Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Farming”

A Canadian at Baskerville Hall?


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

The action of the novel begins with the arrival in London of Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to Baskerville Hall; Sherlock Holmes is the first speaker in the following passage:

“Then how can I assist you?”
“By advising me as to what I should do with Sir Henry Baskerville, who arrives at Waterloo Station” – Dr. Mortimer looked at his watch – “in exactly one hour and a quarter.”
“He being the heir?”
“Yes. On the death of Sir Charles we inquired for this young gentleman and found that he had been farming in Canada. From the accounts which have reached us he is an excellent fellow in every way. I speak now not as a medical man but as a trustee and executor of Sir Charles’s will.”  (31-32)

We have come across a similar view of Canada before, though from a slightly different perspective: in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, Canada represents a fresh start for Tip, the ne’er-do-well brother; here, Canada again represents a new opportunity, though in this case it is for a gentleman who comes from a good family but is unlikely to inherit the family estate.

It’s a bit surprising that he would become a farmer in Canada, which isn’t the most gentlemanly pursuit – why not, for example, take up law in London? Farming in Canada seems like more of an option for English farmers who can no longer farm successfully in England (such as Bunting’s Morpethshire farmer) – but perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too deeply: Conan Doyle’s plot requires the new Baskerville heir to have been stashed somewhere out of the way … and Canada is certainly out of the way. By keeping Sir Henry off the scene until he is actually required, Canada has served its purpose in the novel, and to an English reader of the time the idea of farming in Canada would likely accord well enough with their existing impression of our country as essentially a wilderness where a few rural settlements have been carved out.

The lifestyle of the Canadian farmer is alluded to later in the novel, when Holmes admires the portraits of the Baskerville family, and Sir Henry reveals the sort of expertise he acquired during his years in the New World:

“…these are a really very fine series of portraits.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Sir Henry, glancing with some surprise at my friend. “I don’t pretend to know much about these things, and I’d be a better judge of a horse or a steer than of a picture.”  (202)

You can almost hear him aspirate the initial “p” on that last word, as if spitting it contemptuously out. This makes it clear what people concern themselves with in Canada – and it’s not paintings, or the arts in general. Sir Henry’s Canadian life has been that of a stolid farmer with knowledge of livestock and no interest in the finer things, such as paintings.

And yet there is a curious bifurcation in the character of Sir Henry. At moments like this, Conan Doyle seems almost at pains to portray him as a rough colonial who knows about livestock but couldn’t care less about art. By contrast, in other parts of the novel Sir Henry is described as a true English gentleman, one who has taken naturally to his inheritance of Baskerville Hall and seems to have an innate understanding of his role and an instinctive sense of how to conduct himself as the leader of his community.

We could interpret this as an illustration of the “blood will out” idea: no matter how much time he spent in the wilds of Canada, Sir Henry is an English nobleman by blood, and as such is always ready to take up his birthright and exercise his prerogatives.

I’m afraid I’m inclined to settle on a somewhat more prosaic explanation: Conan Doyle doesn’t have a particularly strong sense of Sir Henry as a character, and so his portrayal of him changes to suit the immediate needs of the plot. Likewise, Conan Doyle isn’t really interested in the life of farmers in Canada or in describing the sort of person who follows that lifestyle; Sir Henry’s colonial sojourn is simply a way of explaining his absence from England so that his arrival can be used to start the story.

An Aside: Conan Doyle vs. Nancy Mitford

At this point we can pause to compare Conan Doyle’s image of an heir to a large British estate living in Canada with another writer’s portrait of a character in a similar situation – Cedric Hampton, in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. The comparison is a little tricky because, as noted, Conan Doyle’s characterization of Sir Henry is somewhat inconsistent. As regards the scene with the paintings, however, we can say Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Sir Henry is much closer to what the English characters in Love in a Cold Climate imagine Cedric will be like – that is, an unsophisticated colonial.

