1342 A wild and enclosed garden
Bramah and the Beggar Boy
by Renée Sarojini Saklikar
Gibsons: Nightwood Editions (blewointment), 2021
$26.95 / 9780889714021
Reviewed by John Lent
Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s Bramah and the Beggar Boy is a stunning achievement, a magnificent piece of writing. Like Ursula K. Leguin’s EarthSea Trilogy or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, or John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy, or John Berger’s Into Their Labours, Saklikar’s vision & design & the spectrum of ‘play’ in her narrative, creates an epic landscape in the midst of which nothing is ever quite what it seems, and the reader is taken on a wild ride that is breathtaking. In order to survive the wild pulse and juxtapositions of this ride, the reader has to surrender to Bramah and the Beggar Boy’s voices and landscapes, its constantly shifting poetics, its powerful futuristic draw and design. And you do surrender to these elements because, as in the case of Le Guin, Murakami, le Carré and Berger, you simply recognize the authority and magic in the writer’s skills, almost immediately, and you relax, and are more than willing to surrender. And in some strange way I cannot explain, I have to say here at the beginning that I find it heart-breaking at times to acknowledge all the distances I witness Saklikar herself composing from, especially the realization that her own stories come from a perimeter she has been writing from all her life. But here, in this beautiful book, she has taken that microcosm and has exploded those distances into voices and scenes that are vast and welcoming. Those four aunties of the wishing well have occupied my heart as well, forever.
I know I cannot do this book much justice here, but I will take a short run at a few things that fascinate me, and I know I will be loose with the form of a conventional book review because Saklikar’s poem seems to demand a bit of wildness in response.
This scene with its enormous comic poetry (which should head the list in an anthology of modernism in the novel) would have been unthinkable in the pre-Kafka era. Totally unthinkable. I stress this in order to make clear the full radical nature of Kafka’s aesthetic revolution. I recall a conversation, by now twenty years back, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez who told me: “It was Kafka who showed me that it’s possible to write another way.” “Another way” means: breaking through the plausibility barrier. Not in order to escape the real world (the way the Romantics did) but to apprehend it better.
Because apprehending the real world is part of the definition of the novel: but how to both apprehend it and at the same time engage in an enchanting game of fantasy? How be rigorous in analyzing the world and at the same time be irresponsibly free at playful reveries? How bring these two incompatible purposes together? Kafka managed to solve this enormous puzzle. He cut a breach in the wall of plausibility; the breach through which many others followed him, each in his own way: Fellini, Marquez, Rushdie […].
— Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, “The castrating Shadow of Saint Garta,” New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, p. 52.
How can I get close to getting this right? Bramah and the Beggar Boy is first and foremost an epic. Its true context is the literary legacy of the history of the epic in world literatures, in all the oral and recorded literatures humans have made, country by country, across and through so many collective imaginations, and in so many tongues and languages, and in the subtleties of those languages and their acoustics over time. The epic. The long poem. Why were they composed in the first places? What were they trying to seize? And why do they keep surfacing in the 20th and 21st Centuries? And here in this new epic, I see Renée Saklikar employing elements of an epic tradition that support its traditional shape and deliberate structures, but I also see Saklikar experimenting with form and poetics that are new and non-traditional and that push its epic and apocalyptic vision farther, speaking in a newer voice, reaching for kinds of futures that are either possible or, maybe, impossible. She is imagining, by taking risks with and improvising upon the epic traditions she knows, a human future driven by another risk: a vision of a future that is truly at risk, truly apocalyptic, not just of the imagination now, but qualified by the concrete and very real risks of environmental and political necessities that may be ultimately self-destructive, a big part of the seemingly unstoppable inertia of late-Capitalism in much of our world, but maybe especially, the European and Western world. What an amazing book Bramah and the Beggar Boy is from all these points of view. And, what an ‘enclosed garden’ design it builds, a renaissance or Byzantine design that is always opening up to a blossoming exuberance and joy illuminated through its darknesses. Saklikar opens up such vast, intermingling stories here of the past and the future and leaves all the necessary journeys mysteriously open as well. Mysteriously and paradoxically human. What heart.
