Yes, Thank You. I’m Okay

Willow Loveday Little

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“Yes, Thank You. I’m Okay” is a reflection on family, tradition, memory, and the beauty embedded within the languages of the world. At once a review of James Dunnigan’s Windchime Concerto poetry collection and an interview with the author himself, Willow Loveday Little’s writing offers both a technical examination of Dunnigan’s prose as well as an intimate glimpse into his life and philosophy.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

Windchime Concerto Review for James Dunnigan by Willow Loveday Little.

“She told me of the work of water earth and fire and air / and we sat in the grass together talking of gardens” –Windchime Concerto

I first meet James Dunnigan in early 2019. We are both reading at Argo Bookshop’s open mic. Like tinned sardines, the audience huddles in the narrow space between rows of books, the choppy titles of which look back at us, expectantly. Everyone’s happy to be there to imbibe poetry.

When James reads, I am struck by the earnestness in his voice. There is a passion to his performance and a wistfulness which makes it feel like he’s from another time.

It’s my pet theory that this yearning note is not solely a “reading voice” he cultivated, but his love of history made manifest. Speak with James and, if you’re lucky, he’ll share with you anecdotes of his family life: of his relationship with his grandfather; his Greenfield Park childhood; the wildlife surrounding his family home; war and the rippling impact it’s had on who he is today. For James, the stories we inherit are a foundation underfoot. They reveal the personal as political and vice versa. Some poetry is built through the mind, sure, but James’ poetry is raw and open and threads you through the eye of its needle then into the weave of family lore. Quilts are gifts from loved ones to keep you warm in the winter. Poems are too.

***

In the spring of 2022, James launched Windchime Concerto, a “meditation on family, generation, dreams, death and those elements of living that, for better or worse, outlast death.” Released in limited edition with The Alfred Gustav Press, it’s organized into four parts: North, South, East, West. The cardinal directions are an anchor throughout the chapbook, and their grounding effect echoes throughout the collection. We see this in the prominence of something that is less weather and landscape than it is environment and ecosystem. James calls the earth “generationed” and the windchime something which “translates / the voice of air / for us the voice / of voice.” These poems are as down-to-earth as they are spirited, moved by the forces which reliably hold our world in one piece.

Memory comes at us through the elements in James’ writing, and “you often see a piece / of soul fly off.” For a poet like James, writing as an act of documenting memories is not a careless practice; it is a privilege and a responsibility. “Many people in this world have memories, among other precious things, taken from them by war, illness and other, oppressions manmade or other,” James tells me as I interview him. “I’ve been privileged to grow up with a very rich sense of where my family came from: from stories yes, but also from written records diligently kept on either side. Not to engage with that wealth of knowledge seems to me about as absurd as choosing not to write, and that’s clearly not an option. And don’t I also have a responsibility to write down my own records, to transmit the ones I have received, because I have received them?”

The soul is everywhere in this suite of poems, too: in the impressionistic mention of friends by name with little other detail provided, the passing of time, detailing, landscape, and fauna. Even the word “cardinal” itself appears embodied by the bird which shares its name: “I glimpse just one / male cardinal angling / wings between the dying / maple branches shading / the lego-littered / lawn of parents’ / old backyard.” Maybe I’m romanticizing the writing too much, but I like to think of this one male cardinal as James inserting himself into the plot and taking it all in with a newfound perspective. Whether this is the case or not, it’s fair to say the speaker expresses an affinity to this feathered friend. (This is not the first time Dunnigan references birds as spiritual beacons—see the White Raven harbinger in Wine and Fire.)

Let’s speak of the writing itself. Lines run over and into themselves and punctuation is minimal; Anne Carson is a clear influence on the form. There’s also something about James’ phrasing which reminds me of the effortless elegance of Leonard Cohen. Lines like “I’ve still done nothing / with your stuff / but I’m a poet now at least / I think now that / I’ve got those 10k hours of / not making any money” walk the line of tenderness and blunt humour in Cohenesque fashion as James walks the grounds surrounding his grandfather’s grave.

Here the choice not to punctuate allows the poem to rhythmically match the meandering words of a person speaking to the deceased—a desire to report on what’s been happening in one’s life, to ensure the grandfather is kept up to date. It’s relatable. So, too, is the poet’s desire to make sense of his grandfather’s legacy, as we see in one of the most understated lines in the book: “he never / spoke Hungarian / to me except / just once to say / jól vagyok köszönöm / yes thank you I’m ok / I say to someone.” Notice how the line breaks encourage the reading of “jól vagyok köszönöm / yes thank you I’m ok” as a call and response between grandfather and grandson. These words bridge both experiences to capture how family history contextualizes a person’s relationship with their loved ones and themselves. “Jól vagyok köszönöm” by itself means nothing to my ignorant anglophone ear, but followed by the translation “yes thank you I’m ok,” I’m touched by the tenderness of it and the absence of the preceding conversation to which he would have responded with this. Had he stumbled? Was he trying to open clamshell packaging? Had he recently recovered from the flu? Such things may only be extrapolated, but what James has done so deftly here is impregnated a simple phrase with complexity. “Jól vagyok köszönöm” is a glimpse of the past, but it is also the sort of reassurance given to one who knows us well and with whom the relationship warrants it. Yes, thank you. I’m okay.

