Edmonton’s Iron Foot Place (AKA “Ice District”)

Okay, peeps, chill!

That Katz guy just renamed a couple of buildings in Downtown Edmonton (as he has every right to do), he didn’t rename Downtown. This is like when Edmonton Centre (a stupid name) and Eaton’s Centre (a stupid name after Eaton’s went belly up) got a snappy new pedway connecting them and some suit said “let’s call the two buildings Edmonton City Centre!”  Nobody calls it that.  Some call it “City Centre Mall” and some call it just “City Centre”.  Or like when the Coliseum got renamed “Skyreach Place” or “Rexall Place” or . . . .  No one is at all confused if you say “meet me at the Coliseum.”  And after 37 years of name changes to the arena, that LRT station that serves the place is still called “Coliseum”.

Out of convenience we’ve been calling a vague area around the under-construction arena “the arena district” for a little while. I expect when it’s all done and the “Ice District” signs go up, we’ll all call it whatever seems convenient. I imagine people will say,

“Let’s go Downtown to the arena.”
“Where should we meet?”
“At the Cineplex” or “In the Winter Garden by the Janvier mosaic” or at the front door of Stantec” or “with all the other White people in that video”.

Some time ago the City put up “Arts District” signs around Churchill Square. Has anyone EVER said “let’s meet in the Arts District Friday night!” Of course not! It’s a silly, artificial thing and it’s properly ignored.  People meet in Churchill Square or at City Hall, or the Library or at City Centre Mall.

I really don’t find this little corporate naming-rights moment of any great concern. The fact that the promo video is all “White People only unless you’re the DJ”, however, is troublesome. It would be nice if our collective ‪#‎yegSpleen‬ were being vented over that bit of corporate propaganda rather than over the naming-yawn that is “Ice District.”

Personally, I’m gonna call that bit of Downtown Edmonton with that hockey rink beside the new Alex Janvier mosaic “Iron Foot Place”, “Tsątsąke k’e” because it was Treaty Six land before the NHL and before Katz and it still is Treaty Six Land and “Iron Foot Place” is a damn better name than “The Arena District” or the articleless “Ice District.

I hope Mayor Iveson and Edmonton City Council can come up with a way to make the official City neighbourhood placename of that bit of Downtown “Iron Foot Place”, whatever the corporate brand on the buildings.  It would be an easy gesture toward Reconciliation and a good description of a place devoted to strapping steel blades to our feet.  But even if it’s never the official name . . .

Let’s meet at Iron Foot Place.

Who’s with me on this?

Pretend that Bike is a Backhoe, Edmonton!

Recently the Alberta Motor Association put out a handsome little video about how to drive in traffic circles.  This video explains in detail three fundamental principles and some bonus advice:

Don’t Change Lanes
Yield to the Vehicle on your Left
Yield to Pedestrians
and, the bonus:
Ideally, Don’t Go More than One Exit in the Right Lane

I’m not going to make a snappy video but I’d like to make another simple suggestion of how we all can work together to make Edmonton’s roads safer.

Have you ever noticed that if you find yourself behind a slow moving vehicle like a backhoe while driving along Edmonton’s streets, you do something funny?  You slow down, too.  You may curse a little, but you slow down.  You don’t try to squeeze by the slow moving vehicle in the same lane, even if that vehicle is doing its best to hug the curb.  What you actually do, not matter how much you curse, is you wait until it is safe to signal, pull out into the left lane, and pass the slow moving vehicle, secure in the knowledge that the slow moving vehicle will be right behind you at the next red light. In short, you give the slow moving vehicle the lane.

This all seems like common sense, right?

Wrong.

It all breaks down (except for the cursing) if that slow moving vehicle is a bicycle.  Most automobile drivers simply zip past cyclists, apparently assuming that it is the cyclists’ responsibility to ride in the gutter and keep their elbows in.  A rare few drivers will make a token effort to move to the left a foot or two, sometimes even letting their left wheels slip over the centre line.  The rarest of the rare behave as though the bicycle is a backhoe, an actual vehicle on the road with an operator trying to get to a destination in a safe an timely manner given the physical limitations of that vehicle.  Those rarest of the rare drivers slow down and wait to pass the bicycle when it is safe to do so properly, as though they were passing a backhoe.

Now I can hear a bunch of you grumpily yelling “Yeah, but, bike riders [insert favourite complaint about feral cyclists].”  Didn’t your mother ever teach you that Two Wrongs don’t Make a Right? Just because a year and a half ago some yahoo zipped past you between lanes of traffic stopped at the light at the bottom of Scona Road and then ran the red light doesn’t mean the guy in front of you today doesn’t have a right to be on the road.  If a BMW cut you off on the Yellowhead three years ago are you going to cut off every BMW you see on the road for the rest of your life?  Of course not.  I don’t want to hear any of your “Yeah, but, bike riders” cop outs.  We all encounter bad driving and we all sometimes have driven badly.  Bad drivers we’ve encountered are never excuses to drive badly ourselves.  Be quiet.

Most cyclist, of course, habitually ride in the gutter with their elbows in, bracing for impact because the vast majority of automobile drivers behave in an intimidating manner, shouting “Get Outta Da Way!” with their actions when not doing so with their voices.  Some few cyclists hold their lane.  Kudos to them.  A few others seem to want it both ways, holding their lanes somewhat while traffic is moving, but zipping past stopped traffic, sometimes weaving through it, to get to the front of the line at traffic lights.  To those cyclists who weave through traffic, consider: it is an exceptionally rare motorcyclist who even imagines doing the same thing, despite the vehicles’ similar size and manoeuvrability.

And, drivers, if the bike you passed properly and safely a block or two ago zips past you on the right at the next traffic light, don’t give up on doing the right thing. When the light turns green and you catch up to the cyclist again, as you will: yield the lane until it is safe to pass properly and safely.  Remember again your mother’s words about Wrongs and Rights.

As an automobile driver who is on the streets of Edmonton every day, I call on other drivers to simply give all vehicles including bicycles their lane, even when a cyclist is hugging the curb.

Take a breath, pretend the bicycle is a backhoe and it’ll be easy.

Give them the lane, for Safety’s sake.

Always.

Summer Republic III

This past Thursday evening (July 9, 2015) I went to a show-opening reception at a small North-Side gallery in Edmonton.  The work, by a collective of artists, is a mixed bag of styles, subject matter, and media, but bright, summery tones of orange stand out around the four walls.

I bumped into (name dropping alert) David Janzen, one of Edmonton’s premier landscape painters, and his partner Sue.  Dave and I seem to get talking when we bump into each other, sometimes about art, sometimes about cutting grass.

I pointed to a large work that occupied one corner of the gallery, a deceptively simple looking monochrome wood-cut print in black hung beside the actual block from with it was printed.  A quirky aspect of the print is that rather than being rolled in a press, this piece was printed, once on paper and once on cloth, by driving a steam roller over the thing.  The result is an extremely limited edition print titled “Roadwork” by Aaron Harvey.

“I like that,” I said.  “It’s got a sort of Mexican Day of the Dead vibe going.”

Dave said “Oh yeah . . . (?)”

“Yeah.  The two figures are sort of skeletal and those look like sombreros on their heads.  And down at the bottom is the underworld, Xibalba, the Maya Land of the Dead.  And the two figures are the Hero Twins, Hunapu and Xbalanque, or maybe they’re One and Seven Death, the highest of the Lords of Xibalba. . . . .”

“What about those twisted amoeba-like things at the top?”

“Those are clouds and they’re reflected in the similar shapes at the bottom, just as the underworld must reflect the upper. And the crosses in the buildings reference the remarkable syncretism of Mexican ‘Catholicism’ . . . .”

Dave had another chip.  I nibbled baklava, hoping the nuts wouldn’t kill me.

“I like this one, too,” I said, pointing at Lora Pallister’s “Golden King of the Jungle.”

“What is it?” asked Sue. “A rabbit?”

