Notes and Dispatches: Essays by rob mclennan / Insomniac Press / 2014 / 978-1554831265 / 318 pages
rob mclennan has operated above/ground press from his home base of Ottawa for more than twenty-seven years, publishing over a thousand items since the press’ inception in 1993. He is himself a prolific writer, with more than twenty books of stories, poems, and essays to his name. In Notes and Dispatches: Essays, a collection of his writings from 2010 to 2014, he displays remarkable breadth and depth. mclennan’s interest is not just in writers and writing, but also circumstance and surroundings, and he is as much interested in how these external factors affect writing as in the output itself.
Throughout the book, he moves between person and place, subject and geography. In the introduction, he writes that each of his essays begins first with curiosity, as he tries to learn, through their writing, some aspect of an author or subject that can’t be understood otherwise. By starting with this pearl of curiosity, and enlarging his understanding through writing, mclennan provides a series of snapshots, each one focused on a figure or aspect from Canadian or American literature.
The essays in this collection are as diverse as they are personal. The first piece, “Reading and Writing Glengarry County: writing the Long Sault hydroelectric project”, describes the St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s, tracing its indelible mark on the landscape of the region, and how entire communities were created, destroyed, or relocated by the project’s ambition. Weaving in recollections of his father’s life with Don McKay’s out-of-print long poem “Long Sault” and other sources, mclennan describes how the project’s scope changed Glengarry County forever. At the other end of the collection, in the penultimate essay, mclennan delves into his family history, tracing the McLennans from Scotland to Glengarry County, through to northern Alberta, British Columbia, and California. “Genealogy,” he writes, “really is akin to archaeology” (299), closing the piece with a note about his grandparents’ first child, named only as “Baby girl McLennan” in the newspaper obituary. Those who would have known her name, he writes, passed away years before he started his own inquiries. Despite our desire for understanding, for a full knowledge and accounting of ourselves and our histories, mclennan shows there are limits to how far we can ultimately dig.
Between these essays, the writings turn between geographies and the writers that inhabit them, often in the same piece: Douglas Barbour, an Edmonton poet mclennan feels was never given his full due; the poets and poetry of Vancouver and the west coast, including Roy Kiyooka, Meredith Quartermain, and Sachiko Murakami; essays on Lisa Robertson, Sylvia Legris, the American poet Sarah Manguso, and others; and “A note on Miss Canada”, on a piece by mclennan himself, describing how the sequence of voices in that work was partially informed by his trips between Toronto and Ottawa, where the dead played out in missing person posters taped to, then removed from, diner walls along the way.
mclennan is generous with the work of others, but the strongest work in the collection is autobiographical. In “The green-wood essay: a little autobiographical dictionary”, mclennan uses eight short sections to connect his family history to discussions of the pastoral, notes on the changing urban/rural landscape, poets whose lives began in farm country, and whether it is possible to be pastoral in a deeply urban landscape. The work shifts between sentences and fragments, in and out of poetry, working in mclennan’s distinct poetic style:
Instead of recess, played my scales. Another lesson. A further removal from bonding with my peers, already quiet, shy. Out on the farm, with barely a neighbour my age. Thirteen years of lessons, told to practice instead of wasting, wandering time. I wasted time. I put my head down. Played. I suppose, then, this was discipline. Certain notions set aside. (75)
“green wood”, a journey through mclennan’s foundations, allows the reader a view into his core tenets and beliefs – and foundations, mclennan writes, “rarely change, no matter subsequent constructions” (77). mclennan’s foundation is Glengarry County, and the red brick house where his father still lives; it is the move so many of us have made within the last few generations, leaving farms and villages for towns and cities; it is how he “absorbed books, consumed them” (75) – and how he still does. That was his life, and that is his life.
“How do books begin?”, mclennan asks (209). In Notes and Dispatches: Essays, the beginning and the end are geography: physical and human, intertwined and inseparable. We can never remove ourselves from the physical world; we are a product of our childhoods and upbringings, and the lives we choose for ourselves. The personal is the physical. Each of us are necessarily a part of where we live, and as mclennan deftly demonstrates, where we live, where we’re from, form an inseparable part of ourselves as well. “We already live in the world,” mclennan writes. “Why pretend to be apart?” (78)