Phyllis Gotlieb Essay - Critical Essays

Gotlieb, Phyllis


Gotlieb, Phyllis 1926–

Gotlieb is a Canadian poet, science fiction writer, novelist, and playwright. A poet during her teens, Gotlieb turned to science fiction in her early twenties to "break the writer's block." She now writes poetry and mainstream fiction as well as science fiction, finding that her science fiction has "taught me to write in a quick clean style" that has helped her work in other genres. A self-professed humanist, Gotlieb is occupied with the search for universal connections in all her writing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Fred Cogswell

Stimulated by the possibilities inherent in its title [Within the Zodiac], the reader opens the book to discover that what Phyllis Gotlieb really means by the phrase "within the zodiac" is the interrelatedness of all the material things that comprise the universe in space and time. At least half the poems in the volume are devoted to the synthesizing by mental association of scattered fragments of the physical universe. In "Latitude" the unfolding of Mercator's map is linked to the development of an embryo; in "Small World" the sparkle of empty whisky bottles caught in a net bag suggests the gleam of "imprisoned galaxies".

In her poems of this genre, Phyllis Gotlieb does not rely for her readers' interest upon any previous structure of traditional association or upon the tug and pull of feeling that a more meaningful human situation might involve. She is content to record her insights in free verse lines made up of language that is hard and dry, relying upon the initial pleasure of the surprised recognition of congruity in the midst of incongruity for the impact of the individual poem, and upon the total impression of a number of poems for the development of a cumulative philosophy. This philosophy, I believe, is in essence that expressed in the following lines of Francis Thompson's "In No Strange Land":

The drift of pinions, would we harken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

As a result of relative failure to exploit other resources of poetry, these poems...

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Anne Montagnes

Most of the people in [Why Should I Have All the Grief?] have come together to a small Ontario town near Galt to sit in mourning for the hero's uncle, a Jew from a Polish village who got out before the war and has now even a teenage grandson to help mourn for him. If you've ever sat shiva you'll know it's like a T-group….

Mrs. Gotlieb uses this ancient sensitivity session to work on her hero, Heinz Dorfman, one of the orphans who came to foster homes in Toronto after the war. (p. 36)

Whether or not non-Jews will be able to understand what has frozen Heinz is a puzzle. The one thing that it is not—and this makes the novel unique—is his experience in Auschwitz. What the novel is about is Jewish poverty and miserliness in a Polish village, about the blue velvet bag with the gold star that holds the tallith and the tefillin for religious services, about love and hate between fathers and sons, and about a religion of money versus a religion of tradition.

While the glass is shattering around Heinz' emotions at the shiva, his wife in Toronto is making a last search, in old foster homes and with his brother over the long-distance telephone, for her husband's personality. Mrs. Gotlieb does a journeyman's job of juggling these two scenes faster and faster until they merge as one ball. She is less light-handed in the flashbacks. (pp. 36, 38)

The novel can be a big unwieldy form. This one is by no means perfect, but it's only too genuine…. (p. 38)

Anne Montagnes, "Books in Review: 'Why Should I Have All the Grief?'" (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 84, No. 5, May, 1969, pp. 36, 38.

Mary Keyes

How on earth to talk about Phyllis Gotlieb's Ordinary, Moving? The comparative approach won't really do, because although there is the chilling underneath-it-all-horror of Sylvia Plath in some lines, the honest immediacy of Al Purdy in others, and even some flip translations of Villon in the manner of Richmond Lattimore's Greek Anthology, none of these suggest the gripping, involving tone of the book.

She writes like a witch torn between the fairy godmother magic of songs of child-innocence and wonder … and the fascination of playing with the deep down misery of the flesh…. Black and white magic conflict over a spirit ultimately un-available to both because of an incredible determination to exist on its own terms. This is what I like about Ordinary, Moving. The book is about heritage …; and on into a family via its jargon…. And it's about the old, and about grown-ups…. And finally and everywhere, about the children—their games, the rhymes and rhythm of their play make up the long final, title poem and collect to themselves in the poet's genius-stricken arrangement an incredible welter of emotion.

Through it all … the incredible, terribly believable woman who is her own querulous, raging, corny, appealing self…. Don't read Ordinary, Moving just for the found poems or you might just miss the real find—Phyllis Gotlieb griping about and gripping life until it shrieks with her own fishwife voice….

