Monday, April 28, 2014

On Writing #28 : Stan Rogal

Writers' Anonymous
Stan Rogal

I am of an age and at the point where I can honestly suggest the government initiate a program titled Writers Anonymous. It would function in the same manner as it does to treat alcoholics and gamblers, except it would offer assistance to those of us who have fallen off the tracks and are in desperate need of help. After all, isn’t the mindless pursuit of writing (or Art, in general, for that matter) a serious form of affliction and addiction and doesn’t it invariably carry with it the attendant symptoms: loneliness, despair, depression, divorce, anti-social behaviour, mania, anger management issues, aloofness, sedentary lifestyle, substance abuse, madness, carpal tunnel disease, sexually transmitted diseases, stomach cancer, constipation, blindness, back pain, loss of limbs, loss of job, heart ache, heart break, death by misadventure, death by suicide… The list goes on and all one need do is check the obituaries: David Foster Wallace, Anne Sexton, Richard Brautigan, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Jerzy Kosinski, Virginia Woolf... And let’s face it—these were the lucky ones. They made it to the top and so their special demises are recorded. What of the rest who remain cloistered in darkened rooms, huddled over blue computer screens or poised with pencils over pads of lined paper hammering out words, words, words until one day they pull out pappy’s old thirty aught six Springfield and blow their brains out? A sobering thought.
Though, not sobering enough, apparently.
            After all, what sane and healthy person would set themselves up day after day to face constant and continual rejection, little hope of success or remuneration of any sort and the strong possibility that life will be harsh, brutish and short? Well, many of us apparently, and the question is why? Or, at least why continue after lengthy experience has proven that the light at the end of the tunnel is just another goddamn express train and you are simply another annoying bug meant to be rammed, squashed and discarded without so much as a by-your-leave?
            There is, of course, Freud’s famous tenet that people become artists to secure fame, fortune and beautiful lovers. I’ve already pointed out that the fame and fortune is a pipe dream except for a blessed few and it’s also well established that the beautiful lovers disappear rather quickly once the initial thrill of the ‘writer-as-romantic-figure’ wears thin and they wake one fine morning to be met by the basic and true ‘writer-as-fucked-up-and-totally-annoying-asshole-figure.’ Not a pretty sight, and the lover (if smart enough or lucky enough) packs a bag and moves on. The writer, meanwhile, knocks off a crappy poem or two to sum up the affair, then goes back to hitting the bottle, the needle, the prescription meds, the sex toys, God or whatever other crutch, wailing alas and alack; woe is me, woe is me!
            Not to sound totally negative, every so often work is sent out into the ether and somewhere down the line an acceptance letter appears from a small magazine saying a piece will manifest in an upcoming issue, along with a cheque for however much nominal payment. Or an entire manuscript is accepted, and—barring bankruptcy, acts of God, a polar vortex or death—a contract to follow, along with the promise of publication in the next two to three years. The carrot is dangled and the writer is only too happy to chase after, dragging bag and baggage along behind.       
            Speaking of carrots dangled, a certain writer who shall be known as S, recently blamed the amount of lousy writing and writers in Canada due to the fact that programs are government subsidized. I think any surface financial investigation will show that the amount of money invested by any level of Canadian government in either Literature or the Arts as a whole, is minimal, compared to the total wealth of this country and, certainly, the private sector has, forever, been responsible for producing and promoting more than it’s fair share of maudlin, inane, inept, hackneyed and downright talentless writers and artists. I only point to Hollywood blockbuster movies as one example, and Argo winning an Oscar for best picture recently. Or the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey. Or any Dan Brown piece of shit novel.
            The worst we can say is that, with the ease and relatively low cost of self-publication these days, there are certain people who get together and create a small press in order to print themselves and their friends. Then, after a few years, they fold and move on. And maybe some of this material is questionable and some is outright awful, but the enterprise follows a long respected tradition, and occasionally through the dreck, a few writers appear who can be deemed talented and worthwhile and who might have gone forever ignored and unrecognized if not for such noble enterprise. In any case, no government subsidy and paid for by the participants out of pocket. Their credo? Don’t quit your day job!  
            And the bottom line is—the money doesn’t matter anyway, even if it was there. Not the fame nor the promise of lovers, beautiful or otherwise, neither. Why? Because the true writer is afflicted, addicted and irrevocably hooked. They don’t need any outside incentives because they are deranged and affected right through to their DNA. It’s an illness with no known cure. They are content in their misery. I admit, the monkey is on my back and the more it digs its claws into my back, and sinks its teeth into my neck, and scratches at my face, and screams into my ears that both me and my work are pieces of worthless bat guano, the more I say: fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Even knowing I’m the horse. I drag myself back into the basement, pour myself a glass of red, fire up the computer and go at it: bang the keys until I’ve beat some poor sonofabitch poem or story or play into a kind of reasonable shape that I can live with, and perhaps want to share with an audience.
            Or not.
            Oh, and forget the bit about a government subsidized program for writers in distress. I was joking, sort of. Like any other addict, it’s deny, deny, deny and I know I’d have to be dragged off kicking and screaming if I was threatened with a cure. Why? Well, in the immortal words of Tom Waits: I’m afraid if I exorcise my devils, my angels may leave too. 
And you can take that to the bank.