Contrasting Hungarian with English is something James does with passion and intention in his prose. Speaking during our interview, James describes language as “its own kind of organism—foreign to us, even when produced by humans.” He says his love for the variety of sounds embedded in different languages emerged when he first heard an Arabic reading of the Qur’an: “It proved to me, instantly, that you could make art out of language the way you could make art out of shapes or colours, in a kind of plastic sense, on a level beyond the squarely communicative… After that important experience, I started hearing French and English differently: formally, even in their most vernacular states. It’s since been difficult to unhear.” The poems in Windchime Concerto give voice to the fact that the author does not merely perceive language as a mode of communication. To James, “Language [is] its own kind of organism, foreign to us, even when produced by humans.”

In terms of the form of the poems  thoughtful line breaks lead into skillful crescendos. Take, for example, the following section in which the poet’s grandmother, Marina, gives voice to Windchime Concerto’s modus operandi. It’s too good not to share properly:

and she brought me to North Hatley the church
           where I was baptized and she buried and she said
dipping her foot in the water under the wooden deck
            we stood on: this is the work of water which you
have forgotten to speak of but bear in mind
            that bridge you see there over the water remember
the true bridge isn’t the bridge but the water
and she brought me to the Capleton mines not far
            from there and dug her hands into the green
and black and the copper and iron walls
            reverberating our two voices saying:
this is the work of earth which you forget
            is always moving — hold in mind when you
look at the sky the earth is racing in it
and she touched her finger to my arm
            where I’d burnt myself with a lighter and said
this is the work of fire which you know
            which you fear and which you’ll never be without
and your heart is a well of fire which
            you will drink from all your life
you like all life are touched by flame
and she brought me home again where the windchime
            was and she said this is the work of air
which you are trying to rehearse (be careful
            being so asthmatic not to breathe
too quickly or too deep) air isn’t just
            the thing we breathe the wind
does always speak just not to us alone or always

If I had to pick a favourite section from the chapbook, this would be it. James has used the four elements to structure Marina’s wisdom. The phrasing of each stanza’s starting line (e.g., “and she brought me to…”) is reminiscent of folktale, nursery rhyme, epic and biblical texts. These associations are intentional: this is both an origin story and a creation myth. Marina tells James of the aetiology of the world—of its dangers and graces, pitfalls and power—and we learn its magic along with him. Each stanza builds on the incantatory momentum of the last, and we get epic imagery along the way. Riddle-speak is, for me, the trickiest metaphor to write—it’s no small feat when done well. This section is rich with it: the water is recontextualized as bridge ties to the church where family is baptized and buried; the earth becomes something in movement often mistaken as stagnant and immobile at the 150-year-old Capleton mines where so many toiled away; the scar on arm caused by a lighter (so promethean) is a reminder of the destructive and generative qualities of fire as a tool; lastly, the windchime he locates at home becomes, like the poet, a vessel for wind, muse, that which doesn’t always make itself known but sometimes does and, in doing so, touches our loneliness.

To honour a legacy is to take what you have and with it, make something new. That’s where Dunnigan’s elements really hit home. Windchime Concerto is a call to action, a voice on the breeze which whispers that it’s not enough to hold memories. One must transmute them, honour them, live them, breathe them, cast them into fire, bury them in earth, and baptise them in water. For what we emerge with is what we are today.

Windchime Concerto is an artisanal chapbook, bound, printed and distributed by the Alfred Gustav Press for its July 2022 series. Copies still exist in limited quantities. For these or other inquiries, please contact the author at: james.dunnigan@mail.utoronto.ca.

The Alfred Gustav Press, by David Zieroth, is currently soliciting submissions for poetry chapbooks. For more information, please see “The Alfred Gustav Press” tab at: David Zieroth - www.davidzieroth.com

Willow Loveday Little's work has appeared in such places as The Dalhousie Review, The Selkie's Very Much Alive: Stories of Resilience anthology, HAL, The League of Canadian Poets chapbook series, and On Spec. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University and is the author of the poetry collection (Vice) Viscera, out with Cactus Press. Willow lives in Montreal where she is working on a novel thanks to the generosity of the Canada Arts Council.

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