Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “February, 2015”

Is Canada the Brains of North America?

LockwoodMotherland

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014)

As Willie Nelson observes somewhere or other, “You can’t write a song if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Fortunately, poetry has outgrown such trite restrictions. In fact, for many contemporary poets, it would seem that having nothing to say – or having arrived at the conclusion that there’s no point in trying to say anything because saying something is embarrassingly unhip – is not a disqualification, but rather the base camp from which the writing of poetry sets out.

Patricia Lockwood falls into this category: it’s difficult to say that any specific poem of hers is “about” something (with perhaps one major exception). The materials of life and, in particular, popular culture are certainly present in her work, but they enter in an oblique or tangential manner, and her poems don’t appear to be addressed to things external to themselves in a conventional way; rather, they seem more interested in the makings of poetry itself – they are about language and metaphor and the odd jumps thought can take; they are enactments and illustrations of their own construction; they show off their seams and sutures rather than trying to disguise them. Some are extended riffs that repeat the same idea, the poet seeming to look on with amusement as the idea becomes more outrageous with each iteration (see the second poem below).

Most gratifyingly, Lockwood seems to have a minor obsession with Canada. We’ve considered her work before; this collection contains two poems that explicitly (and I used that word advisedly – consider that your NSFW warning) refer to Canada. Here’s the first (minus the proper line indentations, which I haven’t been able to maintain online):

Search “Lizard Vagina” and You Shall Find

A higher country has a question, a higher
country searched and found me, and the name
of the country was north of me, Canada.
When I think of you I think up there just as I
think when I think of my brain, my brain
and the bad sunning lizard inside it. Today
you searched “lizard vagina,” Canada. It is so
hugely small if you can imagine it; it is scaled
it is scaled so far down. It evolved over many
millions of years to be perfectly invisible to you;
and so you will never see it, Canada. Here is
some pornography, if it will help: tongues flick
out all over the desert! Next time try thunder
lizard vagina. That will be big enough for even
you, Canada. You have one somewhere
in your hills, or else somewhere in your badlands.
Perhaps someone is uncovering a real one right
now, with a pickaxe a passion and a patience.
Ever since she was a child she knew what she
would do. She buttons her background-colored
clothes, she bends down to her work;
keep spreading,
Canada, she will show you to yourself.
Your down there that is, my Up There. Oh South oh
South oh South you think, oh West oh West now West
say you. The pickaxe the passion and the patience
hears, pink tongue between her lips just thinking.
The stones and the sand and the hollows they watch
her. The tip of her tongue thinks almost out loud,
“I have a brain am in a brain brain suns itself in lizard
too. Where would I be if I were what I wanted?”
Has a feeling finally swings the pickaxe- the passion-
and the patience-tip down.  (3-5)

Canada plays such a large role in this poem that we could almost say it is “about” Canada, or at least about the speaker’s thoughts about Canada – except that we have already disposed of the idea that poems are “about” anything. But given the frequent use of “you” and “Canada” in apposition to one another, we can at least say the poem is addressed to Canada.

The speaker’s actual ideas about our country, however, aren’t especially unique. In the opening lines, there is a cluster of words and phrases associated with Canada: “higher,” “north of me,” “up there” – ideas which seem typically American, and also rather pedestrian, since Canada is, after all, directly north of the U.S. It’s mildly interesting to see how “up there” shades into the brain, as if to suggest Canada is a more rational or intellectual nation than the U.S.

The line “that will be big enough for even / you, Canada” picks up on another common idea, that Canada is geographically large; the same idea occurs (among other places) in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Crossing the Water,” where the size of trees is conveyed by saying that “their shadows must cover Canada”.

But none of this comes as news.

The real crux of the poem, at least for our purposes, is the question of why Canada would search “lizard vagina” in the first place. And yet here, just when the question, “What is she really saying about Canada?” becomes most urgent, the answer becomes most elusive. Why would Canada search “lizard vagina”? Why would anyone? I can’t say I know.

One can, however, consult a list of what Canadians searched for in 2013 (the book was published in 2014, so I’m assuming 2013 would be the most relevant year) – even without “lizard vagina,” the results are somewhat dispiriting.

The Fifty-First State?

Canada also makes an appearance in a later poem, though we’re peripheral rather than central in this one.

