Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Size”

Leonard Cohen, Keanu Reeves, and a Canadian Woodpecker Go to Russia…

sorokincover

Vladimir Sorokin, Ice Trilogy (Bro, Ice, 23,000) (trans. Jamey Gambrell) (2008)

In general I try to get to the Canadian content as quickly as possible, but in the case of this long and complex trilogy, there’s really no way to talk about specific elements of the book without first providing some context. Hence the first two, Canada-free sections.

Plot Summary

Okay, strap yourself in.

Originally, there was nothing but 23,000 rays of celestial light. By vibrating in primordial harmony with one another, these 23,000 rays of light created the entire universe. But then they made a mistake: Earth. Or more specifically, they accidentally created water on the surface of the Earth. By reflecting the 23,000 rays of light, the water captured them; the rays of light became trapped in tiny organisms living in the water and could not escape. And so, as the process of evolution took place over millennia on Earth, the rays of light were constantly reincarnated in various life forms, until ultimately they ended up trapped in the bodies of 23,000 humans. But none of these humans was aware that they held within themselves one of the 23,000 rays of light that had created the universe.

Got it so far? Good.

In 1908, the Tunguska Event occurred – that’s a fact. But in this novel the Tungus meteorite, which exploded over Siberia, was sent from space because it contained a chunk of celestial ice, which was destined to reawaken the 23,000 rays of light and remind them of their true purpose.

The first to be awakened is Bro, a directionless student living in Moscow who joins a scientific expedition to try to find the Tungus meteorite and instead discovers a chunk of primordial ice largely buried in the permafrost; when he slips and falls, hitting his chest on the ice, his heart is awakened and he understands that he is one of the 23,000 rays of light, and that his purpose is to find all the other people who have rays of light trapped inside them and awaken the light so that all 23,000 of them, working together, can destroy the Earth, free themselves from their human bodies and return to space where they will vibrate harmoniously in eternal happiness.

He quickly finds a woman who also has one of the rays of light trapped inside her; he awakens her heart, and she becomes Sister Fer. Together, Fer and Bro found what becomes known as The Brotherhood of the Light, and devote their lives to finding and awakening the hearts of the 23,000.

At this point, as you can probably see for yourself, some logistical problems begin to arise. For starters, how does one identify the specific 23,000 people who currently have rays of celestial light trapped inside them? The good news is that all Brothers and Sisters of the Light have blonde (or at least light-coloured – some turn out to be redheads) hair and blue eyes, so that disqualifies a large segment of the earth’s population right off the bat.

Still, it leaves a lot of potential Brothers and Sisters.

And then, the process of awakening a sleeping heart is rather laborious: each blonde, blue-eyed person must be tied up, stripped to the waist, and then struck repeatedly in the centre of the chest with an ice hammer, which is a piece of wood with a chunk of celestial ice tied to it using the skin of an animal that died a natural death. If the heart of the person struck does contain a ray of celestial light, the heart will awaken and speak its true name; that person then joins the Brotherhood of the Light. If the person is just a normal human, they either fall into unconsciousness or die.

The other issue is one of time. Obviously, it takes a long time to track down the 23,000 true Brothers and Sisters using this chest-hammering technique. And while the rays of celestial light are themselves immortal, their human bodies are not: when a Brother or Sister dies, the celestial ray leaves them and becomes reincarnated in a newborn, who must then be found and hammered by the Brotherhood in order to awaken that particular ray again.

Really it’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Bro and Ice tell the story of the founding and growth of the Brotherhood; in 23,000, a new conflict begins to develop as some regular humans, and particularly blonde, blue-eyed people who have been hammered and found not to contain rays of celestial light (“empties,” as they are called) begin to try to figure out why they were attacked and start investigating the Brotherhood. 23,000 eventually turns into a “race against time” plot that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action film, as Olga and Bjorn, two “empties,” rush to try to stop the final Great Circle in which the Brotherhood will destroy the Earth and regain their true nature as celestial light. At one point, they even attempt to escape from a building using that incredibly trite action movie cliche, the convenient air duct system.

