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The Vanishing Business Men of Canada

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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.

 

Canada: You Can’t Leave Fast Enough

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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2014)

This book is a re-working of The Canterbury Tales, in which each poem presents a contemporary version of one of Chaucer’s stories. Agbabi covers a wide range of poetic styles and voices, from the rhymed couplets of the “Prologue” to the rap battle of “Sir Thopas vs Da Elephant” and along the way shows not only her mastery of form, but also conveys a multiethnic, polyphonic vision of England.

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the individual poems appealed more to me than others; I think most readers would feel the same way, though of course the ones they preferred would vary. For me, “Joined Up Writing” (The Man of Law’s Tale) was a standout, its linked stanzas being not only brilliantly executed, but also a clever commentary on the act of writing itself, which is at the centre of that particular tale; “What Do Women Like Bes’?” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is a fitting successor to its original (what greater praise than that?); and “That Beatin’ Rhythm” (The Merchant’s Tale), composed largely from song titles, works remarkably well, and also recalled for me one of my favourite lines in all of Chaucer: “Gan pullen up the smock, and in he throng.”

The Flight From Canada

Each poem has a fictional author’s name attached, usually some sort of pun or play on the name of the tale-teller in Chaucer, and then at the end of the book we find “Author Biographies,” in the manner of the “Contributor’s Notes” section at the end of a journal or anthology. This is one more clever touch in what is already an immensely witty book, and it is in these author’s notes, rather than in the poems themselves, that we find the book’s only reference to Canada:

Yves Depardon: is a French-Canadian Professional Speaker and Business Coach living in Soho, Central London with his long-term partner. He’s published 20 self-help books and six novels, including the multi-million bestseller, Young, Free and Sinful (Impress, 2007). He regularly uses poetry in his presentations. His ‘love2Bme’ lectures attract a 2,000-strong online audience.  (116)

The transformation of Chaucer’s Pardoner — one of literature’s most compelling hypocrites — into a motivational speaker and self-help author is an inspired choice. I’m not sure why Agbabi chose to make him a Canadian, other than the punning connection between the name “Depardon” and the Pardoner, but I suppose it’s a kind of compliment that anyone thinks a character of such vertiginous hypocrisy could come from our country, and it’s certainly a sharp contrast with the usual image of Canadians as polite and uninteresting. (Though, based on our reading of Michel Houellebecq and Lorrie Moore, perhaps we can say the world has a slightly different impression of French-Canadians than it does of Canadians generally?)

In terms of ideas about Canada, Depardon’s biography contains an interesting reversal that I don’t think we’ve seen before. Immigration to Canada from the UK, and the possibility of a new beginning that Canada offers to immigrants, is something we’ve come across in authors like Charles Dickens, Basil Bunting and Derek Mahon, to name a few. All these writers convey the same view: that leaving the UK for Canada will offer a fresh start and open up a range of new possibilities that can’t be found in the “old country.”

In Agbabi’s book, though, the relationship between the old world and the new is switched; Depardon is from Canada, but he has left it for England, where he has found fame and fortune as a motivational speaker and author. There is no explanation of this, but behind it must lie some idea that Canada is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and that Canadians whose families might have immigrated from Europe a century or more ago are now making their way back to Europe from North America in search of the same sort of opportunities that brought their ancestors in the other direction in the first place.

The Poetry

Because Canada isn’t mentioned in the poems, I didn’t have the chance to quote any of the actual poetry; in lieu of that, here are a couple of videos of Patience Agbabi reciting parts of Telling Tales. Here’s the Prologue:

And here is her take on the Wife of Bath:

 

The Western Buddhists of Nova Scotia

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Allen Ginsberg, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992 (1994)

I can’t say I loved this book; there were a few really good poems in it, but it struck me as the sort of book a poet publishes when he’s reached that level of fame that lets him publish essentially anything he takes the time to write down. The opening poem, “Improvisation in Beijing,” contains the line “I write poetry ‘First thought, best thought’ always,” which is, I suppose, a noble sentiment. But, while I hate to be churlish, and I certainly don’t have any desire to add to the already overwhelming level of snark burdening the world, it’s hard not to feel the lack of revision shows, and that some of the poems — and so the book itself — might have benefited from second thoughts, and perhaps even third and fourth ones.

But it contains two poems that mention Canada — would second or third thoughts have removed those references? — and so I can’t complain — or, I should say, I won’t complain any further, since I see that, like Fielding with his digression, in talking of my complaint, I have made it.

On to the poems.

