Reviewed by Lorette C. Luzajic
To fully experience Kate Braid’s A Well-Mannered Storm, I had to go deaf in one ear and listen to Glenn Gould for hours.
I stuffed my left aural orifice with cotton, but that didn’t work, so I tried plasticine. With my gold-rimmed floral teacup brimming with Earl Grey and candlelit shadows from my bookends flickering griffins against the closed curtains, I let the Goldberg variations swirl majestically through me. It is not my first encounter with Gould, of course, but I am not well versed in classical music or Bach, and I have never really sat still to listen. I open The Caitlin Press book of Glenn Gould poems and read until the candles burn out.
I consider a valid question: do we really need another oeuvre inspired by the infamous, eccentric Canadian pianist and composer Glenn Gould. We’ve already got Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and Wynne-Jones’ The Maestro. We even have Homer Simpson listening to classical music when he realizes the reason for his low I.Q. is a crayon lodged in his brain. The announcer says the sonata may not have been a performance by Glenn, but that it was “good as Gould.” There is hardly a dearth of Gouldian references in the Canadian psyche — can yet another variation, another interpretation, hold weight?
Simply, yes, it can. And yes, it does. I conclude that I’m asking myself the equivalent of whether or not literature can withstand further work on the themes of love and death. We must never force inspiration into obscurity because something has been done before. Gould may prove to become one of the great themes in Canadiana, and here Braid has delivered a cacophony of symbols, sounds, phonics: they turn seamlessly, instinctively into stunning words, story, poetry.
The scenario: a fan, named simply ‘k,’ writes letters to Gould as her experience of his music unfolds. She has gone deaf in one ear but can’t help hearing his music’s sorrow with the other. It’s the very first ‘poem’ that takes you in:
What do I know about music? But today I heard Partita No. 6 in E minor….Those top notes, so light, ached like rain over drowned fields, such heaviness underneath. What do you think of when you play? (11)
These letters from k grow increasingly intimate, sharing overwhelming fear of illness, of the unknown territory of one’s own body:
I hate that people give up so easily, hate what’s happening to me, how stupid it makes me feel. Pardon? I keep saying over and over. I want this to end.
Did you ever play that game: if you had to lose one sense, which would it be? From here, they all look so precious…
I’m sinking, both ears full of water. Going under. (70)
Glenn does not respond to k’s letters, but poems in between echo themes of Gould’s life. Together, these unique pieces become a composition, strangely complex and musical:
It’s all a lightness and I am hungry for a heavier place.
What is life but an intention, interlude that if we play it well
takes one small step toward sacred ground?
Will there be a footprint when I am gone?
As k becomes increasingly concerned with her hearing, she takes comfort from the irony that her new handicap is what led her to Glenn Gould, especially to his interpretations of Bach, his favourite composer. While Glenn was clearly inspired most by Bach and spoke frequently of his brilliance and perfection, Kate Braid must interpret both the experience of being Gould and the experience of learning Bach, woven imaginatively throughout the text. Her cadence succeeds sublimely, note by note, unraveling a story of creativity and healing. Her images flash quickly by, like the subtext of dreams: promiscuous popcorn, stuttering strings, purring cellos, the slow shedding of darkness, frozen gold.
A Well-Mannered Storm is one of the most stunning books I’ve read this year. Would Gould find this poetry about his decline insightful or invasive? I cannot know. Gould did not want to be seen or remembered as eccentric, and Braid sees all but moves into the Gould beyond those details, so firmly entrenched in mass culture. But of course we still see the unusual mannerisms, the layers and layers of wool he wore even in warm weather, the body that recoiled from human touch, the early morning scrambled eggs at Fran’s, the pills, the cats and dogs he loved more than people.
Despite popular psychology along the lines of ‘life is what you make it,’ to some extent we are not always seen how we want to be seen; we are simply slaves to our fate. Genius or otherwise, we watch ourselves decay, disintegrate, and fade away. The only arsenal we have over our eventual absence is to leave a legacy of gorgeous creativity, if we are so able, but then if we are darkness visible, we are still fated to our flaws.
Lorette C. Luzajic is a poet, writer, and artist. You’ve seen her work in everything from The Fiddlehead to Dog Fancy to Adbusters. She enjoys writing about eccentric people: visit her blog, Fascinating People.