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Canada: You Can’t Leave Fast Enough

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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2014)

This book is a re-working of The Canterbury Tales, in which each poem presents a contemporary version of one of Chaucer’s stories. Agbabi covers a wide range of poetic styles and voices, from the rhymed couplets of the “Prologue” to the rap battle of “Sir Thopas vs Da Elephant” and along the way shows not only her mastery of form, but also conveys a multiethnic, polyphonic vision of England.

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the individual poems appealed more to me than others; I think most readers would feel the same way, though of course the ones they preferred would vary. For me, “Joined Up Writing” (The Man of Law’s Tale) was a standout, its linked stanzas being not only brilliantly executed, but also a clever commentary on the act of writing itself, which is at the centre of that particular tale; “What Do Women Like Bes’?” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is a fitting successor to its original (what greater praise than that?); and “That Beatin’ Rhythm” (The Merchant’s Tale), composed largely from song titles, works remarkably well, and also recalled for me one of my favourite lines in all of Chaucer: “Gan pullen up the smock, and in he throng.”

The Flight From Canada

Each poem has a fictional author’s name attached, usually some sort of pun or play on the name of the tale-teller in Chaucer, and then at the end of the book we find “Author Biographies,” in the manner of the “Contributor’s Notes” section at the end of a journal or anthology. This is one more clever touch in what is already an immensely witty book, and it is in these author’s notes, rather than in the poems themselves, that we find the book’s only reference to Canada:

Yves Depardon: is a French-Canadian Professional Speaker and Business Coach living in Soho, Central London with his long-term partner. He’s published 20 self-help books and six novels, including the multi-million bestseller, Young, Free and Sinful (Impress, 2007). He regularly uses poetry in his presentations. His ‘love2Bme’ lectures attract a 2,000-strong online audience.  (116)

The transformation of Chaucer’s Pardoner — one of literature’s most compelling hypocrites — into a motivational speaker and self-help author is an inspired choice. I’m not sure why Agbabi chose to make him a Canadian, other than the punning connection between the name “Depardon” and the Pardoner, but I suppose it’s a kind of compliment that anyone thinks a character of such vertiginous hypocrisy could come from our country, and it’s certainly a sharp contrast with the usual image of Canadians as polite and uninteresting. (Though, based on our reading of Michel Houellebecq and Lorrie Moore, perhaps we can say the world has a slightly different impression of French-Canadians than it does of Canadians generally?)

In terms of ideas about Canada, Depardon’s biography contains an interesting reversal that I don’t think we’ve seen before. Immigration to Canada from the UK, and the possibility of a new beginning that Canada offers to immigrants, is something we’ve come across in authors like Charles Dickens, Basil Bunting and Derek Mahon, to name a few. All these writers convey the same view: that leaving the UK for Canada will offer a fresh start and open up a range of new possibilities that can’t be found in the “old country.”

In Agbabi’s book, though, the relationship between the old world and the new is switched; Depardon is from Canada, but he has left it for England, where he has found fame and fortune as a motivational speaker and author. There is no explanation of this, but behind it must lie some idea that Canada is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and that Canadians whose families might have immigrated from Europe a century or more ago are now making their way back to Europe from North America in search of the same sort of opportunities that brought their ancestors in the other direction in the first place.

The Poetry

Because Canada isn’t mentioned in the poems, I didn’t have the chance to quote any of the actual poetry; in lieu of that, here are a couple of videos of Patience Agbabi reciting parts of Telling Tales. Here’s the Prologue:

And here is her take on the Wife of Bath:

 

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Is Canada the Brains of North America?

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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.

Montreal: The Only Canadian City Worth Mentioning

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Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, An Index (2012)

All the poems in this book relate in one way or another to the death of the poet’s lover, who, according to the back cover, disappeared while hiking a volcano in Japan. (Volcanoes, apparently, were an interest of his.)

The only reference to Canada comes in the long title poem, which is organized by the letters of the alphabet; under each letter there is a list of words beginning with that letter that are connected to the poet’s relationship with her lover.

This is the entire section on the letter “V”.

V

VANISH, dematerialize. Poof! How does one sail
to the land of vanished things? And what colour
does your flag have to be to get back?
VOLCANOES, we visited many: Vesuvius looming over Naples
like a history of violence and Pompeii’s ash
packed around a man-shaped hollow. The perfect cone
of Stromboli. Cloud-forests sweating around Poas,
its caldera cupping an aquamarine lake of boiling acid.
Thira’s thin crescent rising from the sea. A Mexican church
half-submerged in basalt. A cobbled path of fractured granite
descending into the North Atlantic. I thought I understood
your longing – it looked so much like mine.
VOLKSWAGON,
Golf (green), from Salt Lake City to Omaha in a day.
You were so angry because I’d stayed up late
the night before and couldn’t drive the first shift.
Later that summer, Duluth, Sault Sainte Marie,
Montreal, Marblehead. Harry Potter on tape,
your son asleep in the back with his feet on my lap
and his head resting on your guitar.
Golf (red), I could see you coming from so far
down the snowed-in road. Me at the bus station
freezing my ass off. You cranked the heat,
plucked off my wool cap, put your mouth over my ear.
VOW, I think as much now about the ones we failed to make
as the ones we faithfully kept.   (57)

The reference to Canada is a passing one, simply placing it on the itinerary of a road trip. A Canadian will naturally read Sault Ste Marie as the city in Ontario, but in fact there is also a Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, directly across the river from the one in Ontario – or perhaps they are better thought of as one city that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. So the mention of Sault Ste Marie alone can’t be considered definitively Canadian.