Supplication for the Rebirth of the Vidyahara Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

Dear Lord Guru who pervades the space of my mind
permeates the universe of my consciousness,
still empties my balding head and’s stabilized my wand’ring thought
to average equanimity in Manhattan and Boulder

Return return reborn in spirit & knowledge in human body
my own or others as continual Teacher of chaotic peace,
Return according to your vow to pacify magnetize enrich destroy
grasping angry stupidity in me my family friends and Sangha

Return in body speech & mind to enlighten my labors
& the labors of your meditators, thousands from L.A. to Halifax
to relieve sufferings of our brothers, lovers
family, friends, fellow citizens, nations and planet.

Remember your vow to be with us on our deathbeds
in living worlds where we dwell in your tender perspective
breathe with your conscious breath, catch ourselves thinking
& dissolve bomb dream, fear of our own skin & yelling argument
in the sky of your mind

Bend your efforts to regroup our community within your thought-body
& mind-space, the effects of your non-thought,
Turbulent ease of your spontaneous word & picture
nonmeditative compassion your original mind

These slogans were writ on the second day of June 1991
a sleepless night my brother’s 70th birthday on Long Island
my own sixty-fifth year in the human realm visiting his house
by the Vajra Poet Allen Ginsberg supplicating protection of his
Vajra Guru Chogyam Trungpa

June 2, 1991, 2:05 A.M.

I’m not sure why he adds the date and time, given that the last stanza already includes that information, but he’s the poet.

There isn’t much about Canada here, really; Halifax simply marks the furthest extent from Los Angeles, suggesting the sheer number of meditators who are praying together. If you took a map of North America and, starting in L.A., drew a diagonal line across the continent to the northeast, you would probably end up somewhere near Halifax, though Ginsberg could just as easily have said L.A. to, say, Portland, Maine, and created essentially the same effect.

Which begs the question: why does Ginsberg choose to mention Halifax here? I found out while doing a little research on a later poem in the collection:

Who Eats Who?

A crow sits on the prayerflagpole,
her mate blackwinged walks the wet green grass, worms?
Yesterday seagulls skimmed the choppy waves,
feet touching foamed breakers
looking for salmon? halibut? sole?

Bacteria eat parameciums or vice versa,
viruses enter cells, white cell count low —
Tooth & claw on TV, lions strike down antelopes —
Whales sift transparent krill thru bearded teeth.
Every cannibal niche fulfilled, Amazon
hunters eat testicles —
Enemy’s powers & energy become mine!

August 13, 1992
Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia

I like that one, especially the “bearded teeth” of the whales.

In this case Canada isn’t actually mentioned in the body of the poem, but based on the Canadian location added at the end, I think we can assume that it was written in Nova Scotia and therefore reflects the poet’s view of a Canadian scene. So what impression does “Who Eats Who?” give?

The most obvious thing to note is the focus on wildlife, to the exclusion of everything else: we get the sense that Canada is occupied mainly by birds, fish and whales — there are no honking cabs or corner stores here, not even the fishermen we had in Whitman, which were an indicator of at least some level of human occupation and activity. If anything, the state of civilization in Canada seems to have regressed in the century between Leaves of Grass and Cosmopolitan Greetings, and we are back to nothing but animals and the poet sitting, looking at them, and writing down what he sees.

How does this poem explain the reference to Halifax in the previous one? Gampo Abbey, where “Who Eats Who?” was written, is a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. So that probably explains why Halifax is mentioned in “Supplication”; the monastery isn’t actually in Halifax, but Ginsberg is presumably thinking of this Nova Scotia monastery when he imagines the meditators “from LA to Halifax”. We can forgive him, I think, his slightly sketchy Canadian geography.

Video Evidence

Here is some video of a marvellous reading Ginsberg gave to launch Cosmopolitan Greetings in 1994 — the poems really come alive in performance:

That was so much fun I can’t resist putting up the third part, which includes “To Jacob Rabinowitz” (one of my favourites from the book) and also Ginsberg singing (!):

Whitman’s Kanadian Snow-shoes and the Future of Newfoundland

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Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (from Leaves of Grass, 1892)

I should begin by saying that I read the entire Library of America edition of Leaves of Grass (pictured above) many years ago. I picked it up recently and re-read a few poems here and there, and that’s when I actually noticed the references to Canada in “Song of Myself.” I did not, however, re-read the entire book, so there may be other references to Canada in other poems — something left to discover, perhaps.

“Song of Myself” is obviously much too long for me to re-type here; since the main reference to Canada that I want to discuss comes in section 16 of the poem, I am presenting that section. (If you care to re-read the whole poem — and why wouldn’t you? It’s Poetry Month, after all — it’s available via the Poetry Foundation here.)

16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)  (203-204)

Not a passage that requires much explanation in and of itself; it’s one of Whitman’s many expansions on the idea succinctly expressed in the oft-quoted “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” line (section 51), as he insists he is all different kinds of people in typical list-making, paradox-piling Whitmanian style.

