Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Ireland”

One Book, Three Icons of Canadian Music

Adam Crothers, Several Deer (2016)

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

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

Neil Young

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

Better to Burn Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonard Cohen

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

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

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

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

Cowboy Junkies

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunities for Further Study

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

Personal Reminiscences, Of No General Importance — Please Skip

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

And Now, A Little Music

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

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

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

And here is the original Lightnin’ Hopkins version:

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


A Cozy Home for Plagiarists


Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

At Swim-Two-Birds is a “metafictional novel,” full of literary gamesmanship (gamespersonship?) and excerpts from books both real and imagined – including, I believe, an essentially complete version of the Irish epic Sweeny Astray. (I say that on the basis of having read Seamus Heaney’s translation.) There is something to flatter pretty well any style of literary poseur; Classical poseurs such as myself, to pick one example close to my heart, will delight in jokes like the following:

They met two decadent Greek scullions, Timothy Danaos and Dona Ferentes, ashore from the cooking-galley of a strange ship.  (101)

I’m not sure how to even begin summarizing this novel in such a way as to make the context of the following quote clear, but I’ll give it a shot. The main character is a university student who lives with his uncle and apparently spends little time studying, and a great deal of time out with his friends, drinking and regaling them with excerpts from a novel he is writing. The student’s novel, which makes up much of the book, is about an author named Dermot Trellis and a group of characters he has invented for a novel he is writing; the characters, however, are offended by what Trellis wants them to do in the book, and so they begin plotting to overthrow him and gain their freedom. With the help of Trellis’ son Orlick (conceived when Trellis rapes a female character immediately after creating her for his novel), they begin a new novel in which Dermot Trellis is brutally assaulted and dragged across the Irish countryside, almost to the point of death, and then put on trial for his crimes in a court in which the characters from his novel are both the witnesses against him and the judges.

Got that? Okay, good.

The reference to Canada comes during the trial, when William Tracy, another author and a rival of Trellis, gives evidence:

Is there any other incident which occurs to you explanatory of the character of the accused?

Yes. During his illness in 1924 I sent him – in a charitable attempt to entertain him – a draft of a short story I had written dealing in an original way with banditry in Mexico towards the close of the last century. Within a month it appeared under his own name in a Canadian periodical.

That’s a lie! screamed Trellis from his chair.   (200)

So Trellis is being accused of plagiarism – one of the worst allegations that can be levelled at an author, hence his angry reaction. But, given that the novel takes place in Ireland and the main characters are, presumably, Irish, why the reference to a Canadian periodical?

I think the implication here is twofold: first, Trellis is understandably eager to prevent Tracy from detecting his plagiarism, and he’s afraid that if he publishes Tracy’s story in a journal in Ireland or England, Tracy will see it and recognize the theft. Accordingly, he publishes it in a place that he considers so obscure that Tracy would never read a journal from there – if it even occurred to him that journals could be produced in so backward a place: Canada!

(This plan has clearly gone awry, and raises the intriguing question of what Canadian literary journals would have been available in Ireland in 1939?)

Second, it’s hard not to feel that aspersions are being cast on the stringency of the editorial policies at Canadian magazines of the day. Granted, if a story comes in the mail, an editor will tend to assume that the name on the first page is the name of the author; and yet there is an implication of poor quality and general carelessness here, as though Trellis’ subterfuge would never have passed in a journal in the UK, but is the sort of thing one can get away with by practising on the innocence of those distant colonials in Canada.

The overall impression of Canada, then, is of a distant, slightly wild and unregulated place, where almost any sort of literary crime will pass unnoticed. It is an outpost with literary pretensions but without the real knowledge or expertise to produce anything of reliable quality, and filled with rubes who can be imposed upon by even the most rudimentary subterfuge.

Conclusion of the discussion of the reference to Canada. 

Biographical Reminiscence of How I Came to Purchase this Book (in the Style of Flann O’Brien)

I had, at that time, a group of friends of a decidedly literary bent.

Collective Description of this Group of Friends: Literary, musical, mildly disputatious, garrulous.

