Saturday, January 31, 2009

Poem for Miami

the first time you headed south
routine of geese ahead by months

what snow left
in your sullen driveway

I am drawn to the smell
of a freshly-cut lawn

dream of kitchens & stairs

I’ve made discoveries, I said,
that I just can’t keep

I don’t know where to put them

the scent and the savour
of an inconstant moon

turns familiar for some

I was watching for you out my window
wishing all I could muster,

in twenty below; love,
I am waiting, half-drunk in a snowbank

there is no such thing as geography
there is just where you are,

& where I am, with nothing between

to love is not only possible
but inevitable

the difference, it ends,
in a ring

Friday, January 30, 2009

an old poem embedded in thoughts you shouldn’t mix

There are many stories of the house on Ridgemont Avenue in Ottawa, where my mother spent much of her twenties, living with her parents and the siblings that remained, even the daughters of her older sister, Pat, or their oldest sibling Ralph, who lived mere blocks away with wife and own son, Larry. The house on Ridgemont that no longer exists, torn down after the house was sold, just around the turn of the new century. I spent a lot of time in that house when I was young, and have managed a number of pieces that reference it over the years, dropping into various poems. This piece came out soon after my grandmother died, two months or so into her stay at the nursing home, well after when she had started losing herself. There were funeral pieces, and post-funeral pieces. She was on my mind, then, even if not in her own.


the carcass of the old house after she moved
to the apartment. damp,
& rot. was the only one i knew who made
tomato soup w/

milk, the cloudy white stirrd in

slowly, continuous. uncle bob crushing premium plus
w/ his spoon. renovated the kitchen & the back after

husband died, his winter body brought in
after discovery in the snow, lay there cold
& stiff on the table

until the ambulance arrived, knowing
they neednt hurry. this much

is sure, is what

i know, how long

years can reach out thru, from
behind, & grab

at your neck like you were seven a second time,
scanning magazines in the wrong part

of another uncles house, black marks

over the parts of the female anatomy you knew,
even then, were interesting.

My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack in 1972, just out in the driveway, shovelling snow, not a year past his twenty-five years as a press-man at The Ottawa Citizen. The mix of cold air in his lungs and the heat that collected under his jacket, just at his chest. He was carried into the house at laid out on the kitchen table by neighbours, and apparently, my grandmother had to renovate the whole kitchen, refusing to eat there again. What else could she have done, I suppose. I don’t remember him, I don’t remember him dying, but I remember the renovation. It was the only time she let us eat in the living room, adding considerably to the kitchen and living room, and another second floor bedroom for my uncle Bob, while they were at it, before he married and moved.

I used to pick on a cousin, two years younger than I, after we were at a family wedding in the early 1990s, and his other brother, and I traded notes on sneaking up to uncle's bedroom to flip through his Playboy calendar. Apparently this younger cousin never did, instead heading down to the basement tv room to play with the plastic cars. How funny, I smirked, that you the only one of us three without partner or offspring? I often wondered if she suspected something, sneaking up the stairs, catching that glare of something going on, but perhaps not knowing what.

I could tell you, whatever I saw in those magazines, in whatever other relative's house during some family gathering, unlike in the poem, I was actually never caught. It was some time before I discovered other magazines in another relative's apartment, and knew the first hints of what existed beneath those black bars.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

an old poem embedded in thoughts on ottawa visual art, artists

I started hanging around the Enriched Bread Artists' Studio on Gladstone Avenue around 1995 or so, probably due to the crush I had on one of the artists, Angela McFall (everyone had a crush on Angela McFall), once staying there late enough talking and such that she and I crashed on a mattress on the studio floor. We cleared out the leftover beer from the fridge. Through the end of the 1990s, their annual open-house was a showcase for some of the best local had to offer in visual art, and a thousand people would come through over the space of the Thursday night open-house to the Saturday and Sunday continuation, wandering through two dozen artists studios. One resident, Carl Stewart, a visual artist and filmmaker was, for a few years, producing these large and magnificent hook-rug pieces from images taken from gay male pornography, creating pieces that were extremely well-crafted and graphic, basically confusing two ideas into a single piece. While walking a Saturday around Centretown, I even saw one of his pieces in a yard sale. How can you display such a piece on your front lawn, of a blue-and-white hook rug image of one man giving another a blowjob?

certain works of carl stewart, artist

the consequences, of two men

wrestling, black leotards, or
blue yarn flash

the super-8 film superimposed

sound, against the granary
of speech

impeccable timing, one goes
off at the same

turns to the left, turns back
to the singular

& rental agency, discretion
is never certain

methodology of intrusion, either watching
or then joining in

cuts a short hair, & rose
coloured glasses

This piece responds more specifically to images Stewart was working on of men's wrestling, using the images to bring out the homoerotic aspects of the sport. As far as Carl Stewart goes, I suppose, a boy can dream, and why shouldn’t he. Over the years, I've written pieces that have referenced various Ottawa visual artists, including Diane Woodward, Eric Walker, Dennis Tourbin, Germaine Koh and Danny Hussey. Poets such as Frank O'Hara nearly made a career out of such, surrounded by artwork during his day-job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Diana Brebner wrote poems about paintings by Mary Pratt, and Stephanie Bolster wrote of Vermeer. David McFadden and George Bowering had great play working in the artwork and other references to their friend, the late London, Ontario visual artist, Greg Curnoe.

Art taken from art, the Greek ekphrasis, but does one need the one to comprehend other? If you do, then the piece has ultimately failed; it must always first stand on its own. And even worse, those pieces that do little but simply describe an artwork, this is what was in that painting, adding nothing at all else. What's the point of simply that?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Anik See, Saudade: The Possibilities of Place

I used to think that I could bear any kind of loss – a limb, sight, the love of my life – but memory. That kind of loss leaves you with nothing but starting over, which seems like an insult. I’m now at an age where I’m noticing that any memory is not what it used to be. You think memory is like anything else, that it gets better with practice, and it can, but it’s a bit strange. We tend to think of it as either a straight line or bubbles of past experience that touch nothing else unless something forces us to connect them. I think it’s more like that stone wall that the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy built, the one that starts at a four-lane highway and runs straight, straight, directly away from it, bolting across a huge empty field. It only begins to twist and turn, like a river, when it enters a forest, which is where it starts to form itself to the landscape, to the obstacles in its path. On the inside we shape our memory wherever it’ll fit. On the outside it’s the shortest line between two points. Maybe when I was younger I was on the outside. Maybe I’m on the inside now. Funny thing is, I’ve discovered that I don’t mind losing memory as much as I always thought I would. I think it’s hugely important, but it can also wind up being a bit masturbatory. Maybe it’s enough to remember why it’s important. Like landscape.
Once I picked up Anik See’s Saudade: The Possibilities of Place (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008), it was impossible to put down. A travel book written as a series of essays, or a series of essays written as a travel book, See’s Saudade revels in a fantastic mixture of such thick physical description and meditative thought that it is impossible to see this book as a work on travel. Saudade is not as much about the place where the author is, and writing about, as being in that particular geography; less writing the place but how the author is shaped in, into and around that place, writing Sri Lanka, the American/Canadian border, and the roads of Tbilisi. In Saudade, See manages not only to write out the possibilities of place, but writes out a shape of being.

Reading this collection has echoes of Sarah de Leeuw's Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2004), or even a Peter Carey book I read years ago about his home city, writing himself back into his previous geography, moving into some of the best of what creative non-fiction is supposed to be about. Whatever else this book is, See writes her way through her own thinking about what geography means, and the differences between how people exist through circumstance, geography and other arbitrary enough markers, and seeing just how small some of those differences actually are. How does she achieve such remarkable clarity in such a small space?
What I’m aiming for in this crapshoot, or perhaps just what resonates with me, is essentially an idealization of places or events that have never been experienced. It’s the Portuguese notion of saudade that’s simmering: the feeling of yearning for something impossible to regain because it never quite existed. It’s not quite homesickness or pining for someone loved or once loved, but more a longing, the opposite of the Proustian sense of wistfulness. It’s mostly a pleasant feeling, but it can often be too located in the present and future to be practical.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


The fifth issue features work by various residents current and former, including: Cameron Anstee, Michael Blouin, Stephen Brockwell, Monique Desnoyers, Amanda Earl, Jesse Ferguson, Warren Dean Fulton, Adrienne Ho, Sean Johnston, Ben Ladouceur, Lainna Lane, Marcus McCann, rob mclennan, Christine McNair, Colin Morton, Jennifer Mulligan, Pearl Pirie, K.I. Press, Roland Prevost, Monty Reid, Shane Rhodes, Suzannah Showler, Sandra Ridley, Mike Spry, Gillian Wallace, Zack Wells, Rob Winger and Rachel Zolf, as well as an interview with poet Nina Berkhout, and artwork by various Ottawa-area visual artists.

