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Frontenac House - June 08, 2006 - 1 Comment

A Bad Year for Journalists

A Bad Year for Journalists by Lisa Pasold

Reviewed by Kris Brandhagen

Lisa Pasold’s A Bad Year for Journalists is about the travels of a male writer and a female photographer, and is an attempt to capture the interactions between the two journalists and the world around them. As a writer/photographer I was eager to crack its pages.

Narrative, literal, and very fragmented, the lines of the poems sprawl out across the page, reminiscent of the writing one might do in a travel journal or notebook.  But far from giving an idea of the external world, the writing is inward and vague — so much so that it is hard to believe that the persona is a photographer:

she sets herself on automatic,
holds ice against the edge of something, a green filter
in the flesh of memory.
(“speaking for the angel” 12)

This description is opaque; there is nothing concrete here.  The character leaves the art of making images up to her camera, which is one of the aspects of the book I find difficult to believe.  The reader doesn’t get an image, what this “something” is, much less the angle from which it is seen.  If given another revision, the poem might describe the shade of green, might tell us what the flesh of memory tastes like. Pasold isn’t specific enough to allow the reader to gain entry into the work.

Clarity in poetry is not always as important as image and metaphor; however, in A Bad Year for Journalists there aren’t many images and even fewer metaphors. From “press”:

being good isn’t always easy.

drinking coffee again. the driver’s name is Fred.

Emmanuel trudges away, dialed-in reportage on schedule.
she adds more sugar.

you are like a cheetah—he is alone, says Fred,
all honesty.  looking not at her but at the solidly departing back of her colleague.  the cheetah
isn’t large or wide—there are tears in his face
.

she wonders what tears at her.
a claw? a finger?
(28)

Perhaps the fragments, questions, and overall state of disorientation mimic the experience of a “bad year” that a journalist might be subjected to as she goes out into the field.  The reader’s knowledge of time and place in the narrative is impeded by the lack of clarity in the writing.  I must say that the timeline doesn’t make much sense; I simply don’t feel at the end of the book that enough has happened for a year to have passed.  Consequently, I don’t know where the two characters are in the world.  I would think a sense of place would inform the awareness of the well-traveled journalist.

Toward the end of the book, there is a change in tone.  While the verse makes for problematic and confusing reading, the prose is more descriptive and detailed: 

not wanting to jinx it, a silent film dance routine. feathers cascading down the dress.  ornithology seeming foolish, elderly holiday Brits in kneesocks. then these splendids, seven of them in the hibiscus, wise to the ways of feral cats. or a belt of tiny feathers: to become a man you club them until they fall, exhausted. you beat the smallest parts of yourself until they are smooth, all those games, desires, hoped-fors, worn away, simply not part anymore. replaced by something more useful.
(90)

While the poem could be richer with information, I can at least see the feathers, the Brits, the birds in the tree; these are more intricate images.

In sum, I must say that, structurally, the book is alienating.  The poems are full of small letters and sentence fragments that do little to inform the work.  Anytime I feel I might be getting somewhere in the writing, Pasold goes off in another direction.  I can’t get away from the sensation that I am reading a grouping of arbitrary excerpts from somebody’s diary — a diary of non-committal half-thoughts and unfinished sentences.  In Pasold’s next collection I hope to see more focus and more of the minute details contained in the prose poems.

Kris Brandhagen lives and works in Montréal, Québec. Her work has appeared in such publications as In Medias Res and Spring Magazine, TransVerse Journal and Carousel Magazine.

Comments

On May 07, 2007, Fletcher Cheng said:

With no offense to the reviewer of this book I think if you are taking the responsibility to review a book you should take the time to read it carefully.  I googled Pasold’s title to find out more about the work and was totally surprised to read this review.  Not only has the reviewer missed the overall point of the book but the details are completely out to lunch.  I assume Brandhagen’s going on and on with complaints about how confusing she finds the “timeline of a year|” comes from Pasold’s title.  But it is clearly explained in the book that the title comes from a quote on the BBC that 2005 was a ‘Bad Year For Journalists’.  There is no timeline in the book, nor is there an attempt to set a timeline.  Also, Brandhagen’s initially describes Pasold’s book as being “about the travels of a male writer and a female photographer, and is an attempt to capture the interactions between the two journalists and the world around them” and then constantly references these two characters.  I opened up Pasold’s text and within a few moments found 6 characters fairly clearly defined.  The focus shifts constantly between different people and places and times.  As for the reviewer’s opinion of the work: well, she seems to say that her definition of good poetry is one that has many ‘images and metaphors’ and if she can’t ‘see the feathers? the birds on the trees’ then there is some kind of problem. Well, I found this book filled with heartbreaking images but that’s my opinion and my reading.  The thing that bugs me about a statement like that is that Ms. Brandhagen possibly should not be reviewing modern poetry since ‘images and metaphors’ are simply not always the focus of some writers.  I guess I should be glad that Brandhagen missed the mark so widely on the facts of this book, since it also tipped me off that perhaps I shouldn’t take here opinion too seriously.

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