Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

All the Way to Canada Just to Have an Orgasm

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008)

Who has never looked at a couple and wondered, How did she ever end up with him? This must, surely, be close to a universal experience. And, among recent American politicians, it’s hard to imagine that any couple could have inspired that question more often than Laura and George W. Bush. How did this quiet, intelligent, book-loving librarian end up with a man who seems, at times, little more than an aging frat boy?

American Wife is Curtis Sittenfeld’s attempt to answer that question through fiction. Loosely based on the life of Laura Bush (though the action is transferred from Texas to Wisconsin), the novel tells the story of elementary school librarian Alice Lindgren, who meets Charlie Blackwell, the wastrel son of a rich political family, at a backyard barbecue, falls in love with him, and marries him after only a couple of months. To Alice’s surprise as much as anyone else’s, Charlie, a borderline alcoholic and incompetent businessman, gives up drinking, finds religion, and goes on to become governor of Wisconsin and then President of the United States. (If you’re interested in further background on the novel, Sittenfeld wrote a fascinating article about Laura Bush back in 2004, which provides some insight into how, even at that time, she had begun to see her as an ideal character for a novel.)

The real heart of the book, for me at least, was the description of Alice and Charlie falling in love. The story is told from Alice’s perspective, in the first person, and I suppose I expected that at some point Alice would offer an explanation or a justification of why she decided to marry Charlie. (This would be in keeping with Alice’s character, as other parts of the book portray her as a thoughtful, rational woman who carefully considers her options before making decisions.) But Sittenfeld does something much more unexpected and striking: she uses this portion of the book to paint a remarkably convincing portrait of the irrationality of eros. Alice falls in love with Charlie not for any particular reason or reasons, but quite simply without reason; she can’t explain it because there is no explanation, and if asked for one, she might reply, with Catullus, “nescio, sed fieri sentio”. And so the answer to the central mystery — how did she end up with him? — turns out to be another mystery, the mystery of love itself. I found the essential reticence of this answer — the insistence that some things are simply inexplicable — strangely satisfying, and all the more so because it seemed so out of character for Alice.

But What About Canada?

Part of the plot involves Charlie becoming part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and so there are one or two references to the Toronto Blue Jays (and one to Paul Molitor, a Brewers player who went on to win a World Series with Toronto) that are just passing mentions and don’t really seem worth cataloguing. There are a couple of other passages that are a little more interesting, though.

A Distant Landmark

This scene occurs early in Alice’s relationship with Charlie, when they are kissing in his car:

Charlie pulled back an inch. “So I haven’t forgotten about what I owe you. Let’s go to my place.”
Confused, I said, “You don’t owe me anything.” And then I understood — he was grinning — and I said, “Oh, that.”
“I’m not taking no for an answer. You’ve got to claim what’s rightfully yours.”
And even though, as I drove, I felt stirrings of nervous anticipation, I also wanted to just stay forever in this limbo; I’d have been content to drive all the way to Canada, knowing that something wonderful would happen when we got there.   (163)

What Charlie “owes” Alice is an orgasm, which didn’t happen the first time they had sex. Canada, in this passage, serves as a marker of distance; it’s the furthest place Alice can imagine driving to, as if to say, I’m enjoying the anticipation so much that I’d drive all the way to Canada — and what could be further than that? — before Charlie goes down on me. Of course Canada isn’t really that far from Wisconsin — even another American location, like Texas or Florida, would stretch the anticipation out a lot longer. But because Canada is a separate country, it has an aura of distance, even if it isn’t physically further away than a lot of points in the U.S.

And perhaps we’re meant to think that Alice doesn’t really want to wait that long anyway.

Bizarre Geography Triangle

This scene takes place at Halcyon, the Blackwell family retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan (modelled, presumably, on the Bush family “compound” at Kennebunkport) when Charlie takes Alice there to meet his family for the first time:

I subsequently found myself in a conversation with Uncle Trip, also loquacious, who explained that he divided his time — for reasons of business or pleasure, I could not discern — among Milwaukee, Key West, and Toronto. This seemed to me at the time to be the oddest triangle imaginable, but really, for the Blackwells’ friends, it proved not to be particularly unusual at all. Milwaukee and Sun Valley, Milwaukee and the Adirondacks, Minneapolis and Cheyenne and Phoenix, Chicago and San Francisco. They sold textiles, or mined ore, or owned a gallery in Santa Fe, or they were consultants — this was before consulting was as common as it is today — or they had just taken a cruise around the the Gulf of Alaska, and it had, they reported, been marvelous.   (223-24)

Maybe it’s just my preconceptions showing, but I can’t help feeling that it is Toronto, specifically, that makes the original list of places seem so odd. Alice herself immediately suggests that it isn’t as odd as it seemed to her at first, and goes on to list other groupings of places, presumably representing where other friends of the Blackwell family divide their time. But there is no other Canadian location in any of these groupings, which, to me, actually reinforces the oddity of the original list. Having a place in Chicago and one in San Francisco really doesn’t strike me as that strange, but Toronto — a city in another country — that does seem out of the ordinary. And what could possibly be in Toronto? It’s not a Canadian cottage, since these people already have their place on Lake Michigan.

I suppose we’ll never know.


Lost in the Space Between Canada and the United States


Stephanie Burt, Advice from the Lights (2017)

This is really a marvellous collection, ranging from Callimachus to growing up in the 80s, and well worth reading for those who haven’t done so already. I was particularly struck by Burt’s talent for rhymes that are so subtle you almost don’t notice they’re there. For our purposes here, though, we will look at the one poem that mentions Canada:

Indian Stream Republic

No one should be this alone —
none of the pines
in their prepotent verticals,

none of the unseen
hunters or blundering moose
who might stop by the empty lodge or the lake

as blue as if there had never been people
although there are people: a few
at the general store, and evidence of more

in clean vinyl siding, and down the extended street
a ruddy steel pole the height of a child, its plaque
remembering a place called “Liberty

at Indian Stream,” 1832-35,
between the disputed boundaries
of Canada and New Hampshire, meant

as temporary, almost
content to remain its own.
Each household, their constitution said, could possess

one cow, one hog, one gun,
books, bedding and hay, seven sheep and their wool, secure
from attachment for debt no matter the cause.

The state militia came to set them right.
The legerdemain of the noon sun through needles and leaves,
revealing almost nothing, falls across

thin shadows, thin trace of American wheels and hands
for such high soil and such short reward:
“the people … do hereby mutually agree

to form themselves into a body politic
by the name of Indian Stream, and in that capacity
to exercise all the powers of a sovereign

till such time as we can ascertain to what
government we properly belong.”     (74-5)

[Note: passages in quotation marks appear in italics in the original.]