Stan Rogal resides in Toronto and writes from a small windowless room in the basement of a house. He definitely needs to get out more. His work has appeared in numerous magazines in Canada, the US and Europe. He is the author of 18 books: 4 novels, 3 story and 11 poetry collections. A new collection of stories will appear in the spring and a collection of poems in the fall, 2014. His two major qualities are unfathomable tenacity, blind determination and wrongheaded stubborness. Oh, wait a sec -- that's three. Note: his math skills are questionable.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A B Series Presents - Catherine Owen & Jill Battson

Join us for readings and a book launch with Catherine Owen and Jill Battson!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Ottawa Art Gallery

Arts Courts
2 Daly Ave.
Ottawa, Ont.

A hat will be passed.

More info:

On May 6, 2014, Catherine Owen gives Designated Mourner (ECW Press, 2014) its Ottawa launch. She is the author of eight other collections of poetry, among them Trobairitz (Anvil Press 2012), Seeing Lessons (Wolsak & Wynn 2010) and Frenzy (Anvil Press 2009). Her poems are included in several recent anthologies such as Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC (Mothertongue Press, 2013). Her collection of memoirs and essays is called Catalysts: confrontations with the muse (W & W, 2012). Frenzy won the Alberta Book Prize and other collections have been nominated for the BC Book Prize, the Re-lit, the CBC Prize, & the George Ryga Award. In 2011-2013, she wrote five songs for the eco-musicalAwakening the Green Man, collaborated with multi-media artist Sydney Lancaster on Nest, served as an art model and writer for photographer Paul Saturley’s Pandemonium project, created a poemsong duo, The Lyrical Outlaws, and started a blog at called The Relentless Adventures of OCD Crow. Owen edits, tutors, works on the TV show, Arrow, plays bass in Medea, co-runs Above & Beyond chapbook productions, and lives by the Fraser River. Her book of elegies, Designated Mourner has just been published and a chapbook called Rivulets is out from Alfred Gustav Press. Her web home is
Jill Battson is an internationally published poet and poetry activist who is Poet Laureate Emeritus of Cobourg, Ontario. She was responsible for creating and running the successful poetry reading series The Poets’ Refuge and has initiated and produced many poetry events including The Poetry Express – a BYOV at Toronto’s Fringe Festival; Liminal Sisters – a language poetry event; The Festival of the Spoken Word – a five day spoken word festival; Fightin’ Words – poets in a boxing ring; The Poetburo Slams and the hyper- successful Word Up – a series of interstitial poetry spots airing on MuchMusic and Bravo! which spawned a CD with Virgin Records and an anthology with Key Porter. She was the poetry editor for Insomniac Press from 1999 to 2001.

