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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Pacifism”

Those Pesky Geese Again

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A.M. Juster, Sleaze & Slander (2016)

One of the many charms of this collection of comic and satirical verse is that, among the versions of Martial, Horace and Ausonius, and various other witty poems, it contains one that specifically addresses Canada:

A Stern Warning to Canada

If you want peace
withdraw your geese.

This is a very funny little poem, and as there’s nothing worse than explaining a joke, I’m going to try not to go on about it at such length that I spoil it.

In two brief lines, however, it implies a lot about Canada-U.S. relations. Of course the title and minatory tone of the first line are intended playfully (aren’t they…?). For the joke to work, however, there has to be a kernel of truth behind it, and that kernel is that the U.S. is a much more militarily powerful nation than Canada, and so at least the possibility of a threat is real.

The demand that Canada remove its geese, while absurd, also implies that there has been an unwanted influx of Canada geese into the U.S. We could read this as a sly reference to our famously undefended border, which has recently been in the news, and which wildlife can cross even more easily than people.

For more about Canada geese in poetry by non-Canadians, check out our post on Derek Mahon.

Shameless Self-Promotion

To learn more about the book, you can read my review of Sleaze & Slander, which appeared earlier this year in The Literateur.

 

 

“Ask not what Canada can do for you”

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Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls (1994)

There is nothing new or remarkable here, at least with reference to Canada, but this book does repeat a couple of ideas we’ve seen before, and I’ll simply catalogue those.

A Place to Dodge the Draft

This is from the story “1969”:

I’d often be found passed out on the couch of the house I stayed in that summer with Crime and Punishment on the floor next to my toes. If I could finish that book that summer then my life wouldn’t be a complete waste. I had a boyfriend. His name was Mike and he was also a blackout drinker. He was 21 and had just graduated from college. I thought we looked alike. He would always get drunk and say to me, “Leena, I ain’t gonna march.” I always felt like I was in a movie when he said that. Who does he think he is, I wondered. He wasn’t going to Canada. The war would end. Something would happen. He just wasn’t the type. When those foreign things would erupt from his soul it would just be so strange. It was like he was turning into a thing. I’d grab his dick and the crisis would be over. He was the first person I really had sex with.  (102-3)

When Mike says “I ain’t gonna march,” he means he won’t join the army and go to Vietnam, although the narrator (Myles herself?) seems to interpret this as self-dramatization on his part. It isn’t clear why she thinks he wouldn’t go to Canada — too uncivilized? he’s not decisive enough to take that step? — but Canada exists in the minds of these characters as a place to get away from the draft. Beyond that, though, the book has nothing to say about our country.

Neil Young and Joni Mitchell

There are also references to two Canadians who were staples on the U.S. music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. This is from the story “Bath, Maine”:

The place looked kind of “datey,” like it was attached to a restaurant. The clientele was sunburned and clean, like vacationers. Was I feeling better? In the last place when I had nothing to say in my notebook I began to write the words from the jukebox

And only love
can break
your heart
So try to make sure
right from
the start…

It made me suspicious. (7-8)

The song on the jukebox is, of course, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Canadian Neil Young — though he isn’t actually named in the story. I’m not sure why it makes her suspicious.

This is from “1969” again:

The safety of it all, the baby being held by the parents in the middle of the highway. Going home. Not even going to Woodstock.
Liked that baby, huh Leena? “Mo” asked me that from the front seat. I was that kind of Leena by now, and that was the end of the first night. Joanie Mitchell didn’t show. Do you blame her? I finally saw the movie in 1987. It would have been painful before then though I didn’t know why.  (113)

It’s strange that she spells Mitchell’s name as “Joanie” rather than “Joni”; if that has some significance, it’s not clear to me.

Larger Thoughts?

I suppose we could argue that these references are typically American in the sense that they see Canada only in terms of what it offers to Americans — a place to avoid the draft, a place that supplies music for Americans to listen to — but never question or wonder about what Canada is actually like on its own terms.

There is more about Canada as a haven for draft dodgers and about Joni Mitchell in our post on Lorrie Moore; there is more about Joni Mitchell in our post on Graham Nash and our post on Dave Van Ronk; and there is lots more about Neil Young here.

The Music

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” seems appropriate, and this live version includes a little explanation of why, as Myles says, she “didn’t show”:

Here’s the CSNY version from the “Woodstock” film Myles mentions:

And here is the album version of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” presumably what is on the jukebox:

How Quebec Was Won

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Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

Ah, the Mitfords — so far, they’ve never let me down. We’ve already considered Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, and now Nancy has come through with another reference to Canada.

Wigs on the Green is  Nancy Mitford’s first novel, and a good part of it is given over to a parody of British Fascism in the form of the “Union Jackshirts,” who are a joke on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. (P.G. Wodehouse also parodied Oswald Mosley in the form of Roderick Spode, leader of the “Black Shorts,” in The Code of the Woosters, published three years after Wigs on the Green — overall a funnier book, I would say, but Mitford did get there first.) The main exponent of Union Jackshirtism is Eugenia Malmains, a young, out-of-touch heiress who lives on a country estate with her even more out-of-touch grandparents.

The reference to Canada comes as part of a pageant of English history that is put on at the end of the novel to raise money for the Union Jackshirt cause; here, Jasper Aspect is reading out the list of the scenes that will make up the pageant:

First messenger arrives announcing the victory of Wolfe over French Pacifists in Quebec.
First Episode: Wolfe, while reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his troops, is hit by a stray bullet and dies on a heap of straw. Rackenbridge brass band plays the “Dead March in Saul”.  (151-2)

The script for the pageant has been written under the guidance of Eugenia, who despises all enemies, real and perceived, of the Jackshirt cause as “Pacifists,” which is why the French army under Montcalm are designated “French Pacifists.” Other pacifist enemies range from a group of local artists (who do indeed attempt to disrupt the pageant) to Eugenia’s nanny, whose main crime in the service of pacifism seems to be trying to prevent Eugenia from leaving the house.

The events in the pageant are a garbled version of actual history: Wolfe died the day of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, having been hit by three musket balls. He did not die reciting Gray’s “Elegy,” but according to Edmund Gosse’s biography Gray, he did recite (most of) it (from memory!) to one of his soldiers the night before the battle, saying he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. Here is the passage from Gosse:

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Gray’s full “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can be read here.

I assume some version of the story of Wolfe’s victory and death was current in England in the Mitfords’ time; I have no idea whether Nancy had actually read Gosse’s book. I suppose we could take offence at the fact that Wolfe so underrates the possession of Canada that he would rather have written a single poem (albeit a very famous one) than win our entire nation for the British Empire. We could also be offended that the version of events presented here is so confused, reducing a key moment in Canadian history to a farce — but of course the entire pageant is meant to be a farce, and we would have to be rather dull not to laugh along with every other reader.

