Writings / Essay

Writing the new (Vancouver) geography

rob mclennan

          Writing of New York poet Brenda Coultas’ “A Bowery Project” (from A Handmade Museum) and Vancouver poet Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture in the Australian online journal Jacket, Dallas poet Susan Briante writes:

How does one approach the difficult and compelling task of writing “a poem of a person and a place” (as Olson so mildly put it) in the wake of (among others) The Maximus Poems, as well as (more recently) CD Wright’s stunning take on the Louisiana prison-industrial complex, One Big Self, or Kristen Palm’s recently published volume on Detroit, The Straits, just to name a few? There’s been no shortage of interesting thinking about investigative poetics. And yet, this is no easy time to be a documentary filmmaker, poet or journalist. State censorship has reached what seems like an unprecedented high. The manipulation of language and information on the part of the current administration comes straight out of the pages of science fiction. One high-ranking Bush official chided New York Times reporter Ron Suskin for clinging to the “reality-based community” and went on to explain: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities…”

I’ve been reeling from all the physical descriptions of Vancouver lately, after recently going through other titles by Vancouver authors, including Oana Avasilichioaei’s feria: a poempark (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2008), Meredith Quartermain’s Nightmarker (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2008), Sachiko Murakami’s The Invisibility Exhibit (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008) and George Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem (Vancouver BC: New Star, 2008). What is it about Vancouver these days, or is it something I hadn’t been paying attention to previously, happening all along? Certainly there are other individual examples of full-length or shorter works of poetry that explore different Canadian cities, but somehow none of them compare in sheer number to how Vancouver has been depicted. Other geographies written poetically across Canada have more individual examples, including Jill Hartman and Julia Williams writing Calgary, Patrick Friesen and Jon Paul Fiorentino writing Winnipeg, bpNichol, Stephen Cain and Lynn Crosbie writing Toronto, William Hawkins writing Ottawa, Leonard Cohen and Artie Gold writing Montreal, and Joe Blades writing the St. John River (that runs through Fredericton, New Brunswick). Just what is it about Vancouver? Or really, what is it about any city? In her piece “Poetry City,” American poet Cole Swensen referenced Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, a description that could be generally applied to all of these works, and Quartermain specifically, writing:

         Three of the best known—Charles Beaudelaire of the mid-nineteenth century, Guillaume Apollinaire of the early twentieth century, and Jacques Roubaud of the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, all approach Paris walking. As they write it, Paris becomes a map of the mind and the heart, a map of the place where mind and heart intersect into daily life.
         The city is itself a walking, which the poet merely traces, trying to stay on its trail. The city is always something going on ahead, something that just turned the corner, that just slipped out of view. The city is posited as something unseizeable, something whose body is necessarily amorphous, and that just might be concretized by the mapping the poet does in his walking. If the city can never be stable, at least the poet, through the two-sided walking-mapping that is writing, can construct a complementary version in which he or she can live in relative stability.

For Montreal poet, translator and events organizer Oana Avasilichioaei, it’s her second poetry collection feria: a poempark (2008), on the heels of her debut collection, Abandon (Wolsak & Wynn, 2005).

            Prologue

            In the poempark          the seasons spill
            as one.
            Each line: a tree planted
            grows roots; the roots tunnel beneath the page.
            Limbs stem.

            Occasionally, a small shudder
            is a thought misremembered.

Working from various sources including archival material, Avasilichioaei write an engagement with parks in general, and Vancouver’s Hastings Park specifically, as a series of extended dialogue, working a geography of unmade, taking apart through language and then reconstructed; less a geography of collage than one of breaking down before rebuilding. Writing six fragments as “some streams” after the initial prologue, feria: a poempark is far and away a stronger and more compelling collection than Avasilichioaei’s first, and I am amazed by it. How can I ever see parks the same?

            Is risking an act of
            spring, the sunrise between sleep
            a lily
                        breaking?
                                                            The book is thick.
                                                            If filled with words
                                                            will it be thicker?
            If a question mark didn’t

            the possibility of a question
            its existence
            its wolfishness

            In this book there are no keys.