Of course, Cedric turns out to be quite the opposite. Perhaps, over the decades between The Hound of the Baskervilles and Love in a Cold Climate, English perceptions of Canadians evolved; perhaps Mitford’s desire to use Cedric’s character for satirical purposes led her to the unexpected; perhaps Mitford is simply more focused on character as a writer – whatever the reasons, Love in a Cold Climate has a similar set-up but offers a notably more nuanced portrayal of a Canadian than The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Boot

Then we come to the matter of the boot. Sir Henry, shortly after his arrival in London, complains that one of his boots has been stolen from his hotel:

Sir Henry smiled. “I don’t know much of British life yet, for I have spent nearly all my time in the States and in Canada. But I hope that to lose one of your boots is not part of the ordinary routine of life over here.”  (49)

It would be a gross disservice to Henry James to refer to this moment as “Jamesian,” and yet, in its portrayal of the New World innocent horrified by the corrupt ways of the Old World, it does seem to contain, in a radically simplified form, a germ of one of the themes that fascinated the master.

It is Sir Henry’s stolen boot, of course, which the murderer will use to put his hound on the scent of the Baskerville heir when he walks the moor at night in the novel’s climax, and so the theft of the boot marks the beginning of the process by which Sir Henry will become enmeshed in a scheme that involves the commission of murder in order to inherit a fortune. (When you put it that way, The Hound of the Baskervilles does begin to sound like a very faint echo of a James novel).

The boot crops up again at the end of the novel, when Holmes and Watson are tracking the fleeing murderer through the deadly Grimpen Mire:

Only once we saw a trace that someone had passed that perilous way before us. From amid a tuft of cotton grass which bore it up out of the slime some dark thing was projecting. Holmes sank to his waist as he stepped from the path to seize it, and had we not been there to drag him out he could never have set his foot upon firm land again. He held an old black boot in the air. “Meyers, Toronto,” was printed on the leather inside.
“It is worth a mud bath,” said he. “It is our friend Sir Henry’s missing boot.”  (228)

At least Conan Doyle knows the name of a major Canadian city. The boot shows Canada is not completely rural: boots are made here, which suggests industry at least at a minor level – more likely something closer to a cobbler’s shop than a boot factory, but still, Canada is capable of producing some of the finer needs of a gentleman for itself – and doing so well enough that he would wear the boots in England – and is not just a land of farms.

Incidentally, it is in honour of this small plot point that the Canadian branch of the Sherlock Holmes Society is known as The Bootmakers of Toronto (better than, say, “The Farmers of Canada,” which is the most obvious other option suggested by the novel).

Overall, The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a rather mixed view both of Canada and of Sir Henry himself, and it’s hard not to feel that for Conan Doyle, Canada was merely a distant colony that his readers would know just enough about to allow him to use it in whatever way best suited the requirements of his plot.


Auden, Spinoza, Salmon and Snow (Paul Muldoon Part II)


Paul Muldoon, Meeting the British (1987)

All page references are to the Poems 1968-1998 edition pictured above, and not to the individual volume.

The Opening Poem

The first poem in this book is actually titled “Ontario,” which makes this sort of thing fairly easy – although the first line of the poem is “I spent last night in the nursery of a house in Pennsylvania.” That gave me pause – did Muldoon mean our Ontario, or some other Ontario? He gets to Ontario (and Guelph, and Toronto, just so there’s no doubt) eventually, but there’s a curious distancing of himself from his Canadian subject matter in the way he titles the poem “Ontario” and then immediately makes clear that he’s not actually in Ontario – he’s in Pennsylvania (much more cosmopolitan) and only thinking of Canada.

I ordinarily like to present poems in their entirety, but this is a long prose poem and I really don’t feel like typing that much, so I’m only going to quote the relevant portion.

