“Ask not what Canada can do for you”
Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls (1994)
There is nothing new or remarkable here, at least with reference to Canada, but this book does repeat a couple of ideas we’ve seen before, and I’ll simply catalogue those.
A Place to Dodge the Draft
This is from the story “1969”:
I’d often be found passed out on the couch of the house I stayed in that summer with Crime and Punishment on the floor next to my toes. If I could finish that book that summer then my life wouldn’t be a complete waste. I had a boyfriend. His name was Mike and he was also a blackout drinker. He was 21 and had just graduated from college. I thought we looked alike. He would always get drunk and say to me, “Leena, I ain’t gonna march.” I always felt like I was in a movie when he said that. Who does he think he is, I wondered. He wasn’t going to Canada. The war would end. Something would happen. He just wasn’t the type. When those foreign things would erupt from his soul it would just be so strange. It was like he was turning into a thing. I’d grab his dick and the crisis would be over. He was the first person I really had sex with. (102-3)
When Mike says “I ain’t gonna march,” he means he won’t join the army and go to Vietnam, although the narrator (Myles herself?) seems to interpret this as self-dramatization on his part. It isn’t clear why she thinks he wouldn’t go to Canada — too uncivilized? he’s not decisive enough to take that step? — but Canada exists in the minds of these characters as a place to get away from the draft. Beyond that, though, the book has nothing to say about our country.
Neil Young and Joni Mitchell
There are also references to two Canadians who were staples on the U.S. music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. This is from the story “Bath, Maine”:
The place looked kind of “datey,” like it was attached to a restaurant. The clientele was sunburned and clean, like vacationers. Was I feeling better? In the last place when I had nothing to say in my notebook I began to write the words from the jukebox
And only love
So try to make sure
It made me suspicious. (7-8)
The song on the jukebox is, of course, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Canadian Neil Young — though he isn’t actually named in the story. I’m not sure why it makes her suspicious.
This is from “1969” again:
The safety of it all, the baby being held by the parents in the middle of the highway. Going home. Not even going to Woodstock.
Liked that baby, huh Leena? “Mo” asked me that from the front seat. I was that kind of Leena by now, and that was the end of the first night. Joanie Mitchell didn’t show. Do you blame her? I finally saw the movie in 1987. It would have been painful before then though I didn’t know why. (113)
It’s strange that she spells Mitchell’s name as “Joanie” rather than “Joni”; if that has some significance, it’s not clear to me.
I suppose we could argue that these references are typically American in the sense that they see Canada only in terms of what it offers to Americans — a place to avoid the draft, a place that supplies music for Americans to listen to — but never question or wonder about what Canada is actually like on its own terms.
There is more about Canada as a haven for draft dodgers and about Joni Mitchell in our post on Lorrie Moore; there is more about Joni Mitchell in our post on Graham Nash and our post on Dave Van Ronk; and there is lots more about Neil Young here.
Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” seems appropriate, and this live version includes a little explanation of why, as Myles says, she “didn’t show”:
Here’s the CSNY version from the “Woodstock” film Myles mentions:
And here is the album version of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” presumably what is on the jukebox: