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Apr 29/11

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Mystical Bond (Choral Concert); The Graduate (Theatre); Captivity (Personal History); A Spring Celebration of Art and Poetry

The Mystical Bond (Concert) Choral Works by Sergei Rachmaninov and Imant Raminsh; Vancouver Chamber Choir, Vancouver Cantata Singers and Pacifica Singers; conducted by Jon Washburn. April 22, Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver

First, a bit of personal history.

My last visit to Orpheum in Vancouver, prior to this event, was for a movie that showed us something new and exciting about what a movie could be: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. So we’re talking way back in the day – 1972, to be precise. Long since, the Orpheum has reverted to its original purpose as a live concert venue. I’ve often heard broadcasts on CBC radio that were recorded at the Orpheum and I wondered how that grand old rococo interior worked as a concert hall. Therefore, when an opportunity arose to re-visit the Orpheum on a recent visit to Vancouver, I jumped at the chance.

Another reason for my eagerness was the involvement of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, a distinguished group which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Forty years ago, you see, I was briefly a member of the VCC. A friend of mine who was in the choir suggested that I, having recently finished some five years of study in the seminary, might be able to handle the Gregorian Chant solo in an upcoming concert. So Jon Washburn, the choir’s founder and director, came to my tiny apartment and auditioned me. True, I knew my way around chant, but couldn’t sight read the music as was required for participation in the VCC. After a few rehearsals, then, I was no longer a member of the choir. But I have since followed its affairs with special interest.

This concert, however, did not begin auspiciously. In an opening speech, Conductor Washburn made a plea for funding to aid Japan’s recovery from the disasters which have recently hit that country. Whatever Mr. Washburn’s talents as a musician, he does not appear to be a gifted public speaker. The umm-ing and ahh-ing, the stammering and hesitating did not make for a very gracious or elegant impression. When the VCC (about 20 singers) then came out to sing a Japanese song by way of thanks, in advance, for the donations, the soft humming in the opening bars was ruined by the ringing of a cell phone not far away. It began to look like the evening would be a disaster.

But then came the Rachmaninov. Now the VCC was joined by the Vancouver Cantata Singers and the Pacifica Singers for the performance of some eleven choruses from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. You know the kind of thing – deep, rumbling bass voices and high, quivering sopranos, creating an other-worldly and ethereal effect. An acapella sound that starts from a tiny whisper and gradually builds, swelling and swelling, to one climax after another. What can you say other than that it was sheer, sublime perfection?

Well, maybe a few specific virtues could be pointed out. I was particularly struck by the middle voices sounding almost strident, a kind of plaintive, reaching quality. It was also very rewarding to zero in on the one section of the choir that was holding a note while the other sections wove elaborate filigree around that note. Without trying to follow the translations in the program (it was so glorious that the best way to take it was with eyes closed), I gathered that the general gist of the texts was pretty much in favour of the Almighty. Not that my Russian includes more than a word or two, but I felt that the articulation of the language came through much more clearly here than it ever does on recordings. And that added a lot to the pleasure.

I’m happy to report, furthermore, that the acoustics of the dear old Orpheum came through splendidly. The ambiance seemed the best that any choir could hope for. Over all, the effect of the sound was to make the non-believer in me long for a hot stuffy church, clouds of incense, gold vestments and congregants with sweat running down their temples.

In the rare moments that I did open my eyes, it was very satisfying to note Mr. Washburn’s clean, neat, economical way of conducting. (I don’t hold with those concert-goers who feel that the main point of the exercise is to watch a conductor put on a show.) It was obvious that he didn’t need to provide any more than minimal direction. It wasn’t as if the singers didn’t know what they were doing. Clearly, they were exquisitely prepared.

After the intermission came the work of Imant Raminsh, the founder of the Prince George Symphony, the Youth Symphony of the Okanagan and various other music groups. Mr. Raminsh’s six songs (in French, German, Russian, Mandarin, English and Spanish) generally extolled the virtues of brotherhood and universal harmony. For the performance of this series, the VCC was joined by the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra. As contemporary music goes, the series was surprisingly tuneful, if somewhat bland. At certain points, the sound mounted to strong fortes where it seemed that powerful statements were being made. To my ears, the repetitive style in some passages showed the influence of composers like John Adams and Colin McPhee, but maybe you can't avoid those guys if you’re composing these days. While Mr. Raminsh’s composition is undoubtedly a worthy work, it could not but suffer for coming after the Rachmaninov. But there could as well have been an element of performance in play. In the Raminsh work, I heard some ragged sections in the string accompaniment and even in the singing – something utterly absent in the Rachmaninov. Could it be that the singers themselves were keener on one composer than the other?