On the positive side, the winning of Canada was considered an important enough event to be included in a pageant of British history — I think that definitely rates as a compliment.

Music

Here is a rendition of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul:

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity

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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:

The Demonstrably More Peaceful Land to the North

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Pascual Restrepo, “Canadian Violence, From the Prairie to the N.H.L.,” The New York Times (October 11, 2015)

I happened to come across this article as I was browsing through the Sunday NYT this past weekend. The whole thing is about Canada, and I can’t quote the whole thing, obviously, but you can read the article if you’re curious. Here’s the first sentence:

For many Americans, the phrase “Canadian violence” is an oxymoron.

There, in miniature, is the American attitude to Canadian violence: Canadians are peaceful by nature, and therefore Canadian violence cannot exist.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the article, which argues that the presence of RCMP outposts at the time the Canadian west was settled prevented it from becoming a region of lawless violence like the American west. Instead, I just want to note a couple of points that relate to our purposes here at Wow — Canada!

First, the article suggests that specific historical factors could have made Canada a less violent nation than the U.S., and so it offers some background for the cliché of peaceful Canadians that we have considered several times ourselves.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the article indicates that Americans find Canada’s peaceful nature compelling enough that it is the subject of scholarly research at major American universities. (The author the article is originally from Colombia, but he’s studying at MIT, so, if we wanted to be grandiose — which of course we don’t — we could almost say that interest in the history behind Canadian non-violence spans the rest of the Americas.) And not only that, but it is compelling enough — and the apparent oxymoron of the words “Canadian Violence” in a headline is considered “grabby” enough — to be featured as an op-ed in the closest thing the U.S. has to a “paper of record.”

Whatever you think of the content of the article, its existence (like the presence of cartoons about Canadians in The New Yorker) indicates that our neighbours to the south have noticed us and find us, to some extent, interesting. At last we’re getting some of the attention we deserve — and we haven’t even had to change our polite, non-violent nature to get it. Who says virtue isn’t rewarded?

So Polite It’s … Creepy

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P.C. Vey, “Whack A Canadian,” from The New Yorker (February 23 & March 2, 2015)

I have to admit there are moments when even I grow tired of thinking about Canada. And I suspect that most people have even less tolerance for Canada-related thinking than I do. In fact, people in general probably find thinking about Canada rather wearying, even at the best of times.

There is one group of people, however, who have demonstrated time and again that, when it comes to thinking about Canada, they are indefatiguable. Who are these people, you ask?

Why, New Yorker cartoonists, of course.

For them, it seems, jokes about Canadians are an inexhaustible well of hilarity, one whose brackish waters they go back to draw from again and again. Above is a recent example; if you can’t read the caption at that size, it says, “I just want to apologize beforehand if you miss.

I have already laid out my Platonic theory of New Yorker cartoons, and I’m not going to go through it again here; you can click on that link and consult it if you like. The cartoon above represents yet another iteration of what is perhaps the most common type of Canadian New Yorker cartoon: “Canadians are so polite that….” So polite, in this case, that we would apologize in advance to someone who might fail to whack us on the head with a mallet.

The precise joke in this particular cartoon is a little elusive, at least for me; at first I thought it meant, “I want to apologize in case you miss because I’m so polite that I will feel bad for you if you fail to hit me and therefore don’t win a prize.” After further reflection, though, I think the joke is actually based on the idea that Canadians are so polite that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. Read in that way, the joke means something more along the lines of, “As a polite Canadian, I plan to apologize if you hit me on the head with that mallet, but I’m actually so excessively polite that I want to apologize in advance just in case you miss me and leave me with no reason to apologize later” – as if apologizing for suffering physical violence were such a thrill for Canadians that we don’t want to lose any opportunity to do so.

Either way, the cartoon suggests that Canadians are so polite that it is weird, and perhaps beginning to border on the creepy.

There are even visual similarities between this cartoon and previous Canada-related cartoons in The New Yorker. For comparison, here are a couple we’ve looked at before. The “Canadian Standoff” cartoon:

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

And the “Canadian Lemmings” cartoon:

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In all three, the word “Canadian” appears prominently, paired with something already familiar to readers: a standoff, lemmings, and replacing the word “mole” in the game Whack-A-Mole. All three cartoons are also by different artists, which suggests either that these ideas about Canada are so common that all Americans share them, or that these cartoons are being generated according to some proprietary New Yorker “polite Canadian” cartoon template.

But there’s really nothing new in any of that.

What is new is the strange undercurrent of violence in the “Whack A Canadian” cartoon, which is essentially about an American (presumably) who is going to attempt to clobber a Canadian with a mallet as part of a carnival game. In other Canada-related New Yorker cartoons, Canadians have been portrayed as if they were slightly weird relatives: a little different from Americans, but harmless, really, and maybe even a bit lovable on account of our odd foibles. What accounts for the edge of viciousness in this cartoon? Are our southern neighbours beginning to turn against us? Are we so polite that we have transformed politeness into a form of passive aggression that needs to be combated with direct violence?

Or perhaps there’s another issue here – is the cartoonist frustrated at not being able to come up with anything but another “polite Canadians” cartoon, and so he is subliminally taking out his anger against us, as if it were Canada’s fault that his inspiration had flagged? Or perhaps the Canadian cartoon was imposed on him by New Yorker Cartoons Editor Robert Mankoff, who seems to have a fondness for this sort of Canadian joke, and the violent attitude against the Canadian in the cartoon is just the expression of the cartoonist’s attitude towards his material?

Or is it just a cartoon, and I’m a hyper-sensitive Canadian reading way too much into it?

A Refuge to the North … or an Enemy?

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Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

Although it’s at a notably higher literary level, this novel, like Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, is an “alternate history.” The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened in the U.S. had Charles Lindbergh run against and beaten Roosevelt in the 1940 election and not only held the U.S. out of the Second World War, but tacitly supported Hitler and begun to introduce anti-Semitic measures in the U.S. The story centres on “Philip Roth,” a boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the Second World War, and his parents, his brother Sandy (who briefly becomes a Lindbergh supporter) and his cousin Alvin.

There are countless references to Canada throughout the novel – far too many for me to catalogue them all – but they divide neatly into three larger categories.

1. A Centre of Resistance

In the novel, Lindbergh’s election platform essentially boils down to “A vote for Roosevelt is a vote for war”; Lindbergh himself is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who campaigns by flying across the country in his plane and repeating this one essential campaign idea in three-minute “speeches” wherever he lands (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the novel was published in the middle of the George W. Bush era). This conversation is between Philip and his brother Sandy:

“He’s going to be president,” Sandy told me. “Alvin says Lindbergh’s going to win.”
He so confused and frightened me that I pretended he was making a joke and laughed.
“Alvin’s going to go to Canada and join the Canadian army,” he said. “He’s going to fight for the British against Hitler.”
“But nobody can beat Roosevelt,” I said.
“Lindbergh’s going to. America’s going to go fascist.”  (25-26)

When Lindbergh wins the election and keeps the U.S. out of the “European war,” Alvin goes to Canada, joins the army, loses a leg fighting, spends months in a Canadian army hospital in Montreal, and eventually returns to Newark to live with Philip’s family.

