Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

Girls, Handsome Dogs & Stuffed Olives

A meditation on perfection

Sibum and I visited one of Montreal’s more fashionable drinking venues and no sooner did we begin to discuss poetry than our thoughts fell instead upon the barmaid whose every physical move was a small miracle. I can see her still, her lovely hands positioned behind her neck in the most improbable of attitudes, as though choreographed from above. A member of the Ojibwa tribe, she was professional enough to understand that in a place such as this, which caters to the crook, the senator and the poet, intimacy is an illusion involving mirrors and distance. She poured the wine and spread her smile with equal measure. The Italian writer Aldo Buzzi (not to be confused with the Italian writer Aldo Busi) in describing his visit to Djakarta reduces his experiences there to a single glimpse of a woman’s bare feet, finding in them a strong case for the existence of God, more convincing, say, than the ontological argument of Saint Anselm. Yes, God is in the details and that night, in Montreal, He was in that girl’s exquisite hands. A sensible woman will read this and guffaw and she’d be perfectly right to do so. What is man but a walking compendium of his own follies, about to fall flat on his own face? If, however, he is unable to ascribe to the barmaid a fair portion of the universe, what chance will his poetry have? I would suggest that poetry comes from the same doubtful region as one’s gaucheries, where clumsiness is a constant companion to grace. As for Montreal, if there’s an image that sums up my feelings for the place, that best conveys its sense of separateness, its subtle attractiveness and slightly grudging allure, it is upon her, High Priestess to this Bacchanalian temple, that I rest my case. Soon enough, I think, she will be in one of my friend’s poems, if she is not already there. Sibum, in his writing, employs all that he hears and sees.

I have been looking for the superlatives that might wing his most recent book, Girls and Handsome Dogs, into a complete stranger’s hands, but every time I reach for the thesaurus my mind is whisked elsewhere. Some years ago, I woke up one morning and realised I knew nothing about poetry whatsoever. Now, while this might have induced in others of my acquaintance a serious crisis, I felt I had been disburdened of a terrible weight I had been carrying for years: that there is nothing about poetry I can truthfully relate, that to attempt to do so would be merely to seek to construct a second set of wings for the blackbird, which at this moment of writing sings outside. I am not making any claim of superiority here, for poets are, by and large, better equipped to discuss poetry than anyone else. Well, at least some of them are. Quite simply, I do not have the critical language with which to reveal a poem’s deeper mysteries nor can I replicate the system of pulleys by which means a group of words is hoisted above ordinary language. Al dente would be a more honest response to any line I particularly like. Otherwise I will set my seismograph to record the wobble of a branch beneath the blackbird’s footfall, this, too, being suggestive of the chord a fine poem strikes in me. A line from one of Sibum’s poems strikes me as deliciously ludicrous: “She was a citizen of one of Saturn’s moons / Or maybe Nova Scotia, here on a cultural exchange.” (I’ve been to one of those two places, in 1970, on a bicycle.) There is nothing in my mental store that can possibly explain the sheer magic of that line, but what I do know is that those words, put together, strike the most improbable of attitudes. The collection as a whole contains what for me is one of the essential ingredients of poetry: surprise.

I should be wary here of spreading too thickly my praise. When she of the exquisite hands brought the merlot, an antidote to the plonk that remained at the bottoms of our glasses, which, almost imperceptibly and with a knowing glance, she removed and replaced with fresh ones, Sibum and I groped our way back to the realisation that we are the two greatest poets in existence. This is an affliction of the mind not wholly unknown to writers who operate in a vacuum, an affliction they themselves cultivate. It is a blackest of literary black holes and, as in Dante, full of sorrowful cries. I conceded that soon enough my friend would produce a poem half as good as the slightest of mine. And he had similar predictions for me.

I should relate how this absurd state of affairs came to be. In 1993, we gave poetry readings in Manchester and Bolton. I wouldn’t say we were competitive, but there was, in the matter of literature, between us something resembling a Teutonic sword’s serrated edge. Sibum had the greatest difficulty in granting others admittance to his literary universe; I had already allowed him into mine. And then, as now, we found ourselves enthralled by a young woman of considerable grace. We went on a tour of the John Rylands Library in Manchester, conducted by one Stella Halkyard. She was archivist as ballerina. When she led us into one of the darkened manuscript rooms she did a finely executed pirouette towards the light switch, that single movement of hers unforgettable in that she seemed not to realise she made it. At the end of the tour we were shown the library’s greatest treasure, believed to be the earliest known fragment of the Holy Bible, dating from the first half of the second century AD. It comprises a few words from St. John’s Gospel, more specifically the verses relating to when Christ is brought before Pontius Pilate. At a point when visitors have been known to suffer religious ecstasy, sometimes to the point of physical collapse, all we could do was stare in wonderment at Miss Halkyard and all Miss Halkyard could do was return an admonishing smile.

