Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “July, 2015”

Discovered: An Eighth Type of Ambiguity

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Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Despite the title, this novel really revolves around the gradual unravelling of the family and household of the narrator, Ruth. At the end of the book – which is the only part that concerns us here – Ruth and her Aunt Sylvie, who gave up life as a transient to try to raise Ruth and her sister, leave town to jump a train and become transients together. This passage is from the very end of the novel:

We caught the next westbound and drowsed among poultry crates all the way to Seattle. From there we went to Portland, and from there to Crescent City, and from there to Vancouver, and from there again to Seattle. At first our trail was intricate so that we would elude discovery, and then it was intricate because we had no particular reason to go to one town rather than another, and no particular reason to stay anywhere, or to leave.  (216)

It’s perhaps needless to say that, at this point, I just assumed I had found a reference to Canada, and it was only after the Wow – Canada! research staff did a little digging into the geography of the Pacific Northwest that we learned there is also a Vancouver in Washington state.

Given that the area they’re wandering through could include either place, it’s difficult to determine whether the Vancouver mentioned is the American one or the one in British Columbia; this is, then, an ambiguously Canadian reference. It could certainly be read as a reference to Canada (and likely will be, at least by Canadians); at the same time, it doesn’t need to be read as such, and is not explicitly one. We might argue that since the (American) narrator never clearly states that she means the Vancouver in Canada, we should just assume she means the American one; on the other hand, we might point out that Vancouver seems to be the furthest point on the journey, since it is followed by a return to Seattle, which might indicate that the Vancouver they visited is in another country.

And, as we have seen before, American authors often refer to Canadian places without specifying that they are in Canada, and treat Canadian locations as if they were part of some mythical “greater United States” that includes Canada, so given that, the absence of a specifically Canadian identification doesn’t preclude the possibility that they did go to the Canadian Vancouver.

Whatever the truth – if such a thing exists – it’s interesting to note that both British Columbia and Washington contain a Vancouver, which indicates something of the intertwined nature of the North American history we share with our neighbour to the south.

Glenn Gould, Robbie Robertson and Cottage Country

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Lucy Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (2013)

What originally drew me to this book was its large, almost square shape, which made it stand out amid the other poetry books on the shelf in the bookstore. (There’s a tip for you aspiring poets – eccentricity, at least when it comes to the size of a book, can sometimes pay off.) When I flipped it open, the word “Canada” swam up out of the rest of the type on the page, and so I had to buy it.

This is the poem containing the reference that first caught my attention:

PAX ARCANA

The Amish housemaid lived in one small room inside the lemon cookie jar

Of our mother’s mother’s pantry at the lake in Canada.

Her linens were chenille and bumpy, worn. Her only jewels were bobby pins.

After supper, after covering the crust of the rhubarb pie with a tea towel,

She retired early to her room. She took off her cotton cap.

She undid the hooks and eyes of her stiff black apron-dress,

Stood reading the chapter from the longsome blue-bound book.

Just as the light on the lake was dimming, at the end of days,

She snuffed out her one late wicker-shaded lamp, and lit (with a curiously

Long-reaching safety match) the waxing crescent-moon above the provinces.

She folded her floury hands beneath her head

And went to her knees by the doll-sized bed.  (21)

The phrase “at the lake in Canada” indicates that we have here another example of a trope we have come across before: Canada as a place where Americans have cottages. It’s interesting that there is no specificity to the reference; is the lake in Muskoka? In Ontario? In the Eastern Townships? In Quebec? We don’t know – we are told simply that it is in Canada, as though Canada were nothing but one large, undifferentiated land of lakes surrounded by cottages owned by Americans (which is perhaps, for Brock-Broido, exactly what it is). And so Canada is again that obscure wilderness escape for Americans trying to get away from their “real” lives in the U.S.

Incidentally, I recall the sort of matches described here: extremely long ones that were designed for lighting barbecues and fireplaces. I wonder if the speaker’s apparent puzzlement at them indicates that they are a Canadian invention? Although since the Amish housemaid in question is apparently the size of a small doll, perhaps it’s just a normal match, and only looks long when held by a doll-sized woman?