There is an interesting commentary on the idea of America as the “land of the free” in this part of the novel, given that Americans who want to fight against Hitler have to go to Canada to do so. Since Canada never rebelled, it is still tied to Great Britain in a way the U.S. no longer is, meaning there is no question whether Canada will enter the war on the British side. The U.S., being “free,” has more autonomy to stay out of European conflicts, and yet in the novel this apparent freedom is inverted, with the U.S. supporting a dictator and ultimately moving towards dictatorship itself, while Canada, though technically under the colonial yoke, so to speak, is fighting for freedom.

This leads to a further inversion of expected tropes about Canada: in general, we are portrayed as a less war-like nation than the U.S. In this case, it is Canada that is going to war and the U.S. that is remaining out of it, and yet because the war is seen as a just one, and the reason for U.S. neutrality is not principled pacifism but rather support for fascism, Canada’s willingness to fight appears like a virtue within the context of the novel.

There are a number of other references to Canada when Alvin comes up in the story, but none really expand on the essential idea in this passage; they simply reiterate it. There is one other moment about Alvin that might be worthy of note, however:

As a handicapped veteran he was eligible for further benefits should he choose to remain in Canada, where foreign volunteers into the Canadian armed forces, if they wished, were granted citizenship immediately upon discharge. And why didn’t he become a Canuck? asked Uncle Monty. Since he couldn’t stand America anyway, why didn’t he just stay up there and cash in?  (122)

I believe this is the first time we’ve come across the term “Canuck” to refer to Canadians. It seems, in this instance, to have an edge of disdain to it, as if it were almost a slur. A couple of other conventional ideas of Canada are also present in this brief passage: the words “up there” convey again the obvious fact that Canada is to the north of the U.S., and in the mention of “further benefits” we might see a hint at Canada’s vastly superior health care system.

2. A Place of Refuge

By far the most common representation of Canada in the novel is as a “haven” for American Jews to escape to as the situation in the U.S. under Lindbergh becomes increasingly intolerable. The theme is sounded very early in the novel, and recurs pretty well all the way through; I will only focus on a few characteristic examples.

This passage relates to the Roth family taking a vacation in Washington D.C.:

The trip had been planned back when FDR was a second-term president and the Democrats controlled both Houses, but now with the Republicans in power and the new man in the White House considered a treacherous enemy, there was a brief discussion about our driving north instead to see Niagara Falls and to take a boat cruise in rain slickers through the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands and then to cross over in our car into Canada to visit Ottawa. Some among our friends and neighbors had already begun talking about leaving the country and migrating to Canada should the Lindbergh administration openly turn against the Jews, and so a trip to Canada would also familiarize us with a potential haven from persecution.  (44)

That encapsulates the essential idea; there is an interesting moment that somewhat complicates this image of Canada as a safe haven, however. In the course of their vacation in Washington (in which the Roth family is turned out of a hotel and suffers various other forms of discrimination), Philip’s father gets into an argument by loudly praising Roosevelt in front of some Lindbergh supporters, one of whom calls him “a loudmouth Jew.” This is the father’s attempt to calm down Philip’s mother after the incident:

“Honey,” my father told her, “we ran into a screwball. Two screwballs. We might have gone up to Canada and run into somebody just as bad.”  (66)

This is, I believe, the only moment in the novel that hints at Canadian anti-Semitism; the rest of the time, an uncomplicated image of Canada as a “haven from persecution” is maintained, though at this time anti-Semitism would likely have been as prevalent here as in the U.S.; without the Lindbergh administration’s tacit approval, however, it might not have been expressed as readily, and that seems to be the key idea in Roth’s conception of our country.

As the novel proceeds, escaping to Canada recurs as an increasingly likely possibility:

[My mother] explained to Sandy and me that her paycheck would contribute toward meeting the larger household bills occasioned by Alvin’s return while her real intention (known to no one other than her husband) was to deposit her paychecks by mail into a Montreal bank account in case we had to flee and start from scratch in Canada.  (112)

So there we see flight to Canada as a prospect the Roths are seriously considering, and even beginning to prepare for. Things go a step further when some friends of the Roths’, the Tirschwells, actually make the move:

It was then that [my father] learned from Shepsie Tirschwell, whom he visited up in his booth after the show, that on the first of June his old boyhood friend was leaving for Winnipeg with his wife, his three children, his mother, and his wife’s elderly parents. Representatives of Winnipeg’s small Jewish community had helped Mr. Tirschwell find work as a projectionist at a neighborhood movie house there and had located apartments for the entire family in a modest Jewish neighborhood much like our own. The Canadians had also arranged a low-interest loan to pay for the Tirschwells’ move from America….  (194)

What strikes us here is the generosity of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, which is willing to do so much to help an American family move there. This suggests a strong community spirit, which indicates that Canada is a more communal, less individualistic nation than the U.S. It also reveals that Canadian Jews are aware of how dire things are becoming for Jews in America under Lindbergh. And in the passing mention that the Jewish community in Winnipeg is “small,” there is a suggestion that Canada is a less cosmopolitan and diverse nation than the U.S., but at the same time, almost counterintuitively, a more tolerant and welcoming one.

Tension over the question of moving to Canada eventually erupts in the Roth marriage:

“You don’t see Shepsie sitting around writing letters and waiting for the worst to happen,” [my mother] said. “No,” he replied, “not Canada again!” as though Canada were the name of the disease insidiously debilitating us all. “I don’t want to hear it. Canada,” he told her firmly, “is not a solution.” “It’s the only solution,” she pleaded. “I am not running away!” he shouted, startling everyone. “This is our country!” “No,” my mother said sadly, “not anymore. It’s Lindbergh’s. It’s the goyim’s. It’s their country….”  (226)

The linking of Canada, which has always been presented as a haven, to a type of disease, is meant to demonstrate the anger in the father’s tone, I think, rather than to be a reflection on the nature of the country itself. But the question of whether to flee the U.S. or to remain and struggle to “save” it is central to the book, and we might draw parallels between that question and the idea of moving to Canada that was sometimes raised, albeit jokingly, by some Americans after George W. Bush won a second term, and again when Mitt Romney was running against Obama.