The launch party for the fifth issue will be happening Thursday, January 29th, 2008 at the Ottawa Art Gallery as part of the Factory Reading Series (doors 7pm/readings 7:30) in the Arts Court Building, 2 Daly Avenue (at Nicholas), lovingly hosted by rob mclennan. ottawater would like to thank designer Tanya Sprowl, Emily Falvey from the Ottawa Art Gallery, the ottawa international writers festival, and Randy Woods at non-linear creations for their continuing support.

Originally founded to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa, Canada's glorious capital city, "ottawater," and its chemical formula/logo "O2(H2O)," is a poetry annual produced exclusively on-line, in both readable and printable pdf formats, and found at An anthology focusing on Ottawa poets and poetics, its first issue appeared in January 2005, 150 years after old Bytown became the City of Ottawa.

Long seen only as a town still echoing its origins as a backwater Victorian lumber town, and made up of bureaucrats and technocrats, and a more conservative poetics, "ottawater," edited by Ottawa-born writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan, exists to remind readers of what work is happening, and has been happening for years, despite government types insisting on repeating that the arts in Ottawa is about to begin. We say instead: we have always been here.

for more information, contact editor/publisher rob mclennan at az421 (at) freenet (dot) carleton (dot) ca.

Monday, January 26, 2009


[Carmel & Roland, pre-show] On January 24, 2009 as part of Max Middle’s A B Series at the City Hall Art Gallery, jwcurry presented another in his “Messagio Galore” series of performances to a packed house of over ninety people, this one including a vocal ensemble consisting of himself, Roland Prévost, Carmel Purkis, John Lavery, Sandra Ridley and Grant Wilkins (with the vocal addition of Toronto writer Maria Erskine near the very end) performing orchestrated vocal works by writers such as Shant Basmajian, Four Horsemen, bpNichol, Mike Patton, The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, Hugo Ball, Claude Gauvreau, Paul Haines (father of musician Emily), Jack Kerouac, d.a. levy, bob cobbing, Wharton Hood, Gerry Shikatani and Frank Zappa, among others. A long selection of works, the order of the performance was shuffled by random by the audience themselves, as Pearl Pirie went through the crowd pre-performance asking us all to “shuffle” the pages, thus letting the performance speak for itself, as opposed to letting any particular order take charge.

What was interesting about this version of the MASSAGIO GALORE was in how curry had selected a group of otherwise quiet people as his voices. John Lavery is certainly a seasoned performer of his own works, with more recent multi-vocal performances with Max Middle, and participating in a performance for 3 voices of Samuel Beckett works with Max and Carmel Purkis at the writers festival a few years ago, but the rest are far quieter, and it was interesting to hear the voices of all, but especially Sandra, Grant and Roland, come out of themselves, whether Roland’s thoughtful precision, Sandra’s careful steps out into her own voice, or Carmel simply allowing herself to let go. If you can imagine, for weeks preceding the event, curry had them in ten to twelve hour practice sessions, a few evenings a week, pushing the group further than I’ve known any performers of writing to push themselves in this town at least.

Holding himself as the anchor to the evening (being the only performer of the group to perform solo works), the evening was framed around John Cage’s “LECTURE ON NOTHING,” with fragments of the essay performed as a sextet and intersperced throughout the 90-minute performance, being a talk of “nothing,” “continuity” and “structure,” and watching, through essay and the performance as a whole, how the three wrap themselves around each other, each thread impossible to separate from the rest, without the whole of the evening coming apart.

One of the highlights had to be Carmel and Lavery performing “that old remembering song” from Fraggle Rock (with jwcurry on the floor, he was laughing so hard). A magnificent piece and magnificent performance by both, and all Carmel needed was her hair in two braids, and she would have made a perfect “Red” (playing “Red,” despite, she said later, the original was performed by “Boober”). What really made the performance was watching, for example, Lavery knowing to let Carmel shine during “that old remembering song,” each performer allowing the space for whoever needed to be featured during a particular piece, whether singular or all of the above. What made the performance as a whole was the lack of ego from each of the performers, letting the works themselves speak, and not let themselves get in the way of those works.

Another highlight had to be curry and Lavery performing “OPIUM MARBLE,” a small piece for two voices that curry has performed with many over the years, including Max Middle, Gary Barwin and Stuart Ross, made at one point as a small chapbook through above/ground press. There were a couple of works in this set that I’d heard before, in other of curry’s performances, and I know that “OPIUM MARBLE” is a particular favourite. Interesting to hear Lavery’s voice where Max’s once was, to see where the interpretive differences lay.

1. 7 KNOTS, jwcurry (Canada, 1982) (duo: JL/SR)
2. Alice in Wonderland, Sam Loyd (USA, 189-?) (sextet)
3. A LITTLE NASTINESS, Four Horsemen (Rafael Barreto-Rivera/Paul Dutton/Steve McCaffery/bpNichol; Canada, 1961) (sextet)
4. anacyclic poem with two shouts DHARMATHOUGHTS STUPAWARDS, don sylvester houedard (England, 1966) (duo: CP/SR)
5. A THOUSAND MOODS A MINUTE, Shant Basmajian (Canada, 1992?) (sextet)
6. auf dem land, Ernst Jandl (Austria, 1968?)
7. B, Francois Dufrene (France, 1958) (trio: JC/JL/RP)
8. CANZONE RUMORISTA cantata in coro sui testri d’Italia in ANICCAM del 2000, Fortunato Depero (Italy, 1916?)
9. ears, Michelle April/jwcurry (Canada, 2006)
10. EAST WIND, bpNichol (Canada, 197-?) (quartet: JC/JL/CP/SR)
11. end ant, Wharton Hood (Canada, 1996) (duo: JL/GW)
12. Gadji beri bimba, Hugo Ball (Switzerland, 1916)
13. getting there rapid, jwcurry/Qanni Lore (Canada, 1989?) (duo: CP/SR)
14. Hour 3, bpNichol (Canada, 1978?)
15. “How The Pigs’ Music Works”, Frank Zappa (USA, 1994) (trio: JL/RP/CP)
16. IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, Frank Zappa (USA, 1965) (quartet: JC/JL/RP/CP)
17. Jacques Dulume, Claude Geauvreau (Canada, 195-?)
18. LECTURE ON NOTHING, John Cage (USA, 1949) (quartet: JC/JL/CP/SR)
19. Marcia futurista, F.T. Marinetti (Italy, 1916) (sextet)
20. Me and the Flamer, Mike Patton (USA, 1998) (sextet)
21. “Mon Olivine”, Claude Gauvreau (Canada, 195-?)
22. “My Olivine”, Claude Gauvreau/translated Ray Ellenwood (Canada, 197-?)
23. OLD ANGEL MIDNIGHT 57, Jack Kerouac (USA, 1959?)
24. OPIUM MARBLE, jwcurry (Canada, 1980) (duo: JC/JL)
25. Pike-Fishing North Milne Lake, Gerry Shikatani (Canada, 1977?) (quartet: JC/JL/CP/SR)
26. roses that, d.a.levy (USA, 1966)
27. SHIFT 3, jwcurry/Peggy Lefler (Canada, 1982) (intro: JL; duo: SR/GW)
28. sounds’ favorite words, Paul Haines (Canada, 1986)
29. “that old remembering song”, Phil Halsam/Dennis Lee/bpNichol (Canada, 1983) (duo: JL/CP)
31. THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, Spike Jones/Doodles Weaver (USA, 1947)
32. The Tibetan Memory Trick, traditional/arranged The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (Howard Kaylan/Mark Volman; USA, 1975) (sextet)
33. TRACT, jwcurry (Canada, 1995) (duo: JC/CP)
34. TWO: Less Time, bpNichol (Canada, 1982?) (sextet)
35. weeds, John Barlow (Canada, 1995)
36. WORM, bob cobbing (England, 1964) (quartet: JC/JL/SR/GW)

curry has done a number of interesting performances in Ottawa over the years, including the first edition of the ottawa international writers festival in 1997, where he did half his reading as his own pseudonym, Wharton Hood, a reading with Maria Erskine at Gallery 101 (as part of the Factory Reading Series), a reading of the first few books of bpNichol’s The Martyrology on Parliament Hill, and his infamous reading under his Somerset Street West apartment where he, naked, pounded out a reading with Alpha-Bits (the first half of the performance framed with bill bissett's "what fuckan theory," an essay/book from the 1970s). How is it that over the brief span of a few years, Max Middle and jwcurry have managed to develop an audience for sound poetry in Ottawa?
And let’s not forget the stamps that curry made, put on everyone’s hand as they came into the performance, made from stencils from Toronto graffiti artist P. Cobb, “Mr. P. Cobb had sex with dog.”

