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Sunday, September 14, 2008

an old poem embedded in thoughts on the ottawa river

You can't step into the same river twice, they say, or at least Heraclitus. Saskatchewan poet John Newlove made a reference to such in one of his poems, "You Cannot Step Twice" from Black Night Window (1968), and I've sprinkled it, somehow, into pieces of mine every couple of years since. It's a powerful idea, different thoughts on the difference of same. In one poem, I even went as far as to say that it might be a different river, but your shoe and sock still get equally wet. It might as well be the same.
shipbuilding (foundation

you were writing a paper on marriage
& wherein lies the question

, a question of lies

i was working on a poem
on the ottawa river

how you cant step into
the same truth twice

arriving too early for dinner, i read
an essay on homemade beer

by paul quarrington

you couldnt work with me in the room
i tried not to laugh out loud

at the essay, not at you,
half a glass of merlot

i could tell that you
were not impressed

i pictured a lemon, the shape
of an hour
The lemon is another sly theft from Alberta writer Robert Kroetsch, riffing off Wallace Stevens' infamous poem about blackbirds, another line leading directly to another line. Can literature ever exist on its own? No matter how hard we try, we can no easier create art out of nothing than become our own parents; there is always a place where we begin, outside and before ourselves. The woman I was spending time with during this poem was far more trouble than she was worth, and has long since been excised, although she still has a couple of my books that I want back. I really should have learned long ago not to loan anything to anyone.

This piece is a part of The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, 2007), the book on the city I managed to somehow return to at nineteen, and this section on Ottawa's old lumber-town history from the Victorian era, making fortunes for lumber barons Booth, Eddy. A foundation of ships long since taken down, once the British no longer needed our Ottawa Valley timber for masts. This is the river the English called Ottawa and the French called les Outouais, originally called Grand by the European influx, not figuring to ask what the locals still knew it as. Champlain and others who navigated its shores, what we swam ourselves in under Canada Day fireworks in 1996, perhaps troubling our still-future health for the filth of the Ottawa River, ash floating down on our floating heads.

Around the same time, I was reading Robert Legget's Ottawa Waterway: Gateway to a Continent (University of Toronto Press, 1975) for the sake of research on my travel book, Ottawa: The Unknown City (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008), working through the Outaouais, the Algonquin, Samuel de Champlain, and the steam ships and the advent of rail that took out the steam ships, and even the advent of cars that took out the rail.

For a couple of decades before and just at the turn of the 20th century, there was a hot springs in eastern Ontario, downriver some, just before the Quebec border, as the Bytown & Prescott Railway Company making regular trips to Caledonia Hot Springs, where heads of state and even royalty would visit for the spring's healing powers. What is it about history? It's difficult to even find references to such, and there are barely stones in the field to mark where the buildings once sat, completely erased, it seems, despite the trains and the steam ships that took important passenger cargo to visit, including British royalty and various heads of state. How does something so grand disappear so completely, so quickly? So far, the only book on the Caledonia Hot Springs was written and published in French; I await the translation, so I don’t have to write the same thing myself. Will it ever happen?

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