In Roth’s vision of the U.S. under Lindbergh, things become increasingly dire, ultimately leading to the outbreak of racially motivated riots in American cities. In a passage about riots in Detroit we come across the final reference to Canada as a safe haven:

By nightfall, several hundred of the city’s thirty thousand Jews had fled and taken refuge across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, and American history had recorded its first large-scale pogrom, one clearly modeled on the “spontaneous demonstrations” against Germany’s Jews known as Kristallnacht….  (266)

This shows how ugly the situation has become in the U.S., but doesn’t in any way change or advance the impression of Canada, which is still seen as an escape from the American anti-Semitism that is now running rampant. And so, with the exception of the one mention of possible anti-Semitism in Canada by Philip’s father (which is purely speculative), these parts of Roth’s novel actually present a very sustained and consistent view of Canada as an open, tolerant nation which is eager to welcome Jewish families fleeing persecution in the U.S.

3. A Stealthy Enemy (Contains Spoilers)

I generally think “spoiler alerts” are a bit absurd – Romeo and Juliet gives away the ending in the first 14 lines, after all – but since they seem to be part of online writing protocol, I will warn you that in this section, it’s not possible for me to discuss the references to Canada without “giving away” parts of the book’s ending, which, if you read exclusively to be surprised by plot twists, may spoil the novel for you. If a book doesn’t lose all interest for you as soon as you know what happens towards the end, you can safely read on.

The plot takes a major turn late in the novel when President Lindbergh, flying across the country on one of his speaking tours, simply disappears. No trace of him or of his plane is ever found. The Vice President, Burton Wheeler, becomes Acting President; Roth portrays him as even more of an anti-Semitic fascist than Lindbergh – or perhaps I should say as a more open anti-Semitic fascist. In any case, the situation becomes significantly worse for Jews in America.

For our purposes, the most interesting point is that Wheeler and his confederates in the American government immediately begin to hint that Canada is somehow involved in Lindbergh’s disappearance. The implication seems to be that the U.S., by opening hostilities with Canada, will create headaches for the British (we have already been told that “Canada had become virtually [Britain’s] only source of arms, food, medicine and machinery” (88)) and make it easier for the Nazis to win the war in Europe.

There are a number of passages in the closing chapters that link Canada to Lindbergh’s disappearance and cause escalating tensions between the U.S. and its northern neighbour. The following is a news item about a “German intelligence report” (I should note that this part of the novel is written in the form of archived news reports and not Philip’s first-person narration):

No sooner had the president taken off for Washington than he was unable to make contact with the ground or with other aircraft and had no choice but to capitulate when the Spirit of St. Louis was corralled by high-flying British fighter planes, which forced him to deviate from his course and to land, some hours later, at an airstrip secretly maintained by international Jewish interests across the Canadian border….  (309-10)

And in the next paragraph:

…Secretary of the Interior Ford is demanding that Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, conduct an intensive search on Canadian soil for President Lindbergh and his captors.  (310)

Things quickly escalate:

Second, House Republicans introduce a bill calling for a declaration of war against the Dominion of Canada should Prime Minister King fail to reveal the whereabouts of America’s missing president within forty-eight hours.  (315)

And then:

In Buffalo the mayor announces his intention to distribute gas masks to the city’s citizens, and the mayor of nearby Rochester initiates a bomb shelter program “to protect our residents in the event of a surprise Canadian attack.” An exchange of small-arms fire is reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the border between Maine and New Brunswick, not far from Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy.  (317)

Canada’s continuing association with Great Britain (note “Dominion of Canada”) is here turned against it by the U.S. administration, which uses it to claim that Canada is, at best, being used by the British to stealthily attack the United States or, at worst, is actively working against U.S. interests. The quick escalation in these passages, and the way anti-Canadian sentiment catches fire, stirred up by American political leaders, seems to suggest that the U.S. is in the grip of some sort of mass hysteria. As well, it might again remind us of events during the George W. Bush administration when, shortly after 9/11, American politicians began to suggest (absent any apparent evidence) that terrorists were streaming across the undefended Canadian border into the U.S. to stage attacks against American targets.

The reference to Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island (a Canadian island, part of New Brunswick) is a fascinating one: though nothing is stated explicitly, the fact that he “summers” (love that verb) in what is technically part of Canada seems to be a way for the Wheeler administration to further link Roosevelt to the British and “Jewish interests” that are supposedly responsible for Lindbergh’s abduction.

All of this leads to the following exchange between Philip and his mother when she tells Philip he won’t be going to school because “the situation has further deteriorated”:

“I want to know why there’s no school, Ma.” “Must you know tonight?” “Yes. Why can’t I go to school?” “Well … it’s because there may be a war with Canada.” “With Canada? When?” “No one knows. But it’s best if you all stay home until we see what’s going on.” “But why are we going to war with Canada?”  (353)

This passage, when contrasted with the ones above, sets up the central dichotomy of Canada in this novel: the Jewish characters view it as a safe haven, while the pro-Nazi Americans see it as a threatening British puppet state looming immediately to the north.

Philip’s response to his mother seems designed to point up the absurdity of the view of Canada held by the Wheeler administration and its allies. When Philip says, “With Canada?” it’s important to note that the word “Canada” (bolded for emphasis above) appears in italics in the text. The italics convey Philip’s incredulity at the idea that the U.S. could possibly be going to war with Canada, their quiet, peaceful, polite neighbour to the north. (Similar markers of incredulity were used in Howard Jacobson’s treatment of Canadian anti-Semitism). The closeness of the Canada-U.S. relationship, and the tendency of Americans to view Canadians as essentially milder versions of themselves, may be part of the reason Roth chooses this particular development for the final phase of his novel. It’s as if he’s saying that Americans must truly be in the grip of some kind of collective insanity if they are willing to go to war with an inoffensive little nation like Canada.

The final line above, “Why are we going to war with Canada?” seems to beg the obvious question: why would anyone? And the idea that lies behind it – that it is impossible to imagine anyone going to war with Canada – offers a neat summary of the general idea of Canada that comes across in Roth’s novel: as a safe, orderly, tolerant nation, in sharp contrast with the U.S., which progressively descends into insanity over the course of the book.

4. Bonus: Canada’s Nazi Figure Skater

There is one other interesting reference to Canada, which doesn’t really fit in with the others but seems worthy of note simply for its oddity. Though most of the Jewish characters in the book are portrayed as strongly anti-Lindbergh, Philip’s Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, support Lindbergh and essentially become collaborators once he is in power. The following quote comes from Aunt Evelyn’s description of a party she attended at the White House where von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the honoured guest:

[von Ribbentrop’s] known to be an excellent dancer, and he is, it’s true – a perfectly magical ballroom dancer. And his English is faultless. He studied at the University of London and then lived for four years as a young man in Canada. His great youthful adventure, he calls it.  (213)

Ribbentrop did, in fact, live in Canada; here are the details, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Fluent in both French and English, young Ribbentrop lived at various times in Grenoble, France and London, before travelling to Canada in 1910.

