Saturday, June 23, 2007

Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden

For years now, my favourite poetry collection by Toronto writer, editor and troublemaker David W. McFadden has been his book The Art of Darkness (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1984), with striking blue cover and a detail of a painting by Puvis de Chavannes, "The Beheading of John the Baptist." After reading a number of his collections before this, the poems in The Art of Darkness were the ones that made me finally understand, the poems that convinced me of the strength and force of the writing of David W. McFadden (well before he added the "W." in the middle of his name), with two of the finest poems there being "Frank O'Hara" and "New York."


Frank O'Hara used to say he couldn’t enjoy a
blade of grass unless there was a subway handy;
he spent a month in Boston and when he returned
complained about how provincial they were up there.
This year five people already have been killed
by pieces of masonry falling from tall buildings
and eleven people have been killed by demonic comics
who sneak up behind people in subway stations
when the moon is full and push them in front of trains
but there is no fear in New York for I am here
walking with friends down Fifth Avenue on Eastern Sunday.
There is a De Chirico exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art
but it is so warm and sunny outside and the streets are so full
of happy people gawking at the fire eaters and the trumpet trios
in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and here is a religious
argument, an old guy with bad teeth is holding a Bible
and yelling at this young ordinary-looking guy
and telling him to wipe that smile off his face
because the Bible is serious business
and the young guy says Christ put that smile on my face
and I'm not taking it off, and the old guy tells the young guy
he's a coward, too cowardly to get down on his knees and pray,
and the young guy is a little embarrassed, a crowd is forming,
and I yell out yeah, get down, get down, and the young guy
gets down on his knees with a sigh and he and the old guy pray
and Valerie and I walk on, we seem to have lost Sarah and Kenny
and Jim but we know they'll show up.

In an Indian restaurant
I overhear a man saying to a woman I know what you're going to say
and I agree with you, and I think that could have been me.
And I overhear a stockbroker ask his friend
is that Copper Lake any good? And as Frank O'Hara
lay on his death bed
in Bayview General Hospital
in Mastic Beach
dying of abdominal injuries
after being hit by the left fender of a dune buggy on Fire Island
he joked with the nurse who was French
and insisted on speaking French with her
and Valerie bought a canvas bag marked MoMA
at the Museum of Modern Art where O'Hara used to work
and now I am heading west into British Columbia
where everything is beautiful
and the air is pure
and the water is pure
and there is a general lack of urban blight
and in a moment I will board the plane for Vancouver
and there will be a small delicate sophisticated woman in her thirties
sitting next to me and reading French newspapers
and she will order Tia Marias and milk
and I will order Bloody Marys
and we will taste each others breakfasts
and we will talk about Bonnard and Matisse
and I will tell her about Frank O'Hara
and she will tell me about Mayakovsky
how he was always striking up wonderful conversations
with strange and beautiful women in public places
and we will confess to each other
that we are primarily interested
in the quiet life.

After the poetry of New York School poet Frank O'Hara, there were many admirers (including two more Canadian poets, Ken Norris and the late Artie Gold [see my note on him here]) and even further imitators, but none managed to extend the idea of the "I did this, I did that" sort of poem in any way close to that of David McFadden. The self-proclaimed master of the coincidence, Toronto's David McFadden (originally from Hamilton, Ontario) somehow manages to write poems that exist as part of the world around him, instead of simply being about him. His poems aren’t about the world, his poems are the world. The author of a great many poetry collections, books of fiction and even some recent travel books [see my review of his most recent one here], David W. McFadden was, throughout the late 1960s and well into the 70s, the ying to George Bowering's yang; McFadden was to Toronto and Coach House Press what Bowering seemed to be for Vancouver and Talonbooks. Both close with the late London, Ontario visual artist Greg Curnoe as friends and collaborators, Bowering even edited McFadden's first and only previous selected poems, My Body Was Eaten By Dogs (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1982). This new collection, Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2007), at some 328 pages, is an appropriate homage to his poetic output over the past few decades, working from poems from Letters from the Earth to the Earth (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1968) and Poems Worth Knowing (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1971) to the more recent Five Star Planet (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2002) and chapbook A Little Kindness (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2002). Who else could write a poem about a cow swimming Lake Ontario, or wry sentimental observational poems about Hamilton, Ontario's steeltown?