Jill is widely published across North America and the UK. Her first book, Hard Candy, was received to great acclaim and nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. She has written several plays and solo works, including How I learned to live with obsession as well as Ecce Homo and Hard Candy – enhanced monologues for dance and voice. Jill has written the libretti for two short operas, Netsuke and Ashlike on the Cradle of the Wind, produced by Tapestry New Opera Works, and produced an electro acoustic sound art project, LinguaElastic, as part of the Canadian Music Centre’s New Music in New Places series. Dark Star Requiem, for which she wrote the libretto, premiered at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in June 2010. Her new project, Sleeptalker, will soon appear on stage. Jill’s third book of poems, Dark Star Requiem, was recently published by Folded & Gathered Press. Her new book, The Ecstatic Torture of Gratitude, has just been published by Guernica Editions. Gratitude Songs – a CD of selected poems set to music – is available as a free download from Bandcamp.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

JOHN AKPATA in Performance! A B Series Celebrates National Poetry Month!


Accompanied by Nathanaël Larochette on guitar.

A B Series Celebrates National Poetry Month!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ottawa Art Gallery
Arts Court
2 Daly Avenue
Ottawa, Ont.

Free admission
A hat will be passed

John Akpata is a renowned spoken word artist, educator and radio broadcaster based in Ottawa. He has toured nationally and internationally. His work appears in the anthology The Great Black North : Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (Frontenac House Poetry 2013.) John's fourth album Live From Mercury was released August 2013.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Recent Reads: "The Uncertainty Principle: stories," by rob mclennan

Published by Chaudiere Books, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-9783428-8-3

Two springs ago I was listening to a talk on contemporary poetry when a fellow enthusiast asked rob mclennan what inspires him. “I don’t wait for inspiration,” he responded. “My father didn’t wait for inspiration. He milked the cows every day because he had to”. That no-frills answer sprung to mind midway through The Uncertainty Principle: stories,, an eclectic compendium of pocket-sized tales crafted from 2008 to 2011. The brevity and randomness of each story makes it tempting to view these as the crème de la crème of one of mclennan’s daily writing exercises. However these individual pieces transformed into a working manuscript – whether they were organized from the start or encountered a “eureka” moment along the way – mclennan’s bounty of ideas repeatedly underpins that day-in-day-out discipline.

Uncertainty plays a crucial part in the flow of so many mini-narratives. mclennan forgoes anchoring his characters with names and ambitions, instead letting pronouns contribute to a foggy tapestry of shared thoughts and concerns. Common themes converse and accumulate throughout, binding playful and contemplative experiences into a lifetime’s knowledge, some vague, communal whole. Recurring subjects in first person obviously lean toward the autobiographical, such as memories of one’s mother or fleeting moments around familiar Ottawa landmarks, while others belong firmly in the speculative.

Describing himself as an errorist, he spends
his day deliberately misspelling, otherwise the
copy-editor could be out of a job and he never
see her again.

The above example illustrates how mclennan populates the fictional side, using unidentified people as a means to observing poignant or funny sociological traits. This lens expands to feature some insightful pop culture commentary, including theories on Hollywood films, comic books, as well as an eerie parallel between two misfits of nuclear fallout – Godzilla and SpongeBob SquarePants. Broadening the humour, mclennan litters a few entries with the hashtag #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp to offset the more intricate accounts.

I recently had a Doctor Who-style dream, set
in early twentieth-century Dublin, with you as
my faithful companion. We found James Joyce
and his house of infinite, hidden rooms, stalked
by some kind of vampire creature. Was this,
we began to suspect, something his own de-
mons had created, dark language made physi-
cal, an altered Nora Barnacle? I don’t recall a
conclusion or resolution. This is often the way
of dreams. Someone suggested I write out
what I can, to reinforce memory, flesh out the
scene. The front door of the house was green-
painted wood, with a peephole large enough to
see Joyce’s face, his round glasses. The foyer
had a soft wood paneling, brown and tan
wainscotting. He had been drafting a letter,
left out on the table. There was something we
wanted not to have known.

This dream recollection bridges the fantastical elements of The Uncertainty Principle with its more somber (but no less intriguing) realities. Besides capturing the fragmentary act of piecing together the unconscious, mclennan’s details settle around an omission that haunts the page. The same can be said for many of the best stories on offer, where an unknowable truth lingers just beyond (or somewhere within) the information made available. Whether oscillating between irreverent and astute or observational and tender, mclennan’s concise anecdotes are remarkable for opening so many doors without betraying their secrets. Here’s a lovely near-poem we can add to the “observational and tender” category:

We were stretched flat on the dark side of the
lawn, opposite the garage light and porch, star-
ing up at the sky. We were counting the stars. I
can’t believe you’ve never seen a shooting star,
she said, as common as goldfish. We remained
for a long time, sweeping our eyes across
Ontario sky, and I looked over, amazed at this
sprout of a child beside me, my ten-year-old
daughter. I was studying the shadowed shapes
of her developing profile, a sparkle in her eye.
There’s one, she pointed. I turned to look. It
had already vanished.

