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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Snow”

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity

dfostercover

David Foster, The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

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

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

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

Note

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

The Canadian Dodge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This appearance is then followed by a modified bio:

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

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

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

The Potato Makes Its Way to Canada

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

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

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

A Canadian Expert

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

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

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

The Video Evidence

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

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

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

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Whitman’s Kanadian Snow-shoes and the Future of Newfoundland

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Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (from Leaves of Grass, 1892)

I should begin by saying that I read the entire Library of America edition of Leaves of Grass (pictured above) many years ago. I picked it up recently and re-read a few poems here and there, and that’s when I actually noticed the references to Canada in “Song of Myself.” I did not, however, re-read the entire book, so there may be other references to Canada in other poems — something left to discover, perhaps.

“Song of Myself” is obviously much too long for me to re-type here; since the main reference to Canada that I want to discuss comes in section 16 of the poem, I am presenting that section. (If you care to re-read the whole poem — and why wouldn’t you? It’s Poetry Month, after all — it’s available via the Poetry Foundation here.)

16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)  (203-204)

Not a passage that requires much explanation in and of itself; it’s one of Whitman’s many expansions on the idea succinctly expressed in the oft-quoted “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” line (section 51), as he insists he is all different kinds of people in typical list-making, paradox-piling Whitmanian style.

The reference to Canada marks a shift: in the first nine lines, Whitman says “I am” these different types of people (a Yankee, a Georgian, a Hoosier and so on), but in line 10 he switches to “At home …” and the next three lines enumerate places where he feels at home. And so Whitman is not directly associating himself with Canadians — he does not say, “I am the Kanadian on his snow-shoes” — but rather that he is:

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

That single line contains a remarkable little cluster of ideas associated with Canada: the snowshoes, obviously, carry the standard notion of Canada as cold and snowy; they are immediately followed by the phrase “up in the bush,” which shows again the way Americans conceive of us as “up” because we are to the north of them and also, in the word “bush,” the idea that Canada is an undeveloped wilderness; and then, with the fishermen off Newfoundland, we come to the image of Canada as a country rich in natural resources (here fish — perhaps even the “glutinous codfish of Newfoundland” so beloved by Casanova?) to be exploited.

We might even draw in the following line, with its “fleet of ice-boats”: they are not labelled as “Kanadian,” the way the snowshoes are, but given their proximity, and the fact that no other place is mentioned until Vermont in the following line, it is tempting to wonder if they also have a Canadian connection. If they do, they obviously further the association between Canada and the cold.

The more you consider them, though, the more elusive the references become. Does “At home on Kanadian snow-shoes” imply that Whitman has actually been to Canada, and that he went snowshoeing there? Does it mean that he is comfortable wearing snowshoes in winter, and that he thinks of snowshoes as somehow distinctively Canadian, or as coming from Canada? (Did he own snowshoes? Were they made in Canada? The unanswerable questions pile up.) “Up in the bush” might or might not refer to Canada, but it’s certainly suggestive coming right after the “Kanadian snow-shoes.” (The idea of Canada’s “northerliness” is definitively stated in section 31, where Whitman writes, “the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador.”) And even the mention of Newfoundland could be disputed, since Newfoundland was not actually part of Canada at the time Whitman was writing (I explained my attitude to this in a post on John Donne). Strangely, though, its placement in that line seems to associate it proleptically with the country it would ultimately join, almost as if Whitman, ever oracular, could see the future of our easternmost province.

Of course Whitman isn’t really talking about Canada here; we come in merely as one of the many regional identities he associates himself with, but this is not a record of personal experience — it’s a poetic stance and a philosophical statement of oneness with all humanity.

Or perhaps that requires a qualification: this is not a statement of oneness with all humanity, but with American humanity. It’s striking, is it not, that this one line, with its Canadian snowshoes and Newfoundland fishermen, is the only line in all of section 16 that refers to a place outside the United States?

In fact, in a quick re-reading of “Song of Myself” I found, in addition to the line above, a couple more references to Canadians and one mention of Labrador, but nothing about any other country or nationality except the English ship in section 35 (I may have missed something) — almost as if Whitman were aware of the U.S., and had some notion of the existence of Canada, and beyond that … nothing much. Whitman seems to be at great pains to associate himself with the representatives of every region of the U.S., but doesn’t show much interest at all in the people beyond its borders. And this absence of other nationalities makes the references to Canadians that much more striking: why are we alone represented here in “Song of Myself”? Did Whitman feel some sort of brotherhood with Canadians that he didn’t feel with other nationalities? Did he see Canada as a new nation, like the U.S., that was in the process of forging its identity — a process of which his own poetry was a part? Or does he simply think of Canada as an extension of the United States, and a “Kanadian” as a regional type on the same level as a Georgian or a Hoosier?

I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a reminder of how quintessentially American — or North American? — a poet Whitman is.

Finally, what to make of the fact that Whitman apparently spelled “Canada” as “Kanada”? (It’s not a one-time accident: he also mentions a “Kanuck” in section 6 and a “Kanadian” in section 39, both times in lists of different “types” of people). I think the “C” spelling must have been pretty much settled convention by the latter half of the 19th century (see Dickens’ 1857 novel Little Dorrit, for example), but Whitman is idiosyncratic in many ways, and if this is another of his idiosyncrasies, well, who am I to argue?