related notes: Pearl Pirie’s report; Amanda Earl’s report; Charles Earl’s photo; Rod Pedersons's report; previous MESSAGIO report; jwcurry's bookstore;

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Writers Festival Silent Auction - send us your swag!

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture," Ray Bradbury wrote. "Just get people to stop reading them."

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is a force for literacy, and not only through its festival programming. Its Step into Stories festival brings the world's best writers and illustrators into contact with young readers, many from disadvantaged schools. The festival, with its literacy partners, is working to create opportunities for readers and writers who have been pushed to the margins for too long.

And you can help.

The 2009 Spring edition of the Festival will feature, for the first time, a silent auction to raise funds for the festival's literacy programming. We need friends of the Festival to donate signed books, photographs or other items. Ideally, the item for sale should have some connection to the festival, or at the very least to the writing life, but that connection can be ... creative. (Have a cellar of wonderful wine that pairs well with a good read?)

Here are some ideas to get you started:

- Maybe you got Camilla Gibb to sign Mouthing the Words back at the 2000 festival and although you love it, you're willing to part with it for a good cause.

- Maybe you're Alan Cumyn... or Elizabeth May... or Paul Quarrington... or Ivan E. Coyote... or Joan Barfoot... or Jay Ingram... somebody else who has read at the Festival and are willing to send along a signed proof of one of your books, or your first typewriter, or a chance to have lunch with you, or play a game of laser tag with you.

- Maybe you a snapped a stunning photo of David Gilmour in 2005 and you're willing to donate a print.

- Maybe you were at the inaugural writers festival in 1997 and you kept the program.

- Maybe you doodled Susan Musgrave at the 1999 festival on a cocktail napkin and kept the napkin.

- Maybe you stole Austin Clarke's pen at the last festival and are willing to (a) fess up and (b) donate it.

- Maybe you, the host, introduced Alistair MacLeod... or Megan Butcher... or Mark Kingwell... and kept your notes, last-minute marginalia and all.

- Maybe you're a bookstore owner willing to put together a package of books or a gift-certificate package.

From the silly to the sublime, we're looking for it. Kate Heartfield, a journalist at the Ottawa Citizen and long-time festival host with a pile of signed books from all her years hosting the festival, is collecting the goods for the auction. Drop her a note at and let her know what you have, by Friday, March 6th. And please share this letter with your friends.

The last word goes to Albert Camus: "Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

another old poem embedded in thoughts on the rideau lakes

During a stretch of weeks over one summer, I wrote a poem that mixed as a kind of essay on the poetry of Toronto poet Phil Hall, and a kind of interview with him. I had wanted to interview him formally, but he wasn’t comfortable with interviews, instead invited me out to visit, since they were spending a few summer weeks at their cabin near Perth, on the Rideau Lakes, just an hour or so west of town. Knowing his fondness for found playing cards that he formed into decks, I worked a series of fifty-two; knowing the piece he wrote as title-section of his collection An Oak Hunch (2005), "An Oak Hunch: An Essay on Purdy," I worked these poems as my own essay on his work; knowing his fondness for Louis Zukofsky's 80 Flowers, I worked my own version finally as "52 flowers (or, a perth edge) – an essay on Phil Hall –." Even the accidents aren’t really accidents.

four feet by four feet
paddle out

& compact

were you talking abt how
were you talking abt purpose

an array of the fiddle-cut

if language let literature,
or if sleeping dogs lie

in an urn,

separating ash

is the loon laughing
or berating

, winnow

is the deer out for blood
or the hawk

The poem came out of that day-long visit poet Wanda O'Connor and I had with him and his wife Ann, before Wanda moved to Montreal to attend Concordia University’s creative writing program, and the extended piece has been added at the end of a long poem that titles an unpublished manuscript, "glengarry: open field," and selected as well down to twenty or so pieces by Meredith Quartermain to be published as the chapbook Perth Flowers (Nomados, 2006). The invitation allowed Wanda and I to spend an entire day with Phil and Ann, sitting in conversation in his cabin on the lake, with Wanda and Ann even spending some time wandering the lake in their small canoe.

How does such a day percolate into writing? There was the deliberate slowness, engineered by Hall himself, and the hangovers that Wanda and I nursed, attempting to keep such information to ourselves. We brought them a pie, we had corn for dinner. There were the hours that Wanda got far too excited about a 1950s-era magazine with a cover story on Elizabeth Taylor that Hall let her keep, and the barn Hall’s father-in-law had left with collections of collections, including drawers filled with doorknobs, and the detritus of other objects, a collector in the same way Hall himself collects phrases for his poems, worked slowly out through picking collage.

Friday, January 23, 2009


In recognition of the importance of Al Purdy to Canadian poetry, the iconic symbol of the A-frame to Canadian culture, and in support of the Purdy A-frame Trust, the League of Canadian Poets officially declares APRIL 21, 2009 NATIONAL AL PURDY DAY. We invite all Canadian poets, and lovers of Canadian poetry to host a Purdy Party to raise funds to preserve this important cultural and heritage property. Al Purdy, the man widely regarded as Canada's first true national poet, died in April, National Poetry Month, in the year 2000. In a way, his death marked the end of a century in which the Canadian cultural identity under pressure from separatist tensions, two world wars, the rapid development of the mass media and the sensation of being a young nation adrift between older colonial powers and our newer imperialist neighbour experienced its most profound growing pains. No other poet was as resolute in addressing those pains as Al Purdy. He did so not only by writing about the issues head-on, but also by listening to the people around him, by writing a poetry rooted in the daily life of the people and places of the Canada he knew and loved, from sea to sea to sea. He was writing poems that were relevant to Canadians, and, for over forty years, Canadians listened.

The position of Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate was not legislated into existence until 2001, so Purdy never ascended to the office that so many believed he was meant to inhabit. In lieu of any official laurels from Parliament Hill, the League of Canadian Poets created an award to honour Purdy for his exceptional status among Canadian writers, and, just weeks before his death, they invested him with the honorary moniker "The Voice of the Land." It was one of many accolades the poet would receive in his lifetime, and it would be among of the first to follow him, quite literally, to his grave. The words "The Voice of the Land," along with the insignia of the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, are inscribed on Purdy's book-shaped gravestone, marking the place where his ashes are buried in the modest cemetery at the foot of Purdy Lane in Ameliasburg, Ontario near the famous A-frame. That A-frame house, made out of second-hand lumber and original poetry, became the most famous writer's house in the country. Hundreds of writers and their housemates found their way to Roblin Lake to visit the Purdys and talk about poetry and history while downing beer or wild grape wine. Coleridge and his friends had their lake country, and now the Canadian poets would have theirs. A lot of poetry and prose came out of that hard-to-find place. To prevent its second-hand wood from ending up on someone's scrap heap, and with the blessing and support of Eurithe Purdy, The Purdy A-frame Trust is raising funds to purchase and preserve the property, create an endowment and establish a poet-in-residence program.