The reference to Canada marks a shift: in the first nine lines, Whitman says “I am” these different types of people (a Yankee, a Georgian, a Hoosier and so on), but in line 10 he switches to “At home …” and the next three lines enumerate places where he feels at home. And so Whitman is not directly associating himself with Canadians — he does not say, “I am the Kanadian on his snow-shoes” — but rather that he is:

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

That single line contains a remarkable little cluster of ideas associated with Canada: the snowshoes, obviously, carry the standard notion of Canada as cold and snowy; they are immediately followed by the phrase “up in the bush,” which shows again the way Americans conceive of us as “up” because we are to the north of them and also, in the word “bush,” the idea that Canada is an undeveloped wilderness; and then, with the fishermen off Newfoundland, we come to the image of Canada as a country rich in natural resources (here fish — perhaps even the “glutinous codfish of Newfoundland” so beloved by Casanova?) to be exploited.

We might even draw in the following line, with its “fleet of ice-boats”: they are not labelled as “Kanadian,” the way the snowshoes are, but given their proximity, and the fact that no other place is mentioned until Vermont in the following line, it is tempting to wonder if they also have a Canadian connection. If they do, they obviously further the association between Canada and the cold.

The more you consider them, though, the more elusive the references become. Does “At home on Kanadian snow-shoes” imply that Whitman has actually been to Canada, and that he went snowshoeing there? Does it mean that he is comfortable wearing snowshoes in winter, and that he thinks of snowshoes as somehow distinctively Canadian, or as coming from Canada? (Did he own snowshoes? Were they made in Canada? The unanswerable questions pile up.) “Up in the bush” might or might not refer to Canada, but it’s certainly suggestive coming right after the “Kanadian snow-shoes.” (The idea of Canada’s “northerliness” is definitively stated in section 31, where Whitman writes, “the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador.”) And even the mention of Newfoundland could be disputed, since Newfoundland was not actually part of Canada at the time Whitman was writing (I explained my attitude to this in a post on John Donne). Strangely, though, its placement in that line seems to associate it proleptically with the country it would ultimately join, almost as if Whitman, ever oracular, could see the future of our easternmost province.

Of course Whitman isn’t really talking about Canada here; we come in merely as one of the many regional identities he associates himself with, but this is not a record of personal experience — it’s a poetic stance and a philosophical statement of oneness with all humanity.

Or perhaps that requires a qualification: this is not a statement of oneness with all humanity, but with American humanity. It’s striking, is it not, that this one line, with its Canadian snowshoes and Newfoundland fishermen, is the only line in all of section 16 that refers to a place outside the United States?

In fact, in a quick re-reading of “Song of Myself” I found, in addition to the line above, a couple more references to Canadians and one mention of Labrador, but nothing about any other country or nationality except the English ship in section 35 (I may have missed something) — almost as if Whitman were aware of the U.S., and had some notion of the existence of Canada, and beyond that … nothing much. Whitman seems to be at great pains to associate himself with the representatives of every region of the U.S., but doesn’t show much interest at all in the people beyond its borders. And this absence of other nationalities makes the references to Canadians that much more striking: why are we alone represented here in “Song of Myself”? Did Whitman feel some sort of brotherhood with Canadians that he didn’t feel with other nationalities? Did he see Canada as a new nation, like the U.S., that was in the process of forging its identity — a process of which his own poetry was a part? Or does he simply think of Canada as an extension of the United States, and a “Kanadian” as a regional type on the same level as a Georgian or a Hoosier?

I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a reminder of how quintessentially American — or North American? — a poet Whitman is.

Finally, what to make of the fact that Whitman apparently spelled “Canada” as “Kanada”? (It’s not a one-time accident: he also mentions a “Kanuck” in section 6 and a “Kanadian” in section 39, both times in lists of different “types” of people). I think the “C” spelling must have been pretty much settled convention by the latter half of the 19th century (see Dickens’ 1857 novel Little Dorrit, for example), but Whitman is idiosyncratic in many ways, and if this is another of his idiosyncrasies, well, who am I to argue?

Further Ambiguity

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Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986)

As with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the poems in Wendy Cope’s collection confronts us with an ambiguously Canadian reference.

The Poem

The Lavatory Attendant

I counted two and seventy stenches
All well defined and several stinks!
–Coleridge

Slumped on a chair, his body is an S
That wants to be a minus sign.

His face is overripe Wensleydale
Going blue at the edges.

In overalls of sacerdotal white
He guards a row of fonts

With lids like eye-patches. Snapped shut
They are castanets. All day he hears

Short-lived Niagaras, the clank
And gurgle of canescent cisterns.