Canada: Where the Hipsters Come From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming?

Almost?

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

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

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

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

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

That Romantic Winter in…Toronto?

The Swimmer, Directed by Frank Perry (1968)

We stand now on a bridge, as it were, a bridge between the past and the future. This post is a pendant of sorts to last week’s post on The Stories of John Cheever, dealing, as it does, with the film based on Cheever’s story “The Swimmer.” In its glancing at romantic ideas of Canada, however, it also looks forward to our upcoming series on The Romance of Canada, which will commence (barring distractions) next week. And so even as we tie up a few dangling Cheever threads, we are also unravelling the skein of romantic ideas about Canada, which we will then take in hand and weave into a breathtakingly rich tapestry of…

But enough of that strained metaphor. You get the idea.

While the Cheever story “The Swimmer” doesn’t contain a reference to Canada, the film, oddly enough, does (though it’s not included in the trailer above). For those not familiar with the story, it follows Ned Merrill as he attempts to “swim home” from a pool party by going from one backyard pool to the next, swimming each pool along the way. The mention of Canada comes when Ned (Burt Lancaster) goes to swim the pool of his ex-lover, Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule), just over an hour into the film (1:05 to be moderately precise). The dialogue is as follows:

Ned: Remember last winter in Toronto? We called room service and ordered bull shots.
Shirley: I wasn’t in Toronto last winter.
Ned [apparently confused]: I was sure I came up for the opening of your show. Remember how it snowed? And I ordered a horse and a sleigh to take us from the hotel to the theatre.
Shirley: I haven’t been in Toronto in three years now.
Ned: Was it Boston?

It’s a bit hard to know how to take this reference. By this point in the film, Ned has been revealed as a sort of fantasist of his own life, increasingly out of touch with reality (well beyond what Stephen Greenblatt might consider a little harmless “self-fashioning”). The question of whether Ned and Shirley ever actually visited Toronto together will, I think, have to remain an open one.

As for the city itself, we are immediately struck by what is one of the most common impressions of Canada: that it is cold and snowy. This is fine in and of itself. It does snow in Toronto, and since Ned specifies that they visited in the winter, it’s not surprising that there would have been some snow. But in his description of how he dealt with it, we move from the realistic into something approaching the mythic — which is, admittedly, typical of Ned.

The snow was so bad, apparently, that he had to hire a horse and sleigh to get them from the hotel to the theatre. A horse and sleigh!

Recall that this film was released in 1968 and has a contemporary setting; it’s not a period piece set in the frontier days. In 1968, Toronto was amply supplied with all the usual modes of modern transportation, including a subway system, buses, taxis and cars. And yet Ned had to hire and horse and sleigh. In all my years in Toronto, never once have I seen anyone try to get through the snow with a horse and sleigh. Renting a snowmobile would be more believable.

At the mention of the horse and sleigh, a Canadian viewer will most likely feel that Ned has moved irretrievably into the realm of fantasy — a horse and sleigh? in Toronto? in 1968? — and begin to sympathize with Shirley’s point of view. But what about American viewers, who must have comprised the majority of the audience for The Swimmer? Many of them would have only the sketchiest idea of what Toronto is actually like,  and the idea of a horse-drawn sleigh ride through snowbound Toronto might seem perfectly plausible — might, in fact, link up neatly with their pre-existing notions of Canada as a rather romantic wilderness playground of cold and snow where horse-drawn sleighs whisk ruddy-cheeked, cuddling couples across the frozen expanse of Canada’s largest city as if they were on the Russian steppes.

(Despite my dismissive reaction, a little research reveals that such things are indeed available, though you have to travel outside Toronto to take advantage of them.)

Oh well — at least it wasn’t a dog sled.

 

Glenn Gould, Robbie Robertson and Cottage Country

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Lucy Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (2013)

What originally drew me to this book was its large, almost square shape, which made it stand out amid the other poetry books on the shelf in the bookstore. (There’s a tip for you aspiring poets – eccentricity, at least when it comes to the size of a book, can sometimes pay off.) When I flipped it open, the word “Canada” swam up out of the rest of the type on the page, and so I had to buy it.

This is the poem containing the reference that first caught my attention:

PAX ARCANA

The Amish housemaid lived in one small room inside the lemon cookie jar

Of our mother’s mother’s pantry at the lake in Canada.

Her linens were chenille and bumpy, worn. Her only jewels were bobby pins.

After supper, after covering the crust of the rhubarb pie with a tea towel,

She retired early to her room. She took off her cotton cap.

She undid the hooks and eyes of her stiff black apron-dress,

Stood reading the chapter from the longsome blue-bound book.

Just as the light on the lake was dimming, at the end of days,

She snuffed out her one late wicker-shaded lamp, and lit (with a curiously

Long-reaching safety match) the waxing crescent-moon above the provinces.

She folded her floury hands beneath her head

And went to her knees by the doll-sized bed.  (21)

The phrase “at the lake in Canada” indicates that we have here another example of a trope we have come across before: Canada as a place where Americans have cottages. It’s interesting that there is no specificity to the reference; is the lake in Muskoka? In Ontario? In the Eastern Townships? In Quebec? We don’t know – we are told simply that it is in Canada, as though Canada were nothing but one large, undifferentiated land of lakes surrounded by cottages owned by Americans (which is perhaps, for Brock-Broido, exactly what it is). And so Canada is again that obscure wilderness escape for Americans trying to get away from their “real” lives in the U.S.