Once we come to Montreal, however, I think we can be certain. We can also guess at the outline of the trip: from Duluth, driving east along the southern shore of Lake Superior, then crossing into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, more or less straight across Ontario and into Quebec to Montreal, then back across the U.S. border and southeast to Marblehead in Massachusetts. So they would have passed through a significant chunk of Canada if that is the route they took.

In spite of that, Montreal is the only Canadian city to rate a mention: this book is yet another piece of evidence (along with recent examples such as Warren Harding’s love letters and Tao Lin) that Americans perceive Montreal as an exciting, romantic, interesting city, but see the rest of Canada as nothing more than a slightly blander extension of the United States. Having passed through Montreal is worth mentioning; having passed through Toronto, however, is not.

Other than the implicit judgement that Montreal is the only Canadian city that deserves to be named, there’s no real comment about Canada, so it’s hard to draw conclusions: our nation features here simply as a place that Americans occasionally journey through on their way to other places. In fact, Lindenberg makes no distinction between the naming of Canadian and American places and never explicitly mentions having crossed a national border. Duluth and Montreal appear equally in the list, as if the national divisions between us did not exist at all, which only adds to the sense that Americans see Canada as just an extension of their own country.

Ireland Invades Canada! (Paul Muldoon Part I)

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Paul Muldoon, The Annals of Chile (1997)

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

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

First reference:

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

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

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

Third reference:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part I – UPDATED

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Michael Robbins, Alien vs. Predator (2012)

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

Moving on…

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

Second Helping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

A Digressive Disclaimer

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

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

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

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

A Possible Neil Young Reference

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Digression

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

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

NeilFillmoreCover

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

That felt like an exhausting aside.

Wait – Another Canadian Celebrity!

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

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

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

So…What Does it All Mean?

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

Escape Into Hopelessness

bunting

Basil Bunting, Complete Poems (2000)

I don’t know how well it comes across at the size above, but that cover photo must be one of the all-time greats in the annals of collected poetry volumes: Bunting casually reclining in a wicker chair against a Mediterranean background (the back cover tells us he’s in Rapallo, Italy – how Poundian!), his (carefully coiffed?) facial hair simply glorious in its effrontery.

Of course Bunting, so proud of being a Northerner (as opposed to what he calls a “Southron”), couldn’t resist mentioning our Northern land:

The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer

On the up-platform at Morpeth Station
in the market-day throng
I overheard a Morpethshire farmer
muttering this song:

Must ye bide, my good stone house,
to keep a townsman dry?
To hear the flurry of the grouse
but not the lowing of the kye?

To see the bracken choke the clod
the coulter will na turn?
The bit level neebody
will drain soak up the burn?

Where are ye, my seven score sheep?
Feeding on other braes!
My brand has faded from your fleece,
another has its place.

The fold beneath the rowan
where ye were dipt before,
its cowpit walls are overgrown,
ye would na heed them more.

And thou! Thou’s idled all the spring,
I doubt thou’s spoiled, my Meg!
But a sheepdog’s faith is aye something.
We’ll hire together in Winnipeg.

Canada’s a cold land.
Thou and I must share
a straw bed and a hind’s wages
and the bitter air.

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,
grouse is sport for the rich;
heather grows where the sweet grass might grow
for the cost of cleaning the ditch.

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.     (1930; pp. 112-13)

In the main, the poem is the moving lament of a farmer for the home and land he is leaving, which he sees falling into disrepair and uselessness without his care. Canada appears as the country he’s leaving for, where he will seek a new life.

We encountered a similar view of Canada in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, where our country represents a new opportunity for Amy’s brother Tip. Whether it’s the 70 years that have elapsed between the two works, or some other reason, Bunting’s poem seems to take a much more bitter view of Canada; it’s quite clear that the farmer doesn’t want to go – presumably only the utter desperation of his present situation is driving him to it – and furthermore, doesn’t believe things will be any better when he arrives. (Tip, admittedly, doesn’t want to go to Canada either, but Amy seems to believe that our country represents a genuine hope if he would only seize it.)

Not this Morpethshire farmer – his heart is with the farm he must leave, not the country he is going to, and the first half of the poem is filled with images of its decay. Only in the second half does he get to Canada – introduced by the mention of Winnipeg, no less.