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 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 instance
and then she walks away

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

With some thirty or more trade titles published since the late 1960s, that seems quite a lot of work by someone who hasn’t really had a lot of critical attention over the past few years; hopefully a collection of this sort will help change some of that. The editor of the current project, Toronto writer and editor Stuart Ross, is even considered by many to be influenced by the strange humour and often surreal turns of McFadden's poetry, and an entirely appropriate fit to go through the decades of Uncle Dave's work for such a collection. As Ross writes in his introduction:

If Frank O'Hara was the poet of "Personism" — recording the minute details of a life lived in New York City among writers and artists — then David W. McFadden might be the poet of "Otherpersonism," recording his fascination with everyone around him: writers, artists, the guy working the convenience store, the woman on the bus, in Toronto, Hamilton, Havana or wherever the poet happens to be.

That's not to say the chameleon-like narrators of David's poems don't play a pivotal role in the works, whether they are McFadden himself, an innocent observer or a plain-spoken killer. But David's poetry, like David, is social. It's interested in people, and in trees, squirrels, dogs and oceans. It's also social in that it wants to be read, and it makes itself readable — not just to academics and to other poets, but to the convenience-store guy and the woman on the bus.

The socialness seems to arise from a deep humanistic impulse in David's work, an interest in and compassion for others that exists contemporaneously with an imbued despair. When David read through the final selection for this volume, he remarked on how sad it is. But when I read his work, I feel that he acknowledges sadness — the sadness of mortality, missed opportunity, war — but then revels in a delight and wonder, in even the most ordinary things, and in the privilege of being alive and getting to look at clouds, watch movies, listen to Ella Fitzgerald, walk through a neighbourhood and talk to strangers in bars. Even as a mopey teenage poet, I saw this love-energy in those fantastic McFadden books I stumbled across in the public library. Of course, what also attracted me was how god-damn funny these poems so often are.
Writing out from the social, as Ross suggests. George Bowering said much the same thing over twenty years ago in his piece "Proofing the World: The Poems of David McFadden" from his book of essays A Way With Words (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1982), writing:
One Saturday night I sat with David McFadden in Maple Leaf Gardens, watching Toronto beat Detroit 6-0. At game's end, when sixteen thousand people began to rise and file out, McFadden opened his book bag and shouted, "Wait, wait, I have some poems to read to you!"

He was joking but he was not kidding. All his writing life he has acted as if the poet had a real function in the social life of his country and world, as if poems were composed by a human being intent on taking his part in the building of a place to live in. The poet is perhaps not the unacknowledged legislator of the world, but if the citizens could have their ears unstopped they would at least recognize him as a functionary.

McFadden does not want to replace the famous athletes in the workaday dream machine; he simply wants to take his turn with them.

One of the strengths of the plain-speaking poetry of David W. McFadden, as referenced by both Ross and Bowering, is the strange humour and humanity that he brings to the table, without falling into sentimentality. McFadden is a poet who wants the odd thoughts that flutter inside his skull to reach out to a wider audience, whether he be writing a poem or walking down the street. In an interview conducted by David Collins in the first issue of the late lamented Missing Jacket (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, January 1996), McFadden talked about the effect he wanted his poems to have on readers, saying:
They'll have a different effect on different readers. We always want what we can't have and as for me I want to write poems that can be read over and over and over again. Somebody can read my poems with such immense delight they will want to do it again next week or next year and they'll want to buy copies of my books for all their friends. I consciously try to design my stuff in such a way that it will become more interesting the older it gets, like photography in general. I think it's perfectly okay to do that. But to strive for the kind of effect that will cause a reader to want to read the piece over and over again (or even just remember it fondly) for the rest of his or her life, well that just isn’t in me. It just seems so damned fake and so damned egocentric and so damned pretentious. It's not craft, it's self-regard. I'd like to be able to do it but something in my genetic spiritual makeup forbids me. Great if it comes naturally but I forbid myself from striving for it or even twitching a muscle in that direction. Call me perverse, but that's the way I am.

There are many popular songs, even some cheesy sentimental ones, that I'd truly love to have written. Like "I'm My Own Grandpaw" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Stardust" or "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or "Louis Louis" or "Bad to the Bone" — or (my fave) "The Marseillaise."

