Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

“Ask not what Canada can do for you”

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Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls (1994)

There is nothing new or remarkable here, at least with reference to Canada, but this book does repeat a couple of ideas we’ve seen before, and I’ll simply catalogue those.

A Place to Dodge the Draft

This is from the story “1969”:

I’d often be found passed out on the couch of the house I stayed in that summer with Crime and Punishment on the floor next to my toes. If I could finish that book that summer then my life wouldn’t be a complete waste. I had a boyfriend. His name was Mike and he was also a blackout drinker. He was 21 and had just graduated from college. I thought we looked alike. He would always get drunk and say to me, “Leena, I ain’t gonna march.” I always felt like I was in a movie when he said that. Who does he think he is, I wondered. He wasn’t going to Canada. The war would end. Something would happen. He just wasn’t the type. When those foreign things would erupt from his soul it would just be so strange. It was like he was turning into a thing. I’d grab his dick and the crisis would be over. He was the first person I really had sex with.  (102-3)

When Mike says “I ain’t gonna march,” he means he won’t join the army and go to Vietnam, although the narrator (Myles herself?) seems to interpret this as self-dramatization on his part. It isn’t clear why she thinks he wouldn’t go to Canada — too uncivilized? he’s not decisive enough to take that step? — but Canada exists in the minds of these characters as a place to get away from the draft. Beyond that, though, the book has nothing to say about our country.

Neil Young and Joni Mitchell

There are also references to two Canadians who were staples on the U.S. music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. This is from the story “Bath, Maine”:

The place looked kind of “datey,” like it was attached to a restaurant. The clientele was sunburned and clean, like vacationers. Was I feeling better? In the last place when I had nothing to say in my notebook I began to write the words from the jukebox

And only love
can break
your heart
So try to make sure
right from
the start…

It made me suspicious. (7-8)

The song on the jukebox is, of course, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Canadian Neil Young — though he isn’t actually named in the story. I’m not sure why it makes her suspicious.

This is from “1969” again:

The safety of it all, the baby being held by the parents in the middle of the highway. Going home. Not even going to Woodstock.
Liked that baby, huh Leena? “Mo” asked me that from the front seat. I was that kind of Leena by now, and that was the end of the first night. Joanie Mitchell didn’t show. Do you blame her? I finally saw the movie in 1987. It would have been painful before then though I didn’t know why.  (113)

It’s strange that she spells Mitchell’s name as “Joanie” rather than “Joni”; if that has some significance, it’s not clear to me.

Larger Thoughts?

I suppose we could argue that these references are typically American in the sense that they see Canada only in terms of what it offers to Americans — a place to avoid the draft, a place that supplies music for Americans to listen to — but never question or wonder about what Canada is actually like on its own terms.

There is more about Canada as a haven for draft dodgers and about Joni Mitchell in our post on Lorrie Moore; there is more about Joni Mitchell in our post on Graham Nash and our post on Dave Van Ronk; and there is lots more about Neil Young here.

The Music

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” seems appropriate, and this live version includes a little explanation of why, as Myles says, she “didn’t show”:

Here’s the CSNY version from the “Woodstock” film Myles mentions:

And here is the album version of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” presumably what is on the jukebox:

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How Quebec Was Won

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Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

Ah, the Mitfords — so far, they’ve never let me down. We’ve already considered Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, and now Nancy has come through with another reference to Canada.

Wigs on the Green is  Nancy Mitford’s first novel, and a good part of it is given over to a parody of British Fascism in the form of the “Union Jackshirts,” who are a joke on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. (P.G. Wodehouse also parodied Oswald Mosley in the form of Roderick Spode, leader of the “Black Shorts,” in The Code of the Woosters, published three years after Wigs on the Green — overall a funnier book, I would say, but Mitford did get there first.) The main exponent of Union Jackshirtism is Eugenia Malmains, a young, out-of-touch heiress who lives on a country estate with her even more out-of-touch grandparents.