The historical background to this poem (in brief) is that the Treaty of Paris left a part of the boundary between Quebec and New Hampshire ambiguous. As a result, there was a dispute about whether an area in (what is now) northern New Hampshire was actually part of Canada or of the United States. The people who lived there briefly constituted themselves as an independent nation, called the Republic of Indian Stream, before the dispute was settled and the area became a part of the U.S. (A fuller history, on which my summary is based, is available at the Pittsburg, New Hampshire website.)

There isn’t a lot of actual information about Canada in the poem, but Canada plays an important role as the poem is, in part, about what a 90s university professor might have called “the liminal” — the transitional, indeterminate space between defined things. In describing the Republic of Indian Stream, Burt draws our attention to the fact that borders (such as the one between Canada and the U.S.) are not always as solid as we think they are. Though famously undefended, our border seems solid to us, and this sense is confirmed by the clear mark of delineation on any map, defining everything south of the line as “U.S.” and everything north of the line as “Canada”. Of course if you’ve ever been to the border you know it’s not like that; in places it’s just undifferentiated landscape without much to show where one country ends and the other begins.  It’s still possible, in places, to be uncertain which country you are actually in.

The Republic of Indian Stream was born out of that kind of uncertainty about a national border that we tend to think of as if it were a physical thing. Burt’s poem celebrates a community that sprang up and briefly thrived in this undefined region between two established entities and, in doing so, evokes important ideas of flux and permeability.

Real Men Flex Their Molson Muscles

James Lasdun, Bluestone: New and Selected Poems (2015)

This book doesn’t contain a direct reference to Canada, but rather a use of what I think of as a specifically Canadian turn of phrase, and so I would argue it rates a place in this gallery. It’s from a poem titled “Returning the Gift,” which is far too long to quote in its entirety;  the situation is that the speaker’s wife has given him a chainsaw for his birthday, but he’s afraid to use it, and so they take it back to the store. Here’s the relevant passage:

The chainsaw section’s
display looks like a butcher’s stall
selling various types of crocodile:
Makita, Husqvarna, Poulan … Thick festoons

of chainblade glitter rawly.
I hand my gift to the salesman,
a beareded giant, letting my wife explain.
As she talks, a glint comes into his eye:

“Afraid? Afraid of what? Getting hurt?
He won’t if he’s in a right relation. Listen — ”
He leans towards me with a twinkling grin,
Molson-muscle swelling his green plaid shirt —

“British, right?” I nod. That question here
puts my guard up, like “Are you Jewish?” did
in England where it meant “So you’re a yid,”
at least to my hypersensitive ear,

as “British” here means — but I’m being paranoid;
he’s got some other axe to grind: “King Arthur …
Now there was a male mother,
nourishing his men on his own blood ….”     (70)

(Just notice, in passing, how nicely Lasdun manages the Swedish-supergroup ABBA slant rhyme scheme in that poem.)

I believe I have commented before — or at the very least, I have intended to comment before — on the way the incidence of references to Canada seems to increase in books set in upstate New York, suggesting (perhaps unsurprisingly) that physical proximity makes people more aware of our country. (For examples, see our posts on Frederick ExleyChris Kraus, Lorrie Moore and James Salter.) Many of the later poems in Bluestone also have upstate New York as their setting, and so a reference to Canada isn’t totally unexpected.

This particular one, however, did catch me off-guard.

Molson, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian beer company, and so “Molson muscle” is a peculiarly Canadian (I thought) phrase for what would more generally be called a “beer belly.” (“Molson” = “beer,” “muscle” = “belly”.) Obviously, I can’t say for certain how Lasdun learned it. He is British, and perhaps spent some time in Canada and picked it up then? If he’s never been to Canada, though, it does raise the rather bewitching possibility that, through a sort of cross-border osmosis, the Canadian term “Molson muscle” has seeped into upstate New York and become a part of the local vernacular. Lasdun can’t imagine his readership will be largely Canadian, and so he must be assuming that Americans will, by and large, know that “Molson muscle” equals “beer belly”.

The larger question is, why use “Molson muscle” instead of “beer belly” and risk the possibility that some readers — those in Arizona, say, or those in London, England — will not know what the term means? Does this specifically Canadian term add anything to the poem from an aesthetic or thematic point of view?

I would argue that it does.

The question at the heart of the poem, as is probably obvious from even the brief excerpt above, is one of masculinity: is the speaker still a “real man” even if he doesn’t know how to use a chainsaw? A contrast is being set up between the meek, nervous poet-speaker and the bearded, “macho” store clerk, and his “Molson muscle” is one of the elements in this implied comparison. In its general usage, the word “muscle” in “Molson muscle” is an ironic joke, since there is no muscle actually involved in a beer belly. (If anything, the term seems to contain a subsumed parody of the idea of “working out”: while some go to the gym to build actual muscles, others sit on the couch and drink beer, thus building their “Molson muscle.”) I think Lasdun has chosen “Molson muscle” because it is suggestive of a sort of aggressive masculinity in a way that “beer belly” would not be, precisely because “muscle” (active, powerful) has been substituted (albeit ironically) in the phrase for “belly” (passive, something that just sits there). If so, we could argue that the use of “Molson muscle” is a conscious artistic choice that, along with the beard, the plaid shirt and so on (both also very Canadian-sounding, incidentally — is it possible that this chainsaw store clerk is “coded” as a sort of crypto-Canadian?), serves to separate the store clerk from the speaker of the poem and to establish that he exists in a different realm of manhood, one where everyone is comfortable using a chainsaw. So this Canadianism is associated with the sort of rugged, outdoorsy man capable of taming the wilderness and bending nature to his will — and taming the wilderness is, of course, the quintessential Canadian pastime.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this bearded, plaid-wearing, Molson-muscled clerk is meant to be a Canadian … or just a Canadian manque….



The Decline of the Francophone Empire

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986)

For those not familiar with it, The Golden Gate is a verse novel written in the same 14-line rhyming stanzas as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. The book follows the interlocking lives and love affairs of a series of mostly young characters who live in and around San Francisco in the Reaganite America of the early 1980s.

