An update on “Messages To: . . .”

This evening I took a moment to stop by Latitude 53 to get a copy of Lindsey Bond’s book of her project, Messages To: The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper which I’ve written about before and later while enjoying the late evening sunset in the freedom of my wonderful neighbourhood I read the texts by Anne Pasek and Karen Elaine Spencer which accompany Lindsey’s photos.

I had a very difficult time holding back tears as children played and laughed around me.

The vast majority of us have no inkling of the implications of remand.  As Spencer writes “The ‘presumption of innocence’ is breached in favour of a ‘risk reduction’ strategy of containment.”  A remand centre is de facto a place of indefinite incarceration without trial.

Edmonton’s Remand Centre is in the heart of the city, in the face of City Hall as well as citizens — although few seem aware that that grey building with the little windows holds a few thousand unconvicted prisoners every year.  In 2013, the few that are aware, who chalk the messages to their loved ones on the sidewalk outside, will no longer have even this meagre unsupervised communication.  And the homeless, those unable to post bail, the down on their luck, the mentally ill, will be trucked with the career criminals, the murderers, the rapists to the outskirts of the city and dumped into a hole to await a trial or release with little programming, counselling or mental health care.

I sincerely hope that many many many Edmontonians, Albertans and Canadians go to Lindsey’s webpage for the project, , that they seek out Lindsey’s book and that they badger their elected representatives about the wrong-headedness of increased incarceration rates.

And, as Lindsey’s photos bring home painfully and beautifully: this isn’t just about those on the inside.

“Killdeer” by Phil Hall

Are Canada’s poets getting old?  I feel like so many poetry collections I read lately or nostalgic ruminations on the poet’s development.  I’m certainly not complaining – I enjoy a good Prelude as well as anyone – I’m just making an observation after reading Phil Hall’s wonderful GG Award winning Killdeer: Essay-Poems from BookThug.  These poems, most of which have been published in some form elsewhere, collected together constitute a reflection not only on Hall’s development in life and poetry but also a sensitive consideration of poetry and life in Canada today.  In turn the poetry is painfully honest, haunting and heartbreakingly beautiful.  Killdeer is a wholly remarkable work.

The opening poem, “Adios Polka” left me mildly perplexed. I promised myself I would return to it after the rest of the book.  Are the lines phrases to be selected to produce interwoven sentences?  No, although there is something to be gained such active engagement by the reader.  I’m seeing it now.  It is a settling down the writing place to compose poetry – it is a composing for composing.

“There is nowhere to go off
but wordward” p. 11.

The second piece, “Bess & Lloyd”, the tale of a widow and her alliance with widower and and later her aging brother is worth the price of admission on its own.  The image of the bleeding deer in the swimming pool is eerie and haunting.

The remembrance of a visit with Margaret Laurence in section A of  “Becoming a Poet” is achingly moving and beautiful.  In B we are offered an earthy remembrance of Irving Layton.  Joyous.  Joyous and Nostalgic.  Breaking off the section before Hall receives the rejection slip is perfect.  In C, Canadian poets sing.  It has a bit of a feel of a Dennis Lee poem for adults, bad teeth and all.  What is it about bad teeth in Hall’s poems?  And D:  Arrival.  Exquisite!

“Becoming a Poet” does tell of the Growth of a Poet’s Mind, but it also is something of a Prelude to what strikes me as the meat of the collection, the lament for the poetry that was and the poets that were.  This lament is at the heart of virtually all the rest of the poems, perhaps nowhere more passionately than in “Twenty Lost Years”, an ode to the memory of Bronwen Wallace which will make you weep.

Hall next displays for us something of a poetry open stage – warts very visible – in “Dubious” and then a charming book collector named Drumbolis in “77 Florence”:

“In light of such atrocities [the burning of Iraq’s National Library] – Drumbolis’ s preservation instinct means – to catch the glowing ashes – & save them – so the world-as-book can be – if not rebuilt – at least remembered – intensely” p.54

Memory is at the heart of these quiet laments and the memories flit through the poems in the form of allusions to bits of literature and literary history remembered by few – until Hall reminds us.  “Disclosure” is virtually all reminder.

And then, “She Loved the Ocean”.

Confronting memories of childhood abuse as a couple, but being divided by separate ways of confronting.    He flees.  She returns to the place.  They both crouch.

He escapes her place of abuse by fleeing with a doe and her fawn into the scrub outside.  Is this the doe from the swimming pool in “Bess & Lloyd”?

In “The Small Sacrifice” (originally titled “A Blunt Garde”) Hall returns to poetry in Canada and it is all about hype, marketing, the sales pitch, the jacket blurb.  Hall doesn’t seem too pleased about this fact:

“I don’t believe in myself that much anymore”

There is criticism of Irving Layton:

“This line is theatre – not truth”

And more general:

“There are many ways to enact sincerity”

The Avant Garde now has “Scab Hollowness”.