The reference to Canada comes as part of a pageant of English history that is put on at the end of the novel to raise money for the Union Jackshirt cause; here, Jasper Aspect is reading out the list of the scenes that will make up the pageant:

First messenger arrives announcing the victory of Wolfe over French Pacifists in Quebec.
First Episode: Wolfe, while reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his troops, is hit by a stray bullet and dies on a heap of straw. Rackenbridge brass band plays the “Dead March in Saul”.  (151-2)

The script for the pageant has been written under the guidance of Eugenia, who despises all enemies, real and perceived, of the Jackshirt cause as “Pacifists,” which is why the French army under Montcalm are designated “French Pacifists.” Other pacifist enemies range from a group of local artists (who do indeed attempt to disrupt the pageant) to Eugenia’s nanny, whose main crime in the service of pacifism seems to be trying to prevent Eugenia from leaving the house.

The events in the pageant are a garbled version of actual history: Wolfe died the day of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, having been hit by three musket balls. He did not die reciting Gray’s “Elegy,” but according to Edmund Gosse’s biography Gray, he did recite (most of) it (from memory!) to one of his soldiers the night before the battle, saying he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. Here is the passage from Gosse:

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Gray’s full “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can be read here.

I assume some version of the story of Wolfe’s victory and death was current in England in the Mitfords’ time; I have no idea whether Nancy had actually read Gosse’s book. I suppose we could take offence at the fact that Wolfe so underrates the possession of Canada that he would rather have written a single poem (albeit a very famous one) than win our entire nation for the British Empire. We could also be offended that the version of events presented here is so confused, reducing a key moment in Canadian history to a farce — but of course the entire pageant is meant to be a farce, and we would have to be rather dull not to laugh along with every other reader.

On the positive side, the winning of Canada was considered an important enough event to be included in a pageant of British history — I think that definitely rates as a compliment.

Music

Here is a rendition of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul:

A Canadian Interlude: Emily Carr on “Remittance Men”

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Emily Carr, Growing Pains: An Autobiography (1946)

I wouldn’t normally discuss a book written by a Canadian here, since that contravenes the essential principle of this site, but, being once again stranded at the cottage with nothing to read, I happened to pick up an old copy of Emily Carr’s autobiography that has been lying around there for years. I was struck by how neatly one particular passage picked up what I suppose could be called the “Canadian side” of ideas about immigrating to Canada that we have seen in works by Dickens and Basil Bunting:

The most particular sin for which we were whipped was called insubordination. Most always it arose from the same cause — remittance men, or remittance men’s wives. Canada was infested at that time by Old Country younger sons and ne’er-do-wells, people who had been shipped to Canada on a one-way ticket. These people lived on small remittances received from home. They were too lazy and too incompetent to work, stuck up, indolent, considering it beneath their dignity to earn but not beneath their dignity to take all Canada was willing to hand out.  (13)

This passage gives us a glimpse of how someone like Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit, would have been viewed in Canada in the last quarter of the 19th century. While Amy clearly sees Canada as a country that offers her brother an opportunity for a fresh start in life, those already in Canada have a markedly more negative view of new arrivals.

The word “infested” is particularly interesting. That’s the sort of word that is typically used when the writer wants to associate immigrants with some sort of vermin that are going to overrun the country and destroy its existing social fabric; in the contemporary world, we would probably associate it with diatribes against immigrants of a different race or religion. And yet Carr uses it here to refer to immigrants from England (the “Old Country”) — the country her own parents had immigrated to Canada from not that much earlier.

I suppose it shows that in the absence of racial, cultural or national differences, some reason will still be found to dislike newcomers.

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity

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David Foster, The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

I bought this book for two reasons: first, its seductively minimalist, Rothko-esque cover (see above), and second, because it bills itself as a “re-telling” of the myth of Attis, which I’m familiar with from Poem 63 by Catullus (available online in Latin and in English — essentially, Attis, swept up by the ritual of Cybele, emasculates himself, then regrets it. (Apologies to Catullus (and his fans) for that summary.))

The novel takes place mainly in 1968 and tells the story of a group of young people (more or less “hippies”) who move to the remote Erinungarah Valley to start a commune. It’s made up largely of unattributed dialogue and long-ish digressions on history, mythology and Australian botany, not all of which is as fascinating as it might be; in the end (SPOILER ALERT!) it turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog story (à la Tristram Shandy, I suppose) since the main characters have only just arrived in the Valley and begun setting up the commune when the narrator announces that he is about to die and can’t finish the book.

