Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Growing Wings, and Penance

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In my latest collection of poetry, DOOM, I include a poem about Penance. Penance is not, really a villain, or at least not a long term villain. The characters civilian name is Robbie Baldwin, and for most of his career he is known as Speedball. His powers are based in kinetic energy, and so the more energy he absorbs, the more powerful (and potentially destructive) those powers become. He's a middling hero, involved with the New Warriors, and then suddenly find himself playing a pivotal role in the Civil War storyline, one of the major shakeups in the Marvel Universe.

When the villain Nitro sets off an explosion that kills 612 civilains, Robbie is the only survivor, though the experiences burns out his powers. They gradually come back, but are twisted by his own guilt. He believes that he is responsible, and therefor, a villain, and so he becomes one. He renames himself Penance and joins the Thunderbolts, a team who track down unregistered superheroes. His powers are now triggered by pain instead of energy, and so his new suit features 612 internal spikes that forever dig into his skin -- one for each of the people he believes himself responsible for killing.

As a villain, he is drugged, manipulated, mocked by his teammates, and suffers terrible survivors guilt and bouts of self harm. He eventually abandons his villainous identity, becomes comfortable calling himself Speedball once again, and joins the Avengers Academy as a member of the staff. However, he still cuts himself. He tells the very few people he considers confidants it is because his powers are still partially triggered by pain and he still wants to use them as he did as Penance; also, he does this as his penance for acts he still feels guilty for, as a comfort and a release.

I thought about Penance a lot while reading Amanda Leduc's novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men. One of the characters, Sam, is in the process of ascension -- literally, as he grows wings from his back. But it was Lilah, a woman who has lost her brother and burns with guilt from it, who drew me in most deeply. There is a narrative in our culture that attempting to find comfort in pain, or achieve penance through it, is always pathology (and probably rightly so). While Leduc acknowledges that Lilah's action and interactions are problematic, they can also be deeply cleansing and healing moments. Sometimes, pain really does make us feel better. I think the idea of penance is one that Leduc handles incredibly deftly and intelligently, especially considering how complicated the idea is.

In the present moment, there is this strange cultural expectation that we must be comfortable all of the time. Everything from toilet paper to clothing, scent and temperature but be perfectly calibrated in our environment to only cause us bland pleasure. When things are comfortable, we can ignore them.

Pain is a signal from out bodies to stop what we are doing and pay attention. It is an alarm bell and a call to arms. It is not something easily ignored or set aside. It can drive us forward and spur us to action. And, sometimes, the act of writing is painful. The words don't come easily or they are cutting when they do. The process if writing can leave us raw and wrung out, and demand a great emotional price. Sometimes, we write for pleasure, and other times it can be a penance.

While Leduc doesn't figure the writer as penitent or prophet, The Miracles of Ordinary Men got me thinking about the way that the process can be painful, in a cleansing way. Nothing brilliant was ever written by being blandly comfortable the whole time the author was working on it. Sometimes, great art requires some blood, and Leduc's book acknowledges this.  Maybe writers should be willing to don a metaphorical hair shirt or pick up a scourge when the work calls for it. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Natalie Zina Walschots

Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet and editor based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publications, both in print and online. Natalie's second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems For Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press in the Spring of 2012.

Go to Natalie Zina Walschots’s Author Page