The crisis of the future which permeates all late-modern culture and social life finds in the experience of art a privileged locus of expression. Such a crisis, obviously, implies a radical change in our way of experiencing history and time, […] It is not perhaps an insignificant coincidence that certain ‘epoch-making’ works of the twentieth century — from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities to Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake– concentrate, even at the level of content itself, on the problem of time and on ways of experiencing temporality outside its supposedly natural linearity.
— Gianni Vattimo, “The Structure of Artistic Revolutions,” in The End of Modernity (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 106-107.
Here is an excerpt from Bramah and the Beggar Boy that locates the historical ‘spin’ or vortex of time fields the reader must enter into in order to participate in this epic. The time frame in this poem begins in 2020 when its heroine is born and the narrative then dips in and out of the period just after that birth, focusing much of its time on events that occur around 2050. These events observe a collapsing world that is post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and which is being controlled by a core of power called the ‘consortium.’ The consortium is encircled and protected by many entrance/exit portals located on its perimeter. It seems many political outcasts survive out beyond the perimeters and much of their energy is spent trying to remember human freedoms located in the past so that they may be brought forward to move against the consortium in the present. Keys to those freedoms are located in memory and the power of language:
We will sing of Mercator and no more.
We will urge you to find the exact centre of the earth.
And from there, look up, and from there the Seasons,
All our calculations, memory, an arrow
Hurtling toward a set of distances
— from “Inside the old oak box, the beggar boy finds another map” (p. 160)
And here is the beginning of Brahman’s journey:
Inside, a young girl,
Her name forgotten,
No one calls her, she is never spoken to —
Small build, dexterous, black hair,
Eyes slanted at their corners.
She never laughs, head bent most times —
She builds things. She calls them Finds. Her teeth, bones, unexamined.
Her six-wheeled machine, scrapped aluminum,
Prized at the site, where once Safeway,
The Battle Of Kingsway, a song
— from “Inside the old oak box, the beggar boy finds a document” (p. 161)
Bramah/ Consortium/ le Carré/ le Carré/ le Carré/ Annabel Patterson/ York/ 1973/ The Epic Tradition/ Virgil/ Homer/ Tasso/ Ariosto/ Chaucer/ Dante/ Shakespeare/ Spenser/ Milton/ Heroic/ Romance/ External/ Internal/ Virgil’s The Odyssey/ Joyce’s Ulysses/ After Annabelle Patterson:/ [Eliot’s The Waste Land/ Jones’ In Parenthesis/ Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy The Kid/ Robin Blazer’s The Holy Forest/ Anne Marriott’s The Wind Our Enemy/ Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook/ Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston/ George Bowering/ Jay Ruzesky/ Sharon Thesen…all these and so many others in other languages such rich and beautiful stories over and over and over again maybe always too late the raft of medusa or final imagery in Fellini’s Satyricon’s…
Some scholars dedicate their whole lives to examining only one of these epics, these proto-stories. It takes that long, each epic so complex and multifoliate. To spend your whole life turning it over and over, seeing it from different angles, is completely understandable because of what you receive: Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Annie Dillard, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Kristjana Gunnars, Thomas King, Joy Kogawa, Milan Kundera, Margaret Laurence, Marilyn Robinson, Salmon Rushdie, W.G. Sebald, Kurt Vonnegut. And in each case, these massive stories are in some distinct ways unique and gift-giving fields of fragments, of meta relationships among writers in different cultures and times, echoing one another in their long poems, their epics, participating in a long line of shared conventions of form and also, a long line of breaking those conventions in order to reach, each time, for singularities of vision and form and language/voice. To seize your ‘time’ in a strange mirror somehow, what Saklikar achieves here in stunning ways.
