Nonfiction Review by Matthew Halse

rob mclennan, Notes and Dispatches: Essays (London: Insomniac, 2014). Paperbound, 318 pp., $19.95.

Notes and Dispatches: EssaysNotes and Dispatches: Essays is an assemblage of rob mclennan’s correspondence, reviews, poems, and blog posts. Beginning with “a curiosity,” mclennan frames himself as “the journeyman, wandering through mounds of paper, sifting through pages and poems, line-breaks and sentences. I have so much further to go. These essays are like missives composed out of what I have been attempting to learn, as correspondences to those back home.” As a reader, my concerns and fascination with this work are rooted in mclennan’s understanding of correspondence, as a desire to lay out the depth of his knowledge of local writing circles, whereas mine is a desire for the anecdotes and idiosyncrasies that colour that very world. Notes and Dispatches becomes a deeply problematic collection of names and dates—repeated sometimes in the hundreds—when what is potentially valuable in these pages are insights into the nooks and crannies of a local wordsmith’s mind.

Take, for example, “The Peter F. Yacht Club: a miscellany,” which chronicles a small writing group and literary journal of the same name. mclennan’s “miscellany” is itself a litany of names—some known to followers of our nation’s literature, some lost to history—of those who attended what ultimately became a “scattering of social interactions and individual connections” in combination with an author listing of each of the journal’s twenty issues. “The Peter F. Yacht Club”—the essay, not the club or journal—becomes so mired in namedropping and sidebar comments (ironically: “One thing I’ve always found frustrating about any history of Ottawa literature, and poetry specifically, is a lack of continuity”) that all meaning or tribute is lost within a sea of lists. So cumbersome is mclennan’s need to share these names with the annals of history that they overshadow what is most lovable about this essay specifically and the collection generally: insight into a writer’s curiosity combined with an inventory of victories, hardships, and banalities that have become the daily grind of a Canadian writer’s life.

What happened, say, to the tone and tenor of those first “disorganized, rambling events”? What did sixteen-year-old Laurie Fuhr produce as she “looked afraid, but stayed”? We know that “curry grumbled,” but little else as the piece gives way to lists of poets from other groups. Writes mclennan: “Good conversations happen with a good foundation.” As that foundation begins to be laid—a correspondence fomenting between mclennan and reader—mclennan turns to an account of the works written by the group, which pale in comparison to any possible ideas those texts may have born. Perhaps this is all a matter of translation. I’m loath to put words in his mouth, but mclennan-the-journeyman may account for his working life in bibliographic data, and his published output is no small victory. But, returning to that introductory quote, mclennan positions himself as composing from unformed knowledge (“attempting to learn”). Such lists, and the act of listing, come across as so very factual, so concrete. In “Shorthand: eleven short essays on fiction,” he suggests that “language is a living, breathing, beautiful, messy thing. Remember that.” mclennan may well do with his own advice, for within the messiness of the narrative—of what happened to those itinerant writers in his cramped apartment—lies the lesson mclennan perhaps intends to send back home.

mclennan is at his best when he’s at his most personal. “A halt, which is empty: 402 McLeod Street, Stewarton” takes shape against the development of Ottawa’s Centretown, where mclennan and partner Christine McNair moved into a third-floor apartment. One can picture them trudging box after box of books, the physical weight of their writerly lives making the trek from one tiny back-room office to the next: “Do the poems shift as easily as the composition site, or with the same amount of difficulty?” asks mclennan in his new digs:

The moment sight and sound pours, treeline
disappears. Broken arrow, pinpoint

north. Gladstone carwash whirs, condos incomplete.
We morph. Men, who punch earth for a living,

one of several questions.

mclennan is guided, perhaps less by formed questions than prompts derived from curiosity, by the history of Stewarton—“annexed by the City of Ottawa in 1887”—and an albeit Wikipedia’ed history of his street’s namesake, lawyer McLeod Stewart. mclennan easily weaves scattershot historical details with personal anecdote, ultimately revealing where and how the creative bursts of poetry intermittently included within the essay came to be. In doing so, he gives insight into his working method, momentarily revealing his creative cards, as it were. Back we go, though, to a listing of authors, this time as some inexplicable answer to “just what some of the options of the lyric sentence might be”: “Lisa Robertson, Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Robinson, Elizabeth Willis....”

By insisting to namedrop and categorize, mclennan ultimately omits the most valuable voice in the collection: his own. More than three-hundred pages in, my notes reveal who wrote what in The Capilano Review, to name but one example among many, but not how mclennan sees his world, or the affective textures of a life capable of turning the history of a street name, or loosely coalesced writers’ group, into food for thought. I can only imagine mclennan’s impetus as some unnamable desire to catalogue meetings and reviews and blog posts otherwise lost from memory. If this approach reflects his understanding of the literary truth of a particular time in a particular place, then so much more is left unsaid.

—Matthew Halse

As in The Malahat Review, 191, Summer 2015, 103-105