Revealing Nature Photographs

In a field where else you found a stack
of revealing nature photographs, of supernude nature
photographs, split beaver of course nature photographs,
photographs full of 70s bush, nature taking come
from every man from miles around, nature with come back
to me just dripping from her lips. The stack came
up to your eye, you saw: nature is big into bloodplay,
nature is into extreme age play, nature does wild inter-
racial, nature she wants you to pee in her mouth, nature
is dead and nature is sleeping and still nature is on all fours,
a horse it fucks nature to death up in Oregon, nature is hot
young amateur redheads, the foxes are all in their holes
for the night, nature is hot old used-up cougars, nature
makes gaping fake-agony faces, nature is consensual dad-
on-daughter, nature is completely obsessed with twins,
nature doing specialty and nature doing niche, exotic females
they line up to drip for you, nature getting paddled as hard
as you can paddle her, oh a whitewater rapid with her ass
in the air, high snowy tail on display just everywhere.
The pictures were so many they started to move. Let me
watch for the rest of my natural life, you said and sank down
in the field and breathed hard. Let me watch and watch
without her knowing, let me see her where she can’t see me.
As long as she can’t see me, I can breathe hard here forever.
See nature do untold animal sex, see nature’s Sicko Teen
Farm SexFeest, see her gush like the geyser at Yellowstone,
see the shocking act that got her banned in fifty-one states including
Canada. See men for miles around give nature what she needs,
rivers and rivers and rivers of it. You exhale with perfect
happiness. Nature turned you down in high school.
Now you can come in her eye.  (33)

That might be my favourite poem in the whole book, and it mentions Canada. Sometimes, things just work out.

Canada is the fifty-first state being referred to here – as the phrase “fifty-one states including Canada” makes clear. It’s sad, obviously, being demoted from an independent nation to an add-on to the U.S.; this does, however, represent another typical American attitude – that Canada is essentially the same as the U.S. and not really anything more than a geographical extension of their country. Perhaps we can tell ourselves that Lockwood is parodying that idea rather than presenting it straightforwardly.

So, what can we conclude overall about Lockwood’s view of Canada? Despite the excitement of a poem literally directed towards us, we don’t get much new: Canada is up north, Canada is big, Canada is (perhaps) a more rational nation than the U.S. – the old “peace, order and good government” idea – but at the same time it’s so similar to the U.S. that it’s really just another state. Though Lockwood seems to be considered one of America’s exciting new poets, her ideas about Canada are rather retrograde.

But there’s another Canadian reference worth considering…

Canada as Marketing Device

What is perhaps this book’s most interesting reference to Canada is not in the book at all, and was probably not even written by Lockwood; instead, it comes on the back cover:

LockwoodBack

In case you can’t read that, the second line says, “Is America going down on Canada?”

What does this mean in the context of back cover blurbery?

The purpose of back cover copy, obviously, is to get people intrigued enough to buy the book. And sex sells, as they say, so it’s not surprising that there would be a reference to sex on the back cover. (In fact, all the questions on the back cover have at least a tangential relation to sex.) Which means that someone, somewhere (in the Penguin marketing department, presumably) decided the question of whether the U.S. is performing oral sex on Canada (along with questions about deer porn and Whitman’s tit pics) might make people want to buy the book.

Which is a striking enough thought in itself: are Americans really so interested in the issue of Canada-U.S. (sexual) relations that this line would make them more likely to purchase a poetry collection? It’s certainly a flattering thought.

But even more striking are the sexual roles in which our countries are placed. In the book itself, Canada is the fifty-first state, which suggests that Americans unconsciously feel a certain power over, and ownership of, us. On the back cover, however, the standard power relation between Canada and the U.S. is reversed. Canada isn’t the passive one, trying to please the U.S.; instead, our big, powerful neighbour to the South is going down on us. This suggests that Canada has some sort of power, some mysterious, irresistible appeal, that makes the U.S. want to please us. But what is it?

Canada as Hipster Talisman

Canada plays a large role in Lockwood’s book, and is prominently featured on the back cover, because Lockwood is a hipster, and American hipsters are obsessed with Canada.

The evidence for this has been mounting for a while – just the examples we’ve considered here include Lockwood herself, Tao Lin, Michael Robbins, Leigh Stein, and a series of New Yorker cartoons (proto-hipsterism). And even beyond the borders of our little website, there are facts that can’t be ignored: Canadian Ryan Gosling is essentially the ultimate male hipster, there is a hipster record company called Secretly Canadian, and so on. Now seems an opportune time to take up the question directly: why is Canada so significant to American hipsters?