When evening comes he sluices a thin tide
Across sand-coloured lino,

Turns Medusa on her head
And wipes the floor with her.   (49)

The Commentary

The flushing toilets make “short-lived Niagaras,” which to a Canadian will immediately raise thoughts of Niagara Falls (Canadian side). But of course there are also falls on the American side, and it is impossible to say whether Cope is thinking of Canada or the U.S. (a problem that has arisen before). Most likely she is just thinking of the humour inherent in comparing a toilet flush to one of the largest waterfalls in the world, and isn’t thinking about Canadian versus American sides at all — such things concern us, not her.

Since the Canadian falls are the larger and more impressive, however, the comparison is inherently funnier if the Canadian falls are meant, because the contrast is greater. And since Cope herself is a British poet, I feel we can draw on our history as a British colony and claim the reference as a Canadian one.

And while it’s an honour for Canada to be home to (the most impressive part of) a waterfall that is so famous poets from other countries draw on it for comparisons, we might note that Canada is, yet again, known for a natural feature that happens to be within our borders rather than for anything that could really be considered a Canadian accomplishment.

The Commentary on The Commentary

The thought process in the second paragraph above reveals a peculiarly Canadian form of insecurity: we’re convinced that the world in general takes no notice of us, and so when we come across a reference that might be about us, but might not, we’re very keen to convince ourselves that it is about us, because it makes us feel important to be referred to by non-Canadians. Being noticed forms a sort of bulwark against our own feelings of national insignificance.

As for the third paragraph, how typical: go to great lengths to claim a reference is Canadian, and then complain that it’s not complimentary enough.

Glenn Gould, Robbie Robertson and Cottage Country

brockbroidocover

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:

nlc003722-v5

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.

Is Canada the Brains of North America?

LockwoodMotherland

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014)

As Willie Nelson observes somewhere or other, “You can’t write a song if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Fortunately, poetry has outgrown such trite restrictions. In fact, for many contemporary poets, it would seem that having nothing to say – or having arrived at the conclusion that there’s no point in trying to say anything because saying something is embarrassingly unhip – is not a disqualification, but rather the base camp from which the writing of poetry sets out.

Patricia Lockwood falls into this category: it’s difficult to say that any specific poem of hers is “about” something (with perhaps one major exception). The materials of life and, in particular, popular culture are certainly present in her work, but they enter in an oblique or tangential manner, and her poems don’t appear to be addressed to things external to themselves in a conventional way; rather, they seem more interested in the makings of poetry itself – they are about language and metaphor and the odd jumps thought can take; they are enactments and illustrations of their own construction; they show off their seams and sutures rather than trying to disguise them. Some are extended riffs that repeat the same idea, the poet seeming to look on with amusement as the idea becomes more outrageous with each iteration (see the second poem below).

Most gratifyingly, Lockwood seems to have a minor obsession with Canada. We’ve considered her work before; this collection contains two poems that explicitly (and I used that word advisedly – consider that your NSFW warning) refer to Canada. Here’s the first (minus the proper line indentations, which I haven’t been able to maintain online):

Search “Lizard Vagina” and You Shall Find

A higher country has a question, a higher
country searched and found me, and the name
of the country was north of me, Canada.
When I think of you I think up there just as I
think when I think of my brain, my brain
and the bad sunning lizard inside it. Today
you searched “lizard vagina,” Canada. It is so
hugely small if you can imagine it; it is scaled
it is scaled so far down. It evolved over many
millions of years to be perfectly invisible to you;
and so you will never see it, Canada. Here is
some pornography, if it will help: tongues flick
out all over the desert! Next time try thunder
lizard vagina. That will be big enough for even
you, Canada. You have one somewhere
in your hills, or else somewhere in your badlands.
Perhaps someone is uncovering a real one right
now, with a pickaxe a passion and a patience.
Ever since she was a child she knew what she
would do. She buttons her background-colored
clothes, she bends down to her work;
keep spreading,
Canada, she will show you to yourself.
Your down there that is, my Up There. Oh South oh
South oh South you think, oh West oh West now West
say you. The pickaxe the passion and the patience
hears, pink tongue between her lips just thinking.
The stones and the sand and the hollows they watch
her. The tip of her tongue thinks almost out loud,
“I have a brain am in a brain brain suns itself in lizard
too. Where would I be if I were what I wanted?”
Has a feeling finally swings the pickaxe- the passion-
and the patience-tip down.  (3-5)

Canada plays such a large role in this poem that we could almost say it is “about” Canada, or at least about the speaker’s thoughts about Canada – except that we have already disposed of the idea that poems are “about” anything. But given the frequent use of “you” and “Canada” in apposition to one another, we can at least say the poem is addressed to Canada.

The speaker’s actual ideas about our country, however, aren’t especially unique. In the opening lines, there is a cluster of words and phrases associated with Canada: “higher,” “north of me,” “up there” – ideas which seem typically American, and also rather pedestrian, since Canada is, after all, directly north of the U.S. It’s mildly interesting to see how “up there” shades into the brain, as if to suggest Canada is a more rational or intellectual nation than the U.S.

