Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Obscurity”

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.

Canada as a Hopeless Hospital Room

Thom Gunn, The Man with Night Sweats (1992)

The poem that mentions Canada, “Lament,” traces the stages of a loved one’s death (of AIDS, presumably), and might be the most beautiful piece in this stunning collection. It’s far too long for me to retype here, but you can read it in full via the Poetry Foundation, and if you aren’t familiar with it, I suggest you do that right now.

Here is the passage that’s relevant for our purposes:

No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,
Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased.
Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you down
To the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown:
I’d never seen such rage in you before
As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.
For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from
Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom
The hedonistic body basks within
And takes for granted—summer on the skin,
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea
In a dry mouth. You had gone on from me
As if your body sought out martyrdom
In the far Canada of a hospital room.
Once there, you entered fully the distress
And long pale rigours of the wilderness.
A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sight
You breathed through a segmented tube, fat, white,
Jammed down your throat so that you could not speak.

That, for my money, is the real thing: clear, powerful statement and sharp imagery wedded to seemingly effortless rhythm and rhyme.

As for Canada, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a brief reference used so effectively. The comparison of the hospital room to Canada, and the contrast it creates with the idea of “the sun’s kingdom” a few lines earlier, captures so many of the common ideas about our country — that it is cold, that it is distant, that it is an obscure and menacing wilderness (note that word two lines later) where struggle is constant and survival an unlikely accident. The phrase “the far Canada” already tells us much of what is to come in this poem: that the distance being covered by the sick man is too far to be crossed back again, and that the journey to this metaphorical “Canada” is a hopeless one from which there will be no return.

The choice of the word “martyrdom” in the previous line is also interesting. How much would Gunn have known about Canadian history? He was born and raised in England but moved to the U.S. in his mid-twenties — would his English education have included anything about a British colony like Canada? Would he have known about the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” the Jesuit missionaries killed in Canada in the 1600s? If so, it seems possible that some idea of Canada as a far-off place where people go to die painful, lingering deaths may lie behind these lines.

Whatever its origin, it’s a grim image — this particular hospital room offers no possibility of cure. Also, though, an image that has a stark, almost cruel beauty about it, particularly when coupled with the “long pale rigours of the wilderness”.

We might compare Paul Muldoon’s lovely “gateless gates of Canada,” which has a similar wilderness element to it, but seems more an image of untapped possibility, whereas Gunn’s lines strongly suggest a harsh, unpleasant and unavoidable ending.

A Canadian Reader Takes Offence


Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton: The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (1991)

I haven’t actually read all of this book, so I have no idea how many references to Canada it may (or may not) contain; I read a few parts, in connection with Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, the Kim Philby book that I recently posted about.

In the course of reading it, however, I came across this page, annotated by some previous Toronto Public Library reader:


Now, I’m not the one who wrote in the book — I swear! — but this anonymous reader is quite correct: Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is spelled “Ottawa,” not “Ottowa” as it appears in Mangold’s book. As you can see from the indignant (perhaps even aggressive?) style of the handwriting and the multiple exclamation marks, the comment inked in the margin is a sort of Canadian cri de cœur, a protest against the continuing insignificance of our country in the eyes of the world. This book is, obviously, an extensively researched treatment of a complex subject, and one that the reader would expect has been thoroughly edited, fact-checked and so on — and no doubt it was. And yet when it came to the spelling of a Canadian location — our capital city, no less — an error that would embarrass a Canadian schoolchild was allowed to creep in.

Why? The only explanation — or at least, the only explanation likely to present itself to a Canadian — is that no one involved in the publication of the book knew the spelling was wrong, and no one cared enough to check. And this sort of error is precisely the source of so much Canadian insecurity about our place in the world (of which this website is, I suppose, one expression), and scribbling corrections in the margins of library books is just the sort of impotent, vaguely pointless outlet we find for our rage — because we have no other.

Pitching Into the Crazy Calgary Wind


Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)

As this is a book about baseball — or perhaps I should say a book about exploiting inefficiencies in the market that takes place in the world of baseball — there are a number of passing references to Canada, and particularly to the Toronto Blue Jays, that aren’t of much interest. But this passage, about the pitcher Chad Bradford, seems worth noting, at least for the way it ties in to other ideas about Canada we’ve come across:

In late June, the Chicago White Sox promoted Chad from Double-A to its Triple-A team in Calgary. When he arrived, he found out why: his new home field was high in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, wind blowing out. The place was famously hellish on pitching careers: the guy he’d come to replace had simply quit and skipped town…. What should have been ordinary fly balls rocketed through the thin mountain air every which way out of the park.  (230)

The way the thin air and wild mountain wind turn ordinary fly balls into home runs suggests the natural elements of Canada have a power unexpected by the American author and the American pitcher he’s writing about. Again we glimpse the (typically American) notion that Canada is a wilderness nation, where civilization has done less to tame the natural world than it has in the U.S.

(Fact break: Calgary is actually the third-largest city in Canada, though you wouldn’t think so from reading this; it sounds like a collection of shacks precariously perched on the edge of a mountain, trembling at every gust and waiting to be swept away by the next strong wind.)

There are sports fields in the U.S. where wind and thinner air are factors that can influence the outcome of plays, and occasionally even the outcome of games (the Denver Broncos stadium is maybe the most obvious example). But when these conditions arise in the U.S., they tend to be treated as something players have to deal with; in the case of this Calgary ballpark, the natural elements are made to seem like forces too powerful to be overcome. There is a sense that in Canada, human agency is too weak to counteract nature (though Bradford does figure out a way to pitch successfully in Calgary). We could almost see a kind of geographical or climatic determinism at work here: cities in the U.S. are what people have made them, but cities in Canada remain at the mercy of nature, which surrounds them and impinges upon them basically at will.

