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Review in The Globe and Mail

"One of the most impressive Canadian poetic debuts in recent years, the book is a sustained lyric meditation on the life of Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century British-born photographer whose groundbreaking work led to the invention of moving pictures. In it Winger offers us a fascinating portrait of the man who made the classic photo sequence of a horse’s stride in split seconds; that changed, in a literal flash, the world’s understanding of movement, and bestowed upon Muybridge the immortality of an enduring place in history.

Though Winger calls his work "a poem in three phases," the book could easily be called a novel in verse. Muybridge’s Horse is more linear and plotted than many Canadian books that have passed as novels, and the titles that separate this long poem into smaller units do not frame individual, small poems as much as they divide the narrative into chapter and scene. Winger self-consciously capitalizes on the remarkable melodrama of Muybridge’s true story. There is an affair, betrayals, a murder; there are a trial and a verdict; there are successes and failures as the world watches.

The book is divided into three chronological parts, each part containing "albums" that map a period in Muybridge’s life. We begin with an account of his early work with harsh chemicals and plates, and his acrobatics to pull off trick shots. His courtship of Flora and their marriage are told in her intimate voice, then her lover’s bold self-introduction launches the story of sexual intrigue that ends with a man being shot and Muybridge standing trial.

The second part of the book explores Muybridge’s nine years in Guatemala, where he documented the operations of European-owned coffee plantations. The third takes us back to the US, where under the patronage of Leland Stanford (of Stanford University legacy), Muybridge captures a stallion’s airborne moment, then spends over a decade at the University of Pennsylvania cataloguing various forms of human and animal locomotion, until his retirement.

Winger’s main mode is a functional, almost prosy, lyric narrative voice that nods heavily to an early Michael Ondaatje prose, in cadence and sensibility, as if the author had The Collected Works of Billy the Kid close at hand as a how-to manual on a literary approach to a historical subject. The style is so reminiscent of Ondaatje that Winger has not yet come into his own voice. Still, his talent is clear and he has huge potential to translate these inherited techniques into his own distinctive music.

One exquisite surprise in Muybridge’s Horse is the section on Guatemala. Winger makes up for a few leaden passages that describe photographs in exhausting detail with delicate threads of his own first-person voice. By inserting moments of his research and study of the photographs into the story, he brings himself, the morning-coffee-sipping Rob Winger, into the narrative as a character, touched by Muybridge’s witness to the brutality and beauty of the coffee plantations.

A book to be read once through for the dramatic story of a man who ate lemons and maggoty cheese, once for the sweet phrasings and then again for the nuanced comment on the photograph as a historical document, Muybridge’s Horse is a remarkable achievement. Nightwood, the publisher, deserves a special nod for the cheeky horse-and-rider silhouettes that grace the bottom corners of the text. I dog-eared my copy in less than a day, from thumb-flipping the pages to see the little guy go.
—Sonnet L'Abbé, The Globe and Mail