Literary-Critical

The books that make up the Ice TrilogyBro, Ice and 23,000 – were originally published separately in Russia, but this NYRB edition (pictured above) collects them all in one volume. The title character of the first novel, Bro, is born in Russia in 1908, on the day the Tungus meteorite explodes above Siberia, and he lives through much of Russia’s turbulent 20th century. This book on its own is a remarkable portrait of one person’s delusion gradually taking over his life and the lives of people around him – I say “delusion,” but within the context of the novel “enlightenment” would perhaps be a better word, since we are never given an outside perspective on the events of this book. Bro narrates it in the first person, and as the novel proceeds you become more and more enmeshed in his point of view. Bro is what we might call a “cult founder,” not that different from other charismatic lunatics who have managed to win themselves a group of fanatical followers. The fact that large parts of the novel take place during the era of Stalin and Hitler, and that one of the Brotherhood’s techniques is to infiltrate existing power structures, including the Nazi party and the Soviet bureaucracy, offer obvious possibilities for satirical readings, and certainly the way the Brotherhood develops in parallel with these other ideologies is significant.

A similar pattern plays out in the later books: in Ice, which takes place mainly in the 1990s, the Brotherhood seems to have reorganized itself into a mafia-like organization; by the third book, it has become a corporation that manufactures video games, among other things. The rise of the Brotherhood to a position of power and influence in society, and its utter ruthlessness in pursuing its own goals, could be read as a commentary on any ideology or philosophy that uses ends to justify means.

The style of the books also seems to change, in keeping with the time period in which they are set. Bro is told in a very lyrical, elegant style, particularly in the first half or so. As Bro drifts further from humanity, the style becomes stranger, but also weirdly hypnotic: when he starts referring to regular humans as “meat machines,” for example, the initial reaction is one of alienation from his viewpoint; but as he repeats the term “meat machine” over and over, and starts to describe basic human behaviour in terms that would suit a visitor from another solar system, it all becomes weirdly compelling, and you start to feel as if you really are nothing more than a machine made out of meat.

The style of Ice is much choppier, using short declarative sentences and little imagery, and in 23,000 the style shifts again, towards something almost genre-based – by the end it reads like an outline for an action movie. No doubt read in Russian these differences would be more obvious, and perhaps recall particular eras and styles of Russian literature.

At Last, Canada

There are no references to Canada in Bro, but there are several in Ice. The opening sections of this novel follow three characters as they are kidnapped, Ice-hammered and then released by the Brotherhood, and the changes that take place in their lives as they at first try to deny the idea that they are members of the elect, but gradually come to accept it as their destiny. These first three references are not actually to Canada as a country, but rather to Canadian cultural figures.

Borenboim is a Moscow businessman; this scene describes how he is accosted as he comes home, just before he gets Ice-hammered:

Borenboim didn’t move. The butt of a silencer was pressed against his cheek. It smelled of gun oil.
“You didn’t get it? I’ll count to one.”
Borenboim pushed the door with his hand. He entered the dark foyer.
A hand in a brown glove extracted the key from the door. The man followed Borenboim in, immediately closing the door behind them.
“Turn on the light,” he ordered.
Borenboim groped for the wide button of the switch. He pressed it. The lights in the whole five-room apartment lit up at once. Music could be heard: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
“On your knees,” said the man, poking the gun between Borenboim’s shoulder blades.  (285-6)

And when Borenboim comes home several days later, after he is released from the Brotherhood clinic that treats people when their hearts have first been awoken by the Ice Hammer:

Borenboim unlocked the door of his apartment. He entered and turned on the light.
The music started up: Leonard Cohen as usual.  (309)

So clearly an appreciation for Leonard Cohen has reached Russia – which isn’t really surprising, as he is probably one of our better-known musicians, and one of the few who has a truly global reputation.