 

The Graduate (Theatre) stage version adapted by Terry Johnson from the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry; based on the novel by Charles Webb; directed by Lois Anderson; starring Kayvon Khoshkam, Camille Mitchell, Celine Stubel, Bill Dow, Lisa Bunting, Jerry Wasserman, Ashley O’Connell, Jacqueline Breakwell; Arts Club Theatre, Vancouver, until May 14.

You may be wondering why we need a stage adaptation of the phenomenally successful 1967 movie. Granted, there might be people who haven’t yet encountered the movie, so their first encounter with the story at this point might provide the same jolt of fun that the movie did for those of us who saw it some forty years ago And maybe there’d be something special about a stage version, some more theatrical quality, say, that would enhance the overall effect?

Not in this production. The adaptation is clumsy and the acting’s too broad.

Arguably, though, you could give Kayvon Khoshkam and Camille Mitchell credit for not trying to do, respectively, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. Mr. Khoshkam and Ms. Mitchell have their own take on the roles. Trouble is, the story needs Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Bancroft. While Mr. Khoshkam looks like a more handsome Mr. Hoffman – medium height and lots of thick black hair – he doesn’t have any of Mr. Hoffman’s troubled, brooding interiority. Mr. Khoshkam is all exteriority and bluster. His Benjamin is a petulant, peevish twenty-something of today. What the part needs is that 1960s feel that Mr. Hoffman captured so well – the perpetual sulk of somebody who wants to drop out because he feels the establishment is all phony and hypocritical. If Benjamin’s taken out of that context, you don’t really see what’s wrong with this guy. Why is he so bummed out? As the femme fatale, Ms. Mitchell sashays around like a sitcom vamp. There’s no subtlety about her. No mature woman – even a hard-bitten alcoholic such as Mrs. Robinson is supposed to be – could pull off a credible seduction with such an obvious come-on.

Which is not to say that anybody’s incompetent or inept. They all look and sound like professional actors. Too much like actors, in fact, and not enough like real people – with some exceptions. I liked Bill Dow in the role of Benjamin’s dad. Mr. Dow brings an unaffected, authentic male energy to the role. And Celine Stubel makes a touching impression as Elaine, the Robinsons’ daughter. In the midst of so much over-acting and in a role that could be written off as ditzy, she comes across as genuinely nice and well-meaning – virtually the only person in the piece that you feel any sympathy for.

If that scarcity of emotional connection doesn’t bother you, the production does, admittedly, look and sound like a real play. Most of the audience members at the performance I attended seemed content to sit and wait patiently for the sparse laughs. But I found the play utterly unconvincing, not least because of the maladroit stagecraft. Take the two-minute scene where Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson check into a hotel. We get chandeliers lowered from the flies and a huge bouquet of flowers deposited on a counter. When the desk clerk needs to give the two adulterers a moment alone, a phone has to ring offstage so that the clerk can exit into the wings to answer it. How likely is it that a clerk would need to leave the desk to answer the phone?

What with the elaborate scene changes, it’s all so cumbersome. And stagey – as in the strip joint scene. You can’t create the right ambiance just by having a few louche types yelling at the stripper. (Besides, aren’t the denizens of such joints – not that I’m any expert on the subject – more likely to sit there in a stupor rather than work themselves into a vocal frenzy?) In spite of the best efforts of the stripper, the setup is so fake that the x-rated content becomes even more tawdry than the reality would be, with the result that you wonder how any guy could be such a jerk as to take a young woman to such a place.

In the movie, you get away with it  because things move smoothly from scene to scene; it’s all so realistic and believable. The awfulness of what’s happening sneaks up on you and the oddity of it exerts a kind of unexpected fascination. In this laboured stage production what’s going on becomes repellent and disgusting. So much so that I left before the intermission.