Hall seems to ask, Has poetry exhausted it’s linguistic possibilities?  Is Hall arguing for a poetics of what feels “right”, be it shock, care or anywhere between or outside?

In “The Bad Sequence” Hall expands on a Poetics of the contemporary Canadian poem, defining a good poem by what it is not – a bad sequence.  But it is not completely clear that “bad” in “bad sequence” is a negative.  On p. 91 the Good sequence is given some definition.  It is being tortured by priests.

And, quietly invoking a sort of Muse: “Sometimes a poem just happens to a person like a long illness.” p. 93

Something which struck me:

“Half of the book’s budget will be spent on the colour cover – the biggest editing concern will be choice of font” p. 94.

For the record, at the end of the book we are told that Killdeer is

“Typeset in ITC New Baskerville and John Sans.  New Baskerville is a font family based on a type design created in 1724 by John Baskerville of Birmingham, England.  A historically important font, Baskerville helped bridge the transition from Old Style to Modern typefaces.  John Sans is a new grotesk developed at the Storm Type Foundry in Czech by type designer František Štorm.  John Sans is monolinear in character with fine shadings and softenings that benefit both its legibility and aesthetics.”

More gems:

“Poetry – a light – silence turns off & on – by forgetting & remembering” p. 96

“The bad sequence is not so bad
Who cares – it’s not evil” p. 96

“A Thin Plea” introduces  the killdeer, Hall’s totem bird.  This poem is the personal heart (or perhaps  the Mother Poem of the collection as described on p. 89 in “The Bad Sequence”).  Here Hall links himself both to the mythical Greek warrior Philoctetes and one point hints that his own skin ailment constitutes stigmata of a sort:  “If I put cream on my hands each day – the holes close up”.  “A Thin Plea” is poetry as therapy in a way, a therapy which produces results: by the end, a new totem bird has arrived and eaten the killdeer.

“Praxia” and “Verulam” are rich meditations on action and place.  Read them: they say more than I can.

The collection ends with the brief  “Envoi”

My notes the night I read it:

Departure on the river

The end.


Buy Killdeer.  Read it.  A lot.

Tim Lilburn’s “Assiniboia” and the discomfort it makes me feel

Tim Lilburn’s apparent program in Assiniboia, a poetic closet drama displaying an in-progress syncretism of a very few aboriginal and a great many European mythical artifacts with elements of nature and geography partially mediated by an accommodating Catholicism, while challenging, is not in itself an impossibility.  Whether Lilburn succeeds is another question.

Lilburn’s method, clearly stated in the Argument, is to turn loose the mythic figures of Europe in the landscape that in reality didn’t become Assiniboia and is now Western Canada.  There the figures of Europe are expected to battle with native figures and each other.  The victorious will be the new mythology of Assiniboia, perhaps a syncretism of the myths and cultures of First Nations and Whites.  Lilburn, a former Jesuit, is tapping into a long history of such syncretism, from Pope Gregory the Great’s instructions to  Augustine (later “of Canterbury”) for the conversion of Britain through to the fascinating folk Christianity of highland Chiapas today.  Again, not impossible, but a rather large task for a  Canadian poet to set himself in his office in Victoria.  Let’s consider how Lilburn  succeeds at the task (if it is actually the task he’s set) which, of course, the Metis have lived for centuries.

The first question I ask myself is:  Are there any structural elements in  Assiniboia which don’t derive from Europe?  I don’t see any such.  There are token  bits of Cree, but, really, this is a largely European work set in Assiniboia, isn’t  it?

After the Argument, the book is divided into four parts:  Exegesis (the poem “Exegisis” is a part of this section), in which the  characters are led out into the landscape; Assiniboia (A Masque) in which a courtly  drama/pageant is presented in a prologue and eight “Watches”; Songs of Clarity in  final Procession in which the characters in fact sing their songs to the audience;  and Antiphon, literally “the opposite voice”, in which Hermocrates, with great  anachronism, addresses a group of people gathered around Socrates

Again, what of this structure is of Assiniboia?  It’s all lifted directly from  Augustan England which in turn lifted most of these structural elements from Greece  and Rome.  Lilburn has constructed a poem with purely European architecture while  claiming that the thing is “bent on overturning more than a century of colonial  practice.  I can’t help but have doubts and as I read and reread and consider and  reconsider, I can’t help but have those doubts grow.  If Lilburn has overturned that  century of colonialism, I fear the newly exposed underside is just another, this  time spiritual/mystical colonization.  Lilburn has replaced the historical English Protestant colonization of Western Canada with his mythical polyglot Catholic colonization of Assiniboia.  Are we to expect a better outcome?

