Monday, June 27, 2005

from “Missing Persons” (a work-in-progress)

From the time she was small, Alberta could see forever; she could see through walls. When her dog ran away from home, she watched it for three days across the prairie. The storms as they came in, and the swirls of dust and light that created accidents on the horizon. Of buildings, hills and trees that she knew where not there. What she could see between.

A few miles to the south, the valley. Invisible, until you were on it. The two sides that folded together like an envelope, sealing everything in. A swath in the brown earth a green scar, where stitch of water ran. Beneath the earth. Beneath her view.

Looking back to the house, she could see her brother Paul, walking out from the house to find her. In dress pants and jacket, his hair slicked back with comb, face cleaned with swipe and spittle. She watched him, walking up and over the lump they called hill, long before Paul could see her. Indistinguishable from the mounds of earth or bushes. Alberta a smudge on pale horizon.

Still. As varied as her places were, for escape in whatever form, Paul knew them all. He could feel her on his skin.

Deaf from birth, there were six years between them.

As he got closer, he saw her. He signed. Come back to the house, Paul said, mother is looking for you.

It was the day of their father's funeral. Three days after the truck had rolled, crushing his pelvis at the end of a speeding curve. Where did he have to go so quickly, she wondered. What she knew not to ask.

Alberta was fourteen years old, and she wondered about the end of her life. Approaching from the house, Paul saw Alberta rise to her feet and move toward him, brushing flecks of green and gold from her legs and hair. Paul turned and ran ahead, back through the weeds and the underbrush. Back through the branches and the fence. The dirt path between fields, dual tire ruts as old as anything, that led back to the barn.

Alberta saw their mother wearing her best dress, standing outside beside Mr. Cooley's green pick up truck. Her dark eyes red forever from crying.

Her parents were very old, born and married to that place before. The old country. A fiction to her, but a story told with every breath. A history of countless wars and thick skin, of myths that multiplied and overlapped and spoke in the air. Tales of Baba Yaga. Alberta, named for the destination that they never quite made. Born en route, her parents arriving on new world soil and giving her birth. Giving her breath on a Montreal shore. Two weeks before they moved again.

The day after her father’s funeral, Alberta in the local pool, a floor below the hockey arena. One-piece suit and goggles tight over eyes and white cap over her thick dark hair. The world at this moment becomes mercurial, almost uteral. Alberta dreams of one day becoming an olympic swimmer. Her father used to joke, only in these prairies could anyone dream of being an olympic swimmer. Only in this dry, mutable heat.

Her father always thought it strange, and her mother too, but there was never any argument. In larger prairie towns, the hotels boasted pools and water slides alongside other perks such as colour television and free cable. A benefit for those completely rural, or simply passing through. To escape for a weekend of collecting supplies. Foreign concepts introduced no longer foreign, as they became indelible. As much the land now as wheat, and cracks in the soil.

For her parents, to Alberta, even older than the soil, the notion remained foreign. Foreign, but unchallenged. Drives to the pool twice a week after school and once on Saturday for her to swim laps. Her mother, with constant book or magazine on imaginary shore. Harlequin romance novels, or Chatelaine. Waiting behind glass in the hall instead of beside the pool. The scent of chlorine a bad perfume. As she said, the damp always bothered her skin. Left welts the size and shape of a slap.

To Alberta it made perfect sense. Only on the prairie dry as dry would she dream of such a thing. Would she even dream. An absence from her pores she deemed necessary. To immerse herself in this weightless environment. Outside, beyond the protective glass, she would go through lip balm by the case, her father said, and often did. Soaked up into her. Strawberry, grape flavours soothing skin. During the drive home, her lips would always come out cracked.

In the community pool, Alberta lives between the strokes. Thrives. A creature born of water. Weightless and aiming her body like an arrow, legs and arms tight in a path drawn a straight line, thrust from one end of the pool to the other. Her only goal is speed. Speed, and breathing. But anything can be held.

For the time she exists in the pool, all else around her is suspended.

Alberta has seen what kills fathers – farm equipment, disease, physical labour. The cost of what they do against the land, above it. For mothers, it became more devious, killed by what was not. Living their lives beneath, instead of the surface of land. An absence. By the immediate lack that tore through bodies, and shriveled up what was left. She could see it in her mother, the part of her father that existed in her suddenly gone, as physical as had her lungs been removed as she slept, or her heart. What she could not live without.

For her mother, it was as though a switch had gone. Immediately moving to overtake the other role, but without the innate ability to quickly adapt. Her resources here stretched thin as it was.

Her mother moved through her day and days and withered. Rose into and eventually waned, like the moon.

Alberta remembers her first crush. Brian Friesen behind the skating rink when she was twelve years old. His round face and freckles, red hair like fire. The thin hairs on his arm that stood up, as his arm brushed up against hers. Glowed yellow against his freckles and permanent tan. The tight fist of veins constricting in both their chests when they were close, a proximity that made the whole enterprise dangerous, and exciting. The word “heaved,” that she had read in one of her mother's pulp novels that to them, didn't mean a thing. The flesh of their hands that burned like wax in equal vice and first kiss, melting away the borders. They were the same.

They were the same for a week, maybe two, before he did the same with the Simpson girl a grade ahead with the early breasts and flirty mouth and that was that.

Alberta, suddenly on the wrong side of a line she hadn't drawn.

If Alberta was a creature of water, Paul was a creature of land. Permanent shovel and dog by his side, the two digging holes and pulling out one thing, to replace with another. Secret treasure, and stories of pirates. Paul with a bandanna on his head. Construction paper scraps, a parrot.

In the field by the tree line, an abandoned boat slowly rotting into the ground, where Alberta and Paul would make up stories of lost ships, and weeks out at sea. Leaping out from the dusty sides into what the two of them shared, but in dreams. An ocean of land.

Alberta considered the water. It was a day during the week she would have done laps. What else she would lose. Paul's dog in the bushes tearing at roots, and gopher-holes. Barking where Paul couldn't see. Paul with a shoe box of costume jewelry as his treasure-chest. Once hers when she was younger, and used to play dress-up.

A mess of wind swirling spirals of dusty snow. A horizon without end.

Alberta swam back to shore. This is not what she wanted. Through some demented accident of birth and geography. She took some comfort there, in the sheer randomness, but knew this was not where she is meant to be. She returned to the house.

Alberta is slight; has a dancer's body. Lithe. Small. Almost wiry but more muscular. A soundless music that wove through her head, that followed her in rhythm as she walked. What her mother had done before her parents were married, what she did when they met. She had what her mother had, a form that could cleave through air and water equally, as though she were a knife. A jagged edge.

Three weeks after the funeral, Alberta's mother informed her that the weekly swimming would have to end; that they could no longer afford her membership to the community centre. It was a crushing blow.

At the kitchen table, Alberta’s mother, Emma held her cup of tea, warming her hands. Her husband had been dead and buried for three weeks, far from the country where they had been born, and their parents in turn. Alberta had come in through the back door, dropping her school bag on a chair, and opened the refrigerator. A parcel of torn envelopes and papers on the table. Alberta, she began, Alberta.

There would be no more swimming. There would be no more for so many things. Waiting on the insurance money for a new truck. The cost of funerals, even at cremation. None of this was explained to her; none of this would have mattered. It only mattered her mother.

Alberta, wide eyes turning thin, like daggers. Shooting sparks. Alberta slamming the fridge door and storming out of the room. Out of the house. Gone.

Alberta imagined Lot’s wife, or was it Job, from Bible studies. Turning to witness the destruction of their abandoned city, friends and neighbours both, to be turned by a vengeful God into a pillar of salt. A pillar of salt. Alberta wondered if this meant a small block of salt replaced where her body stood, or if the shape of her body was reformed in hard salt. As the rest of them ran, a statue of blue-white standing suddenly still.

She wondered, too, if this nameless wife began to melt with the first rain, or was dry enough in the desert that grains would begin to loosen and drift in the unforgiving wind, hammering down on salt flesh. A wind no different than her life long prairie.

Like a fish needs a bicycle. Alberta out of the water standing cool, dry behind the house where she lives. Her skin already beginning to flake.

That next morning, she noticed, bits of dead skin already appearing on her pillow.

Two months after her father died, the snow on the ground like a cancer. Alberta stomped her feet with each step, made snow-bloody footprints across the yard.

There was no part of this that she liked. Not that her approval made much difference. Her mother's swift betrayal with a man from town she barely knew. Who drove a truck down highway one, and had a beard. She would not call him father. She refused. Not that she had been asked. She braced herself for the blow. She imagined it as a bat, swung hard into the bulls-eye of her stomach.

Alberta felt herself bend at the thought of the blow, hands reaching for her abdomen. A cramp. Sympathy pains for her own imagined wound? No. A real cramp. Again. Hell damn, she thought. She swore under her breath. All she knew how. She made her slow way across the yard to the kitchen door. All the time, the wind whipping snow and geography around the house.

