Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

Even the Geese Can’t Stand It!

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Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)

I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)

Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.

Canadian Pacific

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.   (27)

At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).

A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.

And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:

…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads.  But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*

The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.

For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.

And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:

April on Toronto Island

Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.

The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,

Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.

There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.

Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and

Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,

Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,

Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation.   (30)

In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.

We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”

Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,

…where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.

In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.

This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.

The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten. 

And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?

As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.

Digression: On the Education of Poets

The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:

After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.

I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.

 *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.

 

Gateless Gates and Canadian Intertextuality (Paul Muldoon Part III)

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Paul Muldoon, Madoc: A Mystery (1990)

Please note the page numbers refer to the edition of Poems 1968-1998 pictured above.

An Attempt to Provide Some Context

Would anyone be so bold as to claim that they understand Madoc: A Mystery? I certainly won’t. The title is, in this case, perfectly apt: it is a mystery. However, I feel like I ought to attempt to provide at least a rough sketch of the book’s “plot” (for lack of a better term), in order to present the reference to Canada in some sort of context. So here goes.

Madoc: A Mystery contains a few independent short poems at the beginning, but is mostly the long, title poem. It is divided into short sections, each titled with the name of a philosopher in square brackets. I’m not a profound student of philosophy, but it seemed to me that the section titles went in roughly chronological order, i.e. the earliest sections of the poem have the names of the Pre-Socratics as their titles (Pythagoras, Heraclitus), and by the end we’re at least brushing up against the contemporary (Habermas, Kristeva). The title refers to Madoc, a mythical Welsh prince who supposedly journeyed to America in the 1100s and founded some sort of Welsh tribe there. Robert Southey wrote a poem about him called, somewhat predictably, Madoc.

Muldoon’s poem takes, as its jumping-off point, a plan by Coleridge and Southey to leave England for America and form a “pantisocratic” society in Pennsylvania. They never actually made the trip to North America, of course, but Muldoon begins by imagining that they had, and placing them, along with some other characters (including a talking, syphlitic horse named Bucephalus) in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As the poem proceeds, it also draws in historical figures who actually were in America at the time, including Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and the explorers Lewis and Clark.

I should make clear that the book is really more concerned with American history than Canadian; to the extent that you can tell where it takes place, it takes place in the U.S., and the other “characters” who appear are mainly American. Canada does, however, make one notable appearance.

The Reference to Canada

I’m going to quote four consecutive sections from the poem, as I feel like they are all part of the reference to Canada.

[MAIMONIDES]

‘And the devil was pleased for it gave him a hint
for improving the prisons of…’

_____

Coleridge stops in his tracks. A Seneca
wearing only a breech-

clout
and a skunk

bonnet and cradling an arquebus
has just stepped out

from behind a beech.
Coleridge is genuinely perplexed.

He unclasps and dabbles
in the portmanteau

for which Southey and he drew lots.
He brandishes John Eliot’s

Algonquin Bible
and quaveringly intones the name of ‘Manitou’.

The Mohawk, as he turns out to be, goads
and bullies

him through the gateless gates
of Canada

and into
the formal gardens and unfathomable fountains

of this, the summer palace
of the Old Man of the Mountains.

[FIBONACCI]

Up a spiral staircase with precisely two hundred and thirty-three
steps, each conjured from the living rock.

[BACON]

Through the hoopless hoop of a black rainbow.

[AQUINAS]

To the room where Thayendanegea, Joseph Brant,
appears to him as in a dream,

his head shaved but for a scalp-lock
adorned with a white

feather, his bearskin
robe, his shirt a calico

print
set off by a solid brass

gorget, his sword-stick with its brass ferrule.
He offers Coleridge tea and scones,

pres-
erves and clotted cream.

He folds his arms: ‘Would
you say you came here of your own free will?’  (225-7)

That gives a sense, anyway, of what the book is like. It will take a wiser head than mine to determine the relationship between the philosophers in the titles and the content of the sections, but I will note three things: Coleridge is described as “perplexed” and the most famous book by Maimonides is the Guide for the Perplexed; the number of steps (233) is a number from the Fibonacci Sequence; and the question of free will is one that was extensively considered by Aquinas (though also by numerous other philosophers). Could it all be that straightforward?