Another character, Lapin, is a young student living in Moscow. After he gets Ice-hammered, he turns to sex and drugs to try to escape the power of the realizations that his awakening heart is forcing on him. In this scene he is at the apartment of a friend who supplies him with heroin, and we find a reference to another Canadian cultural figure, though perhaps not someone we would automatically expect to be popular in Russia:

Lapin and Ilona lay naked in the overfilled tub. Ilona was sitting on Lapin and smoking. His penis was in her vagina. She moved slowly. In a state of semi-oblivion, Lapin opened and closed his eyes.
“But the main thing…is, I mean…He doesn’t understand anything about craft…the actor’s craft…” Ilona mumbled rapidly through dry lips. “Keanu Reeves is fabulous, too, I get off on him because he can do a love scene honestly, but he seems so hot and cool and all…and I really, you know…well I just don’t believe him…not even a smidgen…and I mean what the fuck should I pay money for if I don’t believe the actor, I mean, if there’s no belief…Oy, your balls are so hard!”
She moved sharply. Water splashed over the edge of the bathtub.  (336)

Yes, the reputation of Keanu Reeves extends at least as far as Moscow. I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this, as both Leonard Cohen and Keanu Reeves have reached their global audiences through the American record industry and through Hollywood movies, respectively; they really represent the global reach of American entertainment, and there’s no reason to think their popularity is in any way connected to their being Canadian. The characters in the novel – and Sorokin himself – may not even be aware that they are Canadian.

A Canadian Woodpecker

By the end of Ice, the Brotherhood has transformed itself into The ICE Corporation. Among other things, they manufacture what seems to be a virtual reality/video game device: users strap it onto their bare chests and put on a helmet, and then a little hammer strikes them repeatedly with a small chunk of ice. An entire section of the novel is devoted to testimonials from users of this device, along the lines of what one might find in an advertising brochure. Essentially, as the hammering goes on, each user remembers a powerful dream from their childhood, begins to cry, and then is overwhelmed by a vision of spreading light.

This is from one of the testimonials:

I remembered how, in my childhood, when I lived in the provinces, a huge woodpecker inhabited a grove near us. No one had ever seen such an enormous woodpecker – neither Father nor the neighbours. Big and black, with white fuzzy claws and a white head. Everyone went to the grove to look at the huge woodpecker. Finally someone said that it was a Canadian woodpecker, that it wasn’t native to any part of Russia. Apparently the bird had flown out of the zoo or someone bought it and didn’t take care of it. He worked like clockwork, tapping incessantly. And so loudly, so resoundingly! I would wake up from his tapping. And I’d run out to watch him. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, he was busy with his own affairs. We got so used to the black woodpecker that we started calling him Stakhanov. And then one of the delinquents from the next street over killed the woodpecker with a stone. And hung him upside down from a tree. I cried so hard. Perhaps it was that very day that I became “green”… And suddenly, remembering the dead woodpecker and staring into the dark, I began to cry.  (459)

What is remarkable about this Canadian woodpecker is, first of all, its size, and the fact that people come to look at it, and that it becomes a sort of neighbourhood celebrity with its own name, seems to suggest that it is much larger than any Russian woodpecker. The idea that Canada is a large country is one we have come across before, so the association of large size with a Canadian bird is not particularly unexpected; it does seem a little strange in Russia, however, which is also a geographically large country.

The second remarkable aspect of this woodpecker is how loud it is: we are told it taps constantly, and loudly enough to wake people up, and perhaps we are meant to infer that its violent death (at the hands of “delinquents”) is the result of people who are fed up with being unable to sleep due to its incessant pecking.  In this the woodpecker seems rather un-Canadian: our reputation for politeness suggests that we are a quiet people who would not want to disturb others, so this offensively loud Canadian woodpecker is a bit of an outlier.

