Tuesday, August 26, 2008

an old poem embedded in thoughts on the suburbs

It's that classical relation, I suppose, that George Bowering is always referring to. In February 2001, I wrote a small suite of poems while between residences that ended up in the collection aubade (2006), the block between the shared house on Rochester Street and the tiny apartment alone on Somerset Street West a month long. I landed near the Ottawa airport, living the interim in the basement of a friend's rented townhouse, poet and former graffito: the poetry poster editor/publisher b stephen harding. I have so rarely experienced the suburbs, and have never lived there otherwise, preferring strict rural or Ottawa's Centretown. There is something particularly hellish about the suburbs in my mind, having, I would think, the worst of the city and the worst of the country. In the city, there are all these people around, but at least there's something to do. In the country, there's nothing to do, but at least there aren’t any people underfoot.
south keys (he who became lost

this is a poem w/ neither light. time of day

by the teeth of the river, they slept. the tip,
the tongue.

expands across the water. lets lost balls
float slowly past.

the taste of anything this morning. the snow here,
does as snow does.

a candle burns brightest. the box it came in,
even more.

a telephone is not a detection system. beats
the myths of early warning.

tristan took the wrong south bus, & never saw
isolde again. wandered crescents

for hours. who then

the loss becomes him. that is,
turned into.
When I wrote my fiction referencing Persephone in the novella white (2007), I imagined a version of Nepean, an Ottawa suburb, being her own kind of hell, largely based on where my daughter and her mother have lived for roughly a decade. What choice did I have? There is something mythological and even dark about the suburbs, where bored teenagers find the wrong things to do, with stories of swarmings at bus stops, and sexual assaults seemingly on the rise along bike paths, and hidden in bushes. And these are the people, more often than not, terrified of coming downtown and being assaulted themselves, when it might be the safest part of the whole city. When the whole eastern seaboard went through the blackout of 2003, it wasn’t New York, Buffalo or Toronto reporting lootings, but out on Maitland in Ottawa's west end, hearing the reports from late-night talk show hosts Conan O'Brian and Jimmy Kimmel.

Ottawa has grown at such a rate that we perhaps have a higher percentage of city-acreage taking up suburb than our condensed downtown core, one you can walk east-west across in the space of some ninety minutes. Does anyone remember that it was circa 1865 when Ottawa went only as far south along Bank Street as Gilmour or McLeod? Not even as far as the current Queensway. Has anyone really thought about the neighbourhood Old Ottawa South, and just how far south the city-boundary actually currently goes? We exist with these designations of Old Ottawa East and Old Ottawa South, but that doesn’t mean we bother trying to understand them, back when such city boundaries were neighbourhoods, and not anonymous row-housing between highways.

Certainly, the population of Canada has gone from predominantly rural to predominantly urban within the first three decades of my own lifetime, so conceptual shifts are inevitable. When I was at the University of Alberta, I met a grad student who actually admitted that he'd only recently discovered that people still came from farms, and that such talk of Canadian rural was true, and wasn’t merely used as some kind of "literary device."

Lately, there's been a dearth of material on the suburbs and writing on the suburbs, including a special issue of Descant magazine, the "Sub/Urbia" issue (#125) that came out as its summer 2004 issue. Is this a matter of perhaps working to take back what has already overtaken us, or even to justify what we can no longer deny?

related notes: another of same series published in milk (Chicago); another from here;

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