 

Captivity (Personal History) by James Loney, 2011

It was the kind of news you never expect to hear. You’re lying in bed one morning listening to a radio report on some conflict far across the world. Four hostages have been taken. Two of them, it turns out, are Canadian. Then the name of somebody you know leaps out at you.

Well, strictly speaking, I didn’t actually know Jim Loney when I heard that news in November of 2005. But several friends of mine knew him well. I was very familiar with his columns in the liberal newspaper Catholic New Times (now defunct) in which he described, with a combination of wistful irony and fierce determination, a young man’s attempt to live a life focussed on peace and justice in a world not very hospitable to those values. My impression was that he was a personable guy. Another thing that made him especially interesting was his status as one of the few Catholics who was exercising a kind of leadership while being openly gay.

So the case of Mr. Loney’s capture and the campaign for his release, along with that of his companions, caught far more of my attention than the usual story of that kind. I was touched to hear that old foes had been reconciled at public prayer vigils for the captives. Then came the morning when the radio reported that, after 118 days, they were freed in a daring raid by a counter-kidnap unit led by British and US special forces. Without going into too much embarrassing detail, let’s just say that that was a very emotional morning around here. The hour-long interview that Anna Maria Tremonti did a few days later with Mr. Loney and his partner Dan Hunt, on CBC radio’s "The Current," was one of the best segments of that estimable program I’ve ever heard. Further details of the story trickled out in various articles and interviews. Having, in the meantime, met Mr. Loney and had some slight contact with him, I’ve been keen to read his full account of the ordeal.

All this is by way of saying that there’s no way this review can adhere to the usual standards of aesthetic objectivity that we set for ourselves here at Dilettante’s Diary. Still, we’ll try to be as fair and impartial as we can.

Mr. Loney and the other three captives were members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a tiny organization (about 40 members) that tries to express an option for a response other than armed violence in some of the most troubled conflict zones of the world. It's felt that the small, low-profile character of the CPT gives them more flexibility than huge organizations like the UN and the Red Cross. The CPT team members in Iraq saw themselves as bridge-builders between the people in that country and the people of the West. The CPT’s aim was to let people in their home countries know about the lives of the ordinary people of Iraq in a time of war and occupation. As leader of the team, Mr. Loney was on his third trip to Iraq. His co-captives were: Harmeet Sing Sooden, a young Canadian Sikh; Norman Kember, a Baptist and a British citizen; and Tom Fox, an American Quaker.

The men were held in a house in central Baghdad, handcuffed and chained together much of the time. Once, they were moved to another house, transported one-by-one in the trunk of a car. Although the captives were not aware of it, their captors had vowed to kill them if ransom demands were not met by a certain time. Despite frequent assurances to the captives that negotiations for their release were going well, Tom Fox was taken away and, unbeknownst to the other three, executed, about two weeks before the others were liberated. Presumably Mr. Fox suffered this fate because his home country, the US, was seen as the most grievous offender against Iraq and the most intransigent in the negotiations with the captors.

For most of the 118 days, the captives’ daily diet consisted of three portions (each) of a bread-like wrap (usually stale) containing an "egg-sized portion of potato or rice or the occasional morsel of a hot dog." Towards the end of their captivity, some oranges, carrots and dates turned up. At some point, the men learned to unlock their handcuffs by means of curtain hooks found in the junk littering the room where they were held. But they had to be careful never to let their guards know that they had discovered any such avenue of relief. When the three of them were chained and handcuffed together (after Tom Fox had been taken away), Mr. Loney says that they moved "like a gangly three-headed creature with six legs and three arms." Eventually, the captors unlocked the men to allow them some calisthenic-style exercise each day. The minimal attention to their well being did not prevent Mr. Loney from suffering through a bout of pneumonia and high fever. Antibiotics supplied by the captors cured it. They also supplied Mr. Kember with medication for high blood pressure.

