I don’t know whether this is an ancient Chinese proverb or a mass-manufactured brainchild of an underpaid copywriter somewhere in Chicago. I do know that it was inside my fortune cookie after I had lunch at Hunan Delight about a year ago, and it changed the way I look at nonfiction. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to gather meaning from mass-produced slips of paper, but isn’t that what books are made of? I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife’s help to operate my MacBook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit. If any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous strand, but has its own infinitely variable sequential order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital online media have changed the way we read, and think. One of the ways we talk about this is by making a distinction between “analog reading,” in which a person reads something from beginning to end without stopping, and “digital reading,” in which a reader stops to analyze a piece of writing into interlocked units. The first reading of anything is usually mostly analog; subsequent readings, if they happen, are usually digital.
Two years ago, I started writing creative nonfiction in earnest. My first and most looming problem was that I didn’t really know what creative nonfiction was. I’d spent most of my life writing journals, poetry, criticism, fiction, and some freelance journalism, in that basic order. When I applied to MFA programs, most were in fiction. I’d seen the term “creative nonfiction” in passing, and had mostly thought it an unjust term – if it’s creative, can it be truly called nonfiction? And if it’s nonfiction, where’s the room for creativity on the writer’s part? Nonetheless, I was finding myself drawn more and more to nonfiction – about my own life, but also the world I saw around me. In the movie Sideways, a man tells the main character, a novel writer, “I like nonfiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.” I found myself agreeing with the nonfiction reader. But I still felt a bit justified in distrusting a genre that is younger than I am – Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather of CNF,” says he’s been using the term “creative nonfiction” loosely since the 1970s, and the National Endowment for the Arts made the term official in 1983 in order to justify handing out fellowships for it.
That’s where the fortune cookie comes in. If the nonfiction writer’s subject is the world, and his or her place in it, the first responsibility of the writer is to reduce the world into workable units. Much like a reader must read something numerous times to piece out the analog parts and then find the digital circuit at work, the nonfiction writer must find the story-units in the world and then fit them into a working digital circuit of the writing. In telling the myriad stories the world and the self contain, one of the writer’s first steps is shaping and condensing systematic and narrative units. For our purposes here I’ll coin the term “digital nonfiction” for this process – if an essay or a memoir or a news story (and, universally, the world) can be thought of as a digital circuit, and if all the millions and millions of stories are the analog parts, then the creativity of the nonfiction writer is primarily on how the writer sorts – or lists – those analog stories.
Here’s a Childhood essay unlike any on NC so far, dubbed a geografictione by its author, a psychogeographical meditation on suburbia by Cheryl Cowdy (who started life in Mississauga, a huge suburban agglomeration west of Toronto where many of dg’s relatives have lived from time to time).
We all live in the suburbs these days, and we’re all embarrassed by it. Here Cheryl challenges the notion that the suburbs are necessarily a cultural or imaginative dead end as she returns ambivalently to Mississauga, seeking the ghosts of untold stories – her own, but also those that might be buried within its golf course mountain of refuse.
Cheryl’s fascination with suburban spaces began long before the phenomenal success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbsalbum. Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the often conflicted meanings of the suburbs in post-war English-Canadian literature. Her essay “Ravines and the Conscious Electrified Life of Houses: Margaret Atwood’s Suburban Kunstlerromane” appears in the current issue of Studies in Canadian Literature(36.1. 2011).
“I had a lot of luck, then, which saved me from all kinds of side-tracks: neuroses first off, and perhaps psychosis, and psycho-professionalization, from which many intelligent people never recover. Next, the militant path, and finally—this may seem strange—it saved me from the suburbs, universe of my childhood, kind of wonderful, but which is often, all the same, a cultural dead end.” 
Beneath the flight path of airplanes heading for or just leaving Lester B. Pearson Airport, the temptations of exile pass through your acoustic space approximately once every six minutes(58). Thankfully (perhaps) you haven’t experienced the same kind of luck as Guattari. Luck has saved you from certain undesirable side-tracks but not from the suburbs. Home: what you visit and abandon. In spite of your desire for escape, the universe of your childhood is a familiar ambivalence to which you reluctantly return, physically and psychically. Your dream geography if not the geography of your dreams.
Home: an asylum for your origins. A variety of exits off the 401, bringing your grandparents westward from Port Hope to Scarborough in the nineteen fifties. When the Empress of Canada landed in Montreal in 1966, it would have brought your mother, eighteen, blithe and bonny, to Scarborough too. The 401 a mosaic your grandfather pieced together from the air for the PSC Photographic Survey Corporation. Your father spent his days piecing it together from the ground, laying humid asphalt over dirt, soil, concrete, then navigating the labyrinth of paved earth long nights moonlighting in a rented cab, ferrying the more privileged to invented island destinations.
The 401: Anecdotes accumulate along its paved shoulder; details get on here, merge, some leave by the next exit. Like the time a bunch of the guys got drunk after work and Dad streaked down the 401. Or the time he stopped his cab to help someone after a collision – only learning later that the guy had robbed a bank then had his face blown off by the cops in a gun fight. How could he drive without a face? Sometimes this anecdote drives in the lane beside another one; tall tales weave back and forth between lanes, stealing and sealing the gaps between stories and messing with their integrity.
What about Mum? Or your Gran, for that matter? Where are they? It’s almost always the fathers doing the driving. Not much material for a tall tale fitting women for bras in Simpson’s, although every woman must have heaved a story in her D-cup. Your mother tending the cash register evenings at the corner store after caring for you all day. Her escape from the explosives factory in Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland her one big story. After that, your mother’s stories occur in parentheses, take circuitous back routes, avoiding left-hand turns and never, never, getting on the 401.
Yes, highways are constructed and anecdotes accumulate. Can a “literature” be built here too? Is this a place from which to launch a world, a river, or even a short story? Can it launch itself? Mississauga is premeditated, its stories pre-fabricated. Fake lakes and mountains made out of garbage then turned into golf courses. Can we transform ourselves if our surroundings are right? Somewhere there’s an exit-also-an-entrance that brings you back to or beyond the prequel.
A romantic child, you search optimistically for stories. The week your family moves to Meadowvale (Meadowjail) you notice the generic head of an Indian on the banner of the Mississauga News. Like Louise in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, you look for Indians expectantly: Lake Wabukayne, the Credit River, Lake Aquitaine. (When you learn that “Aquitaine” is a European name, you switch allegiances; look for ladies in the fake lakes, under the stormwater collection equipment). Eventually you meet members of the Mississauga Nation who look nothing like the Indian on the local paper. As you write this, the Six Nations are resurrecting their blockade against suburban development at Caledonia, resisting, like Oka, like Ipperwash, the suburban narratives with which we’ve barricaded them.
The Great Train Derailment of ‘79 was your own private Cuban Missile Crisis. For one night and all of the following day you watched Mississauga burn and waited for the knock on the door. Evacuation held the promise of Rapture, you could feel it in the texture of the toxic air. You wished to join that community of the elect, the early evacuees who spent an entire week camping out on cots in the Square One Shopping Centre (every kid’s dream to be stranded in the mall after the lights go out). Instead, you are transported to more eastern points of the 401 – your familial origins – Scarborough and Agincourt and Flemingdon Park. Where it all began.
You will remember less about those 4 days of exile than you will about that one day of waiting.
You develop and move from one townhouse complex to another, somehow keeping track of all those unit numbers.
Complex/ kompleks/ n. & adj. – n. 1. a building, series of rooms, network, etc. made up of related parts (the arts complex). 2. Psych. A related group of usu. repressed feelings or thoughts which cause abnormal behavior or mental states. (inferiority complex; Oedipus complex). 3. (in general use) a preoccupation or obsession (has a complex about punctuality). 4. Chem. a compound in which molecules or ions form coordinate bonds to a metal atom or ion. – adj. 1. consisting of related parts; composite. 2. Complicated (a complex problem). 3. Math. containing real and imaginary parts. [French complexe or Latin complexus past part. of complectere embrace, assoc. with complexus braided]. 
There has to be a minotaur somewhere.
How to escape? Borrow more authentic addresses: Streetsville seems more small town, so for a time, you date Streetsville boys exclusively. Later you set your sights on bad boys from the city: Toronto: Downtown with a capital “D.” Whoring after strange places. Their addresses are rendered more exotic by the three-hour pilgrimage that takes you from the labyrinthine routes of the Mississauga Transit to the more pragmatic Toronto Transit Commission. Never getting on the 401, except the time dad snatched you back from an escapation attempt.
