Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the category “Poetry”

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.

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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:

4.13

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.

 

Who Can Tell Canada from the Cayman Islands?

Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (2016)

The poem that mentions Canada is called “Pierre” and is a sort of character portrait set in a school, presumably in Jamaica. It’s a bit long, but I hate chopping up poems unnecessarily so I’ll quote it in its entirety:

It was a boy named Pierre Powell
who was in charge of the atlas

in the cabinet. He also ended days
by shaking the iron bell from Principal

William’s window, a work we grudged
him for very little; what cut our cores

twice a week and we had to endure,
was him being summoned to fetch

the key, again from William’s office,
to open the varnished box with the world

map, old and laminated, a forbidden
missionary gift trophied beside the Oxford

Set of Mathematical Instruments and other
things seen only by Pierre and teacher Rose,

who now only nodded to raise him
to his duty. We waited in quiet

his return, Miss Rose all crinkled blouse
and bones with chalk dust in her hair,

did not stir until he was back, panting
at the door. Another diviner’s nod

and he opened it, unrolled the map expertly,
kneaded out creases and held down edges

for the ruler our eyes followed,
screeching out countries, and etched

in the periphery, a khaki-pillared Pierre,
with a merchant’s smile, a fixed blur

in our cry of Algeria, Switzerland, Chile,
soon withered away, and we eyed the field

of dry grass outside, a rusty mule,
statue-frozen in the punishable heat,

Pierre, a phantom sea fraying
over Antarctica, Fiji, Belize, India

of those still in the rote, a liturgy of dunce
bats, whose one cardinal point, Tropicana

Sugar Estate, so close we could smell the sugar
being processed, whistled its shift change,

and terminated Geography. As if punched
from dream, those of us spared the map-

rolling-up and cabinet-locking ceremony,
saw him, with a cord-strung key, an earnest air

bearing him away in a portal of sunlight.
He was absent the week before summer,

and when Miss Rose, in rare fashion,
inquired, a girl said he had gone back home.

“Home,” Miss Rose sounded the strange word.
“Home,” the girl echoed and added, “him from Cayman,

Miss, or Canada, somewhere with a C.”
We turned to Miss Rose to clarify Canada

or Cayman, this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral,

but she pointed anonymously a crooked
finger and said, “Run to the principal

for the key,” the whole class scattered, paid
no heed that not a single one was ordained.    (36-39)

Beneath the “school days recollected” subject matter lies an intriguing subtext about the after-effects of colonialism. The map, which is called a “missionary gift,” and the set of Oxford Mathematical Tools are relics representing Jamaica’s time as a British colony. Within the school a system of status and power has been created based on proximity to these objects, which echoes the colonial system itself. This hierarchy separates those who are allowed contact with the objects stored in the locked cabinet — the principal, the teacher and Pierre — and the rest of the students, who can only look on as these objects are paraded before them. The poem focuses on the resentment the other students feel at Pierre, the one chosen to handle these precious “trophies”. When Pierre disappears, the teacher is for some reason unable to deputize another single student to take over his duties, and the  “teacher’s pet” system (like colonialism?) collapses into scattering chaos.

With the mention of Canada, a note of humour enters the poem. The joke, of course, is that after all the time with the map and the shouting out of countries in geography class, the student is still confused about “Canada” versus “Cayman” — the latter presumably meaning the Cayman Islands. This is a strikingly odd confusion, since the letter “C” is about the only thing Canada and the Cayman Islands have in common. Just the climate alone — as I write this, it is -5 C in Toronto, feeling like -12 and snowing heavily; in George Town, in the Cayman Islands, it’s 28 and sunny.

The question of where Pierre is actually from is never directly answered, as the teacher, when the students turn to her, offers no clarification. We do have these suggestive words:

…this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral…

This couplet gives us as much resolution as we’re going to get on the question of Pierre’s homeland. I’m not sure I can parse the exact prose sense of the “C curdled to snow” — perhaps the idea is that snow can be lumpy, like milk when it curdles? — but the mention of snow does seem to suggest that Pierre is actually from Canada and not the Cayman Islands. Why else would snow suddenly enter the poem?