But let’s get to the good stuff – one of the most exquisitely suggestive descriptions of Canada I’ve come across, and all conveyed in so few words:

…the gateless gates
of Canada

I’m torn here; I’ve reached that point one sometimes reaches with poetry where trying to explain why something is beautiful simply drains the beauty from it. This image of Canada as a country separate from the U.S. and yet not clearly marked off as such seems to me to speak quite compellingly about the wilderness our country once was, and the mystery and strangeness it once possessed for Europeans. Of course this idea is immediately undermined by the description of “formal gardens” that follows, and ultimately leads to tea and scones with Joseph Brant.

And what of Brant? Born in what is now Ohio, he is technically an American; however, he fought on the Loyalist side (i.e. for the British) during the American Revolution (a subject that came up recently), and lived the later part of his life and died in Canada, and so has come to be associated with our country as well. I think the tea and scones here must be a nod to (or a mockery of?) the fact that Brant’s lifetyle in Canada was apparently very much that of an English country gentleman – he certainly appears somewhat dandified in this passage. And his question, which ends this sequence, has undeniable resonance for a country of immigrants like Canada, a country that people choose to come to – even if they feel to some extent that they have been pushed to it by circumstances in their homelands, just as Coleridge here is “goaded and bullied” across the border. (One could almost read the sequence as a fable of immigration.)

Wow – Canadian Intertextuality

There’s one more reference to consider, which isn’t directly to Canada, but related to our work here at Wow – Canada!:

[MANDEVILLE]

It moulders now in the double-dusk
of the valise,
along with a copy of Voltaire’s
L’Ingenu;   (230)

The Ingenu involves a Frenchman who was raised in Canada by the Huron and, as we have already noted, contains numerous references to Canada. Muldoon probably mentions it here simply because its subject matter relates to that of Madoc: A Mystery, but for us, this passage represents the exciting first instance of what we might call “Wow – Canada intertextuality”: a book that refers to Canada and also refers to another book that refers to Canada. So a big moment.

In Conclusion

I want to enjoy those two lines one more time:

…the gateless gates
of Canada

 

The Humble Canadian Takes On Wall Street

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Michael Lewis, “The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street” (NYT Magazine, April 6, 2014)

I hadn’t really planned on spending any more time on Brad Katsuyama, but then the NYT Magazine landed on my doorstep on Sunday morning. The copy under the “Meet Brad” headline reads:

He’s a humble Canadian trader who happened to figure out exactly how the stock market was rigged. Now Wall Street may never be the same.

We learned from 60 Minutes that Katsuyama was a conformist even by Canada’s rigorous standards for conformity; now we discover that he’s also “humble.” I understand that Michael Lewis probably didn’t write the copy on the cover of the magazine; I also understand that it’s trying to set up a “David and Goliath” type narrative that is intriguing enough to make you open the magazine and read the article; but “humble”? Really? This is the man who may revolutionize Wall Street, and the best adjective they can apply to him is “humble”? Not “clever”? Not “brilliant”? Not “bold”? Not “crusading” – I like crusading. The Crusading Canadian – it even alliterates. But no – he’s a Canadian being featured in an American publication, and so he must conform to the pre-existing American stereotypes about Canadians: he must be polite, he must be quiet, he must be conformist, he must be humble.

And then there’s that phrase, “happened to figure out.” My recollection from watching the 60 Minutes report was that Katsuyama and his team actually put a significant amount of time and effort into figuring out how other people were managing to front run their trades. It required doggedness, ingenuity, creative thinking, a refusal to give up or to accept being told that was just how the system worked – in short, it took the opposite of humility and conformity. But here, on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, all that effort is elided, and we’re told Katsuyama “happened to figure it out,” as if by some happy accident.

Now that I’ve finished complaining about the cover, the article itself is actually quite fascinating. It goes over some of the same ground as the 60 Minutes report, and also reveals some new aspects of the story. Most of all, Lewis paints a very compelling picture of Brad Katsuyama as a person who felt forced by circumstance to take action for something that, for lack of a better word, could be called “principle”.