Escape artist, you look to Hollywood for familiar narratives, real and imaginary: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. It’s the 80s – you listen to The Smiths, The Cure – and so for a time you are saved by the treacherous optimism of the cynic from certain side-tracks, seductions of the dreaming screen. You seek out copses of wood in the ravine, beside the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles, grocery buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC. You aren’t picky at that time and will accept pre-fabricated nature if that’s the best they can offer. Writing place: hiding place. You write Songs of Disaffected Innocence and Experience. They never seem right.
Next the militant path. You drop out of high school for a while, sell remainders in the record department at Woolco (Square One, at last). Miraculously, you find salvation in a secondary school for the lost. When you graduate, you pick the University with the most alien geography, Montreal a universe in which to dream a different language. You step over the homeless who sleep in front of your door. You have a Murphy bed and a rat that isn’t a pet. You are only mildly dissatisfied with your verse.When asked where you are from, you can say, “Toronto.” You think you are happy.
Four months later, you return.
Return: escape to embarkation/ escapation.
You’re not exactly certain how the return was effected. Somewhere along the highway you took the wrong exit, forgot to merge, got trapped in a narrative you don’t recall writing. All exits are also entrances. You should be in exile in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood along with everyone else in academe: you missed the Rapture again?
They cleaned up the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles and shopping buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC (evidence of your own adolescence may still be down there). Anecdotes accumulate, advertising copy trying desperately to disguise itself as his/tory:
“The 16 hectare (40 acre) Lake Aquitaine Park is one of Meadowvale Community’s best-known attractions. Designed in the late 1960s and opened in 1976, the park surrounds an artificial lake. This lake, considered a model by other cities, was the first stormwater management facility in the province to be a focus for a residential community. It is designed so the lake can significantly change water levels and store water during and after major storms.
Nature is being allowed to reclaim the edges of the lake, and new wetland and meadow areas are being nurtured. This will make the park more welcoming for fish, birds and other wildlife.”
Mississauga goes on with its falling, one molecule at a time: and you too in your ache to archive it there to read/ remember/ blame. To unhinge, and to carve with words, a reading act: this place of origins, of forbiddens and transgressions, of absence and remains.
Jeanette Winterson has a theory that “every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” 
In the explorations of memory and place lie unsolved murders.
Some ghosts return because the narrative demands it. What are your ghosts doing now? Do they keep each other company, the streetwise adolescent ghost roaming the culs-de-sac and walking through the McDonald’s Drive-thru window at 2am, and the urban undergrad ghost haunting your condemned bachelor apartment on rue St. Denis? There are ghosts in Ottawa, some begging for change at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor (you have had more successful escapations). Do they sneer at the soccer mom? If you wonder too much about which routes brought you back here, not just to the same community but the very same street you lived on prior to your first defection … from 6154 to 6205, a difference of only fifty-one numbers in eighteen years…
You dream yourself breaking into unruly houses, coveting secret passageways, and hidden rooms, always their subterranean floors. Nights you don’t dream thoughts toss and turn. (Stories in parentheses). Sometimes you rise, grope for notebook on night table, tiptoe into the bathroom, the only place you can write without waking husband, kids, dog, cat. Writing place: hiding place.
“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously” writes John Barth. 
Perhaps you can’t reach Serendib by the 401. How then to occupy a place? Be the crack in the plaster. Persistent mushroom exploding through dirt, soil, asphalt, concrete. You must live up to your fictions, that’s all there is to it; you must help yourself achieve geografictiones of the soul. Get off the highway then, and take the back roads. Excavate the stories from parenthetical constructions. Tear down the “No Exit” sign. See/k what has been wiped off the map. Construct an asylum for your origins, a mythology, a highway of heroes.
In good faith, you’re still losing your bearings.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
“A fiction of geography/ geography of fiction: coming together in people and landscape and the harboured designations of fickle memory.” Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990: 40.↵
Guattari, Félix. “So What?” Chaosophy. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1995: 8↵
Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.↵
Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, UK: Vintage, 1991.↵
Barth, John. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.↵
Okay, one of the best things about Numéro Cinq is the serendipity of the network reaching out (which is its nature, and it is insatiable). DG’s friend Haijo Westra, a just-retired classics professor at the University of Calgary, wrote an essay about dg’s novel Elle which, some years ago, out of the blue, he sent to dg, and they became friends (and later the essay was published in French and then in an English translation on NC). Manifesting his enthusiasm in all ways, Haijo gave a copy of Elle to an Australian poet named John Watson who was in Calgary while his wife worked on her doctorate. Then John Watson wrote a poem in response to Elle and sent it to dg. Now dg and John Watson are becoming friends, and, as winter sets in around dg, John Watson WILL INSIST on sending him emails such as:
We had a foretaste of summer heat last week. We had driven to the Central Coast hoping to spend the night in a little cabin. Towards dusk the beach was listlessly hot, the cabin stifling with no Southerly change expected. So we drove another 3 hours back home so as to sleep…
We went today (2 hours) south of Sydney to the beach behind the house where DHLawrence lived in Thirroul for 3 months and wrote Kangaroo. The first day after a week of rain. Full sun with a large pale edge of rain run off before the dark blue water.
But dg did admire that poem—delightfully exuberant, digressive, Menippean (if you will) and droll (see poem below).
The poet, upon request, sent dg a bio to go with the poem. It went like this:
John Watson the author of A First Reader (Five Islands Press, 2003), Montale: A Biographical Anthology (Puncher and Wattmann, 2006), Erasure Traces (Puncher and Wattmann, 2008), Views from Mt Brogden & A Dictionary of Minor Poets (Puncher and Wattmann, 2008), River Syllabics, (Picaro Press, 2009) and Four Refrains, (Picaro Press, 2011). He won the Newcastle Poetry Prize (2002) and the Blake Prize for Poetry (2009).
But then John Watson wrote a disclaimer:
The bio too is rather austere. No mention of the influence of voluptuous aunt in early days, nor keen interest in Brigitte Bardot films, pursuit of freakish weather events like waterspouts, St Elmo’s Fire, etc.
This seemed intriguing, so dg asked for another bio, the expanded version. Soon a far more exuberant bio arrived (unfortunately still lacking the “voluptuous aunt” story). Bio and poem together are pleasant and diverting reading.
Since in retrospect actual events seem to fade beside literary ones, a brief biography might be possible in terms of influences. Earliest memory: The Three Bears (the pleasures of uncertainty: “Who’s been sitting in my chair?”) Early adolescence: the stories of H G Wells and particularly the romance of The Door in the Wall. (The notion of idyll, loss and longing “which will persist with Watson for the rest of his life.”) A couple of years later, reading aloud The Windhover, with especial delight in the uncertain function of the word “buckle.” First stirrings of poetry as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Then Lampedusa’s story Lighea with its sexual blaze, Nerval’s Sylvie, Daphnis and Chloe, Beroul’s Tristan, Kleist’s Marquise von O. All of these he will subsequently versify i.e. rewrite in iambics. “The impulse to read more closely by means of versification” derives no doubt in part from Borges’ reviews of non-existent authors. Watson’s Dictionary of Minor Poets (read imaginary poets) (2008 but written 20 years earlier) is also part of that impulse.
By Dean Young Copper Canyon Press
96 pages; $22
ISBN-13: 9781556593116 .
Trying not to be one to judge a book by its cover, I opened Fall Higher to skim the table of contents and immediately laughed. The title of the first poem in the collection is “Lucifer,” which struck me as the opposite direction I was expecting the collection to take, given its title. This first moment, its instant detonation of my assumptions, was a good preface to the rest of the experience of reading this newest collection by Dean Young.
This particular concoction of poetry manifesto, imaginative integration of tradition, and lyric exploration exposes Young’s passion for the art of poetry and his technical skill in this, his ninth collection. But amazingly and tellingly, just days before the book’s publication, Young underwent heart transplant surgery, which was a triumph for the poet after over ten years with a life-threatening degenerative heart condition. Many of the poems in Fall Higher peer over the precipice of that struggle. In the poem “Winged Purposes,” for example, he describes falling higher as “voices hurtling into outer space, Whitman / out past Neptune, Dickinson retreating / yet getting brighter.”