But then the following words, “foreign always spectral,” undermine the inference by suggesting that, to the children in the class, anything outside their homeland remains vague and mysterious to them despite their teacher’s efforts to drill them in geography. Maybe the snow in the poem carries different associations: perhaps it symbolizes something ephemeral — snow melts, after all. And so for the children in the class, the question of where Pierre has gone, the question of Canada or the Cayman Islands, creates only a vague and passing sense of some other, foreign place in their minds — an association that then fades like melting snow.

However one takes “Pierre,” we have Canada and snow brought together, which indicates that at some level, even if only subconsciously, the idea that Canada is cold and snowy has percolated into the poem. And this, of course, is one of the most common ideas about our country.

 

Toronto, City of Boring Professorial Peccadilloes

Christopher Reid, Nonsense (2012)

The reference to Canada appears in the long narrative poem, “Professor Winterthorn’s Journey,” which makes up the opening section of the book. It’s about a retired literature professor who, following the death of his wife, goes “on a whim” to a conference in some unnamed, presumably European city in order to … see what’s new in his field? reconnect with old colleagues? get away from his own grief? give Christopher Reid an excuse to write a poem? The reasons aren’t completely clear.

It turns out that Professor Winterthorn, despite his frequent protestations of love for his wife and sorrow at her death, has carried on a number of affairs behind her back, mainly with colleagues at conferences like this one. (So perhaps we can add another option to the list of possible reasons for his trip?) At this point in the poem he is having dinner with a woman with whom he had an affair in Budapest; this is what leads to the little catalogue of affairs in which Canada features:

And before? Before Budapest?
Stockholm, Toronto, Buenos Aires —
Seven steps is all it takes
to trace the series
back to where it began.

A dance of seven steps
with pauses, sometimes of years, between:
how international,
how lightsome and how notional
his infidelity had been!

Yet that’s a living, breathing,
emphatically present
woman sitting and eating there.
And his wife was one more present than that:
till she began to disappear.

Or he did.

What happened?     (41)

What indeed? I’m not sure that question is ever really answered, but in this little catalogue of the locations where Winterthorn’s affairs have taken place, we can at least be mildly exicted to see Toronto included. Presumably the cities have been chosen to represent places where academic conferences are held, since Toronto and Stockholm don’t seem like the sort of cities one would automatically associate with romance. And the choice of Toronto will be particularly striking to Canadians, who tend to think of Montreal as our country’s city of “romantic love” — an opinion shared by U.S. President Warren Harding, to name just one. It’s hard not to feel that any love affair occurring in Toronto must have been of a rather grey and banal type — although perhaps that’s the point. Are we meant to think of Winterthorn’s affairs as rather drab and uninteresting, with the choice of Toronto, rather than Montreal, being intended to emphasize this?

That interpretation probably suggests Reid spent a lot more time thinking about adding Toronto to that list than is really likely.

For those interested in such things, the passage also gives a glimpse of Reid’s style. The drift from the concrete to the vague is characteristic. As can be seen, he seems to favour short lines of no particular metre, enlivened by occasional rhyme but not anything so onerous as a regular rhyme scheme.

One Book, Three Icons of Canadian Music

Adam Crothers, Several Deer (2016)

This marvellous first collection by Adam Crothers includes, among a number of wonderful poems, two familiar figures of Canadian music and a Canadian music group that we haven’t seen a reference to before.

We’ll begin with the familiar and go on from there.

Neil Young

First, another reference to the man who must be the most-mentioned Canadian musician in books written by non-Canadians:

Better to Burn Out

Better out than in, according to Neil Young,
who still can’t quite unfasten that note, make it detach
from its string. Hence this sort of knelling.
He says you should sometimes aim for the ditch:

hence this feeling of veering, this switch
to feigned loss from feigned sense of control.
Night drive home. The universe slows to watch
you flicker, tire, covet the centre. I pick up your trail.