More established, but still only a second trade collection is Vancouver writer and publisher Meredith Quartermain’s Nightmarker (2008), a follow-up to her first with the same publisher, Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press, 2005). Nightmarker is Quartermain marking her territory, writing out the geographies of decades in and across Vancouver, poems written out of long walks, and years of personal knowledge. This is Quartermain writing days spent walking, and sometimes sitting in library archives, digging through history. In Nightmarker, Quartermain writes "Geo, Vancouver," who is (according to the back cover), "Geo, an earth-geist, who struggles to comprehend humanity's siege of Earth while enabling us to examine the human condition, bound as it is by the drive to evolve, multiply, and simply exist." Part of what makes this character interesting, through this series of letter/poems, is how it also references early explorer George Vancouver, managing to reference Vancouver writer George Bowering's own piece from similar materials, George, Vancouver (Kitchener ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1970), writing his own self-titled "discovery poem" through the explorer, himself and where they both exist in some of the Vancouvers that have existed over the years. How does one book link there to the other? Quartermain even has a sequence running like a thread through the collection written by (possibly) the explorer that her coastal city is named after, the "Discovery at Sea" poems, ending the third with:

            Your steadfast and humming servitude,
            Geo, Vancouver

With two trade collections on Vancouver the city, this is Meredith Quartermain working to establish Vancouver itself as an ongoing poem, it would seem. This is "discovery" from an alternate angle, writing from both the insider and outsider points-of-view, each counter-point to other, struggling through the binary of what a city is made from, and what it becomes.

Sir,

Nothing goes faster than the speed of light. Except bolts of thought for centuries unveiling. Or not. Thought forgotten wavelets wiggling out past Menkar and Deneb. Nose of a whale, tail of a hen. Draw lines in the sky, to perch on with Cheshire smiles. Flip, flop, hang by a claw in dark energy. Two billion with less than $1 a day.

Thought seeks thought. Or not. Thought tangles into giant thinking: telescopic, microscopic proboscides. Unstoppable. Six billion mouths. Progressed beyond all previous epochs of human mouths. Flow-through in the brain that's thinking everything. Whizzing thoughts around in words' infinite flavours of quarks. Or names of beavers.

What do we know besides hunger and the uses of hunger? Humans build nests as birds do, make concerts in the way of cicadas and frogs, and damn up rivers à la Castor canadensis. Listen to the tail-slap on the pond, the whistling and buzzing of gravity, dark repulsive gravity pushing the universe apart, dark matter bending the paths of stars. Climb beyond trails, tracks and shadows, beyond trial by peril. to foresight and the scaffold of use.

Outside these, only care ― find some way to care.

From my iron core and granite eggshell,
Geo, Vancouver ("Discovery at Sea 10")

How does she work her way through such matter, such abstract physicality? If not for the works that include Matter (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2008), Quartermain's other trade publication the same year, her two poetry collections with NeWest Press would give the impression it was all writing geography, instead of geography being one of a series of threads her writing explores. Any great writing works its way as an ongoing series of explorations, and Quatermains' does exactly that, working not just through geography but physicality, through both concrete examples and philosophical considerations. Matter, for example, is actually the third of a longer sequence of works that includes Abstract Relations (Vancouver BC: Keefer Street, 1998) and "Space" (published as Spatial Relations, Boca Raton, FL: Diaeresis, 2001), produced as a 28-part sequence that extends a series Quartermain has been working for years, in-between various of her other projects, including the publications Terms of Sale (Buffalo NY: Meow Press, 1996), Gospel According to Bees (Vancouver BC: Keefer Street, 2000), The Eye-Shift of Surface (Victoria BC: greenboathouse books, 2003) and A Thousand Mornings (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2002), as well as the collaborative (with Robin Blaser) Wanders (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2002).

Dream House 1 Centennial police museum. The old Coroner's Court. Roman-arched window and moulded lintel over the door. Inside, police are plugging jacks into a switchboard. No, just manikins at work. Upstairs chained off. No one's around, policing remembrance of police past. Yellow do-not-cross tape marks off chunks of masonry on the floor. Large hole gapes in the ceiling. Past cordoned area, man in blue on phone wants to get particulars. Around him, walls are full of boards full of fabled badges. Letters, newspapers, green garbage sacks litter 1940s metal desks.