Incidentally, I recall the sort of matches described here: extremely long ones that were designed for lighting barbecues and fireplaces. I wonder if the speaker’s apparent puzzlement at them indicates that they are a Canadian invention? Although since the Amish housemaid in question is apparently the size of a small doll, perhaps it’s just a normal match, and only looks long when held by a doll-sized woman?

Glenn Gould Times Two

Upon reading the rest of the book, I discovered several other references to Canada – or really, to Canadians – which I  might as well catalogue while I’m at it.

EXTREME WISTERIA

On abandon, uncalled for but called forth.

The hydrangea of her crushed each year a little more into the attar of herself.

Pallid. Injured. Wild in ecstasy. A throat to come home to, tupelo.

Lemurs in parlors, inconsolable.

Parlors of burgundy and sleigh. Unseverable fear.

Case history: wistful, woke most every afternoon.

In the green rooms of the Abandonarium.

Beautiful cage, asylum in.

Reckless urges to climb celestial trellises that may or may not have been there.

So few wild raspberries, they were countable and triaged out by hand.

Ten-thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Intimacy with others, sateen.

Extreme hyacinth as evidence.

Her single subject the idea that every single thing she loves

Will (perhaps tomorrow) die.

High editorial illusion of “control”. Early childhood: measles, scarlet fevers.

Cleopatra for most masquerades, gold sandals, broken home;

Convinced Gould’s late last recording of the Goldberg Variations was for her.

Unusual coalition of early deaths.

Early middle deaths as well. Believed, despite all evidence,

In afterlife, looked hopelessly for corroborating evidence of such.

Wisteria, extreme.

There was always the murmur, you remember, about going home. (29-30)

The poem seems to be about an old woman approaching death, which perhaps accounts for its fragmented quality. The reference, of course, is to Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice, once at the beginning of his career, and once at the end. The late recording (the one referred to here) is remarkable for almost unbelievably slow tempos in some of the variations; the opening aria is taken with such aching slowness in the opening bars that there are moments when it feels like the next note will never arrive.

This seems fitting, given the state of the woman at the centre of the poem, who seems to be experiencing death as an unbearably slow breaking up of her consciousness. As for Gould, he is a Canadian with a genuinely international reputation, and it’s nice to see his work picked up by an American poet as a touchstone for a particular type of experience.

Gould himself is the subject of another poem:

GOULDIAN KIT

What makes you think I’m an eccentric, he said, in London
To the brood of the reporters who had gathered to report

On his eccentricities – the tin sink light enough for traveling
But deep enough to swallow his exquisite hands in water filled with ice.

A budgerigar accompanies, perched atop the fugue of Hindemith.

You are quivering now like the librarian reading
to herself out loud in her Arctic room

Composed entirely of snow.

A broadcast (high fidelity) bound by the quiet of the land and
The Mennonite who told him

We are in this world but not of this world,

You see. From the notebook of your partial list of symptoms, phobias:

Fever, paranoia, polio (subclinical), ankle-foot phenomenon,
The possibility of bluish spots. Everything one does is fear

Not being of this world or in this world enough.

There is no world I know, without some word of it.  (49)

The poem is largely a catalogue of impressions or ideas that are associated with Glenn Gould. Gould was a noted eccentric, as suggested by the opening; also a noted hypochondriac, which explains the lines near the end. The lines in the middle about snow and a high-fidelity broadcast perhaps contain the hint of a reference to or a reminiscence of his famous documentary, “The Idea of North,” which he created for the CBC. But even if the poet is not referring to that, we can’t really be surprised to find references to snow in a poem about a prominent Canadian; Canada is cold, after all, remember?

But that budgerigar – what in the world is going on there? I will confess that I had come to the conclusion that it was nothing more than a pointless flourish, another example of contemporary mainstream poetry’s seemingly incessant drive towards the ornately incomprehensible (more on that below). Then, however, one of our junior researchers here at Wow Canada pointed me to this:

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Yes, that’s a photo of Glenn himself as a child; and, if you look closely at the top of the music on the piano you will see, perched there, clear as day, a budgerigar – no doubt the very budgerigar in question in “Gouldian Kit.”

What can I say? My hat is off to Lucie Brock-Broido. Whether the music is in fact a fugue of Hindemith is beyond me to say; if Brock-Broido can tell from that photo that it is, then hats off to her again.

A Long Way from Big Pink

We move from Glenn Gould to another Canadian musician:

MOON RIVER

What is it exactly that you mean when you call me
Your “huckleberry friend”?

What if soon you, too, will go down
Like a sheepdog who has tasted blood on a gentleman’s farm

Far outside the coal belt, and I do not get to see your
Inflorescence one more time what then?

Like a lantern-boat half on fire somewhere down
The crazy river of your mind,
Framed by endless strings of small whortleberry lights, ablaze,

Still, I go on crossing you in style. My affection has always
had its girdled caveats –
A mushroom-colored cummerbund sashing

The waist of another man, or my feeling formal knowing
When to take the fork out of the toaster, at the very moment of

The metaled tines contacting the one electric outlet in the barn.

Even though you will not speak to me again, not in this life,

Where fear accompanies you like a yellow buggy or a carnivore
With dark spots and a long-ringed tail

Unhitched to anything,
I forgive you – everything.

