Auden, Spinoza, Salmon and Snow (Paul Muldoon Part II)
Paul Muldoon, Meeting the British (1987)
All page references are to the Poems 1968-1998 edition pictured above, and not to the individual volume.
The Opening Poem
The first poem in this book is actually titled “Ontario,” which makes this sort of thing fairly easy – although the first line of the poem is “I spent last night in the nursery of a house in Pennsylvania.” That gave me pause – did Muldoon mean our Ontario, or some other Ontario? He gets to Ontario (and Guelph, and Toronto, just so there’s no doubt) eventually, but there’s a curious distancing of himself from his Canadian subject matter in the way he titles the poem “Ontario” and then immediately makes clear that he’s not actually in Ontario – he’s in Pennsylvania (much more cosmopolitan) and only thinking of Canada.
I ordinarily like to present poems in their entirety, but this is a long prose poem and I really don’t feel like typing that much, so I’m only going to quote the relevant portion.
…I remembered how I was meant to fly to Toronto this morning, to visit my younger brother. He used to be a research assistant at the University of Guelph, where he wrote a thesis on nitrogen-fixing in soya beans, or symbiosis, or some such mystery. He now works for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario. On my last trip we went to a disco in the Park Plaza, where I helped a girl in a bin-liner dress to find her contact lens.
-Did you know that Spinoza was a lens-grinder?
-Are you for real?
Joe was somewhere in the background, sniggering, flicking cosmic dandruff from his shoulders.
-A lens, I went on, is really a lentil. A pulse.
Her back was an imponderable green furrow in the ultraviolet strobe.
-Did you know that Yonge Street’s the longest street in the world?
-I can’t say that I did.
-Well, it starts a thousand miles to the north, and it ends right here. (151)
I love this because I feel like everyone in Toronto knows this fact about Yonge Street – I can’t think how many times I’ve both heard and quoted it over the years – and yet the poet seems so taken aback by the question, as if stunned that there could be anything special about anything in Toronto. We expect he’s going to get a little lesson in Canadian geography – but no, the Torontonian girl (let’s assume she’s Torontonian) has no more interest in places north of the 401 than her foreign interlocutor. Her explanation is completely lacking in specificity: all she can say is that it starts somewhere a thousand miles to the north (and shouldn’t she be speaking in kilometres?), in some wilderness apparently unknown to her.
Beyond the (possibly failed) pick-up in the Park Plaza disco, we also catch a glimpse of two other sides of Canada, one familiar, one not: a land of new opportunity, and a centre of scientific research. The author’s brother has taken the trouble to travel from Ireland to Guelph to study – something, it’s not clear exactly what – and to write a thesis on it. We aren’t told why he chose Canada, but the possibility that it offered more opportunity than he could find in Ireland might be inferred, especially as this is an idea at least as old as Dickens.
Or could it be that Canada is more advanced in his field than any of the universities in Ireland? This presents a view of Canada that we haven’t really seen before: our country as a centre for advanced scientific research, which is certainly a departure from our more usual image as a frozen wilderness. The fact that he has ended up working for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario, combined with his thesis possibly being about soybeans, suggests a rural nation where science is used mainly as a way of improving farming – but still, science is science, and I think we can file this under “Progress”.
The Mystery of the Landlocked Chinook
The poem “The Wishbone” also refers to the author’s brother being in Guelph, but doesn’t go beyond that, so it doesn’t really seem worth the trouble of quoting. But another poem has a little more to it:
I was micro-tagging Chinook salmon
on the Qu’Appelle
I surged through the melt-water
in my crocus
I would give each brash,
face its number.
Melt-water? These were sultry
fish hang-gliding downstream.
Chinook. Their very name
The autumn, then, of Solidarity,
your last in Cracow.
rising between borsch
relinquishing the table to Pompeii. (155-6)
There’s not a lot about the Qu’Appelle River, which is in Saskatchewan (and a tiny bit of Manitoba); what there is, however, is a little strange. Here, courtesy of the river’s Wikipedia entry, is a list of the fish species to be found in the river:
Fish species include: walleye, sauger, yellow perch, northern pike, lake whitefish, cisco, mooneye, white sucker, shorthead redhorse, bigmouth buffalo, common carp, channel catfish, black bullhead, brown bullhead, burbot and rock bass. Rock bass are Saskatchewan’s only native bass.