…I remembered how I was meant to fly to Toronto this morning, to visit my younger brother. He used to be a research assistant at the University of Guelph, where he wrote a thesis on nitrogen-fixing in soya beans, or symbiosis, or some such mystery. He now works for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario. On my last trip we went to a disco in the Park Plaza, where I helped a girl in a bin-liner dress to find her contact lens.
-Did you know that Spinoza was a lens-grinder?
-Are you for real?
Joe was somewhere in the background, sniggering, flicking cosmic dandruff from his shoulders.
-A lens, I went on, is really a lentil. A pulse.
Her back was an imponderable green furrow in the ultraviolet strobe.
-Did you know that Yonge Street’s the longest street in the world?
-I can’t say that I did.
-Well, it starts a thousand miles to the north, and it ends right here.  (151)

I love this because I feel like everyone in Toronto knows this fact about Yonge Street – I can’t think how many times I’ve both heard and quoted it over the years – and yet the poet seems so taken aback by the question, as if stunned that there could be anything special about anything in Toronto. We expect he’s going to get a little lesson in Canadian geography – but no, the Torontonian girl (let’s assume she’s Torontonian) has no more interest in places north of the 401 than her foreign interlocutor. Her explanation is completely lacking in specificity: all she can say is that it starts somewhere a thousand miles to the north (and shouldn’t she be speaking in kilometres?), in some wilderness apparently unknown to her.

Beyond the (possibly failed) pick-up in the Park Plaza disco, we also catch a glimpse of two other sides of Canada, one familiar, one not: a land of new opportunity, and a centre of scientific research. The author’s brother has taken the trouble to travel from Ireland to Guelph to study – something, it’s not clear exactly what – and to write a thesis on it. We aren’t told why he chose Canada, but the possibility that it offered more opportunity than he could find in Ireland might be inferred, especially as this is an idea at least as old as Dickens.

Or could it be that Canada is more advanced in his field than any of the universities in Ireland? This presents a view of Canada that we haven’t really seen before: our country as a centre for advanced scientific research, which is certainly a departure from our more usual image as a frozen wilderness. The fact that he has ended up working for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario, combined with his thesis possibly being about soybeans, suggests a rural nation where science is used mainly as a way of improving farming – but still, science is science, and I think we can file this under “Progress”.

The Mystery of the Landlocked Chinook

The poem “The Wishbone” also refers to the author’s brother being in Guelph, but doesn’t go beyond that, so it doesn’t really seem worth the trouble of quoting. But another poem has a little more to it:


I was micro-tagging Chinook salmon
on the Qu’Appelle

I surged through the melt-water
in my crocus

I would give each brash,
face its number.

Melt-water? These were sultry
fish hang-gliding downstream.

Chinook. Their very name
a semantic

The autumn, then, of Solidarity,
your last in Cracow.
Your father

rising between borsch
and carp,
relinquishing the table to Pompeii.  (155-6)

There’s not a lot about the Qu’Appelle River, which is in Saskatchewan (and a tiny bit of Manitoba); what there is, however, is a little strange. Here, courtesy of the river’s Wikipedia entry, is a list of the fish species to be found in the river:

Fish species include: walleye, sauger, yellow perch, northern pike, lake whitefish, cisco, mooneye, white sucker, shorthead redhorse, bigmouth buffalo, common carp, channel catfish, black bullhead, brown bullhead, burbot and rock bass. Rock bass are Saskatchewan’s only native bass.

This doesn’t purport to be an exhaustive list, of course, and there are some great-sounding names there (bigmouth buffalo!), but still: Chinook salmon are one of the most prized sport fish to be found in Canada; if they lived in the Qu’Appelle River, they would certainly rate a mention ahead of white sucker and shorthead redhorse, to pick just two examples (no disrespect to those noble species intended). And, as a look at a map will show, the Qu’Appelle River is located right in the middle of the Canadian Prairies, with no connection to the ocean, or any body of water large enough to satisfy the needs of a migratory species like the chinook. (The same point is made by Dr. Ronald Marken in his article, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”*, which is about – of all things – references to Canada in Irish poetry. You can read at least some of it here.)

So … what’s going on? I recognize it’s a bit naive to assume that just because a poem is written in the first person, all the events it mentions actually happened in the author’s life – but what could be the reason for describing an event that can’t possibly be true? Is Muldoon confusing his Canadian river names? Has he tagged so many different kinds of fish on so many different rivers that they all blur together? Is this kind of counter-factuality an intentional strategy for constructing a mythic aura around Canada?

