Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Obscurity”

Brief Encounters with Canadian Folkies

Britta Lee Shain, Seeing the real you at last: Life and love on the road with Bob Dylan (2016)

I can’t really recommend reading this book, but if you’re at all tempted, I will say this: you won’t learn much about Bob Dylan, but you will get an idea of what it’s like to be in the orbit of a truly famous person. Shain’s goal in writing the book seems to be to prove that she is not just another woman Bob Dylan slept with a few times on tour, but rather his true soul mate and the only one in his entourage who really understands him. I don’t think she succeeds in that, but she does reveal what it takes to be a part of Bob Dylan’s world. Essentially, you have to do things for him. Shain is constantly running errands for Dylan: buying him clothes, boots, walking sticks, take-out food, picking up his girlfriends at the airport and then sitting downstairs reading a book and listening to them having sex upstairs. She believes that all these things bring her closer to Dylan and prove that he can’t live without her; to an outside observer, they suggest that she is one of many people Dylan uses to take care of whatever his needs are at any given moment with no regard for them as individuals. To quote what the man himself tells her when he gives her the kiss-off, “Sometimes I do bad things.”

But that’s neither here nor there. The book contains a number of references to Canada and Canadians, most of them passing and really not of much interest, but I’ll quote a few of the ones that stood out for me.

Sorrowful-Eyed Gentleman of the Northlands

As we’ve seen in numerous posts before, references to Canadian musicians are one of the most common ways Canada slips into books by non-Canadians. Shain is no exception, and given the world Dylan moves in, it should be no surprise that in this book we encounter the Canadian folk-rock triumvirate of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Here is Shain meeting Neil Young:

May 30 1986. Prince is at the Wiltern Theater, as part of what will later be dubbed his Hit n’ Run Tour, since most of the shows are announced just days or hours before the actual concert takes place. Carole [Bob’s wife or “main girlfriend,” I can’t remember which] gets four passes, but Bob doesn’t want to go. Ernie [Shain’s boyfriend, who works in some capacity for Dylan, I can’t remember what — it’s through him that Shain meets the great man] and I escort her, and while she’s really getting off on the music, I spend most of the show mingling in the foyer with a growing chattering mob that prefers being outside of the music hall. Afterwards, backstage, I’m introduced to Neil Young, whose sorrowful dark-eyed gaze threatens to suck the very life out of me.  (59)

Yikes — these morose Canadians! Most intriguing (to me) is the question of what Neil is doing backstage at a Prince concert, but of course Shain has no interest in that. There’s more about Neil a couple of pages later, from June 5 1986:

A beautifully polished bus is also parked — engines running — in front of the hotel, and [Bill] Graham tells me this is Neil Young’s bus, and that unlike most rockers who rent their transportation, this is actually a bus that Neil Young owns — that he’s fixed it up really cool, and that other rockers rent it from him.  (61)

We don’t tend to think of Canadians as hard-headed businessmen, but that’s an interesting portrait of a man who never lets an opportunity to make a buck slip past his sorrowful eyes.

Neil’s bus is mentioned once more, when Shain is on tour with Dylan in 1987:

Bob and I are hanging out on the bus, getting loaded, watching one of the twelve Elvis Presley movies Ernie has secured at Dylan’s request for the road tour. Somewhere along the line we’ve acquired Neil Young’s bus, and it’s very cool, with deer antlers up front and center, above the driver’s seat.  (119)

There’s a glimpse of the gilded lives of celebrities and their hangers-on. Nice to think our great Canadian folk hero/businessman is making a little money off Bob.

Hanging with Joni Mitchell

From a long entry dated February 21, 1987, in which Shain and her boyfriend Ernie throw a Chinese New Year party for Dylan and some of his friends:

Actress/singer Ronee Blakely, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in Nashville, shows up, looking beautiful but incredibly vulnerable. Some say she still hasn’t gotten over her relationship with Dylan.
Joni Mitchell is here, too! Plus all the usual suspects. This is by far the most successful of the parties to date.
Joni and friends wind up sitting around in Ernie’s den until three or four in the morning, long after Ernie’s gone to bed, singing Everly Brothers songs and other hits from the 50s and 60s while I pathetically try to keep the tune.  (83)

A lot of the book is written like this: a breathless catalogue of the appearances of famous or semi-famous people, with little Wikipedia-like notes of their main accomplishments dropped in if Shain thinks the reader may not know who they are. Canadian Joni Mitchell is famous enough to just be named; Ronee Blakely is not. It is, beyond that, a nice portrait of the down-to-earth Canadian folk genius singing the night away with some friends.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note the similarities between Shain’s writing style and the parodic diary of  the Vancouver-born aspiring actress Kim Girard in Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You.)

The Laborious Writing Process of Leonard Cohen

This passage, after an Italian concert in 1987, gives a sense of how people in Dylan’s inner circle spend their time. It also illustrates how completely Shain has bought into the idea that a person’s value is based solely on how well they satisfy their “star”:

Dylan will be in rare form tonight, playing lengthy and cohesive harmonica intros to rarely performed classics like ‘License To Kill.’
After the show, Ernie and I go to an Italian eatery and buy tons of takeout antipasto for the bus ride — Bob has a thing for sausage — along with several bottles of Chianti. When Ernie has the time and is focused on working for Bob, he does go out of his way to make sure Dylan’s pleased.
While Bob cools off in his quarters at the rear of the bus, Ernie tells the rest of us the story of Dylan’s meeting with Leonard Cohen after Cohen’s Wiltern Theater show in ’85. He says that when Dylan complimented Cohen on the song ‘Suzanne,’ Leonard confessed that it took him five years to write it.
Later, Cohen told Dylan how much he liked ‘License To Kill.’
‘It took me five minutes,’ Bob crowed.  (169-70)

Poor Leonard. But perhaps we can learn something about the painstaking character of Canadian writers, constantly insecure about their work and doing everything they can to ensure they make their songs as good as they can be, versus the more casual approach of Americans who, in tune with their national spirit of exceptionalism, just assume that they’re entitled to the world’s attention?

A Mysterious (Canadian?) Woman

This passage relates to Dylan’s role in the film Hearts of Fire:

October 1986. Production of Hearts of Fire moves to Ontario, Canada, where Ernie rents a house for Dylan. Problems arise, I’m told, when Carole wants to join him, since Bob is occupied with another woman.  (73)

Exciting, I suppose, to think Dylan was living in Ontario in 1986. No doubt Canada was being used as a cheaper stand-in for some American location in the movie. We never hear about this other woman again; is she Canadian? Has she written a book about her experience with Dylan? Maybe she should — not everyone has slept with a Nobel Prize winner.

Advertisements

Who Can Tell Canada from the Cayman Islands?

Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (2016)

The poem that mentions Canada is called “Pierre” and is a sort of character portrait set in a school, presumably in Jamaica. It’s a bit long, but I hate chopping up poems unnecessarily so I’ll quote it in its entirety:

It was a boy named Pierre Powell
who was in charge of the atlas

in the cabinet. He also ended days
by shaking the iron bell from Principal

William’s window, a work we grudged
him for very little; what cut our cores

twice a week and we had to endure,
was him being summoned to fetch

the key, again from William’s office,
to open the varnished box with the world

map, old and laminated, a forbidden
missionary gift trophied beside the Oxford

Set of Mathematical Instruments and other
things seen only by Pierre and teacher Rose,

who now only nodded to raise him
to his duty. We waited in quiet

his return, Miss Rose all crinkled blouse
and bones with chalk dust in her hair,

did not stir until he was back, panting
at the door. Another diviner’s nod

and he opened it, unrolled the map expertly,
kneaded out creases and held down edges

for the ruler our eyes followed,
screeching out countries, and etched

in the periphery, a khaki-pillared Pierre,
with a merchant’s smile, a fixed blur

in our cry of Algeria, Switzerland, Chile,
soon withered away, and we eyed the field

of dry grass outside, a rusty mule,
statue-frozen in the punishable heat,

Pierre, a phantom sea fraying
over Antarctica, Fiji, Belize, India

of those still in the rote, a liturgy of dunce
bats, whose one cardinal point, Tropicana

Sugar Estate, so close we could smell the sugar
being processed, whistled its shift change,

and terminated Geography. As if punched
from dream, those of us spared the map-

rolling-up and cabinet-locking ceremony,
saw him, with a cord-strung key, an earnest air

bearing him away in a portal of sunlight.
He was absent the week before summer,

and when Miss Rose, in rare fashion,
inquired, a girl said he had gone back home.

