Monday, August 14, 2006

Maxine Gadd's Backup to Babylon

in the backwoods

across rainy Georgia Strait from dominatrix city on an island amongst
islands known for thousands of years, a two hour walk on small settled
roads to the beginning of a forest under a green mountain cradling a dark
green cove, an old orchard and meadow sloping northwest, a run down
yellow house, many collapsing outhouses, tool sheds, wood sheds, chicken
coops, garages carpeted about with exquisitely disintegrating components
of antique internal combustion motors: springs and levers, axles separated
from wheels, bolts, wires, nails, blades rusting into the colour of the cedar
bark browse

back of all that, a cabin with a woodpile, axes, wedges, mauls, saws,
black nights, fire, silence, soft cries of owls and wounded deer, fire, and
neighbours' tales (p 3)

Vancouver poet Maxine Gadd has been quiet a long time, as far as any sense of literary publishing is concerned. Far more active throughout the 1960s and 1970s, apart from a number of small self-published items that have remained extremely close to home, and a chapbook out from Saltspring Island's mother tongue press in 2001, Gadd's Backup to Babylon (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2006) is her first title since the appearance of her selected poems, Lost Language (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1982), edited by Daphne Marlatt and Ingrid Klassen. Working smaller projects instead of the book itself as her compositional unit, Backup to Babylon collects three of shorter works in one volume, including "greenstone," "cabin on the shore" and "backup to babylon," some of which appeared previously in the hand-crafted book Fire in the Cove (Saltspring Island BC: mother tongue press, 2001). Her collection Westerns (Air, 1975), for example, was made up of three of her early mimeo books: Guns of the West (blewointment press, 1967), Book of Practical Knowledge (self-published, 1969) and Hochelaga (blewointment press, 1970). (A question worth asking: why does she wait so long before any of these works fall into a published collection that more than her immediate group can see?) Lost Language, called a selected, was itself built up of writings that predominantly fell outside of those considerations, including performance pieces and works from little magazines and small anthologies (the collection is worth going through alone for the interview that Marlatt conducted with Gadd on Vancouver Co-Op Radio from 1981 included at the end).

at the very end of the road

the silk
on a nail
on a wall
like a lei

on old

on the back
of the black

of the Omineca
river under
the Omineca
at the very end
of the road
Old Hogum (p 100)

It has been said for years that Canada has no tradition of political poetry, citing our lack of civil wars or "Manifest Destiny," deliberately annexing other lands to create our own country (an idea that very much ignores the native elements across the country), usually citing Gary Geddes as one of but a handful of our politically active and engaged poets. Apart from whole swaths of French-Canadian poets over the past forty years, and various native poets over the past few years, there has been a western strain of politically and socially engaged work coming out of the west since the 1960s, and Gadd is very much a precursor to other politically and socially active language poets of the west coast, including Jeff Derksen, Peter Culley and Dorothy Trujillo Lusk (it's not hard to see shades of Ed Dorn out of Gadd's poems, either). Coming out of Vancouver of the 1960s, Gadd existed peripherally to all the activity of the Tish group, existing in a part of their ongoing conversations if not part of any of their particular groupings, along with other poets around town such as Gerry Gilbert [see my note on him here], John Newlove, bill bissett and Roy Kiyooka [see my note on him here]. There is even a great story (reprinted in her words in my note on bissett) of a poetry collection of hers that only existed because bill bissett broke into her house and stole a stack of poems, and created a book through his blewointment press of what he managed to escape with. Included in the back of the bill bissett tribute anthology radiant dance uv being: a poetic portrait of bill bissett (Madeira Park BC: Nightwood Editions / blewointment, 2006), edited by Jeff Pew and Stephen Roxborough [see my review of such here], Gadd writes:
Maxine Gadd – Would be glad to remind bill of the time he visited and grabbed a bunch of pages. I was sick with something devastating and couldn’t chase him. He soon after published a book he titled hochelaga after some history I'd been reading. I still like the book and bill. Isn't it good to have ratched spelling,
like when you lose the drift to get the desired stream?
More recent than that, Gadd was very active in Vancouver during the "woodsquat" occupation of the Woodwards building that unfolded between September 14 and December 14, 2002, part of which was documented in the special issue of West Coast Line 41 (volume 37, 2-3), fall/winter 2003/4. As an interesting sidebar to that, the back cover of her Backup to Babylon writes that the collection is "set in the Vancouver of the 1980s, a time of the Francis Street Squat, of Solidarity, of political optimism confronted by cynicism. Feminism, utopianism, the erotic are some of the subjects treated in these poems." In her own acknowledgments page, Gadd writes:
This is a book of ancient history, ravings, folly and struggle. The person I have turned into is not the woman in 1984, pictured by Elaine Brière. I still claim the poet's right of altering the orthography demanded of us in Grade School. So the format here is of resistance and surrender and resistance and … the fool's attempt to re-enter "The Garden." Nightmares and the beautiful terrible white page where voices are laid down. (p 147).
purposeful love

with the tide out the tall grey CIA sailors stay away.

here come the feet of the people
they are looking for a good time
cruel clowns
sit above them and mock them
the peoples' hunger makes these dolls divine
the clowns fall off the towers and trees like plums at the end of summer
purposeful love ploughs them under (p 61)

Gadd's poetry is insistently engaged and essentially human, exploring the social aspects of her immediate world, including the area around the intersection of Hastings and Main Streets in Vancouver, considered the poorest postal code in Canada. Where has she been all this time?

scene 4: Hastings and Main

the dark eyed Dene boy
he stop yu on
the street

hey, where yu going
and i
yu can't stop me
yu got no right

he laughs
he steps back
he say
let's see
some ID, then

i turn up my nose like Pretty Pepperidge Meggy
who sells sweet and nutty pies frum the farm
frum the freezer

no use
looking back

no problem
who i
on this
day (p 43)

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