James Lasdun, Bluestone: New and Selected Poems (2015)
This book doesn’t contain a direct reference to Canada, but rather a use of what I think of as a specifically Canadian turn of phrase, and so I would argue it rates a place in this gallery. It’s from a poem titled “Returning the Gift,” which is far too long to quote in its entirety; the situation is that the speaker’s wife has given him a chainsaw for his birthday, but he’s afraid to use it, and so they take it back to the store. Here’s the relevant passage:
The chainsaw section’s
display looks like a butcher’s stall
selling various types of crocodile:
Makita, Husqvarna, Poulan … Thick festoons
of chainblade glitter rawly.
I hand my gift to the salesman,
a beareded giant, letting my wife explain.
As she talks, a glint comes into his eye:
“Afraid? Afraid of what? Getting hurt?
He won’t if he’s in a right relation. Listen — ”
He leans towards me with a twinkling grin,
Molson-muscle swelling his green plaid shirt —
“British, right?” I nod. That question here
puts my guard up, like “Are you Jewish?” did
in England where it meant “So you’re a yid,”
at least to my hypersensitive ear,
as “British” here means — but I’m being paranoid;
he’s got some other axe to grind: “King Arthur …
Now there was a male mother,
nourishing his men on his own blood ….” (70)
(Just notice, in passing, how nicely Lasdun manages the Swedish-supergroup ABBA slant rhyme scheme in that poem.)
I believe I have commented before — or at the very least, I have intended to comment before — on the way the incidence of references to Canada seems to increase in books set in upstate New York, suggesting (perhaps unsurprisingly) that physical proximity makes people more aware of our country. (For examples, see our posts on Frederick Exley, Chris Kraus, Lorrie Moore and James Salter.) Many of the later poems in Bluestone also have upstate New York as their setting, and so a reference to Canada isn’t totally unexpected.
This particular one, however, did catch me off-guard.
Molson, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian beer company, and so “Molson muscle” is a peculiarly Canadian (I thought) phrase for what would more generally be called a “beer belly.” (“Molson” = “beer,” “muscle” = “belly”.) Obviously, I can’t say for certain how Lasdun learned it. He is British, and perhaps spent some time in Canada and picked it up then? If he’s never been to Canada, though, it does raise the rather bewitching possibility that, through a sort of cross-border osmosis, the Canadian term “Molson muscle” has seeped into upstate New York and become a part of the local vernacular. Lasdun can’t imagine his readership will be largely Canadian, and so he must be assuming that Americans will, by and large, know that “Molson muscle” equals “beer belly”.
The larger question is, why use “Molson muscle” instead of “beer belly” and risk the possibility that some readers — those in Arizona, say, or those in London, England — will not know what the term means? Does this specifically Canadian term add anything to the poem from an aesthetic or thematic point of view?
I would argue that it does.
The question at the heart of the poem, as is probably obvious from even the brief excerpt above, is one of masculinity: is the speaker still a “real man” even if he doesn’t know how to use a chainsaw? A contrast is being set up between the meek, nervous poet-speaker and the bearded, “macho” store clerk, and his “Molson muscle” is one of the elements in this implied comparison. In its general usage, the word “muscle” in “Molson muscle” is an ironic joke, since there is no muscle actually involved in a beer belly. (If anything, the term seems to contain a subsumed parody of the idea of “working out”: while some go to the gym to build actual muscles, others sit on the couch and drink beer, thus building their “Molson muscle.”) I think Lasdun has chosen “Molson muscle” because it is suggestive of a sort of aggressive masculinity in a way that “beer belly” would not be, precisely because “muscle” (active, powerful) has been substituted (albeit ironically) in the phrase for “belly” (passive, something that just sits there). If so, we could argue that the use of “Molson muscle” is a conscious artistic choice that, along with the beard, the plaid shirt and so on (both also very Canadian-sounding, incidentally — is it possible that this chainsaw store clerk is “coded” as a sort of crypto-Canadian?), serves to separate the store clerk from the speaker of the poem and to establish that he exists in a different realm of manhood, one where everyone is comfortable using a chainsaw. So this Canadianism is associated with the sort of rugged, outdoorsy man capable of taming the wilderness and bending nature to his will — and taming the wilderness is, of course, the quintessential Canadian pastime.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this bearded, plaid-wearing, Molson-muscled clerk is meant to be a Canadian … or just a Canadian manque….