Besides,
You’ve always been such an odd uncanny half-genet of man.  (57)

Yes, I am not mistaken – that is a clear reference to the Robbie Robertson song “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” It’s a long way from Glenn Gould to Robbie Robertson, and we might ask ourselves, what do they have in common? What could have brought these two together in this poetry collection?

It can only be that both are Canadian.

High Fakery as a Poetic Style (Literary-Critical, Unrelated to Canada)

“It was always autumn in the paraphernalia of my laudanums.”

That’s the opening line of the poem “We Have Always Lived In The Castle,” from Stay, Illusion, and if I had to pick a single line to sum up Brock-Broido’s style, I might pick that one. It’s not that the line is obscure; obscurity happens at times in poetry, and it’s our job as readers to try to make what we can of it. And we can try: I know what laudanum is; but what are laudanums? Paraphernalia could be objects used to take the drug (like a junkie’s kit); but how is autumn in these objects? And why autumn? Just for its poetic sheen of a slow sinking into death (one of the concerns of this collection)? For the jingle the “um” ending makes with the end of “laudanum”? And why always? The effects of the laudanum make her feel like it is always autumn? This is a possible interpretation; but if that’s what you mean, there are better ways to say it.

But in trying to make sense of the line, we are following a false path, because in fact this line has been carefully constructed to have no sense. This is not a line that is trying to say something and failing, or that is saying a complex thing in a difficult way; this is a line that is trying very hard not to say anything in a very specific manner – namely, a manner that one might deem “poetic.”

This is the essence of a poetic style that I think of as High Fakery: poetry that is very self-consciously “poetic” in terms of its diction, its use of imagery and metaphor, and the way it seeks out high-sounding obscurity that could be taken for profundity but is generally just an ornate casing for vacuity. Each poem has a well-worked surface of apparent poeticism, but if you fix it with a steady critical gaze, it will crumble to dust and blow away because there is nothing inside it – no meaning, no passion, no vitality to animate the words – the language is dead and embalmed, each poem an exhibit in a silent, sepulchral museum consecrated to the poet’s idea of herself as “a poet.”

I recognize that it is poor form to make generalizations like this without quoting lines to back them up. At the same time, I have quoted four of Brock-Broido’s poems in their entirety already – do I really need to quote more?

As an example of what I’m talking about, scroll back up and re-read the first six or eight lines of “Extreme Wisteria.” You can see, right there, the essence of High Fakery. There is a will to obscurity, an insistent refusal to speak clearly; instead we are given little bursts of words (“wild in ecstasy”), seemingly meaningless metaphors (“attar of herself”), a focus on “colourful” or “unexpected” verbs at the expense of sense (“triaged out”), and moments of (presumably unintentional) hilarity (“Lemurs in parlors, inconsolable”). This is not language being used to convey meaning to the reader; rather, it is language being used to create something more like an atmosphere, a hazy, vague feeling that something “poetic” is going on – a kind of impasto with words.

To be fair, the poem does become clearer as it goes on (beginning at the words “Case history”), and it is quite possible that there is a perfectly comprehensible experience or idea behind “Extreme Wisteria.” Perhaps the dying woman who seems to be the centre of the poem kept lemurs as pets; perhaps she wore rose-petal perfume; but there is no attempt to communicate these ideas clearly. Rather, the poet’s goal seems to be to obscure what she is talking about as much as possible, apparently on the principle that great poetry is always obscure. And that, I think, is the essence of my quarrel with this kind of writing.

Truly great, difficult poetry is always the result of a writer trying to communicate clearly (with perhaps a few exceptions – Lycophron?); the difficult surface is the knotty result of the writer’s struggle to convey a complex idea or emotion. Obscurity such as Brock-Broido’s is the opposite: it is an obscure surface that is applied over the top of an absence, to try to conceal that absence. Great poets write obscurely when they are trying to communicate clearly; bad poets write obscurely when they are trying to cover up the fact that they have nothing to communicate.

This is not poetry written for readers who actually love genuinely good poetry; rather it is written for readers who affect an interest in poetry without really knowing anything about it or having any desire to find out. It’s the sort of thing you can read on your couch in an afternoon without really paying it much attention, and then later, when you go out to a dinner party, you can mention that you read it, and your friends will be impressed that you are “interested in poetry”. It is all about the language on the surface, designed for those who read poetry as if they were bathing in – I was going to say an ocean of incomprehensibility, but it’s really more like a mucky little pond of confusion.

At Last, Some Music (If you read the above, you’ve more than earned it)

Since the specific quality of Gould’s later (1981) recording of the Goldberg Variations is at issue in “Extreme Wisteria,” this video seems appropriate. It’s a comparison of the opening Aria from his two recordings, as part of a conversation with Tim Page about his approach to the later re-recording:

And here is Gould talking a bit about Hindemith, and then playing the fugue from Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3:

I’m trying to imagine how that would sound with budgerigar accompaniment.

And here, if you can stand it, is the video for “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”:

Although personally, I would recommend seeking out the audio-only version.