Sachiko Murakami, originally from Vancouver but currently in Toronto, writes about the representations of missing and murdered women in her home city, and the city's most infamous neighbourhood, the Downtown East Side in her first poetry collection, The Invisibility Exhibit (2008). How does one write about missing women and those representations without turning such into twisted parody or exploitation? It’s difficult, but she manages it, open and honestly and through her own attempts to understand the real women behind the ugly statistics. Explorations of uncomfortable subjects in Canadian literature doesn’t happen nearly enough, whether Anne Stone's novel about a missing girl, Delible (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2007), Toronto writer Barbara Gowdy writing a kidnapped girl in her last novel, Helpless (Toronto ON: HarperCollins, 2007), or even back to Lynn Crosbie's brilliant and thought-provoking novel Paul's Case (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1998). Murakami works her own collection of the last few tragic years of some of Vancouver's darker histories through a number of voices that overlap, and even contradict, sometimes shading and even blurring, with some poems titled "PORTRAIT OF HOCKEY PLAYER AS MISSING WOMAN" or "PORTRAIT OF MOTHER AS MISSING WOMAN."

MISSING

Waited in the rain with a sputtered candle,
set the percolator on the stove. Didn’t drink.

Shriveled in the tepid bath. Turned
the stone over, crushed shells.

Avoided parties and small-talk. Avoided sidewalks.
Stopped washing and drying. Drove from ocean

to desert, didn’t snap photos.
Tried jogging. Bought a stopwatch.

Threw stones at tree stumps.
Talked to the doctor,

lived in small-talk, opened gifts,
looked everywhere. Wasted time.

Sent a message in a bottle. Threw out
the dead fern, remodeled. Ate a peach.

Skipped stones alone. Picked up the paper.
Couldn’t call. Thought of you living

in this midst that passes
so routinely for living.

What impresses about this collection is that Murakami does manage to accomplish the difficult act of writing out such events without cheapening or offending her subjects, those of the missing women themselves, even as she deliberately writes past and beyond them, sometimes using the portraits themselves as jumping off points into something more.

PORTRAIT OF IT AS MISSING WOMAN

And now what you've been looking for,
it leaning against the back door of the Victory café.
Stroking its cheek with a dirtier hand.
Head to-toe red and redder where scabs haven’t healed,
or would be if the photo weren’t so black & white.
Its body emptied of the expected contents,
purse spilling on the road before it.
It did this for money to feed itself.
Look at it. Like it's about to cry
or crack. Don’t concern yourself.
It can't look up to find your gaze.

There has been in Vancouver for some time the link between writing and social/political action, from the writing of some of the members of the loose collective around the Kootenay School of Writing, and other projects, including Vancouver writer and editor Aaron Vidaver's guest-edited issue of West Coast Line on Vancouver's infamous "Woodsquat" (issue 41, fall/winter 2003/2004) that took over a building for three months, beginning in September, 2002. In an issue that included poetry, drawings, essays, memoir and photography, contributor Noah Quastel, in his piece, described the action itself: "In September of 2002 a number of persons began occupying the site of the former Woodwards department store in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, both as a way of finding temporary housing, and also to protest the severe problem of homelessness in Vancouver, coupled with an inadequate government response." A couple of years later, Vancouver writer and editor Anne Stone put together her own issue of West Coast Line, on the subject of Vancouver's East Side missing and murdered women over the previous dozen years, an issue that included Sachiko Murakami as a contributor. All of this history, recent or otherwise, places Murakami within a compelling context, but where does she take her own project, and what does she bring to the material?