Heaven forbid I'm not trying to effect any behavioral or psychological changes on my readers, like make them better people or anything like that. Improve my readers, moi? I'm not one of those people who practice what the poet Victor Coleman calls "American Fascist Buddhism." But the individual artist does have something vital to say about the fate of humanity. The harder the individual artist works the more wondrous the human race becomes… We're involved in a very political process, and this won't be realized for a few decades yet just exactly what it is we're doing, but dammit it's important. As the Tibetan Buddhists say when they sit down to visualize the cosmos wheeling in their minds: "I do this for others." If large numbers of readers decided my work was seriously worthwhile, that would be nice. After all, I've over the years found it largely worthwhile in spite of all that anguish and despair that tend to go hand in hand with life as an artist, and poverty.
Too many times the appearance of a Selected Poems reads like a tombstone to a particular author, or a reminder that someone still exists, after not publishing for a few years; at least McFadden's last trade poetry collection was published as recent as 2002, and even the introduction by Stuart Ross talks about McFadden recently putting the finishing touches on a sequence of one hundred sonnets, putting David W. McFadden still in the midst of creating. It helps, too, that a number of his books are still in print, including his last few poetry collections published by Vancouver's Talonbooks, as well as his three Coach House Press novels A Trip Around Lake Erie (1981), A Trip Around Lake Huron (1981) and A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988) rewritten to become the single volume Great Lakes Suite (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1997), his Curnoe-McFadden collaboration two-volume reissued as The Great Canadian Sonnet (Coach House Books), and his more recent travel books published by McClelland & StewartAn Innocent in Ireland (1995), An Innocent in Scotland (1999), An Innocent in Newfoundland (2003) and An Innocent in Cuba (2005). One of the interesting touches to Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden is in how the book is structured (as Ross says in his introduction), less a matter of a thematic or chronological flow to the poems than a collaborative selection of what both editor and author thought most interesting throughout McFadden's poetry, existing in the order that made sense for the selected as a whole (although a list at the back of the book gives a sense of what poems are from what previous books). Interesting, too, are the notes written in the back by the author, giving little bits of extra information about particular poems, whether writing

On the Road Again: An attempt to describe a momentary experience of unconditional love of country. Sir Walter Scott does it more memorably in his "Lay of the Last Minstrel." At a press conference a few years ago, journalist Helen Thomas told President George W. Bush that "to understand the Iraqi resistance, I suggest reading the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott. He wrote: 'Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said this is mine own my native land.'"

A Moment in the Life of the Members of the Graduating Class of Arnprior High School, 1976: The Ottawa Valley is very beautiful during spring thaw.
A particularly interesting one was for the poem "SEX WITH A SIXTEEN YEAR OLD," a poem that apparently got him into more than a bit of trouble when it appeared in his poetry collection There'll Be Another (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1995), writing:

Sex with a Sixteen Year Old: Maybe I should have replaced "Sex" with "Flirtation," but it's too late now. One wouldn’t change a word in a poem after the poem had been published, just as a painter wouldn’t be allowed to mess with a work he had signed and sold.
It's an interesting theory, especially after Ross in his introduction talks about McFadden working through the poems in this collection, "correcting" various mistakes from previous editions, and even tinkering with a few of them; I wouldn’t have wanted this poem changed if he had.


What I hate is being in a bar and a
beautiful woman squeezes in next to you
and you strike up a wonderful conversation
with a lot of vertiginous eye contact
and just when you think you might be falling in love
some big tough-looking guy shows up
with a nasty scowl on his face
and the woman sighs and gives you a sad look
and whispers adios mi amigo

Also I hate it that you are flying off
to Vancouver this afternoon
just as I am getting interested in you
which is unusual for me because
I never get interested in anyone under forty
and you're only sixteen. Sixteen! I know I
refused to go for Chinese food with you last night
because I figured there was a danger of us
ending up in the sack and you only sixteen
how could I have ever forgiven myself
and what if my daughters ever found out

And today on the phone you give me
a few more tantalizing details about your
seemingly extensive and far-ranging
sex life and you happen to mention you're a big
when you get going you wake up
neighbours dogs cats birds for blocks around

And all of a sudden I realize I should have
gone with you last night for Chinese food
I love noisemakers
they're my favourite people
but it's too late and the next time I see you
you won't be sixteen anymore

Sixteen come to think of it
isn't all that young the little woman
Charles Dickens left his wife and eight kids for
was not much older and Lauren Bacall
(when she put her lips together and blew
in To Have and Have Not)
was only sixteen
and Bogie who took one look at her
and decided to devote the rest of his life to her
was three times her age
four times would be scandalous
but three times is okay

1 comment:

Razovsky said...

Great to see you giving this book so much attention, rob. A small but important correction: the order of the poems in Why Are You So Sad? was determined by a random generation on the part of David's computer. Though I suspect he did a little tinkering over what opened and closed the book.

I don't know that David is a "self-proclaimed master of coincidence," but he's a great believer in serendipity and letting the universe have its say.

So, in fact, there is no conscious thematic or chronological logic to the order of these 40 years' worth of poems.

Most important, though: anyone who claims to be interested in contemporary Canadian poetry should buy this book.