Third World Places Like … Quebec?

krauscover

Chris Kraus, torpor (2006)

Having lived through early to mid-90s academia, I have to admit I could relate to much of torpor – not that I was one of these people, but I certainly encountered some of them. This novel takes place in 1991 and follows Sylvie Green, a filmmaker and sometime teacher, and Jerome Shafir, an academic and editor – both classic 90s academic types and presumably based on Kraus herself and her former husband – as they travel through Europe to Romania, purportedly to adopt a child. That, at least, is the bare bones of the narrative, but the story makes such extensive use of flashbacks and flash forwards that it encompasses all of Sylvie and Jerome’s personal histories and their relationship.

I suppose you could classify it as a black comedy, or perhaps a satire of the way a vapid culture of celebrity, akin to the one that governs Hollywood, took over universities in the 80s and 90s, putting the focus on “superstar” academics and leading to the “cultural studies” movement, which revealed much less about popular culture than it did about the desire of certain academics to appear “hip” and “relevant.” And yet beneath the sharply observed satire, this is a powerful and profoundly sad book, charting in minute detail the gradual break-up of a couple whose interests and desires were never really aligned to begin with, and conveying in particular the pain and emptiness Sylvie feels at her own childlessness.

I’m afraid this post will turn into a bit of a grab bag; there are a number of references to Canada, but they’re not connected by any overarching idea, so it’s difficult to organize them.

1. Canadian Intellectuals

a) Despite Predictions to the Contrary, The Revolution Is, In Fact, Televised

The first reference to Canada comes in a flashback, as Jerome and Sylvie watch TV coverage of the Romanian Revolution in the Paris loft of Jerome’s friend Félix:

As the Romanian Revolution unfolded on TV, Sylvie practiced her invisibility. She didn’t speak a word of French, and Jerome was too impatient with the conversation in the loft to translate. Francois Cusset, an anarchist from the École Normale, was taking a hard line about the myth of Eastern Europe’s “struggle for democracy.” Didn’t the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc just reinforce the triumph of American Empire? Félix responded with an approving nod. Because, of course, McLuhan’s pulsating rhapsody of images could never be entirely divorced from power.  (97)

This is not a reference to Canada itself, of course, but to a famous Canadian. We have picked up on references like this before, but you’ll notice a shift in register here. These 90s academics aren’t talking about Leonard Cohen or Keanu Reeves (not even with self-conscious irony) or Neil Young; we’ve moved up several intellectual levels and reached Marshall McLuhan, Canada’s revolutionary media theorist. So even though Kraus probably wasn’t thinking in these terms when she wrote the book, we could say that the specific Canadian these people refer to is a characterizing detail: the fact that they’re talking about McLuhan tells us something about them. And thus McLuhan is, to put it in terms these characters would understand, a “cultural signifier.”

The “Félix” in whose loft this scene takes place, by the way, is Félix Guattari. Now there is a name that conjures up 90s academia.

b) The Krokers

This passage relates an encounter with an academic named Peichl who wants Jerome’s help putting a book together:

Peichl … [is] just back from Tokyo, where he organized a conference on Romania – The World’s First Media Revolution. Arthur, the America-Japan guy, gave a great analysis and the Krokers came from Canada.  (178)

Like many of the academic/intellectual figures mentioned in the novel, the Krokers are not fictional; Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are Canadian media theorists. The fact that they are Canadian doesn’t seem to have any significance in the book; the point is simply that the conference was such a big deal that the Krokers travelled all the way to Tokyo from Canada to be part of it.

For the curious, here is an (unintentionally hilarious) 1998 article by the Krokers about Kathy Acker – another name to conjure the 90s, and one who crops up in Kraus’ book as the one woman male academics think of whenever they’re told they need to invite a woman to speak at a conference.

2. Ideas of Escape

a) The Underground Railroad

This passage is part of a description of Enos and Sybil Putnam, who are celebrated in the small town of Thurman, in upstate New York, where Sylvie and Jerome have a house:

Passionately opposed to slavery, Enos and Sybil Putnam transformed their humble parsonage into an important station on the Underground Railroad that relayed fugitives from Georgia – or was it Mississippi? – to freedom, into Canada.  (125)

Nothing new there, but it’s nice to see Canada get some props as a refuge from slavery.

b) Getting Out of New York City

This passage is about Sylvie’s momentary desire to escape New York:

Once, after staying up all night in New York City, she’d felt an urge to go to Canada. A truck-driver she’d met at Munson’s Diner near the West Side Highway took her all the way up to Lake George. It was early November, she tried to hitch a ride but no one stopped, so she’d walked across the village to the beach. There, she’d seen a black man in a cowboy hat and a white woman in a fringed suede jacket locked in an embrace. Everything combined into this image, and it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. At that moment it seemed possible to both be them, and to be outside them, all the loneliness in the world, the mountains and the lake. It was around that time that she’d decided to make movies.  (127-8)

I assume this is the Lake George in upstate New York (why not vacation there?) and that Sylvie never made it to Canada, and so none of what follows can be taken as related to our country. But we see again the idea of Canada as an escape from whatever problems are pressing upon you in your homeland, whether the need for a fresh start, the loss of your farm, or a troubled marriage. The fact that Sylvie has been “up all night” seems to imply that Canada offers peace and serenity compared to the rush of life in New York City, as if Canada is a place where no one would ever stay up all night because there would be nothing going on (we might compare the idea of the Canadian cottage).