Foster, however, has woven in enough hints and “flash-forwards” that we can figure out more or less what is coming: at some point in the relatively near future, Attis (a foundling who grew up in the Valley and becomes a leader of sorts to the communards) will decide that all the problems of the world are caused by men, and that the only way to bring peace and harmony to humanity is to eradicate the scourge of “maleness”, at which point he will castrate himself and be transformed into a tree. Most of the other men follow his lead and castrate themselves as well (but don’t turn into trees), and after that the Valley becomes a paradise where everyone gets along and no one ages–or maybe they just age more slowly than normal, it’s a little hard to be certain. But you get the idea: when male genitalia disappear, society’s problems vanish as well.

Note

Since writing the above summary, I have acquired (no mean feat) and read Foster’s The Ballad of Erinungarah (1997), a book-length poem purporting to be written by Timothy Papadimitriou, who appears in The Glade as a small child. It is in some sense a continuation of the story of the novel, describing how the goddess Brigid appeared in the Valley and seduced (in a purely intellectual/spiritual sense) Attis, which ultimately leads him to castrate himself. It is written in a rather fragmented style, though, and certainly doesn’t answer all the questions a reader will have after finishing the novel. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much you could get out of the poem if you hadn’t read the novel first. The Ballad, alas, fails to mention Canada and so can’t be treated more fully here.

The Canadian Dodge

The novel includes a (very minor) Canadian character, as well as a couple of other additional references to Canada and Canadians. We’ll start with the Canadian, who first appears in the list of characters at the beginning of the book — a list that Foster uses throughout the novel to further the plot, which is helpful given the book’s “unfinished” state. It’s also a handy way to keep track of who’s who in a novel full of unattributed dialogue spoken by a huge and shifting cast of (largely indistinguishable spaced-out hippie) characters:

Johnny Dakota. Late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian vocalist. Guest at the Latin Quarter nightclub in Sydney. Used Michael Ginnsy on one of his albums (appeared recently at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, according to the Herald Metro).  (xxiv)

We can’t glean much about what Foster thinks of Canada from that brief description. He’s clearly aware that we have a First Nations population, and perhaps he adds that element to Johnny Dakota’s background to give him a little more interest. (As a side note, the novel also mentions “Eskimos in igloos” (351), which at least has the advantage of bringing up the common idea that Canada is cold.)

When Johnny Dakota actually appears in the novel, he is described as “a plump man with the Oriental eyes of a native Indian” (110). He then engages in a brief conversation with Diane Zoshka, a teenaged protester who will become the lover of Attis and one of the founders of the commune in the Erinungarah Valley:

‘I’ll have a large Scotch.’
‘You will not!’
‘Come on, let her have one. Don’t be a party poopa.’
‘She is just fifteen, Johnny.’
‘I’m jailbait, Johnny. Better watch out for me. So what do you think about Vietnam?’
‘I dunno. I’m Canadian.’
‘But are you happy with the situation in Vietnam?’
‘I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.’  (110)

Fascinating, no? Diane, a professional protester with communist leanings, is obviously against the war in Vietnam. Whether she assumes that Johnny is American and wants to confront him about the war, or whether demanding what people think about Vietnam is simply her way of making conversation, is a bit hard to tell. Johnny’s response, however, is the classic move of Canadians when they are mistaken for Americans by people from other countries — essentially, “Hey, don’t blame me for that whole Vietnam thing, I’m Canadian, I had nothing to do with it.” (We might compare this with the idea of Canada as a haven for draft dodgers, which came up in a Lorrie Moore novel.)

The dodge doesn’t work, though. Diane follows up by asking what he thinks of the situation in Vietnam (a Canadian can have an opinion, after all), and Johnny responds with “I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.” This also strikes me as characteristically Canadian: he doesn’t come out strongly for or against the war, instead trying to stake out a middle ground while leaning a bit towards the perceived opinion of his interlocutor. But where did that “we” come from? In answer to her first question, he distanced himself from Vietnam by saying he was Canadian, implying that it was an American war that he had no part in. The next time he speaks, however, he is suddenly saying “we” opened a can of worms, as if admitting some sort of Canadian complicity in the war.

This tiny scene contains a very astute portrayal of the position of the Canadian in the world: on the one hand, we don’t want to be associated with Americans and we insist on distinguishing ourselves from them; on the other, if we aren’t careful we slip into identifying with them because, at some level, we recognize that we really are very similar and that we have tended to be on the same side in major conflicts. Johnny Dakota, with his insistence that he’s Canadian and his slipping into “we” when talking about Vietnam, is emblematic of our country’s ambiguous position with regards to the U.S., and our own frequently conflicted feelings about it.

