About “Where Seas and Fables Meet”
Review of B.W. Powe’s These Shadows Remain: A Fable (Guernica Editions, 2011) by Marshall Soules
A vector of restless vitality flows through the works of B.W. Powe. From the early A Climate Charged (1984) to his recent These Shadows Remain, Powe’s finely-tuned and poetic sensibility is an antenna for the unheard sounds and invisible waves coursing through the networks of contemporary life. He has both ear and eye to decode the electro-acoustic dramas of our global theatre.
Powe is instinctively drawn to tricksters straddling the boundaries of culture – visionaries such as Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould, Wyndham Lewis, Northrop Frye, and Pierre Trudeau who provide riddling insight from their liminal spaces somewhere between the mundane and the marvelous. These solitary outlaws, as Powe calls them in his 1995 book of profiles, were “divided men who often contained within themselves the turbulence of their time and place…Each tried to understand the role of the rational and humane action in an often self-destructive world…” As a literary scholar at York University, media ecologist, and expert on McLuhan and Frye, Powe has his ear to the wind of social change while keeping a clear eye on the rich symbolism and wisdom of our collective past.
In These Shadows Remain, an unnamed knight awakens to dawning awareness, feeling lost in a confusing world of illusions, weird weather events, and unruly images on the loose. On his chest, the image of a ship with furled sails, its masts in the shape of crosses or antennae. The society of the spectacle has been ramped up by a treacherous wizard intent on gaining dominion over humans. Pluta uses his knowledge of arcane sciences to free cartoon figures from their screens and replace them in their captive frames with humans who underestimated the toon’s power of influence, and even held them in contempt. The knight soon has the situation explained by Gabrielle, a young girl accompanied by a band of ragged children wandering in the forest: “Our dreams turned on us,” the girl said. “The toons. We thought they were our friends. Our company. The ones who made us laugh. They gave us stories and helped us to sleep at night. The ones who showed us that everything …could speak. They became nightmares.” This war against humanity begins with the liberation of slaves.
This is very much a fable about children, their betrayal by unwitting or uncaring adults, and their resilience in times of crisis. As a sign of their power, Gabrielle and her brother Santiago adopt the confused knight and name him Tomas. Even though Tomas resembles knights used by the wizard to wage war on humans, they trust their new ally and pull him along in their escape from the unruly toons towards the castle in the distance. A few humans have escaped imprisonment in the wizard’s flat screens and hide out in fear behind the castle walls.
Tomas, it appears, has one human and one vector-mapped CGI hand. He is caught between human fleshiness and cartoon illusion. Divided, he is warm and cool, confused and prescient, helpless and powerful. It will be the knight’s duty to challenge the wizard, free the humans imprisoned in their screens, and end the tyranny of spectacle gone viral.
In preparation for his epic task, Tomas is given a hand-forged sword by Adina, a woman he meets in the castle. While Adina’s sword promises much in the handling, it will not figure in the ultimate confrontation with Pluta. With obvious analogies to the specter of terror in our own time, the wizard is described by turns as a protean cloud or storm of swirling energy, with thunderous voice and awesome powers of persuasion, but never with a face. While a fearsome opponent, the wizard thrives on the manipulation of belief. “The magician was a master of distorting communication….He had gone into the air and could be anything, anywhere.” The wizard has the promise and peril of electromagnetic communication. Our discovery that he is not all-powerful, despite his destructive campaign against humans, contributes to the qualified optimism of this fable.
The ultimate confrontation between Tomas and Pluta is not prefigured on some page torn from The Lord of the Rings – a more subtle resolution is envisioned. While some readers, both adults and children, will miss the blockbuster pyrotechnics, it would be a mistake to dismiss the provisional conclusion of this fable as conventional. In an inverted manifesto of Powe’s values, we discover the crimes of humanity that so enrage Pluta, who rants at the knight:
“Everything human degrades the universe. You were the nightmare long before the images came. You were betrayers long before the images decided against you. You were the shallow ones who couldn’t imagine more. You were the ones who wanted the sacred to be simple, just like most of you. You were the dreamers of freedom who cared nothing for what you enslaved.”
Tomas is that rare being who is “capable of living on both sides,” and thus has the necessary power of sympathy to disperse the illusion of the wizard into thin air. His triumph is not over unmitigated evil; it is a temporary victory over the narcosis of Narcissus (to borrow from McLuhan).
As readers of Powe will appreciate, his is an uneasy optimism, hard-won over years as a skeptic who probes obsessively into the night-lit alleys of contemporary life. While These Shadows Remain presents a vision of Blakean redemption and deep compassion for our children, the war of images against humanity still casts its shadows. The wizard waits for another chance, and promises to return as a “chant instead of the wind” to wage a “greater war.”