We could also draw a comparison between the two forms of escape in these two passages: in the second, Sylvie’s desire to escape to Canada is the product of ennui and a temporary desire for change (made possible by what would now be called her “privilege”); she has no need to go to Canada, she just decides on a whim that she wants to. In the end she doesn’t get there, and it doesn’t matter, as she has her filmmaking epiphany in upstate New York instead.

By contrast, those using the Underground Railroad have a genuine need to reach Canada; it’s not a matter of indifference to them whether they make it or not. I don’t know if Kraus is intentionally setting up this parallel (though the two passages are only a few pages apart), but when you look at the book through the lens of references to Canada, it comes out.

3. Wildlife

This reference is pretty self-explanatory:

The first summer they’d moved up to Thurman, there was an infestation of yellow butterflies along the road to Lake Minerva. It was like a butterfly’s Spring Break: as if every butterfly from Albany to Canada had agreed to meet and mate on one long stretch of gravel road.  (155)

Note, as so often, the shift in specificity from references to the U.S. (Albany, a city) to a very generalized idea when it comes to Canada (it’s just Canada – not even Ontario, which would probably be the most relevant part of our country to upstate New York, at least where butterfly migration is concerned). Canada’s placement (“from Albany to Canada”) seems to suggest our nation is an end-point of the known world, a wilderness teeming with butterflies and other wildlife waiting to swoop down and blanket the U.S.

4. Language Games

This reference comes in a passage about “Who’s Peaked?”, a game Jerome and his intellectual friends play in which they rank the fame of other academics:

Just as the Inuit had 33 words to describe different qualities of snow, Jerome and his friends enjoyed infinitely parsing different categories of fame.  (166)

The game is a good example of the way Kraus satirizes the shallowness of the academics in the book: it’s telling, for example, that they never discuss the quality of anyone’s ideas, but only their relative “star power” (within the academic community, of course, which is essentially a black hole as far as the wider world’s conception of celebrity goes).

As for the idea that the Inuit have multiple words for snow, it’s a very common cliché, and may even be true. And perhaps this is also characterizing as regards the academics in the book, in the sense that Kraus uses a linguistic metaphor to describe people working in a university system that, at the time she is writing about, was very influenced by structuralism and post-structuralism, both of which had roots in linguistics.

5. Quebec as Part of the Third World

This passage is about Sylvie’s taste in interior decorating:

She’s learned over years of traveling with Jerome and setting up their houses that it’s only in the hardware stores you still find truly local merchandise. Candy pink mosquito nets in Guatemala; plywood rat traps in Oaxaca; terracotta bean pots in the eastern villages of Quebec. It occurs to Sylvie that this kind of foraging for Third World decor accessories – for many years the sole domain of vacationing academics and their wives – has recently been professionalized by buyers from Pier Nine and Ikea. Vaguely, this thought depresses her.  (236)

Wait – Third World? Quebec is part of the Third World? Where did that come from? Guatemala and Oaxaca, okay, but Quebec?

And the strangest thing about this passage is that Quebec is the last place mentioned in the list. If the list started with Quebec, and then continued on to Guatemala and Oaxaca, you could almost say, well, by the time she gets through the list she’s thinking about Third World places, and she sort of forgets that she started with Quebec. But Quebec is actually the last place named before the generalizing term “Third World” is brought in.

Is Kraus just not really thinking about what she’s saying? Or is she aware of what she’s doing, and this is a very conscious dig at Quebec, suggesting that the province – or at least its eastern part – more properly belongs in the Third World?

6. Conclusions?

What fascinates me most about the references to Canada in torpor is that there are so many of them, and that they are so varied. Canada is not associated with any single idea here, like, for example, lumberjacks, or cleanliness, or wilderness. Rather it is a multi-faceted place associated with a number of things: freedom and escape (the Underground Railroad and Sylvie’s momentary desire to get away from New York City), wildlife (the butterflies), and cold and snow (the Inuit words), which are fairly common tropes; but also intellectuals and media theorists (McLuhan and the Krokers) and, most bizarrely of all, Third World handicrafts from Quebec. This variety gives Canada a realness or solidity and makes it seem not like a strange or mysterious land, but rather as simply another country, distinct from the U.S., but nevertheless on a level with it as a place in its own right.

Satirized Before We Even Existed

This last one has nothing to do with Canada, but is still pretty special to me; Florina is a Romanian academic Sylvie gets to know when she meets Jerome at a summer residency in Germany before they go to Romania:

Florina’s place was identical to Jerome’s, except that her books and papers had strayed considerably from the birch and laminate white Workbench desk, her clothes were not confined to the white closet, and her coffee cups had strayed from the white kitchen cupboards. She was working on a project that would be an encyclopedic compendium of references to her nation in “the German literature” from Teutonic fables to the present.  (164)

Wow – do you see what happened there? Substitute “Canada” for “her nation” and “world literature” for “German literature” and you have the idea of Wow – Canada! So Chris Kraus actually predicted the existence of this website, and (by my reading) was mildly satirizing it, before I had even thought of it.

Sigh. Perhaps it’s time to fold my tent and move on.

Music – Why Not?

Since I referred to the famous Gil Scott-Heron song, above, I might as well post it here. (This is the original version, as recorded on the “spoken word” album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, not the more “musical” version from Pieces of a Man.)

And here is Woody Allen’s classic Marshall McLuhan sight gag, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that 70s academics could be just as irritating as the 90s variety:

That is still so funny to me.

