Canada as a Hopeless Hospital Room
Thom Gunn, The Man with Night Sweats (1992)
The poem that mentions Canada, “Lament,” traces the stages of a loved one’s death (of AIDS, presumably), and might be the most beautiful piece in this stunning collection. It’s far too long for me to retype here, but you can read it in full via the Poetry Foundation, and if you aren’t familiar with it, I suggest you do that right now.
Here is the passage that’s relevant for our purposes:
No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased.Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you downTo the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown:I’d never seen such rage in you beforeAs when they wheeled you through the swinging door.For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you fromThose normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdomThe hedonistic body basks withinAnd takes for granted—summer on the skin,Sleep without break, the moderate taste of teaIn a dry mouth. You had gone on from meAs if your body sought out martyrdomIn the far Canada of a hospital room.Once there, you entered fully the distressAnd long pale rigours of the wilderness.A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sightYou breathed through a segmented tube, fat, white,Jammed down your throat so that you could not speak.
That, for my money, is the real thing: clear, powerful statement and sharp imagery wedded to seemingly effortless rhythm and rhyme.
As for Canada, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a brief reference used so effectively. The comparison of the hospital room to Canada, and the contrast it creates with the idea of “the sun’s kingdom” a few lines earlier, captures so many of the common ideas about our country — that it is cold, that it is distant, that it is an obscure and menacing wilderness (note that word two lines later) where struggle is constant and survival an unlikely accident. The phrase “the far Canada” already tells us much of what is to come in this poem: that the distance being covered by the sick man is too far to be crossed back again, and that the journey to this metaphorical “Canada” is a hopeless one from which there will be no return.
The choice of the word “martyrdom” in the previous line is also interesting. How much would Gunn have known about Canadian history? He was born and raised in England but moved to the U.S. in his mid-twenties — would his English education have included anything about a British colony like Canada? Would he have known about the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” the Jesuit missionaries killed in Canada in the 1600s? If so, it seems possible that some idea of Canada as a far-off place where people go to die painful, lingering deaths may lie behind these lines.
Whatever its origin, it’s a grim image — this particular hospital room offers no possibility of cure. Also, though, an image that has a stark, almost cruel beauty about it, particularly when coupled with the “long pale rigours of the wilderness”.
We might compare Paul Muldoon’s lovely “gateless gates of Canada,” which has a similar wilderness element to it, but seems more an image of untapped possibility, whereas Gunn’s lines strongly suggest a harsh, unpleasant and unavoidable ending.