“No, it’s a gorilla dressed sorta like Carmen Miranda.  Or a lion.”

“And that’s a big joint in his mouth,” said Dave.

“Or a piece of red licorice,” I suggested.

Dale Badger’s three line-drawings after Crucifixions by Dürer, particularly “Angels Collecting Blood after Dürer”, are brilliant.  Simply brilliant.

I spent a little time nibbling the snackies and then (name dropping alert) Rona Fraser (you may remember her as one of Avenue Magazines “Top 40 under 40″ from a year or two ago) asked me if I knew of a good place to get beef ribs to barbecue (I don’t) which took us to the subject of black pudding and then Rona asked “Do you know a good place to get haggis?”

Well, obviously, I told her the best place in Edmonton for both black pudding and haggis (and meat pies) is (name dropping alert) Old Country Meats in Allendale across 106 Street from the Allendale School.

 

I suppose you’re wondering where this magical North Side gallery is, a place full of wicked good art, a place you can rub shoulders with top artists and hobnob with Top 40 under 40ers and talk with them about food and art and the Popol Vuh.  I suppose you’re wondering.

Wonder no more.

(name dropping alert)

This gallery is at the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts.  If you are in Edmonton you should know about The Nina, you should go to the Nina, and you should learn what it is and what it isn’t.

The Nina is a mentoring collective.  It is not a sheltered workshop.  The Nina is a studio for artists working with barriers, not “art therapy” for the “handicapped”.  The art on display in the show I described above, Summer Republic III, has been created by Artists in a studio, not by disabled people in segregation.  They have been mentored by some of the top artists in Edmonton such as (name dropping alert) Jill Stanton, Caroline Gingrich, Brenda Kim Christiansen, David Janzen, and Artistic Director Paul Freeman.  The Nina Collective is made up of these and more mentoring Lead Artists as well as Apprentice Artists who are being themselves mentored in the art business (writing grant applications, etc.), volunteers, and the almost two hundred Artists with abilities, not disabilities, who are being mentored in art making.

The works in Summer Republic III have been chosen through a jurying process and represent the best of what the Artists of the Collective have produced over the last year.

The work is rich, it is evocative, it should be seen, it is Art.

 

Summer Republic III is on display at the Stollery Gallery at the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, 9225 118 Ave, until August 14, 2015.

Go see it.

And drop into the busiest studios in the City while you’re there.

 

 

“As You Like It” at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

I keep trying to find bad things to say about the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, but . . .

I went to As You Like It Tuesday night (July 7), a week after seeing Freewill’s Coriolanus.  The austere Roman arcade of that story is transformed into a vine-covered bower.  Again the cast uses every bit of the multi-level set and also the aisles and hillsides and the flat spaces to the left and right back stage.  The entire space under the tent has been transformed into the Forest of Arden and the very full house seems completely welcome and at home in this Arcadia.  All positive.

The quasi-Edwardian costumes by Hannah Matiachuk are lovely. I got a golden Enchanted April feeling.

When the music began for Amiens’ (Nicolas Donald Rose) opening song, it struck me as a little Alan Parson’s Project, and I thought, “Finally!  I can criticise!” But the prog-rock vibe disappeared sooner than I’d thought it.  Nice job, Sound Designer Matthew Skopyk!  I later had a similar pause over the whistling tune in the second half, but immediately was caught up in the joyful celebration — on stage and in the audience — that culminated in the glorious curtain call/dance party that closed the show.  This burst of joy perhaps surpassed last year’s rousing rendition of “It’s Now or Never” by Sheldon Elter and the cast at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

I wondered whether Charles’ (Jesse Gervais) Cockney accent might slide into Dick van Dyke’s mid-Atlantic Burt from Mary Poppins.  Nope.  It held steady and together with Kemble and Phebe’s (Nancy McAlear in a double role) brogue from somewhere in the northern half of the Irish sea, helped to draw the lines between the classes.  This distinction is too often made in productions of Shakespeare by making the lower classes little more than cartoon Disney bumpkins, like the button people after the horse race in Mary Poppins.  Freewill pulled it out of the hat again.