Thanks to mclennan’s discipline, our experience reading The Uncertainty Principle requires none. Organized to accommodate brief interactions (which, like the psychology behind bite-sized chocolate bars, results here in complete overindulgence), the book proves incessantly fresh, taken as a whole or in cursory, page-flipping handfuls. 

The Uncertainty Principle: stories, will officially launch on May 10, 2014 as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series at the Manx Pub in Ottawa. It is now available to buy at Chaudiere Books' website.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Writing #27 : Lola Lemire Tostevin

What’s in a name?
Lola Lemire Tostevin

From a very early age I assumed I would be an actress.  It might have had something to do with my name, or so the story goes.  As a young woman, my mother had determined to name her first daughter “Lola” after some character she’d heard of by the name of Lola Montez. Because it was such an unusual name considering the small French-Canadian community in which we lived, the explanation was repeated many times.  As my mother learned more about Lola Montez’s notorious background, she would invariably follow the story with a laugh and add, “My daughter was named after a dancer who couldn’t dance.”  To this day, when I get writer’s block, I paraphrase with: “I’m a writer who can’t write.”  I am also reminded of the advice Alfred Hitchcock gave Ingrid Bergman once when she complained that she was not feeling the character she was playing. “Well,” Hitchcock replied, “Fake it, my dear. Fake it.”       
            Other than the Montez story, I first heard my name in the 1959 American version of The Blue Angel, a remake of the original von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich. The American version wasn’t very good, but it did alert me to the German version which I had heard was a classic and which I eventually viewed at a cinemateque.  It was my impression that Dietrich’s character was given the double moniker, Lola-Lola, to emphasize the violence and cruelty of the vamp she portrayed.  It wouldn’t be the only time my name would be associated with such intrinsic worth.
 Nabokov’s novel Lolita, differs greatly from the film. In the novel, the twelve-year old is always referred to as “Lola” by everyone except for Humbert Humbert who has given her his own personal pet name, “Lolita.”  It is clearly a strategy to deny Lola her subjectivity as the novel follows, from Humbert’s perspective, his obsession with prepubescent girls. The movie, however, omits Humbert’s history and Lolita is portrayed as a fourteen-year-old nymphet seducer. Hollywood’s switch from Nabokov’s uncompromising and disturbing insights into a middle-aged man’s aberrant obsessions to sensational and titillating pabulum taught me, for the first time but not the last, the difference between art as exploration and exhibitionism disguised as art.
            While my ambitions of becoming an actress waned, I still maintained a lively interest in films, but a greater one in literature. Through movies and books I learned the role of self-invention, how easily the self can be reduced to a sign, and how easily this sign determines who you are in the eyes of viewers or readers.  Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein fascinated me mainly because the novel is based on a memory of Lol, the “a” of her name missing because it is not a complete characterization since it is based on absence.  Jacques Demy’s film title, Lola, masterpiece of the French New Wave, is a stage pseudonym for a dancer whose real name is Cécile. Shot in the sixties, the plot and the characters’ destinies rely on missed opportunities and anticipate Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run whose characters’ fates also depend totally on chance.  Franka Potente who plays the title role is portrayed in the opening credits as a larger-than-life cartoon character which struck me as a kind of de-facement of both the character and the real-life person. 
   Fassbinder’s Lola stars the incredible actress, Barbara Sukowa, in which she plays a singer in a brothel whose real name is Marie-Louise.   Sukowa recently appeared in Hannah based on an episode in Hannah Arendt’s life and while the film didn’t have any characters bearing my name, Sukowa did win a Lola, the German Oscar, for her portrayal of Arendt, one of my personal heroes. 
In a holiday apartment I once rented I discovered a collection of stories for children written by a grandmother, Lola Basyang, which I later discovered was an alias of Severino Reyes.  It is a refreshing reversal from when women used male pseudonyms in order to have their writing published.
            Do all these references sound inordinately narcissistic? I suppose they would if they were based on a consistent, unchanging reality instead of the imaginary’s ability to create an ongoing and changeable chain of doublings as in films and writing.   If my story of how I became a writer was constituted of a discourse that “I” completely mastered.  Alas, not unlike the character, Lola, in Ian McEwen’s Atonement, I am a casualty whose destiny depends mainly on misrepresentation. 
Asking a writer to write about her origins is akin to asking an actor to explain how the many characters she has played correspond to who she is.  It reduces the diffusion and complexity of different roles to a self-absorbed confinement.  Realism in literature is nothing more than its own imitation.
               So, please believe me when I write that I may be the Devil’s assistant in the Broadway musical, Damn Yankees, and Lola always gets what Lola wants.  Or perhaps I am the transvestite of a song by The Kinks and I walk like a woman and talk like a man.  Am I Barry Manilow’s showgirl?   Or perhaps I began to write simply because I liked the idea of my name appearing on a book cover.  
Writers are fictional characters of their own making. They expand the imagination and give writers and readers access to a world of appearances in order to explore the many sides of human beings in relation to an unpredictable, diverse and ever changing world.  Our fictional selves are our true birth certificates.