Time in this vision is clearly out of joint.  There is a sort of Dreamtime aspect  — is this the aboriginal contribution?  Is it displaced from Australia? — but it  also jumps freely to and between 19th and 20th Century moments and references (what  do Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire have to do with milk weed? but more of that later).   The landscape, however, for all its anthropomorphism, is very rooted in the actual  geography of Western Canada, but . . .

Lilburn postulates an unpopulated land and then peoples it with myth — but most of  the myth seems to be familiar Europeans stuff, historical figures and landscape  features personified in a (faux?) aboriginal manner.  I find myself concerned that  Lilburn’s efforts are more colonial, and more deeply colonial, than the economic  and cultural colonialism he decries.  Has Lilburn, a White Catholic former Jesuit  not imposed his own mythology together with his own superficial imagination of  aboriginal mythology onto a world he has himself stripped of its actual history and  mythology?

Certainly, many times there is sublimity in Lilburn’s verse, but sometimes there is  pretentious or even pompous obscurity.  “House” and “Angelology” have a great deal  to recommend them but what to make of “Exegesis”?  I couldn’t help but title it  “Under Milk Weed” to myself as I read it the first time and the title has stuck and the silliness of the piece has grown for me with each reading.  What is a  “liturgically dressed” cat, anyway?  And how is milk weed the campaigns of  Alexander the Great into India?  “Exegesis” is a great heap of metaphor and I  confess I can’t quite grasp what’s actually under all that milkweed.

In the heading of the Antiphon, Lilburn calls this place he’s made “The Uttered  Land”, a bit of a pretentious reference to John 1:1, but then he quotes a mixing  bowl creation story of Plato’s.  What? I can’t help but notice again that this world of blended cultures, with Europe  dominant and the aboriginal largely a European interpreted pastiche veneer is  depressingly similar to the actuality of Western Canada today.  Personally, I would  much prefer to hear actual aboriginal voices invoking the syncretism rather than  another Jesuit polemic.  And whatever Lilburn’s intention concerning the colonial  theft, I’m afraid he’s ended up re-thieving.

Certainly there are moving passages, beautiful passages, mystical passages and  disturbing passages in Assiniboia, but I can’t help but feel that Lilburn has  failed in this drama.  Assiniboia is a White Man’s dream vision pretending to be  other than it is, pretending to be a remedy for the very thing it repeats.

Should this have been attempted by a White guy?


But I fear such attempt doomed to failure.  A First Nations or Metis poet is more  likely to succeed, tragically always forced to live between the two worlds.  The  White may choose to live between the worlds, but he likely will never make the  contact with the Native world that the Native can make with the White world.

In any case, while I very much enjoyed the challenge of Assiniboia, I feel  disappointment at the absence of anything that feels like a real First Nation or  Metis voice in a poem in which one can’t help but expect  such voices.  Even the bits lifted from the Manitoba Provisional  Government come across as bits of Hansard rather than the cry of a Metis voice.   When I really consider the book, I have to say that I feel I hear more of the Metis and  First Nation voices in the Canada outside my door — and they grow louder and more  hopeful each day — than is audible in Tim Lilburn’s Assiniboia.  I’m left with the disturbing conclusion that in Lilburn’s rerunning of the colonial conflict, Europe is even more genocidal than the first time around.  The only conflict is between different European mythologies — the aboriginals of Assiniboia with their mythologies have been erased from the landscape before the curtain rises.  In the end,   I’m not sure Lilburn is particularly concerned at all with what is aboriginal to Assiniboia.  Assiniboia is fundamentally a new colonization, and I find that fact very troubling, and the book very difficult to praise.

I just stubbed my toe: Needles, pain, donating blood and being a grown up

I’ll be brief.

I donate blood at the lovely Edmonton location of Canadian Blood Services every 56 days or thereabouts.

I keep my vaccinations up to date.

The Kid has regular (weekly at the moment) blood work done and has had a tragic number of IVs in her life (with never a whimper and always displaying a joyful fascination for the process).  For a while I had to inject nasty stuff into her thigh once a week.

Believe me, I know and understand what a needle feels like, both the little vaccination ones and the big broken-golf-club-shafts they use for blood donations.

What I don’t understand is why some grown up people whimper and blanch at the very thought of a little pin prick from a nurse, and this, in part, is why I don’t understand:

I just stubbed my toe!

Barefoot, I was coming up the stairs with the laundry and, to use skiing parlance (and to bring back dark childhood memories of a bad
afternoon on the slopes near the village of Sundridge, Ontario)  I caught a tip, in this case the tip of the second toe on my right foot, on the sharp, terra cotta edge of a Mexican paver.

I bled.

I nearly fainted.

Seriously, the needle pricks required for a vaccination, routine blood work, or even blood donation are as nothing — are positively orgasmically pleasurable — compared to the agony brought on by a good toe stubbing.

All you pale-faced adults who turn to jelly when a needle bearing nurse approaches . . .

Suck it up, you wimps!