Canada, A Land of Two Seasons

 

AP Photo/Times-Dispatch, Lindy Keast Rodman

AP Photo/Times-Dispatch, Lindy Keast Rodman

Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback (September 30, 2014)

What is it with Gregg Easterbrook and Canada? Even in full romantic flight, as he rhapsodizes about his favourite season (autumn) in his column, he can’t resist taking a little shot at us:

In Praise Of Sweaters: October begins tomorrow, and with it the full glory of autumn. Your columnist’s favorite season is autumn — leaves are turning, the weather is changing (I like cool weather), football is being played, the wonderful Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday sequence is in prospect, and everyone looks better in sweaters.

In Hawaii, there are no seasons. In some cold places such as Canada, there are two seasons: frozen and construction. In four-seasons areas, like where I live, we get one fall day for every two non-fall days, so I spend two-thirds of the year waiting for the full glory of autumn. It’s finally here.

“Cold places such as Canada”? Really? I’m a bit stunned to find myself pointing out that, in much of Canada, it ‘s actually not cold all the time.

Here in Southern Ontario we get four quite distinct seasons, thank you very much; spring does turn into summer rather quickly, and winter can be a little long, but fall is just as glorious as it is anywhere in the northeastern U.S., and I can say from experience that summer in central Illinois isn’t markedly hotter than it is here.

So Easterbrook’s joke doesn’t reveal anything factual about Canada; it does, however, reveal the weird persistence (among Americans) of the idea that stepping across the border into Canada involves passing instantly from a temperate climate into an inhospitable wasteland of perpetual winter.

Just a friendly reminder: the border between Canada and the U.S. is composed mainly of air – there’s really no difference between the climate of, say, Southern Ontario and that of Upstate New York.

So if you’re coming in July or August, it’s safe to leave the parkas at home.

A Mathematical Aside

And incidentally, if you live in a “four-seasons area” (as many Canadians do), wouldn’t you get one fall day for every three non-fall days, not every two? That is, for every one fall day, there would be one winter day, one spring day, and one summer day, leading to a ratio of 3:1 non-fall to fall days, not 2:1 as Easterbrook says.

The Abodes of Despair (Munchausen Part I)

raspecover

Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

This edition of Baron Munchausen, published in 2012 by Melville House as part of the Neversink Library, is based on an edition published in London in 1895. There is a lengthy “Afterword” by Thomas Seccombe, which I think served as an introduction to the 1895 edition; in it, Seccombe suggests that Raspe was the author of only a relatively small portion of the present book (Chapters II through VI of the first volume), and that what Raspe published in 1785 was little more than what we might think of as a “pamphlet,” as opposed to a full-length book. The stories told in Raspe’s chapters are all quite short, and mainly concern exploits in war and hunting, which could conceivably be exaggerrated versions of events from the life of the historical Baron Munchausen.

According to Seccombe, following the success of Raspe’s work, the publisher employed other writers to add to and expand the Baron’s adventures; by the seventh edition, in 1793, they had reached essentially the form in which we have them now.

But then there is this edition:

 carswellmunch

In his Introduction, John Carswell attributes more of the work to Raspe than Seccombe does, and argues….

But I find myself unwilling to venture too far into the thickets of these questions of authorship; for our purposes, the book was written near the close of the 18th century, and can be taken to represent some ideas that Europeans had about Canada at that time. Those who wish to know more about the history and authorship of the Baron’s adventures can follow those questions on their own.

The book is divided into two volumes, each containing references to Canada, and each slightly different stylistically. I’ve decided to treat the two volumes in two separate posts, mainly to keep the treatment of Raspe from becoming too unwieldy.

The First Volume

The Baron’s adventures are narrated in the first person, as if he were relating them to dinner guests. The events become more outlandish as the first volume proceeds, ranging  from the highly improbable (single-handedly killing thousands of polar bears with a knife) to the utterly impossible (making love to Venus (the goddess, not the planet) at the centre of a volcano) to the completely fantastical (his trip to the Moon).

Here’s one example, just for fun: while travelling in Ceylon, the Baron is suddenly confronted by a hungry lion about to spring at him; he turns to run away, only to find a crocodile right behind him with its jaws wide open, about to devour him. Seeing no hope for escape, when the lion springs at him, the Baron simply falls to the ground; to his great delight, the lion jumps headfirst into the crocodile’s mouth, and the Baron is saved.

But on to the references to Canada. This first one comes from a part of the book which Carswell attributes to Raspe, but Seccombe does not; I prefer to think it is by Raspe, just so that our country (or at least one of its major features) can be mentioned by the original author:

I embarked at Portsmouth in a first-rate English man-of-war, of one hundred guns, and fourteen hundred men, for North America. Nothing worth relating happened till we arrived within three hundred leagues of the river St. Laurence, when the ship struck with amazing force against (as we supposed) a rock….  (35)

Of course it’s not a rock – it’s the nose of a gigantic whale, which attacks the ship, then takes the anchor in its mouth and drags the ship off. There isn’t much about Canada here; the St. Lawrence river (note the alternate spelling)  is merely used as a marker of location, and one could argue that it is really just a generic feature of North America. However, the river played such an important role in Canada’s history that we Canadians tend to feel somewhat proprietary about it.