Among its many other virtues, the book contains one brief reference to Canada. It occurs at a party when one of the main characters, Liz, is cornered by Professor Pratt, an academic who (like many other academics) believes that his own peculiar hobby horse is as fascinating to everyone else as it is to himself. Here’s the full stanza:


But now Professor Pratt’s recaptured
His fugitive, and Liz endures
The bludgeonings of this most enraptured,
Most indefatigable of bores.
He raves of western Pennsylvania
With zealotry approaching mania:
“…Had we not taken Fort Duquesne,
My dear, the French would still remain
Entrenched in a confederation
From Louisiana to Quebec.
I tell you , Pittsburgh saved our neck —
Pittsburgh — redeemer of our nation!
My fourth book reexamines this.
It’s called The Pratt Hypothesis….”     (78)

This refers to a corner of history that I don’t know much about, but to give a rough outline: in the 1750s, when the French still controlled a large swath of North America (“New France”), they built a series of forts to try to consolidate their control of this territory. Several of the forts, including Fort Duquesne, were in what is now Pennsylvania. The fort was attacked several times during the Seven Years’ War (aka the “French and Indian War”); in 1758 the French burned the fort just before it could be captured by the British.

(The above paragraph is summarized from Wikipedia; if you’re curious to learn more, you can start where I started, with the Wikipedia entry on Fort Duquesne. It also includes an account of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, in which George Washington and his men attacked a French Canadian scouting party — really, the references to Canada multiply so quickly that I can’t keep up.)

The details of the Pratt Hypothesis seem, to me at least, a little garbled. The location where Fort Duquesne stood is now part of Pittsburgh, and the basic idea is that if the fort had not fallen, the French would still control a large chunk of North America. But how Pittsburgh — a city that didn’t even exist at the time being discussed — could be considered the “saviour” of the United States is difficult to make out. Of course Professor Pratt is being satirized here, and so presumably his theory is meant to seem preposterous.

The use of “we” in the seventh line, however, is fascinating. The battle for Fort Duquesne happened in 1758, before the countries of Canada and the United States existed. Forbes, the general who took the site of the fort after the French had burned it, was Scottish, not American, and he named the place Pittsburgh after the British statesman William Pitt the Elder (again, see Wikipedia). So the people who took the fort (the British) are not really the “we” being spoken of by Pratt, who would presumably be Americans. The British drove the French out, but when the Americans rebelled against British rule and formed their own country, they reaped the benefits. Pratt’s summary of events elides this distinction, making it sound as if the Americans defeated the French, captured Fort Duquesne and thus “saved” the United States.

As for Quebec itself, there isn’t any actual information about the province contained here; it simply marks the northernmost point of the imagined French region, just as Louisiana marks its southernmost extent.  This is quite a common way of referring to Canada, particularly in American writers, who often use our country as a marker of distance or the extent of something: see our post on Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March for one recent example.


The Post-Apocalyptic Primitives of Labrador

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)

I don’t know how necessary a plot summary is for this book — do most people recall it from high school? In brief, the survivors of something know as “Tribulation” (nuclear holocaust, presumably) live on in small communities, where they are guided by religion and watch vigilantly for any mutation of plant, animal or human life.

The main character, David, befriends a girl named Sophie, who cannot go to school or play with other children because she was born with six toes, and if she is discovered she will be banished to “the Fringes”. In this conversation, David is trying to fill her in on some of what he is learning in school:

The world, I was able to tell her, was generally thought to be a pretty big place, and probably round. The civilized part of it — of which Waknuk was only a small district — was called Labrador. This was thought to be the Old People’s name for it, though that was not very certain. Round most of Labrador there was a great deal of water called the sea, which was important on account of fish. Nobody that I knew, except Uncle Axel, had actually seen this sea because it was a long way off, but if you were to go three hundred miles or so east, north, or north-west you would come to it sooner or later. But south-west or west, you wouldn’t; you’d get to the Fringes and then the Badlands, which would kill you.
It was said, too, though nobody was sure, that in the time of the Old People Labrador had been a cold land, so cold that no one could live there for long, so they had used it then only for growing trees and doing their mysterious mining in. But that had been a long, long time ago. A thousand years? — two thousand years? — even more, perhaps? People guessed, but nobody really knew. There was no telling how many generations of people had passed their lives like savages between the coming of Tribulation and the start of recorded history. Only Nicholson’s “Repentances” had come out of the wilderness of barbarism, and that only because it had lain for, perhaps, several centuries sealed in a stone coffer before it was discovered. And only the Bible had survived from the time of the Old People themselves.  (33)

There are other references to Labrador, and also to “the big island of Newf,” but the passage above contains the essentials. It’s a remarkable collection of common ideas about Canada, all captured in a couple of paragraphs. First there is the idea that Canada is cold — so cold that no one could live there for long, which is odd given that people have been living in Labrador for a while. The “Old People” using Labrador for growing trees and mining constitutes another iteration of the common idea of Canada as a country that is useful mainly for providing natural resources, and the importance of fish connects with this as well. And then there is that word “wilderness,” which seems here to be used metaphorically in connection with barbarism, but is nevertheless suggestive of Canada as a country lacking in civilization.

This last idea is further developed through a conversation between David and his Uncle Axel:

… Where are they and their wonderful world now?’
‘”God sent Tribulation upon them,”‘ I quoted.
‘Sure, sure. You certainly have taken in the preacher-words, haven’t you? It’s easy enough to say — but not so easy to understand, specially when you’ve seen a bit of the world, and what it has meant. Tribulation wasn’t just tempests, hurricanes, floods and fires like the things they had in the Bible. It was like all of them together — and something a lot worse, too. It made the Black Coasts, and the ruins that glow there at night, and the Badlands. Maybe there’s a precedent for that in Sodom and Gomorrah, only this’d be kind of bigger — but what I don’t understand is the queer things it did to what was left.’
‘Except in Labrador,’ I suggested.
‘Not except in Labrador — but less in Labrador and Newf than any other place,’ he corrected me.  ‘What can it have been — this terrible thing that must have happened. And why? I can almost understand that God, made angry, might destroy all living things, or the world itself; but I don’t understand this instability, this mess of deviations — it makes no sense.’   (70)

This fills out the picture of the post-Apocalyptic world a bit: the Black Coasts are the major U.S. cities, which have been reduced to burned rubble, and the glowing at night indicates the after-effects of nuclear war, as do the “deviations,” which are the genetic mutations that lead to people with six toes and so on, like Sophie. What is interesting for our purposes here, though, is that Newfoundland and Labrador suffered less than the other regions. The idea appears to be that these areas, isolated and remote from large population centres, would not have been targets for direct nuclear strikes, but would only be affected by the fallout from strikes on the major U.S. cities to the south. So again we have the idea of Canada generally, and Newfoundland and Labrador in particular, as being essentially remote wilderness places without enough people or industry to make them worth targeting in nuclear war.