This appearance is then followed by a modified bio:

Johnny Dakota: late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian. Had a hit with that Crash Craddock cover, what was the name of it again? Appeared at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, in the nineties. Needs a new agent.  (112)

That gives you a sense, at least, of how Foster uses the repetition of his character descriptions to further the plot of the novel and hint at the outcome, though it’s not the best example because Johnny is such a minor character that he doesn’t come in for much development. I don’t think he appears again after this, which might be suggestive in itself: Canada, a place you think of once or twice, and then promptly forget about.

(As a side note, my research indicates that a character named Johnny Dakota appeared in a 1991 episode of the American TV series Saved by the Bell. I have no idea whether Foster was referring to this.)

The Potato Makes Its Way to Canada

There is also a brief mention of Canada in a passage dealing with the spread of the potato around the globe:

It was the potato blight caused the famine of 1845 and led to the Great Emigration of Celts to northern Tasmania, northern California, to Gippsland, Canada, the State of Idaho — to anywhere, in short, where conditions were found to comport with the propagation of the ancestral aliment.  (xxxviii-xxxix)

This is just a passing reference, obviously, with Canada lumped in with several other places, but it does represent another example of the theme of immigrants coming to Canada in search of a better life.

A Canadian Expert

In an excursus on the disappearance of cedar trees large enough to provide fine cabinetwood, we come upon a reference to another Canadian, this one not fictional but real:

World population, about 500 million in the time of Juvenal — David Suzuki says one billion, Paul Ehrlich about a third of that: I’d say they were guessing — was only one or two billion by the time of the Industrial Revolution. By 1990, it was five billion.  (361)

Now David Suzuki is a name well known to me — as a child, his CBC show The Nature of Things was one of the few television programs I was allowed to watch (because it was judged “educational,” I suppose). I haven’t been able to track down the source of the idea attributed to Suzuki here, but he’s a Canadian being mentioned as an expert on the issue of world population (something he has commented on).

The Video Evidence

Since our Canadian, Johnny Dakota, apparently had a big hit with a Crash Craddock cover, I thought we might as well put up some Crash Craddock. He’s so utterly original — never heard a voice or a sound like that before — that I can’t understand why he isn’t better known, although this song was apparently a big hit in Australia. Maybe it’s the song Johnny Dakota covered?

And here’s one from his later, “country” phase — ahead of its time, as it’s all about the importance of applying sunscreen:

And here are the opening credits of The Nature of Things:

Newfoundland, a Distant Beacon

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Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996)

The White Boy Shuffle isn’t an easy book to summarize; I suppose you could call it a satirical coming-of-age novel. It follows Gunnar Kaufman as he grows up in Los Angeles, becoming a high school basketball star and poet, and on to Boston University, where he publishes his first collection of poetry, Watermelanin, which sells “126 million copies” and causes him to be seen as a “saviour” to African-Americans. You can tell Beatty himself started out as a poet — the novel is written in the dense, allusive, metaphorical style characteristic of much contemporary poetry.

The only reference to Canada comes near the end of the novel, when Gunnar and his best friend, Nick Scoby, are students at BU. At this point, Gunnar has made a speech saying that African-Americans “need some new leaders … who are ready to die.” Inspired by this speech, Gunnar’s “followers” begin killing themselves after writing “death poems,” which they send to Gunnar. Here Scoby is planning his own suicide — he will later jump from the roof of the BU law school — though I don’t think Gunnar realizes it:

Nick stared past the coastline, and my eyes followed his. The only thing barely visible in the foggy night was Boston’s pathetic skyline. The top of the glassy Hancock Building poked through a cloudbank that covered its lower floors in a vapory trenchcoat.
“Tallest building in Boston, right?”
“Fifty some-odd stories, the Sunday afternoon brunch from the top supposed to be the move. You can see to Newfoundland or some shit.”
“They don’t have no nighttime dinner thing?”
“Nope. Closed up.”
“What’s the second tallest building?”
“The Prudential Building, but I think BU’s law school is the third.”
“Can you get in there at night?”  (204)

Newfoundland again! The reference is rather indefinite, though: “You can see to Newfoundland or some shit” means, essentially, “You can see to Newfoundland or some other place that’s far enough away that it’s impressive you can see it from Boston” — the focus is on the quality of the view provided by the Hancock Building, and Newfoundland is brought in merely to mark the distance. This seems like a typically American view, with a point in Canada being used as a way of measuring the greatness of something American (in this case, the view); there is no interest in the distinct qualities of Newfoundland, and it has no identity of its own.

