(ARP Books, 2023)
Hannah Godfrey’s Critical Fictions circles the work of five artists. Derek Dunlop, Kristin Nelson, Hagere Selam shimby Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, Andrea Oliver Roberts, and Logan MacDonald, are all, as Godfrey points out, queer Canadian artists working with abstraction and the body, critiquing hegemonic power structures “with wit and pathos.” The book is composed of discrete groupings of critical essays, poems, and stories “for” each artist rather than “about” them. This distinction between prepositions is central to the amalgam “critical fictions” offered in the book’s title. Godfrey’s critical texts are imprints of her relationships with the artists and artworks that pepper the author’s fictions, evidence of exchange rather than pure exposition. By writing against the erasure of thinking alongside, Godfrey positions the artist as a narrative accomplice.
In the essay “Colour, Abstraction and Queerness in the Work of Derek Dunlop,” Godfrey remarks upon Dunlop’s use of mass-produced found items like the colorful thick elastic bands often used to hold bunches of vegetables together for sale in a series of sculptures. These elastic forms return in the short story “Found object (fur stretcher, elastic bands),” wherein a man on a cruising trail trips over a dead buck (a male deer, or, in more colloquial terms, an adventurous young man). Later, he returns with a friend to the scene. The protagonist’s friend notices “a mess of blue, purple, and pink: rubber bands, maybe twenty of them, the small thick kind that keep broccoli and asparagus together.” The trespass of synthetic color upon the viscera of the dead buck prompts the central character to recount to his friend “form after form, half and quarter stories, men they had both known, men they had heard friends gossip about, sensations and dreams and what the dreams meant,” in other words, “timeless things.” The elastic doubles back as a frequent motif, offering Godfrey (and her characters) multiple opportunities to return to recurring themes in Dunlop’s work—queer geographies, color, and nature, to name but a few.
In “Swimming with Agnes,” a short story placed after an essay about Kristin Nelson’s work, Godfrey writes in dialogue with the Saskatchewan-born abstract painter Agnes Martin, musing: “Did you have the same irrepressible smile in front of a primed canvas as I do when I’m about to enter an empty pool?” The ritual of swimming with the painter helps Godfrey draw a constellation of figures: Martin painting by herself in the desert in New Mexico, Nelson weaving alone in her studio in Winnipeg, and Godfrey, swimming alone in a pool. These repetitions—Agnes’s grids, Kristin’s weft and warp, and Godfrey’s laps—allow the writer to alight upon a final thought (helped along by a cameo by the inimitable John Berger): “I can nudge the thinking back into the lane but the lane may dissolve, leaving only colour and movement and Agnes and John and me.” Nelson’s absence from this line belies the artist’s interlocutory position throughout the text; while the ordered lines of the swimming pool lanes offer Godfrey a structured space for thinking, thoughts (like water) often follow their own course. As with the elastic band punctuating the story of the young buck, Nelson’s work interpolates Godfrey’s watery exertions and iterates the writer’s interpretations of this artist’s work.
This kind of reflective reverb happens at the level of the text and the typography. A poem follows some pages after Godfrey’s essay about Hagere Selam shimby Zegeye-Gebrehiwot’s Super 8 film yaya/ayat (2010). The film follows the artist’s journey to Greece to see her Ethiopian grandmother. Centered on the page the text, “I am from / sorry” repeats down the length of the poem. The line break between the declarative “I am from” and the apologetic “sorry” offers a few ways forward. Perhaps the narrator is apologizing for a lack of self-knowledge (“I don’t know where I’m from”) or, as the alignment of the kerning between the individual words could afford, the reader could efface the “from” entirely, reading instead: “I am sorry.” Or, finally, maybe the poem articulates a continual rhythmic interruption: “sorry, I am from, sorry, I am from.” In each interpretation, the pronoun lists restlessly between verb and adjective, and, lacking its noun, can only lapse (apologetically) into the space of the blank page. Typographically exploring the journey between identity and place, Godfrey insists that a writerly interpretation of an artist’s visual work is not the final goal. As modeled in the poem’s repetition of a single phrase, a critical fiction is more of an echo than an excavation.
While criticism often carries the weight of having to be (or trying to be) right, critical fictions try only to be with. As Godfrey herself puts it in the introduction, referring to a long past conversation with a Welshman about the joys of plowing: “There is much pleasure to be had, and much curiosity to be born, in passing purposefully back and forth over a modest patch.” Carrying forth the agrarian metaphor, Godfrey aligns the “critical” in the titular phrase with plowing, the working through of land and art. The “fictions”—the collection of poems and stories that follow each critical essay are the “the songs that accompany the plowing.”