Glenn Gould Times Two

Upon reading the rest of the book, I discovered several other references to Canada – or really, to Canadians – which I  might as well catalogue while I’m at it.

EXTREME WISTERIA

On abandon, uncalled for but called forth.

The hydrangea of her crushed each year a little more into the attar of herself.

Pallid. Injured. Wild in ecstasy. A throat to come home to, tupelo.

Lemurs in parlors, inconsolable.

Parlors of burgundy and sleigh. Unseverable fear.

Case history: wistful, woke most every afternoon.

In the green rooms of the Abandonarium.

Beautiful cage, asylum in.

Reckless urges to climb celestial trellises that may or may not have been there.

So few wild raspberries, they were countable and triaged out by hand.

Ten-thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Intimacy with others, sateen.

Extreme hyacinth as evidence.

Her single subject the idea that every single thing she loves

Will (perhaps tomorrow) die.

High editorial illusion of “control”. Early childhood: measles, scarlet fevers.

Cleopatra for most masquerades, gold sandals, broken home;

Convinced Gould’s late last recording of the Goldberg Variations was for her.

Unusual coalition of early deaths.

Early middle deaths as well. Believed, despite all evidence,

In afterlife, looked hopelessly for corroborating evidence of such.

Wisteria, extreme.

There was always the murmur, you remember, about going home. (29-30)

The poem seems to be about an old woman approaching death, which perhaps accounts for its fragmented quality. The reference, of course, is to Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice, once at the beginning of his career, and once at the end. The late recording (the one referred to here) is remarkable for almost unbelievably slow tempos in some of the variations; the opening aria is taken with such aching slowness in the opening bars that there are moments when it feels like the next note will never arrive.

This seems fitting, given the state of the woman at the centre of the poem, who seems to be experiencing death as an unbearably slow breaking up of her consciousness. As for Gould, he is a Canadian with a genuinely international reputation, and it’s nice to see his work picked up by an American poet as a touchstone for a particular type of experience.

Gould himself is the subject of another poem:

GOULDIAN KIT

What makes you think I’m an eccentric, he said, in London
To the brood of the reporters who had gathered to report

On his eccentricities – the tin sink light enough for traveling
But deep enough to swallow his exquisite hands in water filled with ice.

A budgerigar accompanies, perched atop the fugue of Hindemith.

You are quivering now like the librarian reading
to herself out loud in her Arctic room

Composed entirely of snow.

A broadcast (high fidelity) bound by the quiet of the land and
The Mennonite who told him

We are in this world but not of this world,

You see. From the notebook of your partial list of symptoms, phobias:

Fever, paranoia, polio (subclinical), ankle-foot phenomenon,
The possibility of bluish spots. Everything one does is fear

Not being of this world or in this world enough.

There is no world I know, without some word of it.  (49)

The poem is largely a catalogue of impressions or ideas that are associated with Glenn Gould. Gould was a noted eccentric, as suggested by the opening; also a noted hypochondriac, which explains the lines near the end. The lines in the middle about snow and a high-fidelity broadcast perhaps contain the hint of a reference to or a reminiscence of his famous documentary, “The Idea of North,” which he created for the CBC. But even if the poet is not referring to that, we can’t really be surprised to find references to snow in a poem about a prominent Canadian; Canada is cold, after all, remember?

But that budgerigar – what in the world is going on there? I will confess that I had come to the conclusion that it was nothing more than a pointless flourish, another example of contemporary mainstream poetry’s seemingly incessant drive towards the ornately incomprehensible (more on that below). Then, however, one of our junior researchers here at Wow Canada pointed me to this:

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Yes, that’s a photo of Glenn himself as a child; and, if you look closely at the top of the music on the piano you will see, perched there, clear as day, a budgerigar – no doubt the very budgerigar in question in “Gouldian Kit.”

What can I say? My hat is off to Lucie Brock-Broido. Whether the music is in fact a fugue of Hindemith is beyond me to say; if Brock-Broido can tell from that photo that it is, then hats off to her again.

A Long Way from Big Pink

We move from Glenn Gould to another Canadian musician:

MOON RIVER

What is it exactly that you mean when you call me
Your “huckleberry friend”?