Standing smack dab in the middle of Saklikar’s long poem, I feel like Eliot’s Tiresias whispering to us, as he stands smack dab in the middle of “The Waste Land,” attempting to feel and see some unity in his own field of fragments — “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,/Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see…” — or another kind of pilgrim standing in the middle of another, almost hysterical field of fragments in Slaughterhouse Five, or another in front of Kroetsch’s haystack instead of his needle in the middle of The Hornbooks Of Rita K. Or needing some kind of parallel acoustic anchor in the atomistic fields of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme or of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, those alternate and big flamboyant narratives. All the same maps, the same epic stories of love. Of how to be here, then how to leave every thing in tact and burgeoning when we go. That’s what epics serve, big flamboyant narratives you have to surrender to, and you have to work to find the unity in…
And here is Saklikar, facing her own path into alternate kinds of unity:
Another journey to the past
Who will stitch my seams,
To find my story
Bind my wounds
I am leaving, I am leaving
— from “Bramah’s secret” (p. 166)
Freedom fighter, terrorist, who’s right, wrong?
We just want enough to eat, been so long.
— from “Ruin, a map for perimeter” (p. 177)
Saklikar’s world reveals itself through fog and snow and rain and spring…we see pieces of it through her portals: a past war, itinerants huddling together as usual on the perimeter, struggling to find love or hope…all while the language of the poem, the way Saklikar plays with open and closed forms of poetry mirror the transforming lenses she has set up to see and say this world we will now be living in:
— said Aunty Agatha:
First frost, stay apart, you’ll live to see the —
Withered grasses, falling leaves, use your sleeve.
My scissors, sharp; six honey pot smears.
— said Aunty Tabitha:
Cotton scraps, nylon bits, pull your fraying quilts.
First frost, stay apart, you’ll live to see the —
Summer breezes, soft as silk, red dawn, running.
— said Aunty Magda:
River water dwelling, wood ash in lime
Copper thimbles carried, beech twigs in brine
withered grasses, falling leaves, use your sleeve
— said Aunty Maria:
My seed jars all stolen, my masons, gone
Find me sand and find me pressed salal leaves.
First frost, stay apart, you’ll live to see the –
— from “The four aunties of the wishing well” (p. 179)
Throughout Bramah and the Beggar Boy, Saklikar is experimenting with language, with poetics, each experiment a portal into a different kind of consciousness and hope. The result of these experiments is a porous and fluctuating syntax of logic and language….
I will be
I will be
Thumb to forefinger—
Inverted, the stone
Tossed to ground water
Hidden in a forest
Spirals and turns
Deep and drop
Deep and drop, will be
The quiet of a forest
Outside the gates
–from “Hologram message of Dr. A.E. Anderson to her adopted daughter, Abigail” (p. 212)
And later, from the same poem:
The tide carries
Stillness at the edge
Edged with want
To explain my excitement over the publication of Bramah and the Beggar Boy from another angle, I have long suspected that Canadian writers and publishers have often been wary of or a bit cautious around any Canadian fiction or poetry that dares to sneak sideways too far away from a certain kind of ‘sureness of logic’ in contemporary forms and visions. Such sneaking is always away from a kind of ‘realist’ fundamental, whether such experiments are in ‘language poetry’ or in the specific use of line or image or space inherited from the Black Mountain poetics from the USA, for example, or in a fascination for conceptual poetry or for Oulipian legacies from France and Italy and Spain and Portugal in fiction, or for the long surrealist legacy of Pataphysics and the collateral damage their experiments cause in both poetry and prose (I’m only kidding, of course). We seem less troubled by narratives that can be driven by complexity, subtlety and ambiguity, and that can be lyrical or mysterious, but, by and large, are the kinds of narratives that remain accessible and inviting in a ‘realist’ sense of coming from the logic of the ‘real’ world. We don’t seem to have an easy way to abandon a longing for that kind of accessibility