Luckily for all of us, the Iraqis acceded to requests for pens and writing paper. (Up to this point, I’m like: how does Mr. Loney remember all these details and dialogues?) Although the captors didn’t likely realize it, they were dealing with a true writer in the person of Mr. Loney. That shows early on in this book with, among other things, Mr. Loney’s ability to sum up a character in a few words. For instance, this thumbnail sketch of Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Sassaman, a US official with whom Mr. Loney had tried to discuss some of the US atrocities happening in Iraq:

Sassaman was forty years old, his face tanned and open, with a lean, decisive jaw and quick, penetrating eyes, a man who exuded confidence, command, authority. He was vigorously fit and moved with a quarterback’s ease.

Other striking ways of describing things help to assure us that we’re in the hands of a real writer. Peering under the edge of his blindfold at the feet of one of his captors, Mr. Loney found they were "the biggest, most powerful slab-of-meat feet" he’d ever seen. Describing a house where activists like himself once lived in Toronto, Mr. Loney says: "The furniture looked like it had been rescued from the curb in front of someone’s house."

Mr. Loney doesn’t, however, have a very high opinion of his ability to pen noble journal entries about a situation like his. Not for him, he says, the inspiring outpourings of Martin Luther King, Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum. He sees himself as "pretty darn banal, superficial, weak" and pre-occupied with "my self-absorbed efforts to survive." Good thing too, say I. The uplifting thoughts are here but, truth to tell, my eyes tend to glaze over just a little when they hit the lofty passages. What really makes this book for me is its attention to the nitty-gritty, everyday detail. Choose your own parallels in the literature on captivity: Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) Stanley Alpert (The Birthday Party, reviewed in Dilettante’s Diary, page titled "Fall Reading 2010), William Sampson (Confessions of an Innocent Man, reviewed on DD page dated Oct 22/09). And then there are the dramas: Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners; John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes; John McGrath’s Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun. I venture to say there’s even a Samuel-Beckett quality to Mr. Loney’s scenario – a Waiting-for-Godot aspect to the captives’ bizarre situation in Iraq. (Surely the movie offers will pour in.)

One of the qualities that earns the book’s ranking among such great dramas is the vivid re-creation of the dynamics among the captives. Towards the end of the book, in fact, Mr. Loney reflects that having companions certainly made it easier to cope – in some ways – but the group aspect of the experience provided some its "most intense emotional pain." For example, there was the conflict over a special meal that the guards brought to the men to mark the end of the Muslim fasting period. Mr. Loney couldn’t help noticing that two of his cohorts ate much more quickly from the communal plate than the others did, thereby packing away considerably more than their fair share. Mr. Loney tried to ignore the offence, to rise above it, but he had to mention it the next day. One of the offenders recognized his guilt and apologized immediately. The other was so ashamed to have his selfishness noticed and pointed out to him that he sulked mutely until efforts were made to effect a rapprochement with him. Then there was the time when Mr. Loney and Mr. Singh Sooden were alone for a few days after the other two men had been transferred to another house. Mr. Loney candidly admits that he wanted to scream with exasperation as his companion obsessively told the details of his life story over and over. When the four were together again, Tom Fox’s Zen-like insistence on trying to stay in the "present moment" forced a furious outburst from Mr. Loney. And would you believe that he had a bitter feud with Mr. Kember that dragged on over night and into the next day merely because Mr. Loney happened to make a flippant remark about William Blake’s poetry? Talk about close companions getting on each other’s nerves!

More seriously, there was the conflict among the four men about whether or not they should try to escape. Should they use a gun if they could seize one from one of the guards? Surprisingly, given that we know the outcome, Mr. Loney manages to build considerable suspense into the passages where he privately contemplates the possibility of making a run for it at certain points where an opportunity appears to beckon.

Of course, another key element to the drama is the captives’ inter-action with their captors. Throughout the ordeal, the men were guarded by four Iraqis who took turns on shift. Without ever losing sight of the oppressor/oppressed aspects of the situation, Mr. Loney shows that more complex factors were in play. The guards' treatment of the captives alternated between hard-nosed, brutal contempt and friendly, sympathetic overtures. (Only one of the captors spoke passable English; communication with the others took place through translations by him or by means of smatterings of words from each other’s languages, accompanied by improvised sign language.) Like many hostages, the Westerners did their best to make a connection with their tormentors based on a recognition of a common humanity. Mr. Loney seems to have exerted himself to great lengths in that effort. But even he admits, in his journal, to getting tired of it: "I find myself increasingly unenthusiastic about engaging them, trying to reach across this divide with small talk, little jokes, positive interactions. I am, of course, unremittingly polite and obliging, but really all I want is news, or release."

