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Reviewed by:
  • Personal History
  • Leif E. Vaage (bio)
Roo Borson . Personal History. Pedlar. 2008. 116. $20.00

I don't know what to write about this book. The author is not the person I thought he was when I agreed to write the review. For example, he's a she. And I am now her reader, though she obviously wrote this 'personal history' with someone else in mind. Nonetheless, if reading is as Borson describes it in the preface to her book a mode of remembering that, in her case, began with the 'magical grocery pads' produced weekly by a certain [End Page 328] Annis Minion Long whom '[n]o one will ever know . . . again,' then reviewing Borson's book may be a version of what she shortly afterwards describes as knowing: 'First the queer hour of inalienable sensory metaphor; then the series of reckonings, variations, similes.' It just so happens that as I'm writing this review, I'm also reading another book about the genre of biography, Skaff deg eit liv! Om biografi, written by an Englishman, Stephen J. Walton, in 'nynorsk,' his second mother tongue, so to speak, and the other form of Norwegian still under construction since the middle of the nineteenth century. Walton's book is, essentially, a collection of occasional essays on the ways in which writing a biography wanders between impossible approximation to and inevitable misrepresentation of the singular life in question. Likewise Borson's Personal History seems to me elliptically to mark a similar gap between the life that is constantly passing us by - before us, through us, with us - and the poetry, the painting, the music that we make in order to mark its proximate absence, dark presence, fragile form, including the possibility that all we see and suffer, hear and harbour, somehow might remain 'still beautifully cantabile.' Death is the vanishing point, perhaps predictably, whence the book would derive its underlying structure - or, better stated, centre of gravity - especially the death of mother and father, whose dying is recalled more than once. But there are other dead as well: to begin with, as already noted, Annis Minion Long. And then, for example, the chance detour 'to see where the sign Guaje Pines Cemetery pointed' that sponsors the heart of the section called 'The Road.' Or the slain women, all ignominiously dumped along the 401 highway and strangely implicated in a series of six paintings by Sheila Ayearst, whose work is the focus of another section of the book. As well as those few blackberries along the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle that

manage to survive into the natural process of decay. Fallen to the ground, leaking blue ink into the dust, or mouldering uneaten on the vine, a dusty maroon misted with web and rot, repulsive to the touch. To navigate among these, overlooked in their prime, is the task of the true gatherer. To extract, from the depths, the last of the harvest, dead-ripe and brimming with sweetness. The trail's final, royal, end-of-summer riches.

And finally, in 'The End of Winter, Adelaide-Himeji Garden,' where, '[d]azed by the camellias, so many and so varied, I happened to trip on a decorative slab of sandstone set upright near the base of a dark double-red,' we read: 'The stone I tripped over has not been replaced - the ground is sealed over in that spot, as though a wound has closed. Who else besides me can see this?'We see and learn with Borson here and elsewhere in her book how to inhabit a world that perennially escapes us, eludes our grasp, effaces our foils. Thus, on the one hand, as Borson [End Page 329] writes midway through the book with her mortally ill mother, '[T]here's no place that is truly home, though I keep collecting places I love . . . My mother lies next to me, sweetly breathing, the shape of her body so like mine. There is my first home, where I have no memories, and it is dying.' On the other hand, in the book's final paragraph, we are told how 'from a shallow concavity ground into the top surface [of an...


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pp. 328-330
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