Gervais and Farren Timoteo are hilariously physical, slapstick, and rude as the wrestler Charles and his coach Hugh (a part not in Shakespeare’s text).  And John Ullyat steals his few scenes as a Clouseau-like only slightly repressed gay Frenchman.  Ullyat is somehow at once over-the-top and magically restrained as Le Beau.  It is perhaps a disappointment that Ullyat was not a part of the finale, as far as I could tell.

Mary Hulbert’s Rosalind is tremendous and Belinda Cornish’s Celia is the perfect foil/companion/friendly gadfly.  Ashley Wright made Jaques, a difficult role, into something thought provoking, quietly joyful, as well as the melancholy that is his nature.  And Ryan Parker as Touchstone made something reachable out of a character potentially very alien to a modern audience.

I did find one truly negative criticism of Freewill’s As You Like It, but I had to dig deep.  It is not that Touchstone sometimes drops his cane while juggling it — the recovery is always smooth — or that Cornish and Hulbert had an hilarious Harvey Corman-Tim Conway moment of mutual corpsing — it just felt like it needed to be there.  Such fumbles happen in live theatre — I seem to remember the wonderfully steady Wally McSween saving the plot by fudging a misthrown curling rock with his foot in the Citadel’s production of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon back in 1980.

No. The problem I have I’ll leave at the door of Director Marianne Copithorne.  In this production, with such nice use of accents, Jaques’ “Thereby hangs a tale” speech is unfortunately delivered with North American Theatrical English pronunciation and virtually all of the dense, ribald, earthy humour is lost.

. . . And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’

In Shakespeare’s day, and in available English dialects today, every “hour” of this passage is an “whore”, each “rot” is a “rut” and the “ripes” are “rapes”.  And thereby hangs at least a piece of a tale.

But Hulbert’s delivery of Rosalind’s “I set him every day to woo me” speech revealed a gender reversed parallel between Rosalind/Orlando and Hamlet/Ophelia I’d never imagined before, Orlando sent to a monastery down the road from Ophelia’s nunnery.  That discovery probably more than makes up for the loss of a little ribald humour.

No matter how desperately I try to find fault, the Freewill Players continue to present joyous, moving, and truly impressive Shakespeare the way it should be performed:  in the open air, with grass, and trees, and squirrels, in the Forest of Arden where fantasy and reality meet.

Freewill’s As You Like It continues in repertory with Coriolanus until July 19, 2015, in the Forest of Arden (the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park).

Go and feel the joy!

“Coriolanus” by the Freewill Players

Take him up.
Help, three o’th’chiefest soldiers. I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum that it speak mournfully;
Trail you steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
Assist.

This won’t be a typical review. Mark Morris in the Edmonton Journal has already done a fine and balanced review of Freewill Players’ Coriolanus.

For the past few years, even with Shakespeare’s irredeemable script of Taming of the Shrew, I have been consistently impressed by the Freewill productions when I’ve not been simply blown away. Despite that record, I had low expectations of their Coriolanus. Ralph Feines’ film remains burned into my memory as a tough act to follow. I knew Freewill would need to cut for time and personnel. And Coriolanus is a plot that can be hard to follow, even for those familar with Roman Republican history. Coriolanus, the character, is alternately praised and vilified by his own people, the Romans, and by his enemies, the Volsci. Banished by Rome he joins the Volsci to have revenge on Rome, only to betray Volscian ambition to clutch at an impossible peace.

I expected a game try and limited success from Freewill’s roughly two hour time limit and a little more than dozen actors doing repertory with As You Like It.

You blew me away again, Freewill!

And the standing ovation last night, despite a few fumbled lines, was more than deserved.