A more interesting reference comes after Munchausen has flown from Europe to South America on the back of one of two giant eagles. (To avoid any possible confusion, the “bladders” mentioned in the passage below are pods that grow on a certain South American tree and are filled with “the most delicious wine”.)

Each [i.e. each eagle] reassumed its former station; and directing their course to the northward, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico, entered North America, and steered directly for the Polar regions, which gave me the finest opportunity of viewing this vast continent that can possibly be imagined.
Before we entered the frigid zone the cold began to affect me; but piercing one of my bladdders, I took a draught [aren’t you glad I explained the “bladders” in advance?], and found that it could make no impression on me afterwards. Passing over Hudson’s Bay, I saw several of the Company’s ships lying at anchor, and many tribes of Indians marching with their furs to market….
In these cold climates I observed that the eagles flew with greater rapdity, in order, I suppose, to keep their blood in circulation. In passing Baffin’s Bay I saw several large Greenlandmen to the eastward, and many surprising mountains of ice in those seas.  (112-13)

What we have here are not the genuine impressions of a European traveller who had visited our country; rather, we are treated to a tour of what an educated European would have thought he knew about Canada in the absence of any direct knowledge.

First, a very familiar idea: ice, cold, Polar regions, frigid zones – in a couple of short paragraphs we have a catalogue of different ways of making essentially the same point: Canada is cold.

But then, a reference to something we haven’t come across before: “the Company,” which, coupled with the mention of Hudson’s Bay, can only refer to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Founded in 1670, the Company was more than just a trading concern; for a long time, it owned and essentially governed a large swath of what is now Canada, from the area around Hudson’s Bay west to Vancouver Island. The reference here is brief, but the description of the “tribes” bringing their furs to market offers a clear (though obviously oversimplified) picture of European colonialism exploiting the natural resources of the New World for profit.

An Aside

For those unfamiliar with the world of Canadian retail shopping, the Hudson’s Bay Company still exists, now in the form of a chain of department stores. My recollection is that for a long time it was known as “The Bay” and seemed, if anything, to want to elide its history and present itself simply as a one-stop destination for contemporary shoppers. Recently, however, “The Bay” has begun to incorporate historical elements into their branding, as you can see from the current version of the bag you get when you shop there:

hudsonsbaybag

Yes, that’s the official company coat of arms, including the company’s Latin motto, “Pro pelle cutem” (which translates roughly as “we have skin in the game“). Does Google have a coat of arms and a Latin motto? I think not.

Back to the Main Subject

At this point the Baron and his eagles are leaving what we would think of as Canada; unfortunately, his eagles crash into a frozen cloud (?) and fall to the ice below; the Baron does everything he can to resuscitate them,

fully sensible that was only by means of them that I could possibly be delivered from these abodes of despair.  (114)

Don’t worry – he survives. But not without first serving Canada one final insult, calling our land an “abode of despair.” We could make the case that the “abodes of despair” referred to here are not clearly in Canada, but it seems that our nation’s polar regions are more or less the location of these events, and on the whole the phrase seems a little too close for compliment.

Even the Geese Can’t Stand It!

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Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)

I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)

Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.

Canadian Pacific

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.   (27)

At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).

A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.

And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:

…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads.  But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*

The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.

For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.

And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:

April on Toronto Island

Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.

The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,

Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.

There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.

Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and

Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,

Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,

Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation.   (30)

In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.

We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”

Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,

…where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.

In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.

This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.

The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten. 

And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?

As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.

Digression: On the Education of Poets

The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:

After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.

I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.

 *From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.

 

Skiing with Socialists

New York Times Comic Strip

Bryan McFadden, “The Strip”

Bryan McFadden, “The Strip,” New York Times Sunday Review (January 27, 2013)

In case the image isn’t clear, the “rich victim of climate change” in the first panel is saying:

I had to go to Canada to ski! On their socialist slopes, no less!

First, hats off to Bryan McFadden for fitting several cliches about Canada into such a small space. It begins with the larger idea that lies behind the joke: that Canada is not really a nation in its own right, but rather a vast northern playground that exists solely for the pleasure of rich Americans.

Specifically, skiing; because all of Canada is covered by snow, right? It doesn’t seem to occur to Americans that if their climate is changing, ours must be too. Earlier this week, I was looking out my window at puddles so large they should almost have been given names; a couple of days ago, the temperature reached 13 degrees (that’s Celsius, of course). And yet, in the American imagination, we’re sitting here shivering, buried in snow, our ski slopes eagerly awaiting their captains of industry.

And then … socialism. (Is it possible for Americans to refer to Canada without mentioning either socialism or extreme politeness? I suppose time will tell.) We sometimes see Americans refer to Canada with some apparent envy at our socialistic health care system; in this case, however, it is clear that the capitalistic American is offended by our purported socialism, as if setting foot on our left-leaning slopes will somehow corrupt the independent, pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstrtaps spirit that allowed him to achieve his immense success in the first place.

Sigh. This hardly even seems worth unpacking anymore.

Instead, I’ll just remark that when I started this blog, I genuinely intended to focus on books, not newspapers and magazines. But suddenly, the New York Times just can’t seem to stop mentioning Canada! If I come across another of these, I’m going to stop reading that paper and re-dedicate myself to literature.

Of course, if they don’t mention Canada for the next six months, I’m going to be hurt and wonder why. Such is the nature of insecure nationalism.

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