If you’ve stubbed your toe once in your life, you’ve already survived the pain of a thousand needles and more.

Suck it up!  And just to prove that you’re not a little baby, go make a blood donation!

I’m eligible again June 2.

I expect to see a whole lot of people sucking it up — not whimpering — and being grown-ups saving peoples lives with the simplest of sacrifices.

“Messages To: The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” by Lindsey Bond

The other day after a visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta (Mistresses of the Modern is still on so get down there!) I was walking through Churchill LRT Station and saw this poster in one of the ad spaces on the wall.  “Oh,” I thought, “that’s Lindsey’s new thing.”  I have a passing acquaintance with Lindsey Bond from her time as Assistant to the Director at Visual Arts Alberta — on her typing skills I inflicted the absurdly long titles of my absurdly small paintings.  I noticed the QR code on the display and, of course, got out my phone. How interesting: I was standing in front of a piece of public art which is part of an attenuated show displayed across more than a dozen public transit stations. And the entire virtual gallery is now also in my phone.  This is good!

I thought of one day many years ago in the Mexico City subway when I noticed that at decent intervals through the station there were screens displaying brief history lessons — public education indeed.  I thought at the time it was such a good thing to be using public space for education and information rather than marketing.  Lindsey’s multi-platform photography exhibit (it will be launched as an old fashioned book at the end of March) is a wonderful marriage of good old public art and the ubiquitous smart phone.

But, I haven’t even touched on the substance of “Messages To:”

Before now I hadn’t known that illicit messages are openly passed from the outside to those held in the Edmonton Remand Centre by the ancient medium of chalk on the sidewalk.  Unlike many I’ve met in Edmonton, I know where the Remand Centre is — I find it amazing that a big building pretty much right in the heart of the city is invisible to most citizens.  If the building is invisible, those inside certainly and sadly must be as well.

But Lindsey’s photos of the chalk messages to inmates heartbreakingly shows that those inside are not ignored by at least a few outside.  Pink hearts abound in the sidewalk drawings.  Even the more concrete messages such as to “Call Ashley” take the time for endearing pet names.  While we are zipping across town in a crowd of commuters, all of us staring at our phones, there are those held in Remand, whatever their alleged crimes, who look out the narrow window for a bit of outside personal loving contact from chalk on the sidewalk, contact which will be hosed away at nightfall.  This chalk is the one tweet they’re allowed to receive for the day or the week or the month.  Lindsey’s exhibit preserves this virtually unknown communication medium and shows us a place in our society most of us don’t — or don’t want to — know about.  This is really good.

The downtown Remand Centre is going to be closed soon, replaced by an obscenely large new holding facility on the northern edge of the city.  I don’t expect the sidewalk will be as visible there, and that is a loss.

Lindsey Bond’s “”Messages To:  The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” is in LRT stations and in your phone until June 7.  QR the virtual gallery and enjoy some thought provoking art — both Lindsey Bond’s photographs and the chalk messages the photos preserve  — on your way to work or school or on your way home, and text or tweet about it to your friends.  I might even think about chalking the QR code onto the sidewalk in front of my house.

The Book of the Project will be launched on May 26 at Latitude 53, 10248 – 106 Street.

I read Roo Borson’s “Rain; road; an open boat” and then I read it again!

What an exhilarating experience!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading and rereading Roo Borson’s Rain; road; an open boat, making notes as I go.  What a beautiful, challenging book it is!  The title of the book is a nesting of the titles of its three sections.  Within each section are interlaced poems in verse and prose riffing on landscape, nature, memory and everything else in imagination and out.  Many volumes and scholarly careers could be (and, I hope, will be) devoted to teasing out the structure Borson has erected.  Here I’ll just take a quick dip into the thunderous waterfall :


Of the opening poem, “Various Landscapes” I wrote in my notes:

What is going on?  is this pseudo-Haiku and commentary?  Are we seeing the various levels of a I Ching hexagram?

There is certainly a dialogue — or a call and response — between the verses and the prose poetry.

Although the atmosphere seems rural Japanese (or is this my expectation after Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida?) the mention of the sausage shop crashes us into urbanity  or at least suburbanity and European bratwurst.

Where is this house:  Where the river road meets the coast road.  One wall is all windows . . . It is Ossian’s Hall, which closes the book!

The prose poems have become visions, dreams, dream visions.  All floral, but cankered.  The fantasy guest room has become reality and reality is the vision.

But the Guest House is in China, not Japan.


I couldn’t help but think of my old Bollingen copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching as I red “Various Landscapes”: while an unchanging digram replaces the varied hexagrams, the three line stanzas accompanied by long prose commentaries create something oracular about the appearance of the page.  I suspect Borson intends the resemblance.

My perplexity continued with the second poem, “California Nutmeg”:

What to make of this?  The place whence her night dreams proceed and around which her mental faculties take shape is where a solitary tree grows out of place in and alien forest.

