Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “April, 2018”

Lost in the Space Between Canada and the United States


Stephanie Burt, Advice from the Lights (2017)

This is really a marvellous collection, ranging from Callimachus to growing up in the 80s, and well worth reading for those who haven’t done so already. I was particularly struck by Burt’s talent for rhymes that are so subtle you almost don’t notice they’re there. For our purposes here, though, we will look at the one poem that mentions Canada:

Indian Stream Republic

No one should be this alone —
none of the pines
in their prepotent verticals,

none of the unseen
hunters or blundering moose
who might stop by the empty lodge or the lake

as blue as if there had never been people
although there are people: a few
at the general store, and evidence of more

in clean vinyl siding, and down the extended street
a ruddy steel pole the height of a child, its plaque
remembering a place called “Liberty

at Indian Stream,” 1832-35,
between the disputed boundaries
of Canada and New Hampshire, meant

as temporary, almost
content to remain its own.
Each household, their constitution said, could possess

one cow, one hog, one gun,
books, bedding and hay, seven sheep and their wool, secure
from attachment for debt no matter the cause.

The state militia came to set them right.
The legerdemain of the noon sun through needles and leaves,
revealing almost nothing, falls across

thin shadows, thin trace of American wheels and hands
for such high soil and such short reward:
“the people … do hereby mutually agree

to form themselves into a body politic
by the name of Indian Stream, and in that capacity
to exercise all the powers of a sovereign

till such time as we can ascertain to what
government we properly belong.”     (74-5)

[Note: passages in quotation marks appear in italics in the original.]

The historical background to this poem (in brief) is that the Treaty of Paris left a part of the boundary between Quebec and New Hampshire ambiguous. As a result, there was a dispute about whether an area in (what is now) northern New Hampshire was actually part of Canada or of the United States. The people who lived there briefly constituted themselves as an independent nation, called the Republic of Indian Stream, before the dispute was settled and the area became a part of the U.S. (A fuller history, on which my summary is based, is available at the Pittsburg, New Hampshire website.)

There isn’t a lot of actual information about Canada in the poem, but Canada plays an important role as the poem is, in part, about what a 90s university professor might have called “the liminal” — the transitional, indeterminate space between defined things. In describing the Republic of Indian Stream, Burt draws our attention to the fact that borders (such as the one between Canada and the U.S.) are not always as solid as we think they are. Though famously undefended, our border seems solid to us, and this sense is confirmed by the clear mark of delineation on any map, defining everything south of the line as “U.S.” and everything north of the line as “Canada”. Of course if you’ve ever been to the border you know it’s not like that; in places it’s just undifferentiated landscape without much to show where one country ends and the other begins.  It’s still possible, in places, to be uncertain which country you are actually in.

The Republic of Indian Stream was born out of that kind of uncertainty about a national border that we tend to think of as if it were a physical thing. Burt’s poem celebrates a community that sprang up and briefly thrived in this undefined region between two established entities and, in doing so, evokes important ideas of flux and permeability.


Real Men Flex Their Molson Muscles

James Lasdun, Bluestone: New and Selected Poems (2015)

This book doesn’t contain a direct reference to Canada, but rather a use of what I think of as a specifically Canadian turn of phrase, and so I would argue it rates a place in this gallery. It’s from a poem titled “Returning the Gift,” which is far too long to quote in its entirety;  the situation is that the speaker’s wife has given him a chainsaw for his birthday, but he’s afraid to use it, and so they take it back to the store. Here’s the relevant passage:

The chainsaw section’s
display looks like a butcher’s stall
selling various types of crocodile:
Makita, Husqvarna, Poulan … Thick festoons

of chainblade glitter rawly.
I hand my gift to the salesman,
a beareded giant, letting my wife explain.
As she talks, a glint comes into his eye:

“Afraid? Afraid of what? Getting hurt?
He won’t if he’s in a right relation. Listen — ”
He leans towards me with a twinkling grin,
Molson-muscle swelling his green plaid shirt —

“British, right?” I nod. That question here
puts my guard up, like “Are you Jewish?” did
in England where it meant “So you’re a yid,”
at least to my hypersensitive ear,

as “British” here means — but I’m being paranoid;
he’s got some other axe to grind: “King Arthur …
Now there was a male mother,
nourishing his men on his own blood ….”     (70)

(Just notice, in passing, how nicely Lasdun manages the Swedish-supergroup ABBA slant rhyme scheme in that poem.)

I believe I have commented before — or at the very least, I have intended to comment before — on the way the incidence of references to Canada seems to increase in books set in upstate New York, suggesting (perhaps unsurprisingly) that physical proximity makes people more aware of our country. (For examples, see our posts on Frederick ExleyChris Kraus, Lorrie Moore and James Salter.) Many of the later poems in Bluestone also have upstate New York as their setting, and so a reference to Canada isn’t totally unexpected.

This particular one, however, did catch me off-guard.

Molson, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian beer company, and so “Molson muscle” is a peculiarly Canadian (I thought) phrase for what would more generally be called a “beer belly.” (“Molson” = “beer,” “muscle” = “belly”.) Obviously, I can’t say for certain how Lasdun learned it. He is British, and perhaps spent some time in Canada and picked it up then? If he’s never been to Canada, though, it does raise the rather bewitching possibility that, through a sort of cross-border osmosis, the Canadian term “Molson muscle” has seeped into upstate New York and become a part of the local vernacular. Lasdun can’t imagine his readership will be largely Canadian, and so he must be assuming that Americans will, by and large, know that “Molson muscle” equals “beer belly”.