And then, as we hope for answers, the poem turns away from Canada entirely and towards Europe, the Qu’Appelle River and its fish species forgotten – or, more precisely perhaps, unknown – in Cracow.

Auden, Isherwood and the Picturesque Snows of Newfoundland

Meeting the British concludes with a long poem, in sections, called “7, Middagh Street.” For those who don’t immediately recognize the reference in the title (I’m afraid I didn’t), it’s the address of February House in Brooklyn, where Auden, Britten, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other bohemian artist types all briefly lived together – it’s so famous that not only is there a book about it, but it’s also the subject of a musical by Gabriel Kahane. The reference to Canada comes at the opening of the first section, which is in Auden’s voice (each section has a different speaker).


Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir;
a blizzard off the Newfoundland coast
had, as we slept, metamorphosed

the Champlain‘s decks
to a wedding cake,
on whose uppermost tier stood Christopher

and I like a diminutive bride and groom.
A heavy-skirted Liberty would lunge
with her ice-cream
at two small, anxious

boys, and Erika so grimly wave
from the quarantine-launch
she might as truly have been my wife
as, later that day, Barcelona was Franco’s.  (175)

Hey, guess what? Canada’s cold!

Alas, we don’t have much of a role here beyond providing some (admittedly picturesque) snow, and readers will recognize a familiar trope: people sailing on a (presumably) Canadian ship (the Champlain!), but going not to Canada, but rather to New York (as the reference to the Statue of Liberty makes clear – shades of Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly). Auden and Isherwood, apparently, are giving us a pass, though Newfoundland has taken the trouble to blow some snow at them on their way by, as a gentle Canadian hello.

And, echoing “Chinook,” we might also note the (characteristic?) turn away from North  America and towards the larger events of history, which seem to occur mainly in Europe.

Another Kindred Spirit

I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Ronald Marken for providing me with a copy of his essay, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”. You can read at least some of it through the Google Books link provided above; unfortunately, the full text isn’t available online. As well as providing insights into Muldoon’s poem “Chinook,” Professor Marken’s essay also offered the comfort of knowing I’m not alone in my curiosity about how writers from other countries portray Canada in their work. His description of the Canadian mindset with regard to our position in the foreign imagination nicely summarizes some of the background to this project, which I attempted to explain in the “About” section:

Canadians have a considerable anxiety about their national singularity, about how others perceive them. Our quest for a “National Identity” so pervades our thinking and our own literature as to be almost a public diversion, even a national joke…. Canadians would not be surprised if you were to say, “No one in Irish poetry has a thing to say about Canada. There are plenty of references to Brazil, Berlin, and Bilbao, but none to British Columbia.” That kind of news would not startle Canadians.

We are used to being ignored. Despite our enormous size, we are a country accustomed to invisibility.*

Canadians are fascinated with the question of how people from other countries perceive us, and at the same time we have a fatalistic sense that they don’t perceive us at all. And sometimes the most interesting or revealing references to Canada are the throwaways, the careless, passing references that show what writers think about us when they’re not really thinking about what they think. Usually, it turns out to be lumberjacks.

*From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.


Icebergs, Shipwrecks and Stock Whips


Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The volume in the photo contains two Nancy Mitford novels, The Pursuit of Love and its sequel of sorts, Love in a Cold Climate. Both novels mention Canada, but as they were originally published separately – and as Love in a Cold Climate has numerous references to Canada – I’ll give each one its own post.

For Those Unacquainted with the Mitfords…

If you’re not familiar with the whole cult surrounding the Mitford family, then this Wikipedia entry is at least a starting point; Mary S. Lovell’s book The Sisters is essentially a combined biography of the whole family, though with the focus on the daughters. Or you could read The Pursuit of Love, which is one of the books that helped create the cult in the first place: the Radlett family in the book is based on the Mitford clan, with the characters of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew representing Nancy Mitford’s parents. (Another key book in the creation of the family mythology is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which we’ve already considered.)