“and makes itself at home wherever it happens to issue from the earth” as does Borson, I think.


“Wild Violets” (the first of this title, we later find out) at first blush is a pretty study of memory and nostalgia, much like “Radish Flowers” which follows.  I thought:

So much seems at first Impressionistic, but there’s sure to be an underlying order with Borson, I think.

Hints of future and signs of past on this day on the cusp of summer

“In the world but not of it.”


“Durham” made me remark that “I must reread Durham in Old English”.  A thousand years or so ago, another poet wrote of Durham, a poem both similar to and different from Borson’s.  Both are careful to mention the woods and the river, the natural landscape in which Durham is situated.  I find it very intriguing that two poets so far apart in time and tradition stood in the same spot and described the same place so similarly.  The Old English (with my translation):

     Is ðeos burch breome         geond Breotenrice,
     steppa gestaðolad,         stanas ymbutan
     wundrum gewæxen.         Weor ymbeornad,
     ea yðum stronge,         and ðer inne wunað
     feola fisca kyn         on floda gemonge.
     And ðær gewexen is         wudafæstern micel;
     wuniad in ðem wycum         wilda deor monige,
     in deope dalum         deora ungerim.
     Is in ðere byri eac         bearnum gecyðed
    ðe arfesta         eadig Cudberch
     and ðes clene         cyninges heafud,
     Osuualdes, Engle leo,         and Aidan biscop,
     Eadberch and Eadfrið,         æðele geferes.
     Is ðer inne midd heom         æðelwold biscop
    and breoma bocera Beda,         and Boisil abbot,
     ðe clene Cudberte         on gecheðe
     lerde lustum,         and he his lara wel genom.
     Eardiæð æt ðem eadige         in in ðem minstre
     unarimeda         reliquia,
    ðær monia wundrum gewurðað,         ðes ðe writ seggeð,
     midd ðene drihnes wer         domes bideð.

Fully known is this town
throughout the British realm
Steeply established, stones round about
grown up wondrously
A river strongly runs past weirs
in waves, and therein dwell
many fishes in the flood
and there is growing near
a woody fastness great.  There live
full many wild beasts
in that dwelling, in deep dales
beasts innumerable.
In that town, too, known to men
they’ll find, most full of grace
the Saint Cuthbert and the head
of the chaste King Oswald
England’s lion; Bishop Aidan;
noble travel partners
Eadberh and Eadfrith.
Bishop Æthelwold
is there with them and the well known
Bede the scholarly
and Abbot Boisil gladly taught
in youth the chaste Cuthbert:
and well he took his learning up.
Unnumbered relics lie
beside the saint inside the minster
there many wonders come,
as books make known, the while that man
of God for judgment waits.

Borson mentions the blackbird’s song and relates it to an old song of a blackbird.  What is this old song?  Is it the Beatles song or is it something other?

“A Place in the Woods” is a brief prose poem describing disappointed hopes made manifest, but hints that the manifestation will be swallowed by the silent past.

“Wild Violets” (2) brings Rain to a close with a recasting of the first “Wild Violets” and the clear indication that interlace is going to be a primary structural principle of the book.

Of particular note in the recasting:  after fifty years old papers dog-eared have replaced the wild violets.

Rain; road

“Late Sunshine” begins the second section with a quite lengthy return to the pseudo-haiku and prose response.  In my notes I recast the poem, quoting the brief verse bits and reducing the prose paragraphs to bullet points:

A riff on Borson’s “Late Sunshine”


“Thin sun
Thin rain
the blossoming oats –”

The turtle and his eye
Entries on dead people on the internet
The fish laid out side by side.


“The world in old photos
or the world in spring —
which is younger?”

The millipede
The masks and the borrowed instruments
Smells and things
Gifts and judgement thereof
False named plants
Reputation’s growth
Dead honey eater’s eye
The cats in the tree
The shock of the familiar
Dream Mart
Three questions as we die
The moth on the sidewalk after rain
The arrival of the future
The dazzling become familiar
The Kingfisher necklace
Remembering birth and death.


“The delicate scent of bottle-gourd blossoms
the wisteria beans long and glat
the repetative songs of the birds of early summer”

do memories return to us or we to them?
embroidered on a pillow
restoring significance
the name game
the other name game


“Standing on the right foot
lifting pine seeds with the left —
cockatoo etiquette”

indispensible stereotypes
a third name game
narrow minds and broad


“A magpie lark
standing guard over the waterfall
water gliding past its feet –”

the inverse law of death and intentions
pigeons in the train station in prose and verse
the face in the mirror
buildings and art
the stranger
White Duck Narrows

In “Blowing Clouds” Borson shows she loves to juggle words and syntax and punctuation.  This is a virtuoso juggle!

(with prose commentary.)