“Home,” Miss Rose sounded the strange word.
“Home,” the girl echoed and added, “him from Cayman,

Miss, or Canada, somewhere with a C.”
We turned to Miss Rose to clarify Canada

or Cayman, this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral,

but she pointed anonymously a crooked
finger and said, “Run to the principal

for the key,” the whole class scattered, paid
no heed that not a single one was ordained.    (36-39)

Beneath the “school days recollected” subject matter lies an intriguing subtext about the after-effects of colonialism. The map, which is called a “missionary gift,” and the set of Oxford Mathematical Tools are relics representing Jamaica’s time as a British colony. Within the school a system of status and power has been created based on proximity to these objects, which echoes the colonial system itself. This hierarchy separates those who are allowed contact with the objects stored in the locked cabinet — the principal, the teacher and Pierre — and the rest of the students, who can only look on as these objects are paraded before them. The poem focuses on the resentment the other students feel at Pierre, the one chosen to handle these precious “trophies”. When Pierre disappears, the teacher is for some reason unable to deputize another single student to take over his duties, and the  “teacher’s pet” system (like colonialism?) collapses into scattering chaos.

With the mention of Canada, a note of humour enters the poem. The joke, of course, is that after all the time with the map and the shouting out of countries in geography class, the student is still confused about “Canada” versus “Cayman” — the latter presumably meaning the Cayman Islands. This is a strikingly odd confusion, since the letter “C” is about the only thing Canada and the Cayman Islands have in common. Just the climate alone — as I write this, it is -5 C in Toronto, feeling like -12 and snowing heavily; in George Town, in the Cayman Islands, it’s 28 and sunny.

The question of where Pierre is actually from is never directly answered, as the teacher, when the students turn to her, offers no clarification. We do have these suggestive words:

…this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral…

This couplet gives us as much resolution as we’re going to get on the question of Pierre’s homeland. I’m not sure I can parse the exact prose sense of the “C curdled to snow” — perhaps the idea is that snow can be lumpy, like milk when it curdles? — but the mention of snow does seem to suggest that Pierre is actually from Canada and not the Cayman Islands. Why else would snow suddenly enter the poem?

But then the following words, “foreign always spectral,” undermine the inference by suggesting that, to the children in the class, anything outside their homeland remains vague and mysterious to them despite their teacher’s efforts to drill them in geography. Maybe the snow in the poem carries different associations: perhaps it symbolizes something ephemeral — snow melts, after all. And so for the children in the class, the question of where Pierre has gone, the question of Canada or the Cayman Islands, creates only a vague and passing sense of some other, foreign place in their minds — an association that then fades like melting snow.

However one takes “Pierre,” we have Canada and snow brought together, which indicates that at some level, even if only subconsciously, the idea that Canada is cold and snowy has percolated into the poem. And this, of course, is one of the most common ideas about our country.

 

No One Suspects a Canadian

zinkprivatenovelist

Nell Zink, Private Novelist (2016)

This book actually contains two works, “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats” and “European Story for Avner Shats,” both of which could be described as exercises or experiments and both of which, as their titles make clear, have some connection to the Israeli writer Avner Shats. I’m going to consider them separately.

“Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats”

I won’t go into all the complexities of how this story was created, partly because I don’t completely understand it myself; I think it is Zink’s (extremely free) re-writing of a novel by Avner Shats called Sailing Toward the Sunset, which she sent to him in parts, by email, as some sort of friendly joke. The important information is that the main plot (of Zink’s version at least) revolves around a Mossad agent named Yigal and his love affair with Mary, a silkie from the Shetland Islands. This scene is between the two of them:

The next scene actually took place in Yigal’s bed, but I am informed by Shats that the vast majority of scenes in Israeli fiction take place in cemeteries, so we’ll say instead that Yigal and Mary were holding hands as they walked on noisy gravel past the blazing white stones and skinny cypresses of the old cemetery on the south side of Tel Aviv. They rested for a moment in the shade under an aluminum canopy, and he fetched her a cup of water. Several aisles away a funeral was going on. The naked body of a middle-aged woman, wrapped in a sheet, was slowly vanishing under half a ton of sand. Yigal lay on his back, watching a reflection on the ceiling. Mary drank with her head on a pillow, dribbling water down her chin. He turned toward her and asked, “How did you get here, anyway? Swim?”
“No, I flew. On an airplane.”
“What sort of passport?”
“Canadian.”
“How’d you get that?”
“I bought it.”   (82-3)

As a secret agent, Yigal is naturally interested in the particulars of how Mary is able to travel by plane when, being a silkie, she presumably has no “human” identification. The implication (though left unstated) of the passage is that a Canadian passport is essentially a free ticket to anywhere because, given our reputation as a nation of polite, boring mediocrities, no one would ever think that a Canadian could be engaged in any kind of nefarious activity. The Canadian passport is, therefore, a perfect cover in the espionage world, and I think we can assume that Yigal is impressed Mary has managed to get her hands on one.