Lola Lemire Tostevin is the author of a collection of critical essays, three novels, eight collections of poetry including, Singed Wings, published in 2013 by Talonbooks.  She is presently preparing a second collection of essays.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Recent Reads: Dennis Tourbin and Camille Martin

THE STREAM and other poems by Dennis Tourbin
Sugar Beach by Camille Martin

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

In 2012, some fourteen years after his passing, Dennis Tourbin was honoured with two, long-overdue exhibitions: a three-venue celebration in his hometown of St Catharines and a cubist-focused show in the Ottawa Art Gallery. Now that the former (and larger) showcase of his collagist oeuvre, entitled The Language of Visual Poetry, has relocated to the Carleton University Art Gallery, continued interest in Tourbin peaks again with newly published, previously unseen poetry. THE STREAM and other poems collects three margin-hugging entries that touch on familiar Tourbin muses from within a dream-like travelogue.
The title poem details fishing for brown trout near Millbrook, Ontario, but as each summer finds the stream undergoing certain changes (and therefore imposing new fishing strategies), Tourbin recognizes in it an overlooked universe. The current holds fish but also the memories we harvest through language:

A body of water.
A wondrous sound.
The water, like static,
the stream continuing on,
into eternity,
non stop,
trying to discover
the meaning of

This idyllic current, resuscitated from the past, acts as the first of a few carriers that replenish their meanings; Millbrook as memory, water as static. The train in “Morning in Paris” proves another conduit capable of skipping the divide, traversing the gulf between France’s media-occupied capital and the more sensory-illuminated countryside. Imagining an alternate reality wherein Algerian terrorists succeeded in detonating Air France Flight 8969 doesn’t influence Tourbin’s escape to Deauville as much as the endlessly replayed news clips prepped to entail either outcome. As his train basks in the green and grey landscape, Tourbin feels the strain dissipate:

On the train
French lovers kiss,
touch each other lovingly,
no thought,
just the passion.
The News has not yet
reached them.
The rain has not
wet their lips.

In time all the News
will be catalogued,
become meaningless,
just another bullet
to the head
of another
innocent passenger
going who knows where…

Keep in mind, Tourbin wrote this poem in 1994. Pre-Internet, if you recall such a time. We can neither chalk that last stanza up to broad cynicism nor read it as a byproduct of the lassitude we greet headlines with twenty years on.

Closing poem “In Her Apartment in Paris” offers “the stream” yet another meaning: of routine street happenings Tourbin watched replenish themselves on a daily basis. That repetition transforms the window glass into a television screen as well as a mirror, occasionally reflecting on the author’s own uncertain mortality. Layered but plainspoken, “In Her Apartment in Paris” hinges on an explosive moment that deserves to be experienced, not narrated. That said, THE STREAM and other poems creates a small whirlpool of Tourbin’s most celebrated preoccupations: terrorism, media, identity and, yes, fishing.