The Iraqi who comes through most clearly in character is a young man whom the captives have dubbed "Junior". He seems the most insecure, the most lacking in authority, of the four. He can be volatile, irascible, threatening and dangerous, yet suddenly vulnerable, sensitive and inquisitive. On that latter point, he provides some of the rare comedy of the story when he comes to the captives with a bottle of sexual lubricant. Unable to decipher the English label, he asks them to explain the gel’s purpose. Despite elaborate attempts by the Westerners, including graphic hand gestures, Junior fails to get the message. Thinking the stuff is supposed to function as an aphrodisiac, he later reports with some disgust that it doesn’t work as promised.

The rapport with Junior reaches a point that Mr. Loney starts giving him massages for his many aches and pains. And yes, Mr. Loney was constantly worrying whether he might be crossing a line with those massages. He was well aware of the risk of falling into the Stockholm Syndrome but he simply could not resist some hands-on kindness where needed. Besides, he sees Junior as both a child of God and a victim of the various injustices that have befallen him. And it’s Junior who spontaneously acts as a kind of nurse to Mr. Loney when he had pneumonia. 

Such examples of what might be seen as extraordinarily humane interaction with one of his captors raises the question of Mr. Loney’s character. One suspects that he would not like his persona to be a major focus of the book’s readers. Whether or not he wants it to be, however, the question of who he is and why he behaves the way he does becomes one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole story. And there’s also the fact that a sort of Christian leadership has been thrust on him as a result of what he went through. The subject of his character, then, becomes a matter for legitimate consideration.

The account of Mr. Loney’s adult life before joining CPT makes him sound something like a contemporary St. Francis of Assisi: living in communal houses, helping to run soup kitchens, trying in various ways to befriend the poor and needy and to ameliorate their situations as much as possible. I can’t help wishing for a bit more detail about his formative years, something that might help us to understand how he became the kind of man he is. After all, lots of us heard the same sermons he did regarding Christian charity, peace and solidarity with the poor. Why did the messages have such a profound effect on him?

But maybe it’s asking too much of any writer, other than a novelist, to show that extent of insight into his own character, no matter how deep the influences go. So deep, in his case, that, before his incarceration, the only time he ever felt like throwing a punch was when a guy came into one of the group homes without wiping his dirty shoes. Mr. Loney’s gentleness, even his naivete, can be seen in some of his reactions to liberation. When he received new clothes from the hands of jubilant liberators, his first thought was to worry about who would pay for them. On the flight back to Canada, he was reluctant to partake of the celebratory champagne because he didn’t want to "cost the Canadian government" any more than he already had. Earlier, when the Iraqis had brought four sweaters to help the men fight off Baghdad’s January cold, Mr. Loney dithered about whether he should take the one and only sweater that appealed to him or whether he should take one of the ugly ones in case somebody else wanted the attractive one.

An aspect of Mr. Loney’s character that I find he deals with very well is his sexual orientation. The subject doesn’t even come up until it’s mentioned , more or less parenthetically, in a discussion about the need for discretion on the matter, given the homophobic religious culture of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. I find it refreshing – and I hope it’s a sign of social progress – when a gay writer, especially a Roman Catholic one, doesn’t have to go all apologetic and explanatory about his sexuality. Just occasionally, Mr. Loney makes a campy joke about himself as a gay man. After the ghastly ordeal of having to submit to making a videotaped message for worldwide distribution, he says: "I smile to myself as I imagine standing under a spotlight in a sequined dress holding a big bouquet of roses. I would like to thank my parents, my goldfish and most of all my captors." When one of the guards brings the prisoners a rose, Mr. Loney can’t help from gushing, in his best attempt at a Southern belle accent, eyelids fluttering: "Why thank you. Nobody ever gives me flowers." (To put it mildly, the guard was not charmed!) Oddly, though, those quips don’t seem to jibe with the straight public image of Mr. Loney. Is there a secret, inner James Loney that sees himself in that stereotypical way?