What if I die tomorrow, Alberta wondered. What if I die. And then, she thought, where would they be.

At school, Alberta’s best friend was a girl named Mary. Feral red hair, long and indistinguishable from the autumn hills. Layers of coloured clothes, and whose mother was about as different from her own as could be. Wild, exuberant. A visual artist, a painter, spending long hours and days in her studio in the old barn slashing abstract oils onto large canvasses. Her father, a painter too, but more quiet than his wife. Working his system of rabbit skin sketches, inspired by Dutch masters, painting 17th century lace so realistic that Alberta was afraid to even breathe in front of them. Afraid they would move, and shake her sense of reality to its foundations.

At Mary’s house, there were many absences. An empty house as her parents worked.

At Christmas, Mary and her mother baked hundreds of cookies in dozens of animal shapes, each painted by hand by the two women. Mary's mother, shortening her daughter's name to initial Em. A sound that closed seamlessly into itself. Alberta thought of her mother.

Alberta and Mary would spend afternoons in one of the fields or behind the house, after a quick pilfer from Mary's mother's studio, and lie in the snow-dusted weeds in a smoke-coloured haze. Before Mary, Alberta had never even heard of pot smoking. She had barely considered cigarettes, watching the old men on the step of the general store as though they'd been born there and forever since, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the rain to begin, and commenting on it all the while, interspersed with stories of what used to be, when they were younger men.

The day the old men made the mistake of commenting on Mary’s wild hair and clothes, a stitch and a creepy smile, and the fire in her eyes that left a swift kick on the calf of the closest one. The light that tore red through her skull. A filament of Metis blood boiling beneath her skin, mixed in with what else. Russian, Scottish, American. An ethnic soup that raged from fingertip to fingertip. Alberta knew, this place would not hold her. Alberta knew, she would be the first to leave.

Friday, June 24, 2005

This is the English translation of what Swedish poet & translator Lars Palm wrote for me (he said it was originally written as a poem) to introduce a section of my poems he had translated for SERUM magazine:

"first things last. rob mclennan is activity. rob mclennan is a poet, editor, publisher & artist. the poet rob mclennan has published more than three dozen chapbooks & ten so called ”trade poetry collections” since 1992. this years harvest consists of; blindness: seven poems for kate & monopoly/ antiques (both from above/ground press), plus stone, book one (palimpsest press) & what’s left (talonbooks). rob mclennan was born in 1970 & lives in ottawa. rob mclennan rarely uses capital letters. this is an informative stanza. this informative stanza has been informed that it is an informative stanza. this informative stanza informs that it is an informed that it is an informative stanza. what this informative stanza was instructed to inform about it has forgotten to inform itself about. the editor rob mclennan has edited two anthologies. the editor edits the book series cauldron through Broken Jaw Press. together with the poet Stephen Brockwell he edits further rob mclennan has recently become editor of the online magazine Drunken Boat. the editor/publisher in him runs above/ground press & the long-poem magazine STANZAS. now the informative stanza knows what it was instructed to inform about. the informative stanza was instructed to inform about the following: the author rob mclennan (almost) manages to find time to finish a novel, a collection of essays & a collection of poems titled the Ottawa City Project. this is some of what rob mclennan is doing. one thing rob mclennan is not likely to do very often is sleep, although he would surely deny that. rob mclennan's poems are often externally diminutive. internally they are expansive & reject only what doesn’t fit them at the moment. rob mclennans poems dress casually rather than formally. none of rob mclennans poems have ever been seen wearing a tie. however it is rumoured that one of them once had a sarcastic bowtie on its shoulder. the last stanza would just like to mention that rob mclennan in addition twice a year organizes a small press fair in ottawa. it wants to add, this last stanza is a little absentminded, that rob mclennan coordinates events in his home town. this last stanza now wants to go & do something completely different."

again: a few more songs that i like.
Stuart Ross’ syd & shirley poetry magazine, issue #1

With years between the demise of his small press ‘zine Mondo Hunkamooga, it’s good to see Toronto writer and small publishing maven Stuart Ross get back into the little magazine game with the first issue of his syd & shirley (named after his parents, with a photograph of them, circa 1950, on both front and back cover). A poetry magazine scheduled to appear three or two times a year, the first issue features work by Lynn Crosbie, Jeramy Dodds and Richard Huttel, as well as an interview with poems by David W. McFadden, as well as the usual heap of reviews of books new and old.