Now, I must admit, I’m always a little suspicious when a poet uses a proper name as a rhyme word, and I grow even more so when, as here, two proper names are rhymed with each other. It just seems to have a slight whiff of desperation about it, and one feels that words are being chosen to provide rhymes rather than because they are the right words. (No doubt poets often choose words to provide rhymes, but the reader shouldn’t feel it. The most perfect rhyme words are the ones that seem inevitable; you can’t imagine any other word in that place, and the rhyme appears almost coincidental.) But which came first: is the sheepdog conveniently named “Meg” in order to allow Bunting to bring in Winnipeg, or, having decided, for reasons we may never know, that the dog simply had to be named Meg, did Bunting pull down his atlas and scan the page showing Canada in search of a name to suit his rhyme scheme? (If so, he got pretty lucky.)

Canada appears more naturally in the following two stanzas, although the ideas associated with it are hardly surprising; it’s “a cold land,” apparently – Bunting never visited Toronto in August – and also “a bare land.” In fact, the cluster of words associated with Canada in those two stanzas could almost stand as a summary of the image our nation has in the minds of others: “cold,” “bitter air,” “bare,” “north wind,” “snow.” These aren’t earth-shaking revelations, but it’s noteworthy to see such a complete image of Canada captured in such a compressed form.

The poem does, however, raise the intriguing question of why Canada is a bare land, in a stanza we’ll quote once more:

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Interesting, no? Canada is a bare land, but no reason is offered as to why it is bare. Northumberland, which the farmer must leave, is also a bare land, but here the reason is clearly stated: “men have made it so.” So Northumberland wasn’t always bare; it was fruitful once, but was spoiled by men. The bareness of Northumberland is portrayed as the result of negative human action, while Canada was never anything other than bare and never will be; bareness is an aspect of its eternal and unchanging essence.

In the final stanza, Bunting introduces another part of Canada, and again, conveniently, it provides him with another rhyme (who knew Canadian place-names were so rich in poetic possibility?):

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.

That’s a great conclusion, but it does make the reader – or the Canadian reader, at least – wonder a bit about Bunting’s grasp of geography. I suppose the idea is that the ship will take him as far as Quebec (City? or just some part of the province?), and from there he’ll journey by some other means to Winnipeg, where he will start his new life.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that some of Bunting’s references to Canada grow out of the need for rhymes rather than from a desire to discuss our country.

Bunting’s own explanatory notes are included in the Complete Poems, and from them you can learn interesting words, like Southron, as well as the proper pronunciation of the word “scone”: it rhymes with “on,” not with “own”. (My mother always pronounced it Bunting’s way. At the end of Macbeth, however, it seems like it ought to rhyme with “one” – but the pronunciation of Shakespearean English is a snakepit best left undisturbed.) He also has the following note on this poem:

The war and the Forestry Commission have outdated this complaint. Cowpit means overturned.

The second bit of that note, at least, is helpful. As for the first part, presumably World War II (and the Forestry Commission as well?) have created work in England for men like the complaining farmer of the poem, making emigration to Canada unnecessary.

Something about the end of this poem always reminds me of the famous (is it famous? maybe not) painting by Ford Madox Brown called “The Last of England”.

brown_last_of_england

The barren land behind, the barren land ahead, and the barren ship’s deck in between.

The dominant mood of Bunting’s poem is bitterness, and the bitterness of failure in England colours the prospect of Canada as well, making it appear an inhospitable place that no one would journey to except in cases of utter desperation. Not exactly one to quote in the travel brochures.

Sylvia Plath in Ontario

Here’s something remarkable from Carmine Starnino and the Véhicule Press Blog; a photo of Sylvia Plath feeding a deer … in Ontario:

Plath Feeds Deer in Ontario

Plath Feeds Deer in Ontario

I can’t comment too much on this, as Plath isn’t saying anything about Canada; it’s hard not to notice, however, that the photo contains Plath herself, a deer, and a bunch of trees. (It’s not, for example, Sylvia Plath hailing a cab on a busy street corner in Toronto. We do have busy street corners, you know. And cabs. Really.) This seems in keeping with general impressions of Canada as a wilderness nation that’s a great place to go if you want to see trees, mountains, or wild animals, but not really a destination for culture or other more civilized pursuits.

The photo could be from 1959, when, according to Wikipedia:

Plath and [Ted] Hughes travelled across Canada and the United States, staying at the Yaddo artist colony in New York State in 1959.

I haven’t read much Plath beyond the standard Norton Anthology selections, but I wonder if she mentions Canada anywhere? I think there’s a Collected Poems on the shelf upstairs….

Véhicule Press has more cool photos of writers from the Faber archives. None of them are in Canada, however.

Enjoy nevertheless.

Literature Gives No Man a Sinecure

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, the sentence resists such interpretation.

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

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

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

Second:

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

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

And finally:

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

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

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

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

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