the children of this world,’ in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”
B. W. Powe, like a child of the world, fills his interval ecstatically in art, song and fable. He delivers multiple pulsations. Where Seas and Fables Meet is his most personal and intimate book. It’s Powe unbuttoned, free-ranging and wild. It’s my personal favourite among his ever-growing contribution to Canadian letters.
J.S. Porter writes a column for the west-coast magazine Dialogue and contributes to Hamilton Arts & Letters.