Apart from his own writing, Ross is perhaps at his best as a promoter, whether through his old Mondo issues (get copies if you can; they’re amazing resources to various bits of small press history in Toronto and beyond), or when he was there to help found the toronto press fair in 1987 (an extension to his regular “meet the presses”). Since he stopped producing Mondo, he has been writing a regular column for WORD, but I would rather hear him talk about what interests him (which he does regularly), instead of nit-picking about all the things that bother him (which he also does regularly). He recently collected a number of his columns in a new collection out with Anvil Press in Vancouver, Confessions of a Small-Press Racketeer. Otherwise, you can find a bunch of his old columns here. On top of that, Ross has even recently become a blogger himself, starting with a recent trip to Oslo and Paris.

Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Toronto resident David W. McFadden has always been one of my favorite writers, and it’s good to see an intelligent and lengthy interview with him. Considering all the work he produces, and has been producing, I’ve always wondered why he doesn’t get more attention than he seems to.

Secrets of the Universe

You’re waiting for a bus at Ward and Baker
and a woman comes up to you
and asks for a dance.

You tell her you don’t want to dance
for there is too much snow
and not enough music
and she says you didn’t mind
dancing with me last night.

And when you tell her she’s mistaken
you didn’t dance with her or anyone last night
she says oh yes you did
and when you ask her where
she says up there
on the roof
and she points to the roof of Hipperson Hardware.

In fact, she says, as her voice drops
and a shy look comes into her eyes
I’ve even danced with you on other planets
Venus and Mars for example
and then she walks away

leaving you to wonder about the part of your life
that is secret even from you.

Toronto writer Lynn Crosbie has always favoured dark subject matter, predominantly from pop culture, from her novel about the late Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, her novel Paul’s Case, about Paul Bernardo, to her most recent poetry collection, Missing Children. If a fan of her poetry at all, easily her best is the sequence “Alphabet City” that appeared in her selected poems, Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems (Anansi). Karis Shearer explores the piece in the most recent issue of Open Letter in her “The Poetics of Autobiography: Reading Lynn Crosbie’s ‘Alphabet City.’” Included in Syd & Shirley are thirteen pages of a work-in-progress, “Liar (excerpts),” and Crosbie’s bio includes a note that reads “If you like her poems, please send her a drawing of yourself, preferably with a squirrel and tree in the background.”

We moved off of College, just north of all the noise.
You found this place to appease me, and it never appeased me,

the noise of the street replaced by grotesque domestic concerns —

a python-sized worm in the drain of the shower,
the shower that abutted the laundry room where six inches of black
sludge pooled,

the window sill in the basement kitchen an entomologist’s workshop,
where coaster-sized spiders captured platter-sized beetles,

the mushroom that bloomed between the cracks in the blackened parquet tiles,
more viscous and garish each time.

The mushroom grew beside the cupboard that was forever dis-hinging itself,
and we found ourselves there, one day, and you said,

I will never leave you,

and the mushroom’s black cap swayed,

as you held me and I believed you,

it asserted itself, and sounded like a bell.

– Lynn Crosbie, from Liar (excerpts)

As well, the issue includes healthy amounts of the poetry of Chicago’s Richard Huttel, and Ontario-born Jeramy Dodds. I like any magazine where I can get more than a one-off of a poet’s work, so it is possible to get a real sense of what they are doing.

Copies of Syd & Shirley can be purchased by sending Stuart Ross either eight dollars for a single issue, or twenty-five dollars for three issues Canada (US $25 / 3 issues US; US $33/3 issues elsewhere; payable to Stuart Ross; PayPal payments to No unsolicited manuscripts. Money and books / chapbooks for potential review can be sent to Syd & Shirley, c/o 99A Wychcrest Avenue, Toronto Ontario Canada M6G 3X8.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

the name is the bullet

– among a heap of papers the confused letters
of 49 yrs these bits and pie-eyed pieces of that
lovely summer afternoon in Glengarry County...
before any one of us thot “I’m not young anymore
etcetera.” Bob's Pieces echo thru these leavings –

Roy Kiyooka, Transcanada Letters, “letter to Angela Bowering, winter ‘74”

Now that I have a grounding sense of where I am, at least a beginning, I’ve been leaning into the past, searching and researching a genealogical work on not just our strain of Glengarry / Stormont McLennans, but all the McLennan / MacLennan threads throughout the two counties. Eventually, having to touch on the whole history of the two, early Canadian settlement, United Empire Loyalists, and Scottish reasons for leaving.