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

But simply standing apart isn’t enough; the essence of hipsterism is using your appearance and your interests to convey to everyone else the fact that you stand apart from mainstream American culture. There’s no point in being a unique individual if no one notices; you must also appear to be a unique individual (and in some cases, no doubt, the appearance comes ahead of the reality by a significant distance), and appear so in a graphic enough way that everyone around you recognizes your uniqueness. This is what hipsters strive so hard for, growing beards and getting tattoos and piercings and waxing their moustaches and buying music only on vinyl and making their own clothes and whatever else they do – and what they strive so hard to achieve, Canadians have already achieved simply by being Canadian.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

(As a side note: The subconscious yearning, on the part of American hipsters, to be Canadian was perhaps best expressed in this map that circulated a few years ago:

usofcmap

In it, we see how the “hip” parts of the United States – essentially the Northeast, part of the Midwest and the West coast – have unilaterally attached themselves to Canada, abandoning the rest of the U.S. to “Jesusland”.

My recollection is that this map began to circulate after the re-election of George W. Bush, and that at the time it represented a desire on the part of more moderate, left-leaning Americans to escape from what they felt was their country’s slide into religious conservatism and overseas war-mongering. From that perspective, it represents a typically American view of Canada as a more moderate, progressive and pacifist nation, still similar enough to the U.S. to make a merger easy, but different in precisely the ways that Kerry voters wished their own country could be different. Some even became – or at least claimed to have become – willing to rush into the warm, moderate embrace of their snow-bound neighbour to the North.

But even beyond its immediate political context, the map represents a statement by a certain portion of the U.S. (essentially, the part of the nation that contains most of the hipsters) that they are not a part of mainstream America, but more open-minded, more liberal, more multicultural – in short, that they are more like Canadians than Americans.)

For hip Americans, Canada is like a distorting mirror that shows them, not who they actually are, but the image of the unusual, exciting person they want to be. In other words, the simplest definition of a hipster would be, “An American who wants to be Canadian.”

The Agonies of the Writing Process

Coming full circle at last, here is the Willie Nelson song that contains his thoughts on the necessity of a writer having something to say:

I’ve always thought of it as a portrait of Willie wrestling with writer’s block, but no doubt there are other possible interpretations.

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Mother Runs Off … to Canada

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James Lees-Milne, Another Self (1970)

Another Self is generally referred to as a “semi-autobiographical novel,” though today, no doubt, it would just be marketed as a “memoir”. Lees-Milne is best-known as a diarist – a number of volumes of his diaries have been published – and as a key figure in the early years of the National Trust, and was also a member of the Mitford circle. (There are similarities between his description of his father in this book and the father figure in the work of Nancy and Jessica Mitford.) Another Self gives an account of his childhood and youth, the idea behind the title apparently being that the person he was then is no longer the same as the person who wrote this book.

The reference to Canada comes at a point in the book when Lees-Milne is describing how his parents reacted to his lack of success at Eton:

My housemaster recommended that there was little point in my remaining at school beyond the summer half. Eton, he hinted, could do little further for me, and I might just as well make room for some other boy who would benefit from it. My father was naturally in a blazing temper. My mother who could not face up to the recriminations which, she explained, would only make her ill, kissed me fondly goodbye, and sailed away to Canada.  (45)

There is something about that scene – not romantic precisely – but melodramatic, I think. The threat of illness, the fond kiss, the abrupt departure for a distant location – these elements seem borrowed from the Victorian stage and make this moment feel not so much natural as constructed for effect – though whether constructed by the author or by his mother is hard to say.

Canada’s emphatic placement at the end of the paragraph makes our country the dramatic culmination of the whole passage – it is this departure to Canada that the narrative leads up to. And yet Canada itself remains mysterious. Why does she sail to Canada? What does she do there? We are never told. The name of our country simply sits on the page, unexplained and, perhaps, inexplicable.

Of course, as a (former) British colony, Canada would offer at least some of the comforts of familiarity to Lees-Milne’s mother: she would be able to speak the language and so on. We could almost imagine Canada as a sort of sanatorium, maintained by the Empire, where Englishwomen can go when they need a break from life at home. After a few months in the colonial wilderness, no doubt, whatever problems they had back in England will begin to look relatively minor.