A Word About the Setting

For those who don’t know Edmonton and the setting of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, a description:

The centre of Edmonton, a metropolis of over a million people, is a park. Don’t imagine New York’s Central Park. Edmonton’s central park is over twenty times the size of New York’s. Imagine wilderness for kilometres. Imagine deer, moose, or even a bear calmly wandering past Downtown. Imagine walking out of wilderness onto a golf course. Then an Arcadian landscape of ponds, fountains, cropped meadows, more wilderness, bike paths, foot paths, Chinese gardens, food forests, amphitheatres, Fur Trade Era palisaded forts, playgrounds, a small Gnome in his home, swimming pools, baseball fields . . . all with a river running through it, all a short walk from the homes and workplaces of a bustling metropolis.

Now imagine sitting in a comfy chair under a giant white circus tent with no walls. Squirrels dart past your feet. Birds are singing. People are smiling and laughing. You look past the stage and see trees, meadows, ponds and fountains. In the distance the wooded river bank rises to meet the sunset sky. This evening smoke from distant northern forest fires enhances the atmospheric perspective, transforming the view into the distant background vista of a painting by Poussin. A few days ago that bear I mentioned ambled nearby, stirring curiosity rather than worry.

This Arcadian landscape is what you pass through on the way to see Shakespeare. The experience is more akin to approaching a provincial performance of the Kings Men in 1598 than it is to a potentially stuffy night at the Theatre in the 21st Century.

And precisely this feeling of being at a provincial performance is one thing that blew me away about Freewill’s Coriolanus: it felt like a carefully abbreviated staging, a site-specific version, such as many of Shakespeare’s plays went through in the provinces and the Plague Years. There was an authenticity to the cutting, and in one particular case, a brilliant artistry in the drastic shortening of a speech.

The Review-like bits

The Plebs are suitably loud and chaotic, Belinda Cornish’s Volumnia is deliciously Patrician and incestuous, John Ullyat’s Coriolanus is stoic in battle and painfully and creepily devoted to his mother, and Robert Benz is steady as Menenius. The conniving Tribunes played by Farren Timoteo and Ryan Parker are like despicable peas in a pod, as they should be. Performances are across the board good or great. Sound design is brilliant, costumes are comfortably mid-century fascist with a touch of street gang, and the set is a marvellously minimalist two-story arcade that is more than fully utilized by the cast..

And Ullyat absolutely nailed Coriolanus’ banishment speech “There is a world elsewhere!” at the end of Act III where Freewill nicely places the intermission.

What shone for me as much as anything, but in a subtle way, was the cutting of the text. Much of the cutting was from speeches, not of speeches or scenes. Speeches are tightened for time, certainly with a sacrifice of beauty and perhaps of sense at times, but in at least one case, that of the final speech of Aufidius, the final words of the play, the cut gives a profound and startlingly modern twist to the meaning of the play.

Spoiler Alert!

The epigraph above is Aufidius’ last speech as Shakespeare had the play end. With the death of Coriolanus, Aufidius seems to indicate, the war is ended, as though it all was driven by Coriolanus and his narcissistic treason.

Here’s how Freewill ends the play (stage directions as I imagine them):

Auf.
Take him up.
[The Volscian Soldiers don’t move.]
Assist!
[Exeunt Volscian Soldiers]
[Aufidius slumps, aware that treason is now his twice over, as it was for Coriolanus, but Coriolanus has saved both cities, while Aufidius has betrayed them both for nothing]
[Exit]

Coriolanus is playing at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 18, 2015.

Go see it.

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Jerome’s Gnome Home

A Fairy Tale For an unknown period of time on a quiet, semi-secret spot on the right bank of Edmonton’s Mill Creek, deep in the ravine, a small Gnome named Jerome has been living quietly, until recently, with his life-partner Noam.  Jerome and Noam took part in Edmonton’s 35th annual Pride Celebration by flying a small rainbow flag in their little Gnome Garden filled with trinkets and messages from their friends amongst we Big Persons. Tragically, sometime over the last few days, Jerome’s Gnome Home was brutally attacked and largely destroyed by (Big?) Persons Unknown.  The destruction was discovered by a Big Person coming with a small gift for the Garden.  To his horror, he found Noam’s shattered head lying on the forest path and the Gnomes’ treasures scatted about the roots of the spruce tree they had made their home. Jerome was nowhere to be seen. A History Jerome’s Gnome Home is a guerrilla art installation by Edmonton artist, etc. Kristin Ashmore.  She created the little tableau of a Gnome named Jerome enjoying his garden in the spring of 2015, never expecting it to last more than a few days.  In fact, Jerome and his partner Noam continued happily undisturbed in their home almost until the end of June.