For more information or to make a contribution to the Trust contact:
Jean Baird
4403 West 11th Ave.,
Vancouver BC
V6R 2M2
604 224 4898

Thursday, January 22, 2009

house: a (tiny) memoir

The afternoons I spent with old record turntable, dropping my Disney Mother Goose album, the Irish Rovers or my father’s old sound effect records, particularly the trains. I remember the lamp we still have, I would sit beside and listen, to old Mother Goose, the same voice from the ‘60s Winnie-the-Pooh, Sterling Holloway, oh bother. I remember the days in the rain listening to records when you could catch up the hook and the arm and stack one upon one, as they dropped one at a time to long play. There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead…

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Notes for a Sad Phoenician

You are the question to all my answers. I was an
echo without prior sound until you, silently, wrote,
“I am counting on my fingers to remember you.” If
only you had got my name right.
— Robert Kroetsch, Excerpts from the Real World

We were constructing our house on the moon. I was pricing out building materials. You were eyeing the neighbours. I handed you blueberry-flavoured chocolates, one small step in front of another.

I can see myself in airplanes, missing your touch. One city does not become another. I construct dreams out of trees on your tropical island, a paradise.

Periodic fits of ecstasy exhaust me. Compel.

Your black jacket with purple linen. I remember you taking it off, revealing bare shoulders. Don’t ask where you left it. I was trapped, staring at your skin.

You are beautiful as sky. It was thirty below, but you still stepped outside to mail me a letter. Your sweet-smelling blue.

Is this all Greek to me. A word meaning purple, your red and my blue. What runs in our veins, striking Cuniform.

My right hand rests on your belly. The snow erases sky, the tops of buildings, trees. We never went back for the crab in the Chinese restaurant, focused on take-out. The meal we took hours to begin.

The poem finally reveals itself. Your bare feet on the floor. I could not hear anything, for all the commotion.

There is salt, there is brine on your shoulders.

The body, it’s said, does not remember pain. It has an incomplete memory. I am sore up against the stretch of your lone prairie.

We were talking to architects. Architects on the surface of the moon.

Stone-deaf, Ma Bell couldn’t hear you. There is nothing left in the downtown snow. The rain couldn’t fall if it tried.

It’s not, Luke Doucet once sang, the liquor I miss. I was outside your window, dreaming you back into Carthage.

We are not where we said. At night, York and Ryerson beckon. We signify answers. At the cold of my desk, I write out your alphabet, one chiselled letter at a time.

Out of raw materials, I compile sadness. Once completed, I am hoping to banish it deep in the archives. There are rooms in this house even I’m not aware of.

I am dying, Egypt. We begin with a space on the page.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

an old poem embedded in thoughts on alberta

After a break of some time, I can’t even remember how long, I started writing short lyric poems again, pushing much of May, 2008 writing the first fifty page section of what would become “Poems for Lainna.” The writing taking over, almost avoiding other writing. When the push comes, I know now just to take it, and let all else slip away. Wanting to be taken. Waiting for it. This is a collection of short, sharp, tight, lyric love poems, written still under the inference, I suppose, of the Canadian ghazal (as brought into Canadian literature through John Thompson, and followed by others), writing evasive and disparate leaps between lines that leave the connection sometimes thin, and often open-bare.

a (short) history of l.

I am interested in how lyricism
bonds itself to our molecules.

the insistence of light against
insistence of dark.

we pass warmth from both sides
of a single clear glass

as red scratches run surface smooth.

to end the Chin Dynasty, the first emperor,
his guard army of ghosts

to protect him from other ghosts.

I try to learn how the story gets told,
teeth marks on almond-tone skin.

there are songs I will never remember,
songs I could never forget.

by the bend of the bough, Isaac Newton’s small hand
runs across what the apple left.

once all this gravity, no longer
as rain to the ocean it rained from

or the stone to return back to stone.
my mother a collection of mason jars

she puts nothing in.

How far can a poem go when so many seemingly unconnected references are woven through the text, including the idea of the “love poem” alongside science, popular culture, old film stars, historical characters and others? Through the weeks and the months, “Poems for Lainna” worked to specifically place these poems firmly in the immediate world, one that includes the whole world and not compartmentalizing “love” away from all else. When we love, do we lose our interest in the world? Hardly. The accumulation of these poems worked to incorporate all those elements into a tight, short, lyric form, each poem no more than a page in length, yet existing as a longer, book-length, almost-ongoing suite. What was it George Bowering said? In his thirties, he said, he stopped writing lyric poems, and focused instead on the long poem. In the preface to In The Flesh (McClelland & Stewart, 1974), writing:
In your twenties, I was saying, you are a cell, interacting. In your thirties you enter time, that is not only yours. In your thirties you become all ways aware of your life as a drama, of the cycle, the place in the pattern your life is now taking, who’s been there & who’s coming. You see that where you are is where Gilgamesh was. The passion takes over, & in art the passion takes over from mere worship, what you were doing in your lyrical twenties. To think that for thirteen years I was completely convinced that I’d die at twenty-nine!
I don’t know about refusing the lyric per se, but I know about the long poem, something that took over as well in my mid, I think, twenties. I write now in bursts, no poems for weeks, sometimes months as I work on longer prose, and then a book in a couple of weeks, sometimes, continuing to push an initial burst as far as it will go. Is this the tantric delay, delay, delay of the long poem that Robert Kroetsch talked about? From May to August, 2008, exhausting myself finally around one hundred and forty pages, finally and lovingly spent, until the next time.

All I write now are books, and I seem not to have conflict with that. But still, someone, years ago, suggested that all of my poems are about women. Is this possible? It might be, various loves or crushes or friendships over the years, growing up with two widowed grandmothers, a younger sister, two older female cousins who visited from time to time, and lived with their single mother and our grandmother in Ottawa, not to mention hours of indoors with my mother as my father worked the silent fields. Most of my friends throughout my life have been women. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, afternoons in my paternal grandmother’s little white A-frame across two fields as I grew, or watching Gone With The Wind (1939) when I was maybe ten, a New Year’s Eve in Ottawa’s south end with my mother’s own mum.

Everything connects, my ex-wife used to say, and it took me years to understand, like strawberry roots that could extend out for miles. Nothing at all, she once told me, is separate. There was something about the sentence I wanted to finally work in these poems, not relying as heavily on the breath or line break, wanting to write her in full exhale, a long extended gasp, before breathing her back. These are poems that then took my breath away. It reminds me of this short passage by Stan Dragland, from his Apocrypha: Further Journeys (2003), that writes:

Subir—is he the listener I always wanted? The total stranger who hears my words & knows me instantly? I don’t know how to answer except with the climax, the parade scene, of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter. Buddy Bolden didn’t know what he wanted for his music either, not until he saw it. Saw her. “You learn to play like that,” Crawley had told him—“like weather, volatile, like conversation, snatches of a crowd you move through, hard kiss on the mouthpiece, like a, damn, like a goat hopped in the front seat of your Volks, like a new $7.50 ring would, right, it would save your marriage, like a mountain railroad, yodel, like a black snake on your deck, like three old ladies locked in a lavatory, like blood, like stains, like blood blood heart blood air, exactly the tone of this room—play like that and no band will play with you.”
Coming Through Slaughter, the novel I was reading when we first met, and rereading when we met a second time, thirteen years later. I wrote about fifty pages that month of May, pushing line through another line, wanting to see how I would ellipse direct statement, bouncing line by direct line as so often point by direct point, during my last Edmonton month, sitting daily beside her. I updated her every evening, sometimes three new poems, sometimes a new version or two of pieces from the day before. Did I call them love poems at the time? I think I probably did.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Steve Sauvé (Oct 12, 1975 - Jan 17, 2009)

[photo by John W. MacDonald] Our spoken-word friend, Ottawa poet Steve Sauvé, passed away on Saturday. Amanda Earl posted some lovely bits on her own blog, as well as on the ottawa poetry newsletter blog. He was a nice kid, far too young to go. Always an entertaining performer. We will miss him.

Friday, January 16, 2009

from "missing persons"

Emma began to feel cramped in the house. As soon as she felt she could possibly lose it, it was suddenly not enough. She wanted more, what she knew she did not.

It was he who always looked after the bills, the land. She had stepped in between, in the spaces he hadn’t. Without him, it was as though she didn’t know where to stand. She had adapted her activity to meet him.