It’s important to point out that Katsuyama lives and works in the United States, and that the story is very much about the American financial system – there’s really not a whole lot about Canada in most of the article. In the introductory paragraphs, however, we are treated to some key ideas about our humble little nation to the north:

Before the collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, Brad Katsuyama could tell himself that he bore no responsibility for that system. He worked for the Royal Bank of Canada, for a start. RBC might have been the fifth-biggest bank in North America, by some measures, but it was on nobody’s mental map of Wall Street. It was stable and relatively virtuous and soon to be known for having resisted the temptation to make bad sub-prime loans to Americans or to peddle them to ignorant investors. But its management didn’t understand just what an afterthought it was – on the rare occasions American financiers thought about it at all.  (28)

Stability, (relative) virtue, resistance to temptation – these are classic merits that Americans associate with dull, conservative old Canada. And I love that phrase, “by some measures,” as if to say RBC likes to call itself the fifth-largest bank, but no one really believes it. The Canadian financial system is being firmly put in its place here. When Katsuyama arrives in New York, Lewis makes him sound rather naive:

It was his first immersive course in the American way of life, and he was instantly struck by how different it was from the Canadian version. “Everything was to excess,” he says. “I met more offensive people in a year than I had in my entire life. People lived beyond their means, and the way they did it was by going into debt. Debt was a foreign concept in Canada. Debt was evil.”  (28)

Canadians sound rather schoolmarmish here, horrified by loud voices and the very concept of borrowing money. But this passage is also funny for the way, in describing a stereotypical Canadian who’s shocked at the freewheeling American way of life, it smuggles in Canadian stereotypes about Americans – that they’re all loud, brash, offensive, and racking up an insane amount of debt to make sure their lifestyle keeps up with their incessant bragging. Canadians, and Canadian banks, need to be insulated from such offensive behaviour:

The RBC trading floor had a no-jerk rule … If someone came in the door looking for a job and sounding like a typical Wall Street jerk, he wouldn’t be hired, no matter how much money he said he could make the firm. There was even an expression used to describe the culture: “RBC nice.” Although Katsuyama found the expression embarrassingly Canadian, he, too, was RBC nice.  (28)

These opening few paragraphs are like a high-speed tour through American ideas of what it means to be Canadian, all building towards this final, central concept of how nice (close cousin to polite) we are. In this telling, even Canada’s largest bank doesn’t care how much money it makes; all it cares about is making sure everyone is nice. Niceness is the archetypal Canadian virtue, the quality from which all our other characteristics spring; everything begins with everyone being nice. We didn’t make bad sub-prime loans – that wouldn’t be nice. We don’t act offensively – it’s not nice. We don’t go into debt – debt’s not nice. And we certainly don’t give jobs to jerks – jerks, after all, aren’t nice.

The table of contents page of the magazine has a photo of Katsuyama and his wife at home playing with their kids; the signs on the wall in the background seem to fit so perfectly with the image of Katsuyama in the story that it’s hard not to wonder whether the photographer hung them there before taking the picture:

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The idea of Canadian virtue that the article trades in is summed up in those five words: “Play Nice.” “Share Your Toys.” Clearly, RBC’s “no-jerk” policy extends all the way to the Katsuyama playroom.

A Canadian Conformist Tries to Reform Wall Street

60 Minutes, March 30, 2014

The March 30, 2014 episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes features a story on Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys, which involves a Canadian trader, Brad Katsuyama. While working at RBC, he figured out how a quirk in the speed at which trades reach different trading centres was allowing high-frequency traders to make significant profits by essentially front-running the orders of regular traders. He ultimately started his own exchange (! – I didn’t even know you could do that) with the goal of making trading more fair and transparent.

The piece is interesting to watch on its own merits, and it ties in nicely with the more “scientific/technological” side of Canada we’ve been noticing lately, but I couldn’t help wondering, as I sat through it, whether it would provide a glimpse into American attitudes towards Canadians. There is a certain tone of condescending surprise that runs throughout the piece, as though it’s remarkable that Canadians have even heard of the stock exchange, never mind figured out how it works. And then there’s this quote from the host, Steve Kroft, at about the 11:50 mark (11:30 in the YouTube version at the top):

That’s when Katsuyama, a conformist even by Canadian standards, decided to do something radical.