And in fact, in the next chapter the narrator’s mother is back in England, and no reference to Canada is ever made again. We can speculate about the reasons behind the journey – did she have a lover there, or a lover who was going there? She had already run – or more accurately, flown – off with a balloonist before the abrupt departure to Canada, so something along those lines is possible – but we are never told.

Canada is the means by which the mother dramatically gives up on life and escapes from reality, but only temporarily. Sailing to Canada is not a real decision with irrevocable consequences; it is, rather, a gesture that conveys the mother’s mental and emotional state at that particular moment in time, but can always be retracted later. For her, living in Canada is a momentary aberration, not a permanent state.

The Tender Wilderness

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Leigh Stein, Dispatch From The Future (2012)

Many poets – mainly insecure ones, of which there is no shortage – are in love with difficulty – or, more precisely, they are in love with the idea of their work being perceived as difficult. There is a romance to the difficult, born out of its association with genius, that makes it very attractive. But the difficulty we find in works of genius comes from an attempt to communicate genuinely complex ideas – and alas, genius is rare. For most poets, the desire to produce difficult works of genius tends to collapse into masking mediocrity with willful obscurity.

Why this tendency to lean on obscurity as a substitute for difficulty? Many poets just don’t have anything that profound to say, and that makes clarity tremendously risky. If you express yourself clearly, there is a good chance someone – perhaps a lot of people – will find what you’re saying trite or shallow, which would only confirm the insecure writer’s fear that they have nothing interesting or original to say. If you’re a poet, then, and you’re not certain that you have anything interesting to say, how much safer it is to express yourself in the most obscure way possible. When people are confronted with a poem that is clear, they tend to evaluate its “sense”; when they’re confronted with a poem they find obscure, they may assume that the writer is saying something that is too complex for them to understand. Obscurity thus becomes the perfect cover for vacuity.

The poems in Leigh Stein’s collection, Dispatch From The Future, read as if they have been studiously composed to avoid making conventional sense. As you read them, you often feel, over a stretch of lines, that there is a narrative taking shape or an idea being developed; and then there will come a sudden wrenching aside of the poem into another, seemingly unrelated direction, as if the poet has caught herself making sense and veered sharply into the thickets of obscurity out of fear that she might reveal something – or worse, reveal that there is nothing to reveal.

There are two references to Canada in two different poems. Though both references are passing ones, I’ll quote the poems in their entirety – partly for context, and partly because I find it disrespectful to both poets and poems to chop out a little chunk a few lines long.

Try A Little (Canadian) Tenderness

Here’s the first:

Katharine Tillman vs. Lake Michigan

Mitsu flips a lot of coins. Katharine told me that once
she was in the middle of a tantrum and a coin
told him he should love her, and yet, he wasn’t
satisfied so he went to the dictionary and closed
his eyes and found a word and when she asked
what word he found, the only thing he would tell her
was that he was one step closer to the secret
of the universe. Can you tell me what it rhymes with,
she asked him. Is it a verb? Is it a country? Have I
been there? Will you write its name on my back
while we sit on the pier and watch the blue dusk
chase the sun to Jersey? The last time I ever
saw Katharine she asked me the name of the lake
in the distance and I said Michigan and she said
she’d heard of it, and then she showed me the diaries
she kept when she lived under the overpass
near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,
when all she had was a travel Scrabble set and
the reason she’d run away. Milan Kundera
has a lot to say about our tenuous insignificance.
When he wants to decide something he, too,
flips a coin, but in his case heads is Little Rock,
Arkansas, and tails is Little Rock, Arkansas, and
it’s just a matter of who to blindfold and bring with
on his motorcycle. On page one hundred and seven
of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I get lost
driving Katharine to the airport. On page one hundred
and forty nine, Tereza dreams that they take her away.
After I see Katharine for the last time I don’t go home;
I go to Prague and it’s 1968 and the man I love won’t
touch me; he just holds an empty gun to my temple
and even though we both know it’s empty there’s the small
comfort that the worst thing that could possibly happen
would be the thing I want most. Mitsu says the secret
of the universe is obvious in any planetary shaped
object you can find on the floor of a parking garage.
Katharine says how. I say I want to move to Canada;
the only tenderness anyone can get around here
is in the time it takes him to untie my wrists.  (22-23)

Several elements in this poem recur throughout the book and seem to mark points of interest  (“obsessions” might be more apt) for Stein: women in peril, usually at the hands of men; references to Milan Kundera (a writer who seems sophisticated when you’re 18); suicidal thoughts and the desire for death.