The experiences of Linda Radlett, the main character in The Pursuit of Love, are modelled on Nancy Mitford’s own, though the book is actually narrated by Fanny, a cousin of the Radletts’, perhaps to give some slight authorial distance.

And Now, the Important Stuff: Canada

There are only two passing references to Canada in The Pursuit of Love, and both come in the early chapters that deal with the childhood experiences of Fanny and the Radlett children at Alconleigh, the Radletts’ country estate.

When a child I spent my Christmas holidays at Alconleigh, it was a regular feature of my life, and, while some of the them slipped by with nothing much to remember, others were distinguished by violent occurrences and had a definite character of their own…. There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.  (6)

Here Canada, or at least the journey to Canada, is clearly associated with great distance and considerable danger; enough danger, in fact, that the death of parents, and consequent freeing of their children from troublesome parental rules, is a real possibility. The reference to Atlantic storms suggests the approach to a wild, uncivilized place; the mention of an iceberg focuses our reputation as a cold, Northern land. 

The iceberg also recalls the Titanic, which famously ran into an iceberg south of Newfoundland and sank in 1912, when Nancy Mitford would have been around 8 years old. Perhaps she is recalling that here.

The obvious (unanswered) question that arises from the passage is, why were they going to Canada in the first place? Winter doesn’t seem the ideal time for a holiday in a place even colder than England. Did they just want to see another part of the world? Did they have relations in Canada? There’s no way to tell, but it seems like a bit of a compliment that these two English aristocrats braved the storms and icebergs to visit our humble land. 

A few pages later we get this:

Uncle Matthew was no respecter of other people’s early morning sleep, and after five o’clock one could not count on any, for he raged round the house, clanking cups of tea, shouting at his dogs, roaring at the housemaids, cracking the stock whips which he had brought back from Canada on the lawn with a noise greater than gunfire, and all to the accompaniment of Galli Curci on his gramophone, an abnormally loud one, with an enormous horn, through which would be shrieked ‘Una voce poco fa’ – ‘The Mad Song’ from Lucia – ‘Lo, here the gen-tel lar-ha-hark’ – and so on, played at top speed, thus rendering them even higher and more screeching than they ought to be.  (22)

In case you were wondering, a stock whip is not the same as a bull whip. Stock whips are used for mustering cattle, so the whip’s Canadian provenance suggests a place full of livestock and cowboys – though stock whips actually seem to have originated in Australia, not Canada, so why Uncle Matthew should have a stock whip from Canada is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he acquired it on his trip there, when he didn’t drown in a shipwreck?

Uncle Matthew is portrayed in the novel as prone to wild rages, and here the Canadian whip is associated with the angry, out-of-control side of his character; the fact that the whip is from a country probably viewed as half-savage by the English aristocracy of the time perhaps adds an extra element of violent primitivism to the description of his behaviour (though one could read it more as quaint eccentricity).

So there’s not a lot new about Canada here: it’s a distant country, getting there can be dangerous, the livestock and wild animals probably outnumber the humans – and yet it’s worth visiting, though it’s not clear why. Interestingly, the Mitfords really had been to Canada: David Mitford (father of Nancy, Jessica et al.) even owned “a dear little gold mine” (Jessica’s phrase) here, which he thought would make him rich. Alas, it didn’t.

Some General Observations

As a writer, Mitford hovers somewhere between a novelist and a memoirist; most of her best-known works are fictionalizations of her own experiences or the experiences of her family members and friends, and you can see even in these brief passages her tendency to create run-on sentences by constantly adding further specific details to her descriptions, as if jotting down memories as they occur to her.

She does, however, make some notable alterations to the family history. I’ll mention just one: in The Pursuit of Love, Linda’s first marriage is to Tony Kroesig, the son of a rich banker of German descent. Much is made of Uncle Matthew’s disgust at his daughter marrying a German, and when the Second World War breaks out the Kroesigs are portrayed as sympathetic to Hitler and scheming to get their money out of England, while the Radletts would never think of leaving and are all ready to fight and die for their beloved homeland.

