Sunday, February 07, 2016

`One Writes to Preserve What's There'

In the travel section of a chain bookstore in Aurora, Ont., I was pleased to find two copies of Zoroaster’s Children and Other Travels (Biblioasis, 2015) by Marius Kociejowski. Long a resident of England, Marius was born in this province. His book’s shelfmates were the usual travel dreck – gracious living in Provence, barefoot mountain climbing in the Dolomites – and I wondered what customer might be seduced into buying a poet’s essays on Tunisia, Toronto and Aleppo. I reread the book on the flight from Houston and was charmed again by the prose, the attention paid to people over place, the comparative absence of the authorial “I,” and Marius’ happy disregard for the conventions of travel writing (“I have my own approach to things, without which I’d be in Palookaville”).

Marius’ collection, one of the best books of 2015, reminds us how good the essay form can be, polished and yet dense with evidence of life lived. Always uncomfortable with the marketing moniker “travel writer,” he writes, “Then again, who among us is not a traveler, stumbling among vortexes, which, like certain dreams we have we try later to give meaning to? Are we not travelers from the day we are born? . . . A traveler goes with what he has, which, one hopes, includes a fair measure of knowledge but which is useful only to the degree that same knowledge does not cloud what is actually in front of his eyes.” Words applicable to any sort of writing.

In his final essay, “The Saddest Book I’ll Never Write,” Marius remembers the Syrian friends he wrote about in earlier books who now are dead or whose fates are unknown. He doesn’t use the word, but he adopts the role of writer as witness, in the Conradian sense, without its religious or forensic associations. A writer must remember, and thus enable readers to remember. In the collection’s first essay, “Some Places I’ve Been To,” he writes:

“Whatever one writes, whenever one writes, it is always on the cusp of disappearance. A photographer told me once that he keeps all his images, even those which he considers failures, because the day will come when even the latter are invested with fresh meaning. One writes to preserve what’s there. So yes, to set down what one sees, this is one of the purposes of writing, to be able to say, as Goya wrote in the corner of one of his drawings, yo lo vi (`I saw it’).”

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