Young is among the very accomplished in contemporary American poetry: he currently serves as the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, and his collection Elegy on Toy Piano (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has been awarded Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, among other honors. Young was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in 1955, and received his MFA from Indiana University. His poetics are self-described as being influenced by the New York School and the French surrealists, and in this most recent collection the influences come from many other corners of the poetic tradition.
Young’s engagement with the themes, devices, and specific works of the Western canon are rendered as a kind of dispersed ode running through the collection. He plays with rhyme in some poems, sometimes embedding them deep within the lines instead of at the ends.
Since the book begins with Lucifer, evoking the traitors of Dante’s Inferno, my first guess was that betrayal would be a major theme in Young’s lyric. This guess, at least, was right on. The poem “Elemental,” is one of those heartbreakers. Young leans toward the pantoum with characteristic four-line stanzas and a heavy dose of repetition, but within the lines and every which way. So the form is evoked for beauty, but the emotion has its willful way within the poem, refusing to acknowledge the form’s rules of repetition:
Walked into the burning woods and burning
walked into me. One day we’ll wade
into the sea and see. Your coming
won’t summarize your leaving
nor waking sleep, sleep our dreams,
fireflies over wet grass, ice
settling in an abandoned glass. Winter
can’t summarize that summer, your body
in my hands won’t summarized be
by your body far from me.
Already you’re in the air
and my hands are nowhere,
my dreams mostly water.
This end won’t summarize our forever.
Some things can be fixed by fire,
some not. Dearheart, already we’re air.
In the poem “Madrigal” Young uses end-rhymed lines throughout, saying
You feel like something fallen from its shelf,
a yo-yo with a busted string, chipped ceramic elf
because all you can think about is not there,
the eyes not there, not there’s hair.
Here, the poem cops an attitude of disregard for contemporary poetry’s aversion to rhyme. But, at the end of the poem, Young pulls the form away and leaves us the unrhymed fragment “detonating with laughter.”
With the poem “Non-Apologia” Young makes a deliberate gesture of defying the craft of poetry by writing a poem about it. He begins “Maybe poetry is all just artifice, / devices, hoax, blood only there / to rhyme with mud.” He goes on to defend the way that meaning and symbol keep escaping back into words, he defends metaphor and the way that poetry offers delight. He ends by saying “Soon shadows are all that’s left, / that’s why poetry is about death.” He’s broken the secret rule about not saying what poetry is about. He’s broken the standard rule of creative writing instructors: “show, don’t tell.” The arc of contradictoriness instead of conclusions, however, makes the poet’s point by showing the way.
In the poem “The Decoration Committee” from the collection Strike Anywhere, Young has this to say about lyric poetry:
I know of no studies concerning and in how many cases
the lyric poem eases heartache by initiating 1.
the beloved’s return, the door flies open,
the bra unstrapped, the moose dappled
with dew and/or 2. a getting-over-it
happiness at just having written/read the poem
which is about misery in the old way
but also in a new way and then noticing
the pretty barmaid…
Young is tracking something more than relief from heartache in his lyric. The odes in Fall Higher have a lyric sensibility in them, especially “Infinitive Ode,” but Young seems to use these poems to explore the disjunctions in the human experience of time and space. “Irrevocable Ode” presents a litany of images of moments that can’t be repaired or taken back and the resulting experience of regret. The poem concludes lyrically, referring to careless betrayers, “maybe you’ll search and petition / and wander until you’re heard from no more.” “Omen Ode” gives the opposite perspective of everything connected: “Maybe a million strings connect / tomorrow to now.” In “Infinitive Ode” the cleverness of using the infinitive itself as the object of praise is immediately tempered by the dark superimposition of imagery: “To see the pile of skulls Cezanne sketched / as practice for his painting of hovering peaches” and “To see in the pantomime of invalids / the corps de ballet.” Theories break down, and the end of the poem illuminates the inquiry:
To preserve the dream under the tongue
all day, not garbling a word. To wash
with cold water. All the way to the ground
the sky comes, just lying down we’re flying.
In Young’s recent book on the craft of poetry, The Art of Recklessness (Graywolf Press, 2011), he writes, “The poet is like one of those cartoon characters who has stepped off the cliff only to remain suspended. But while the cartoon character’s realization of his irrational predicament brings about its fall, for the poet imagination sustains this reckless position over the abyss; it is what extends the view. As readers, we are charmed by the postponement of our plummeting even as we are made aware of its inevitability.” Fall Higher does exactly this, vastly opening up the view.
John Bolton’s “Breakdown” is both a study in economy – doing much with little — and in the joy of having fun. It features a who’s who of working actors in Vancouver. They all came out to have fun, and for many of them, I’d suggest, make fun of the high stakes melodrama many Vancouver shot TV shows and movies specialize in.
The tagline for the film is “A disaster film disaster.” Perfect. The tropes of the disaster film have basically become self-parodic in films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow: where the world conspires to bring a broken family back together. It’s a tired formula, unwatchable. Bolton and his crew show us how tired the conventions are as they manage to shoot the major plot points and character development all in under fourteen minutes in a casting room.
It’s a beautiful disaster and strangely cathartic if you’ve been harboring low-level anger towards Hollywood disaster films the way I have.
Part of Vancouver, BC’s 2006 Crazy 8 Competition, Bolton and his team along with seven other teams were given eight hundred dollars to produce their short film. This year Crazy 8s enters its thirteenth year of supporting and challenging Vancouver filmmakers to make great short films.
The film stars Christopher Shyer, Amanda Tapping, Carly McKillip, Winston Rekert, Sonya Salomaa, Gary Chalk, William S. Taylor and Michael Coleman as themselves (in a way).
Forget the language that you learned in school
of England’s green hills, violets, cold grey sea.
Forget the nightingales, the Grecian urns,
the cataract, the darling buds of May.
The time has come to name your world, your life.
The time has come to learn your mother tongue.
Words that are sharp as sea eggs underfoot,
that burn with neon fire like fiddlewoods.
Words that are soft as sea rods, and as rough
as wave-washed rocks where no man’s foot has trod.
Forget the language that you learned in school
of gentlemen and ladies’ rosy cheeks.
Speak truth: My lover’s beard is coarse
as winter seaweed, stiff with salt and wind.
He is not fair, his skin’s palmetto berries, red clay soil,
driftwood that’s been drying in the sun.
Take words that whine and howl like winter winds,
that wash the storm surge up against your ear.
Take sweet and piercing words like whistling frogs
singing with you the only one to hear.
The time has come to name your world, your life.
The time has come to learn your mother tongue.
Banyan Tree, Warwick, Bermuda
.“Take sweet and piercing words”
In January, 2009, I attended Ber-Mused, a poetry reading held in celebration of Bermuda’s 400th anniversary, and as part of The Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts. It was the first time Bermudian poets had been featured in the annual festival, a coming-of-age party for the island’s literary arts. I’d planned my trip around this reading, which was organized by Nancy Anne Miller, a fellow exiled Bermudian to whom I’d been introduced at a the Vermont College of Fines Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. It was almost exactly thirty-one years since I’d left the island to live in Canada. I’d been back to visit regularly for the first ten years, and more sporadically after that, but lately my homeland had been calling to me, my “tangled and complicated”roots asserting their pull. Bermuda was working her way back into my writing, my thinking, my heart, inspiring me to start an annual writer’s retreat there, a way to reconnect with the island as the woman I’d become since leaving at seventeen.
That January trip was my first attempt at gathering writers from the U.S. and Canada for workshops on the island. Since then the retreat has grown, but that winter, only one writer signed up—my friend Shelly from Colorado. Our arrival coincided with Obama’s inauguration. On the television over the lobby bar at our hotel, we watched the new president and his family arrive at the White House, and felt moved by the significance of the moment and by the elation of the Bermudians working or relaxing in the bar, their eyes like ours fixed on the screen.
The following night after dinner, Shelly and I walked through the balmy streets of Hamilton to the Daylesford Theatre for Ber-Mused. Shelly has never been a fan of poetry readings but we both fell under the spell of the evening’s excitement as eight poets assembled on a darkened stage, a spotlight singling out each one as he or she read. Often, the poets performed one another’s work—Jeremy Frith, who has since passed away, reciting Christopher Astwood’s “Politics Time” in his fiercely Bermudian accent, Ruth Thomas and Ronald Lightbourne giving a humourous, blues-y rendition of Jane Downing’s “The Size Two Blues,” and Alan C. Smith leading us through Kim Dismont Robinson’s poignant “Emancipation Day,” about the lost promise of Bermuda’s youth.