In reality, of course, two of Nancy Mitford’s sisters were staunch fascists and ardent supporters of Hitler – a fact she elides in the novel by removing those sentiments from her family, and by extension the English aristocracy as a whole (where they weren’t exactly unknown), and ascribing them instead to the nouveau-riche, recently arrived Kroesigs. Which seems a bit unfair, but there it is.

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part I – UPDATED


Michael Robbins, Alien vs. Predator (2012)

I feel I need to begin by apologizing for the Toronto Public Library: they clearly affix their stickers with no regard for how they affect the aesthetic appeal of a book’s cover. And this book really does have a striking cover design; it’s a shame to see it marred. On the other hand, I can’t afford to buy all the books I want to read, so I have to put up with these minor indignities.

Moving on…

Canada may or may not have immense cultural cachet, but it’s clear that one Canadian does: singer/songwriter-folkie/rocker Neil Young. We’ve discussed him before, but it’s never a bad time to talk Neil. Michael Robbins’ book contains at least one reference to him:

Second Helping

I dare not speak my name, it is so long
and unpronounceable. I enforce the thaw
here among the timbered few. We despise you
and whatever you rode in on – is that a swan?
I’m not really like this. I’m over the moon.

Still, we jar marmalade. We plow.
We don’t need Neil Young around anyhow.
Your tribe’s Doritos are infested with a stegosaur.
That Forever 21 used to be a Virgin Megastore.

Scott Baio in full feathered glory
was everything I’m not. I am everything I am
and then some. I’m coming along nicely.
Don’t stick your fork in me until I’m done.  (14)

It’s a bit difficult to tell how Neil Young relates to the rest of the poem – in fact, I find it a bit difficult to tell how the different parts of the poem relate to one another. No doubt this is the point: the poem makes it impossible for you to say what the poem is “about,” because talking about what poems are “about” is old-fashioned and tedious – as are poems that are “about” something to begin with.

Nevertheless, we’ll cling to our illusions, however old-fashioned they may be, and give it a try.

The word “anyhow,” at the end of the Neil Young line, might be some sort of clue; it’s a turn of phrase that seems to indicate Neil Young has been around, but has now left – but who cares, we didn’t need him anyway. This sounds like false bravado – compare Coriolanus and his “there is a world elsewhere.” Is the speaker secretly going to miss Neil’s folkie guitar strumming? Will Neil’s help be missed at plowing time? Does this association arise purely because he put out an album called Harvest, and then another called Harvest Moon?

I don’t think I’m going to reach any satisfactory conclusions.


This may be a first for us here at Wow – Canada! (perhaps because most of the authors I write about are dead) – what appears to be an author comment. Someone known as “MR” (Michael Robbins?) has stepped in in the Comments to inform me (or should I say gently chastise me for not noticing?) that the Neil Young line in “Second Helping,” above, is actually a quote from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama”:

(Look out for the Confederate flag drop at around the 1:20 mark.)

I’m familiar with the song, but not familiar enough to pick up on references to it. Or perhaps I suppressed the memory, out of my eagerness to find a reference to Canada in the poem?

I suppose this means that “Second Helping” doesn’t really contain a Neil Young reference, or that it does so only at second hand, so to speak. Nevertheless, I’ll let the commentary above stand – and we still have Michael J. Fox (see below).

Finally, just to show I’m not toally off base in terms of Michael Robbins dropping Neil Young references, here’s a more recent poem of his, That’s Incredible, also linked to in the comments, and containing a direct Neil Young reference.

A Digressive Disclaimer

Does my commentary on “Second Helping” make me  sound like I’m down on Michael Robbins? I don’t mean to be. I actually enjoyed this book – it’s full of great lines: “I have eyes/in the sack of my dead” or  “Let’s get this seance started,” or “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z,” to pick out a few.

Just in the poem I quoted above, there’s the line about the swan, sharpened by the internal rhyme with “on”; the rhyme of “stegasaur” with “Megastore” practically jumps off the page. But can Robbins’ technique produce more than isolated great lines?