Jerome and Noam at Home (photo courtesy Kristin Ashmore)

Jerome and Noam at Home (photo courtesy Kristin Ashmore)

I had been following the charming story of Jerome’s Gnome Home – and its amazing endurance — for some time on social media.  Soon my friend Kristin’s whimsical project became a collaboration with anonymous friends of Jerome and Noam who added trinkets and notes to their little garden.  I was hoping to get down into the Ravine with my sidekick and her mobility issues to join in the fun. When Kristin made Jerome’s Gnome Home into a Make Something Edmonton project for #DYIcity day and posted fairly precise directions to find Jerome, I immediately got together what I thought an appropriate Gnome Gift and we set off to the Ravine. My gift for Jerome and Noam’s secret forest sanctuary was a fragment of a larger thing I’m working on related to a Medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, concerning a man who searches for a secret forest sanctuary. I left my sidekick to rest at picnic tables on the left bank of the Creek, quickly rushed across the red bridge, and followed the clues Kristin had described.  At almost the same instant I saw the toppled sign asking  that the Gnome Home be respected and a piece of Noam’s shattered head on the path at my feet.  I continued on, placing my gift and the shard of Noam’s head in the ruined garden and tweeted a photo to Kristin.

After the Battle (photo by me)

After the Battle (photo by me)

This could have been a story of vandalism and an artist moving on, giving the Coors Banquet swilling barbarians the victory.  But that’s not Edmonton’s way, that’s not Edmonton’s artists’ way, and most emphatically, that not the way Kristin Ashmore rolls. On our way home we met Kristin marching as though to war, a satchel of replacement bits on her arm, her partner at home prepping the back-up Jerome (sadly Noam had no replacement).  By evening, Jerome’s Gnome Home was back in place, the only sign of the Battle of the Gnome Home being a small cemetery memorialising the fallen.

Jerome and Noam's Tomb (photo courtesy Kristin Ashmore)

Jerome and Noam’s Tomb (photo courtesy Kristin Ashmore)

Personally, I hope Jerome’s charming Home lasts until winter, a tiny bit of warmth and colour in the short, grey days. And winter is the season when Sir Gawain came to the Green Chapel and survived what seemed  certain destruction. Just as Jerome did yesterday.

Jerome at Home and ready for (respectful) visitors (photo courtesy Kristin Ashmore)

Jerome at Home and ready for (respectful) visitors (photo courtesy Kristin Ashmore)

Update, July 28, 2015: I dropped in on Jerome this evening and was pleased to find that he’s still doing well. I know Kristin goes by regularly and tidies a bit for Jerome. Happily there have been no more cases of egregious vandalism.

Perhaps Jerome has unknown friends in the woods.

Big, scary, protective friends!

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Jerome has friends in the woods! Big, scary, protective friends!

Prophetic Poetry from Canada’s Oil Patch: Naden Parkin’s “A Relationship With Truth”

When the Muses appeared to Hesiod on Mount Helicon, they put in his hand a branch of olive-wood and breathed into him a divine voice that he might celebrate the things that shall be and that were aforetime.  That a humble Boeotian farmer should make such claims for himself may surprise and shock those who regard the Greeks as the first rationalists and their poetry as a dawn breaking through the long Babylonian night.  But Hesiod was not alone even among the Greeks in asserting the poet’s dominion over so vast and so formidable a field.  Claims like his can be found in many ages and many places, and though not all poets were in the beginning prophets, there is abundant evidence for an ancient and intimate connexion between poetry and prophecy.
–Sir Maurice Bowra, The Prophetic Element, the 1959 Presidential Address to The English Association, p. 3.