What if soon you, too, will go down
Like a sheepdog who has tasted blood on a gentleman’s farm

Far outside the coal belt, and I do not get to see your
Inflorescence one more time what then?

Like a lantern-boat half on fire somewhere down
The crazy river of your mind,
Framed by endless strings of small whortleberry lights, ablaze,

Still, I go on crossing you in style. My affection has always
had its girdled caveats –
A mushroom-colored cummerbund sashing

The waist of another man, or my feeling formal knowing
When to take the fork out of the toaster, at the very moment of

The metaled tines contacting the one electric outlet in the barn.

Even though you will not speak to me again, not in this life,

Where fear accompanies you like a yellow buggy or a carnivore
With dark spots and a long-ringed tail

Unhitched to anything,
I forgive you – everything.

Besides,
You’ve always been such an odd uncanny half-genet of man.  (57)

Yes, I am not mistaken – that is a clear reference to the Robbie Robertson song “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” It’s a long way from Glenn Gould to Robbie Robertson, and we might ask ourselves, what do they have in common? What could have brought these two together in this poetry collection?

It can only be that both are Canadian.

High Fakery as a Poetic Style (Literary-Critical, Unrelated to Canada)

“It was always autumn in the paraphernalia of my laudanums.”

That’s the opening line of the poem “We Have Always Lived In The Castle,” from Stay, Illusion, and if I had to pick a single line to sum up Brock-Broido’s style, I might pick that one. It’s not that the line is obscure; obscurity happens at times in poetry, and it’s our job as readers to try to make what we can of it. And we can try: I know what laudanum is; but what are laudanums? Paraphernalia could be objects used to take the drug (like a junkie’s kit); but how is autumn in these objects? And why autumn? Just for its poetic sheen of a slow sinking into death (one of the concerns of this collection)? For the jingle the “um” ending makes with the end of “laudanum”? And why always? The effects of the laudanum make her feel like it is always autumn? This is a possible interpretation; but if that’s what you mean, there are better ways to say it.

But in trying to make sense of the line, we are following a false path, because in fact this line has been carefully constructed to have no sense. This is not a line that is trying to say something and failing, or that is saying a complex thing in a difficult way; this is a line that is trying very hard not to say anything in a very specific manner – namely, a manner that one might deem “poetic.”

This is the essence of a poetic style that I think of as High Fakery: poetry that is very self-consciously “poetic” in terms of its diction, its use of imagery and metaphor, and the way it seeks out high-sounding obscurity that could be taken for profundity but is generally just an ornate casing for vacuity. Each poem has a well-worked surface of apparent poeticism, but if you fix it with a steady critical gaze, it will crumble to dust and blow away because there is nothing inside it – no meaning, no passion, no vitality to animate the words – the language is dead and embalmed, each poem an exhibit in a silent, sepulchral museum consecrated to the poet’s idea of herself as “a poet.”

I recognize that it is poor form to make generalizations like this without quoting lines to back them up. At the same time, I have quoted four of Brock-Broido’s poems in their entirety already – do I really need to quote more?

As an example of what I’m talking about, scroll back up and re-read the first six or eight lines of “Extreme Wisteria.” You can see, right there, the essence of High Fakery. There is a will to obscurity, an insistent refusal to speak clearly; instead we are given little bursts of words (“wild in ecstasy”), seemingly meaningless metaphors (“attar of herself”), a focus on “colourful” or “unexpected” verbs at the expense of sense (“triaged out”), and moments of (presumably unintentional) hilarity (“Lemurs in parlors, inconsolable”). This is not language being used to convey meaning to the reader; rather, it is language being used to create something more like an atmosphere, a hazy, vague feeling that something “poetic” is going on – a kind of impasto with words.

To be fair, the poem does become clearer as it goes on (beginning at the words “Case history”), and it is quite possible that there is a perfectly comprehensible experience or idea behind “Extreme Wisteria.” Perhaps the dying woman who seems to be the centre of the poem kept lemurs as pets; perhaps she wore rose-petal perfume; but there is no attempt to communicate these ideas clearly. Rather, the poet’s goal seems to be to obscure what she is talking about as much as possible, apparently on the principle that great poetry is always obscure. And that, I think, is the essence of my quarrel with this kind of writing.