This doesn’t purport to be an exhaustive list, of course, and there are some great-sounding names there (bigmouth buffalo!), but still: Chinook salmon are one of the most prized sport fish to be found in Canada; if they lived in the Qu’Appelle River, they would certainly rate a mention ahead of white sucker and shorthead redhorse, to pick just two examples (no disrespect to those noble species intended). And, as a look at a map will show, the Qu’Appelle River is located right in the middle of the Canadian Prairies, with no connection to the ocean, or any body of water large enough to satisfy the needs of a migratory species like the chinook. (The same point is made by Dr. Ronald Marken in his article, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”*, which is about – of all things – references to Canada in Irish poetry. You can read at least some of it here.)
So … what’s going on? I recognize it’s a bit naive to assume that just because a poem is written in the first person, all the events it mentions actually happened in the author’s life – but what could be the reason for describing an event that can’t possibly be true? Is Muldoon confusing his Canadian river names? Has he tagged so many different kinds of fish on so many different rivers that they all blur together? Is this kind of counter-factuality an intentional strategy for constructing a mythic aura around Canada?
And then, as we hope for answers, the poem turns away from Canada entirely and towards Europe, the Qu’Appelle River and its fish species forgotten – or, more precisely perhaps, unknown – in Cracow.
Auden, Isherwood and the Picturesque Snows of Newfoundland
Meeting the British concludes with a long poem, in sections, called “7, Middagh Street.” For those who don’t immediately recognize the reference in the title (I’m afraid I didn’t), it’s the address of February House in Brooklyn, where Auden, Britten, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other bohemian artist types all briefly lived together – it’s so famous that not only is there a book about it, but it’s also the subject of a musical by Gabriel Kahane. The reference to Canada comes at the opening of the first section, which is in Auden’s voice (each section has a different speaker).
Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir;
a blizzard off the Newfoundland coast
had, as we slept, metamorphosed
the Champlain‘s decks
to a wedding cake,
on whose uppermost tier stood Christopher
and I like a diminutive bride and groom.
A heavy-skirted Liberty would lunge
with her ice-cream
at two small, anxious
boys, and Erika so grimly wave
from the quarantine-launch
she might as truly have been my wife
as, later that day, Barcelona was Franco’s. (175)
Hey, guess what? Canada’s cold!
Alas, we don’t have much of a role here beyond providing some (admittedly picturesque) snow, and readers will recognize a familiar trope: people sailing on a (presumably) Canadian ship (the Champlain!), but going not to Canada, but rather to New York (as the reference to the Statue of Liberty makes clear – shades of Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly). Auden and Isherwood, apparently, are giving us a pass, though Newfoundland has taken the trouble to blow some snow at them on their way by, as a gentle Canadian hello.
And, echoing “Chinook,” we might also note the (characteristic?) turn away from North America and towards the larger events of history, which seem to occur mainly in Europe.
Another Kindred Spirit
I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Ronald Marken for providing me with a copy of his essay, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”. You can read at least some of it through the Google Books link provided above; unfortunately, the full text isn’t available online. As well as providing insights into Muldoon’s poem “Chinook,” Professor Marken’s essay also offered the comfort of knowing I’m not alone in my curiosity about how writers from other countries portray Canada in their work. His description of the Canadian mindset with regard to our position in the foreign imagination nicely summarizes some of the background to this project, which I attempted to explain in the “About” section:
Canadians have a considerable anxiety about their national singularity, about how others perceive them. Our quest for a “National Identity” so pervades our thinking and our own literature as to be almost a public diversion, even a national joke…. Canadians would not be surprised if you were to say, “No one in Irish poetry has a thing to say about Canada. There are plenty of references to Brazil, Berlin, and Bilbao, but none to British Columbia.” That kind of news would not startle Canadians.
We are used to being ignored. Despite our enormous size, we are a country accustomed to invisibility.*
Canadians are fascinated with the question of how people from other countries perceive us, and at the same time we have a fatalistic sense that they don’t perceive us at all. And sometimes the most interesting or revealing references to Canada are the throwaways, the careless, passing references that show what writers think about us when they’re not really thinking about what they think. Usually, it turns out to be lumberjacks.
*From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.