There’s no question, though, that he recognizes himself as the kind of guy who fusses a lot about neatness and cleanliness, whether or not that trait can be seen as typical of some gay men. The filth of the hostages' surroundings clearly constitutes, if not one of the worst elements of the experience, a very irksome one for him. He’s appalled at the way his co-captives lick cream cheese (a rare treat) from tinfoil wrappers rather than trying, even though handcuffed, to spread it on their bread – as his mother would have wanted him to do.

But such persnickety concern for etiquette deserted Mr. Loney along with his ideals, his optimism and his resilient spirituality at the worst point of his ordeal, i.e. when he was afflicted with fever and pneumonia. He found himself journalling:

The days are a fathomless void and a consuming agony. Prayer is useless. God is dead. There is only suffering without meaning or end.

The attempt to be resigned to it all makes him write: "This is the day the Lord has made! It is a blasphemy, but I must nonetheless write it: Yuck!" Call it the dark night of the soul, if you want to see it in terms of classic spirituality. Or, in a less religious context, it was the existential dread that, from time to time, assails any thinking person who doesn’t have religious platitudes to fall back on. It gets so bad that Mr. Loney can actually, and not entirely in jest, wish that CPT training had included instructions in the handling of an AK-47.

As you may have gathered by now, this book has made a quite a favourable impression on me in many ways. However, since we see ourselves as champions of the highest standards of literary art here at Dilettante’s Diary, we must pay closer attention to Captivity in that regard. A few flaws can be found. On the most trivial level, there is what might be called confusion about the antecedent of a pronoun. For example: "Ismael explained that Saddam Hussein had exempted his son from military duty in 1997 because of a head injury." I’m thinking: what does Saddam’s son have to do with anything? And then some misplaced modifiers. Describing the time when a guard confiscates his belongings, Mr. Loney says "I watch him pocket the cellphone with a pang of desperation as I realize the only number to call for help is Doug’s back in Canada." Me: why would the guard pocket it with a pang of desperation?

In the way of somewhat more grievous slips, the writing turns prosaic and dull when Mr. Loney decides to give us Mr. Singh Sooden’s family history. (And yet, the text leaps to life just a page later when conveying Mr. Singh Sooden’s craving for chocolate.) I wasn’t sure if the book needed the flashback to Mr. Loney’s meeting with Colonel Sassaman. Presumably, the purpose of relaying the encounter was to establish the US army’s denial and/or blindness regarding atrocities committed by US soldiers in Iraq. But we all know that bad things were going down. So I think we can accept, without reading about this encounter, that CPT had good reason for being there. The faintly spiteful feel of the telling of this incident jars, for me, with the overall tone of the book. And I find the ending of the book – where Mr. Loney describes the various stops on his return home and his reunions with family members and friends – somewhat dragged-out and self-indulgent. Granted, the author may have earned the right to express the myriad manifestations of his joy, but an editor with an eye to making the best possible book might have insisted on a quicker ending.

Sometimes Mr. Loney’s resorting to autonomic responses as a way of conveying emotion grate. For instance: the cold chill sweeping through the body, the rush of fear, the fear surge, the arms shivering, every molecule crying out. Maybe some writers actually experience these kinds of reactions. For me, they seem so much the stuff of boiler-plate thriller fiction that they don’t help to further my appreciation of what’s going on. It’s more like: oh, this again! On the other hand, some of Mr. Loney’s descriptions of emotional reactions can be very effective. For example: "My spirits leap madly." "There’s an engine inside me roaring full throttle. No!" "The feeling rises like a cataract and threatens to drown me."

To my taste, though, some of the best writing comes in very simple passages, in unadorned prose that gives an arresting and startling reality to what it’s describing. One such moment comes when Mr. Loney describes a ritual that developed as the other three men shared a piece of bread that Mr. Kember always said he didn’t need. There’s a stunning, quiet intensity to the scene. You get all the implications without any authorial prompting. Another passage that caught me in a similar way comes when Mr. Loney is talking about the nightly ritual when the three remaining men were allowed to come downstairs and watch tv.

When it’s time to go back upstairs, usually around ten o’clock, we brush our teeth in the hallway sink, make a last quick haman [bathroom] visit, and then we’re locked up for the night.