Who Are These People Anyway?

The first passage quoted above also raises the tricky question of time. Apparently no one is certain how much time has passed since the Tribulation, but it is spoken of here as at least a thousand years, and in terms of many generations. Given that the ancestors of the characters in the novel have been living in Labrador for that long, it’s reasonable for us to ask: are the people in this book Canadians?

Since Labrador was considered uninhabitable in the time of the Old People, we are perhaps meant to assume that the original ancestors of the people now in Waknuk fled there from somewhere further south (the U.S.?) during the Tribulation, and that Labrador was remote enough that it was spared the destruction that reduced the more heavily inhabited areas of the continent to blackened rubble. At this point, however, they have been there long enough that it seems fair to consider the characters in the novel Canadians — or at least Labradorians, given that that name has persisted even though Canada itself no longer seems to exist as an entity.

This is of note because of what happens later in the novel. I don’t want to get bogged down in a tedious plot summary, but a little bit is necessary here: David, his cousin Rosalind and his younger sister Petra and several of the other characters are empaths who can communicate with one another through their thoughts alone. Petra, however, is much more powerful than the others, and is able to communicate with a far more technologically advanced group of Tribulation survivors who seem to live in New Zealand (called “Sealand”). In the end the New Zealanders come to rescue Petra, and David and Rosalind as well, from Labrador, where their special abilities put them on the wrong side of the religious zealots who run the Waknuk government.

The following passages come from the lead-up to this rescue, when Petra is trying to communicate with the empaths from New Zealand. Here they are trying to convey where they are:

‘Good,’ said Rosalind. ‘Look out, everybody! Here we go again.’
She pictured an ‘L’. Petra relayed it with devastating force. Rosalind followed up with an ‘A’ and so on, until the word was complete. Petra told us:
‘She understands, but she doesn’t know where Labrador is. She says she’ll try to find out….’   (125)

This is rather heart-breaking, really: our heroes are struggling to be rescued by the powerful super-beings from New Zealand, but with all their advanced technology and empathic powers, they’ve never heard of Labrador. In the post-Apocalyptic world, as in the pre-Apocalyptic one, Canada is just not significant enough to have registered on the minds of anyone outside of it.

And then the final insult, just after Petra has ended a conversation with the “Sealanders”:

We let her [Petra] prattle on. It was difficult to make sense of a lot of the things she said, and possibly she had not got them right, anyway, but the one thing that did stand out clearly was that these Sealanders, whoever and wherever they were, thought no small beans of themselves. It began to seem more than likely that Rosalind had been right when she had taken ‘primitive’ to refer to ordinary Labrador people.   (134)

So there we have it: in the end, our more-or-less-Canadian heroes are reduced to being called “primitive” by the New Zealand superbeings, who come riding to the rescue at the end because the empathic Labradorians, for all their extraordinary abilities, aren’t able to defeat a rag-tag bunch of mutants on their own.



The Beatles Get Their Big American Break — In Canada

Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1 (2013)

I will admit right off that while I read most of this book, I did skim some parts. At 800 pages and only the first of a projected three volumes, this is a detailed “biography” not of an individual person, but of the Beatles as a whole. It covers the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo, as well as their families and friends, in astonishing detail; if George Harrison sneezed on stage in the Cavern club, the sneeze will be lovingly catalogued here along with every other recoverable detail of that night. Given that, it does drag in places. The most interesting parts are the descriptions of the recording sessions, but since the band only began recording towards the end of the period covered in this book, there aren’t many of those. Stay tuned for the next two volumes, I suppose.

There are a number of references to Canada, but I’m only going to pick out a couple of the more interesting ones.

To Emigrate or Not To Emigrate

We begin with a young George Harrison contemplating his options:

Staring at a dead end, George flirted with emigration. First he tried to persuade his parents to consider a family move to Australia, which they rejected. Then he thought of emigrating alone, a 16-year-old planning to live in Malta (he’d seen it in some travel brochures) or Canada. He went as far as requesting the application forms but lost heart when he saw parental authority was needed. He didn’t even bother asking.  (231)

This idea of Canada as a place for English people to go to in search of a fresh start or a chance at a better life stretches back at least as far as Dickens’ Little Dorrit. When George returns from the band’s first stint in Hamburg, it turns out that he has family connections in our country:

Louise [George’s mother] wasn’t around to greet George — she’d sailed to Ontario, Canada, to see her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and one of her brothers, and wouldn’t be home for five months…  (386)

In this context, George’s plan to go to Canada doesn’t sound quite so hare-brained as it did in the first passage. If he had come, he would have had a sister and her husband and an uncle already here and presumably established enough that they could have offered him at least some support.

Digression: George in Canada

Just as a thought experiment: what would have happened had George Harrison emigrated to Canada at 16? Perhaps he wouldn’t have stayed long. Perhaps, away from John and Paul, he wouldn’t have had the determination to stick with music. And perhaps Canada at that time wouldn’t have offered the opportunities for him to find the level of success the Beatles ultimately did. But perhaps his musical talent was strong enough that he would have become successful no matter where he lived.

If so — and assuming he didn’t head for New York or L.A. at the first glimmer of success — could we call him a Canadian pop star? A British-Canadian pop star? Given our tendency to claim artists who live or work in Canada, however briefly, regardless of their actual nationality (Malcolm Lowry?), and the fact that the desire to claim someone as Canadian grows in direct proportion to their fame, we can be pretty confident that had George become famous while living in Canada, Canadians would be sure to remind everyone of it, and to insist that he was a Canadian musician. We would probably think of him now as the greatest rock star Canada ever produced (sorry Neil). To be honest, I’m tempted to start calling him Canadian just because he once considered moving here.

Some fiction writer needs to get started on a “George Harrison in Canada” alternate history novel asap.