The larger question is, why use “Molson muscle” instead of “beer belly” and risk the possibility that some readers — those in Arizona, say, or those in London, England — will not know what the term means? Does this specifically Canadian term add anything to the poem from an aesthetic or thematic point of view?

I would argue that it does.

The question at the heart of the poem, as is probably obvious from even the brief excerpt above, is one of masculinity: is the speaker still a “real man” even if he doesn’t know how to use a chainsaw? A contrast is being set up between the meek, nervous poet-speaker and the bearded, “macho” store clerk, and his “Molson muscle” is one of the elements in this implied comparison. In its general usage, the word “muscle” in “Molson muscle” is an ironic joke, since there is no muscle actually involved in a beer belly. (If anything, the term seems to contain a subsumed parody of the idea of “working out”: while some go to the gym to build actual muscles, others sit on the couch and drink beer, thus building their “Molson muscle.”) I think Lasdun has chosen “Molson muscle” because it is suggestive of a sort of aggressive masculinity in a way that “beer belly” would not be, precisely because “muscle” (active, powerful) has been substituted (albeit ironically) in the phrase for “belly” (passive, something that just sits there). If so, we could argue that the use of “Molson muscle” is a conscious artistic choice that, along with the beard, the plaid shirt and so on (both also very Canadian-sounding, incidentally — is it possible that this chainsaw store clerk is “coded” as a sort of crypto-Canadian?), serves to separate the store clerk from the speaker of the poem and to establish that he exists in a different realm of manhood, one where everyone is comfortable using a chainsaw. So this Canadianism is associated with the sort of rugged, outdoorsy man capable of taming the wilderness and bending nature to his will — and taming the wilderness is, of course, the quintessential Canadian pastime.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this bearded, plaid-wearing, Molson-muscled clerk is meant to be a Canadian … or just a Canadian manque….



The Decline of the Francophone Empire

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986)

For those not familiar with it, The Golden Gate is a verse novel written in the same 14-line rhyming stanzas as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. The book follows the interlocking lives and love affairs of a series of mostly young characters who live in and around San Francisco in the Reaganite America of the early 1980s.

Among its many other virtues, the book contains one brief reference to Canada. It occurs at a party when one of the main characters, Liz, is cornered by Professor Pratt, an academic who (like many other academics) believes that his own peculiar hobby horse is as fascinating to everyone else as it is to himself. Here’s the full stanza:


But now Professor Pratt’s recaptured
His fugitive, and Liz endures
The bludgeonings of this most enraptured,
Most indefatigable of bores.
He raves of western Pennsylvania
With zealotry approaching mania:
“…Had we not taken Fort Duquesne,
My dear, the French would still remain
Entrenched in a confederation
From Louisiana to Quebec.
I tell you , Pittsburgh saved our neck —
Pittsburgh — redeemer of our nation!
My fourth book reexamines this.
It’s called The Pratt Hypothesis….”     (78)

This refers to a corner of history that I don’t know much about, but to give a rough outline: in the 1750s, when the French still controlled a large swath of North America (“New France”), they built a series of forts to try to consolidate their control of this territory. Several of the forts, including Fort Duquesne, were in what is now Pennsylvania. The fort was attacked several times during the Seven Years’ War (aka the “French and Indian War”); in 1758 the French burned the fort just before it could be captured by the British.

(The above paragraph is summarized from Wikipedia; if you’re curious to learn more, you can start where I started, with the Wikipedia entry on Fort Duquesne. It also includes an account of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, in which George Washington and his men attacked a French Canadian scouting party — really, the references to Canada multiply so quickly that I can’t keep up.)

The details of the Pratt Hypothesis seem, to me at least, a little garbled. The location where Fort Duquesne stood is now part of Pittsburgh, and the basic idea is that if the fort had not fallen, the French would still control a large chunk of North America. But how Pittsburgh — a city that didn’t even exist at the time being discussed — could be considered the “saviour” of the United States is difficult to make out. Of course Professor Pratt is being satirized here, and so presumably his theory is meant to seem preposterous.

The use of “we” in the seventh line, however, is fascinating. The battle for Fort Duquesne happened in 1758, before the countries of Canada and the United States existed. Forbes, the general who took the site of the fort after the French had burned it, was Scottish, not American, and he named the place Pittsburgh after the British statesman William Pitt the Elder (again, see Wikipedia). So the people who took the fort (the British) are not really the “we” being spoken of by Pratt, who would presumably be Americans. The British drove the French out, but when the Americans rebelled against British rule and formed their own country, they reaped the benefits. Pratt’s summary of events elides this distinction, making it sound as if the Americans defeated the French, captured Fort Duquesne and thus “saved” the United States.

As for Quebec itself, there isn’t any actual information about the province contained here; it simply marks the northernmost point of the imagined French region, just as Louisiana marks its southernmost extent.  This is quite a common way of referring to Canada, particularly in American writers, who often use our country as a marker of distance or the extent of something: see our post on Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March for one recent example.


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