He worked for the Molsons Bank on Stanley Street in Montreal, and then for the engineering firm M. P. and J. T. Davis on the Quebec Bridge reconstruction. He was also employed by the National Transcontinental Railway, which constructed a line from Moncton to Winnipeg. He worked as a journalist in New York City and Boston, but returned to Germany to heal from tuberculosis. He returned to Canada and set up a small business in Ottawa importing German wine and champagne. In 1914, he competed for Ottawa’s famous Minto ice-skating team, participating in the Ellis Memorial Trophy tournament in Boston in February.

It sounds like he actually had a significant life in Canada, even participating in a quintessentially Canadian sport, ice skating. In terms of the reference in Roth’s novel, it’s worth at least noting the use of the word “adventure,” as the idea that Europeans think of Canada as a romantic land of adventure is one that has come up before.

As for a high-ranking Nazi having lived in Canada (before he became a high-ranking Nazi, of course), I have to admit I had no idea. I suppose Ottawa and Montreal (understandably) don’t do anything to publicize the connection in their tourism materials.

Is Canada the Brains of North America?

LockwoodMotherland

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014)

As Willie Nelson observes somewhere or other, “You can’t write a song if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Fortunately, poetry has outgrown such trite restrictions. In fact, for many contemporary poets, it would seem that having nothing to say – or having arrived at the conclusion that there’s no point in trying to say anything because saying something is embarrassingly unhip – is not a disqualification, but rather the base camp from which the writing of poetry sets out.

Patricia Lockwood falls into this category: it’s difficult to say that any specific poem of hers is “about” something (with perhaps one major exception). The materials of life and, in particular, popular culture are certainly present in her work, but they enter in an oblique or tangential manner, and her poems don’t appear to be addressed to things external to themselves in a conventional way; rather, they seem more interested in the makings of poetry itself – they are about language and metaphor and the odd jumps thought can take; they are enactments and illustrations of their own construction; they show off their seams and sutures rather than trying to disguise them. Some are extended riffs that repeat the same idea, the poet seeming to look on with amusement as the idea becomes more outrageous with each iteration (see the second poem below).

Most gratifyingly, Lockwood seems to have a minor obsession with Canada. We’ve considered her work before; this collection contains two poems that explicitly (and I used that word advisedly – consider that your NSFW warning) refer to Canada. Here’s the first (minus the proper line indentations, which I haven’t been able to maintain online):

Search “Lizard Vagina” and You Shall Find

A higher country has a question, a higher
country searched and found me, and the name
of the country was north of me, Canada.
When I think of you I think up there just as I
think when I think of my brain, my brain
and the bad sunning lizard inside it. Today
you searched “lizard vagina,” Canada. It is so
hugely small if you can imagine it; it is scaled
it is scaled so far down. It evolved over many
millions of years to be perfectly invisible to you;
and so you will never see it, Canada. Here is
some pornography, if it will help: tongues flick
out all over the desert! Next time try thunder
lizard vagina. That will be big enough for even
you, Canada. You have one somewhere
in your hills, or else somewhere in your badlands.
Perhaps someone is uncovering a real one right
now, with a pickaxe a passion and a patience.
Ever since she was a child she knew what she
would do. She buttons her background-colored
clothes, she bends down to her work;
keep spreading,
Canada, she will show you to yourself.
Your down there that is, my Up There. Oh South oh
South oh South you think, oh West oh West now West
say you. The pickaxe the passion and the patience
hears, pink tongue between her lips just thinking.
The stones and the sand and the hollows they watch
her. The tip of her tongue thinks almost out loud,
“I have a brain am in a brain brain suns itself in lizard
too. Where would I be if I were what I wanted?”
Has a feeling finally swings the pickaxe- the passion-
and the patience-tip down.  (3-5)

Canada plays such a large role in this poem that we could almost say it is “about” Canada, or at least about the speaker’s thoughts about Canada – except that we have already disposed of the idea that poems are “about” anything. But given the frequent use of “you” and “Canada” in apposition to one another, we can at least say the poem is addressed to Canada.

The speaker’s actual ideas about our country, however, aren’t especially unique. In the opening lines, there is a cluster of words and phrases associated with Canada: “higher,” “north of me,” “up there” – ideas which seem typically American, and also rather pedestrian, since Canada is, after all, directly north of the U.S. It’s mildly interesting to see how “up there” shades into the brain, as if to suggest Canada is a more rational or intellectual nation than the U.S.

The line “that will be big enough for even / you, Canada” picks up on another common idea, that Canada is geographically large; the same idea occurs (among other places) in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Crossing the Water,” where the size of trees is conveyed by saying that “their shadows must cover Canada”.

But none of this comes as news.

The real crux of the poem, at least for our purposes, is the question of why Canada would search “lizard vagina” in the first place. And yet here, just when the question, “What is she really saying about Canada?” becomes most urgent, the answer becomes most elusive. Why would Canada search “lizard vagina”? Why would anyone? I can’t say I know.

One can, however, consult a list of what Canadians searched for in 2013 (the book was published in 2014, so I’m assuming 2013 would be the most relevant year) – even without “lizard vagina,” the results are somewhat dispiriting.

The Fifty-First State?

Canada also makes an appearance in a later poem, though we’re peripheral rather than central in this one.

Revealing Nature Photographs

In a field where else you found a stack
of revealing nature photographs, of supernude nature
photographs, split beaver of course nature photographs,
photographs full of 70s bush, nature taking come
from every man from miles around, nature with come back
to me just dripping from her lips. The stack came
up to your eye, you saw: nature is big into bloodplay,
nature is into extreme age play, nature does wild inter-
racial, nature she wants you to pee in her mouth, nature
is dead and nature is sleeping and still nature is on all fours,
a horse it fucks nature to death up in Oregon, nature is hot
young amateur redheads, the foxes are all in their holes
for the night, nature is hot old used-up cougars, nature
makes gaping fake-agony faces, nature is consensual dad-
on-daughter, nature is completely obsessed with twins,
nature doing specialty and nature doing niche, exotic females
they line up to drip for you, nature getting paddled as hard
as you can paddle her, oh a whitewater rapid with her ass
in the air, high snowy tail on display just everywhere.
The pictures were so many they started to move. Let me
watch for the rest of my natural life, you said and sank down
in the field and breathed hard. Let me watch and watch
without her knowing, let me see her where she can’t see me.
As long as she can’t see me, I can breathe hard here forever.
See nature do untold animal sex, see nature’s Sicko Teen
Farm SexFeest, see her gush like the geyser at Yellowstone,
see the shocking act that got her banned in fifty-one states including
Canada. See men for miles around give nature what she needs,
rivers and rivers and rivers of it. You exhale with perfect
happiness. Nature turned you down in high school.
Now you can come in her eye.  (33)

That might be my favourite poem in the whole book, and it mentions Canada. Sometimes, things just work out.