A Random Canadian Empty

There is one further reference to Canada, this time in the final novel, 23,000. Much of this book centres on Olga and Bjorn, two “empties” who, having survived the hammering, have begun to investigate the ICE Corporation to try to find out why they were attacked. They go to China to meet with a man who claims to have information about the ICE Corporation, but they are captured by the Brotherhood and taken to an underground prison factory. Here, “empties” who have come too close to discovering the secrets of the Brotherhood are kept in captivity, butchering the dead dogs whose skin will be used to make the ice hammers. (I don’t make it up, I just report it.)

This reference is to an unnamed Canadian who is among the prisoners with illnesses serious enough that they are taken out of the factory and executed:

Yesterday there had been an obligatory monthly medical checkup, the goal of which was to detect the seriously ill. As a rule, their fate was decided quickly – a few days later the guards would lead them away forever. In the bunker slang this was called “the ascension.” Olga had witnessed three such “ascensions”: an Irishman who had gone mad, a Hungarian woman who had slashed her veins open, and a Canadian with a serious form of asthma.  (652)

This unnamed Canadian is what we might call an “ornamental Canadian.” The idea behind the whole novel is that the 23,000 Brothers and Sisters of the Light are scattered all over the world, but in fact the narrative takes place almost entirely in Russia, with some parts in Germany and China and a little bit in New York. So the reference to the Canadian here is of a piece with the other nationalities referenced in this passage and a few mentions of people in other countries scattered throughout the novel: it is essentially lip service to the idea that Brothers and Sisters can be found anywhere, though in fact almost all the characters are Russian. The Canadian here is cosmetic in the sense that he or she is not an actual character, but is just named by nationality as if to check off a box: yes, the Brotherhood has searched for Brothers and Sisters in Canada as well.

And yet it seems essential that a book titled Ice Trilogy must at least mention of Canada, doesn’t it? I would have been offended if it hadn’t.

And Now, Some Music

Although “Suzanne” is the Leonard Cohen song that’s mentioned in the book, it seems almost trite, somehow, to post it here, since pretty much everyone in the world already knows it. I’ll post a favourite of mine instead, from the same album as “Suzanne”:

And just in case you’re up for a slightly bizarre Leonard Cohen experience, here’s Beck’s Record Club doing a sort of hip-hop-influenced version of “Master Song”:

Here’s the original for comparison:

And since it seems slightly less cliche, here’s a live version of “Suzanne” by Nina Simone – it takes a couple of minutes to really get going, but it’s worth sticking around:

Oh, fine, here’s the original “Suzanne” as well; this is presumably what plays when Borenboim turns on the lights in his apartment:

And that’s enough.

Advertisements

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.

Plath Goes Camping – In Canada!

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (1981)

This Faber edition of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems is edited by Ted Hughes (I don’t know if you can see that from the picture); his notes on the year 1959 confirm, with a little more detail, what we learned from Wikipedia on the subject of Plath visiting Ontario in 1959:

Setting off in July [of 1959], she [Plath] and TH [Hughes]  drove around the United States, from Canada to San Francisco to New Orleans and back, camping on the way – a journey of about nine weeks. In September they accepted an invitation to Yaddo, the artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. (288)

It’s hard not to notice the odd construction of the first sentence, which makes it sound as if Canada is another part of the U.S., on a par with San Francisco and New Orleans. By virtue of his being English, I tend to expect Hughes to have a little more awareness of Canada as distinct from the U.S. than Americans would (we’re the ones who didn’t revolt, remember? The good children who bowed their heads obediently beneath the colonial yoke?), but clearly that is a misapprehension on my part.

Knowing Plath had been in Canada in 1959 sent me scouring through her Collected Poems in search of a reference to our great land. I started looking in the poems written in 1959, and was disappointed, but I had better luck in the section of the book covering 1960; it took her some time to write about us, apparently. I’m going to quote the poem in its entirety, as it seems almost like a portrait of Canada as seen by an American:

Two Campers in Cloud Country

(Rock Lake, Canada)

In this country there is neither measure nor balance
To redress the dominance of rocks and woods,
The passage, say, of these man-shaming clouds.