(As an aside, espionage, which came up in one of our earliest posts (on John le Carré), has been experiencing a resurgence lately, featuring in our posts on Dickens, Kim Philby and James Jesus Angleton.)

The next reference to Canada comes in a section titled “‘My Memoirs’ by Nell,” which is described in the back cover blurb as “Zink’s heartrending memoir ‘My Memoirs.'” I have to admit I feel that oversells the impact of the piece somewhat, but maybe it suffered from my raised expectations. Anyway, here is the opening paragraph:

When I was eighteen, my mother and I took a trip to Greater Detroit, where my elder brother was in school. After two years on a tuba scholarship at Valley Forge Military Academy, he had chosen to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was majoring, of course, in mathematics, but had elected, in his first semester, to study both elementary Hebrew and elementary Arabic, and his grades were suffering. In the second semester, after our visit, he accepted his tuition money from our mother and used it to buy a very large and even mysterious stereo system. I remember the amplifier well, a silver cube with a vertical row of red LEDs and one knob. His record was The Velvet Underground and Nico. I bought him Songs of Leonard Cohen, and he played them both.   (226-7)

Things really don’t get any more heartrending from there.

We obviously can’t conclude much about Canada from this reference, though it is a compliment, I suppose, that Leonard Cohen’s debut album should have a place in such an obviously limited record collection, and we could perhaps argue that, along with the Velvet Underground, it suggests the arty, avant garde tastes of the narrator’s brother.

“European Story for Avner Shats”

Though it’s only a few months since I read Private Novelist, I really can’t remember much at all about this story — in fact I’d forgotten it was even in the book until I flipped through it again to work on this post. It has something to do with a group of students — or artists? — who meet at an artist’s colony — in Italy maybe? — and there’s a love triangle? — but anyway the important point is that there’s an old man in a nursing home who has hidden away a stash of valuable art, which several characters are trying to get their hands on. The reference to Canada comes in a scene between Eyal, who is trying to get the artworks by pretending to be a historian for a shipping company, and the old man, with the old man’s daughter acting as interpreter:

But generally the old man seemed pleased to meet the art historian of a shipping company, or to have a visitor — Eyal wasn’t sure. He claimed, the daughter translated, that he had been around the Horn sixty times under sail before 1935, though not always as captain, and began to list the ships by name. Eyal tried to write down all the names. In the end, bored of repeating herself and spelling things out, the daughter asked the old man to write them down himself.
The name of the eleventh ship, between “Anne Shirley, Prince Edward Island,” and “Netochka Nezvanova, Vladivostok,” caught Eyal’s eye. It was “Come Back Alone, Tuesday.”   (276-77)

This is a clever way to arrange a clandestine meeting. Both ships are rather obvious literary jokes, though pitched at very different registers: the Russian ship is named after a Dostoevsky novel, while the Canadian ship references the main character in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (and various sequels) which, while popular enough to draw tourists to Prince Edward Island every year, is not (I think it’s safe to say) generally regarded as a literary masterwork.

We could, if we wished, draw some rather pointed conclusions about the standing of Canadian literature in the international imagination. Apparently, when Zink asks herself, “What would be a literary name for a Russain ship?” she immediately thinks of Dostoevsky; when she asks herself the same question about a Canadian ship, she comes up with Anne Shirley (rather than, say, The Cat’s Eye or The Del Jordan or The Stone Angel — though the latter might be tempting fate as a ship’s name). Canada, we are forced to admit, is not known for producing writers of Dostoevsky’s standing, but rather for what is essentially a children’s book.

On the other hand, this may be the first time Lucy Maud Montgomery has been mentioned in the same sentence as Dostoevsky. So that’s progress.

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

mangoldcover

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:

mangoldottowa

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

mlewiscover

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

dfostercover

David Foster, The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

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

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

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

Note

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

The Canadian Dodge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This appearance is then followed by a modified bio:

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

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

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

The Potato Makes Its Way to Canada

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

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

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

A Canadian Expert

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

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

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

The Video Evidence

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

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

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

Newfoundland, a Distant Beacon

beattycover

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?

Alice-Oswald

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.

 

Post Navigation