Canada is the fifty-first state being referred to here – as the phrase “fifty-one states including Canada” makes clear. It’s sad, obviously, being demoted from an independent nation to an add-on to the U.S.; this does, however, represent another typical American attitude – that Canada is essentially the same as the U.S. and not really anything more than a geographical extension of their country. Perhaps we can tell ourselves that Lockwood is parodying that idea rather than presenting it straightforwardly.

So, what can we conclude overall about Lockwood’s view of Canada? Despite the excitement of a poem literally directed towards us, we don’t get much new: Canada is up north, Canada is big, Canada is (perhaps) a more rational nation than the U.S. – the old “peace, order and good government” idea – but at the same time it’s so similar to the U.S. that it’s really just another state. Though Lockwood seems to be considered one of America’s exciting new poets, her ideas about Canada are rather retrograde.

But there’s another Canadian reference worth considering…

Canada as Marketing Device

What is perhaps this book’s most interesting reference to Canada is not in the book at all, and was probably not even written by Lockwood; instead, it comes on the back cover:

LockwoodBack

In case you can’t read that, the second line says, “Is America going down on Canada?”

What does this mean in the context of back cover blurbery?

The purpose of back cover copy, obviously, is to get people intrigued enough to buy the book. And sex sells, as they say, so it’s not surprising that there would be a reference to sex on the back cover. (In fact, all the questions on the back cover have at least a tangential relation to sex.) Which means that someone, somewhere (in the Penguin marketing department, presumably) decided the question of whether the U.S. is performing oral sex on Canada (along with questions about deer porn and Whitman’s tit pics) might make people want to buy the book.

Which is a striking enough thought in itself: are Americans really so interested in the issue of Canada-U.S. (sexual) relations that this line would make them more likely to purchase a poetry collection? It’s certainly a flattering thought.

But even more striking are the sexual roles in which our countries are placed. In the book itself, Canada is the fifty-first state, which suggests that Americans unconsciously feel a certain power over, and ownership of, us. On the back cover, however, the standard power relation between Canada and the U.S. is reversed. Canada isn’t the passive one, trying to please the U.S.; instead, our big, powerful neighbour to the South is going down on us. This suggests that Canada has some sort of power, some mysterious, irresistible appeal, that makes the U.S. want to please us. But what is it?

Canada as Hipster Talisman

Canada plays a large role in Lockwood’s book, and is prominently featured on the back cover, because Lockwood is a hipster, and American hipsters are obsessed with Canada.

The evidence for this has been mounting for a while – just the examples we’ve considered here include Lockwood herself, Tao Lin, Michael Robbins, Leigh Stein, and a series of New Yorker cartoons (proto-hipsterism). And even beyond the borders of our little website, there are facts that can’t be ignored: Canadian Ryan Gosling is essentially the ultimate male hipster, there is a hipster record company called Secretly Canadian, and so on. Now seems an opportune time to take up the question directly: why is Canada so significant to American hipsters?

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.

But simply standing apart isn’t enough; the essence of hipsterism is using your appearance and your interests to convey to everyone else the fact that you stand apart from mainstream American culture. There’s no point in being a unique individual if no one notices; you must also appear to be a unique individual (and in some cases, no doubt, the appearance comes ahead of the reality by a significant distance), and appear so in a graphic enough way that everyone around you recognizes your uniqueness. This is what hipsters strive so hard for, growing beards and getting tattoos and piercings and waxing their moustaches and buying music only on vinyl and making their own clothes and whatever else they do – and what they strive so hard to achieve, Canadians have already achieved simply by being Canadian.

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.

(As a side note: The subconscious yearning, on the part of American hipsters, to be Canadian was perhaps best expressed in this map that circulated a few years ago:

usofcmap

In it, we see how the “hip” parts of the United States – essentially the Northeast, part of the Midwest and the West coast – have unilaterally attached themselves to Canada, abandoning the rest of the U.S. to “Jesusland”.

My recollection is that this map began to circulate after the re-election of George W. Bush, and that at the time it represented a desire on the part of more moderate, left-leaning Americans to escape from what they felt was their country’s slide into religious conservatism and overseas war-mongering. From that perspective, it represents a typically American view of Canada as a more moderate, progressive and pacifist nation, still similar enough to the U.S. to make a merger easy, but different in precisely the ways that Kerry voters wished their own country could be different. Some even became – or at least claimed to have become – willing to rush into the warm, moderate embrace of their snow-bound neighbour to the North.

But even beyond its immediate political context, the map represents a statement by a certain portion of the U.S. (essentially, the part of the nation that contains most of the hipsters) that they are not a part of mainstream America, but more open-minded, more liberal, more multicultural – in short, that they are more like Canadians than Americans.)

For hip Americans, Canada is like a distorting mirror that shows them, not who they actually are, but the image of the unusual, exciting person they want to be. In other words, the simplest definition of a hipster would be, “An American who wants to be Canadian.”

The Agonies of the Writing Process

Coming full circle at last, here is the Willie Nelson song that contains his thoughts on the necessity of a writer having something to say:

I’ve always thought of it as a portrait of Willie wrestling with writer’s block, but no doubt there are other possible interpretations.

The Tender Wilderness

leighsteincover

Leigh Stein, Dispatch From The Future (2012)

Many poets – mainly insecure ones, of which there is no shortage – are in love with difficulty – or, more precisely, they are in love with the idea of their work being perceived as difficult. There is a romance to the difficult, born out of its association with genius, that makes it very attractive. But the difficulty we find in works of genius comes from an attempt to communicate genuinely complex ideas – and alas, genius is rare. For most poets, the desire to produce difficult works of genius tends to collapse into masking mediocrity with willful obscurity.

Why this tendency to lean on obscurity as a substitute for difficulty? Many poets just don’t have anything that profound to say, and that makes clarity tremendously risky. If you express yourself clearly, there is a good chance someone – perhaps a lot of people – will find what you’re saying trite or shallow, which would only confirm the insecure writer’s fear that they have nothing interesting or original to say. If you’re a poet, then, and you’re not certain that you have anything interesting to say, how much safer it is to express yourself in the most obscure way possible. When people are confronted with a poem that is clear, they tend to evaluate its “sense”; when they’re confronted with a poem they find obscure, they may assume that the writer is saying something that is too complex for them to understand. Obscurity thus becomes the perfect cover for vacuity.

