I first read Stan Persky’s essay/story “Topic Sentence” in 1977, in his book Wrestling the Angel. After finishing it I lay awake in bed for a long time, thinking and feeling breathless. At the time, Persky was beginning his long career as an organizer of breath into prose sentences and I think it was the new breathing patterns that kept me awake. The topic sentence came up as a “topic” when I was in grade 6 in Kinnaird, B.C., and I recall feeling wonder while in the presence of this remarkable and (to me) profoundly English invention that was said to carry the meanings of whole paragraphs and even essays in a single sentence. Having learned more or less successfully to speak and read English in the preceding five years, I now marvelled at the idea that a sentence could reign over whole pages of language in the way Queen Elizabeth reigned over the ocean waves that touched pink countries all over the British world. My immigrant language, which I couldn’t read and write but could speak well enough, had no such thing as a topic sentence, and I suspected this was the secret reason “we” (as my father still called us then) had lost The War. As I continued absorbing the breathing, reading and thinking patterns in Persky’s subsequent books—Buddy’s, Then We Take Berlin, Autobiography of a Tattoo and The Short Version—I imagined at times (still thinking of my father?) that I was adopting American cadences. There was, in the 1970s and ’80s, a debate among B.C. poets about whether one should accept the influence of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance group of poets (from whom Persky had learned writing) or of Canadian—mostly eastern Canadian—practitioners: Persky had calmed the debate by turning from verse to prose and becoming a Canadian citizen, and my breathing gradually calmed down too.
His new book, Topic Sentence, subtitled A Writer’s Education (New Star), contains reworked selections from his previous books and new pieces, including the title essay right up front, and it may be read, as Persky put it during a public reading last January, as a “selected writings” and/or a narrative. The book is divided into three sections that correspond to the three stages that Persky considers a writer’s life to consist of: in the “before” section we read him discovering his voice and establishing his authority to speak about the world; in the “during” section we become acquainted with his central subject matter, which is homosexuality; in the “after” section we take pleasure in the mature, full voice that masters any topic he chooses to write about. “Topic Sentence,” the essay/story/book (Persky once called this genre “theoretical writing in the narrative mode”), was fun to (re)read with a calm breath pattern, newly contextualized, and I moved easily between the two readerly stances described by Alberto Manguel: “the reader contradicts the writer’s method . . . I’ll follow a carefully plotted story carelessly, allowing myself to be distracted by details and aleatory thoughts; on the other hand, I’ll read a fragmentary work as if I were connecting the dots, in search of order. In both cases, however, I look for (or imagine) a link between beginning and end, as if all reading were, in its very nature, circular.”