As I listened to the poets’ distinctly Bermudian voices, and watched their faces, which seemed lit from within, a tide of emotions swept through me—an unexpected sense of shared national pride, gratitude for the circumstances that had brought me there that night, joy at witnessing this diverse group of Bermudians read together, and a keen longing for my voice to join in with theirs.
Ber-Mused group. From Bottom Left : Jane Downing, Ruth Thomas, Alan C. Smith, Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Nancy Anne Miller, Kim Dismont Robinson, Jeremy Frith, Chris Astwood. Top: Ronald Lightbourne. Photo by Karen Pollard, Artistic Director of The Bermuda Festival of the Arts.
by Paul Maddern
To understand everything about the swell—
how on a given day the seventh in the cycle
provides the greatest chance to ride to shore
if caught where the rip collides with the surge,
where the wave pries a mouth wide
and prepares to heave its travelled miles—
to understand the moment of submission,
when to dive in and up the crest
in order to avoid a rabid tumble,
to be flung skyward out the other side
falling yards into the trough and humbled—
to understand that we’re aligned
to leave behind horizons to the climbing wall,
hunched and turned three quarters,
believing that the travelling momentum
is such we’ll be absorbed and pulled along,
so someone watching oceans from a towel
might raise herself a little on one elbow
and to her partner whisper, Dolphins.
“Someone watching oceans”
When I was growing up on the island in the sixties and seventies, I didn’t know of any Bermudian writers. The poems, novels and plays we read in school had all been written by dead white British men, and in my final year of high school, one or two living Americans, like Ken Kesey. No one told us about Kesey’s Bermudian contemporary, Brian Burland, who was writing and publishing gritty, honest novels about Bermuda from a self-imposed exile in England and then the U.S, before returning home in the nineties. The conservatism of the small island would have made it impossible for him to write as freely if he’d stayed there.
In “Return to Mangrove,” Kim Dismont Robinson’s insightful introduction to the Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, she gives an explanation for Bermudians’ difficulty in writing poetry and fiction about their lives and their homeland:
Like many other small islands dependent upon tourism and international business, Bermuda has often viewed itself from the outside-in. Ever dependent upon the whims of a foreign market, Bermudians have been conditioned to examine our environment in a manner that takes the form of an external measurement. We are far more likely to ask “what might an Other think of this?” than to ask “what do I think of this?” Such a fundamental point of perspective greatly affects how we view the world as well as how, when, and if we choose to express ourselves. Our conservatism has its roots in this behaviour, and might explain why as a nation our authors are far more likely to try their hand at writing historical narrative rather than poetry or prose fiction. 
.Kim Dismont Robinson, Photo by Louise Tannock
Another reason for Bermudians’ reluctance to write with a necessary depth of honesty is the size and density of an island where it’s commonly felt that everyone knows everyone else’s business. This social pressure requires a special courage for its writers to overcome. In her review of Bermudian writer, Angela Barry’s short story collection, Endangered Species and Other Stories, Robinson relates Barry’s response to this pressure:
Writing about life on a small island can sometimes be challenging, and Barry says when it came time to publish her stories, she realized locals would, undoubtedly, attempt to draw parallels between her fictional characters and real people. ‘But I can’t take that on. You can’t write anything unless you dip into yourself, but that can have many different forms. It can be your own personal experience, it can be people known to you, things you’ve overheard, things you’ve seen on the television. But as a writer of fiction, you have control over what you do.’
Kendel Hippolyte who edited Volume II of the Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, This Poem-Worthy Place, identifies a third but related barrier to honest writing in “the ways in which Bermuda is an enigma to itself…how a country of 21 square miles (albeit 67,000 persons) can, under an almost quintessentially picture-postcard beauty, hide so much—of itself, from itself.” 
by Alan C. Smith
In my mouth, a hair,
means that he’s still here.
Spit it out in my hand,
place it between pages
of my journal to forget,
there’s a split in my lip
in the corner where
the nail bit, pink ring
purpling from the grip
of last evening.
“A split in my lip”
Robinson, who is the island’s Folklife Officer, sees this Bermudian blindness as caused by a habitual reliance on the outsider’s view of the island, but it may also arise from a fear of self-knowledge, a reluctance to engage with the island’s painful colonial history, years of racial injustice and tension inhabiting such a small place, the very closeness of our hurts, whether social, political, familial.
When I left the island to live in Toronto, I was seventeen, pregnant and recently married. My husband was studying engineering at the University of Toronto, where I enrolled part-time. We made our life in Canada because of a lack of jobs in his field in Bermuda, but it also suited me to forget the pain of my island childhood, where my brothers and I had been molested by our uncle, and where we grew up amidst the political turbulence of the sixties and seventies, a time marked by sometimes violent protests, fear, excitement and confusion, a time when most white Bermudians felt things were changing too quickly, and most African Bermudians knew that things were not changing quickly enough.
But even during those decades of political struggle, some Bermudians were writing, and many attending the workshops of the Bermuda Writers Club. Ronald Lightbourne remembers developing his craft with feedback from Dr. Maara Haas, a Canadian writer who led workshops for the group. Lightbourne, inspired by the works of James Baldwin and Derek Walcott, has always identified himself as a writer, attending conferences in Canada and the U.S., publishing his poems in journals at home and abroad. He describes his early years:
I grew up, the son of missionaries, traveling the entire Caribbean, and Belize, and came home to Bermuda finally at the age of 17, to take my A Levels at the Berkeley Institute. Folk tales, the Bible, hymns and pop songs all fed my interest in how words worked with the imagination. I published my first two poems in The Munronian, the literary magazine put out by the students of Jamaica’s Munro College, where I came under the influence of Mervyn Morris. I studied music and Education in London before returning to teach in Bermuda.
Returning to the island where encouragement for writers was scarce, he found community and support in The Bermuda Writers Club. Lightbourne describes some of the activities of the BWC: “They ran an annual writing contest in poetry, playwriting and short fiction. There was always a prize-giving banquet where an imported speaker held forth. It was usually very well subscribed.”
Through the years, Lightbourne has continued to be active in the island’s writing community, from his involvement with the Bermuda Writers’ Collective to starting a self-help group for playwrights at the Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society, to taking part in the Flow Sunday Spoken Word sessions, founded in the late nineties by Andra Simons, Suzanne Mayall and Cyril (Beatnik) Rubaine. Kim Dismont Robinson credits Flow Sunday with “provid[ing] a space where Bermudians could freely express themselves for the first time without fear of censorship.”
That Bermudian writers only discovered such a “space” and freedom fewer than fifteen years ago says a lot about the strictures, both spoken and unspoken, that inhabitants of a small, conservative island find themselves living under. How do you summon the courage, or even the words, to say those things your society thinks should remain unspoken? The support of other writers and role models can be an enormous help.
Poets and other artists can now perform their work at Chewstick, a non-profit organization founded in 2003, which has grown quickly, tapping into the oral tradition of the griot, or West African storyteller. Chewstick provides a permanent venue and a supportive audience for Bermudian poets and performers like Tiffany Paynter, Chris Astwood, Stephan Johnstone and many others, both experienced writers and beginners, to take to the stage and encourage each other’s honest and ardent expression. Chewstick has become a cultural force, offering a writers’ retreat, jam sessions, open mics, poetry slam workshops for young people, a sports program and other events, with a view to “empowering” Bermuda’s youth, and bringing together a diverse group of Bermudians to share their stories.
Chris Astwood describes the impact of Chewstick:
Chewstick is much more than an open mic night, and I think it’s safe to say that’s always been the intention of its founders. It’s a registered charity that has supported Bermudian culture in many forms since before it was a registered charity, a truly grassroots organization that exists because its founders and members really believe in Bermuda. I’ve seen it open doors and make links between people, had the chance to share my new and old work in a safe and friendly atmosphere, got to co-lead some weekend youth poetry sessions with Stephan [Johnstone] (big up to ChewSLAM)—it’s done a lot for me, and I’ve put a little time into helping out but not so much as it’s helped me out.
by Nancy Anne Miller
Nothing grows in a straight line here.
Oleander boughs curl, wriggle flowers
like painted pink toes for tourists.
Cacti flail thorny branches over stone walls,
the way octopi renege the nearby presence
of a gad about summer swimmer.
Standard English won’t grow vertical,
in the Stonehenge temple of teeth.