My notes on the last poems of Rain; road;:



“Black Point

Verse then prose

Memory of time with friends long later when one friend has died.


prose and then verse
echoes of all that’s gone before.

“Roads in the Berkeley Hills”

verse then prose

the thing, which no longer exists except in memory, exists still in you, in us (in we?).

The final section Rain: road; an open boat begins with “New Rain” another extended verse/prose call and response.  Again my notes are bullet point paraphrase:

prose then verse and so on

something white in the Japanese rain

Camellia buds
the rain pavilion

Something strange on the mountainside
the wind

the bus to a temple and the driver identifies the animal
statues and castle
the tanuki
the tooth-regrowing temple
the tour guide
Hakuin’s sermon (this stanza, describing Hakuin’s untranslated ten word sermon, is ten words long)

Journeying to Japan
sweet peas
tend days of rain and snow

Kyoto and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Pagoda verse
to the
Golden Pavilion

Colour and cold noodles

Tended obscurities
snails painting
with moonlight

Subtracting the self
the person I’ve never met
whose ghost is this
lost morning
old pond
longing to be like others

The Gardens of Kyoto
the lost hat

The crow calls out to the friend with his recovered hat.
Osaka Bay
tonight’s moon
among the pines.

My notes on the last four poems:

“Baxter’s Grave”

The road to locally ignored grave of a poet

The prose is explanation.

I find myself wondering at this point whether the prose explanation is advantagious or detrimental to the poetry.

“A Chaise for Sharon”


“To go to Huangshan”

Prose about Huangshan


the identical tourist raincoats at first are (intentionally) absurd but by the end are jewels of perseverance.


The blackbird in a filigree of images high on Bucks Hill

“and the robin
small beneath the hedge”

“all the tropes spent”

This is Durham again.


I have a suspicion Borson has not spent all her tropes.

The book closes with an “Afterword and a Note” concerning the eighteenth century Scottish folly called “Ossian’s Hall” and then a poem, “Ossian’s Folly, Black Linn Falls” about Borson’s visit to that place.  Here we are returned to the guest house of “Various Landscapes” with it’s wall of windows and the river outside.

Rain; road; an open boat is a densely structured beautiful interlacing of images across all the poems, a seductive mesh drawing us to it over and over again, a braided woodland waterfall, calling to us with voices of memory and hopes and dreams.

Enter it said the river’s falling
enter it and entered instead its thunderous names.”

My Book Club Notes for “Big Town: A Novel of Africville”

I’ve never done book clubs before, but last weekend while buying a disc of the soundtrack of Beowulf the King, I bumped into old friends and they invited me to join theirs this Saturday night and the book seemed like an interesting possibility so . . .

The Chapters-Indigo website said there were two copies of Stephens Gerard Malone’s Big Town: a novel of Africville in stock.  I went down to the store and immediately went to the Fiction/Literature section.  No sign of it in the M section.  “Maybe it’s in G” I thought.  Nope.  I turned to the handy computer which told me that yes, there was still one copy left:  in the “Local Interest” section.  I’m not sure how a work of fiction set in Halifax counts as Local Interest in Edmonton, but, after wandering about for a bit I found the Local Interest shelf, and, after getting down on my hands and knees, I found the single copy I was looking for. I also picked up a copy of the Arden Third Series edition of The Merchant of Venice.  That find may or may not be relevant.

Big Town is a quick read, but it’s beautifully dense.  Malone evokes the time most wonderfully — I was struck by the offhand  mention in the first chapter of Good Friday always being overcast, something I always heard my mother say when I was a kid.  I’m sad to say that actually, Good Friday is sometimes sunny.  And the Halifax explosion is alluded to several times with personal detail rather than the big picture. And Date Squares, for goodness sake!  And the bullying Early endures  brings back sad memories of witnessing those big boys throwing stones at the boy with Downs Syndrome beside Walford Road in Sudbury.  Malone uses little details like what television show Chub watches or what now-gone street the boys walk up, details a youngster pays attention to, to make Africville and Halifax palpable.

Chapter two, with Early at work and going to lunch with his found five dollars filled me with the question How do they think?  What is the inner life of the intellectually disabled?  I’ve spent eighteen years with my own Early and I’m still not sure at all.  And I’ve spent years with all sorts of different young people who aren’t what are sometimes termed “Neuronormal”  Every one is different and every day for any one is different.  I’m not sure whether the depiction of Early’s inner life is realistic.  Who can know?  But Big Town asks the question of us.

The abuse of Early is, of course, particularly uncomfortable.  For the most part, rather than explicitly depicted, it is evoked, as in the moment on page 31 when Early rubs his arm after contemplating doing a chore for his father.  As the novel progresses, the abuse becomes more and more clear and it seems to me Early’s reaction to it becomes more and more ambiguous as his memory problems come more to the fore.