We determined among ourselves on the formation of a sort of a Society, or a Club, the purpose of which would be to read the honey-sweet words of the finest and most illustrious authors, and then to meet together in a selected public house to consume spiritous liquors and engage in pleasant colloquy, occasionally verging into mild disputation, on the interpretation and relative merits of said works. Beyond that, this embryonic Club had a further purpose, which was to offer lightsome, frolicsome (not to say gay) diversion from our days, which were spent drearily enough in the employ of [Note: I have here removed the name of the company on the advice of my attorneys]  – a formalizing, in a way, of the kind of discussions we would indulge in surreptitiously around the office and which we desired to carry on beyond its confines, so that we could more freely debate the relative merits of different authors, discuss the finer points of the iambic pentameter or the dactylic hexameter, regale one another with humorous excerpts from the various manuscripts we all had in progress at the time, and occasionally come out with melodious though melancholy staves which we had composed in our idle moments, along the lines of the following:

I sit here, heartsore, at my desk;
this job, it not at all fulfils
the dreams that animated my youth;
it barely pays the bills.

Note: I have here excised some ten or twelve further stanzas, feeling that their juvenility might render them somewhat embarrassing.

Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. According to a set of very abstruse and precisely worked-out rules guaranteed to ensure that we only brought our minds into contact with the finest things that had been thought and written through the centuries of endless struggle waged between Art and The Darkness, it was eventually determined that At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) would be the work that would mark the first stage of our Society’s journey towards Enlightenment.

Note: I have here taken the advice of legal counsel and removed a long passage descriptive of the lengths I went to seeking a copy of the above-named novel, on the grounds that it might be construed as libellous of persons still living. 

Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. When I opened the door of this establishment and stepped into its shadowy interior, the light from the street behind me poured – poured is the only word – slowly in, as if it possessed a viscosity, it poured like mellow-glowing syrup slowly into all the dusty dingy corners of that venerable bookstore and spread a pale honeyed light on the serried volumes crammed on the shelves, their spine-colours faded several shades lighter than their cover-colours despite the best efforts of the shielding gloom around them. The door closed; the shadows gulped down the light; and out of the restored darkness, as if himself restored to courage now that the light had passed, a little man sprang up at me.

Description of the man: Short, rotund, bearded and bespectacled, something gnome-like, though not at all gnomic, about him.

Can I help you find anything? he asked. I replied that I was in search of a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien, nom de plume of Brian O’Nolan. At these words his eyes grew wide, his jaw slackened, and a most peculiar expression overtook his countenance.

Nature of the expression: Amazement, delight, intermingled with a hint of suspicion and trepidation, as a child receiving a gift they fear they will not be allowed to keep.

Wow, he said, and followed that one word with a long pause. Sorry, it’s just – in all the twenty-five years I’ve worked here, this is the first time anyone has ever asked about a good book. Mostly people come in asking for crappy bestsellers.

Okay, I said, I’ll let you enjoy the moment.

Thank you. He let the silence stretch on.

Nature of the silence: Past lengthy, past uneasy, on the cusp of departing the realm of the uncomfortable and entering into the realm of the weird and perhaps disturbing.

At last, seeing really no other alternative, I chose to arouse him from reverie with a sharp query, along the lines of, So, about the book? At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien, actually christened Brian O’Nolan, or, more correctly, Brian O Nuallain?

Oh, right. Sorry, we haven’t got it.

Pause to allow readers to formulate their own philosophical reflections on how the ships of our dreams inevitably founder upon the reefs of reality.

At that moment I abandoned my afore-stated plans [Note: the afore-stating of these plans was part of the passage excised for legal reasons] to find a rare, exquisite first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, ne Brian O’Nolan, in a dusty corner of some little-visited used bookstore, the sort of physical object that would have delighted my literary companions and made both it and, by extension, myself, the object of many pleasingly envious exclamations, and instead bought a cheap paperback copy at a big-box bookstore. Conclusion of the foregoing.

Ireland Invades Canada! (Paul Muldoon Part I)


Paul Muldoon, The Annals of Chile (1997)

The references to Canada in this book are all contained in the long poem, “Yarrow,” which makes up the bulk of the volume. And let me say at the outset that I’m not going to attempt to offer an analyis of the poem as a whole; I’m merely trying to tease out the ideas that lie behind what Muldoon says about our country.

“Yarrow” is divided into numerous short sections; where references to Canada appear, I’ll quote the whole section in order to provide some context. And, to avoid becoming too predictable, I’ll consider them out of order.