The scent of epic fail. Petroleum; too long awake.
Lavender, and terror you can’t shake. I’m not
putting your scent down. Your wick
should be lovely as a long weekend,

and I would not have you sleep, or half. The half-asleep
Christian says it’s fine to be a sheep
but it matters what you want a sheep to be…!
It never counts. And even rust never sleeps with me:

it stays alert, lugging schemes through dense hazard of mind,
and on stirring I’m urged to keep up. Ever-losing,
I’d claim nothing valiant
for this flocky stubbornness, nothing worth praising,

nor’d I call us angels, me and my ilk:
backseat drivers, fevered, patching absurd
half-protective gestures onto sheep’s-milk
bedsheets, those our riven love will never dye.

I won’t attempt to analyze this whole poem for you — you can work it out for yourself! — but there are a couple of interesting points about Neil Young here. The title is a quote from either “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” or “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (both contain the line “it’s better to burn out”), and the reference to “the ditch” invokes Young’s famous statement about “Heart of Gold”:

That song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.

(His subsequent three albums — Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach — are sometimes called “The Ditch Trilogy.”)

Neil crops up again at the end of the fourth stanza in the line “even rust never sleeps with me,” which demonstrates Crothers’ fondness for the fluidity of meaning and his punning way of taking phrases and changing their sense by slightly altering or recombining them (see also, “love will never dye”): here Young’s idea of the relentlessness of decay is seemingly transformed into a suggestion that rust won’t have sex with the poet — though the unexpected continuation in the next line seems to change the meaning back again. (I get dizzy trying to keep up!)

Leonard Cohen

Another Canadian singer-songwriter comes up in the poem “September,” which is too long for me to quote in its entirety; here are the relevant lines:

Brothers Grimm, come eat my heart.
The sisters of mercy have gone and depart-
ed — pace, pace Leonard Cohen.
Pace about your patchy cabin:

I’ll pace myself about my mansion,
note floodwaters’ surface tension,
buoy my mark, enunciate,
but skim the script and come in late.

The reference is to the song “The Sisters of Mercy,” in which Cohen insists that the sisters of the title have not departed or gone — Crothers clearly has a different idea. (And just note, by the way, how elegantly “Pace” picks up “pace” from the previous line — the sort of wordplay Crothers delights in.)

Cowboy Junkies

And finally, at the end of the book, we find this note to the poem “Vorticists off Earth Now!!”:

Cowboy Junkies’ 1986 debut album, Whites off Earth Now!!, opens with a version of ‘Shining Moon’ by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Well this is a first — and perhaps, dare I say it, a marker of a generational shift? The Canadian musicians we’ve encountered before have generally been icons of the 60s and 70s, such as Young, Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, but now we have a band that came to prominence with The Trinity Session in 1988 — when Crothers, born in 1984 (good lord!) was a preschooler. As this book shows, Young and Cohen are still a part of the cultural conversation, but a younger generation of Canadian musicians has moved into the consciousness of the world beyond our borders.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these references is how completely absent Canada is from them: our country is never named in the book, and the singers mentioned are never identified as Canadian — even in the note about Cowboy Junkies, where such a mention might seem more natural than it would in the body of a poem. Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies — they have joined the pantheon of world culture, and are invoked without reference to their country of origin. They have escaped the burden of Canadianness — they are free.

This is thrilling and admirable but also, perhaps, a little sad. Or is it we who are sad — we who insist, every time one of these artists is mentioned, on saying, “And did you know he’s Canadian?” or  “They’re Canadian, you know”?

Opportunities for Further Study

For more on references to Canada in Irish literature, you can check out our post on Flann O’Brien, our post on Derek Mahon and our series on Paul Muldoon: Part I, Part II and Part III. We also have a number of posts on Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, which can be browsed at our Neil Young Archive and our Leonard Cohen Archive.