Mary Keyes, "Books Reviewed: 'Ordinary, Moving'," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XLIX, No. 588, January, 1970, p. 243.

Louis L. Martz

[Ordinary, Moving] is one of the liveliest and most original volumes of poetry that I have come across in several years. Mrs. Gotlieb's style is based upon the established mode [of taut, terse phrasing, drawn from daily speech, filled with images from daily observation, and composed in free verse], but it is continually infiltrated and invigorated by an impressive, almost bewildering number of ancillary influences: Dylan Thomas, nursery rhymes, children's game-songs, Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, along with passages of graffiti and echoes of American Negro ballads; then there is also a strong infusion of Jewish and French traditions, with words constantly drawn from these and other linguistic sources…. The volume is designed to have a measure of unity, beginning with ancestral memories, moving on through scenes of daily life, mingled with memories, and concluding, as it began, with a poem (this time a long one) entitled "Ordinary, Moving." This last piece may at first strike one as merely a clever pastiche of popular rhymes and songs, adapted with wry, witty effect to the poet's mature understanding. But what may begin as a rollicking celebration of childhood … soon takes on a somber undertone,… until the sense of threatened and blighted youth leads into two Blakean passages, one a poem about a child wool-picker and another about a "little chimney sweep." And then, following sections dealing with Negro slaves and the Belsen persecution, comes a reminiscence of a recent disaster in a Welsh mining town…. So the whole poem becomes a celebration and lament for all the world's children, ourselves. I am not sure, after several readings, whether this poem is entirely successful, but it is an affecting and exciting experiment. This might be said of Mrs. Gotlieb's whole volume. However outrageous, however experimental, it is continuously good to read, with notably fine and nearly perfect poems scattered throughout. (pp. 557-58)

Louis L. Martz, "Recent Poetry: Established Idiom," in The Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LIX, No. 4, June, 1970, pp. 551-69.∗

D. G. Jones

"Ordinary, Moving" is something of a tour de force in which a host of children's songs and folk-rhymes serve to sketch the whole course of life. With blunt humour and verbal highjinks they acknowledge the terrors of sex, birth and death, the struggle to digest individual and class differences, the conflicts of languages, race and religion. They can hardly refine our insight, nor are they really new. But they renew our awareness of the variety and tough vitality of both language and people…. Throughout we are reminded of poetry's roots in the play of language. And Mrs. Gotlieb does catch something of the "heyrube and racket of carnivals." Still, we are reminded that this perennial speech is also a kind of rhetoric and that it may become, as I fear it does in "Nothing," a sort of "busted slapstick." The heyrube of carnivals and even the songs of children seem somehow to belong to an earlier and more innocent world of discourse. One doubts whether they can in fact raise the sun, bring the light—whether we are "here for good." The most convincing note may be that of the witty, ironic, yet finally puzzled "Death's Head." Lying awake, the speaker (between breaths) contemplates her own mortality sustained by nothing but her continued breathing and the realization: "and yet I seem to get to sleep." (pp. 72-3)

D. G. Jones, "Voices in the Dark," in Canadian Literature, No. 45, Summer, 1970, pp. 68-74.∗

Daisy Aldan

To read Phyllis Gotlieb's new volume of poems, Ordinary, Moving,… [is to be enlivened] by a circus of sparkling sounds, songs, memories, and new thoughts, masterfully mingled. (p. 37)

I am afraid I cannot wholeheartedly endorse her Three Translations of Villon. In order to explain her use of present-day colloquialisms of the "enough nagging, you should drop dead" type which she uses in Proverbs, she intersperses the italicized comment:

to bring him in focus for myself
I moved him down 500 years and
east 5000 miles.

In contrast, The Morning...

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Maureen Bradbury

The versatile Phyllis Gotlieb has produced an exciting science fiction tale in her latest novel, O Master Caliban. She has cleverly combined several favourite science fiction themes: biological experimentation, computerization, space travel and exploration…. O Master Caliban is an entertaining, diverting suspense novel, marred only by a few sequences in which chance plays too large a role for the maintenance of credibility even in science fiction.

Maureen Bradbury, "'O Master Caliban!'" in Quill and Quire (reprinted by permission of Quill and Quire), Vol. 43, No. 1, January, 1977, p. 25.

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