On the plus side, it’s sort of flattering to think that Chicago’s Triple-A club is based in Canada.

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity


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.


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


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?


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…


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: Where the Hipsters Come From


Peter Stevenson, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly … Hip?” (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2016)

Suddenly? As readers of this website know, there is nothing sudden about Canada’s hipster status. We’ve been here all along, just waiting for you to notice.

I was actually away at a hockey tournament (how Canadian!) the weekend (not The Weeknd) this article appeared and, clearly, it has taken me a while to catch up with it. But then, this article really represents The New York Times finally catching up with something we’ve been talking about here at Wow — Canada! for more than a year, so I don’t feel too bad.

You can read the whole article online if you’re curious. I could quote pretty much any paragraph of it, since nearly every line contains some sort of idée reçue about Canada, but here’s a representative passage, just to give you the gist:

His [i.e. Xavier Dolan’s] obscurity may have something to do with the fact that he is from Canada, the country that gave the world ice hockey, the snow blower and Labatt beer.

But the notion that our neighbor to the north is a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens is quickly becoming so outdated as to be almost offensive.

You couldn’t really ask for a more complete compendium of Canadian stereotypes: obscurity, hockey, snow, beer, and a frozen cultural wasteland full of unstylish citizens (a reference to the Canadian tuxedo?) all pile up thicker than snowflakes in a Canadian blizzard (sorry — it’s contagious!) once Stevenson gets going. And then he tells us that these ideas are “becoming outdated” and are “almost offensive”.



But I’m not really interested in unpacking these tired clichés about Canada for the umpteenth time. Instead, I want to provide an answer to a question the article ignores, namely: Why is Canada hip? (Hint: it’s not because Justin Trudeau got elected, and it’s certainly not because The New York Times says we are.) At the risk of seeming self-serving, rather than rehashing an argument I have already made, I’ll simply quote from something I posted back in February 2015:

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

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

So there you go, New York Times: Canadians are hip because we are what you most want to be — a slightly different version of yourselves.

That quote, incidentally, comes from one of our posts on Patricia Lockwood; for more on Canada’s place in the hipster imagination, you can consult our posts on Tao Lin, Leigh Stein, and another one on Lockwood. If you still want more after that, seek psychiatric help.

The Perfect Place for a Safe Adventure


Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (2005)

This novel begins with Olga’s husband, Mario, announcing that he is leaving her and their two children; from there, it becomes an intense account of the anger and humiliation Olga feels as she struggles to deal with Mario’s departure and to re-create herself now that she has lost the relationship that defined her identity to the world and to herself. She becomes increasingly distracted, loses herself in the past, obsesses over Mario’s new lover — all of which culminates in a gruelling single day in which she becomes trapped in her apartment with her two children, one of whom is sick, a dying dog, and no phone or other means of communicating with anyone outside. She begins to hallucinate, she can’t manage her children, she can’t even unlock the door: she goes through a mental and emotional collapse in which her entire identity breaks down.

Ultimately she emerges from this, finds a job, makes a sort of uneasy peace with her husband, and “gets on with her life,” as the contemporary phrase has it. And yet perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is its portrayal of the rebuilt life of a divorced working mother of around 40 as, in a way, more brutal and humiliating than the complete breakdown. At the beginning of the novel, Olga has the mask she has been wearing for years — wife, mother, homemaker — ripped from her face, and she is gradually forced to confront the mysterious stranger beneath. But this experience of being directly in touch with her true, unfiltered self is unbearable, a direct path to breakdown and insanity. In the end she learns to put on a new mask of normalcy, but the self-abnegation necessary in this makes it seem like the most horrifying transformation of all.

The book refers to Canada, but unfortunately not at one of the more interesting or intense points in the story; I wish the reference to our country had come up when Olga surprises Mario and his new girlfriend on the street and beats her husband bloody, for example, or at some point during her one-day breakdown, which is described in excruciating detail. But it comes near the beginning, as Olga is reflecting on her history with Mario — not a particularly interesting context. And perhaps that in itself says something about Canada: we’re just not a country that people associate with excitement. In any case, here it is:

Where was I coming from, what was I becoming. Already at eighteen I had considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes. At twenty I was working. At twenty-two I had married Mario, and we had left Italy, living first in Canada, then in Spain and Greece. At twenty-eight I had had Gianni, and during the months of my pregnancy I had written a long story set in Naples and, the following year, had published it easily. At thirty-one I gave birth to Ilaria. Now, at thirty-eight, I was reduced to nothing, I couldn’t even act as I thought I should. No work, no husband, numbed, blunted.  (30)

No details are given about Canada; it is simply mentioned as a place Olga and Mario lived for a while shortly after they were married, but we aren’t told what made them decide to go to Canada in the first place, or why they left. It stands out as the only North American location they lived in, and it’s hard not to wonder if they weren’t particularly impressed with Canada, given that they went straight back to Europe (Spain and Greece) before returning to Italy.

I suppose we can assume that Olga and Mario didn’t find anything particularly appealing about Canada — nothing appealing enough to make them stay, anyway — but that’s about it. We can perhaps think they were drawn to Canada out of a very contemporary, toned-down (we might almost say “denatured”) version of the “spirit of adventure”: Canada is a completely safe place and yet just different enough that it might draw a young European couple for a brief period, if they want to “see some of the world,” perhaps, or “get some different experiences,” before returning to Europe, where they have children and build their real lives.

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