What I’ve learned, arriving at Lancaster, Ontario between 1820 and 1845 and on the land we now occupy, as my great-grandfather’s uncle received a grant for two hundred acres from the Crown. What called, the Indian Lands, by MacDonald’s Grove; soon after he and his five siblings arriving on this side of the ocean with their parents. In 1860, he purchased the two hundred acres next door form the original grant holder, where he moved and remained, selling the first piece of land. When he died, his will gave it to my great-grandfather to continue, as he had no children of his own.

It would be eighty more years before we made the leap back, my grandfather and new family, when my father but a year old. Things my family never knew of, or had long forgot.

Imagine: one hundred and forty years, and the furthest my family would get, moving next door and then back.

There was a strain that moved west, and never returned, unaware that there was anyone left in the east, unaware that the name along the way was changed. John, the carpenter: the first of us Canada-born, and my great-grandfather's oldest brother. A whole family of MacLennans living in Regina, where John moved with second wife and children, away from five siblings and parents to homestead, in 1904.

In the years that followed, incorporating Earl Grey, Saskatchewan in 1907, probable letters home, and then, his son burying parents as MacLennan. Both died on the land that they lived.

The differences are slim. The difference enough, making them impossible to track for years, until I went to the Municipal Hall in Earl Grey, and saw there, what was written. Death notices. A single vowel added.

As they say, what’s in a name. The one I was born with not my own, Duncan Warren Andrew, last initial A. My lone parent single, and but two decades older than I. The generation of McLennans I know of, five, and all with a son named John, stopped cold with my father.

Canadian poet P.K. Page, painting under her married name for decades, P.K. Irwin; with paintings in the National Gallery. The Ottawa writer Clare married once as van Berkom, and now as McDonnell, but publishes as Latremouille. From her father. What once we translated badly, to “the very moist.”

How everyone in the 1960s seemingly wrote under a pseudonym, from David W. McFadden to George Bowering, Barry McKinnon to Victor Coleman. Toronto poet bpNichol, according to jwcurry, was the only one of that group who didn’t. As he explained once, if he couldn’t put his name to the work, he didn’t want to publish it.

What’s in a name. Stuart Ross and his poetry collection, Razovsky at Peace. The name his grandfather was born with, before shortened to the current suffix, Ross.

In my area, the calm importance placed on the name, and the history of the name. The annual Glengarry Highland Games, as even questionable links to the area suddenly glow, and are built up from nowhere. The century farms that appeared in the 1980s, between one and two, of the same family working the land. Reminders of a Bethune who once worked in the area, or Peter Gzowski a teen, working roadcrew to put Main Street in Alexandria.

Or the story I knew nothing of until too late, the story of the massacre at Glencoe. I found out quick enough, when a McDonald friend turned on me in an Ottawa bar, lunged with a wooden spoon when she learned my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Bloody lowlander, she hissed, you killed us in our beds.

So much of the blame I put on King James II, damn fool. The Glencoe Massacre, and the Orangemen parade.

Only three hundred years back on the other continent, and what things are not forgotten. In Glengarry County, Ontario, as Kim Campbell ran for Prime Minister, the signs that read “Remember Glencoe.” No dogs or Campbells allowed.

What I saw around as I grew, the importance of history, and the importance of name. For the longest time, presuming my past was filled with neither.

Part of my decision for lower case, to diminish the importance of name, and the author; how the most important part of the equation seemed the work. The effect was quite opposite, questioned on that more than anything, and what once a simple request completely ignored by some magazines, local papers, and journalism students claiming there is but one way.

When I visit home now, my sense of it is different; an understanding and appreciation of context, and filled with reading. The slow movement of French and Scot migration from the late 1700s on, and the last county in Ontario to get phone service; where Scots Gaelic still a strong second language (once first) not two generations before me.

No longer simply the area historically wrote by Ralph Connor or Dorothy Dumbrille; what Toronto writer Margaret Christakos referred to, titling her first poetry collection Not Egypt, and the boy she loved outside Alexandria. The greyhound bus from Cornwall to Montreal.

What artist Roy Kiyooka wrote of in his Transcanada Letters, or poet Don McKay, raised in Cornwall, and his family still, a cabin in Williamstown, without even a phone. Where he and his partner, Jan Zwicky, go to write, for part of the year. And birdwatch.

So much to be proud of. At one point, Glengarry county, the highest rate of teenage alcoholism in Ontario, and mental retardation in Canada. Teenage pregnancy up there too. Tell me there was no correlation.

Every year, someone would die in something car-related, road or rail, or some rare farm mishap. And usually, the wreck front photograph in the local weekly; once, with the sight of the passenger still in the front seat, head to one side. That we knew her name, before we read it.