The line “that will be big enough for even / you, Canada” picks up on another common idea, that Canada is geographically large; the same idea occurs (among other places) in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Crossing the Water,” where the size of trees is conveyed by saying that “their shadows must cover Canada”.

But none of this comes as news.

The real crux of the poem, at least for our purposes, is the question of why Canada would search “lizard vagina” in the first place. And yet here, just when the question, “What is she really saying about Canada?” becomes most urgent, the answer becomes most elusive. Why would Canada search “lizard vagina”? Why would anyone? I can’t say I know.

One can, however, consult a list of what Canadians searched for in 2013 (the book was published in 2014, so I’m assuming 2013 would be the most relevant year) – even without “lizard vagina,” the results are somewhat dispiriting.

The Fifty-First State?

Canada also makes an appearance in a later poem, though we’re peripheral rather than central in this one.

Revealing Nature Photographs

In a field where else you found a stack
of revealing nature photographs, of supernude nature
photographs, split beaver of course nature photographs,
photographs full of 70s bush, nature taking come
from every man from miles around, nature with come back
to me just dripping from her lips. The stack came
up to your eye, you saw: nature is big into bloodplay,
nature is into extreme age play, nature does wild inter-
racial, nature she wants you to pee in her mouth, nature
is dead and nature is sleeping and still nature is on all fours,
a horse it fucks nature to death up in Oregon, nature is hot
young amateur redheads, the foxes are all in their holes
for the night, nature is hot old used-up cougars, nature
makes gaping fake-agony faces, nature is consensual dad-
on-daughter, nature is completely obsessed with twins,
nature doing specialty and nature doing niche, exotic females
they line up to drip for you, nature getting paddled as hard
as you can paddle her, oh a whitewater rapid with her ass
in the air, high snowy tail on display just everywhere.
The pictures were so many they started to move. Let me
watch for the rest of my natural life, you said and sank down
in the field and breathed hard. Let me watch and watch
without her knowing, let me see her where she can’t see me.
As long as she can’t see me, I can breathe hard here forever.
See nature do untold animal sex, see nature’s Sicko Teen
Farm SexFeest, see her gush like the geyser at Yellowstone,
see the shocking act that got her banned in fifty-one states including
Canada. See men for miles around give nature what she needs,
rivers and rivers and rivers of it. You exhale with perfect
happiness. Nature turned you down in high school.
Now you can come in her eye.  (33)

That might be my favourite poem in the whole book, and it mentions Canada. Sometimes, things just work out.

Canada is the fifty-first state being referred to here – as the phrase “fifty-one states including Canada” makes clear. It’s sad, obviously, being demoted from an independent nation to an add-on to the U.S.; this does, however, represent another typical American attitude – that Canada is essentially the same as the U.S. and not really anything more than a geographical extension of their country. Perhaps we can tell ourselves that Lockwood is parodying that idea rather than presenting it straightforwardly.

So, what can we conclude overall about Lockwood’s view of Canada? Despite the excitement of a poem literally directed towards us, we don’t get much new: Canada is up north, Canada is big, Canada is (perhaps) a more rational nation than the U.S. – the old “peace, order and good government” idea – but at the same time it’s so similar to the U.S. that it’s really just another state. Though Lockwood seems to be considered one of America’s exciting new poets, her ideas about Canada are rather retrograde.

But there’s another Canadian reference worth considering…

Canada as Marketing Device

What is perhaps this book’s most interesting reference to Canada is not in the book at all, and was probably not even written by Lockwood; instead, it comes on the back cover:

LockwoodBack

In case you can’t read that, the second line says, “Is America going down on Canada?”

What does this mean in the context of back cover blurbery?

The purpose of back cover copy, obviously, is to get people intrigued enough to buy the book. And sex sells, as they say, so it’s not surprising that there would be a reference to sex on the back cover. (In fact, all the questions on the back cover have at least a tangential relation to sex.) Which means that someone, somewhere (in the Penguin marketing department, presumably) decided the question of whether the U.S. is performing oral sex on Canada (along with questions about deer porn and Whitman’s tit pics) might make people want to buy the book.

Which is a striking enough thought in itself: are Americans really so interested in the issue of Canada-U.S. (sexual) relations that this line would make them more likely to purchase a poetry collection? It’s certainly a flattering thought.

But even more striking are the sexual roles in which our countries are placed. In the book itself, Canada is the fifty-first state, which suggests that Americans unconsciously feel a certain power over, and ownership of, us. On the back cover, however, the standard power relation between Canada and the U.S. is reversed. Canada isn’t the passive one, trying to please the U.S.; instead, our big, powerful neighbour to the South is going down on us. This suggests that Canada has some sort of power, some mysterious, irresistible appeal, that makes the U.S. want to please us. But what is it?