Drops an octave, swoons like sea grass
in a tide. Scatters tongues on the beach
in shells; tell of the in, out of ocean,
tiny scallop shovels which dig deep.
I turn brown as the earth below me,
my accent a thick shade, skin peels,
a need to be dressed, undressed by sun.
Nancy Anne Miller, Photo by Lisa Cueman
“The in, out of ocean”
While opportunities for writers have improved on the island, Bermudian poet Dane Swan lives in Canada where he can generate some income from touring the North American Slam and Spoken Word circuits, and applying for government grants. Swan has recently published a poetry collection, Bending the Continuum, with Guernica Press in Toronto. He says, “There are hurdles to being a writer in Bermuda. No distributed publishers, little to no grant system, little payment for readings.” All the same, Swan believes that “Bermuda’s mere existence is inspiring. The island is filled with great literary inspirations.”
In an interview with the Royal Gazette, Swan confesses that he was in the remedial group in high school English, and didn’t find his voice as a poet until he encountered slam poetry at a festival in Ottawa, Canada, where he was attending Carleton University, and heard Anthony Bansfield and Oni the Haitian Sensation perform their work.
Now he says, “I would love to… be a part of changing the English curriculum in Bermuda’s schools. I truly believe that introducing kids to writers who are like them at a young age, can inspire them to strive for greatness instead of merely passing school.” Swan who was recently accepted into the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts hopes for a future of literary successes for himself and the island.
.Dane Swan, Photo by Michelle Darby
Opportunities may be limited, but some poets who have stayed in Bermuda are making the most of them. Alan C. Smith, who is also an artist and performer, whose visual art forms part of the Bermuda National Gallery’s permanent collection, describes his busy creative life on the island:
Even though I and some of my contemporaries have often felt like step-children on the artistic scene in Bermuda I feel very fortunate to have been able to write and develop as an artist here. Cultural Affairs and the Bermuda Arts Council have been instrumental in providing opportunities and funds for me to grow and develop. I have had encouragement from other artists and institutions on the island and have been able to collaborate with artists in other genres, from dance to music to visual art. I have been invited by schools to facilitate workshops with students of varying ages and to judge poetry competitions. I have been commissioned by institutions and organizations to write and perform work about themes as diverse as drunk driving, African Art and domestic abuse and rape.
Smith also attends workshops sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs, and led by Caribbean poets and writers, such as Mervyn Morris, Kendel Hippolyte, Olive Senior and Lynn Joseph. In addition, Smith, Lightbourne and some of the other Ber-Mused poets, with the help of Head Librarian, Joanne Brangman, started a group that meets at the Bermuda Library. A workshop there, led by Nancy Anne Miller, also contributed to the group’s genesis. Smith says, “This has been a great opportunity to share work and critiques and create a sense of community.”
In 2005, Smith was one of the poets featured in a special section on Bermudian writing in The Caribbean Writer. In her introduction to the section, Kim Dismont Robinson discusses the idea of Bermudian identity—what the island shares with the Caribbean and how its isolated location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean makes it different. In her poem, “Another Island,” she “imagine[s] other islands I cannot see/islands just beyond our cold and limiting horizon.” From within this island solitude, each poet and prose writer brings his or her own Bermudian experience to the works here—from Jane Downing’s powerful villanelle about the indelible “taint” of white “privilege,” to Alan Smith’s conflicted feelings for a harsh, unloving grandmother, to Angela Barry’s journeys into the dark heart of the slave trade, the beautiful, endangered heartland of Guyana and the troubled heart of an African Bermudian mother worried by her young son’s fearless assumption of his own power and freedom in a world of white “entitlement.” The other writers featured are Chris Astwood, Margaret Anne Hern, Lisa Howie, Ronald Lightbourne, Llewella Rewan-Dowling, Andra Simons and Saskia Wolsak.
Alan Smith, Photo from This Poem-Worthy Place
by Dane Swan
Who are the loneliest people in the world?
My guess: Time travelers.
When love fails it’s off to the machine—
time to rewrite affairs;
The time traveler never truly
invests in love.
He thinks he can figure her out this time.
She believes she can make him feel this time.
Physical touch is a question mark
the time traveler wrestles with.
If the moment is true,
were other moments false?
When physics and metaphysics collide.
The loneliest people in the world
as forgotten images of the past.
“If the moment is true”
Nick Hutchings, who, like Smith, Lightbourne and Jane Downing, attends the monthly meetings of the Bermuda Library Poets (BLiP), came to poetry later in life as a way to express thoughts and feelings about his island community. Hutchings says:
I was educated in Bermuda and Canada but despite the best efforts of my many teachers to prepare me for a life inside I became a commercial diver instead and am now the president of a deep-sea exploration company. I love to explore and am equally happy doing so in the deep ocean or the intriguing social phycology of my community, using aquatic robots for the former and poetry for the latter. Bermuda, being an isolated Seamount with a fascinating natural and social history, is a great place for both. An aquatic robot can be an impressive tool as can a literary construct. For example, a childlike rhyme can be used like a key to gently unlock a door long closed in someone’s mind.
Nick Hutchings holding what he describes as, “a piece of rare deep-sea lava called carbonatite from 2400 ft. below the surface of the ocean. Attached to it are the shells of little known deep-sea critters.” Photo by Thad Murdoch
Hutchings’ poem, “One Fine Afternoon,” uses the familiar childhood rhythm and rhyme of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to confront an outsider’s view of Bermuda, eager to set “the facts” straight. This poem is assertively Bermudian featuring characters whose names a non-Bermudian would most likely not recognize, and giving a wink to the insiders who are its ideal readers.
One Fine Afternoon
by Nick Hutchings
One fine afternoon in St. George’s town
Astwood and Daniels were walking around
Chief Justice’s brother and best footballer anyone knew
Stopped near some tourists enjoying the view
When out on the water and easy to spot
Came the clean lines of an elegant yacht
Her topsides shined and buffed so bright
Turquoise water reflected in light
As the visitor looked he said to his wife
“Man, these people have got the life
And that someone would make such a generous loan
To let his staff take the yacht on their own”
Astwood looked at Daniels who was shaking his head
Then with a smile to the tourist he said
“That is the owner and his family out to relax”
“One shouldn’t prejudge without knowing the facts”
Said Daniels as the two friends turned to go
They thought it would be good for the tourist to know
“Turquoise water reflected in light”
As Bermudians explore what Jane Downing calls their “mother tongue,” they seek to write themselves and their island into being on the page or stage. In her review of Angela Barry’s story collection, Robinson quotes Barry describing her high school education in 1950’s Bermuda, “‘In our history classes…we were not given any structure to look at the world in which we currently were living. Similarly, in our studies in literature, we examined some wonderful writers, but there was never any suggestion that they were writing about us.’”That the situation hadn’t changed much when I was in high school in the seventies, or when Dane Swan attended Warwick Academy in the nineties means that a few generations of Bermudians are hungry to see their lives reflected in a literature of their own.
I find it extremely exciting to be writing at a time when poetry writing and performance in Bermuda is flourishing, and is firmly anchored in our sense of place. I have been a voracious reader of poetry from childhood but very little I read evoked my own environment (except perhaps the odd piece by Claude McKay). It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Walcott’s In a Green Night: Poems 1948-60 and Kenneth Ramchand and Cecil Gray‘s West Indian Poetry in the Bermuda Bookstore that I found poems which hit closer to home. Today there is a body of published work which Bermudians can relate to, which reflects our environment and all the different personal experiences and facets of Bermuda life. I see the flourishing poetry scene as part of a more general public expression and exploration of Bermudian identity, a complement to similar growth in scholarly work and art.
But does a poem or story have to be set on the island, or in a similar environment, to be Bermudian. Paul Maddern, a Bermudian who currently lives in Northern Ireland, where he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre, argues that:
there’s a school of thought that poetry isn’t about ideas or place; instead its primary concern is language. It’s a school I subscribe to. Interrogating the sounds and rhythms of language is why poets are poets. Ultimately, Bermuda influences my writing not because I necessarily want to write about particular places, flowers, animals or people, but because I was born and raised there; it was where I was formed, and therefore where my own personal language was formed. So, wherever I am in the world, that influence will always be with me. Thankfully, it’s inescapable.