Racism is an obvious theme in Big Town.  The expected racism of White Halifax against the people of Africville goes without saying, but there are more subtle layers of racism that must be mentioned.  On p. 42,  Mrs. Aada laments the (white) Trash that’s come squatting and “giving good folks a bad name”.   Whites over Blacks over White Trash over — what?  Well, over Early, of course.  Is there anyone below Early?  Early certainly doesn’t discriminate, but in another throw away line Malone has the children planning their lives as Forest Rangers and — “Early could be Indian Joe” (p. 201).   Maybe mentally disabled Early isn’t “better” than Indian Joe, but in 60s Canada, the people who would come to be called the First Nations are thought of at best as dimwitted helpers.  Malone has packed so much tension into Big Town!

Throughout I thought of Steinbeck.  Tortilla Flat came to mind quickly, but Malone is more sensitive to his characters, I think.  The workers in Tortilla Flat have a little to much of the bumbkin about them.  And, the relationship between Toby and Early can’t help but be seen as an allusion to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with a profound roll reversal near the end.

Big Town is pervaded by an unbearable sense of dread and tension.  The reader dreads what’s coming for these characters and their community.  And there is the obvious tension of not knowing when the bulldozers will roll, of not knowing what new hurt will come to Early and to the others, but there is also the tension in the characters between wanting to leave but wanting Africville to remain a community.  I was particularly struck by the parallel between Toby’s skin “illness” driven by his desire to leave his Blackness behind, and the constantly returning thread of trying to bring Portia White (a fortuitous surname of a real person) back to Africville.  In the end Toby never leaves Africville and in real life, Portia White never returned.

I’ll probably have to leave the bookclub visit Early, but I’m certainly grateful that I was introduced to Big Town, a rich, richly ambiguous, and richly allusive novel — is that a reference to Voltaire’s Candide in Early’s prison work?

Stephens Gerard Malone is definitely an author to watch and Big Town is a novel well worth reading.

Rambling thoughts on Ross King’s “Defiant Spirits”

By the time I was eleven years old, I’d lived half my life in the Shield Country north of Algonquin Park.  When I tell people I was a kid in Sudbury in the Sixties they seem to look at me with sad sympathy.  “Black Rock” their eyes seem to say.  Well, my memory of Sudbury is all running through the forest and canoeing and swimming in the summer and in winter tobogganing on the hillsides and playing hockey and British Bulldog on the rink in the big open area in the middle of Laurentian Village or on the real rink (it had boards) over between Walford Road and Lockerbie High School.  It was over by the real rink there was some sort of winter festival with a costume contest for the kids.  One year I was Snoopy.  My mother made me a wonderful mask out of Papiermâché (no doubt the spark which led to numerous outrageous Hallowe’en costumes I later made for my own offspring).  I don’t remember much about the competition or how I did, but I got to wear white thermal long underwear on the outside of my clothes — that’s a memory of the Sixties everyone should have.

One January I disassembled the last year’s calendar and taped the pictures to my bedroom wall.  I don’t know the artist, but some of the work of an Inuit artist of my generation, Ningeokuluk Teevee, shares some vocabulary with what I remember from that calendar.   In 1967, I felt like I lived in the True North.  My childhood was filled with Inuit images, snow, canoes, the Canadian Shield, Adventures in Rainbow Country on television when I wasn’t out having my own adventures in the real Rainbow Country.  Sure, by the time I was a teenager I was living in the Deep South, across the river from Detroit, and then a few years later in the warm, dusty West, in Edmonton — then in fact farther North than I’d ever been before, even when I took the Polar Bear Express to Moose Factory on the shores of James Bay.   But those years in Sudbury, on the Shield made me into a “Canadian” with an unbreakable nostalgia for the Idea of North and a severe Wacousta complex.

I don’t know when I first encountered the works of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.  In my memory, Tom has always been floating face down in Canoe Lake surrounded by solitary windswept pines and interlaced forests against paint blob skies and the other seven or eight or nine actual members have been blended together, except for Lawren Harris, who’s throbbingly glowing smooth mountains and icebergs have always stood apart, somewhere on the West Coast, wondering where Emily Carr might be.  And looking down on Carr and Harris have been the masks and poles of the Haida, and on the Seven and Thomson have gazed Norval Morrisseau and Alex Janvier and earliest of all, Inuit soapstone carvings.  These, the artistic vocabulary of the Pacific Coast, of the Arctic, of the Woodlands, both First Nations and Thomson and the Seven are my mother tongue of design.  Later I gained the school learning of European art (I love [and am sometimes embarrassed by] the Impressionists) and on my own I lovingly came to know a bit of Maya iconography.  And Alex Janvier was always mumbling around, and Jane Ash Poitras kept shouting at me, and they spoke so well!

