- So this is the world & here I am in it
An early statement in the first of the twelve prose works that comprise this volume directs the reader's attention to some of the persistent features in the work of poet and critic Di Brandt:
How it held me throughout childhood, this great blue, overhead, this wide wide prairie, how it kept me alive, its wild scent of milkweed, thistle, chamomile, lamb's quarters, pigweed, clover, yarrow, sage … the delirious scent of lilacs in bloom, hot pink begonias, marigolds, sweet peas, spider queens, wild yellow roses, crimson zinnias, baby's breath, the cool fresh smell of spruce, jack pine, elms gracefully arching overhead … asparagus, cucumber, radishes, onions … raspberries, strawberries, chokecherries, gooseberries … Japanese cherries, cantaloupe, watermelon. It was heaven, the prairie was …
This incantation, self-reflexive and intimate, reveals Brandt's abiding passion for the prairies, certainly, but also, by implication, for the environment overall. The particularity of image so palpable here, and the cadence of Brandt's inimitable poetic voice, give expression to her [End Page 453] artistic sensibility and to her sense of nostalgia for a vivid and largely irrecoverable world.
The essays featured in this book tend to be driven transparently by both scholarly curiosity and personal encounter. Brandt might begin a work with a tantalizing statement like 'Dorothy [Livesay] and I were drinking coffee …. It was the summer of 1991,' encouraging the reader to prepare for a multi-layered experience. Several of the literary investigations focus on female characters in fiction and on the texture and dynamics of their relationships with others. Featured are Mavis Gallant's intuitive twenty-one-year-old protagonist in The Pegnitz Junction, for example; and Adele Wiseman's 'brashy North End [Winnipeg] loudmouth,' Hoda, in Crackpot; and Dorothy Livesay's conflicted narrator Celia, in The Husband. Brandt's literary studies are not restricted to the work of women, however. Her tribute to David Arnason, focusing on his prodigious impact on Manitoba's cultural landscape, is complemented by her study of the work of James Reaney, which serves as a compact, intimate literary history of Winnipeg.
Alongside an investigation of twinship (Brandt herself is a twin) and a commentary on what we might learn from the creative habits of honeybees (stimulated by Brandt's collaboration with Winnipeg installation artist Aganetha Dyck) is a prose hymn to the city of Berlin (where Brandt spent a recent sabbatical year: 'Berlin came into me like a mist, a garden, a knife, a flame') and a meditation on the qualities of 'wildness' as Brandt has found it in such vastly different settings as the contemporary Canadian urban environment and her ancestral home among certain southern Manitoba Mennonites, with their 'old village ways.'
The particular Mennonite world in which she grew up draws Brandt's attention at intervals throughout this volume —the world she abandoned, in effect, when she became a writer. Both fascinating and illuminating are the pieces that explore and document what Brandt characterizes as the 'idealistic, crazy, stubborn, ecstatic, beautiful, terrible' Mennonite heritage that shaped her until 'the volatile moment of [her] stepping off the cliff of [her] life into print.' Finally driven to be faithful in her own way to the Mennonite tradition out of which much of her creative work has emerged, Brandt critically engages, and illumines, the cultural and scholarly conventions that have defined the Anabaptist/Mennonite world that she abandoned but, paradoxically, never left behind. In the several personal essays in this book Brandt attempts to re-inscribe the history of her people, the Mennonites, in order to create among them a place for herself.
This volume, the tenth in a series that foregrounds 'the writer as critic,' offers a great deal to a range of readers, from those seeking literary [End Page 454] analysis of specific texts and insight into Canadian literary history to those whose primary interest is Brandt's own creative work. In this collection readers will find in Brandt the consummate writer-as-critic: an insightful, imaginative commentator and a self-reflexive, lucid stylist...