Without question, there are poems where Robbins manages to sustain his zany inventiveness throughout: the title poem, or the final poem in the collection. If I have a quibble, it’s that the poems in the book all feel like exercises in the same technique; a few work beautifully, but a lot of the rest just don’t seem to add up to much. Now, to produce a poem as good as “Alien vs. Predator” is more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, so I won’t sneer. Perhaps, for my palate, a couple of poems like that are enough. (I think someone said something similar about Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “One poem like that is enough. It purifies the language.” But I can’t remember who.)

In any case, my purpose here is to look at references to Canada, not to attempt to analyze the poem as a poem or the book as a book. If you want to read some intelligent commentary on Robbins’ poetry, I recommend Michael Lista’s review of this collection.

A Possible Neil Young Reference

My general practice is to quote poems in their entirety as much as possible, but in the case of Robbins, I’ve decided that relevant sections can be broken off from the whole without causing them undue damage. So here’s another possible Neil Young reference, from a poem called “Material Girl”:

You’re coated with salmonella. Or am I
confusing you with the kitchen sponge again?
A beautiful phrase, cellar door,
but I prefer You win. Prefer to sit and spin.  (22)

I say “possible” because when I see the phrase “cellar door,” I immediately think of the  Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which begins, “Caught you knockin’ at my cellar door.”

(For reference, here’s an acoustic performance from Toronto in the fall of 2012:

I think that might be the Hank Williams D-28 (subject of the song “This Old Guitar”) that he’s playing.)

Robbins, however, seems to be thinking of the fact that “cellar door,” particularly as it would be pronounced with an English accent, is considered, in the field of phonaesthetics (did you know there was a field of phonaesthetics? I didn’t), to be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language, so this might not actually be a reference to Canada.

Another Digression

Just to close the circle on “cellar door,” there was a club in Washington DC called The Cellar Door. There’s a live Miles Davis set from 1970 that was recorded there (here’s a sample), and guess who else is coming out with a live album, also recorded at the Cellar Door, and also in 1970? That’s right: Neil Young. (Sometimes the connections are almost too much for me – I feel overwhelmed – “What splendor, it all coheres!”)

This, I believe, marks the second Neil Young live release from a venue where Miles Davis also played at around the same time, the first being the Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970 album. In fact, as you can see from the cover photo, Neil’s and Miles’ names appeared together on the marquee:


So clearly there is some sort of harmonic convergence taking place in the universe; or at least there was in 1970, when Neil and Miles played the same venue at least twice, on both occasions recording material that would later be released.

That felt like an exhausting aside.

Wait – Another Canadian Celebrity!

Returning to Alien vs. Predator, there’s one further reference, not to Canada but to a Canadian celebrity, that I might as well quote while I’m at it. This is the final stanza of the poem “The Dark Clicks On”:

Michael J. Fox talks Parkinson’s
with the former Miss Arkansas.
The clouds are there for them
to be sick on. Those European
stairwells with the lights on a timer?
You get halfway up and the dark clicks on.  (26)

The near-rhyme of “Parkinson’s” with “Arkansas” gives an idea of the slightly unconventional music that Robbins creates in his poems. Does Miss Arkansas come in for any reason other than to provide that gorgeous near-rhyme?  Is any other reason required?

So…What Does it All Mean?

As a collection, Alien vs. Predator is riddled with references to celebrities, actors, musicians and pop culture generally, and it’s hard to say that Neil Young or Michael J. Fox are brought in for their “Canadian-ness,” or even that Robbins is particularly aware that they are Canadian. Perhaps they are famous enough that they transcend being Canadian, and are simply celebrities that Americans have more or less adopted as their own. And this tells us something about the attitude of Americans towards Canadians: they see us as similar enough to themselves that they can absorb us into their culture so completely that we cease to be different at all.

Literature Gives No Man a Sinecure

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

The plot of this novel centres on Gordon Comstock, who gives up a decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to concentrate on poetry and sinks gradually into poverty. He sees himself as a rebel against middle-class propriety (represented by aspidistra plants), but in the end circumstances (through the medium of his girlfriend, Rosemary) drag him back towards a happy mediocrity, where he probably belongs anyway. I liked this one, despite the somewhat disconcerting sense that, at times, I could almost have been reading my own autobiography.