A Great Place to Visit

Constant travel to Canada was also a fact of life in the family of Cynthia (“Cyn”) Powell, later Lennon, John’s first wife:

Paul’s girlfriend Dot had moved into the smaller room next door. While Cyn had solid reason to be here (her mother was only now returning from a long trip to Canada, would shortly be going back, and their house in Hoylake remained rented out), Dot’s parental home wasn’t much more than a mile from Garmoyle Road….  (656)

Cynthia gets pregnant, and she and John plan to get married:

If they timed it right, Cyn’s mother would miss the wedding. Lil Powell had just returned from Canada when these events erupted, and she was booked to sail back again on August 22.  (665)

And shortly after that:

The Beatles were back at the Cavern a few hours later — Wednesday night, as usual — after final preparations for John and Cyn’s quiet next-day wedding. She was at the docks to wave her mother off to Canada again, and John went home and finally broke the news to Mimi….  (684)

It’s striking that of the relatively small number of people involved in this story, at least two have mothers who make long, frequent trips to Canada. It’s hard not to be surprised by the frequency with which people are sailing off to Canada, sailing back from Canada and sailing off again — Cynthia’s mother has barely stepped off one ship before she’s stepping onto another, heading to Canada again. The pull of our country is so strong that she can’t even put off her return by a few days to be at her daughter’s wedding (although maybe she didn’t want to be there anyway).

Given Canada’s status as a former British colony, it isn’t surprising that English people would be travelling here — whether to visit family or for other reasons — but it’s remarkable that trips to Canada impinge so often on the story of the Beatles.

A Star Is Born — In Toronto

Moving on to the grander stage of musical fame and fortune: One of the issues that runs through this book is the difficulty George Martin and others at EMI had in getting their American partner, Capitol Records, to release albums by British musicians in the United States. This extended to the Beatles, which presented a unique opportunity for Canada to step in and make a little history:

Back in England, minds were focused on pushing Beatles records abroad. Their first radio play on the American continent was on the Toronto AM station CFRB on either December 8 or 15 [1962], in a weekly show titled Calling All Britons. The presenter, Ray Sonin, was a confident cockney émigré who’d edited Melody Maker and then New Musical Express for eighteen years (1939-57) and whose radio show was the week’s essential listen for expats. Whether or not this show stirred the interest, Capitol Records of Canada soon decided to release “Love Me Do” as a local-press 45; it would be available seven weeks into the new year.  (798)

Sonin, the disc jockey who played the Beatles in Toronto, is another example of an Englishman who emigrated to Canada — and the fact that a Toronto radio station had a program aimed specifically at British expatriates makes it clear that there were enough such people in Canada to make them an audience worth reaching.

Beyond that, it’s exciting to think that Canada played a small role in the entry of the Beatles into the North American market. This may be because Canada remained closer to the “mother country” than the U.S., having remained a colony much longer, but still, we can give ourselves a little pat on the back.

A Tremendous Canada of Light

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Though he was born in Lachine, Quebec, Bellow moved to the U.S. at the age of nine and I think, for the purposes of this website, he can be considered an American author. The Adventures of Augie March, however, does contain quite a number of references to Canada — enough that one might almost wonder whether, at some subconscious level, Bellow is trying to work out some issue(s) related to the country of his birth.

In any case, we’ll take a look at them.

Smuggling Immigrants Out of Canada

This idea comes up several times in the novel, and while I assume that Bellow’s family entered the United States legally, there is nevertheless an echo of his own history in this portrayal of immigration. The first reference occurs when Five Properties consults with Grandma Lausch about getting married:

Five Properties was keen on getting married. He took the question up with everybody and naturally had been to see Grandma Lausch about it, and she masked herself up as usual and looked considerate and polite while in secret she checked off and collected what she wanted for her file. But also she saw a piece of change in it for her, a matchmaker’s fee. She watched for business opportunities. Once she had masterminded the smuggling of some immigrants from Canada.  (25)

It recurs when Augie meets Joe Gorman, a character he was previously involved with in an aborted robbery attempt. This time Gorman has a new scheme:

“What’s up with you?” I said, for I didn’t want to ask explicitly; it was bad manners. “Do you ever see Sailor Bulba?”
“Not that dumbhead, he’s no good to me. He’s in an organization now, slugger for a union, and it’s all he’s good for. Besides, what I’m in now, I have no use for anybody like that. But I could do something for you if you wanted to earn a fast buck.”
“Is it risky?”
“Nothing like what worried you last time. I don’t go in for that any more myself. It’s not legitimate, what I’m doing, but it’s a lot easier and safer. And what do you think makes the buck so fast?”
“Well, what is it?”
“Running immigrants over the border from Canada, from around Rouse’s Point over to Massena Springs, New York.”
“No,” I said, not having forgotten my conversation with Einhorn. “I can’t do that.”  (174)

In the end, however, Augie does get involved, agreeing to help Gorman with the driving but not the actual immigrant-smuggling:

All this was how I decided, in my outer mind, to go; with the other, the inner, I wanted a change of pressure, and to get out of the city. As for the immigrants, my thought about them was, Hell, why shouldn’t they be here with the rest of us if they want to be? There’s enough to go around of everything including hard luck.  (174-75)

The subject appears one more time, briefly, in a conversation between Augie and his wife Stella:

“Oh, Augie! Please, honey, remember that you made mistakes too. You went to smuggle immigrants from Canada. You stole. A lot of people led you astray also.”  (574)

What’s interesting about this particular thread of the novel is that we have often seen Canada portrayed as a place that people want to escape to: a fresh start in Dickens and Basil Bunting, draft dodgers in Lorrie Moore, the Underground Railroad in Chris Kraus, an escape from an American fascist regime in both the Philips, Roth and K. Dick; but it is much more unusual to see Canada portrayed as a place people want to escape from. Here, however, at least according to what Augie says, these immigrants want to get out of Canada and into the U.S., apparently in search of better opportunities that Canada can’t offer them. So this represents an interesting reversal of a common theme.

Canadian Hunting Trips

I don’t want to regurgitate the plot of this novel, which is long and complicated, but just so that the following quotes make sense, I’ll note that the long central section involves Augie and a woman named Thea going to Mexico with an eagle named Caligula, which they are trying to train to catch iguanas (or some other lizard) for some purpose that, to be honest, I no longer recall. This passage is part of the explanation of how Thea and Augie end up together:

Now, when I had called in from South Chicago, Thea had told me she didn’t have much time, she would have to leave soon. And the first few days, as I’ve said, she didn’t speak of it, but eventually the open suitcases brought up the subject and she told me that she had been, and legally still was, married, and she was on her way from Long Island to Mexico to get a divorce. Afraid to hurt my feelings, all she’d say at the outset was that her husband was considerably older than either of us and was very rich. But gradually more came out. He flew a Stinson plane, he had tons of ice dumped in his private lake when it became lukewarm in July, he went on Canadian hunting trips, he wore cufflinks worth fifteen hundred dollars, he sent to Oregon for apples and they cost him forty cents apiece, he cried because he was growing bald so quickly, etcetera.  (340-41)

Here the Canadian hunting trips are clearly meant to be seen as one more element in the life of the leisured rich; beneath that, they carry the suggestion that Canada is a less civilized nation, more of an unspoiled wilderness where rich Americans can go to hunt. This, of course, connects naturally with the idea of the Canadian cottage in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “That Thing Around Your Neck,” and also with the idea of fishing in Canada that has come up in the work of several of Bellow’s rough contemporaries, such as John Cheever and Frederick Exley.