Nancy Anne Miller, who writes about the island from her home in Connecticut, describes a similar experience as a poet and Bermudian:
My way of looking at the world, beholding it and processing it was formed by an exotic island environment. The use of image metaphor in my work is a direct result of taking in a multi-layered world with many cross references, both in the semi-tropical landscape as well as in the culture which was enriched by multi-ethnical references. Hence, there is no separation between my being a poet and being Bermudian as the island has effected how I behold the world, and how I use the tools of metaphor and of simile to write about it.
A Photographer’s Affinity For Bermuda
by Wendy Fulton Steginsky
He knows the difference between the snowy
-white within a longtail’s open wing as it glides
off South Shore in mid-March and the bleached
whiteness of a sea urchin abandoned to the August
sun. He captures the exact silver of a grunt’s under
-belly as it cuts through sea foam, turns it
turquoise-green, the color of esperanza.
In the flannel-gray shadows of banyan
trees he notices roots that ache for soil.
At Spittal Pond he singles out natal plum’s
trodden flowers, restores them to their milky
-white dignity. He translates the strength
of casuarina trees into knotty brown lines.
In early morning he defers to a frangipani’s
rosy aloofness that spews from every petal;
when whistling frogs trill from buttonwood bushes
that bend and dip he uncovers wind’s pebble-
soft voice as it cooees over Mullet Bay—
between breaths he hears it plead, Come home . . . . . . Come home.
Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Photo by Emily Steginsky
“Roots that ache for soil”
When asked how living abroad affects what and how he writes, Dane Swan says, “The scope of what I can be inspired by is wider. Not only can I write about my experiences in Bermuda, but also, the world beyond. I feel unlimited in scope.”
Poets writing about the island from abroad have obvious advantages and disadvantages. We benefit from our dual role as outsider and insider to gain a “wider” view of the island, which we can write about from a safe distance with less anxiety about Bermudian responses to our work. But our experience of contemporary island life is limited, and exile can unsettle our sense of a Bermudian identity, and make us prone to nostalgia. Wendy Fulton Steginsky, who lives in Pennsylvania, discusses the challenge of nostalgia:
I struggle with presenting what may seem like a romantic or idealized view of my childhood. Maintaining a balanced perspective as I look back can be a challenge and I often fight the tendency to portray Bermuda as an idyllic place. As in most situations, I’m attracted to the unaltered, unchanging aspects and I tend to focus on those in regards to Bermuda. So my poems reflect the profusion of natural beauty that abounds on the island not, hopefully, in a naïve way but in an authentic way as a frame for my voice and mind.
Steginsky, who tries to visit whenever she can, describes her feelings for the island:
Even though I’ve lived away for many years (34 years in the U.S.) I still consider Bermuda my home, the place where my roots first took hold. It’s the place where I lost my first tooth, learned to ride a bike, kissed my first boyfriend, smoked my first cigarette; it’s also the place where I ate supper picnics on our family’s boat, anchored in expansive turquoise waters off an uninhabited island topped by a crumbling limestone castle, where I experienced the terrifying wrath of several roiling hurricanes, the thrill of our Poinciana tree when it burst into flames, where whistling frogs lulled me to sleep.
For Steginsky, writing poetry about her homeland is a way to reconnect with her younger self and to come to terms with the loss inherent in exile. She describes her memories as a living entity that requires attention and understanding:
My poems grant my memories air and breath so they can live when I can’t be physically present in Bermuda. My poems come from a deep place inside me, often expressing great longing and loss. Most recently I needed to sell my family home in Bermuda, the only house I’d lived in growing up on the island. It was a heart-wrenching experience—I felt as if my roots were being severed and the ground beneath me slipping away.
Poetry came to my rescue, providing the container for all my complicated feelings and allowing me to share what mattered most, revealing my interior self in a very intimate way.
by Ronald Lightbourne
Salt that had so flavoured my life is done,
unseasoned seasonings cancelling my fête.
That sumptuous full variety is gone
which of your bounteous bounty once I ate.
I gnaw on loneliness as on a bone
a dog gnaws when there’s nothing on his plate,
and hide, disguised, as one hides in alone,
nothing, if not the soul of desolate.
Blessed desolation that it comes from you!
Something I have, at least, that’s from your heart
to keep between me and this view
of nothing, all around, on every part.
And yet one word from you could ease this pain
and bring me to your banquet hall again.
“Your bounteous bounty”
If distance can sometimes make us prone to nostalgia, it can also give us the perspective and freedom needed to write honestly, the space necessary to explore both our roots and our branches. Many writers have to leave their homeland in order to write about it. Paul Maddern comments on his need for distance when writing about Bermuda:
I believe it was the Jamaican writer, Lorna Goodison, who said she can only write about her homeland when she is away from the island. My experience is the same, but unlike Ms. Goodison—who I believe splits her time between Jamaica and America—I’ve now lived away from my homeland for longer than I ever lived there.
Maddern describes visits to Bermuda as full and charged with meaning. He “revisit[s] the landscapes of …[his] childhood,” takes lots of photos, notices “what landmarks remain; what changes are being wrought.” He says:
If I’m there at the right time, I spend a day or two watching longtails darting off Ferry Reach. I ride my moped along the island’s main arteries and make detours down the roads and lanes that are particularly special to me. I take the ferry around the Great Sound and along the North Shore to view my homeland from the sea, and I swim in that sea at any opportunity.
The sea provides not only a metaphor for Bermudian poets, but also a chance for actual immersion in the waters of memory, both for those remaining on the island and for those returning to visit. Maddern can only write when he is back in Ireland and has had time to assimilate everything he “soaked up” in Bermuda. He says, “Each trip …involves an overload of memories and sensory experiences. But in terms of producing writing drawn from those experiences, it’s all too much to process at the time.”
Nancy Anne Miller agrees:
I find that writing from afar most often creates an aesthetic distance which gives me time to process imagery, and to refine it into what is essential for the poem to resonate, be alive. I believe taking on a country as my subject has matured my work, as I try to embrace the scope of such, as entwined and morphed through memory. Poems can take on the anthropological task of a dig (to echo Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”) to recover a place and to re-member it through the map of words.
The World of Water
by Chris Astwood
If a marlin at the weigh-in
breaks a record, it’s hats off
to both fisherman and catch –
the latter for a life of luck
the former for a snatch of fortune;
All the photographs, sun rash,
and rounds on the house, can’t add up
to that invisible transaction
between catch and fisherman:
we celebrate their exchange
of providence, the transfer
between our world and the world of water.
But one must drown the other,
and let us never forget:
No matter how many lines we cast
that pull fish into their last gasps,
no matter how good our luck
with chum and bait and hook and gaff,
their ocean’s rising always,
climbs slow up the coastal rocks
to reclaim the bones.
. “That invisible transaction”
If this “re-membering” is the work of the exiled writer, for those who stay in their homeland the challenges are different—to build and take part in community while maintaining a sense of a separate, independently thinking self, one who can give “a response formulated from the inside-out,”an ability to see with the eyes of the insider/outsider without leaving home. Nadine Gordimer calls this “the tension between standing apart and being fully involved… that… makes a writer.”
Alan Smith writes in solitude but pursues performance opportunities to share his work with others. He describes the liberating effect that Chewstick and other regular open mic sessions have had on his own process and on the arts in general:
For me writing is a necessarily lonely endeavour. I began writing quite a few years before Flow Sunday’s, the original open mic event that was followed by Nenu Letu and the most enduring of the three, Chewstick. In order to get my work out there I began to create performance opportunities around my work, theatrical presentations that became increasingly cohesive and narrative. That proved to be rewarding but expensive. I was elated when Flow kicked off and there was a free arena to bring one’s work to the public. Flow initiated an exciting movement; the desire for less inhibited self-expression stoked. The visual artists followed suit, and bolder, less traditional art began to show up in art exhibitions. A small group of serious poets began to emerge.
