1231 Coming of age in Prince George

In Singing, He Composed a Song
by Jeremy Stewart

Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2021 (Brave & Brilliant Series)
$19.99 / 9781773852201

Reviewed by Jeff Stychin


Have you ever woken up in a haze or dream-like state? Or wondered how long spans of time have seemingly disappeared from memory? In Singing, He Composed a Song, Jeremy Stewart evokes a swirling rhythm of poetry, memory, thought, illusion, and institutional records as he recounts incidents in Prince George where, as a 15 year-old, he ended up in psychiatric care after a suicide attempt. This story is told from the perspective of John Stevenson, an adolescent musician who sincerely discredits authority. It also features memories and exchanges with his friend Simon and his brother James, whose photo is on the book’s cover.

It begins with a nighttime walk through Prince George, where John’s regrets flow as he reminisces of school and relationships:

I find winking moon visions inaccessible by daylight
thinking — zombie power, hands in pockets, mind turning over

some daydream, nothing but this sleepwalking prayer
& the search for friends.

Anguished at the thought Ive hurt Lauras feelings, etc.
Shoes wearing through. Graffiti (p. 2).

Every so often the alternate voices of doctors and counsellors shown in italics (underlined here – ed.) intrude professional reason and judgment into the narrative:

calm, co-operative
agrees he has an impulse control / anger management problem (p. 2).

These alternate entries oppose the story-like vortex of John’s narrative and offer insight into the more concrete reality of his experiences.

Jeremy Stewart. Photo by Lisa Loewen

While John is misguided and estranged from his goals and potential future, remarkably he notices and articulates subtle insights and breakthroughs, particularly for others’ well-being and the recognition of a bleak Canadian history:

Lheidli graves are under us now. Their gravestones are under
     the river
this part of the river is stone dead. Concrete broken on its
     banks (p. 2).

For a character portrayed as having such a lack of respect for those around him, John also recognized his own privilege.

Now the story turns to reflection as John, unwilling to obey authority, recounts his experience after a school confrontation where he’s taken into psychiatric care:

when I was in the ward they wouldnt let me call my Mom. She
     called me, too, but
the nurses wouldnt let her talk to me. Might be upsetting.
Mother reports she has been trying
to get help for John for quite some time.

I became a riff of my own voices in layers like leaves
in spring after the snow is gone (p. 6).

At this time, John is in ninth grade and the month is November. The entire narrative takes place over a few days or at most a week. His band played a show at the Legion Hall, and he expressed how good it felt to perform live, which is what John lived for:

I felt insane I couldnt breathe but it was manic glee & when the song was over & everyone was happy I ran upstairs by myself & lay on the floor & closed my eyes & I thought “never forget how this feels” never forget how this feels & I will never forget & then I wondered if it was a good feeling but it didnt matter because I felt the beautiful power rocking in my soul (p. 18).

He and the band and friends then spent a night of drinking and walking the small city with another recognition of privilege and echoes of a recent past:

graves we are walking on Lheidli graves
& none of it is fun until I forget (p. 22).

After the concert and during the next day John visits his friend Laura in her dad’s 11th floor apartment. To her outrage, he discussed his plans for suicide:

Laura flipped and threw a chair. She had strictly forbidden me from talking suicide on the grounds that she found it upsetting. She said I was “acting fucking stupid” & she stood up & went & locked herself in the bathroom (p. 25).

John now admits himself to hospital to be evaluated for major depressive disorder. I also struggle with depression and anxiety, and I’m sure that you, the reader, or someone close to you can relate to John’s concerns about his own wellbeing. It’s not an easy path for anyone to navigate, let alone an expressive, emotional youth trying to find himself through his adolescent years.

Time now passes and we are given clues of a series of events, a perfect storm for someone with a mind in turmoil. John has decided to attempt suicide again whilst at school, by hanging. The school calls the RCMP who introduce him to police brutality by pepper spraying him:

Sitting in ER handcuffed.
Brought in by 2 RCMP
officers. Eyes sore from
Mace spray. Hx of trying
to hang self in drama
room @ school. When
brought out by RCMP
tried to bang head thru
glass windows

As he is taken into custody,

Glasses off, I turned to face the open door & he said, “Hey, John — you ever gone ten rounds with a jalapeño?” & sprayed pepper spray into my eyes. There was a hiss. It went in my eyes & started hurting bad fast. I wont give them the satisfaction of hearing me cry out, I thought. I couldnt open my eyes, I squirmed & fell back & tried to rub my eyes but my hands were cuffed behind my back (p. 46).

Once processed he waits in custody after this forceful treatment of abuse.

So I ask him, “Can I help you?” & he thinks for a long time about my question. He says “Can you help me? Can you help me? Do you think this is a fucking fast food restaurant, youre going to get me a fucking cheeseburger? I missed my fucking lunch break because of you, kid. You shut the fuck up.” So I shut the fuck up. & I waited in the small, little room across from the two cops (p. 48).

The next day in psychiatric care, Carla, a nurse from his previous admission visits him, takes him out for a cigarette, and on his return his vulnerability finally emerges.

I sat on the edge of the bed, leaning with my arms crossed, elbows in my hands resting on my knees, nicotine cravings at bay for a while, leaned my head into my arms & started to cry. I cried the long, choking cries with a little sob. My nose was running, & I wiped it on my pajama sleeve. I cried the tired tears of a child whose fight has run out (p. 60).

His friend Simon contributes to the mix of voices:

At one point, bored out of his mind, he decides
to start doing push-ups to start working off some
of this, like, pent-up, some of this anger, some
of this energy, some of this helplessness, feeling
like at least he could work some of the energy
out. Immediately this voice comes on over the
intercom and says, “Stop doing that.”
So he stops, and he says, “Stop doing what? Pushups?”
“I can’t do push-ups?”
“Can I sing?”
“. . . Yes.”
So he sings. And he actually, in singing, starts to
compose what ends up being one of my personal
favourite John Stevenson songs, ….

He’s later discharged for not being a threat or being severely mentally ill and continues on with his life, his relationships, and his music.

Jeremy Stewart. Lisa Loewen photo

In Singing, He Composed a Song is disorienting and seemingly disjointed albeit connected through the thoughts of John, but after two or three readings it all makes sense. Multiple layers of spirit, solitude, anger, depression, sadness, conviction, and empathy are revealed in the memories and actions of someone troubled by routines and dissatisfied with order. It’s not the prettiest picture, but John’s emotional rawness and heartfelt struggle come through in the haze of cigarettes and weed and in the actions of committed health professionals like Carla.

I encourage you to read In Singing, He Composed a Song as a memoir of the apathy and turmoil of growing up, as a call to action and rebellion, as a fresh lens to view adolescent depression and anxiety, and as a testament to the healing power of music and poetry. I’ll leave you with a solitary insight from John as he recovers in hospital:

terrible fast clouds
the sky is never

empty, it is always
full of sky (p. 64)


Jeff Stychin

Jeffrey Stychin has felt like a man out of time and in the wrong place ever since he noticed the town he grew up in, in the BC interior. He studied verse and poetry through music and art. He began writing as a means of catharsis and as a way to communicate with himself and others. A Vancouver barber by day, a poet by night, he currently resides with his thoughts and dreams in a quiet place full of trees. Editor’s note: Jeffrey Stychin has also reviewed a book by Brodie Ramin for The Ormsby Review.


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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