Canada as Hipster Talisman

Canada plays a large role in Lockwood’s book, and is prominently featured on the back cover, because Lockwood is a hipster, and American hipsters are obsessed with Canada.

The evidence for this has been mounting for a while – just the examples we’ve considered here include Lockwood herself, Tao Lin, Michael Robbins, Leigh Stein, and a series of New Yorker cartoons (proto-hipsterism). And even beyond the borders of our little website, there are facts that can’t be ignored: Canadian Ryan Gosling is essentially the ultimate male hipster, there is a hipster record company called Secretly Canadian, and so on. Now seems an opportune time to take up the question directly: why is Canada so significant to American hipsters?

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

But simply standing apart isn’t enough; the essence of hipsterism is using your appearance and your interests to convey to everyone else the fact that you stand apart from mainstream American culture. There’s no point in being a unique individual if no one notices; you must also appear to be a unique individual (and in some cases, no doubt, the appearance comes ahead of the reality by a significant distance), and appear so in a graphic enough way that everyone around you recognizes your uniqueness. This is what hipsters strive so hard for, growing beards and getting tattoos and piercings and waxing their moustaches and buying music only on vinyl and making their own clothes and whatever else they do – and what they strive so hard to achieve, Canadians have already achieved simply by being Canadian.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

(As a side note: The subconscious yearning, on the part of American hipsters, to be Canadian was perhaps best expressed in this map that circulated a few years ago:

usofcmap

In it, we see how the “hip” parts of the United States – essentially the Northeast, part of the Midwest and the West coast – have unilaterally attached themselves to Canada, abandoning the rest of the U.S. to “Jesusland”.

My recollection is that this map began to circulate after the re-election of George W. Bush, and that at the time it represented a desire on the part of more moderate, left-leaning Americans to escape from what they felt was their country’s slide into religious conservatism and overseas war-mongering. From that perspective, it represents a typically American view of Canada as a more moderate, progressive and pacifist nation, still similar enough to the U.S. to make a merger easy, but different in precisely the ways that Kerry voters wished their own country could be different. Some even became – or at least claimed to have become – willing to rush into the warm, moderate embrace of their snow-bound neighbour to the North.

But even beyond its immediate political context, the map represents a statement by a certain portion of the U.S. (essentially, the part of the nation that contains most of the hipsters) that they are not a part of mainstream America, but more open-minded, more liberal, more multicultural – in short, that they are more like Canadians than Americans.)

For hip Americans, Canada is like a distorting mirror that shows them, not who they actually are, but the image of the unusual, exciting person they want to be. In other words, the simplest definition of a hipster would be, “An American who wants to be Canadian.”

The Agonies of the Writing Process

Coming full circle at last, here is the Willie Nelson song that contains his thoughts on the necessity of a writer having something to say:

I’ve always thought of it as a portrait of Willie wrestling with writer’s block, but no doubt there are other possible interpretations.

The Tender Wilderness

leighsteincover

Leigh Stein, Dispatch From The Future (2012)

Many poets – mainly insecure ones, of which there is no shortage – are in love with difficulty – or, more precisely, they are in love with the idea of their work being perceived as difficult. There is a romance to the difficult, born out of its association with genius, that makes it very attractive. But the difficulty we find in works of genius comes from an attempt to communicate genuinely complex ideas – and alas, genius is rare. For most poets, the desire to produce difficult works of genius tends to collapse into masking mediocrity with willful obscurity.

Why this tendency to lean on obscurity as a substitute for difficulty? Many poets just don’t have anything that profound to say, and that makes clarity tremendously risky. If you express yourself clearly, there is a good chance someone – perhaps a lot of people – will find what you’re saying trite or shallow, which would only confirm the insecure writer’s fear that they have nothing interesting or original to say. If you’re a poet, then, and you’re not certain that you have anything interesting to say, how much safer it is to express yourself in the most obscure way possible. When people are confronted with a poem that is clear, they tend to evaluate its “sense”; when they’re confronted with a poem they find obscure, they may assume that the writer is saying something that is too complex for them to understand. Obscurity thus becomes the perfect cover for vacuity.

The poems in Leigh Stein’s collection, Dispatch From The Future, read as if they have been studiously composed to avoid making conventional sense. As you read them, you often feel, over a stretch of lines, that there is a narrative taking shape or an idea being developed; and then there will come a sudden wrenching aside of the poem into another, seemingly unrelated direction, as if the poet has caught herself making sense and veered sharply into the thickets of obscurity out of fear that she might reveal something – or worse, reveal that there is nothing to reveal.

There are two references to Canada in two different poems. Though both references are passing ones, I’ll quote the poems in their entirety – partly for context, and partly because I find it disrespectful to both poets and poems to chop out a little chunk a few lines long.

