& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Loyalty Management -- Keep Toronto Reading One Book


Last month, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of Toronto, I attended a literary event at the City Hall branch of the Toronto Public Library. 

One of the star performers – and there were several that afternoon – was Glen Downie, the poet who has won the Toronto Book Award 2008 for his book of poems Loyalty Management.

The Toronto Book Award is a city council award that honours “authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto.”

At the event Downie sat unassumingly in the third row. When he was introduced, he quietly went up to the podium and began to speak to the audience in a soft voice, introducing his book and then began to read from the book.

Frankly, I didn’t quite enjoy the poems as much as I thought I would. Perhaps it was the choice of the poems or maybe I don’t really appreciate poetry as much as I appreciate other forms of literature.

Now, Downie’s book is being promoted by the Toronto Public Library for all of April as part of the Keep Toronto Reading One Book campaign.

I borrowed Loyalty Management from my Amesbury library last week, and began to read it. I must admit that my first impression – made from what I heard when the poet recited his poems – was made rather hastily. 

The poem on cows really didn't impress me then (when I heard Downie reciete it) and doesn’t impress me now because cows on the streets are such a common sight in India. And they just don’t seem to evoke the same sort of surprised exasperation that they might in Toronto. They don't represent the same ideas.

There are other poems that are really interesting. What I find surprising is the streak of socialism that runs through the volume. Maybe that would be true of any poem written with an urban backdrop. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. 

I’m quite sure Meghnad would have loved the book, as I’m sure Joyce Wayne must have. There are many poems with what I call socialist theme. Petitioning is the one I identified with because I’m an immigrant.

Petitioning

They’re on their knees
in the precious dirt
when you come around

the people who sign
because they have little enough

the ones with far too much
zucchini
  too many plums

who fill your protesting hands
with their stake in the nation

who nod & smile
& say neighbourly things
in unofficial languages

Dowie possesses a rare ability to surprise the reader; he does this by abruptly altering the main motif of the poem in the last few lines and introduces a completely different line of thought. Almost always, it’s a juxtaposition of the innocent and the evil. The most vivid example of this is the poem Cold Snap.

Cold snap

Pacing he sleepward   her tiny
fist clutching my chest hair

I think rabbits
how they pull out their fur
to nest their young

how her uncle  as a kid
failed to keep them in straw

& found them one morning
frozen to the metal cage floor

                                          Drunk
on breast milk
   she slumps against me
warm in her first winter while
   in his
the Premier

drunk on power  declares
holy war on the poor

& we find them  one by one
inadequately nested
frozen in alleys
  doorways
& the floors of unheated bus shelters

I liked these two poems the most. However, they aren’t illustrative of the volume, so don’t be misled by my selection.

Read the book; borrow it from the local branch of your library if you’re in Toronto.  I’m sure you’ll like it.

If you’re not in Toronto, read a few poems here. Also check out the Toronto in Verse site.

Images: http://www.keeptorontoreading.ca/one-book

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