in exchange for something as outrageous as conceptual poetry or abstract language games in poetry, maybe, or parallel dalliances, like metafiction, in fiction. We just can’t quite go there or relax when we do. We’re edgy. Maybe we’re simply suspicious that that kind of thinking in poetry or fiction might just be a con-game gone wrong. We can even be patronizing, condescending about some of these experiments that veer past ‘realist’ impulses. And yet we’ve produced some of the most experimental writers in the world from the point of view of innovation, writers like Alistair MacLeod and Carol Shields and Raymond Smith, Jack Hodgins, Sean Johnston, Alice Munro, Sheila Watson, bpNicol, Daphne Marlatt, Jake Kennedy, who all push the restraints imposed by the limits of conventional ‘realism.’ Alistair MacLeod, for example, exhibits a powerful lyrical ‘realism’ in most of his stories except when he experiments with closure, and where he often transforms the conventions of realism past themselves into moments that are so eerie and comprehensive and ambiguous they shatter the story past its realist vision into a new territory that is inward rather than outward, spatial rather than temporal, stories or poems that transform one kind of solidity into something even more real, but fluid and frightening, something magical, almost surreal, like the endings of “The Vastness of the Dark” or “The Closing Down Of Summer.” A new kind of writing. I sometimes fear that most of the time we stall out just at the edge of that huge, mysterious shift in 20th Century art from temporal to spatial forms in fiction, poetry, or other unique instances wherein writers have used both genres to reach for something hybrid, writers like Ondaatje, Gunnars, Kroetsch, Sheila Watson, George Bowering, bpNicol, Brian Dedora, Dennis Lee, Kerry Gilbert. Overall, I suspect we’re cautious to let our over-riding realist impulses reach for something less safe, less stately, more loose, more wild, more real. And that’s exactly why the release of Renée Saklikar’s long poem/novel/epic Bramah and the Beggar Boy is so significant: it lets go of the assumption of the constraints of realism and leaps over that caution into a gargantuan epic that is wild in its structure, in its characters, in its narrative design and the impossible logic that holds its narrative together and unified as something wonderful and intriguing and gorgeous. What a generous energy field Saklikar has created. Bramah and the Beggar Boy is an amazing book and its publication an exciting moment in Canadian Literature.
On a last note, Bramah and the Beggar Boy is a beautifully produced book too. Nightwood Editions has packaged it to serve its wild epic narrative perfectly. It is designed to be accessible and accommodating, not only physically, but in terms of the information the reader requires regarding characters and time travel, and even Saklikar’s own sense of the public and personal context of composing such an epic at this time in our history, our time. Well done.
John Lent has been publishing poetry, fiction and non-fiction nationally and internationally for the past thirty years. His work has appeared in various issues of: The Malahat Review, Event, West Coast Line, NeWest Review, Grain, Prairie Fire, CV2, The New Quarterly, This Magazine, The Canadian Forum, Matrix, Waves, Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review. He has published ten books of poetry and fiction and a book of conversations with Robert Kroetsch about the writing life, called Abundance. His last book of stories, So It Won’t Go Away, was short-listed for the BC Book Prizes in 2005, and Thistledown Press released a volume of Lent’s poems called A Matins Flywheel in 2019 [editor’s note: reviewed here by Trevor Carolan]. Over the years Lent has published papers on Malcolm Lowry, Wyndham Lewis, Thomas De Quincey, Dennis Brutus, Kristjana Gunnars, Mavis Gallant, Wilfred Watson and others. In the past two years, Lent has completed two long poems, “The Ordinary’s Incense” and “In Situ” and a volume of essays and interviews with Jake Kennedy about the writing life called Marshall Fields. And he is almost ready to return to the writing of a big novel called The Kitchen Sessions. John Lent lives in Vernon with his wife, the artist Jude Clarke. Visit his website here.
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