Gary Geddes has written a book of voices – voices often suppressed but always necessary – that he takes great pains to understand from inside their specific realities. When I say voices, I refer both to poetic and dramatic technique as well as to the tellers of extraordinary experiences that Geddes seeks out, hears, transcribes and fashions into poetry.
We are in a time of acute sensitivity re: appropriation of voice. I believe Geddes’ work represents donation of voice, the giving of the gift of voice to those who cannot speak or have not yet spoken for themselves.
The key here is permission. Is one asked? Has one been given the right to tell someone else’s story?
Geddes has always been an engaged writer. His recent non-fiction books record and bear witness. They contain horrendous accounts of abuse that Geddes diligently transcribes, while retaining grave doubts about both the ethics and efficacy of this act. Geddes recognizes fully that words alter, that he is not a neutral transmitter. Listening involves interpretation.
Through the skillful and empathetic use of poetic personae in Play, Geddes’ poems give strong individual voice to those who want to share their experiences. This approach, he tells us, allows him to “explore more deeply a broader range of emotions and concerns than was otherwise possible.” (Afterwords).
His poems flow naturally into narratives that feel personal and authentic. Stories or fragments of them come to us from across time and geography. Cultures speak with an urgency and awareness that gives each its special, vivid grace.
A residential school casualty narrates the title poem. He remembers that first shocking assault on innocence while “digging clams and oysters at low- / tide” (“The Resumption of Play”). The poem revolves around this humble image in highly suggestive and often subliminal ways, depicting a life that is shut up, shut out and silenced, from the initial abduction (“they dropped me like an extricated clam / into the metal bed of the pickup”) through the humiliations of enforced colonization where “you cultivate the miscreant within,” to the violence of sexual abuse, years of drug and alcohol abuse, rehab and finally a higher education that teaches him how his people have been shamed and destroyed. Encouraged at last to return to his ancestral home and to take his children with him, he remains as vulnerable as that heartless bivalve, a “creature/ naked, shucked, fit for neither sea or land.”
It is from this sequence that both poem and volume name themselves. The priest shouts a number through the window at recess for his victim, after which there is resumption of play.
The play between art and ideology animates this book.
“Blues for Kony” examines the reporting on horrific torture during the rampages of The Lord’s Resistance Army. The story of a female victim carries us beyond pain to the huge ironies of body parts she doesn’t need for mere function but the loss of which annihilates her future as a fully human being. Both the harrowing that happens in her voice and its bitter sarcasm (“justice,” a cushy incarceration in The Hague) are equally convincing.
A last sequence based on Canada’s military expedition in Somalia includes the voice of a Canadian soldier, bristling with frustration at the knowledge he does not have of the culture he is invading: “We’re here to deliver them / from themselves…exchange clan loyalties / for…foreign investment, bases, Coca-Cola.” His final plea is for the poets who “might have served us better / here than soldiers.” (“Operation Deliverance”).
Without Geddes’ brave work, crucial narratives would be lost. His poetry both retrieves and pays homage.
Patricia Keeney is the author of 10 books of poetry and two novels. Her works have been translated into many languages including Chinese and Hindi. As a prize-winning theatre and literary critic, she publishes in Canadian and international journals. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at York University in Toronto.
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