A month after Alberta’s father died, Emma emptied their bedroom of his effects. Her bedroom. She erased his visible effect from every surface, keeping to the boundaries of closet and bedroom door. She scrubbed his body from their room down to the molecular level, and spent the whole time soundless, crying. A scientist, seeking any evidence of existence, only to wipe it clean from the world. To Alberta, it was a genocide to memory.

Don’t be so dramatic, Emma sighed.

Alberta's mother threw everything across one of these two borders, moving his clothes to the closet back or the other way; from the hall, living room, kitchen and out with the trash. Notebooks where he kept information on bills, parts; mess of pens and loose change in dark dust and hay by the bed; stacks of car magazines and fishing journals, melting slowly into each other and the floor. She would scrape it away until it was nothing; not even a stain of oil beneath the bed.

When she was finally alone in her room with the door closed, she was alone. On the east wall, the only piece of artwork a reproduction of Blue Boy. It was so old that no one knew where it had come from.

Alberta had never thought to ask until it was long, long gone.

Emma’s jewellery case on the dresser, where she stripped herself bare, even of wedding ring. Everything in that small wooden box, that had been hers, or her mother’s or grandmother’s, into the box where she closed the lid and worked hard not to remember.

They had started going to a store in town with the wood floors and wood barrels, a new chain store recreating what they always had in the village. Increasingly, it was only the old who frequented the original; it was only the old who lived in the past, her mother qualified. Alberta hated this new store, but Emma loved it. It was new and clean and wasn’t covered in dust. Paul thought Mrs. Appleby smelled too much like soap, and signed so. Emma made a comment about how much young boys like soap and he giggled. Alberta elbowed him in the side when their mother wasn’t looking.

On the floor, a line of ants up and down the line between floorboards, tracing back and forth along a crease of dust from a mess of bread crumbs to outer wall.

Alberta wondered what would come next, if Emma intended to move from baking to store bought, or a fake plastic Christmas tree. Might as well be a fake plastic Christmas. The threat of fires and needles in socks, and all those other important experiences that made it feel real, and feel so important.

Going through baskets and boxes and bags, Alberta took to wearing her father’s work shirts and wool socks, to keep them perhaps out of David’s hands. Fading plaid, or farmer green. She wore them over her t-shirts, or under sweaters during the winter, the months where she was rarely without a layer at least of her father’s skin. Some days she would flaunt it, parade around the house to taunt David, or remind her mother of his ongoing presence, and other days were just for her.

It was never remarked upon. It was a door no one else wanted to open.

Once opened, Emma knew, it would never be closed.

For some reason, when Alberta twenty further years down the line, this would be the thing she would miss most. Waking up early on a weekday winter morning before the house was awake, the house still cold from her mother turning the thermostat down before bed, having just turned it back up again to twenty-one. Alberta could see her breath, and her bare feet felt the linoleum cold from her bedroom to the bath. Whenever she felt the cold, she cursed; the fresh flush of heat in the dry air made the air crackle, nearly spark. The dry heat and the dry winter cold.

Her speech broken up into parcels, and distributed along points on the endless strain of prairie road.

If Alberta was water, hers was a history of drought.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Notes for a Sad Phoenician

You are the question to all my answers. I was an
echo without prior sound until you, silently, wrote,
“I am counting on my fingers to remember you.” If
only you had got my name right.
— Robert Kroetsch, Excerpts from the Real World

You once said you learned how to drive in Grande Prairie, Alberta. This is not what I wanted. The day I was there, doing a reading, all I could think of was you, in the opposite direction, the rear-view.

Because, eventually, all lines intersect, you told me. Pushing buttons, I dialed. I am writing a letter. I am exploring the holes I have discovered between the letters of your name.

We are translating seasons. The snow is cut soft. What was spring will be spring again. Rain anticipates bulbs.

Dislodging a fear, your island, the blue of it. The red of your portrait. The blue of my portrait too, that you coloured.

The way you walk the in-between. Love.

When you talk in your sleep, you said later, I am not to listen. A sad Phoenician weeping passion.
I am adamant. I give nothing away.

These flowers are lost in the wind. Another ski resort goes bankrupt in the Laurentians. Without you, I become the coldest winter on record. The soles of my boots are soaked through.

The High Level Bridge is a waterfall, distant. Weather asks where you come from, but my answer keeps shifting, like the weather.

I turn the light on in a room. I turn the light on in a room. I turn the light on in a room.

I asked you to bring me a story made out of glass. It was not meant to be ours. It is thicker in places than I imagined.

I wanted to rhyme blue, not the word but the colour. Your island is waning, in shadow. My hands and my feet cut themselves on your beach.

Outside my bedroom window, a moon in the grass. It glowed faint, but steady. You were driving your car over the High Level Bridge. You were coming in waves.

Did royal blood flow through the veins of Samuel de Champlain? We live in a Metis country, wrote John Ralston Saul. First we take Manhattan, then Calgary. Toronto.

I had a dream made of lemon cake. I was inventing a new vowel out of the shapes of your mouth. The phone rang. After weeks, we were finally waking up together, again.

“Farms of landscape/ between us./ Maybe why/ we both hanker/ to dance/ a rhythm only/ insects can play?” – Lea Graham

Desire, like Pubwells, has a limited shelf life. I am waiting to prove myself wrong. Then I did. I returned around midnight to retrieve your grey scarf.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

house: a (tiny) memoir

I remember the year that the laws changed, and farmers were required to wear hard hats for protection, even out in the barnyard. Fifty feet from the barn, and no way for the sky to fall, even had any of them tried to be under it. Under the weather, its said, as we all are. Photos of my father and the hired man in the barnyard, yellow dots protecting what said the strongest body of bone. The law didn’t last. Yellow hardhats by the door in the back shed, plastic curve and foam padding to keep it in place.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Imaginary Haibun for Lea Graham

It was bones that counted, not the flesh
— Catherine Sasanov
A hard-won morning made for vodka on the breath. I wrote a novel where nothing at all happened, but for the moments between the scenes, just after or before the page had even begun, left for the reader to construct the rest. I had left all the important tools.

an aperture of trees
& January cloud

across two borders

when a matter hits, it hits

to target smooth
We walked down to the pub and ordered breakfast, still there twelve hours later. She read an essay on translating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into Japanese from Brick: A Literary Journal. She flipped through Robert Kroetsch’s Excerpts from the Real World.

If everybody became vegetarian, the woman at the next table says, I don’t know what would happen. I am nothing if not persistent. I would rather have an orange than tomato.

in winter where the nights
can come up less

& lack

the shape
of where we’re not
My girlfriend the night before, a text message to land line, robot voice on my answering machine leaving sweet nothings, one ghost to another. When, I wondered, will the robot voice again become real?

Does it matter the temperature outside? Canadians, Lea said, don’t seem to talk about the weather. January snow falls in waves. The snow plows pan by my window past midnight, blue lights flash flicker down the lone dark hall. Where are you now?

Benjamin Button, a clock runs backwards, can’t imagine best actor or actress anything because how can you separate. Amazing as a full complete unit. She cried a little, less because I there. How do we not move backwards, ticking to the unmaking, unlistening of things?

at the advent of police,
significance wanders

the kid in the comically large
red shorts

irradiate, a sample
on skin

of intemperate musings
Rusted out the corpse. The car in the front or the back of the lawn. Where did you find me? The night we sat martini’d at The Mercury Lounge or three years later, now, the same at Absinthe, exploring Westboro with Stephen Brockwell, Brendan Hodgson. Leonardo DiCaprio lights a cigarette on television, another film clipped.

takes her time, she burns
the sugar light

of portrait skin
& killing brain cells
The reformed Pentecostal who dropped his farm to be a fire extinguisher inspector, the same time he discovered Jesus. Working against hellfire, body and soul, attempting to convert everywhere he went. What better to parallel? Situated between the sad Phoenician and what comes next, working to reduce her sadness.

a degree,
of single molecules

Saturday, January 10, 2009

house: a (tiny) memoir

The old John Deere Model B that he had, from the times before, and only a decade younger than he. It was my favourite; more classic and sleek; the two others since, were but bulky and large in comparison, tractor cabs with the headphones and radio, air conditioning and heater. More muscle, less heart. When he got me the toy set of tractors, it was that I liked most, Model B, now what left of the set in his office, lining bookshelf.