No gesture of yours or mine could catch their attention,
No word make them carry water or fire the kindling
Like local trolls in the spell of a superior being.

Well, one wearies of the Public Gardens: one wants a vacation
Where trees and clouds and animals pay no notice;
Away from the labeled elms, the tame tea-roses.

It took three days of driving north to find a cloud
The polite skies over Boston couldn’t possibly accommodate.
Here on the last frontier of the big, brash spirit

The horizons are too far off to be chummy as uncles;
The colors assert themselves with a sort of vengeance.
Each day concludes in a huge splurge of vermilions

And night arrives in one gigantic step.
It’s comfortable, for a change, to mean so little.
These rocks offer no purchase to herbage or people:

They are conceiving a dynasty of perfect cold.
In a month we’ll wonder what plates and forks are for.
I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here.

The Pilgrims and Indians might never have happened.
Planets pulse in the lake like bright amoebas;
The pines blot our voices up in their latest sighs.

Around our tent the old simplicities sough
Sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in.
We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.   (144-5; dated July 1960)

Quite a beautiful poem, and obviously there’s a lot more there than can be dealt with in one little blog post. But we’ll pick up a couple of key ideas, which fall fairly neatly into patterns we must be coming to expect by now.

First, Canada is wild. This idea begins in the combination of the title and subtitle, where camping (a wilderness activity) is directly associated with being in Canada. The first three words, “In this country,” make clear that the speaker is describing a different, unfamiliar place; not home, but a new, strange land that is unfolding before her.

The first two stanzas expand the wilderness idea – the dominance of the rocks, the sense that the landscape can’t be tamed by human power – and the third cements Canada’s status as wilderness by contrasting it with the “Public Gardens” where people have imposed order on nature. Plath herself seems bored of so much civilization; the Canadian wilderness offers a welcome relief from the order of civilization.

Second, Canada is big. This idea is developed in stanzas 4, 5 and 6: the clouds that are too big for Boston’s “polite skies,” leading up to the gorgeous image of the sunset as “a huge splurge of vermilions.” I love that: Canada is a country so rich in natural beauty that we can be spendthrift with it, splashing it carelessly across the skies evening after evening.

(Incidentally, the sunset imagery reminds me of the song “Canadian Sunset.” And the line about night arriving “in one gigantic step”  recalls to my mind the fact that John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps” album was recorded in 1959.)

The size and rugged wildness of Canada lead into the fascinating final section of the poem, where it seems the country has the power to actually de-civilize the campers with its “old simplicities,” making them “wonder what plates and forks are for” and finishing with the image of them waking “blank-brained,” all traces of the people they were and the civilizing culture they had absorbed erased by Canada’s massive, encroaching emptiness.

I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or not, but it’s certainly an image of a country with a strange kind of power. And yet it doesn’t seem threatening; at least to me, the overwhelming sense of the poem is a kind of relaxing into forgetfulness, a willing escape from the quotidian reality of the more “civilized” United States.

There is another, brief reference to Canada in a poem a couple of years later. I was only going to quote the relevant stanza, but it seems cruel to chop up a poem, so here’s the whole thing:

Crossing the Water

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.   (190; dated 4 April 1962)

Obviously a much darker and more brooding poem, suggestive of a couple in crisis; there is none of the warmth of  confronting the wilderness together that seemed to radiate from “Two Campers”. The entire poem is only 12 lines long, but the word “black” (or a form of it) occurs five times, plus the word “dark” once for good (or bad?) measure.

Canada here represents an area of vast size; the idea that the shadow of these trees could cover it adds to the sense of towering menace conjured by this small poem.

For a slightly disjunctive experience, here is Hughes reading the poem:

Odd to hear it in his voice. Perhaps there’s a recording of Plath reading it out there, but I couldn’t find it.

Post Navigation