First reference:

For the moment, though, she thumbs through a seed-catalogue
she’s borrowed from Tohills’ of the Moy
while, quiet, almost craven,

he studies the grain in the shaft of a rake:
there are two palm-prints in blue stone
on the bib of his overalls

where he’s absentmindedly put his hands
to his heart; in a den in St John’s, Newfoundland, I browse
on a sprig of Achillea millefolium, as it’s classed.  (43)

Third reference:

Only yesterday I heard the cry go up, ‘Vene sancti Spiritu,’
as our old crate
overshot the runway at Halifax,

Nova Scotia: again I heard Oglalagalagool’s
as blood gushed from every orifice;

an ampoule of Lustau’s port; a photograph of Godfrey Evans
who used to keep wicket – perhaps even went to bat –
for the noble and true-hearted Kent.  (181)

In both of these passages, the reference to Canada doesn’t seem to go very far beyond a simple statement of the place where an event occurs.

The first is mainly a description of the poet’s parents; there’s something vaguely American Gothic about it, with the rake and overalls. And is there a conscious reference to Canadian Robert Kroetsch’s long poem Seed Catalogue buried there? (Would Paul Muldoon even have heard of Robert Kroetsch?) And is there a pun in “browse” – it seems to echo his mother thumbing through the (leaves of) the catalogue, but can also mean grazing – though he’s surely not eating the Achillea millefolium.

Achillea millefolium is the Latin name for yarrow, the plant which gives the poem its title; Muldoon associates it with his childhood in Ireland, reminiscences of which make up much of the poem, and with his mother. Why he’s in St. John’s, Newfoundland when he “browses” on it is not made clear.

The third reference apparently relates to a mishap at the Halifax airport (I’ve landed there myself a few times); presumably the Latin phrase recalls the Catholicism of Muldoon’s childhood?

It may be worthy of note that both these references are to places in eastern Canada; Newfoundland, in particular, being closely associated with Ireland.

And now, the second reference, which I’m going to treat  separately because it has a little more to it:

The day S—– came back with the arrow
through a heart tattooed on her upper arm, it made me think
of the fleur-de-lys

on Milady’s shoulder (not Milady Clark, who helped the U.D.A.
run a shipment of Aramis
into Kilkeel

but Milady Clarik, whose great-great-grandfather led the I.R.B.
invasion of Canada, the one who helped foil
the plot in which the courier

was none other than herself, her): she shrugs off her taffeta
wither-band and begs me to, like, rim
her for Land’s sakes; instead of ‘Lord’, she says ‘Land’.  (85)

One of the techniques Muldoon uses in “Yarrow” is a kaleidoscopic treatment of time: references to events in his childhood, events from Irish mythology, and events from the books he was reading as a child blend into one another and into later time periods, and individuals from various points in his life are merged with, or laid over top of, one another and characters from literature. This section gives a glimpse of that technique in action.

The “I.R.B. / invasion of Canada” refers, presumably, to the Fenian raids from the U.S. into Canada during the 1860s. “Milady Clarik” is one of the pseudonyms used by Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, already hinted at in the line about a “shipment of Aramis” (for “arms,” I suppose). Here – I may as well throw out a wild guess – it might refer to someone he knew in childhood, whose grandfather really was involved with the IRB, and who has been merged with the character of Milady de Winter, or perhaps played that role in childhood re-enactments of Dumas’ book. (Based on the evidence of “Yarrow,” Muldoon seems to have spent a good part of his childhood re-enacting books with his friends.)

The Fenian raids were brief and mainly unsuccessful attacks on Canada by Irish nationalists living in the U.S.; the idea, apparently, was to seize control of enough of Canada that they could then force an agreement with England whereby England would give up control of Ireland in exchange for the Fenians relinquishing Canada.

A bizarre idea, in retrospect, but one which at least reflects an impression of Canada as valuable. The main outcome of the Fenian raids was not freedom for Ireland, but rather the creation of enough fear of American invasion to convince some provinces – chiefly in the Maritimes – that it was worth joining Confederation in 1867 (the first Fenian raid occurred in 1866). So, through the law of unintended consequences, the Fenian raids actually helped form Canada as we know it.

This historical connection between Irish nationalism and Canada is also suggestive of a larger theme in Muldoon’s work: his interest in parallels between the colonial experience in North America, particularly Canada, and in Ireland.

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