For us when we were, teens, there was little to do but drink. And lucky for us, we were happy with a case of beer; cared little for anything stronger, or of chemical ports. Alexandria a main point between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, and direct route to Cornwall, and the International Bridge.

To consider, less important what you are called, then who you are. Less important, sometimes, what you have left behind, then how you have lived.

It was once considered, to know your secret name, was to have power over you.

Now I look for my mother the way you’re supposed to, through patience and with little result. A waiting list through the province, Adoption Disclosure Services, to let her know I’m fine.

Without the benefit of mother’s allowance in 1970, after ten months of work, and school by herself, and me in foster care, she had to let go.

All I can presume, from what little I know.

When I find her, will I know what to call her.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Teethmarks, Sina Queyras
2004, Nightwood Editions, $16 / $14 US
96 pages, isbn 0 88971 193 3

Following her incredible first poetry collection, Slip (ECW Press) in 2000, is Sina Queyras’ second collection Teethmarks, published by Nightwood Editions. As a Canadian living and teaching in New Jersey, the first of the four sections in the new collection pay their own homage, as “Jersey Fragments.” The other sections, then, are: Dizzy, or, My Mother’s Life as Cindy Sherman; Eight Small Stones; and Bridging & Tunnelling. She starts the first part of the first section with the three part “Three Songs for Jersey,” that begins:

Welcome to the hourglass. Doormat or
escape hatch, depending on what side
of the Hudson you call home. Verdant
once was state of industry and strip clubs,
nail shops and roadways, soprano land cum back door
of America. Birthplace of Ginsberg and Williams. Slim
remembrance of Whitman in ginkgo leaves and crumpled

I like the physicality of the poems in the Jersey section, referencing the connections between the two cities against Jane Eyre and Virginia Woolf. For the longest time, New Jersey has been portrayed as the joke New York forgot, the suburbs of the sister city only recently being given more serious cultural consideration through Zack Braff’s magnificent film Garden State, and the many films by writer/director Kevin Smith, including the most recent Jersey Girl. The poems in this collection don’t strike as hard as the poems from her first collection; the movement more subtle, underlying.

Amma pirouettes.
Even here the tea
is always cold.

In Jersey, cicadas
taunt pumpkins:
we are all avoiding.

The second section, “Dizzy, or, My Mother’s Life as Cindy Sherman,” works through a number of images of the 1970s housewife, from babies hanging off her to grocery list, vacuum and feather duster, writing a less than forgiving portrait of the narrator’s mother; writing her mother as trapped, and seeking escape.

Nothing about her says
pins in her hair
sleeps on her side.


All her attempts to fade
into landscape fail.


She wishes
she had known how
lovely is to marry

Nothing for its own sake


Is this a fear the narrator has, of becoming her own mother? It could be any fear, once we become old enough, but the lines here blur, just enough to wonder.

She watches her m/


On top of this sits the image of Cindy Sherman, New York resident and New Jersey-born photographer. Considered one of the most respected of the twentieth century, Sherman has predominantly used herself as subject, while challenging the questions about the role and representation of women. Her work includes a series of “Untitled Film Stills,” in which she recreated herself as multiple characters in self-portraiture, and a series of photographs now referred to as “Sex Pictures,” using dolls and prosthetic genitalia in extreme close-up.

With Queyras’ links between mother and Sherman, it makes me wonder what are the poems doing, exactly? Without this information, the poems seem to shift through less than forgiving portraits of the narrators’ mother. With this, a layer of disguise emerges, watching the mother change roles and disguises based upon who is watching, and giving so little of her own personality, and thus revealing so much more. In a series of poems of the mother shifting states, we read the narrator watch as she even loses track herself.

The prose-poem is a form that seems more prevalent in American writing than in Canadian, with obvious exceptions of course, including the prose-poems of Vancouver writer Meredith Quartermain to the genre-blurring prose/poetry/performance works of Anne Stone (a Montrealer now in Vancouver) and Corey Frost (another Montrealer, currently in New York). Less about the break than the line, Queyras works a number of prose pieces throughout the collection, including the eight pieces in the section “Eight Small Stones.”