The poems in Leigh Stein’s collection, Dispatch From The Future, read as if they have been studiously composed to avoid making conventional sense. As you read them, you often feel, over a stretch of lines, that there is a narrative taking shape or an idea being developed; and then there will come a sudden wrenching aside of the poem into another, seemingly unrelated direction, as if the poet has caught herself making sense and veered sharply into the thickets of obscurity out of fear that she might reveal something – or worse, reveal that there is nothing to reveal.

There are two references to Canada in two different poems. Though both references are passing ones, I’ll quote the poems in their entirety – partly for context, and partly because I find it disrespectful to both poets and poems to chop out a little chunk a few lines long.

Try A Little (Canadian) Tenderness

Here’s the first:

Katharine Tillman vs. Lake Michigan

Mitsu flips a lot of coins. Katharine told me that once
she was in the middle of a tantrum and a coin
told him he should love her, and yet, he wasn’t
satisfied so he went to the dictionary and closed
his eyes and found a word and when she asked
what word he found, the only thing he would tell her
was that he was one step closer to the secret
of the universe. Can you tell me what it rhymes with,
she asked him. Is it a verb? Is it a country? Have I
been there? Will you write its name on my back
while we sit on the pier and watch the blue dusk
chase the sun to Jersey? The last time I ever
saw Katharine she asked me the name of the lake
in the distance and I said Michigan and she said
she’d heard of it, and then she showed me the diaries
she kept when she lived under the overpass
near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,
when all she had was a travel Scrabble set and
the reason she’d run away. Milan Kundera
has a lot to say about our tenuous insignificance.
When he wants to decide something he, too,
flips a coin, but in his case heads is Little Rock,
Arkansas, and tails is Little Rock, Arkansas, and
it’s just a matter of who to blindfold and bring with
on his motorcycle. On page one hundred and seven
of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I get lost
driving Katharine to the airport. On page one hundred
and forty nine, Tereza dreams that they take her away.
After I see Katharine for the last time I don’t go home;
I go to Prague and it’s 1968 and the man I love won’t
touch me; he just holds an empty gun to my temple
and even though we both know it’s empty there’s the small
comfort that the worst thing that could possibly happen
would be the thing I want most. Mitsu says the secret
of the universe is obvious in any planetary shaped
object you can find on the floor of a parking garage.
Katharine says how. I say I want to move to Canada;
the only tenderness anyone can get around here
is in the time it takes him to untie my wrists.  (22-23)

Several elements in this poem recur throughout the book and seem to mark points of interest  (“obsessions” might be more apt) for Stein: women in peril, usually at the hands of men; references to Milan Kundera (a writer who seems sophisticated when you’re 18); suicidal thoughts and the desire for death.

I’m not going to attempt to interpret the whole poem – you can tackle that yourself if you’re so inclined. Canada appears at the very end, as a place to which the speaker wants to move. She doesn’t explicitly say why, but if we take the next two lines as explanatory (and that seems to me the most reasonable way to read them), then her desire to move to Canada comes from the feeling that there is not enough tenderness in her life in the U.S., and moving north of the border might be a way to find some.

This idea of searching for tenderness in Canada represents yet another iteration of the familiar American idea that Canada is a gentler, more pacifist nation than the U.S., and that those seeking to escape the violent, martial side of the American character (represented in this poem by the man who apparently keeps the speaker tied up most of the time) can do so here.

You Can’t Have Paris (But You Can Have Canada)

On to the second Canadian reference:

Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness

My favourite book is the one with the woman
who wears a balaclava every time she goes
under the viaduct because it’s Canada, and
because she’s married to a man who loves
her sister, and because if her family found her
under the viaduct, she would lose everything;
more than that, she would lose the end of the story
he began. Il était une fois, he said, there are rugs
made by children who go blind and turn
to crime, and/or rescuing sacrificial virgins
from the palace the night before the sacrifice.
Turn one page if you want to be the woman,
listening to the story, but you’ll have to
keep the hat on. Turn three if you’d rather
be a girl alone in a bed, waiting. I was
always that girl: you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do but follow the blind boy, watch
as he puts the body of the strangled guard
in your bed, in your place, follow as he leads
you through the air ventilation system and over
the palace walls? I never chose any other way
because what could the woman do but love him
and listen to a story that wasn’t about her.
After you get over the walls you run
through the darkness, the darkness that isn’t
darkness to the blind boy because of his blindness,
the silent darkness to you who can’t describe it,
you run until you turn the page, but then instead
of safety, a valley, and the woman under the viaduct
puts her skirt on and goes back home and you think
you’ve ended up in the wrong story, but months later
she gets a phone call saying the man was killed
in the Spanish Civil War and that’s the end
because the only person who knows
what happened to you is dead.   (45-46)

The title of the poem refers to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books (which are another recurring reference/obsession for Stein – she even mentions “the great R.A. Montgomery” in a couple of poems), and the poem itself recalls the format of those books with its “turn one page if … turn three pages if…” conceit. The direct association of Canada with the idea of “wilderness” should surprise no one at this point – we are, by now, quite familiar with the fact that many Americans think of our country as little more than an uninterrupted band of forest topped with an uninterrupted band of tundra.

The idea of choice does, however, complicate this impression: apparently there are different Canadian wildernesses, which are distinct enough from one another that a person could make some sort of choice among them. But the poem itself never explains the differences.

And then we have “the woman / who wears a balaclava every time she goes / under the viaduct because it’s Canada”. Presumably when we are told the woman wore a balaclava “because it’s Canada,” we are meant to understand, “and Canada, as everyone in the United States knows, is cold all the time and therefore the wearing of balaclavas is essential in order to prevent your skin from instantly freezing the moment you step outside” (or something along those lines). So Canada is cold – another common idea.

And does “Il etait une fois,” which is the French equivalent of “Once upon a time,” appear here because of some half-buried notion that everyone in Canada speaks French? It’s difficult to say for certain, but the possibility hums in the air.

From there Stein drops Canada, but ultimately, a reading of the poem returns us to the question of the title. Why did Stein give the poem that particular title? In what sense is anyone in the poem choosing a Canadian wilderness?

I don’t think there is necessarily a linear link between the title and the body of the poem, nor does there need to be. To me, the title is of a piece with what follows.  There is a bleakness, verging on despair, in the implication that while you can choose your own Canadian wilderness, you can’t choose anything other than a Canadian wilderness – you can’t choose your own Parisian arrondissement, for example, or your own cottage in the Lake District – it’s just one Canadian wilderness or another.

Likewise the poem, which seems to be about women caught in threatening narratives that offer no escape or resolution, creates an overall sense of repetitive hopelessness, and the idea of choosing a Canadian wilderness is emblematic of that hopelessness. This is quite different from the idea of Canada in the previous poem: there, Canada represented a hope for refuge from the man who kept the woman tied up; here, there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of escape, except perhaps to some Canadian wilderness, which is apparently not a very appealing prospect.