It was also made into a decent film starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. The film doesn’t get down into the gritty texture of poverty to the extent that the book does, but it’s entertaining. Bizarrely, I think it was released in North America under the title “A Merry War”. Perhaps the word “aspidistra” was considered too long or too obscure for North American viewers; still, when you have a title as fantastic as “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” it seems a shame to waste it.

Best of all, though, there are three – that’s right, three – references to Canada. We’ll take them in the order they occur. First:

Gordon’s supper was set out, waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire) and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle, and drank a glass of cold but musty water.  (p. 30)

It would be nice to think that this reference to Canadian butter suggests a cool, delicious dairy product that comes from the wide-open spaces of the new world, where proud farmers milk their cows and their daughters, faces cream-spackled, churn it into delicious fresh butter to be shipped back to England – in short, that the reference to Canadian butter is meant to provide a contrast with the dirty and poverty-stricken conditions in which Gordon consumes it.

Alas, the sentence resists such interpretation.

The general tenor of the description of Gordon’s life in the boarding house is that it is mean and filthy; the dinner he eats seems to be of a piece with that (the bread is crumbly, the water musty – how lovely that “but” there, as if it required some sort of mysterious, almost alchemical cruelty to take cold water and still render it musty, thus draining it of pleasure). It seems more likely that Canadian butter represents something cheap and low-quality rather than something grand and delicious. Given the characterization of his landlady, if Canadian butter were good, it’s impossible to imagine that she would give it to Gordon.

We also have the phrase “mousetrap cheese,” which immediately follows “Canadian butter.” I’m not sure what this means, but I suspect it refers to cheese that is so bad that it’s appropriate for use in a mousetrap, but not for human consumption.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I’m not the first to have taken up this question; the Internet provides some further speculations.


She [Rosemary] was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. There had been fourteen children all told – the father was a country solicitor. Some of Rosemary’s sisters were married, some of them were schoolmistresses or running typing bureaux; the brothers were farming in Canada, on tea plantations in Ceylon, in obscure regiments in the Indian army.   (p. 124)

This second reference ties in with the first in linking Canada and farming. Here Canada, along with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, represents a colony that offers opportunity to Englishmen who have little chance of getting ahead at home. Rosemary’s brothers are clearly enterprising types (unlike Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit) who have headed out to the corners of the Empire to make their fortunes through hard work and determination.

And finally:

Mr. Clew had left the New Albion a year ago, and his place had been taken by Mr. Warner, a Canadian who had been five years with a New York publicity firm. Mr. Warner was a live wire but quite a likeable person.    (p. 271)

Now that’s remarkable: a reference to Canada that has nothing to do with farming, but instead focuses on a member of what would today be called the “creative class”. The New Albion is the publicity (i.e. advertising) firm where Gordon works in London; Mr. Clew was his boss when he quit.

At first this seems rather exciting: a Canadian live wire (one doesn’t often see those terms in close proximity) who is a big wheel in a London advertising firm. But if we pause over the sentence a moment, we realize that Mr. Warner has become successful by leaving Canada. In fact, it seems likely that, as a “live wire”, he was too bright, too creative, for dour Canada, and had to leave in order to find success on the grand stages of New York and London, where people with vision are appreciated.  And isn’t that one of the commonest tropes about Canadians – that the really great ones are the ones who succeed outside Canada?

And so, to summarize … what do we learn about Canada from Orwell? It’s a country of farms that produce cheap but inferior butter; and it’s a great place for Englishmen of modest dreams (i.e. those who want to be farmers) to go in search of opportunity, but any Canadian with a real spark of intelligence or creativity will inevitably leave for the U.S. or England. In a nutshell, we import England’s extraneous people and export anyone with genuine talent. This is, I suppose, typical of the way empires regard their colonies, but it still doesn’t feel like a vision one wants to rally around.

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