Canada As Metaphor

Canada also appears several times in the book in what I think of as a metaphorical sense; that is to say, the reference isn’t really about Canada, but rather uses Canada to stand in for some other idea.

For example, when Caligula, the eagle they are trying to train, escapes from Thea and Augie, it is described this way:

Thea shrieked at him, “You stinking coward! You crow!” She picked up a stone and flung it at him. Her aim was wide; Caligula only raised his head when it struck above him.
“Stop that, Thea! For the love of God, stop! He’ll tear out your eyes!”
“Let him try to come at me, I’ll kill him with my hands. Let him just come near!” She left her mind with fury, and there was no sense in her eyes. I felt my arms weak, seeing her like this. I tried to keep her from throwing another stone, and when I couldn’t I ran to unstrap the shotgun for use, and also to keep it from her. Again she missed, but this time came close, and Caligula took off. As he rose I thought, Good-by bird! There he goes to Canada or Brazil.  (386)

Here Canada is paired with Brazil, representing the farthest northern point Augie imagines the eagle might fly to, while Brazil represents the southern end of his imagined flight. There is no real idea of Canada here, though, beyond the fact that it is a place far to the north of Mexico.

There are several similar uses of Canada (or places in Canada) to convey other points. This one is part of a description of the typical conversation between Einhorn and his cronies:

Be this as it might, the topic inside the railed space of benches or at the pinochle game in the side-office annex was mostly business — receiverships, amortizations, wills, and practically nothing else. As rigor is the theme of Labrador, breathing of the summits of the Andes, space to the Cornish miner who lies in a seam under the sea.  (77)

The idea here seems to be that certain topics are inevitably associated with certain places. The fact that “rigor is the theme of Labrador” ties into larger ideas about Canada, and Labrador in particular, being a place with a harsh climate, where survival is difficult.

A similar idea comes up in this passage about Augie’s brother Simon:

Such a consideration would never trouble Simon. Whatever the place was, he would make it pay off, the only relation with it that concerned him; it had dollars, as the rock water, as the waste-looking mountain is made to spit its oil or iron, where otherwise human beings would have no wish to go, the barrens, the Newfoundlands, the scaly earths and the Antarctic snow blackened with the smoke of fuel tapped in Texas or Persia.  (248)

Here again, Canada — this time Newfoundland — is portrayed as a harsh place that no one would want to live, except for the fact that it contains natural resources that, through hard work and industry, can be turned into profit for those with the nerve to extract them.

And finally, after Augie’s attempt to help Gorman with the immigrant-smuggling falls apart, Augie hops freight trains to try to make his way back to Chicago:

As the sun went south it was back of us and not on the left hand; we were going north. There was no getting off either. I sat down, legs hanging at the open door, back-broken and dry, hungry furthermore, and my eyes followed the spin of the fields newly laid out for sowing, the oak woods with hard bronze survivor leaves, and a world of great size beyond, of fair clouds and then of abstraction, a tremendous Canada of light.  (183)

The movement at the end of that sentence, from cloud formations to abstraction to light — it could almost be a description of a Turner painting — gives the feeling of Augie watching a vast, shining land of possibility recede out of reach, and seems to give the lie to the aspirations of the immigrants who want to be smuggled out of that world and into the U.S. Is Bellow, whose own family made the journey from Canada to the U.S. when he was a child, looking back, through the eyes of his character, at Canada with regret and seeing in it a brilliant world of unlimited potential? It seems unlikely, given the ostentatious, almost aggressive American-ness of the novel’s famous opening paragraph. But perhaps that is overcompensation, and perhaps here, in this quietly reflective moment, we see his true vision of our country, a vision of opportunities forever closed off and lost.

Surely, along with Paul Muldoon’s “gateless gates of Canada,” one of the more beautiful images of our country that we have come across, if a slightly melancholy one.


Brief Encounters with Canadian Folkies

Britta Lee Shain, Seeing the real you at last: Life and love on the road with Bob Dylan (2016)

I can’t really recommend reading this book, but if you’re at all tempted, I will say this: you won’t learn much about Bob Dylan, but you will get an idea of what it’s like to be in the orbit of a truly famous person. Shain’s goal in writing the book seems to be to prove that she is not just another woman Bob Dylan slept with a few times on tour, but rather his true soul mate and the only one in his entourage who really understands him. I don’t think she succeeds in that, but she does reveal what it takes to be a part of Bob Dylan’s world. Essentially, you have to do things for him. Shain is constantly running errands for Dylan: buying him clothes, boots, walking sticks, take-out food, picking up his girlfriends at the airport and then sitting downstairs reading a book and listening to them having sex upstairs. She believes that all these things bring her closer to Dylan and prove that he can’t live without her; to an outside observer, they suggest that she is one of many people Dylan uses to take care of whatever his needs are at any given moment with no regard for them as individuals. To quote what the man himself tells her when he gives her the kiss-off, “Sometimes I do bad things.”

But that’s neither here nor there. The book contains a number of references to Canada and Canadians, most of them passing and really not of much interest, but I’ll quote a few of the ones that stood out for me.

Sorrowful-Eyed Gentleman of the Northlands

As we’ve seen in numerous posts before, references to Canadian musicians are one of the most common ways Canada slips into books by non-Canadians. Shain is no exception, and given the world Dylan moves in, it should be no surprise that in this book we encounter the Canadian folk-rock triumvirate of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Here is Shain meeting Neil Young:

May 30 1986. Prince is at the Wiltern Theater, as part of what will later be dubbed his Hit n’ Run Tour, since most of the shows are announced just days or hours before the actual concert takes place. Carole [Bob’s wife or “main girlfriend,” I can’t remember which] gets four passes, but Bob doesn’t want to go. Ernie [Shain’s boyfriend, who works in some capacity for Dylan, I can’t remember what — it’s through him that Shain meets the great man] and I escort her, and while she’s really getting off on the music, I spend most of the show mingling in the foyer with a growing chattering mob that prefers being outside of the music hall. Afterwards, backstage, I’m introduced to Neil Young, whose sorrowful dark-eyed gaze threatens to suck the very life out of me.  (59)

Yikes — these morose Canadians! Most intriguing (to me) is the question of what Neil is doing backstage at a Prince concert, but of course Shain has no interest in that. There’s more about Neil a couple of pages later, from June 5 1986:

A beautifully polished bus is also parked — engines running — in front of the hotel, and [Bill] Graham tells me this is Neil Young’s bus, and that unlike most rockers who rent their transportation, this is actually a bus that Neil Young owns — that he’s fixed it up really cool, and that other rockers rent it from him.  (61)

We don’t tend to think of Canadians as hard-headed businessmen, but that’s an interesting portrait of a man who never lets an opportunity to make a buck slip past his sorrowful eyes.

