Nonfiction Review by Tanis MacDonald

Stephen Collis, Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018). Paperbound, 256 pp., $24.95.

Almost IslandsNot writing is having a moment. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women has two prose poems titled “Not Writing” and “What is ‘Not Writing’?”; and Ada Limón published “To what do we owe this pleasure: on the value of not writing,” in Aster(ix). I like how these writers discuss resistance to productivity and the glory of the ephemeral, but if I’m going to learn about not writing as a determined practice, I’d like to learn from Phyllis Webb. When Stephen Collis calls Webb “poetry’s old crone,” there is not a shred of disrespect in his tone, and his book about Webb, Almost Islands, is suffused with crone power at its finest. At once a book about writing, about mentors and questions, place and the respect for place, anarchy and resistance, Almost Islands is most profoundly about what it is to write about the state of not writing. Not writing is an audacious dare in our hyper-productive, perpetually reporting, wired world, and Collis admits early on that when he visits Webb on Salt Spring Island, he observes this dare with admiration and disquiet: “I nervously attend her not writing, as though assuming a commission, or standing guard at a grave.” The nerves and the waiting, the gravity of a commission and dedication of mourning: none are incidental metaphors for writing, or for friendship.

Almost Islands is a hybrid text with a difference, and Collis offers a wealth of genres as he unpacks the phenomenology of not writing: grief memoir, literary biography, a history of influences, and literary analysis of Webb’s poetry. In the hands of another writer, this could be a typical hagiography with no mystery, but Collis makes careful links to the spiritual in Webb’s world via the interconnected system of the biotariate, the more slippery vocabulary of political philosophy, and the need to counter the toxic history of colonization. Collis has produced a living archive and captured slivers of Webb’s mercurial consciousness as they manifest in her person and in her books, those she has written and those she owns. It is a relief to read of this kind of sustained resistance to producing words in an age where the performance of capitalist productivity barks at our heels.

Leonard Cohen described his own not writing in 1972, in The Energy of Slaves: “The poems don’t love us anymore /…. You can call me Len or Lennie now / like you always wanted.” Asked about her silence on the page, P. K. Page insisted that poetry left her. In Almost Islands, the unwritten and its cognate, “failure,” are pursuits rather than negations of achievement. Webb’s “Poems of Failure,” to which Collis turns, are less failed than deliberately and strategically abandoned in her fidelity to possibility, her determination to remain “loyal to the silence.” The language Collis searches for and finds in Webb’s historical interest in anarchist movements is a language that respects that resonant silence of the unwritten. Failures are “simply new openings, new possibilities” in search of what Webb, then Collis, calls a “good masterpiece of work,” quoting Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Collis notes: “Poetry and anarchy: the names of those so-very-necessary escape hatches in genre and politics. Windows we sometimes need to leap from. Names for our unnameable desires.” Collis finds a range of meanings in Webb’s silences, reading them as finely as he reads her written texts. Webb has respected her impasse, weaving her desire to write via not writing into the silence that supplies this book with so many rich and lively contradictions.

Such movements are structural, as well as critical; the trips Collis takes to and from Salt Spring Island via ferry suggest that islands and almost islands are infinitely motile, outlined and blurred by the currents of Active Pass, that geographical place of moving stasis between islands with currents that yank vessels to and fro. There is an enacted pun at work on the exploded binary of active/passive, the active impasse through which Collis passes with the action of writing about not writing, and through which we pass, again and again, reading Collis’s visits to Webb, firmly aboard the book as transport.

And may I note the profound feminist pleasure of reading a lengthy text that features so prominently a woman’s engagement with art and a man’s admiration of that engagement? Books that delineate a male poet’s abiding respect for an older female mentor are just too few, as are descriptions like Collis’s, via Edmond Jabès, of poetry towards the end of the book: “the writing of what cannot be shared, only sacrificed.” Collis’s deep appreciation of and continued interest in Webb’s decades-long deliberate meditation on meaning is hope in action: not hope that she will write again, but rather hope that both acts—writing and not writing—are a sustained engagement with the terror and joy of suspension. In teaching, writing, and publishing, in mentoring young writers and talking about the craft of writing, I note that writers often have the irrational impulse to publish before we write, an existential temporal dilemma that can haunt the seasoned poet as much as the new writer. Almost Islands is an antidote to our insistent ghosting of our work. It is (almost) enough to convince me not to write another word.

—Tanis MacDonald

As in The Malahat Review, 207, Summer 2019