Thursday, March 25, 2010


THE FIRST CAUSES: Light, dust, wind, mom & dad, rain, snow, sky, insects, grass, horizon, story.

These are the near-poems, near-prayers, that form the weft of Lorna Crozier’s book, “Small Beneath the Sky.” Its weave is memoir, memories from growing up in Swiftcurrent, Saskatchewan, which is on the way between where I live in Montana and Saskatoon where I served a congregation. I know these places. She is no longer here, having achieved her tenured and well-earned reward in Victoria, B.C. where she is an esteemed professor. This is the dream of most prairie academics.

Lorna likes lists. As soon as I moved to Saskatoon, I trotted over to the used bookstore and bought local writer anthologies. Ever since then “The Garden Going on without Us,” has actually been going along with me, including the famous carrot poem, which comes from another poem list about vegetables. I’m fond of the one about radishes who “if they had jobs, they’d be nurses who drive red sports cars after work.” Apt and vivid metaphors are her hallmarks.

Poverty and hardship are not easy to write about because so many people write about the same thing. Fathers who are alcoholic ne’er-do-wells are familiar. Wallace Stegner, who grew up not so far away, addressed that father/mother puzzle (why do mothers stay with that kind of a man?) over and over in his novels. Repetition compulsion? Yet Crozier’s second husband, Patrick Lane, who was also alcoholic, somehow sobered up and is a respected poet. Does this marriage redeem that of Crozier’s childhood? The pair co-edited an anthology about addiction. Each has an eponymous website: and I recommend the linked Joseph LaPlanta interview about this book. It’s so good to hear Lorna’s humorous, flowing answers.

The harder issue is class. Growing up in a small town is duck soup if you’ve got status and money, but strictly gristle if you don’t. The kernel of the memoir is a jousting match between pride and humiliation. The heroine is Lorna’s mother who always has the hardy practicality to get through anything. Lorna remembers fabulous childhood incidents like confronting a giant lizard in the underground of the old house: her mother comes to the rescue with a butcher knife, stabs the reptile and casts it into the blazing furnace. This is not rational. (There are no lizards in Swiftcurrent.) When asked, her mother doesn’t remember it. Throughout the book the mother refuses to be pitiful, never buckles under stress, and ends up (again in magical realist fashion), visiting Lorna at the Benedictine monastery in Muenster -- a consecrated place if there ever was one! -- and again in a wheat field, also surely sacred ground on the prairie.

Fathers are more difficult to grasp but throughout the story there are flashes of redemption and forgiveness. Teachers reach out and principals stand ready to intervene. In the wind-hardened prairie, there is a fenced swimming pool that Lorna slips into alone at night in her Speedo with no bra underneath, a secretive transgressor making waves all her own. But she is a life guard. Her own.

She says: “What I am trying to establish when I write is a movement back and forth between the profound and the ordinary.” This strategy succeeds wonderfully when the ordinary is remembered through child’s eyes, which Lorna never quite closed. Transcendence stands trembling in the leaves of a giant wild cottonwood. Immanence erupts through light, dust, wind, mom & dad, rain, snow, sky, insects, grass, horizon, story. A child may be small on the flat, alkaline Saskatchewan landscape but growing up there can create a sweet, densely imagining, woman poet.

This is a beautifully produced book, pleasant to keep to hand alongside a reading chair or slip into a pocket to read while resting on a walk. But it’s form, short pieces of writing would make it also a good eBook to read on the likes of iPhone where it could be accompanied by photos or artwork. In fact, I think the form comes from writing poetry and from the practice of selling short pieces of memoir as essays in magazines. However it was created, the deepest forces were literary. We are grateful.

The formal review of this book ends above. I will add more for the blog version. Just as the US closed the Canadian border to returning US citizens unless they have a passport, when it comes to writing, the Internet and other cultural forces have called me to ignore that border. Part of the invitation is family history, which I am retracing at Some of it is Bob Scriver’s family history in Quebec plus the University of Calgary Press’s publication of “Bronze Inside and Out,” my biography of Bob Scriver. Much of it is the fact that I’m a place-based, ecology-conscious person and writer who prefers east-slope prairie, unlike Crozier or even Ivan Doig who grew up here in Valier. That includes the fact that I’m a scholar and friend of the Blackfeet tribe, which is on both sides of the border with perhaps the closest ties to the past on the Canadian side.

But partly I’m pointed north by the constriction of the Montana scene: not just the writing but the whole humanities scene. Even more than the Canadians, the Montana folks are attached to the idea that humanities are a sign of prestige and that prestige requires conformity. Like the American publishers in Manhattan, they want to see what they saw before, when Montana writing was famous and the writers themselves were still young. The gatekeepers, who once opened gates as professors who supported their students (Richard Hugo was famous for it.) now keep the gates closed to control competition or anyone who might criticize them. In retirement, they need their prestige as much as their income. Even the cowboy art scene is now controlled from outside Montana. They will deny this. It’s at least worth discussion. I also have a short list of Montana books that have a lot of similarities to Canadian prairie books. Maybe it’s unconscious, maybe it’s the result of shared ecology. Just saying. Economics and technology are the plate tectonics of the humanities.

1 comment:

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Your column is very influential, and I believe you yourself are the most significant literary gatekeeper in the state. There are bodies of literature you exclude from discussion year after year, and would condemn if you were to discuss them. I don't know of any one in academia who exerts that sort of power. Your influence is widely acknowledged.