Neil’s bus is mentioned once more, when Shain is on tour with Dylan in 1987:

Bob and I are hanging out on the bus, getting loaded, watching one of the twelve Elvis Presley movies Ernie has secured at Dylan’s request for the road tour. Somewhere along the line we’ve acquired Neil Young’s bus, and it’s very cool, with deer antlers up front and center, above the driver’s seat.  (119)

There’s a glimpse of the gilded lives of celebrities and their hangers-on. Nice to think our great Canadian folk hero/businessman is making a little money off Bob.

Hanging with Joni Mitchell

From a long entry dated February 21, 1987, in which Shain and her boyfriend Ernie throw a Chinese New Year party for Dylan and some of his friends:

Actress/singer Ronee Blakely, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in Nashville, shows up, looking beautiful but incredibly vulnerable. Some say she still hasn’t gotten over her relationship with Dylan.
Joni Mitchell is here, too! Plus all the usual suspects. This is by far the most successful of the parties to date.
Joni and friends wind up sitting around in Ernie’s den until three or four in the morning, long after Ernie’s gone to bed, singing Everly Brothers songs and other hits from the 50s and 60s while I pathetically try to keep the tune.  (83)

A lot of the book is written like this: a breathless catalogue of the appearances of famous or semi-famous people, with little Wikipedia-like notes of their main accomplishments dropped in if Shain thinks the reader may not know who they are. Canadian Joni Mitchell is famous enough to just be named; Ronee Blakely is not. It is, beyond that, a nice portrait of the down-to-earth Canadian folk genius singing the night away with some friends.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note the similarities between Shain’s writing style and the parodic diary of  the Vancouver-born aspiring actress Kim Girard in Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You.)

The Laborious Writing Process of Leonard Cohen

This passage, after an Italian concert in 1987, gives a sense of how people in Dylan’s inner circle spend their time. It also illustrates how completely Shain has bought into the idea that a person’s value is based solely on how well they satisfy their “star”:

Dylan will be in rare form tonight, playing lengthy and cohesive harmonica intros to rarely performed classics like ‘License To Kill.’
After the show, Ernie and I go to an Italian eatery and buy tons of takeout antipasto for the bus ride — Bob has a thing for sausage — along with several bottles of Chianti. When Ernie has the time and is focused on working for Bob, he does go out of his way to make sure Dylan’s pleased.
While Bob cools off in his quarters at the rear of the bus, Ernie tells the rest of us the story of Dylan’s meeting with Leonard Cohen after Cohen’s Wiltern Theater show in ’85. He says that when Dylan complimented Cohen on the song ‘Suzanne,’ Leonard confessed that it took him five years to write it.
Later, Cohen told Dylan how much he liked ‘License To Kill.’
‘It took me five minutes,’ Bob crowed.  (169-70)

Poor Leonard. But perhaps we can learn something about the painstaking character of Canadian writers, constantly insecure about their work and doing everything they can to ensure they make their songs as good as they can be, versus the more casual approach of Americans who, in tune with their national spirit of exceptionalism, just assume that they’re entitled to the world’s attention?

A Mysterious (Canadian?) Woman

This passage relates to Dylan’s role in the film Hearts of Fire:

October 1986. Production of Hearts of Fire moves to Ontario, Canada, where Ernie rents a house for Dylan. Problems arise, I’m told, when Carole wants to join him, since Bob is occupied with another woman.  (73)

Exciting, I suppose, to think Dylan was living in Ontario in 1986. No doubt Canada was being used as a cheaper stand-in for some American location in the movie. We never hear about this other woman again; is she Canadian? Has she written a book about her experience with Dylan? Maybe she should — not everyone has slept with a Nobel Prize winner.

In Rome in 1960, Everyone Drank Canadian Whisky

Alberto Moravia, Boredom (trans. Angus Davidson) (1960)

I suppose it would be glib to say that this novel induced in me the state alluded to in its title, but I’m afraid I did find it heavy going in certain stretches. Boredom is the story of a failed painter from a rich family who becomes obsessed with a young woman named Cecilia — they become lovers, but then he begins to suspect that she is having an affair with an actor, and that whenever she leaves his apartment, she goes straight to the actor’s. As part of this growing obsession, he takes to following Cecilia around and spying, first on the apartment building where she lives with her parents, and then on the actor’s apartment, hoping to catch her in the act, so to speak. In this passage he is sitting in a restaurant that has a large front window through which he can watch the entrance to the actor’s apartment building:

…the house in which the actor lived was framed in black marble and stood out against the white facade like an obituary notice on the page of a newspaper, but I immediately discovered that a bottle of whisky displayed in the window concealed at least half of it. It was quite possible that Cecilia might slip in or out of the house without my being aware of it, through the half of the door that I could not see. I tried moving my chair, but then I could not see the door at all because it was completely hidden by a large box of English biscuits. I wondered whether I could possibly put out my hand and remove the bottle; but I saw I could not do so without making the barman suspicious. In the end I decided to get rid of the embarrassing object by acquiring it. It was true that the barman might well have a similar bottle in reserve and would therefore not give me the one from the window, but I had no other means of achieving my aim. I called out: “I want that bottle there.”
He came over at once, a young, tough-looking man, thin and very pale, with one noticeable feature — a harelip which was ill concealed beneath a drooping black mustache. He asked, in a deep, confidential tone of voice, “The bottle of Canadian whisky?”
“Yes, that one.”
He bent forward, cautiously took the bottle from the window and appeared to be making a move to replace it with another standing near it. I said hastily, in a commanding voice: “Let me see it.”     (202)

I apologize for such a long quote, but as you can see just from that passage, it sometimes takes Moravia a while to get to the point (by which I mean, in this case, the reference to Canada), and he seems to delight in recounting every little twist and turn in the thoughts of his narrator, who is characterized by a state of endless indecision and self-questioning. Just to relieve the suspense you are no doubt feeling, I’ll let you know that the barman then gets called away by another customer, and so does not replace the bottle, leaving our narrator free to observe the apartment building door unobstructed.