Never one to forget the individual gaze amid complex, national calamities, Tourbin’s vision is being posthumously celebrated at a time we miss him most – this “media age” of phone-tapping governments and lingering terrorism fears. These are adventure poems, seeking out beginnings and endings that no science or language has come to terms with. What THE STREAM and other poems accomplishes in Tourbin’s absence is a sense of finality, an eventuality he knowingly snuck within the static.

Occasionally I read too much into a title and end up rewinding my own assumptions; that happened with Sugar Beach, Camille Martin’s new chapbook. As it turns out, Sugar Beach isn’t especially concerned with one of Toronto’s newest recreational hangouts. The title poem’s cold, streamlined setting conjures the industrial backdrop but with an air of fantasy the author entertains, then vanquishes. As outdoor scenes from whimsical French paintings come face to face with “now’s black pigeon, head jerking across white sand”, Martin’s voice unearths juicy angles wherein gruff realities lie dormant. Or, as “Sugar Beach” puts it:

[…] – lady and slipper
freeze-framed at the apex of symbolic order
before gravity once more kicks in […] 

That voice of cynicism acts as the unifying principle in a collection made up from two separate manuscripts (R Is the Artichoke of Rose and Blueshift Road). For each hint of levity, there’s an instinctive, gravitational response. Many of these poems take a crack at constructs or wave their hand through illusions. “Doppelganger’s Lament” reads like a poetic verdict handed down to some middle-aged reflection, guilty of imagining an alternate life. “Endless Regression of Heavens”, reprinted below, alternately looks at global warming through the amassing recurrence of chicory blues:

Glaciers dribble foreign rocks
as dawn releases chicory blue.
Its fickle hues waltz round equator,
spool, top, dizzy moon, gainly

as the patter of millipedes ruffling
toward a country with no flag
but fields of chicory blue. Horizon,
chromatic with moments. What

of the next and the next, plunging
into myth evolving in the deeps?
Haunting the deeps while manning
the crow’s nest? With each finite

duration we arrive closer by half
to a famished constellation,
blinking beast perpetually devouring
a platter of chicory blue.

I included the whole poem for two reasons: Martin regularly dangles a line between stanzas that I’d rather not scissor, but also, “Endless Regression of Heavens” finds her language, rhythm and tone wholly at peace together. Wonder and tragedy fastened in an ouroboric cycle, rendering the epic concise.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the poems that leave the more lasting impression – I’ve mentioned a few already – each consist of couplets, triplets or quatrains. This structural foresight lets Martin’s loaded language breathe while giving the reader a more hospitable passageway in. Otherwise we tangle with “No Such Identical Horses” and “More Jars Than Lids”, single chunks of verse that escalate in figurative leaps (the latter piece, even after several approaches, I have only a shaky handle on). These poems trace Martin’s deductions and you can sense a developing logic but the brawniness of communication feels coded. In other words, I suspect the author’s stance on a scenario without ever learning the details. 

It’s possible that those vague boundaries are intentional. After all, Sugar Beach has oblique poems which open doors as well. The same could-have-beens that paint “Doppelganger’s Lament” into a corner hover unspoken and strangely on “Blink”:

            Light is not
    inevitable. Overshot it
        or not yet there.
       Nothing, for that
     matter. In any case,
    not arrived. Anything
       could have been

As with the other, more minimalist poems that I believe stem from R Is the Artichoke of Rose, “Blink” floats free of margin and context. Yet the plain speech Martin utilizes here allows the poem to connect on a number of levels. The trajectory in question, the ominous object of “light” and the beckoning negative space of “otherwise” are consistent with Martin’s gruff lens – always seeing the conveyor belt behind the pixie dust – but there’s room for intuitive analysis, too.

For its variety alone, Sugar Beach is a noteworthy collection. It finds an eclectic balance between Martin’s interests and offers a sneak peak at potential, future titles. My preference for certain pieces over others can be partially attributed to its mixed bag foundation but mostly I found the best poems were those that let readers roam her observations and branch off. Martin’s an original voice; that’s clear across selections from both manuscripts. But too often those observations feel hedged in, predetermined by an oppressive gravity.