That evening we read our poems to a group of students arranged in a semicircle, which, in the funhouse of mirrors that literature has become, is a way of making a small audience appear larger than it actually is. Afterward, we repaired to the hotel for a meal and then had a few drinks in the bar where we fell into conversation with a couple of Scottish lorry drivers. As soon as Robbie Burns entered the conversation, as the measure of all that poetry should be, I felt a terrible weight pulling at my eyes and decided to go to bed, leaving Sibum to continue with the discourse. A couple of hours later, he stumbled into the darkened room and I, still awake, pretended to be asleep. As he navigated his way towards his bed he made the following utterance.

“Well, Marius, I guess we’re the two greatest living poets.”

I lay there, in the darkness, in doubtful silence.

About five minutes later, I answered him.

We, Norm?”

I was too late, though; the second greatest poet in the world was already fast asleep.

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I spent Easter dinner in Montreal with my Polish cousin’s Italian in-laws. There is, in the marriage between Italian and Pole, a resolution such as I have never found between any other two cultures. What it is, I think, is that the Italian removes the Pole from the terrible, historic condition of being a Pole while from his side the Italian is rewarded with the gravity he so often loses in his constant quest for grace.

“So you write books, huh,” Wanda’s father-in-law said to me. “I tell you something. You take my life, I’ve got lotsa lotsa stories. You put them together they make a book like this.” He spread apart his hands to the width of an opened concertina. “So how much money would I get for a book this big?”

“You must be a very bad man,” I said, “for your stories to fill so much space.”

“No, I tell you,” he replied, “I’m not a bad man because I never been to prison.”

He described to me how in 1951, when he was in his early twenties, he and his young wife left their village in Italy and took a boat to Canada. They arrived in Halifax and upon going ashore to catch a train to Montreal he put on a white shirt and she her prettiest dress, determined to meet an uncertain future in their best clothes. The train was hot and stuffy so he opened the window, only for the sooty smoke of the train’s engine to blow in from outside. What he remembers now was his shame and sorrow at arriving in Montreal with his white shirt blackened. Would this story have moved me so much had we not been standing, as we spoke, in front of an old photograph of he and his wife in the new clothes they purchased with their first earnings? I sought in the overweight man in front of me the thinner, younger one, his eyes beaming with hope.

“I tell you,” he told me, a sick man amid his hard-earned fortunes, “if I knew then what I know now I’d never have come here.”

Easter dinner was fabulous and I am tempted to pause for a while at each course, for at least a moment or two, say, at the sheep’s brain quivering on its plate, which I would not have touched had it not been for the copious amounts of wine I had already consumed. What I’ll do instead is focus on the stuffed olives that are the local specialty of the village in central Italy from which my host and his wife originally came. I had one stuffed olive and then, quite uncontrollably, I reached for another. I did not resist when the bowl was pushed towards me a third time. You will not find the Ascalone stuffed olive for sale anywhere nor would you be able to order it in any restaurant and very few young Italian wives, especially those of the professional classes, will now devote the many hours it takes to produce these culinary masterpieces. A large green olive is stoned, its centre scooped out and then stuffed with three different meats—pork, chicken and veal—finely ground and mixed with herbs whose identities were not revealed to me. This is a painstaking operation and must be done so as to enlarge the olive but not to breaking point. The whole is then dipped into a batter so as to form, when deep-fried, a paper-thin crust. The result is nothing short of a miracle. What is especially pleasing to the eye is how the green of the olive shows through the brown at various points, which brings to mind some visual memory I have of an illust-ration, in a child’s guide to the universe, of the planet Mars long before satellites ever got up there. I signalled my approval to the signora at the far end of the table and she acknowledged my praise with a grave nod of her head. She knew that nobody in the world could ever come close to her in the matter of producing these delicacies. The stuffed olive, although very much of this world, brought with it the memory of a vanished one. At this juncture I remembered my Syrian friend in London, Zahed, a dealer in antiquities whose specialty is rare beads, particularly those Phoenician and later Roman ones unearthed in Asia Minor and the Levant. There was one bead in particular Zahed showed me, a mosaic bead so intricate and fine its making could only be described as a seeking to achieve the impossible. “Whoever made this,” he told me, “must have done so as a form of prayer, perhaps even as a challenge to himself to become God. It may even explain the connection you find in many cultures between beads and prayer.”

When I saw Sibum again I told him about the Ascalone olives. And I told him about Zahed’s mosaic bead. I told him the olive and the bead were almost exactly the same size. And both of them as intricate to make. And I almost but in a nick of time did not extend their example to the making of verses. What was left unsaid was perhaps a matter so delicate that to give it utterance at all was to risk tweaking the Muse.