As for the Canadian whisky, I don’t think it has any particular significance here, nor do I think we can discern anything about Moravia’s ideas about Canada from it, beyond the fact that the country produces its own whisky, distinct from American varieties. It’s noteworthy that Canadian whisky would be for sale in a restaurant in Rome in 1960 — clearly the export business was doing well. But given the general description of the restaurant, it seems that, if anything, Canadian whisky represents a cheap type of liquor that would be available in lower-end places rather than, say, a classy choice that would be served at parties given by the upper crust of Rome society.

In terms of Moravia’s literary style, the decision to specify Canadian whisky does have a certain significance, in that it shows his interest in rendering everything he describes in the most precise detail possible. I’m not sure the scene would read any differently if the bartender simply said, “That bottle of whisky?” but telling the reader that it is Canadian whisky does add another layer of specificity to the moment, which contributes to the sense of a reality described at a very particular and, to use a horrible contemporary term, “granular” level.

The Proust Comparison

Finally, I’ll just add that this entire book reminded me of the portions of In Search of Lost Time in which the narrator is agonizing over the question of whether Albertine has been unfaithful to him, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out the when, where and with whom of her numerous affairs. I’m thinking mainly of the “Captive” and “Fugitive” sections (which are, of course, a repetition of the pattern of Swann and Odette’s relationship in Swann’s Way), which I have to admit are some of my least favourite parts of Proust, so perhaps that’s why this novel didn’t really appeal.

Who Can Tell Canada from the Cayman Islands?

Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (2016)

The poem that mentions Canada is called “Pierre” and is a sort of character portrait set in a school, presumably in Jamaica. It’s a bit long, but I hate chopping up poems unnecessarily so I’ll quote it in its entirety:

It was a boy named Pierre Powell
who was in charge of the atlas

in the cabinet. He also ended days
by shaking the iron bell from Principal

William’s window, a work we grudged
him for very little; what cut our cores

twice a week and we had to endure,
was him being summoned to fetch

the key, again from William’s office,
to open the varnished box with the world

map, old and laminated, a forbidden
missionary gift trophied beside the Oxford

Set of Mathematical Instruments and other
things seen only by Pierre and teacher Rose,

who now only nodded to raise him
to his duty. We waited in quiet

his return, Miss Rose all crinkled blouse
and bones with chalk dust in her hair,

did not stir until he was back, panting
at the door. Another diviner’s nod

and he opened it, unrolled the map expertly,
kneaded out creases and held down edges

for the ruler our eyes followed,
screeching out countries, and etched

in the periphery, a khaki-pillared Pierre,
with a merchant’s smile, a fixed blur

in our cry of Algeria, Switzerland, Chile,
soon withered away, and we eyed the field

of dry grass outside, a rusty mule,
statue-frozen in the punishable heat,

Pierre, a phantom sea fraying
over Antarctica, Fiji, Belize, India

of those still in the rote, a liturgy of dunce
bats, whose one cardinal point, Tropicana

Sugar Estate, so close we could smell the sugar
being processed, whistled its shift change,

and terminated Geography. As if punched
from dream, those of us spared the map-

rolling-up and cabinet-locking ceremony,
saw him, with a cord-strung key, an earnest air

bearing him away in a portal of sunlight.
He was absent the week before summer,

and when Miss Rose, in rare fashion,
inquired, a girl said he had gone back home.

“Home,” Miss Rose sounded the strange word.
“Home,” the girl echoed and added, “him from Cayman,

Miss, or Canada, somewhere with a C.”
We turned to Miss Rose to clarify Canada

or Cayman, this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral,

but she pointed anonymously a crooked
finger and said, “Run to the principal

for the key,” the whole class scattered, paid
no heed that not a single one was ordained.    (36-39)

Beneath the “school days recollected” subject matter lies an intriguing subtext about the after-effects of colonialism. The map, which is called a “missionary gift,” and the set of Oxford Mathematical Tools are relics representing Jamaica’s time as a British colony. Within the school a system of status and power has been created based on proximity to these objects, which echoes the colonial system itself. This hierarchy separates those who are allowed contact with the objects stored in the locked cabinet — the principal, the teacher and Pierre — and the rest of the students, who can only look on as these objects are paraded before them. The poem focuses on the resentment the other students feel at Pierre, the one chosen to handle these precious “trophies”. When Pierre disappears, the teacher is for some reason unable to deputize another single student to take over his duties, and the  “teacher’s pet” system (like colonialism?) collapses into scattering chaos.

With the mention of Canada, a note of humour enters the poem. The joke, of course, is that after all the time with the map and the shouting out of countries in geography class, the student is still confused about “Canada” versus “Cayman” — the latter presumably meaning the Cayman Islands. This is a strikingly odd confusion, since the letter “C” is about the only thing Canada and the Cayman Islands have in common. Just the climate alone — as I write this, it is -5 C in Toronto, feeling like -12 and snowing heavily; in George Town, in the Cayman Islands, it’s 28 and sunny.

The question of where Pierre is actually from is never directly answered, as the teacher, when the students turn to her, offers no clarification. We do have these suggestive words:

…this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral…

This couplet gives us as much resolution as we’re going to get on the question of Pierre’s homeland. I’m not sure I can parse the exact prose sense of the “C curdled to snow” — perhaps the idea is that snow can be lumpy, like milk when it curdles? — but the mention of snow does seem to suggest that Pierre is actually from Canada and not the Cayman Islands. Why else would snow suddenly enter the poem?

But then the following words, “foreign always spectral,” undermine the inference by suggesting that, to the children in the class, anything outside their homeland remains vague and mysterious to them despite their teacher’s efforts to drill them in geography. Maybe the snow in the poem carries different associations: perhaps it symbolizes something ephemeral — snow melts, after all. And so for the children in the class, the question of where Pierre has gone, the question of Canada or the Cayman Islands, creates only a vague and passing sense of some other, foreign place in their minds — an association that then fades like melting snow.

However one takes “Pierre,” we have Canada and snow brought together, which indicates that at some level, even if only subconsciously, the idea that Canada is cold and snowy has percolated into the poem. And this, of course, is one of the most common ideas about our country.


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