It is midnight when they pull away from the house, her collection of
45s. The Bay City Rollers, Jackson Five, stacked in the unfinished
basement. Her father’s truck is loaded with grease guns and tool
chests, smelling of wine-tipped cigarillos and coffee. Snow slices
sideways in the headlights. She has told him about each of her classes,
how she dreamed of flying, and now he puffs, the window open a
crack and whistling. She thinks of what she did not say: eating
cigarette butts in the girls’ room, Brent’s tongue in her mouth, his
fingers prying at her crevices, Shelley carving “Donny” into her right
arm, the men who followed her mother home. She thinks of her
mother, rolling in now from a night serving beer, how she will look for
her. He says nothing as he pulls into a Husky stop where she orders
hot chocolate and a donut, watching him pour cream into his coffee
with his calloused black hands, half expecting him to launch into
rhyming tales of the north, like the ones she’d been forced to
memorize at school. But he is hunched over his cup now, under the
weight of nothing ever turning out the way he dreams, of her mother’s
refusal to do as he says, of the endless road unrolling before him. And
although she knows she is too old for dolls, it occurs to her that hers
will not sleep tonight, that they will be stiff and lifeless in her pink
room, waiting for her to do her rounds.

The last section, “Bridging & Tunnelling,” is a series of mostly straightforward descriptive poems, the strongest one being “FORTY FAST APPROACHING,” that begins:

All is Pema: red oak, Provencal gold.
Desire a Zeppelin.

Squirrels eat tulips. Your lips
tangy. Eyes on springs.

Spring is a puddle in 1969: mojos
spearmint or banana. Sludge of toes.

Alone, seasick, this hooked year
on the verge of either falling or flying.

In this section, Queyras brings us back to the beginning, writing of endless departure and arrival, from Jersey to New York (as she seems to define it, against what it is and is not, the ying to New York City’s yang), to Toronto against the whole of her United States. As she writes in the poem “SURFACE,” set in the Danforth area of Toronto:

You say you don’t want to leave, but who
can afford the luxury of home these days?

Has something been lost through the need to travel? Has our plucky narrator lost her footing?

on an unrelated note, some cartoons my daughter & i spent father's day watching; a song i can't get out of my head...

Friday, June 17, 2005

fringe festival + the ottawa small press fair

last night was the opening party for the Ottawa Fringe Festival, something i get to be judge for, & see plenty of plays for free; not too bad. it happens until the 26th, & should be well worth going to. other than that, been stapling all day for tomorrow's ottawa small press book fair at the jack purcell community centre, noon to five pm, elgin (at gilmour). some of the exhibitors include Joe Blades (Fredericton), Jon Paul Fiorentino (Montreal), Wanda O'Connor (Ottawa) & Stuart Ross (Toronto). hopefully see you there!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

sex at 31: Kristina Drake & Wanda O’Connor

Sex at 31

Enough to know
trappings and accoutrements are irrelevant,
and shed skins like worn layers,
sliding into a revelation of self:

Once is not enough, but almost,
for sleep, dead drop release
that lasts and lasts and holds until near-
dawn, desire rolls against you
already awake
and only this

At 31, sex expands
and is languid –
side by side, bare-chested in bed,
the unsaid after-tide reverberating
essential as any element, as breathing –
our bodies
achieve a hovering glide, sustained
and stripped of pretense
(all those past perfects rendered
simple present, imperative.)
Stepping out of ourselves
and into each other as from clothing into ocean,
the same unconscious motion.
At 31,
sex wears awkwardness with awakening grace,
no longer embarrassed, knowing
enough to touch.

Kristina Drake, above/ground press broadside #226

In January 2005, completely independent of each other, I was sent new poems in the (apparently still) ongoing series by Montreal poet Kristina Drake and Ottawa poet Wanda O’Connor, both of whom were influenced by the Artie Gold “Sex at Thirty-One” poem, and decided to write their own. Originally Drake had emailed wondering if she could order my sex at 31 chapbook (long out of print), admitting she was working on the same, which I requested she send along. After I had read the poem and asked a few questions, she responded with:

I’d read Artie Gold’s years ago (when 31 seemed old), and remembered it when I heard about yours. Tried to track down McKinnon’s – found some discussion about his writing on the Web, but haven’t actually read his whole piece. Went through what you had on, but I haven’t been very successful (or very thorough) with my research.
(email dated January 13, 2005)

It seems odd timing that both of these poems would arrive at roughly the same time. Liking them both, I immediately published them as broadsheets (after edits to the O’Connor poem). When Wanda O’Connor wrote her piece, she originally said, she knew only of the Gold poem, modelling hers somewhat after his. I think it interesting that she took his as a starting point at all, considering she had no idea it was a series. It was only after she had sent me hers that I was able to point out the essay I wrote on the series as a whole (Sex at Thirty-One – McKinnon, Fawcett, Gold, Stanley, etcetera) on the website, pointing out not only the original and subsequent poems by Barry McKinnon, Brian Fawcett, Pierre Coupey and Artie Gold, but further poems, by George Stanley, George Bowering and Mark Cochrane, as well as my own, prompted by McKinnon himself.