Try A Little (Canadian) Tenderness

Here’s the first:

Katharine Tillman vs. Lake Michigan

Mitsu flips a lot of coins. Katharine told me that once
she was in the middle of a tantrum and a coin
told him he should love her, and yet, he wasn’t
satisfied so he went to the dictionary and closed
his eyes and found a word and when she asked
what word he found, the only thing he would tell her
was that he was one step closer to the secret
of the universe. Can you tell me what it rhymes with,
she asked him. Is it a verb? Is it a country? Have I
been there? Will you write its name on my back
while we sit on the pier and watch the blue dusk
chase the sun to Jersey? The last time I ever
saw Katharine she asked me the name of the lake
in the distance and I said Michigan and she said
she’d heard of it, and then she showed me the diaries
she kept when she lived under the overpass
near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,
when all she had was a travel Scrabble set and
the reason she’d run away. Milan Kundera
has a lot to say about our tenuous insignificance.
When he wants to decide something he, too,
flips a coin, but in his case heads is Little Rock,
Arkansas, and tails is Little Rock, Arkansas, and
it’s just a matter of who to blindfold and bring with
on his motorcycle. On page one hundred and seven
of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I get lost
driving Katharine to the airport. On page one hundred
and forty nine, Tereza dreams that they take her away.
After I see Katharine for the last time I don’t go home;
I go to Prague and it’s 1968 and the man I love won’t
touch me; he just holds an empty gun to my temple
and even though we both know it’s empty there’s the small
comfort that the worst thing that could possibly happen
would be the thing I want most. Mitsu says the secret
of the universe is obvious in any planetary shaped
object you can find on the floor of a parking garage.
Katharine says how. I say I want to move to Canada;
the only tenderness anyone can get around here
is in the time it takes him to untie my wrists.  (22-23)

Several elements in this poem recur throughout the book and seem to mark points of interest  (“obsessions” might be more apt) for Stein: women in peril, usually at the hands of men; references to Milan Kundera (a writer who seems sophisticated when you’re 18); suicidal thoughts and the desire for death.

I’m not going to attempt to interpret the whole poem – you can tackle that yourself if you’re so inclined. Canada appears at the very end, as a place to which the speaker wants to move. She doesn’t explicitly say why, but if we take the next two lines as explanatory (and that seems to me the most reasonable way to read them), then her desire to move to Canada comes from the feeling that there is not enough tenderness in her life in the U.S., and moving north of the border might be a way to find some.

This idea of searching for tenderness in Canada represents yet another iteration of the familiar American idea that Canada is a gentler, more pacifist nation than the U.S., and that those seeking to escape the violent, martial side of the American character (represented in this poem by the man who apparently keeps the speaker tied up most of the time) can do so here.

You Can’t Have Paris (But You Can Have Canada)

On to the second Canadian reference:

Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness

My favourite book is the one with the woman
who wears a balaclava every time she goes
under the viaduct because it’s Canada, and
because she’s married to a man who loves
her sister, and because if her family found her
under the viaduct, she would lose everything;
more than that, she would lose the end of the story
he began. Il était une fois, he said, there are rugs
made by children who go blind and turn
to crime, and/or rescuing sacrificial virgins
from the palace the night before the sacrifice.
Turn one page if you want to be the woman,
listening to the story, but you’ll have to
keep the hat on. Turn three if you’d rather
be a girl alone in a bed, waiting. I was
always that girl: you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do but follow the blind boy, watch
as he puts the body of the strangled guard
in your bed, in your place, follow as he leads
you through the air ventilation system and over
the palace walls? I never chose any other way
because what could the woman do but love him
and listen to a story that wasn’t about her.
After you get over the walls you run
through the darkness, the darkness that isn’t
darkness to the blind boy because of his blindness,
the silent darkness to you who can’t describe it,
you run until you turn the page, but then instead
of safety, a valley, and the woman under the viaduct
puts her skirt on and goes back home and you think
you’ve ended up in the wrong story, but months later
she gets a phone call saying the man was killed
in the Spanish Civil War and that’s the end
because the only person who knows
what happened to you is dead.   (45-46)

The title of the poem refers to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books (which are another recurring reference/obsession for Stein – she even mentions “the great R.A. Montgomery” in a couple of poems), and the poem itself recalls the format of those books with its “turn one page if … turn three pages if…” conceit. The direct association of Canada with the idea of “wilderness” should surprise no one at this point – we are, by now, quite familiar with the fact that many Americans think of our country as little more than an uninterrupted band of forest topped with an uninterrupted band of tundra.

The idea of choice does, however, complicate this impression: apparently there are different Canadian wildernesses, which are distinct enough from one another that a person could make some sort of choice among them. But the poem itself never explains the differences.