Personal Reminiscences, Of No General Importance — Please Skip

Forgive me, but his book calls up a host of memories for me. Both The Songs of Leonard Cohen and The Trinity Session were among the first (vinyl) records I bought when I was in high school, and I can recall a time when the Cowboy Junkies version of “Sweet Jane” was constantly on the radio — followed, a couple of years later, by “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning,” a song that was so ubiquitous I can still recall most of the lyrics. It was from The Caution Horses, which also, incidentally, contained a cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” — as Pound would say, “What splendour — it all coheres!” As for Whites off Earth Now!!, I never owned it but I recall holding a (vinyl, again) copy of it in my hands at a little used record store up a flight of narrow steps on Yonge Street (cf. Muldoon Part II, linked above) and finally deciding not to buy it. The band was popular by then and, being rare, it was probably expensive.

And Now, A Little Music

Neil Young & Crazy Horse doing “Hey Hey, My My” from the Weld/Ragged Glory period:

Leonard Cohen, with the original album version of “Sisters of Mercy”:

Here are Cowboy Junkies with their version of “Shining Moon”:

And here is the original Lightnin’ Hopkins version:

And if none of that entertains you, then nothing will.

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 down
To the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown:
I’d never seen such rage in you before
As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.
For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from
Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom
The hedonistic body basks within
And takes for granted—summer on the skin,
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea
In a dry mouth. You had gone on from me
As if your body sought out martyrdom
In the far Canada of a hospital room.
Once there, you entered fully the distress
And long pale rigours of the wilderness.
A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sight
You 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.

Those Pesky Geese Again

justercover

A.M. Juster, Sleaze & Slander (2016)

One of the many charms of this collection of comic and satirical verse is that, among the versions of Martial, Horace and Ausonius, and various other witty poems, it contains one that specifically addresses Canada:

A Stern Warning to Canada

If you want peace
withdraw your geese.

This is a very funny little poem, and as there’s nothing worse than explaining a joke, I’m going to try not to go on about it at such length that I spoil it.

In two brief lines, however, it implies a lot about Canada-U.S. relations. Of course the title and minatory tone of the first line are intended playfully (aren’t they…?). For the joke to work, however, there has to be a kernel of truth behind it, and that kernel is that the U.S. is a much more militarily powerful nation than Canada, and so at least the possibility of a threat is real.

The demand that Canada remove its geese, while absurd, also implies that there has been an unwanted influx of Canada geese into the U.S. We could read this as a sly reference to our famously undefended border, which has recently been in the news, and which wildlife can cross even more easily than people.

For more about Canada geese in poetry by non-Canadians, check out our post on Derek Mahon.

Shameless Self-Promotion

To learn more about the book, you can read my review of Sleaze & Slander, which appeared earlier this year in The Literateur.

 

 

The Vanishing Business Men of Canada

mmoorecover

Marianne Moore, Observations (1925/2016)

This is a re-issue of the 1925 edition of Observations, published after Moore had made minor revisions to the original 1924 edition, but before the drastic revisions she made later (such as cutting “Poetry” (“I too dislike it”) from a couple of pages to three lines). I’m biting my tongue a bit here, on the principle that one doesn’t argue with genius — I’ll just say that I’m happy this book is now easily available in essentially the form that established Moore as one of the foremost voices of modern poetry. (And, while I’m generally pro-epigram, I just don’t like the three-line version of “Poetry” that much. There, I said it.)

