by Keith Harrison
Published by Oolichan Books
221 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Living on Rorschach
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
Furry Creek flows into Howe Sound north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Close to the Sea-to-Sky Highway, near where the railway trestle crosses the water, on Thanksgiving Monday, in 1975, picnickers found the body of missing Vancouver poet Pat Lowther. From this intersection of place and time, Keith Harrison plucks the cobble of non-fiction to begin constructing this novel. "A non-fiction novel," the back blurb explains, "Furry Creek uses documents and made-up lives to narrate the art, life and violent death of poet Pat Lowther."
Others have penned non-fiction novels. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood comes first to mind. However, where Capote crafted facts into a novel format, Harrison does the opposite. He imagines characters -- policemen, forensic serologist, the man who found the body, coroners, students, colleagues, court stenographer, Juror number seven -- and makes up little stories from their narrative positions. Each story pushes off from a Pat Lowther poem. Each drops some hint about female sexuality or relationships. Men feeling threatened by "women out of control." Women "absorbing liberation from imposed self-images." Together, the vignettes seem to say: women want it; men withhold it; or, men let them have it. It doesn't get much deeper than that. Life goes on.
Harrison enjoyed the cooperation of Lowther's daughters, Beth and Chris, while working on this book. Thus, Furry Creek includes 13 poems or excerpts from Pat Lowther poems. There are also letters to Harrison from the Lowther daughters, voicing apprehensions and offering encouragement. These are included seemingly to allay reader fears about exploitation, about appropriation of someone else's story. Beth's introduction to Time Capsule, a volume of newly discovered poems published in 1997, and Chris' "A Daughter's Search," document memories and the legacy of loss, the groping backwards to try to know the unknown mother/poet. These documents also offer interpretations of the poetry which the stories and criticism seem to miss.
Harrison also includes "Notes on 'Notes From Furry Creek'," his gloss to Pat Lowther's poem "Notes From Furry Creek." As a reader's jottings, undigested, like an oral explication de texte, these notes show the reading process, but they resist/avoid going further. Do it yourself, they imply. At some level, such intellectual parsing, found also in one of the stories told from a creative writing professor's point of view, may have value. However, the energy expended to celebrate the choice of "the" over "a" seems the antithesis of the poet's efforts to get to the physicality of knowing, to what the body, the earth remembers.
To package this book as a novel seems somewhat misleading. Furry Creek is more like a file. A case file. A vertical or clippings file. Label: Pat Lowther. With bits and pieces stuffed in, all connected, however tenuously, to the poet's body, or to her name. She is the hook, anchoring the line of poems, stories and ephemera. Readers who come to this book hoping to learn more about a good poet, or about characters set in a place, will be disappointed. Furry Creek isn't about Pat Lowther. It uses her death to illuminate something else. Not her life. Not her killer's life. Not her children's life. Not even, not convincingly, life in Vancouver in the 1970s. The checklists are too obvious: the space race, reflecting sunglasses, platform shoes, blue hair. The World Series. American Graffiti. Jaws. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Patty Hearst. The flights from Vietnam. The deaths of Allende and Neruda in Chile. Assassination attempts, by two different women, on Gerald Ford. Context? Zeitgeist? Or cause and effect? As unconnected, in this "file," as watching Entertainment Tonight is to our real lives.
Furry Creek left me strangely angry. The way you feel when you're trying to talk to someone who won't take those damn reflecting sunglasses off his face. Angry at myself perhaps, for believing the blurb that promised to "narrate" the poet's life. A promise unfulfilled. Angry at the writer for, in spite of disclaimers, exploiting a death, for using the celebrity of the dead for his own ends. If this body had had no name, would this "book" exist? The whole process seems so reactive, like writing reviews. And manipulative, like watching the news. Hints and innuendo; questions left unasked; things omitted. Readers, if our patience lasts that long, are forced to fill in the spaces ourselves.
Participatory literature? For the writer toys with his readers, burying clues, dropping pebbles so we may be able to find our own way home. At one point, a character hints that we are all "living in Rorschach" and that the reader completes the work, brings the meaning to it. So, what does that say about my anger?
It is possible, living in Rorschach, that my anger is part of a grief response. Is this what Furry Creek is about? If so, I would have preferred to talk to a minister or a priest. Someone who knows that it is more appropriate to celebrate the life, not to focus on the death. To celebrate Life, not to fear Death. Someone who knows what the body knows, how the sacred lives in flesh, in earth, in bark and stone. Enough body counts. Enough autopsies. More poems. "Reaching the centre / you become / stone, the perpetual / lavéd god." This, of course, could just be me. You'll have to read it yourself, to see what you see. | April 2000