And then we have “the woman / who wears a balaclava every time she goes / under the viaduct because it’s Canada”. Presumably when we are told the woman wore a balaclava “because it’s Canada,” we are meant to understand, “and Canada, as everyone in the United States knows, is cold all the time and therefore the wearing of balaclavas is essential in order to prevent your skin from instantly freezing the moment you step outside” (or something along those lines). So Canada is cold – another common idea.

And does “Il etait une fois,” which is the French equivalent of “Once upon a time,” appear here because of some half-buried notion that everyone in Canada speaks French? It’s difficult to say for certain, but the possibility hums in the air.

From there Stein drops Canada, but ultimately, a reading of the poem returns us to the question of the title. Why did Stein give the poem that particular title? In what sense is anyone in the poem choosing a Canadian wilderness?

I don’t think there is necessarily a linear link between the title and the body of the poem, nor does there need to be. To me, the title is of a piece with what follows.  There is a bleakness, verging on despair, in the implication that while you can choose your own Canadian wilderness, you can’t choose anything other than a Canadian wilderness – you can’t choose your own Parisian arrondissement, for example, or your own cottage in the Lake District – it’s just one Canadian wilderness or another.

Likewise the poem, which seems to be about women caught in threatening narratives that offer no escape or resolution, creates an overall sense of repetitive hopelessness, and the idea of choosing a Canadian wilderness is emblematic of that hopelessness. This is quite different from the idea of Canada in the previous poem: there, Canada represented a hope for refuge from the man who kept the woman tied up; here, there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of escape, except perhaps to some Canadian wilderness, which is apparently not a very appealing prospect.

Montreal: The Only Canadian City Worth Mentioning

lindenbergcover

Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, An Index (2012)

All the poems in this book relate in one way or another to the death of the poet’s lover, who, according to the back cover, disappeared while hiking a volcano in Japan. (Volcanoes, apparently, were an interest of his.)

The only reference to Canada comes in the long title poem, which is organized by the letters of the alphabet; under each letter there is a list of words beginning with that letter that are connected to the poet’s relationship with her lover.

This is the entire section on the letter “V”.

V

VANISH, dematerialize. Poof! How does one sail
to the land of vanished things? And what colour
does your flag have to be to get back?
VOLCANOES, we visited many: Vesuvius looming over Naples
like a history of violence and Pompeii’s ash
packed around a man-shaped hollow. The perfect cone
of Stromboli. Cloud-forests sweating around Poas,
its caldera cupping an aquamarine lake of boiling acid.
Thira’s thin crescent rising from the sea. A Mexican church
half-submerged in basalt. A cobbled path of fractured granite
descending into the North Atlantic. I thought I understood
your longing – it looked so much like mine.
VOLKSWAGON,
Golf (green), from Salt Lake City to Omaha in a day.
You were so angry because I’d stayed up late
the night before and couldn’t drive the first shift.
Later that summer, Duluth, Sault Sainte Marie,
Montreal, Marblehead. Harry Potter on tape,
your son asleep in the back with his feet on my lap
and his head resting on your guitar.
Golf (red), I could see you coming from so far
down the snowed-in road. Me at the bus station
freezing my ass off. You cranked the heat,
plucked off my wool cap, put your mouth over my ear.
VOW, I think as much now about the ones we failed to make
as the ones we faithfully kept.   (57)

The reference to Canada is a passing one, simply placing it on the itinerary of a road trip. A Canadian will naturally read Sault Ste Marie as the city in Ontario, but in fact there is also a Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, directly across the river from the one in Ontario – or perhaps they are better thought of as one city that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. So the mention of Sault Ste Marie alone can’t be considered definitively Canadian.

Once we come to Montreal, however, I think we can be certain. We can also guess at the outline of the trip: from Duluth, driving east along the southern shore of Lake Superior, then crossing into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, more or less straight across Ontario and into Quebec to Montreal, then back across the U.S. border and southeast to Marblehead in Massachusetts. So they would have passed through a significant chunk of Canada if that is the route they took.

In spite of that, Montreal is the only Canadian city to rate a mention: this book is yet another piece of evidence (along with recent examples such as Warren Harding’s love letters and Tao Lin) that Americans perceive Montreal as an exciting, romantic, interesting city, but see the rest of Canada as nothing more than a slightly blander extension of the United States. Having passed through Montreal is worth mentioning; having passed through Toronto, however, is not.

Other than the implicit judgement that Montreal is the only Canadian city that deserves to be named, there’s no real comment about Canada, so it’s hard to draw conclusions: our nation features here simply as a place that Americans occasionally journey through on their way to other places. In fact, Lindenberg makes no distinction between the naming of Canadian and American places and never explicitly mentions having crossed a national border. Duluth and Montreal appear equally in the list, as if the national divisions between us did not exist at all, which only adds to the sense that Americans see Canada as just an extension of their own country.

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