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Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part II

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Patricia Lockwood, “What Is The Zoo For What” (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013)

We continue our look at Neil Young’s appearances in contemporary poetry with this poem from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

What Is The Zoo For What

The word “zoo” is a zoo for the zoo.

A fountain is a zoo for water, the song
is a zoo for sound, the harmonica
is a zoo for the breath of Neil Young,
vagina is a zoo for baby.

Baby, girl baby, is a zoo for vagina.

The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose,
the smell of the rose rattles its cage,
the zookeeper throws something bleeding
to it, the something bleeding is not enough,
a toddler fell into the cage of the rose,
the toddler was entirely eaten. His name
was Rilke, it was in all the papers.
A Little Pine Box is a zoo for him now,
it said in all the papers.

Then all the kids started doing it. Falling
into the violet’s cage, approaching the cave
where the smell of violets slept, getting
their whole head clawed off by it.
Neil Young did it to a buttercup
and his face got absolutely mauled.

The music that was piped into the zoo
let all the longing escape from it
and it ran riot over the earth, full
of the sight and smell of a buttercup
rearranging the face of Neil Young,
attacking pets at random, attacking
me in my bed as I slept, attacking
the happy wagging ends of my poems.

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

I’m going to leave it there.

The first thing that struck me about the poem was, Why does it even mention Neil Young? The poet needs the name of a well-known harmonica player, but surely, for any contemporary American poet, there’s someone a little closer to hand than Neil Young? No, not Toots Thielemans. I’m thinking, of course, of the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself: Bob Dylan.

Why not mention Bob here? Has Neil Young eclipsed him as the iconic harmonica-blowing folkie in the contemporary pop culture imagination? (And if so, what a victory for Canada!) Does the poet simply prefer Neil’s music to Bob’s? Is is for the slant rhyme with “song” that “Young” provides? The last is perhaps the best reason, though rhyme doesn’t seem to be a major goal of Lockwood’s; in fact, she uses direct repetition in places where one might expect rhyme – if one expects anything at all. (Though there is a fascinating music in “violets slept … clawed off by it … buttercup.”)

But notice how, once she lets Neil Young into her poem, she can’t get rid of him. The reference to Neil’s harmonica seems like a throwaway, and the poem appears to be moving off in another direction, with children getting attacked and devoured by flowers (or the smells of flowers?) – and then suddenly there’s Neil again, getting mauled by a buttercup. And there he is again in the next stanza, his face now not “mauled” but “rearranged” by the buttercup.

At this point Lockwood seems to realize that Neil Young is taking over her poem, and we get that odd little two-line stanza:

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

Neither of these apparent questions actually ends with a question mark, but we’ll try to answer them anyway. Yes, you can put Neil Young in a poem, but no, he won’t get trapped in there forever; in fact he’ll take over your poem, make it all about him, and then roll off down the open road with his old friend, the white line. And how refreshingly un-Canadian that behaviour is; considering how often we’re saddled with the reputation of being overly polite, it’s rather exciting to see a Canadian behaving badly, even if only by overstaying his welcome in a poem that seems to want to be about something else.

A Further Reference

I was doing some “research” for this post on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitter page, and I couldn’t help but notice this:

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The context is that she tweeted about giving her parents weed brownies; someone replied that that was illegal, and she replied with the tweet that mentions Canada. I’m not sure how much I want to read into this remark – is it just absurdist humour, or does some idea of what Canada is like lie behind it? That our country itself is somehow fond of spreading misinformation? That we’re overly respectful of parents? That we live in a socialist nanny-state with laws regulating every aspect of interpersonal behaviour?

I think I’ll just leave it alone.

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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.

A Refuge for Les Refusés

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John Ortved, “At a Loss? There’s Always Canada,” New York Times, Sunday November 4, 2012

I wouldn’t ordinarily consider including a newspaper article here, but it’s topical, it features a common trope, and the opportunity may not come again. And I like the way Kate Moss seems to be transfixed by the article herself, as if thinking, “Canada? Hmmm….” (That looks to be as far as the thought goes.)

I doubt Americans spend much time thinking about Canada, but there is one particular moment when we’re in their thoughts: every four years, whenever it looks like a right-wing Republican (is there another kind any more?) has a chance to win the presidential election, centre-left Americans start talking about packing up and heading to Canada if the Republican becomes president. (I have my doubts that any of them ever follow through.) Apparently they see us as a refuge from everything they hate about America, and they’re convinced that everything is so much better up here. Or maybe it’s just a way to get away without really getting away; we’re all following their election, watching the NFL and so on. Nevertheless:

Cher recently declared on Twitter (and later deleted) that she could not “breathe the same air” as Mitt Romney. Susan Sarandon and George Lopez have both cited Canada as a potential escape.

George Lopez? Really?

As for Cher (and Susan Sarandon), what’s the point? Do they think Americans planning to vote for Romney would change their minds if they thought there was a chance their vote might drive Cher and Sarandon out of the country and into the frozen expanses to the North?  I would tend to think the opposite: most people who are going to vote for Romney would probably see getting left-leaning movie stars out of the country not as a reason to change their minds and vote for Obama, but rather as a fringe benefit of voting Republican.

And why did Cher remove her remark from Twitter? Because she realized it might have the opposite effect to what she intended? Did someone point out to her that she and Mitt Romney had been “breathing the same air” for decades now and she had managed reasonably well? Or was it the realization that air moves freely across the border anyway, and so Canada provides no real refuge?

(This reminds me of the old line about how every time we inhale, we breathe in at least one molecule from Caesar’s last breath. If that’s true, we must all be gulping Romney’s used oxygen all the time. And he’s been using a lot lately.)

The article also quotes Canadian Douglas Coupland:

“And if anyone trips while crossing the border, we’re happy to set their broken bones for free.”

Ah, there it is – the obligatory reference to our government-run health care system, one of the key building blocks of our reputation in the American mind as a liberal paradise/socialist nightmare, depending on your politics.

For all the details you can check out the full article.

 

 

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