I’m not going to attempt to interpret the whole poem – you can tackle that yourself if you’re so inclined. Canada appears at the very end, as a place to which the speaker wants to move. She doesn’t explicitly say why, but if we take the next two lines as explanatory (and that seems to me the most reasonable way to read them), then her desire to move to Canada comes from the feeling that there is not enough tenderness in her life in the U.S., and moving north of the border might be a way to find some.

This idea of searching for tenderness in Canada represents yet another iteration of the familiar American idea that Canada is a gentler, more pacifist nation than the U.S., and that those seeking to escape the violent, martial side of the American character (represented in this poem by the man who apparently keeps the speaker tied up most of the time) can do so here.

You Can’t Have Paris (But You Can Have Canada)

On to the second Canadian reference:

Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness

My favourite book is the one with the woman
who wears a balaclava every time she goes
under the viaduct because it’s Canada, and
because she’s married to a man who loves
her sister, and because if her family found her
under the viaduct, she would lose everything;
more than that, she would lose the end of the story
he began. Il était une fois, he said, there are rugs
made by children who go blind and turn
to crime, and/or rescuing sacrificial virgins
from the palace the night before the sacrifice.
Turn one page if you want to be the woman,
listening to the story, but you’ll have to
keep the hat on. Turn three if you’d rather
be a girl alone in a bed, waiting. I was
always that girl: you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do but follow the blind boy, watch
as he puts the body of the strangled guard
in your bed, in your place, follow as he leads
you through the air ventilation system and over
the palace walls? I never chose any other way
because what could the woman do but love him
and listen to a story that wasn’t about her.
After you get over the walls you run
through the darkness, the darkness that isn’t
darkness to the blind boy because of his blindness,
the silent darkness to you who can’t describe it,
you run until you turn the page, but then instead
of safety, a valley, and the woman under the viaduct
puts her skirt on and goes back home and you think
you’ve ended up in the wrong story, but months later
she gets a phone call saying the man was killed
in the Spanish Civil War and that’s the end
because the only person who knows
what happened to you is dead.   (45-46)

The title of the poem refers to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books (which are another recurring reference/obsession for Stein – she even mentions “the great R.A. Montgomery” in a couple of poems), and the poem itself recalls the format of those books with its “turn one page if … turn three pages if…” conceit. The direct association of Canada with the idea of “wilderness” should surprise no one at this point – we are, by now, quite familiar with the fact that many Americans think of our country as little more than an uninterrupted band of forest topped with an uninterrupted band of tundra.

The idea of choice does, however, complicate this impression: apparently there are different Canadian wildernesses, which are distinct enough from one another that a person could make some sort of choice among them. But the poem itself never explains the differences.

And then we have “the woman / who wears a balaclava every time she goes / under the viaduct because it’s Canada”. Presumably when we are told the woman wore a balaclava “because it’s Canada,” we are meant to understand, “and Canada, as everyone in the United States knows, is cold all the time and therefore the wearing of balaclavas is essential in order to prevent your skin from instantly freezing the moment you step outside” (or something along those lines). So Canada is cold – another common idea.

And does “Il etait une fois,” which is the French equivalent of “Once upon a time,” appear here because of some half-buried notion that everyone in Canada speaks French? It’s difficult to say for certain, but the possibility hums in the air.

From there Stein drops Canada, but ultimately, a reading of the poem returns us to the question of the title. Why did Stein give the poem that particular title? In what sense is anyone in the poem choosing a Canadian wilderness?

I don’t think there is necessarily a linear link between the title and the body of the poem, nor does there need to be. To me, the title is of a piece with what follows.  There is a bleakness, verging on despair, in the implication that while you can choose your own Canadian wilderness, you can’t choose anything other than a Canadian wilderness – you can’t choose your own Parisian arrondissement, for example, or your own cottage in the Lake District – it’s just one Canadian wilderness or another.

Likewise the poem, which seems to be about women caught in threatening narratives that offer no escape or resolution, creates an overall sense of repetitive hopelessness, and the idea of choosing a Canadian wilderness is emblematic of that hopelessness. This is quite different from the idea of Canada in the previous poem: there, Canada represented a hope for refuge from the man who kept the woman tied up; here, there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of escape, except perhaps to some Canadian wilderness, which is apparently not a very appealing prospect.

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