“Even” is the key word in that sentence, suggesting that we Canadians are extremely conformist to begin with, and Katsuyama is, if such a thing is possible, an extremist when it comes to conformity. This seems to me a classic American stereotype about Canadians, one in which they define themselves as the bold, entrepreneurial, free-thinking North Americans and us as their polite, boring, status-quo neighbours to the north. Could this perception be rooted all the way back in the phenomenon of United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution and our decision to remain a British colony rather than striking out on our own?

Hard to say, but whatever its source, the attitude clearly persists: Canadians are the human equivalent of a dull grey suit, forever masking ourselves and our true feelings, never stepping out of line, never doing anything unexpected but always plodding steadily along without really going much of anywhere.

On the other hand, according to the 60 Minutes report, it took a Canadian – not to figure out what was going on, since apparently other people had figured that out, at least to some extent, but it took a Canadian to actually make the effort to stand up to the vested interests and try to change an unfair system. This phrase, also from Kroft, sums it up nicely:

You beat speed by slowing down?

I suppose Americans would consider that a very Canadian approach to heroism.

Canada: Centre of Advanced Science

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Nathaniel Rich, “The New Origin of the Species” (NYT Magazine, March 2, 2014)

Is it just me, or does the mammoth in that cover photo look an awful lot like Snuffleupagus?  (It’s in the eyebrows.) Or did it just never occur to me before that Snuffleupagus is a mammoth, but without tusks?

Anyway….

I thought, in connection with Paul Muldoon’s references to his brother’s advanced agricultural science studies in Guelph, that it would be worthwhile just to take note, in passing, of a reference to the role played by Canada in the re-creation of extinct species in an article from the New York Times Magazine.

For context, Ben Novak, one of the central figures in the article, is an ecologist obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the passenger pigeon. Beth Shapiro is sequencing the passenger pigeon’s DNA; Novak applied for a job at her lab but was rejected, which led him to McMaster. Hence the word “instead” at the beginning of the quote; unable to find a job in the U.S. (that centre of the scholarly universe), he had to settle for Hamilton:

Novak instead entered a graduate program at the McMaster Ancient DNA Center [sic] in Hamilton, Ontario, where he worked on the sequencing of mastodon DNA. But he remained obsessed by passenger pigeons. He decided that, if he couldn’t join Shapiro’s lab, he would sequence the pigeon’s genome himself. He needed tissue samples, so he sent letters to every museum he could find that possessed the stuffed specimens. He was denied more than 30 times before Chicago’s Field Museum sent him a tiny slice of a pigeon’s toe. A lab in Toronto conducted the sequencing for a little more than $2,500….  (29)

There are a few points worth drawing out here, but first, if you’re using the proper name of an institution like the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, you should at least spell it the way the institution spells it. And in Canada, we spell “centre” with an “re,” not an “er.” It’s so typically American to casually impose their spelling conventions on us. They see themselves as the centre of everything, and it never occurs to them that other countries might have their own way of doing things.

The reference to McMaster, introduced by that loaded “instead,” does make it sound a bit like a consolation prize, as if Novak would have much preferred to stay in the U.S. if he could have – but let’s not let ourselves slide into the muck of being aggrieved and offended.

Instead, let’s focus on the positive aspects of Canada we learn about here. First, McMaster apparently has an institution that’s a leader in the field of sequencing the DNA of extinct animals. Did you know that? I didn’t. And second, there’s a lab in Toronto that, for a moderate fee, will actually sequence the DNA of an extinct animal for you if you simply send them a sample. I had no idea I lived in such a hub of cutting-edge science. I’m surprised people aren’t breaking into museums, stealing bits of dinosaur bone, and mailing them off to the lab every day so they can create their own dinosaur theme parks. We could be at the centre of the species resurrection revolution – which, according to this article, is proceeding apace.

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