In junkyards the curve of the old metal seat.

There was always the divide, he would bring in the new, and I would pine for the old, whether tractor, truck, porch. Sometimes things are just fine as they are, even just as a black-and-white shade.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Notes for a Sad Phoenician

You are the question to all my answers. I was an
echo without prior sound until you, silently, wrote,
“I am counting on my fingers to remember you.” If
only you had got my name right.
— Robert Kroetsch, Excerpts from the Real World

When I dug into my pocket for change, I hadn’t enough left to call you. I had already paid my bill, with exact change no less. I was attempting to show off by being precise. See what this has cost me.

I am working my way up, through the back. Last night I had a dream of kitchens. I had a dream of Myrna Kostash’s kitchen.

I wanted to find out what happened. What happened.

We are trapped amid boundaries of Canadian cities. Politicians are often like hummingbirds, and barely notice. We call this a failure to react. I am constructing a memory quilt out of love letters writ from the backs of your knees.

Your hand on my thigh as you drove. My left hand nestled the back of your head. I do not distinguish the plains from the mountains. I’d rather the plains.

I wrote a book on Alberta that turned into a love poem. I wrote an essay on Anne Carson that turned into a love poem. These are all that I write now. Is this a love poem.

Why so much of my words get themselves in the ways. I continue to speak despite troubling speech, circumventing desire.

You admit, how touch becomes so important. I am drawn to these leaves, these loose sheets in your folder left out on my writing desk.

On New Year’s Day I had Vietnamese noodle soup. I woke up to one of your hairpins. There is a cut on my right index finger. I am constantly in strange places.

You wouldn’t answer the phone. I am subject to great beauty. I submit. I would mention the snow. It falls hard in dark places.

I am in love with the way you move mountains, and plains. If there would be gods, you would be my new pantheon, twitching asleep on my shoulder. The earth moves for us, slowly.

Sometimes dreams occur to me in other languages. I still can’t speak. I have to remember the subtitles.

I heart out the roses and thorns. You heart out the blossoms. The sky tries to rain despite thirty below. You, once again, are a tiny blue island. I am sending out flares.

We are a country song. The first thing I noticed is the last I remember.

I am content through seasons. I am stuck on the riverbank. I am hard, like divinity.

What I would give, to be the pencil Bert Almon once loaned to Richard Brautigan to capture a poem. Now there, I’ll admit, is a story worth telling.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Ours by Cole Swensen

In American poet Cole Swensen’s eleventh trade poetry title, Ours (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2008), she continues her fascination with French culture and history in a collection of poems around notions of the garden, specifically Versailles and its creator, André Le Nôtre. As she writes in her introduction:
André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) is often considered the father of the French formal garden. As the son and grandson of gardeners, he was born in the Tuileries and inherited a tradition already quite old. He took those traditions and adapted them to early Enlightenment thinking, incorporating contemporary mathematical and optical techniques, such as anamorphic perspective, to create gardens unprecedented in their appeal to both the eye and the mind.

Versailles is his best-known work, but he played a crucial role in many other gardens, including those at Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, Sceaux, the Tuileries, and Vaux-le-Vicomte. This last was his first major commission, and it remains famous both for its perfection and for the scandal incited when it was unveiled for the king and his court in the summer of 1661. it was so grand that it threw Louix XIV into a fit of jealousy and convinced him that its owner, Nicolas Fouquet, who was also his superintendent of finance, must have been embezzling. Fouquet was arrested a few weeks later and spent the rest of his long life in jail.

That story and others inform some of the following poems, but none of them is necessary, or even particularly helpful, for reading the poems themselves. Similarly, a few proper names are mentioned here and there, not for their historical significance, but rather to underscore their bearers’ simultaneous roles as average people doing daily things, such as loving gardens.

André Le Nôtre lived a long and prosperous life. By the end of his career, he was consulted by royalty and aristocracy all over Europe, and his influence had spread even farther. And yet one of the things that is most remembered about him and most often repeated is that he was a great guy – modest, fun-loving, easy-going, and friendly – so somehow it seems fitting that, although he created all his gardens for members of the most exclusive classes, they are today almost all public parks. As if to underscore the irony, he phrase “le nôtre” means “ours.”
Compartmentalized into fragments holding small bunches of poems, corners of the manuscript, Swensen utilizes a fascinating nuance to such long lines, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the way gardens have been written, predominantly over the last few decades, in Canada at least, as works less governed by formal innovation than some kind of faux-pastoral, writing safe poems about Victorian-type creations that existed in direct opposition to the more vibrant wilds of the surrounding world. As much as Swensen understands these gardens to be constructions, so too, does she understand poems as constructions as well, holding a fine balance between constructed and organic structures, writing “If a garden is the world counted / and found analogue in nature / One does not become two by ever ending” (“IF A GARDEN OF NUMBERS”).


Certain traditions claim that man and garden cannot be separated,
or if and when they are, will neither still be visible, the inverse

of those twins that you never see in the same place at the same time. We disappear
through a single door, unrecognized

in the morning in the park, where we sit behind the early paper
and periodically declare I can’t believe

in the Middle Ages, they drew the news on cemetery walls. A long line
of bodies in silhouette that swayed. This too, they say,

is paradise because the sky touches the ground wherever the former has a hole in it called a hand,
espalliered mansions and guests in the millions.

The first public gardens in history were called oubliettes. As soon as you entered,
you were indistinguishable from the animals.

In a magnificent way, Cole Swensen’s poetry books exist as book-length essays or explorations through and around a particular subject, whether her current collection on Le Nôtre’s gardens, her Such Rich Hour (University of Iowa Press, 2001) that explored the calendar illuminations of a fifteenth-century book of hours, the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, or writing operatic forms through her collection Oh (Apogee Press, 2002). Years ago, Erin Mouré argued the merging of essay and poetry in a single form, and Swensen has managed to exist in the forefront of the blended genres, alongside, for example, Barry McKinnon’s investigations through Prince George, British Columbia in The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 (Talonbooks, 2004), CD Wright’s exploration of a women’s prison in One Big Self: an investigation (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), or even Nathalie Stephens writing the spaces between language, gender, translation and the body in her own ongoing works. Between the hours, what do we know exactly as being ours?
Marie Antoinette was last seen reading, and she didn’t look up. There wasn’t a revolution going on. Or maybe sewing, there was something pinned together, she was holding something together, or whatever was ever in her hands that was several then broke into separate. Marie. Is by definition bordering the sacred, which is the universal, so it was no longer her garden. So she refused to raise her eyes and watch two middle class women have a right to these rooms in which they should have frozen to death in an instant. Instead, they dusted. They drew a gloved finger across a mantel and propagated hemophilia. All my children running down the drain. There have been fewer centuries than I have ancestors, and any one of them could blind you by glancing your way she said what do you mean “nice”? I am not this dust, I am not just one

floating downstairs in the sun. One woman heard her turn a page, while the other heard a leaf rattle across the terrace, and turned to watch it, more out of idleness
than anything else. (“The Ghost of Much Later”)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

house: a (tiny) memoir

There were the 4-H meetings at the house, when my father a leader and I was still small. My mother would have stayed in the kitchen, preparing snacks. Sitting on the floor between kids from the surrounding farms, early to mid-teens, in chairs around our living room. In 1974, he was even awarded a plaque for his years of 4-H service, to coincide with leaving; my year, then, in such would be far less impressive. Before they were married, my mother a boy scout leader in Ottawa, through the church they were married in, on Alta Vista Drive. Wedding photos of them as her pack of boys dressed and saluting on two sides, and they strolled out of the church, only married mere minutes. His smile more shy than hers; she strolled through them beaming, on the arm of the skinny farm boy a whole year younger than she, but for four days.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Withdrawl Method, stories by Pasha Malla

IT’S APRIL AND the world is opening up like a hand with something secret in it. The world is all, Hey I’ve got something to show you, so you lean in and go, What? You go, Show me! And you look and the fingers peel back and then whammo there it is, green and muddy and fresh and dripping wet with rain.