Sex at 32, or something like it

The battle is quiet, and
the flesh dies first

you are happy to have it

Wanda O’Connor, above/ground press broadside #227

Written in December 2004, a few weeks before Drake’s, O’Connor’s comes the closest to the language of the original “Sex at 31” sequence by McKinnon. When I requested she send a write-up on the origins of her poem, she quickly did, prefacing with “Ah sex. And 32, too. So much to say. I suppose the more women poets to spill their stuffings on this one, the better. For what poet wouldn’t want to know the insides of the woman’s head (assuming the male poet is paying attention).” Her text reads:

I had run into two /sex at/ pieces before I discovered it was a serial. I first came across rob mclennan’s version a few years ago, lovingly distributed around O-town [my poem “sex at thirty-three”], and in the summer of ‘04 landed on the Artie Gold (found a copy of Ken Norris’ 20 poets of the ‘80s).

What drew me to the serial was predominantly a tangible, yet ineffable, attention the works (and subject) seem to demand. I’ve since read others, such as Barry McKinnon’s vivid, eloquent portrayals at both 31 and 38 (thanks to rob’s essay tracing the serials origins).

Something catches in the throat when reading these poems – their straightforward nature, or the raw of the poet’s voice, keeps me returning to them, while their seven year installations allow the pleasure of witnessing a maturation of subject through each poet’s chosen deliberation.

After discovering the Gold piece (I still hadn’t put together that rob and Artie’s were somehow related, but rather that rob had simply written a piece after Gold), I was simply moved by the strength of it, and decided to create my own inception(s). Particularly, Artie’s piece struck me with its dynamic authenticity, such as in the lines “too many times love has occurred, reared its beautiful head” and “affords the illusion there is nothing else,” as well as “we are sick/sick of change. sick of wind change. sick of lifeguard change./sick of the tides of the heart.”

I read the Gold piece following a reading I did in September ‘04, shortly after I had discovered it. The impression it left on the crowd, as well as myself for having read it aloud, was poignant enough to encourage me to further explore a /sex at/ of my own. The first piece I composed (of which rob has chosen a section and created a broadside) impressed upon me the lack of plain good serials being written, or at least being distributed, and I found myself more tied to the idea of exploring this topic in-depth and writing more of it. However, seven years is a long time to wait for /sex/.
(email, dated January 20, 2005)

Not only interesting as the first of the series I’m aware of written by women, both poets are barely at the beginning of their game (a few years away from where McKinnon, Fawcett and Gold were, when they composed their poems), barely into the game long enough to have published more than a poem or two in little magazines and journals, but enough to start being interesting. Drake, who I know very little about, is apparently a student at Concordia University, and O’Connor worked with University of Ottawa writer-in-residence Gary Geddes, as well as poet and Professor Seymour Mayne, in his U of O creative writing class.

After I read with Barry McKinnon in Prince George in the fall of 2000, we toyed with the idea of attempting an anthology of new pieces in the “Sex at 31” series, tentatively called Collected Sex, to include a whole range of new pieces written by young folk, and the arrival of these two new poems have made us hopeful that just such an anthology might still fly (we recently received an interesting submission from B.C. poet Nancy Holmes). If anyone is interested in submitting a piece, send it either as attachment to, or hard-copy to 858 Somerset Street West, main floor, Ottawa Ontario Canada K1R 6R7.

Anyone interested in copies of these two (I have only a few left) or any other broadsheets, send me a self-addressed stamped envelope with regular postage, and I can send back four broadsheets (of your choice) by recent authors such as O’Connor and Drake, as well as Meredith Quartermain, Max Middle, Gwendolyn Guth, Clare Latremouille, Rachel Zolf, William Hawkins, Jason Dewinetz, Lori Emerson, Peter Norman, Ross Priddle, nathalie stephens, Gregory Betts and myself. For extra broadsheets, send extra postage. Check the website for other above/ground press titles and submission information. For annual subscriptions, only $30 (outside Canada, $30 US).

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Too much going on here to keep track. the ottawa international writers festival recently had a Ken Babstock & Simon Armitage reading that was standing room only, & very soon have Jose Saramago. Should be amazing. Here's the first & only newsletter they produced a few months ago. Anywayz.