The under-stated quality of it breaks your heart. It sounds like obedient school children falling into line. The famous children’s poem comes to mind: "In an old house in Paris, all covered with vines,/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines...." To think that these men could have been reduced to such uncomplaining compliance – it’s unbearable.

No matter how good Mr. Loney’s writing, though, a certain question hangs over the book and some readers might feel that it’s never resolved satisfactorily. And that’s the paradox involved in the rescue of the three survivors. A high-tech, expertly conducted commando raid liberated these anti-war peace activists whose values are so diametrically opposed to most of what the military stands for. Mr. Loney doesn’t shrink from confronting that contradiction. He’s never more aware of it than when he’s literally ensconced within the belly of the war machine as soldiers are driving him in an armoured tank through Baghdad to safety. Some would say that such an outcome would clearly prove that we need our military, regardless of how much people like Mr. Loney would wish for a non-violent world. For Mr. Loney, though, it appears that the contradiction cannot be set aside so simply.

To give Mr. Loney credit, he doesn’t come off as a bleeding-heart on this topic. His thoughts are measured and fair. He appreciates that a factor driving one of the kidnappers is humiliation vis a vis his family at the hands of US soldiers. On the other hand, Mr. Loney agonizes over the prospect that any ransom money that might be paid for his release would serve the purpose of helping to kill more US military personnel. And yet, when one of the liberators steps out of line and harangues Mr. Loney about the risks people took to get these peace-niks out of captivity, Mr. Loney wants to respond:

You are the reason I came here...So you no longer have to do what you do. It is a paradox. Some men with guns came and took me. Then you came with your guns and took them. You have given me back my freedom. I am unspeakably grateful, but the gun is still in charge and nothing really has changed. We need a world without war.

Despite that certainty, Mr. Loney and his companions went through a lot of soul-searching about some of the confusing issues in the aftermath of what had happened to them. It was hard to find out exactly how things had gone down. Had a ransom been paid or had it not? Would the captives agree to try to identify their tormentors in a photo "line-up"? Would the three survivors testify, as requested, in a trial conducted by the Criminal Court of Iraq? The death penalty was a possibility and judicial fairness was far from guaranteed. In the end, the three men declined to testify. The statement they issued by way of explanation said, in part:

We unconditionally forgive our captors for abducting and holding us. We have no desire to punish them. Punishment can never restore what was taken from us. What our captors did was wrong....Yet we bear no malice towards them and have no wish for retribution...In our view, the catastrophic level of violence and the lack of effective protection of human rights in Iraq is inextricably linked to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation...

Citing the fact that forgiveness is essential to Sikh, Christian and Muslim teachings, the men said:

Through the power of forgiveness, it is our hope that good deeds will come from the lives of our captors, and that we will all learn to reject the use of violence. We believe those who use violence against others are themselves harmed by the use of violence.

Even to a skeptic and a lousy model of Christian forbearance like me, that sounds like the truth.

 

A Spring Celebration of Art and Poetry; The Women’s Art Association of Canada; Toronto; April 17

The concept struck me as somewhat dubious: poets reading poetry that had been inspired by paintings or that had prompted paintings. I mean, could such a cross-fertilization of the arts actually produce anything other than an "arty" happening?

However, some people I know invited me to the event. (Consider that full disclosure.) The fourth annual gathering of this kind, it took place in the spacious main floor salon at the premises of the Women’s Art Association, a sprawling Victorian mansion in downtown Toronto. Turns out, the WAA is one of our more venerable arts organizations. Founded by Mary Dignam in 1886, the association celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Several commodious studios upstairs in the WAA's building provide space for the women artists who contributed works to this show. The participating poets are all members of The Long Dash Poetry Group.

Not long after things got underway, my initial skepticism faded rapidly. Many of the paintings and poems turned out to have interesting connections. (Photos of the paintings appeared enlarged on a screen while the poems were read.) The word "resonance" was used a lot in terms of the dynamics between the two art forms. As one of the poets said, such collaboration led to the writing of poems that might not otherwise have been written. Mind you, it wasn’t easy for a lame brain like mine to catch all the possible ramifications of every pairing of painting and poem. (My apologies for any misquotes in the following and any misunderstandings) Still, some of the main points got through to me.