The world is melting but it’s almost all water anyway. The world is like 75 percent water. It’s a ball made of water and some mountains and other stuff, some trees and hills and deserts. Buildings and roads. People walk around on it and we’re like 75 percent water too. My dad Greg is 236 pounds which makes him 177 pounds of water, like a hundred thousand glasses of water, maybe more. He’s a bathtub full of water—bigger than a bathtub, a kiddie pool. Anyway, my dad Greg is a whole lot of water. And Mom is the moon. (“Pushing Oceans In And Pulling Oceans Out”)
There is so little new fiction that strikes or thrills me (with Vancouver writer David Chariandy’s Soucouyant being a notable exception that I would highly recommend), stories that tingle with any kind of electric shock, that know properly how to end before the end, or end well into the middle to strike a blow harder than any physical blow that books such as Toronto writer Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawl Method (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2008) seems almost like a godsend. Where did Pasha Malla come from? A first collection of stories, it becomes obvious that, first and foremost, Malla is a writer of fiction. He authored a collection of poetry which came out the season following his fiction debut, All our Grandfathers are Ghosts (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2008), which almost confirmed this assessment, in a collection of pieces caught somewhere between genres, working through a form that his writing doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in. In The Withdrawl Method, he is not only comfortable, but in complete control of his writing, his language, and in what doesn’t get told.
I started thinking Mom was the moon when I was little. It was a secret from my dad Greg. I could talk to her and stuff, every night. I know it’s dumb now. But it’s like tradition and there’s nowhere else she can be. Sometimes you can see her and sometimes you can’t but every night all around the world Mom the moon is busy pushing oceans in and pulling oceans out. Tides. And all us people are basically water too and at night the moon pushes us into sleep. (“Pushing Oceans In And Pulling Oceans Out”)
Do you need to know anything else? The book is worth it alone for the last story in the collection, “When Jacques Cousteau Gave Pablo Picasso a Piece of Black Coral.” Read this book.

[reviewed from uncorrected proofs]

Monday, January 05, 2009

Notes for a Sad Phoenician

You are the question to all my answers. I was an
echo without prior sound until you, silently, wrote,
“I am counting on my fingers to remember you.” If
only you had got my name right.
— Robert Kroetsch, Excerpts from the Real World

Every day I write you a letter and drop it into the postbox at the corner. Last week, each envelope pasted with Christmas stamps. Before that, a book of Queen Elizabeth II.

I am an unsigned page, resisting the pen. Your fingerprints mark me. From our house on the moon, we live airless, but breathe into each other’s mouth at regular intervals.

I am trying to keep from falling a part.

Your skin is the song of the wind through wet grass.

Yesterday morning it rained, all over the parking metres. One couple wore skis. I was meeting Amanda and Charles Earl at the Carleton Tavern. The moon fell dancing in waves.

The moon, Mary, I would give you the moon. What Jimmy Stewart promised, in the film version of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Ottawa, in winter, becomes cold and then colder. Before Edmonton, I never understood what they meant by a dry cold. I think I prefer it. Your car and blue football jersey, preparing the pan.

I write notes to Hank Williams and Jack Spicer. There is no America without you. They wear wristwatches with the hands of your name.

David Thompson, who named a river after his mentor, and lost the border between us for more than four days. His house is an archive of drawings he made of your body, your curves, your soft places. We articulate maps.

Evidence: your hairpins mixed up in my bedsheets.

When you appeared at my door, I was too stunned to speak. I went right back to bed. I am glad you accepted the invitation.

I remember the palm of my hand on your exposed back, on the night that she kissed you, somehow, for my benefit. In the karaoke bar, you were half a beer away from starting a fight, and you didn’t care who. I hadn’t seen you more beautiful.

On bad days, you’ve suggested you’d go to the moon without me. Without you, I imagine no moon.

I spend the morning rereading all of the poems I wrote you, before we met.

The bus strike continues, marking your absence. Bill Hawkins drives by in his cab, jwcurry quotes something he said in a notebook. The slow think of you as I stand, waiting for something that could still be long weeks away.

I remember your tongue on the curve of my spine. I remember the curve of my spine on your tongue. Each night sheds its differences.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Today is Kate’s 18th birthday

Today is my daughter Kate’s eighteenth birthday, at 4:30pm. How did I get here? Old enough to vote, drink in Quebec, and to drive a car (which I guess she’s been old enough to do for some time now), just like my student loan. I wish her the very best. How did I get here, again? I must have had her when I was, like, twelve or something…

Saturday, January 03, 2009

West Coast Line # 57 (42.1): Miki

Losing my body

I look in the mirror
see someone else’s body
where are the clean hard lines
the lean and muscle
the smooth taut skin
on the throat
the straight back
and narrow waist
they stole slowly away
molecule by molecule
and someone else took over
inch by inch
roll by roll
wrinkly by wrinkle
scar by scar
grey hair by gray hair
and oh I miss
most (Jeannette Armstrong)

As guest editor Fred Wah beings in his introduction:
This issue of West Coast Line is a tribute to its founder, Roy Miki. It is not intended as collection of anecdotal or hagiographical testimonials but, rather, a collection of writing from some of the writers who have cohabited Roy’s extensive cultural community over the past 40 years. Writing was solicited to reflect not only the moment of production but also to reflect to Roy a partial sense of the threads of his own creative and intellectual milieu which he has generated through a lifetime of writing, thinking, and activism.
I have always appreciated special issues of various journals over the years produced as tributes to others, whether writers, publishers, activists and others, and there have been plenty over the years (although, somehow, never quite enough), even including a recent issue of The Capilano Review produced as a tribute to Sharon Thesen [see my review of such here]. This special issue of Vancouver’s West Coast Line includes a whole host of contributors, including Marilyn Dumont, Roger Farr, Wayde Compton, Robert Kroetsch, Myrna Kostash, Pauline Butling, Peter Quartermain, Fred Wah, Charlene Diehl, Jerry Zazlove, Margaret Christakos, Jeff Derksen, Karina Vernon, Louis Cabri, Kim Minkus, Colin Browne, Douglas Barbour, George Bowering, Lola L. Tostevin, Lisa Robertson, Gerry Shikatani, Steven Ross Smith, Jacqueline Turner, Mark Nowak and plenty of other writers, none of whom, interestingly enough, have bios at the back of the issue, giving their homages to and for Miki a kind of level playing field that is particularly interesting. As Wah continues:
For those few readers of WCL unfamiliar with Roy’s range of engagements, let me briefly outline his more public performance, one that has had a valuable and extensive impact on his contemporaries. As a scholar he has edited and published decisive work on and by William Carlos Williams, George Bowering, bpNichol, and Roy Kiyooka. His collection of essays, Broken Entries: Race Subjectivity Writing, is a good demonstration of his incisive critical acumen and an excellent sampler of some of his writing on poetics and culture. His founding and editing of the literary journals Line (1983) and West Coast Line (1990) has been central to the articulation and practice of the modern-postmodern-postcolonial shifts in recent Canadian and American poetry. Probably his most arduous work is documented in his book Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. His teaching at Simon Fraser University from the mid-70’s until his retirement in 2007 has maintained SFU and Vancouver as the site of some of the most important dialogue in literary and cultural studies in North America. His poetry has been published in numerous chapbooks and collection, his 2001 Surrender winning the Governor-General’s Literary Award. Many other awards and accolades, including the Order of Canada, have highlighted his outstanding engagement with literature and justice.
What makes this issue isn’t necessarily the writing dedicated to Miki directly, but the range, amount and quality of writers who have been influenced and encouraged by Roy Miki, whether directly or indirectly, whether as readers, students, contemporaries and friends, to those edited and published by Miki through Line and/or West Coast Line over the years, with some that even count as all of the above, through his ongoing critical and writing practice, and ongoing conversation about writing, poetics, culture and race.