Naden Parkin is a voice, crying in the wilderness of Canada’s Oil Patch, a Jeremiah forced by circumstances to live off the altars of the petrochemical Baal.  Naden Parkin is that perhaps most unexpected of creatures, an oil field mud-man prophetic poet.

Yesterday I was in the Chapters store in Sherwood Park – Sure White Park, as we like to call it, due to the largely pale demographics of this Edmonton bedroom community – browsing through the tiny “Arts and Letters” section, when I noticed a slim paperback with no lettering on the spine.  A Relationship With Truth: Poem and Verse Born in the Canadian Oil Patch was the title, by one Naden Parkin.  No publisher name. Must be self-published, I thought.  Parkin’s picture is on the back cover. Peaked cap, sunglasses. Round head, soft body, standing in snow in front of a Ford F150.  He looks like any of a dozen guys you’ll see in any small Alberta or Saskatchewan town standing outside the Co-op or the [Small Town Name] Hotel Tavern.  One of the thousands who end up working in the Oil Patch to support a young family, to make house payments, to pay for the case of beer on the two days out of twenty they aren’t working.  One of the thousands who do what they can in a perpetually un-diversified economy.

There are two testimonial blurbs on the back cover from poetry critics with whom I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar. One is from Logan Wild, of Discovery Channel’s Licensed to Drill.  The other is some very erudite words from Tim the thrashing machine Hague, UFC Heavyweight and former King of the Cage Heavyweight Champion:

A Relationship With Truth, offers an incredibly interesting and necessary glimpse into Alberta’s Oil-infused lifestyle.  We have the chance to see how Canada’s life blood has affected one man both negatively and positively.  This book is a treat to read from start to finish.

For anyone with preconceptions about Alberta and those who work in the Oil Patch, the whole package would seem surreal.  But here in Alberta we know the complicated contradictory truth.  Here in Edmonton, Oil Patch workers tend to be educated, are likely hipsters in their off time, collect art, go to live theatre, like to go out drinking with friends, enjoy sports, may well have voted NDP all their short lives, and are conflicted about Alberta’s and their own dependence on the fossil fuel economy.  And they may or may not drive a pick up truck.

It really shouldn’t be surprising to find a poet working in resource extraction — Robert Service in the Klondike and James Anderson in the Cariboo stand in that long line.  What I find startling and exciting is just how good Parkin’s poetry is.

A Relationship With Truth begins with a brief exhortation to the reader to “Listen”.  Whether he realizes it or not, Parkin is placing himself in the Prophetic poetic tradition occupied in English most particularly by Blake.  He has a profound message for us, if we have ears, and will,  to hear.

The second poem, “Wake Up”, is a cycling series of morning wake up calls which with remarkable economy show the generational cycle of domestic struggle and break up and hope and disappointment and perseverance of the Oil Patch life.  Here, at the outset, Parkin shows his rhythmic debt to Hip Hop, and it is clear that his poetry is meant not simply to be read aloud but to be declaimed and performed, a necessity made even more clear by “Something Inside”:

. . . Visions of mine,
A whole civilization blind, and victimized
As we lie below an invisible line
Beneath, the richest guys
Who bitch and cry over misplaced dimes
While we,
Risk our lives just to wish of times of bliss and pride
To see,
Retired at 65. Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I. . . .

Parkin’s poetry exudes what might be seen as a rough socialism, but it’s actual a gentle communitarianism, a deep desire to get along fairly and honestly in a world in which dishonesty and greed are not rewarded.  He’s not calling for an overturning of the classes, but an idealistic, perhaps utopian, humane leveling, where everyone has enough and no one hoards at the expense of others.

I have written elsewhere, in the context of Irving Layton’s work,  about what Sir Maurice Bowra termed the Prophetic Element in poetry.  As well as clearly being in the Prophetic tradition, Parkin has something of the goaty Layton about him, in love poems such as “Goodbye”, “The Cutest Girl”, “After Love”, and “Fly Like That”, and in poems interested in chemical recreation such as “My Stoned Bliss” and the powerful and surprising earthy blend of “What I Love Doesn’t Matter”, a list of the worldly and not-so-worldly loves of the poet and an indictment of the narrowness of societal definition of the individual.