The night of Ber-Mused, a stage that had been dark and empty lit up to reveal “a small group of serious poets” ready to celebrate what they, and other Bermudian poets and writers such as Andra Simons, Veejay Steede and Laurel Monkman, had accomplished thus far. Now, whether from within the closeness of the island community or from the distance of exile, Bermudian writers have begun to embrace their role as artists—“to reveal a society to itself”and to “reply… honestly: ‘This is what I think of this.’”
by Kim Dismont Robinson
Even when the ground seems steady, there is always a farewell in movement
I know this because I know the landscape of my island
And I have never been its cedar forest
My rootedness tangles the soil here differently,
In a way that ties but does not lash me to my home
Because I am here, I know the shifts and changes
Familiar and comforting are the days when sky is milky like the sea
And a dark curtain of distant falling rain
Blankets, curtaining the west,
Carving this slender landscape into ever thinner strips
It is stunning to see horizon from this shore
I was here, for a time
And when first I said goodbye I could not imagine a return
The curve of Dockyard fixed in place like some strange event horizon
Holding me at bay, with all the fury of history
Beating at my back
Refusing to shift the soil that was choking out the root
The days I felt the sea raging in my blood
Showed me I was not to be the glassy pool
Softly reflecting blurry pastel cottages
The elements I could not help but evoke
Drawn dormant from the heart of this island
Whipped into memory
Our volcanic origins, all but forgotten,
Rising again resplendent from the sea
Yes, it is dazzling to see horizon
Especially during a storm
To fill a gateway with imaginings
To speak and dream and act from a place so fixed
That, in standing,
All that now remains
Is to step on through
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
From This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2011) 43.↵
Kim Dismont Robinson, “Return to Mangrove,” Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, ed. Mervyn Morris (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2006) 7.↵
From The Beachcomber’s Report (Bakewell, England: Templar Poetry, 2010) 12, first published in Incertus, (Belfast: Netherlea Press, 2007).↵
Kim Dismont Robinson, “The Atlantic Adventure,” Online review of Endangered Species and Other Stories, by Angela Barry, Peepal Tree Press website, first published in The Bermudian.↵
Kendel Hippolyte, preface, This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2011) 4.↵
That the speakers were “imported” is revealing, pointing to Bermudians’ reliance on imports—from essential shipments of food and goods to foreign expertise, which is often valued more highly than Bermudian know-how.↵
This is the story of one city, but it’s every city. Struggling with the urban sprawl, de-industrialization, automobile culture, malls, and suburbs, cities all over North America have been fighting for decades against flight from the centre – often finding themselves astonished victims of the Law of Unintended Results. Nathan Storring does an amazing job in this essay of exemplifying the general trend with a particular case, in this instance, the redevelopment, destruction and rebirth of the downtown core in Kitchener, Ontario. He writes: “To me Kitchener’s history is the quintessential parable about the cost that these midsize cities paid to take part in Modernity because we tore down our bloody City Hall. We didn’t have a physical City Hall for 20 years, just a floor in a nondescript, inaccessible office building! It was the ultimate sacrifice in the name of ‘rationality’ – a complete disavowal of any historic or emotional connection to the city.” The beauty of this piece is Storring’s attention to the details – civic debate, architects, planners, theorists, trends, fads. An era comes clear. After reading this, you’ll walk around your town and see it in a different way.
Nathan Storring is a writer, artist, designer, and curator based in Toronto. A graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design University’s Criticism and Curatorial Practices program, he is compiling a graphic novel depicting conversations that friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances had with renowned urban thinker Jane Jacobs. He is also the assistant curator of the Urbanspace Gallery in Toronto, a media intern with the Centre for City Ecology, graphic designer and webmaster for NUMUS Concerts Inc., and he has been performing archival research for the autobiography of Eberhard Zeidler, architect of the Toronto Eaton’s Centre (among many other things).
A man dines alone near closed stalls in the food court of the Market Square.
A ruin lies at the heart of Kitchener, Ontario. As one looks East down King Street from anywhere in the downtown core, one will see its gleaming green edifice, its almost-Victorian clock tower protruding above many of the buildings, one of its spindly glass pedestrian bridges stretched over the road like the arm of a yawning lover at a movie. Kitchener’s inhabitants call this shabby emerald city the Market Square – a name it inherited long ago, whose meaning it slowly devoured. The Market Square block bordered by Frederick, King, Scott and Duke Streets once held Kitchener’s Neoclassical City Hall and Farmers’ Market building, but in 1974 both were demolished and the Market Square Shopping Centre was built in their place as part of an effort to revitalize the ailing downtown. The City Hall offices moved into a high-rise office building across the street that was erected as part of the shopping centre development, and the Farmers’ Market was granted a portion of the shopping centre itself, with the primary produce section occupying the parking garage. Today, most of the building has been converted into offices. The City Hall and the Farmers’ Market both have new homes. Only a meagre offering of shops remain, and what is left of the retail area is riddled with dead ends and empty storefronts.
A view down King Street in downtown Kitchener. The green glass clock tower of the Market Square Shopping Centre presides over the cityscape.
For many, this ruin is emblematic of the loss of heritage and identity Kitchener endured during the numerous postwar redevelopment schemes that beset its downtown. But could it not be an emblem of another kind? To invoke the architect Augustus Pugin, who erroneously identified Gothic ruins as evidence of a medieval Christian utopia, could the Market Square be interpreted as evidence of a modernist, post-industrial dream that preceded us?
Throughout its history, Kitchener has often imagined big plans for its urban development, but since the 1960s most of these grand plans for downtown Kitchener only ever found form in the Market Square Shopping Centre. Market Square is the most complete and concrete repository of Kitchener’s attempts at re-imagining itself in the postwar period. It is a chimera of styles and ideas – the symbolic and aesthetic laboratory in which architects and city planners forged alternative visions of this city. This thesis is a case study examining the methods by which the city of Kitchener, Ontario attempted to reinvent itself through the Market Square, and what these attempts have left in their wake.
Redevelopment: Trojan Horse Modernism in the Market Square
John Lingwood, Market Square development, 1974, Kitchener, Ontario. High-rise building that held the City offices on left side of the street, shopping centre and Farmers’ Market complex on the right side.
The Market Square acted as a flagship for Kitchener’s postwar project to recreate itself as a modern city. Fundamental shifts in the fields of architecture, city planning and economics dictated the shopping centre’s design, and its prominent place in the downtown displayed the importance of these new ways of thinking to the entire city. Its most significant contribution to Kitchener’s modernization, however, was its role as a skeuomorph. Rather than laying bare the magnitude of these shifts, the final design drew on the tradition of the region to recontextualize these shifts as part of a natural, inevitable progression.
John Lingwood, Ontario Court of Justice, 1977, Kitchener, Ontario.
The building’s near absence of ornament, its unusual rounded corners, and the choice of concrete as a primary building material in early designs reflected a shift in architectural tastes away from traditional forms. The building’s architect John Lingwood was recognized for his modernist buildings throughout Waterloo Region, including the Ontario Court of Justice (1977), Laurel Vocational School (1968), and the Toronto-Dominion Bank at the corner of King and Francis Streets. Early sketches of the Market Square by the developers, the Oxlea Corporation, depicted the building with a more modern aesthetic than the final product, using cement as the primary building material. One can imagine how Lingwood may have actualized these sketches by observing his work on the brutalist Ontario Court of Justice. Like many other architects in Ontario, Lingwood took advantage of the new materiality and formal freedom offered by concrete. The building consists of several ribbed, precast concrete levels stacked into an imposing facade. Portions of the building are set closer to the street and others set further back like an imperfectly stacked column of building blocks. Such a novel use of concrete in a shopping centre would have had precedent at the time in Toronto’s celebrated Yorkdale Shopping Centre (1964) by John B. Parkin Associates. Regardless, in the final built product, Market Square was built in red brick rather than concrete, though it did retain Lingwood’s characteristic inclination toward austere geometric forms over traditional building types and ornamentation.
To observe many of the modern aspects of the Market Square, however, one must abandon the vision of it as a building entirely and instead consider the shopping centre as a phenomenon of modern city planning. In 1962, then planning director W. E. Thomson declared that Kitchener would have to take drastic and immediate action to ensure the downtown’s continued economic, social and cultural dominance in the region in the coming century. The following year, the Kitchener Urban Renewal Committee (KURC) was formed, and in 1965, after an extensive (though overly optimistic) economic study, they published The Plan… Downtown Kitchener – a document which proposed the near complete reconstruction of Kitchener’s downtown core into a rational, humanist utopia. The conclusions that KURC drew strongly resembled the projects of the Austrian-American architect and planner Victor Gruen, well-known for pioneering the first enclosed regional shopping centre in the United States as well as for his downtown revitalization projects. Like Gruen, KURC recognized that because the city’s suburbs were built since the automobile’s rise to ubiquity, their topology catered to the new needs that this ubiquity presented, such as increased street traffic and parking. Meanwhile, an older downtown, whose design had been set in stone long before this shift, had to find ways to adapt. The Plan proposed that in order for downtown Kitchener to retain its significance in the region, a high-traffic ring road needed to be built around Kitchener’s downtown core, and the core itself needed to become a park-like pedestrian mall with a strict focus on retail activity.
