Coming Ashore
Catherine Gildner
(ECW Press)
This is Gildner's third volume dealing with her young life. Here, we find her studying at Oxford, then back to the states, and finally fixed into her married (and apparently happy) life in Canada.

Gildner has the ability to lay out each of these sections neatly, like a layer cake, with the appropriate frosting. And some vignettes are rather frosty, too. As she marches down the worn stairs on her first days at Oxford, she is met by hall-mates who may sneer at her American ways, and her immoderate clothes, and her accent, but when they quote Milton, Auden, and Shakespeare at her, she quotes them right back.

To dispel the English chill, they eat stoner brownies and go to a jazz club in Soho, where --- guess what? --- there is a shy musician with a feather in his cap, named Jimi Hendrix (a relative unknown back then).

Gildner does have a habit of inadvertently meeting famous people. During a "rowing bumps race," she is cheered on by a young American named Bill Clinton. And at one of her first dinners at Oxford, she is seated with "the new poet laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis."

    I wondered why, if someone makes it to the lauded position of poet laureate, don't they get their teeth fixed and buy a jacket that fits?

Clive --- whose family owns pile --- falls in love with her and takes her to Cornwall to meet his family. His mother --- they call her Wiggles --- seems to be offended that Cathy's father was "a tradesman;" and since she is an only child, asks if she "was adopted."

When Cathy finally finds her bedroom upstairs in the castle, she looks for the bathroom.

    The odd thing was that although I could find the sink and huge tub, I couldn't find the toilet. I mean how many places can you hide a toilet? . . . It would be just like the cyclopean mother, Wiggles, to force me to the rooftops with the gargoyles in search of a toilet. Then days later when they found me, I would be as insane as Mr. Rochester's wife and have wet pants.

"There was so much that was wonderful about Clive and actually about England," she concludes. "But I could never live here. Isn't all that obsession about class why people left for America? Now I knew why no matter how uncivilised America was pre-1776, and no matter what new tribulations they had to endure, they were willing to form colonies and give equality a whirl."

We next find Cathy teaching high school in a downtrodden part of Cleveland, Ohio. She has the ability to get her students (and her readers) interested in poetry, drawing on popular songs to read in class. During one, she brings in a recording of Les McCann's "Compared to What" and reports,

    The class had a completely different reaction to the song, which had a strong staccato rhythm. Those who had tripped over the words while reading them could suddenly read every word as they pounded out the rhythm on their desks. A few of the tough guys from the back row, the Huey Newton clones who wore black berets and bullets over one shoulder, nodded and for the first time participated by reading another verse aloud . . . " Try to make it real --- compared to what?"

One thing she learns in her class there in the ghetto is that youmust never show weakness. "If you, as the teacher, showed any vulnerability, you were toast."

Finally, we find her in Canada, doing graduate study in, who? --- Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She also ends up working in a nut-house. Her tale of getting trapped by the local clone of the hunch-back of Notre Dame in a dark cellar at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital is a show-stopper (I was sure that she was going to get strangled and eaten alive by this Bela Lagosi stand-in).

Fortunately, she survives this one (I won't tell you how) and she also manages to single out another man who may or may not love her, but with a Jewish mother who certainly doesn't. As one of Michael's friends says to him later, "So your mother's sitting shiva now that you're dating a shiksa." Cathy had to go look up the words in a Yiddish dictionary, which explained shiksa: "Gentile girl, a detested thing." And shiva? Mourning period of seven days observed by family and friends of deceased.

If I make the book sound morbid, pay me no mind. It is funny and engaging; one that makes us willing to ring Gildner up there in Canada and ask for her autograph (and some lessons in teaching rap as high literature). Those of us who have been to England, or studied with the stiffs in various English departments in America --- or, even those of us who've been in the booby-hatch from time-to-time --- will immediately recognise what she is laying down.

God knows why Cathy did pick out that big boor Coleridge, was even planning to make him her specialty. She managed to find a professor who had a monopoly on all of his notebooks, but after a year, when she asked the good Dr. Coburn if she should continue her studies, the response was that she would be better off to consider a career in comedy. No crap.

This charming book is the pay-off. It was and is routine for people (Cathy, and, incidentally, me) who had a bit of wry to get rejected by the English Literature MA/PhD grind-'em-up university sourpuss system. She and I both turned out to be just too silly to become one of those old boxes up there at the front of the class not even worrying if the kids are interested in the old opium whiffer himself; or in my case, a more obscure historical figure.

For in the last of my university days, the English department circulated a list to all graduate students, had us put down our projected thesis title. I wrote "The Love Poems of Rev John Bastard" . . . but someone evidently thought I was trying to pull their chains. Even though he did exist [John Pollexfen Bastard --- 18 September 1756 - 4 April 1816], we're still not so sure that he wrote anything more than sententious sermons. Love poems? I doubt it.

Anyway, the stuffy old bastards there in Berkeley thought I wasn't taking their program seriously enough, leading, shortly after, to my abrupt departure from the darker dales of scholarship, ending up with a life in the more cheerful world of real communication.

Not unlike that of Ms. Gildner.

--- L. W. Milam
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