Parkin is  man of a very particular location, the oil lands of Saskatchewan and Alberta, once the bison killing-fields.  In “Northern Man” he says of the locations he lists as home:

You ask me, I’d invest in that
It’s natural gas and the oil patch
Western Canada, we’re blessed with that
And cursed with that
And if you think not, then you’re immersed in facts.

In 1959, when describing poets engaged in the Prophetic Element, Bowra wrote:

They feel that the ordinary methods of scientific or logical analysis are quite inadequate for the vast and terrifying issues befoe them and that their own kind of vision is a better way to the truth than the statistics and generalities with which publicists forecast .  ,  .
The Prophetic Element, p. 5

Immersed in facts, indeed.

Throughout the book, Parkin scatters short untitled poems, like the little gem on p. 17:

A flat land with a painted sky
Graced by the great herds
But all the grazers died.

The final line is a shock of banality because the grazers didn’t simply die – they were deliberatly exterminated, and everyone knows that fact.  And so we wonder: are the bison the great herds today? Or are human workers the grazers these days?  And we remember from “Something Inside”

. . . Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I . . .

More than a hint of childhood trauma is buried in “The Pit”.  Parkin draws a nightmare vision of slippery references to let any childhood trauma fit and to make a definite become a universal claim of survival and reintegration in the last line:

He’s whole.

(with a play on “hole” as in “pit”, of course.)

Two poems use the image of a Heart of Gold: “Mortal’s Globe” which begins with the wonderful line:

You’ll never know whether I’m clever or slow

and the poem titled “Heart of Gold”.  I find no reason to doubt that, among other things, both poems reference Neil Young and his remarkably unnuanced opposition to Canada’s Oil Patch and it’s miners, so many with their hearts of gold.  Not only does “Heart of Gold” have an earthy whiff of Layton, it also mentions Optimus Prime, one of the more unexpected images of spiritual transformation in modern poetry.

A fascinating aspect of Parkin’s poetry is that from this young man, so immersed in the work of the Oil Patch, comes the constantly echoing warning that when it comes to living on this earth and saving it for future generations, “It’s Up To You”:

. . . gotta use yer main nerve

or crater

What ya do when ya lose and the music takes yer
Shoes to the moon cause the view is great there
But lose old blue and we’re in
Danger
And the way we use crude you can’t blame her
Neck through the noose boots down and hand her
See the future’s looking screwed
When the few control the huge
And when the few control the fuel
The few control you
It’s lose lose unless you choose to
Save her.

And in “I Know” the poet is prophet again:

. . . know that I chose to show this
to let my soul expose what all of you already know
But you hold in.

And, in “Use Your Noodle”:

You’ve got to lose the fools and use your tools
And use your noodle to search for truth,
Instead of just using Google.

And so on, through “Why I’m Here”, “My Prayer for Humanity and “I Knew a Man”, which reminds me favourable of Leonard Cohen’s “The Captain”, Parkin the prophet strolls until the end of “Surviving” in which he flicks his mantle blue and takes his leave, with just a brief untitled envoi to the reader:

As this page closes I hope you’ve taken notes
You’re a day closer to laying under roses
A shame moments fade as we grow older
So
Feel as what I’ve shown you and make love before it’s over.

Consider Cohen’s “The Captain”:

There is no decent place to stand
In a massacre;
But if a woman take your hand
Go and stand with her.

Throughout A Relationship With Truth, Parkin makes clear that society is headed for a massacre of some degree, but always the horror of past, present and future is tempered by the gentleness of love, the simple things of life, and the free pleasures, like the Aurora Borealis on a crisp winter night.

A Relationship With Truth is a profound collection of poetry from an unexpected source that should be sought out, and Naden Parkin is an Oil Patch mud-man whom poets, poetry editors and poetry readers would do well to watch.