By Stan Persky. New Star Books, 333 pp, $24, softcover.
Reading Milosz's ABC's by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz inspired Stan Persky to write his own alphabetically organized collection of autobiographical essays and reflections as a "record of what I think about certain people, places and ideas, part of what I want to leave to posterity, for its use and to prevent forgetting". A friend, on hearing the idea, questioned whether Persky would have to be equally famous for the book to work; Persky "saw that to make up for the author's obscurity, the writing would have to be 'interesting'?". That it is.
Now 64, Persky began his storied life in Chicago, one of several mythic cities he examines here (including Paris, Bangkok, Angkor Wat, and his second home, Berlin). His rich experiences range from time in the U.S. Navy and the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1950s and '60s to social activism (an anti-apartheid protest in a B.C. liquor store leads neatly into thoughts on civil disobedience) and his current work, teaching philosophy at Capilano College.
Persky's literal take-his ABC goes from A to C-is less grid than guide; a piece called "Dave Barrett" is about teaching in Terrace and social democracy more than the former NDP premier himself, but, as he points out in "Out of Order" (sandwiched between "David Berg" and "John Berger"), "Alphabetical order in writing is okay for showing the arbitrariness of 'order' as an idea."
There's an understated quality to Persky's writing, as if he's aiming for what he sees in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: "the precise opposite of a self-indulgent, nostalgic, anecdotal autobiography" that does nonetheless occasionally embrace and investigate these qualities for what they offer, creatively testing both form and content. There is also an obvious passion for language and ideas here, and occasional phrases reveal the poet's voice: "money-see-money-do", for instance, or equating fascination with the sex lives of dead writers to a "skeleton humping a fossil".
One might challenge some of his opinions (his claim poetry has become "utterly marginalized" suggests an academic's distaste for rap and slam; he damns Canadian literature with faint praise as "com?petent and interesting enough"), but there's the sense that this self-confessed Socratic-method prof would delight in peripatetically debating these points, and that's a mind worth walking with.
Stan Persky takes part in a panel with Susan Musgrave and George Payerle, hosted by Hal Wake, next Thursday (September 22) at Library Square (350 West Georgia Street), beginning at 7:30 p.m.