Local Scene: Bywords Summer Beat (the heat)

The Bywords team must have consulted an oracle before naming the most recent Bywords event, Beat the Heat. Ottawa summers can be unpredictable, but this one has been HOT! And, I can vouch that the poetry fans gathered to listen to some cool poetry, at Chapters, on Sunday, July 17, 2005, were grateful to be inside the air-conditioned store on Rideau Street. Host Amanda Earl noted that had she combined the title of last year’s July event, Summer Heat, with Summer Beat, the result, Beat the Heat, would have been appropriate.
Percussionist Danielle Gregoire began the afternoon with a set that revved up the audience’s collective pulse. Gregoire, who moved to Ottawa in September 2004, began working with percussion instruments at 13, when “they wouldn’t let [me] play the flute.” This particular day, she ably played the jembe, an instrument originating in West Africa. And, noting the thunderheads outside, our host suggested that we “blame Danielle if it thunders” -- I’m note sure whether it was my imagination, but at times I could hear the clouds rumbling in sync with the percussive rhythms.
Ottawa resident and writer Gary Robinson then read “This January staggers on frozen hollow feet” (Bywords Quarterly Journal, Summer 2005), “These phrases are the only currency I have,” and “Untitled,” three contemplative pieces that recount the speaker’s yearning for the beloved, compounded by ancillary concerns about the seasons, rebirth and scents. The poet’s unassuming presentation contrasted with the exquisite words and splendid images woven throughout the pieces. This linking of binaries is exemplified by the following stanza from “These phrases are the only currency I use”:
          You’ll find me in less fashionable shopping malls
or at some itinerant street corner, pausing as
fall rushes in like a dark bird
my indigent heart scooping words like coins.
Student of Psychology and Philosophy, Adam Petrashek, treated the audience to a dynamic performance (without notes) of “Lonely Impersonator” (Bywords.ca, June 2005) and “Quiet with a Capital O” about Canada Day in the Capital, where the humidity – “Ottawa’s obscene summer syrup” – ensures that “apple skins are looser these days.” Petrashek then adopted a downcast demeanor for “Recollection,” about an “old flame.” But the poet’s apparent melancholia was soon undercut by the wry confession that “I don’t think godliness was within our lovemaking.” In “High Noon,” which pays homage to writing, the speaker acknowledges that there is perhaps more than talent to his muse: “I exhale a veil over my eye” and “I puff plumage for myself.”
Social worker Stephen Rowntree followed with several short poems, including “Clicks of Lice,” “Black Earth,” and “Millett and Bone.” Particularly charming were Rowntree’s readings of “Beckett’s Bicycle” and “A Joyce Poem” with references to Stephen Daedalus, the hero of Portrait of a Young Man and the playful “guineas for a Guinness.” Rowntree’s final offering, “Of the Face,” is not a sonnet to youth and beauty, but rather an account of the aging process and the inevitable deterioration of the face into a crude sketch.
Similarly, the acerbic piece, “The Ancient Line,” by published poet John Cloutier, does not recount the genealogy of an ancient line of kings and heroes, but an equally prolific line of “Cowards being pushed and pulled in a long line – the ancient line.” And, in recognition that power can assume several forms, “The Butcher” describes the shame felt by a snippy, erudite professional taken to task by an uneducated butcher. And, the mundane mixes with the chthonic in “Death Smiles,” when the grim reaper shows up at a garage sale in Sandy Hill. Finally, “Paper Rose” whereby the speaker is “Burning a paper rose, breathing in the words” raises perennial questions about art and nature.
Ottawa poet Rhonda Douglas followed with a skillful and effective reading of “When I doubt the gospels” (Bywords Quarterly Journal, Summer 2005) which could be construed as deconstructing the background to those misogynistic comments in the letters of Saint Paul. She then followed with a long poem in three suites about “visual art and how it affects identity.” The piece’s focus on three naked women in paintings by Gaugin, Cezanne and Degas, provides insight into the complex relationship between the observer and the observed.
Award-winning international poet Asoka Weerasinghe presented next with poems linked by the drumming theme: “The Drum” wherein the poet is “the spirit of the drum,” and “Kiss” (Bywords Quarterly Journal, Winter 2003) with its rich image of “salmon (nature imagery), strawberries and cream” (which made my mouth water). Then, from Tewa, “The Corn Goddess,” an acknowledgment of the Great Mother in her various aspects – from Demeter, worshipped by the Greeks, to the Corn Goddess, the fecund deity of the New World peoples. Finally, “The Drum Songs” celebrates a relationship with nature so intimate that fireflies light the way to the speaker’s doorway in the dead of night.
Reviewer and poet Daniel Boland ended the literary portion of the afternoon with poems about summer. “Bats” provides a nostalgic reminder of lavender summers at the lake, those times when the veil is thin and “A portal has been briefly opened.” “Swamp Music,” features the clever image of the “Jack-in-the-pulpit preach[ing]” to exotic flowers, using “incandescent language.” “Western Meadowlark,” inspired by the rugged beauty of Kananaskis, features “saffron wheat and dust” and the “stained-glass meadowlark.” And, “By the Road” (Bywords.ca, July 2005) provides a framework for the transmutation of ubiquitous plants into divine vegetation tended by an indigenous, yet unknown, divinity – “This is the ragged / exotic garden / of some local wind god.”
Beat the Heat left me with an appreciation of the immense talent in Ottawa, and the strength of the city’s literary scene. Although each poet articulated diverse concerns and subjects in his or her works, they all used attention-grabbing, unique (and sometimes disturbing) images, thereby bringing a fresh perspective to the subject. And, the percussionist was just fine too!

August 4, 2005
Catharine Carroll