Truly great, difficult poetry is always the result of a writer trying to communicate clearly (with perhaps a few exceptions – Lycophron?); the difficult surface is the knotty result of the writer’s struggle to convey a complex idea or emotion. Obscurity such as Brock-Broido’s is the opposite: it is an obscure surface that is applied over the top of an absence, to try to conceal that absence. Great poets write obscurely when they are trying to communicate clearly; bad poets write obscurely when they are trying to cover up the fact that they have nothing to communicate.

This is not poetry written for readers who actually love genuinely good poetry; rather it is written for readers who affect an interest in poetry without really knowing anything about it or having any desire to find out. It’s the sort of thing you can read on your couch in an afternoon without really paying it much attention, and then later, when you go out to a dinner party, you can mention that you read it, and your friends will be impressed that you are “interested in poetry”. It is all about the language on the surface, designed for those who read poetry as if they were bathing in – I was going to say an ocean of incomprehensibility, but it’s really more like a mucky little pond of confusion.

At Last, Some Music (If you read the above, you’ve more than earned it)

Since the specific quality of Gould’s later (1981) recording of the Goldberg Variations is at issue in “Extreme Wisteria,” this video seems appropriate. It’s a comparison of the opening Aria from his two recordings, as part of a conversation with Tim Page about his approach to the later re-recording:

And here is Gould talking a bit about Hindemith, and then playing the fugue from Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3:

I’m trying to imagine how that would sound with budgerigar accompaniment.

And here, if you can stand it, is the video for “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”:

Although personally, I would recommend seeking out the audio-only version.

The Fur-Rich Forests of Canada

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William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2001)

I sometimes feel that a reference to Canada in a book like this doesn’t really “count,” in the sense that it’s not surprising that a book about the history and circumstances of the French Revolution would mention Canada. In this case, however, there is a certain, possibly suggestive, oddity to the way Doyle’s book treats Canada, and so I’m going to quote it.

This paragraph is about France’s struggle to maintain its prestige in the generations following the death of Louis XIV in 1715:

Rivalry with the British was fought out on the oceans of the world. At stake was dominance of the sources and supply of the tropical and oriental luxuries for which Europe was developing an insatiable appetite. Footholds in India, staging posts to China, fur-rich Canadian forests, tropical islands where sugar and coffee could be produced, access to supplies of slaves to work them: these were the prizes for which the British and French fought almost uninterruptedly throughout the 1740s and 1750s.  (19-20)

We have come across a passing reference to the fur trade before, and the fact that fur was a luxury item that Canada supplied to Europe isn’t really news. And the word “forests” is attached, seemingly automatically, to Canada, reminding us that at the time under discussion Canada was mainly wilderness.

There is an oddity about the passage as well, however, that comes out if you linger over it a bit. What Doyle is really talking about, it seems – or at least his own words when he generalizes the subject matter before listing the specifics – is “tropical and oriental luxuries.” Coffee and sugar are grown in the tropics; the “staging posts” to India and China presumably supply the “oriental” luxuries. But how does Canada fit into this? The “fur-rich Canadian forests” are, obviously, neither “oriental” nor “tropical,” and yet Doyle drops them into the middle of his list without appearing to notice the incongruity.

Now, granted, the book is subtitled “A Very Short Introduction,” and so it’s a bit mean-spirited to criticize the author for not explaining details more fully – particularly in regard to Canada, which, it must be admitted, is extremely tangential to the topic in hand. Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit slighted, as if Doyle’s very carelessness in referring to Canada suggests that he doesn’t think our country is important enough to warrant a category of its own, and so he has simply lumped it into a list of colonial possessions and products even though it doesn’t really fit. (This is in contrast to the French administrations he is writing about, incidentally, which clearly did think their colonial possessions in Canada (among other places) were important and valuable, and struggled to keep them.)

Doyle’s attitude here is consistent with that of other non-Canadian authors, who simply don’t seem to think Canada is worth much conscious attention.

Happy Canada Day.

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