As a child I lived in the natural world Morriseau, Thomson and the Seven painted, and later, in the political world in which Tecumseh and Pontiac and Brock fought. Today I live in Janvier’s and Poitras’ and Dumont’s and Riel’s world.  But the child is in me still:  I am a child of the Shield.  And so, at the end of the longest preamble to a book review in history, Ross King’s Defiant Spirits speaks to me very passionately (but with appropriate Georgian restraint).

King was born almost in the same year as me.  I wonder if his childhood left a similar impression on him.  I find it suggestive that his Judgement of Paris was as comfortable to me as his Defiant Spirits was.  For me, The Judgement of Paris was an investigation of my (slightly more) adult artistic development while Defiant Spirits delves into the earliest of my childhood memories.  I was in a canoe in Algonquin Park within fifty years of Thomson’s death.  Is that a bias?   Almost certainly.  But it is a bias based on experience.  What is the rate of turnover of the water in Canoe Lake?  Did I touch water in Canoe Lake which had cradled Thomson’s lifeless body?

Of course, it doesn’t matter — Thomson’s art was my cradle.

So, what do I say to the youngsters who grew up with a different vocabulary in the air?  I don’t know.  Perhaps all I can do is point them to King’s book and to a few passages and let them make of them what they will . . .

Something that  struck me as new about King’s treatment of the history of the Group of Seven is the way World War One cast a shadow over everything about the Group.  I’m reminded of Wade Davis’ Into the Silence which similarly argues (and exquisitely painfully describes) the influence of World War One on the early British expeditions to Everest.  Before Davis, I’d never come across even a hint that the Trenches had pushed Mallory, and, I’d never even noticed the fact that some of the Group had been in the Trenches — even though I knew that some of them had been war artists.  Such was the lack of emphasis on the Great War in my childhood, although I knew a Grandfather who was I veteran of Passchendaele and taught me the joy of fresh caught perch fried in butter by the shore of a lake in the Shield.

“The Canadian landscape inspired fear, mystery, wonder and often frustration and disappointment,” King writes.  “One confronted not other people, or even oneself, so much as the forces of nature and the vastness of the universe.” (p. 17)  Guess what?  That’s childhood!  The Canadian landscape makes us face the world as children!  Yes, today the vast majority of us live in cities, but, for what do all people everywhere, everytime long?  A return to a childlike state.  And our childlike state is standing alone in the face of the landscape.  This is the Vision Quest for all of us, whether we actually follow it or not.

I was impressed that King brought up the German painter Freidrich (p. 33), another of my favourites later in life.  Friedrich certainly has something of the tone of the Group of Seven — the solitude, the human emptiness, the threatening power of nature.  But in Freidrich there is a melancholy, a fin de siècle tone which is absolutely contrary to the hope and light in so much of the Group’s work — even in the war art.  Yes, Freidrich holds some parallels, was perhaps even an influence, but his work has a Gothic decadence absent from anything the Group produced, even in the darkest days of the Great War.

King is very dispassionate about the shortcomings and failures of the Group’s doomed nationalistic ambitions:  how can this absurdly varied national landscape produce a single national style?  But he is very rightly passionate and, I think, entirely accurate,  in his final assessment of their unanticipated success.  In his last paragraph, King places A. Y. Jackson’s The Red Maple, J. E. H. MacDonald’s The Solemn Land, Harris’s Lake Superior paintings, Frederick Varley’s war scenes and portraits, and Thomson’s sketches of Algonquin Park beside the iconic photographs of the driving of the Last Spike and of Terry Fox on his Marathon in the Shield Country just before his personal hope necessarily faded while the Hope he inspired blossomed.  “Together” writes King “they have given us one of the best responses — however incomplete it must inevitably be in a country so differentiated and so vast — to that most difficult and most Canadian of questions:  ‘Where is here?'” (p. 421)

I have lived most of my life in Cree country far from Algoma.  I have spent far more time in Banff than in Algonquin Park. Last summer I looked again at the spot where Donald A. Smith drove the Last Spike.  I remember watching with gaping jaw Terry Fox’s Odyssey.  I could show you where the Blackfoot traders used to come to the North Saskatchewan River from the south, where they would ford the river, where stood Fort Edmonton, where the trading happened, now a disused bowling green.  What do the Seven’s paintings have to do with me?

I think King makes clear what I always knew in my heart:   the Seven put us back into the canoe that allowed this country to exist; The Seven showed us that Autumn is Fire and that Winter is not Dread; the Seven gave us the Idea of North long before Glenn Gould recorded it; and, most profoundly, the Seven showed us that wherever we are, from St. John’s to Moosonee to Estipah-skikikini-kots to Pangnirtung to Haida Gwaii . . .  We Are Here.

The Art Gallery of Alberta has a number of shows related to the Group of Seven’s influence on display right now and in a few weeks a major Alex Janvier exhibit will open.  As always, if you’re in or near Edmonton, my recommendation is:  Get down to the AGA!