More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

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Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

I read this novel because, years ago, I saw a woman reading it on the subway and I was intrigued by the title. It’s probably the second-best book I’ve discovered that way (after I Am A Cat), though that’s not a great compliment since the others I can recall are The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (great title, mediocre book) and Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree (an aesthetic disaster, but weirdly fascinating from a “people actually read this” perspective).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? begins with the narrator, Berie (short for Benoite-Marie, of course) and her husband in Paris, and returns to this framing device from time to time. Most of the novel, however, is told in extended flashbacks and concerns the relationship between  Berie and her best friend, Sils, as they go through adolescence.  The set-up feels rather familiar in that the narrator is more withdrawn and observant (the “writer type”), whereas Sils is wilder and more adventurous; the style is given to the kind of metaphors and imagery that earn praise in writing workshops.

There are actually numerous references to Canada in this book – too many for me to catalogue them all – but they fall neatly into two general categories, some dealing with French-Canadians, and some with the role Canada played for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era.

1.1 Exotic Canadian French

One thing I like about Lorrie Moore: she didn’t make me wait long for a reference to Canada. This passage comes in the book’s opening pages:

Although no voice was ever plain in our house – not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies.  (6)

The word “fancinesses” suggests that, as a young girl, Berie was fascinated by a certain exotic sophistication in her mother’s Canadian French. And what are these dire lullabies, we are left to wonder? Traditional French-Canadian songs, perhaps, detailing folk tales of murder and revenge? Or has the word “direst” been chosen not to convey any actual meaning, but simply to provide a striking contrast with “lullabies”?

1.2 French-Canadian Tourists

Berie and Sils both have summer jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale-themed amusement park in the upstate New York town where they live:

I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check. “Gardez les billets pour les maneges, s’il vous plait,” I would say to the Canadians.  (10)

On the next page:

In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … ehm … on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us. Sur le plat. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever – it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is.  (11)

For reasons of geography, the Canadians Berie speaks to are all actually from Quebec, so perhaps we should cut Moore some slack on the way she seems to conflate “Canadians” and “French-Canadians.”  Still, it’s hard not to feel that she must consider Canada a fairly insignificant country if she so blithely elides the difference between Francophones and Anglophones and speaks of us as if we all spoke French.

The general attitude to French-Canadians is one of contempt – though it’s a fairly benign contempt compared to, say, Michel Houellebecq’s attitude to Quebec tourists. But it’s difficult not to notice a slight whiff of stereotype coming off the page, as if Moore were playing to her (largely American) readership’s preconceived notions of what French-Canadians are like: the use of “z” for “”th”, the open shirts and bellies – by the time we reach the pencil-thin cigars and smutty laughs, these tourists have begun to sound like moustache-twirling cartoon villains.

The fact that Berie and Sils mock the tourists despite being partly French-Canadian themselves adds a level of irony to these passages, but it also points to a certain truth: making fun of people who share their background is a way for the girls to distance themselves from their own French-Canadian heritage and confirm their identity as (proudly unhyphenated) Americans.

1.3 Blood, The Inescapable

Yet Berie continues to refer to her French-Canadian background, as in this description of herself and her brother:

The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade.  (29)

The reference to the fur trade harks back to a classic (and familiar) idea of Canada as a wilderness nation to be exploited for its natural resources, but the meaning of the sentence is a little opaque. The use of the verb “shrieked” is an excellent example of “writing workshop style,” where so much focus is placed on the search for “colourful” or “expressive” verbs that regard for sense becomes secondary. It’s also not clear how thick eyebrows are a legacy of the fur trade; did the voyageurs develop extra-thick eyebrows to protect themselves against the cold? Is there some suggestion that they interbred with beavers or other fur-bearing animals, leading to thicker eyebrow hair in their descendants? The sentence sounds nice if you read it once, but the more you try to parse it, the less sense it seems to make.

There is also this intriguing passage, about Berie and her husband Daniel when they’re in Paris:

At night, Daniel is tired from the medical conference he is here at the Institut de Genetique to attend. As a researcher he is mostly, recently, interested in the Tay-Sachs gene we both carry – what Jews and French-Canadians have in common.  (70)

This is a reference to Tay-Sachs disease, caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in both both Ashkenazi Jews and French-Canadians. Curiously, early studies of the diesease led to the fascinatingly named (though now discredited) “Jewish Fur Trader Hypothesis,” which, in a weird way, seems to gather together several of the threads of Moore’s ideas about Canada.

Over all, Berie’s relationship to Quebec is one of forcefully trying to impose distance on something that remains inescapably close; the girls affirm their identity as Americans by mocking the Canadian toursits, but at the same time, from her eyebrows right down to her genes, her French-Canadian heritage is something that Berie cannot evade.

2 The Perfect Place to Dodge the Draft

Much of the flashback portion of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? occurs in the summer of 1972, in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, and in that context Canada plays another important role for the characters in the novel. The following passage is a description of Sils’ mother:

She was a sweet and guilt-ridden mother, exhausted from her older sons (their loud band practices in the basement; their overnight girlfriends; their strange, impermanent, and semiannual treks across the border to Canada to avoid the draft, though their numbers were high….  (14)

Canada is mentioned several more times in the same context, as Berie refers to Sils’s brothers being “in Canada again” (20) or “just back from Canada” (89). It is, of course, a fact that many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft. This particular form of escape is also connected to a larger idea of Canada as a more pacifist country where Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam could go to avoid being forced to serve. So Canada is tied up, by virtue of its proximity, not only in the U.S. economy (as Berie notes above), but also in American politics and its ramifications.

There are also a couple of references to the music of the period that we might take note of:

…the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music and people setting themselves on fire. Laws seemed to be the enemy. So we dispensed and dispatched, ceased and desisted: we made up our own rules, and they were loose. We were inventing things, starting over, nothing was wrong. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.  (34)

And this description of Sils just after she has had an abortion:

Joni Mitchell was keening “Little Green” on Sils’s record player. Sils listened to that song all the time now, like some woeful soundtrack. The soprano slides and oos of the song always made us both sing along, when I was there. “Little green, be a gypsy dancer.” Twenty years later at a cocktail party, I would watch an entire roomful of women, one by one and in bunches, begin to sing this song when it came on over the sound system. They quit conversations, touched people’s arms, turned toward the corner stereo speakers and sang in a show of memory and surprise. All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.  (91)

It’s noteworthy that in two separate passages where popular music is connected with the idea of the ferment of the times and with the personal struggles of the characters, the music that speaks to them is by Canadians: Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green.” Despite Canada’s apparent insignificance as a country, individual Canadians have played a role in writing the soundtrack to the American experience of the twentieth century.

The Music

When content permits, I like to wrap up with music. Here is Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”:

And here is “Ohio” as performed by CSNY:

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