POWELL STREET

Now we are the audience to our own claims
of heritage in a park we only come to
on BC Day weekend to stand in line
for takoyaki make the bored children
watch the tea ceremony tap out code
with chopsticks on Styrofoam
beyond the chain link fence
a man sinks to the pavement
while middle-aged women bang drums
in the Buddhist church Shiatsu massage
is by donation on the lawn the picnickers are safe
from discarded needles everyone has bought
a raffle ticket for two tickets to Japan
Japantown doesn’t exist except on this day
despite the outdated maps
everything we do everywhere go
is Canadian our volunteers ready
to attend to the first victims
of sunstroke

The Invisibility Exhibit doesn’t seem to really go deep enough in some places, but works as an extremely compelling and engaged first collection, and on a subject matter that few would be brave enough to confront. Considering that she is at work on a new collection, Vancouver/Special, "in which she wonders about real estate, habitus, and 'ugly' homes in her 'beautiful' city," it makes her Vancouver explorations in The Invisibility Exhibit  read as the beginnings of what can only open into something further, larger and fuller. Murakami's collection and potential continued work even provides an interesting counterpoint to Quartermain's explorations through the same geographies, writing Vancouver as an archival city. I ask again: just what is it about Vancouver these days? Is this part of a larger trend building in the City of Vancouver, or are we in the rest of the country just beginning to notice what has always been there, back to the days of George Bowering writing George, Vancouver (1970) and Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986; Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008), Daphne Marlatt writing her Vancouver Poems (1972) or Michael Turner writing Kingsway (Toronto ON: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1995)?

EXHIBIT E (HEART)

It is best kept out of rational debates.
We’ve determined its place, since no one writes much verse

around tonsils or other uncertain tissue. We coo over
the sweeter meat that melts

into Hephaestic fire. Bless the pump that feeds the river.
It’s not quite satisfactory but stuck. Can’t fly on a whim to Hawaii.

In its suit, the king grimaces, justly
suicidal. The real world is not its place.

We say it lies at all centres, ubiquitous. The heart of it.
It’s still only a shell. For all its efforts it can’t contain the life

that flows through it, though it’s fist-shaped. Keeps
trying. Beats out each Mississippi, is perfectly It.

The most published of the group is Vancouver poet George Stanley, author of half a dozen books of poetry, and, as a young man, took a poetry workshop from Jack Spicer in San Francisco. American-born, Stanley came north as part of an informal San Francisco group that included Stan Persky and Robin Blaser, heading north to Vancouver, further north to Prince George and back to Vancouver, where he has published his Vancouver: A Poem (2008). Writing his city as physically as he can, some of his poetry reads almost an extension of what Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert has been working through his own decades of poetry wandering the same downtown streets since the 1950s, as Stanley’s poem begins, almost as a diary or journal, writing:

There is more here than memory.

*

Reading Paterson on the bus, back & forth. Across the city. The 210. A man & a city.

I am not a man & this is not my city.

Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem is a pastiche of the immediate, a kind of “walking around” poem that exists less in the Meredith Quartermain “archival” sense than, say, the “I did this, I did that” kind of poetry of Frank O’Hara. Moving through the cityscape he knows and is familiar with, working through the archives of his own individual connections, with some sections reading like long rides on public transit, existing as yet another interesting counterpoint to Quartermain’s “walks.” From his previous gaze north to his Prince George in Gentle Northern Summer (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1995), it seems as though Stanley uses landscape, perhaps, as a framing, a canvas, to explore through his own poetic means. Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem reads less as a city than an extended poetic essay on George Stanley’s Vancouver. Just how deep does a city go?

Verlaine’s Ride on the 99 B-Line

The Broadway streetscape framed in the bus window
reels backward, halts, recedes again,
turning shop signs to stuttering banners,
as solitary walkers retrogress.
Phone wires & trolley wires loop & cross
with the strange allure of a signature.

The reek of wet clothing, the growl of the diesel
over the fast pulse of its idle
(like the muffled roar of a captive giant),
then suddenly, all around, crows cawing.

What is all this to Verlaine, who sits quietly
in a side seat, the unread Province in his lap,
transported by a vision? – a white form,
a sweet, insistent voice addressing him,
while he, in response, murmurs the syllables
of a Name whose cadence quells the bus’s rumble.

About The Author

Author

rob mclennan was born and lives in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Gifts (Talonbooks), A Compact of Words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), Kate Street (Moira, Chicago) Wild Horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, Missing Persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), Seventeen Seconds: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics.

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