Thursday, August 28, 2008

an old poem embedded in thoughts on my mother

Much of what became the poetry collection The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, 2007) came out of the realization that much of my writing about the combinations of 'home' and 'growing up' had come through the history of my father's family, on the same concession of Roxborough Township since 1845. Where did the other half come in? I remember calling my mother collect in my late 20s from The Royal Oak on Bank Street, once it occurred to me (after a few drinks) that I knew so much of my father's past, but didn’t even know where it was that my mother emerged. I've eventually discovered that she and I were both born at the late Grace Hospital in Ottawa's Hintonberg (fourth of seven, and the first of her siblings hospital-born), that she went to grade school at Elgin Street School, where my own daughter went to kindergarten, and lived on Gilmour Street until her mid-twenties, when the whole clan moved themselves down to the Ridgemont/Alta Vista area, where my grandmother remained until the mid-1990s.

233 gilmour street

my mother own & baseball diamond, home
aint what it used to, last rites of houses
then not so, set & set upon
runcible, mountain high & the street
contained everyone, tender disgust
& cicadas sweet rapture, august moon
of red summer silk contradictions, plastic light
of fathers, her own a cold cigarette
plantation, stroke or no stroke, a
form of erasure; snarl of smoke
suspicious materials, brokeback colonies
anticipation of shores upon shores upon shore
once speaking clear, they moved; obtain
a clearer speaking picture, gilmour torn
& torn down; immediately moved
their material restriction impeded, & built
in nineteen sixty-six a tall brown
oval ship in harbour minutes, impressive
& leaving them no lesson to meet
I was intrigued by the combination of these histories, that the whole of my father's clan could be traced through three properties side-by-side, and my mother's, through properties in Coburg, Kemptville and Brockville, and various Ottawa locations, all of which were torn down after the family moved, as the last torn down for the sake of a smaller house on the same lot, another torn for the sake of the on-ramp to the 417 at Lees Avenue, and this one on Gilmour Street, torn down to built the Canadian Public Service Building at 233 Gilmour Street. There are the references to home and family, the building that looks like a brown, oval steam-liner, there is the little Jack Spicer reference peppered in, through.

In 2003, I was getting a book signed at the Ottawa International Writers Festival by Kingston poet Joanne Page, just as a CTV-CJOH cameraman asked if it was okay for him to film us. Of course, we said. With only two poetry collections in the space of a decade, Page added, thank you for remembering that I exist, and reviewing this book! How could I not remember, I said, you have the same name as my mother. You a Joanne Page from Kingston, and she a Joanne Page from Ottawa. The cameraman, surprised, turned to me and asked, did she live on Gilmour Street?

Apparently when he was thirteen and she was fourteen, my mother was his first girlfriend. What did that even mean? And the squatter house that still stood across from 233 Gilmour, not yet torn down by the city, was where, he said, my mother's best friend lived. He hadn’t thought of her for years. Just how random is that, some fifty years later? Brian Nichol, he said, "spelled like bp." I was impressed; just how many television cameramen knew of the late Toronto poet? I spent the rest of the evening calling him "almost-dad," which he found amusing enough to call me "almost-son" a few times. What are the odds in discovering such connections? It made me wonder further about what I know so little about, my mother, who apparently briefly dated one of impressionist Rich Little's two younger brothers when they all students at Lisgar. But how did she end up with the stoic, hard-working, skinny farm kid from Glengarry?

It's part of what makes Ottawa such a small town. If you stay here long enough, you end up not only meeting everyone, but meeting at least one person who is somehow connected to another person you know from somewhere else. Is this a reason to leave the city screaming, or to hold on that much tighter to all that I have? Or better still, all that I haven’t yet?

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