Of course the best thing about this book (as you may have guessed by now) is that it mentions Canada. The reference comes in the poem “An Octopus,” which John Ashbery (for whatever you think his opinion’s worth) calls “one of the truly great poems of the twentieth century” on the back cover. The poem is much too long for me to re-type in its entirety, but here are the relevant lines:

No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the mountains
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with “glass eyes,”
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by “business men who as totemic scenery of Canada,
require for recreation,
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch trees, ferns, and lily pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paintbrushes,
bears’ ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the mossbeds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American “menagerie of styles”
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.  (88-89)

The quoted passages are annotated in the back of the book; here is the note for the reference to Canada:

“business men”: W.D. Wilcox. “A crowd of the business men of Banff, who usually take about 365 holidays every year, stands around to offer advice.”  (108)

This is a quote from The Rockies of Canada, by W.D. Wilcox, published in 1903, and appears on page 116.

What to make of all this? In her introduction to this edition, Linda Leavell says, “‘An Octopus’ similarly celebrates the biodiversity of Mount Rainier National Park as a model for democracy,” which may offer some hints on interpreting the whole poem, but doesn’t help us much with Canada.

So what can we say? The reference to Canadian business men is obviously drawn from Wilcox, and demonstrates Moore’s technique of weaving fragments from other written works into the fabric of her poems. It’s interesting that she has changed “Banff” to “Canada”; Banff is, of course, in Canada, but maybe she thought readers were less likely to recognize the name of a specific place, and so she changed it to the whole country — which we could argue is symptomatic of a typically American lack of interest in specificity when referring to our country. (In a nutshell, “If it’s not Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, then it’s just Canada.”)

But how are these business men “totemic scenery of Canada”? And how is that status connected to the fact that they “require” 365 holidays a year? I would think a Mountie might be considered totemic scenery of Canada — Niagara Falls could maybe be called totemic scenery of Canada — perhaps even totem poles could be called totemic scenery of Canada — but business men? And yet Moore seems to feel that these Canadian business men are somehow the quintessential representatives of our country. And what does the joke about being on holiday 365 days a year mean? Are Canadian business men considered lazy? Is the idea that Canada is such an undeveloped country that while we do have business men, they have no actual business to transact, and so are on holiday all year?

Wilcox seems to mean that the Banff business men have nothing better to do than stand around and offer advice, while having no intention of actually doing anything themselves — they are, in short, the most irritating type of onlookers. But in Moore’s poem, the syntax of the whole sentence suggests that the “little horses” are “instructed … to climb the mountain by” these business men, though “none knows how.” This is a much more active role than they seem to play in Wilcox, though it’s not clear (to me) why they would be instructing horses to climb a mountain.

Wait, What Happened?

Fair warning: things only get worse from here.

While I will admit I’m a little baffled by the question of what to make of these Canadian business men, I was, nevertheless, glad to find them in “An Octopus.” Imagine my horror, then, when I consulted Moore’s Complete Poems (Penguin, 1994) and found these lines:

Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year….

(Un)Fortunately, my reaction was captured on video:

How could you, Marianne? How could you?

The reference to Canada has gone — and, what’s worse, this version of the poem is Moore’s final revised version, representing her ultimate thoughts on how the poem should appear to posterity. In the end, she decided the whole thing would be just fine — and, dare I say it, perhaps better? — without the reference to Canada. This seems, somehow, typical of the American attitude to Canada — we’re so insignificant that it doesn’t really matter whether we get mentioned or not. I doubt Moore agonized over the removal of the lines — she probably didn’t even stop to consider that she was cutting out the only reference to Canada in all of Observations. Why would she?

I hate to argue against my own interests (who doesn’t?), but it does seem, in this case at least, as though Moore’s later instincts may be correct. As my struggles (above) to untangle the plain prose sense of the lines show, things get a little oblique (not to say opaque) at the point in the poem where the reference to Canada appears; and does it matter that the business men are Canadian? Do we miss the description of them as “totemic scenery”? Is the poem somehow less (for purposes other than those of this website) for lacking the reference to Canada? It’s hard to say that it is; in fact, the lines feel a little cleaner and less cluttered as they are in the Complete Poems.

I’m still not sure how the business men instruct the horses to climb, but then the poem says no one knows, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?

Alice-Oswald

Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.

 

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