You Never Looked So Simulating

The next stop was Edmonton
where I got lost in the Fantasyland
Mall on the way to one of the demi-
keynotes at the International Association
for Philosophy and Literature
“Thinking Between Poetry &
Philosophy” convention & so missed
most of the lecture on the “The Ineluctable
Split of Poetry’s Unsayable Name: Reading
Derrida through Nietzsche’s Unknowable
Answer to Celan’s Joyce (A Response to
Benjamin).” Many of the conventioneers
noted that the “Bourbon Street” food
mall was a perfect example of “simulation” –
a view I have trouble understanding
(not unusual for me)
since the patrons of the food court
seem to enjoy the fact that
“Bourbon Street” is ineluctably in
the West Edmonton Mall & the designers
of the street seemed to go
out of their way to emphasize this fact,
making it look like a plaster cast
sketch of a picture of a New Orleans street
& not like the “real thing” at
all; the only ones fooled were
we conventioneers having our
dinner as we chatted about the
breakdown of reality and simulacra
(or simusoy for the lactose
intolerant). & talk about authentically
local as you might, the Buffalo
wings on Bourbon Street
in the West Edmonton Mall
never tasted so real
or would have. I had trout. (Charles Bernstein)

The issue also includes an interview with Roy Miki, “‘Always Slippage’: An Interview on a Collage/Poem Project in Process,” by Kirsten Emiko McAllister, talking about a work-in-progress poetic/photographic work that extends some of the work done in his previous writing, including his most recent poetry collections Surrender (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2001) and There (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2006):
Roy Miki: My interest in constructing visual collages crept up on me. I’ve been using photographs for a while alongside poems, you could say in conversation with poems. Photographs—as in There [New Star, 2006]—have been a mediating device for me to free up more open-ended approaches to language and form. I’ve loved working with photo images. But when I retired from the university, it struck me more than before how much my intellectual life has been dominated by the printed word and, of course, printed texts, so I felt a need to figure out ways to enter into a relationship with the spaces of visual images rather than treating them only as accompaniments to poetic texts. I started by walking around my neighbourhood—the Kitsilano area of West 4th Avenue, around 4th and Vine—rethinking the social appearances of its localism, drawing on critical reflections that had been part of my poetry, research, and teaching. As I walked along the streets, I found myself drawn to images that revealed the heightened influence of commodity culture. It was fascinating to realize how pervasively our daily lives had become normalized in the discourses of commodity values—values woven into objects to be possessed and sold, displayed, produced, consumed, distributed, and so on. I was also struck that all the forms of commodification were somehow located in the body of the consumer. I’m not just talking about the body that displays a proliferating array of things to buy, but the body (my own included) that is affected by the visual and spoken language of commodities, which comes to us through shopping as a social performance.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Billy Little (1943-2009)

Mere months after the release of Vancouver poet Billy Little’s St. Ink: Selected Poems, selected by Jamie Reid and George Stanley (Vancouver BC: Cue Books, 2008), comes this sad note from Jamie Reid:

Billy Little: October 14, 1943 - January 1, 2009

Our dear comrade and brother poet, Billy Little, slipped away from this life at about 5 AM on New Years Day. It almost seems to me as if he were imitating one of his idols, dada hero Tristan Tzara, who died on Christmas Day in 1963. For several days he had been telling his friends that each day might be his last, but he hung on and continued to breathe one day after another for several days, until finally he lost the ability to speak and passed away. Billy spent his last days on his beloved Hornby Island, surrounded by his friends.

He had been resigned to this final result since hearing from his doctors last January that the abdominal cancer through which he had endured several rounds of chemotherapy and surgery would finally take his life in a matter of months rather than years. He lived the months that were left to him with great courage and good humour, sometimes in tears, he told me once, that he should have to leave the world, the life and the people that he loved with such passion and devotion. The people at his bedside near the end, his son Matt Little, Gordon Payne and his caregiver, Colleen Work, confirmed that through his last hours, though he could not speak, he was clearly smiling.

Billy’s son, Matt, will be inviting friends to the Hornby Island ball park on Sunday, January 4. In commemoration of Billy’s life-long devoted attachment to books and ideas, Matt will be handing out items from Billy’s book collection.

Further notice of an expanded memorial event will be posted later.

Typically, Billy left his life with a jest, a protest, leaving behind his own obituary:


after decades of passion, dedication to world peace and justice, powerful friendships, recognition, being loved undeservedly by extraordinary women, a close and powerful relationship with a strong, handsome, capable, thoughtful son Matt, a never ending stream of amusing ideas, affections shared with a wide range of creative men and women, a long residence in the paradisical landscape of hornby island, sucess after sucess in the book trade, fabulous meals, unmeasurable inebriation, dancing beyond exhaustion, satori after satori,
billy little regrets he's unable to schmooze today.
in lieu of flowers please send a humongous donation to the war resisters league.

I'd like my tombstone to read:

billy little
hydro is too expensive

but I'd like my mortal remains to be set adrift on a flaming raft off chrome island

A poet, activist and small publisher in BC for decades, his St. Ink not only collects a selection of Little’s poetry over the years, but includes a selection by admirers such as Lionel Kearns, Gordon Payne, Goh Poh Seng, George Stanley, Renee Rodin, Pierre Coupey, George Bowering, Judith Copithorne and Trudy Rubenfeld. As Kearns begins his piece, “Postscript to Bill’s collection”:

Billy Little’s biography has been around. It seems to start up very young somewhere in America. It hangs out at the New York City Public Library and poetry readings down at St. Mark’s. It swings up to Buffalo, where the action is. It loiters among the poets in San Francisco. Eventually it pushes on north to Vancouver, and ends up in Nowhere B.C., the only absence with a Canadian postal code (V0R 1Z0). These days it seems to be located on an island. You can tell by the images: cormorants, ferry line ups, fish boats, salmon chanted evening.

Billy has always been a full time poet, although from time to time he has held outside positions such as editor, publisher, gallery manager, book store owner, impresario, teacher, student, public speaker, commentator, reviewer, lover, partner, father, and grandfather. Many years ago I caught him with each of his hands on the handles of a wheel barrow, though I doubt if he would admit such a thing now: help the planet he counsels us: stop working/ don’t succumb to the addiction of employment. Nevertheless, poetry is the job he works at all the time. Whenever it’s happening, there he is, the most committed poet I know.
But I will leave the last words for Billy Little, himself:

for david phillips

I remember how frustrated Jesus got
building those tacky villas for the roman yuppies
gentrifying the Sea of Galilee
how his tongue became
myriads of venomous snakes
how he ate mouse sushi
for weeks on end
you could sell him two bushels of mint
it wouldn’t be enough

2. The Satin Man
“where’s the man could ease a heart
like a satin gown?” – Dorothy Parker

remember that halloween,
jesus put on the red mask
tied the pointy tail to his plaid pants
hoist the rusty pitchfork
and went out trick or treating in the treetops

where the shrieking primates
tosses polished acorns
at his swollen red scrotum

that halloween jesus changed the maples leaves
into currency
made the blue bummed orangutans
eat swimming pools of money pudding

after His tracheotomy
His lips spelled
everything He didn’t say

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Notes for a Sad Phoenician

You are the question to all my answers. I was an
echo without prior sound until you, silently, wrote,
“I am counting on my fingers to remember you.” If
only you had got my name right.
— Robert Kroetsch, Excerpts from the Real World
Do you remember my fingers on the High Level Bridge? I remember your blue dress. The wind is made of molecules, impassive but never alone. A mass of improprieties.

I am looking for you through a myth of roses.

I am putting your heart back together with four hands, yours and then mine. We walked together, from Edmonton east.

I have nearly forgiven you for being born in Windsor, Ontario.

We have been here so long, the world has mesmerized our stories. Even our words remain restless. We are the last ones to admit that the stories were true.

If I were to believe my own mythos, I live a life of epiphanies threaded together with rusted needle.

You can never see out of eyes not your own. My twentysomething gaze out my childhood window, the fir tree that grown up to euthanise view.

It was not where we meant to end up. We ordered the oysters, a bottle of red, the lamb special. Your ivory coast.

We are already further than the idea of a door. I identify with the familiar, and you tell me how I don’t like change. I call this foundation.

A song I wrote for Helen of Troy became infused with blood. I no longer play it. Puncture wounds become obvious when skin exposed to the cold.

You are a tiny blue island. I am working my way up to your shoreline. I long to get shipwrecked there.

John Newlove said once that all of his poems were about desire. Desire, not longing, or love. The Phoenicians, it was said, were known as believers in language.

If I could write you a love poem, I will.