The idea of distance also seems to imply a certain kind of obscurity, in that the view is only remarkable if the place you can see is a long way away. And Newfoundland, way off in another country, is just the kind of far-off, unvisited, almost mythical place that would make the view seem impressive.

Music — In Memory of Nick Scoby

Since Sarah Vaughan is one of Nick Scoby’s favourite jazz musicians (and one of mine too), here she is singing “Misty” (which seems appropriate to the foggy scene above — though I suppose I could have used “A Foggy Day”):

This is my favourite version of “Misty” — no video though:

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?

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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.

 

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

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Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (2014)

The elevator pitch for this novel would run something along the lines of, “Aging, ignored female artist shows her work under three male pseudonyms and is proclaimed a genius.” That’s fine as far as it goes — and it’s certainly a catchy premise for a novel — but it also oversimplifies the book. The artist, Harriet Burden (talk about loaded names!) chooses three separate male artists, and gets them to agree to show her work as theirs. As the novel goes on, though, these masquerades are revealed to be more complicated than they seemed at first, and the dividing line between mask and collaborator blurs, raising the question of whether it is possible to create art under an alternate identity without that other identity somehow influencing the nature of the work. One of the pleasures of this novel, with its multiplicity of voices and plot that constantly twists back around on itself, is that everything turns out to be much more complicated than it seems.

The novel is set up as if it were a scholarly book about Harriet Burden, edited by “I.V. Hess” and composed of excerpts from Harriet’s extensive notebooks, interviews and written statements from her friends, lovers and family members, and articles and reviews from art journals that chronicle the reception of Burden’s work. This approach becomes a bit tedious at times — it’s hard not to notice that all the “speakers” of the different documents sound not just remarkably like one another, but also remarkably like an upper-middlebrow literary novelist — but overall it’s an effective way to construct the narrative and build suspense (The Blazing World is surprisingly suspenseful for a novel about contemporary art.)

The first reference to Canada comes from one of Harriet Burden’s journals, which make up a significant portion of the novel:

There was also the remarkable case of Dr. James Barry, who entered medical school at the University of Edinburgh in 1809, passed his examination for the Royal College of Surgeons in England in 1813, became a surgeon in the military, traveled from post to post, and rose through the ranks. When his career ended, he was inspector general in charge of military hospitals in Canada. He died in London in 1865 from dysentery. It was then discovered that he had been a she. Barred from medicine by her sex, she had changed it.  (32)

James Barry was a real person, and the outline given here is essentially true. (S)he did serve as inspector general of hospitals in Canada, though for a relatively brief period, and Canada appears at this point in the novel merely as an element of historical fact; Hustvedt has nothing to say about Canada or Canadians, though the fact that an English person was in charge of Canadian military hospitals does reinforce our status as a (former) British colony.

The second reference comes in a footnote, added by the author/editor Hess to another of Harriet’s notebooks, in which she provides this quote from one of Harriet’s inspirations, Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish is describing burning her manuscripts after the works have been printed:

“But howsoever their Paper Bodies are Consumed, like as the Roman Emperours, in Funeral Flames, I cannot say, an eagle flies out of them, or that they turn into a blazing star, although they make a great Blazing Light when they Burn; And so leaving them to your Approbation or Condemnation, I rest, Madam, Your faithful Friend and Servant, CL.” Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, eds., Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader (Toronto: Broadview, 2000), 81-82.  (329)

This only tells us that the book was published in Toronto, so it doesn’t say much about Canada as a country, other than to make clear that work of intellectual value is sometimes produced here. It’s a real book, so you can consult it if you’re curious to learn more about Margaret Cavendish.

From our perspective, then, The Blazing World is a bit vexing: it mentions Canada twice, but it’s hard to glean much from these references. I suppose we can conclude that a book can mention Canada without actually saying anything about Canada.

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?

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