The Third Macmillan Anthology

Edited by John Metcalf and Kent Johnson

Macmillan Canada


There’s something about anthologies that makes them so damn smug.

I haven’t the faintest idea what it is. But it’s true. Every time an anthology of contemporary literature comes out, the editors cover it with little promo blurbs suggesting that you’d not only be culturally vapid but a candidate for functional illiteracy if you didn’t buy their book.

The latest Macmillan Anthology of Canadian literature falls into this trap. It’s the third edition of the annual review, and editors John Metcalf and Kent Thompson have modestly proclaimed on the rear cover that it is “the pre-eminent showcase for contemporary Canadian literature.”

In the past, they’ve called themselves “the one indispensable book for anyone interested in Canadian writing today.”

Yeah. Well. Kent! John! I hate to be the one to burst your buble, but Canadian literature won’t curl up like a salted slug if the Macmillan Anthology should fail to come out one summer.

I shouldn’t whine so much. Outside of editorial pretensions, the Anthology is filled with an overall solid mix of short prose, poetry, memoirs, and criticism, by new and established writers. Some of it is actually quite suave.

Of the prose, Terry Griggs’s “Quickening” wins an award for sheer entertainment. It mainly concerns a little girl whose cat runs away, but I apologize, that banal précis does absolutely no justice to the blitzkrieg rush of storytelling she stuffs at us in nine short pages. Griggs writes like a stand-up comic spewing crypt humour at 78 rpm while pointing a gun at you and daring you to laugh. Her story follows what the thoughts of a six-year-old would be if a six-year-old could actually explicate the thousandfold bizarre tenants of her brain.

Other prose notables include Douglas Glover’s story of two women who fall in love and watch a housewife gored by a bull. It’s actually more about love than bull-goring, but he makes some pretty nifty connections between the two. Diane Shoemperlan’s “The Look of the Lightning, the Sound of the Birds” is about a woman slowly coming to terms with her truckload of modern paranoid fears; it’s not a new topic but Shoemperlen writes beautifully and speaks more knowledgably about the benefits of being drunk than anyone else I know.

Poetry-wise, the Macmillan delivers erratic offerings. The quality jumps from bland and trite to exciting and fresh, even within the works of a single author.

Marlene Cookshaw’s poems are an example of this. Her first piece, “The Sudden Drop in Temperature,” is a brief stab at the slow terrors of old age that leaves you gasping, but her following pieces don’t follow suit. The slection of Don Coles’ verse has the same irregularity. A few — “Basketball player and friends,” “Our photos of the children” — have a strong emotional core that takes you in, but he loses strength when he spins off into vagueness.

Don MacKay’s poems, however, are all very good. He knows how to churn out a kick-ass lyric, freezing a moment or idea and rummaging around in it. He packs volumes of thoughts into a few words, and if the compression ever confuses, his confident use of language attracts you enough to give the poems a couple of readings and enough time to let them really sink in. Cases like his are the raison d’etre of anthologies, because McKay’s seven poems are a definite encouragement to read more of his work.

Irving Layton’s poetic contributions are a whole other nuclear reaction. He’s almost too famous now in Canadian literary circles to need anthologization, but it is comforting to know some things never change. After 50-odd years, Layton is still bellowing loudly and tunefully and waving his genitals in the face of anyone who looks. His best poem is “Thoughts on titling my next book Bravo, Layton,” wherein he imagines his enemies forced to hear other people crying “Bravo, Layton” when they order his book. God. Layton is a wonderful writer, but it’s surprising he wasn’t locked up years ago.

Probably the most interesting part of the Macmillan is the Year in Review section. Here, three Canadian writer/critic/malcontents engage in a controlled pirhana frenzy as they molest the entrails of 1989’s Canadian books. Generally, they moan about the mediocre quality of most Canadian work, with a few grudging approvals of a few books of poetry and prose. Fraser Sutehrland also pens an overview of 1980s poetry, and concludes that it did a massive face plant. Whether or not you agree with the three, there are, in amongst the grumbling, sporadic flashes of genuine insight that make the reviews well worth reading.

But the Anthology, whatever its good points is a little bit out of the average student’s price range, weighing in at $16.95. It’s a good collection, but remember that $16.95 will also buy you a subscription to any one of several high-quality CanLit quarterlies or periodicals — several of which could also be called “indispensable” for your reading. Hey, you pays yer money, you takes yer chances.