Take poet Elana Wolff 's piece in response to Carolyn Jongeward's abstract painting consisting of streaming reddish tones in blurry, horizontal bands. The poem conveyed a feeling of desolation and emptiness, with a hint of a hide-and-seek motif. That struck me as particularly appropriate, given that you could almost see tiny, child-like figures emerging here and there from the jumble of colour. An abstract by Lynne Ritchie with a misty, inconclusive aspect to it prompted a meditation from Ms. Wolff on families, travelling into the unknown, pain and panic. A large, luminous abstract by Wenda Watt led Ms. Wolff down a path that brought her to thoughts about ageing. One of the most striking paintings in the show – Marjorie Moeser's brilliantly clear evocation of white caps in an island setting like Georgian Bay – suggested to Ms. Wolff caps tossed by boys and that led (if I’m not mistaken) to nostalgic thoughts about a girl’s yearning for the attention of those boys.

Sheila Stewart responded to Gail Read’s painting of oak trees with a poem about arms reaching out, like the branches of the trees, and about being tired, with the striking line: "What is sorrow for but to lie down in?" In a poem coupled with Mary Lou Payzant’s painting of multi-coloured fish, Ms. Stewart imagined a fish telling a story to her students (a "school" of little fish, I guess). The poem echoed the philosophical observation about fish vis a vis water: "We can’t know what surrounds us." In response to Barb Andersen’s watercolour showing laundry flapping on an outdoor line, Ms. Stewart’s poem looked to the sky, rather than email, as the best way for sending messages. Her poem related to Carolyn Jongeward’s complicated abstract delved into metaphysics and related conundrums, making the point that "to keep looking is the trick." One small white flower in a poem of Ms. Stewart’s proved to be the link to Horsensia Reyes' large painting that peered into the centres of calla lilies.

A painting featuring a somewhat ominous, dark, tomb-like shape, but with light emerging in the background, was artist Barbara Feith’s response to a poem by John Oughton, a poignant piece about encountering a dead skunk on the Don Valley Parkway. Mr. Oughton spoke of the "exclamation mark" of the skunk’s tail and he wondered if the time had simply been wrong for the little animal. A reflection on the Chilean miners who were recently caught underground for many days included a painting by Wendy Weaver and a poem by Mr. Oughton. The painting showed a human figure in a shaft of light penetrating the dark surroundings, while the poem spoke of "a shaft stuck into the corpse of time." Judith Davidson Palmer’s abstract – including metallic elements and looking something like urban congestion – elicited musings from Mr. Oughton about traffic and civic politics, among other things.

A whimsical painting by Mary Lou Payzant, showing torn fragments of paper bearing words, suspended at various angles in a sketch of a room, inspired Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes to think about the fact that the strings holding the texts could be pulled taut while still retaining their flexibility because, after all, "meanings are not static." Barbara Feith’s painting of mountains and jungle in Jamaica brought forth a reflection from Ms. Soutar-Hynes on the earth’s apparent indifference to the death of a loved one.

Merle Nudelman wrote in response to a collage by Marjorie Moeser, a joyful abstract of bright golds, with touches of red. For Ms. Nudelman, that suggested something about toys and child-like fun, with just a hint of a school teacher looming over the child’s shoulder. Ms. Nudelman’s response to a painting of a starry conglomeration by Beryl Goering pondered the possibility of a cosmic vision of unity.

Another of Ms. Goering’s abstract painting – tones of light blue divided by one white band – launched Clara Blackwood’s thoughts about uncertainty and a shifting sense of self. Ms. Blackwood poem about the strong yet mysterious ties among sisters related to Monica Kucharuk’s semi-abstract painting of a group of three faceless female figures huddled together.

For me, one of the most successful collaborations involved a painting by Wendy Weaver and a poem by Ms. Blackwood. Ms. Weaver’s painting featured dark mountains under a turbulent sky. Ms. Blackwood took that as a springboard for thoughts about wind patterns we don’t understand (I think this was all about relationships). Asking if it is possible to distill chaos, she answered: "If you know how to begin." The entire gathering (maybe eighty people) seemed to agree heartily with the poet's observation that the theme shared by the poem and the painting corresponded very well with the day's blustery April weather!  

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com