The Market Square Shopping Centre fit within these general goals of the new Gruenized downtown by offering a safe and beautified retail environment that segregated pedestrians from automobiles. The design of the building also embodied many specific city planning propositions put forth in The Plan. Firstly, its enclosed street-like structure alleviated anxieties about inclement winter weather affecting downtown activity. Secondly, it combined multiple uses – retail, offices, the Farmers’ Market and the City Hall – in one development, providing an ‘anchor’ for the central business district. Thirdly, it offered a second floor plaza on top of its first floor roof, overlooking the planned central pedestrian mall on King Street. Finally, it provided new sanitary facilities for the Farmers’ Market and connected the market to King Street. In this way, the initial concept of the Market Square can be seen as an extension of the infrastructure of the street, addressing the concerns of Gruen-esque modern city planning, rather than as a building. Gruen devised similar structures in his own downtown renewal schemes. In his plan for downtown Fort Worth, Texas (1956), for instance, Gruen designed a second floor, outdoor pedestrian area – a “podium” or “artificial ground level” as he calls it – upon which the rest of the central business district was to be built. Gruen intended for his podium to provide people with a place of respite from the noise, smell and danger of automobiles, but unlike suburban solutions to this problem, Gruen’s approach refused to relinquish the density and liveliness of the city. The first Market Square development mimicked this intention on a smaller scale, creating a second floor oasis for pedestrians.
The placement of a shopping centre in such a prominent place in the downtown also foreshadowed a broad shift in North American economic thinking – the transition from a social market to a free market economy. The architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter defines the social market as a society wherein economic activities are embedded in all social activities and directed by cultural organizations that occupy a specific time and place in the world. During the first half of the century, Kitchener followed this economic/cultural model. Its downtown was the region’s centre of economic and cultural life, and there the economy and culture of the area were deeply interwoven. Before the construction of the shopping centre, the Market Square block epitomized this symbiosis of economy and culture. Containing both the City Hall and the Farmers’ Market, it was both a meeting place for political and cultural events as well as a place for the exchange of goods and capital – essentially a descendant of the Greek “agora.” However, by the time The Plan… Downtown Kitchener was published in 1965, the city had recognized that this model was no longer viable in the same way it once was and that something must be done. The new shopping centre that replaced the City Hall and old Farmers’ Market building seemed, at the time, to be a logical solution to this demand for “economic modernization,” or less euphemistically, the emerging demand for a neoliberal free market. In this new paradigm, it was expected that economic activities would be given “freedom from constraint,” both political and social. Initially intended to protect the market from governmental interference, Kwinter argues that this ideal of “freedom from constraint” extends into a social condition in which the market also takes precedence over social practices. In other words, the system of economic activities embedded in social relations that prevailed in the first half of the century had to be inverted, into a system where social relations were embedded in economic activities. Shopping centres epitomizes this subsumption of social relations into the economy. Within the shopping centre, all human activities, transactional or otherwise, are considered within the scope of a financial output. Despite the presence of atriums, seating areas and garden arrangements – social areas that seem autonomous from the shops that constitute the rest of a shopping centre – these apparently innocuous areas are still designed with the goal of stimulating pecuniary activity. Sociologist Richard Sennett describes these areas as “indirect commodification” or “adjacent attractions” that promote shopping by eliding it with other leisure activities.
The City of Kitchener and the Oxlea Corporation were aware that these departures in thinking that marked the fields of architecture, city planning and economics in the 1960s and 1970s may not have been greeted with open arms by the general public, so they appointed Douglas Ratchford, a local painter and graduate of the Ontario College of Art, to find a way to “skeumorphize” and “vernacularize” the building. That is, they challenged Ratchford to normalize these radical shifts for the local population by disguising this flagship building in a skin that referenced the region’s past. Ratchford proposed that the exterior of the shopping centre be built of red brick, rather than concrete as the early sketches intended, and the interior should similarly utilize red brick with garnishes of wood finish on elements such as furniture, appliances and pillars. Furthermore, Ratchford provided the building with a series of Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs painted on five-foot-square wooden plaques, hearkening to the history of the area as a Dutch settlement.
In the first chapter of his book The Language of Postmodern Architecture, the architecture historian and architect Charles Jencks criticizes such use of superficial historical styles in developer architecture as a continuation of the meaningless, impersonal character of Modernist public architecture. Public architecture (exemplified by Pruitt Igoe in Jencks’ opinion) is known for its austere and uncompromising character. The CIAM and other Modernist architects they inspired believed in the ‘universal’ aesthetics of functionalist architecture without any ornament or historical reference. Jencks argues that while developer architecture reinstates ornament and historicism to make their projects more marketable, it suffers from the same impersonal temperament as public architecture because developers make stylistic choices through the statistical analysis of popular taste, rather than through a meaningful connection to their clients or users. Architecture by developers simply decorates the cement slab high-rises or other ‘rational’ forms of public architecture with arbitrary veneers and pseudo-historical ornamentation.
>Ratchford’s skeuomorphizing of the modern forms and functions of the Market Square Shopping Centre fit within Jencks’ definition of developer architecture at face value; however, as a public and private venture, Market Square actually bridged the public and the developer architectural systems, which Jencks portrays as mutually exclusive. The impetus behind the Market Square was twofold: it satisfied the city’s prescriptive ambitions of modernizing and revitalizing the downtown, and it satisfied a developer’s ambitions to generate capital. This type of compromise was a common strategy for mid-size Ontario cities, who lacked the funding of larger cities like Toronto, to pursue the dream of a modern downtown.
Because Ratchford invoked Kitchener’s regional history in his skeumorphic treatment of the Market Square, rather than choosing a more general ersatz historical aesthetic as seen in Jencks’ example of developer architecture, Ratchford formed a narrative between Kitchener’s past and present. In particular, Ratchford’s contribution to the Market Square attempted to smooth out the transition into the neoliberal economic order by placing the shopping centre as the next logical step in Kitchener’s economic development. By appropriating the Dutch hex sign as a design element, Ratchford produced a chronological relationship between the mostly Dutch Mennonite Farmers’ Market and the new shopping centre, which shared the same building. The placement of these signs on both the market and the shopping centre attempted to analogize one to the other, thus justifying and naturalizing the shopping centre as the next logical step in a history of entrepreneurial capitalism, and ipso facto defining the Dutch Mennonite Farmers’ Market as an outmoded form. Furthermore, these signs also falsely suggested that the Dutch Mennonite community (quite literally) gave the project their blessing. Like the old gods of Greek mythology, recast as demons and vices on Christian tarot cards, the Farmers’ Market had been allegorically stripped of its own identity and made to play a part in this theatre of modernization, made to reassure the modern onlooker that history is a process of betterment and that this new development, the shopping centre, was the product of a natural progression.
Renovation & Expansion: The Megatendencies of the Market Square
Cope-Linder and Associates, addition and renovation of Market Square Shopping Centre, 1986, Kitchener, Ontario.
Despite the combined efforts of Oxlea Corporation and the City of Kitchener to integrate the new shopping centre into Kitchener’s downtown, other factors such as the small number of merchandisers, a lack of retail variety and poor traffic flow, not to mention the building’s imposing, fortress-like facade that “reminded some of the Kremlin wall in Moscow’s Red Square” led to unsatisfactory profits. So to revitalize the building and fix these initial errors in the building’s design, the new owners, Cambridge Leaseholds Ltd., hired the Philidelphia design firm Cope-Linder and Associates to renovate and expand the Market Square.
In 1986, Cope-Linder gave the Market Square “an overdue facelift” as one reporter put it. The front entrance of the building, originally consisting of a piazza at the corner of King and Frederick Streets as well as an adjacent grand staircase, were removed, and the area they occupied was put under a two-storey steel and glass enclosure, complete with a matching clock tower intended to return a sense of place to the once-important intersection. Two glass-covered pedestrian bridges were also built on the second floor to connect the mall and market building to an adjacent office building and the nearby Delta Hotel.
The renovation did its best to eliminate any evidence of the building’s former identity. It abandoned past attempts at justifying the shopping centre’s presence through pseudo-historical materials and murals in favour of creating a dazzling retail experience similar to those found in the suburbs. Where possible, the re-designers applied veneers or replaced fixtures; they placed new cream, green and baby blue tiles overtop of the red brick flooring, replaced wood railings with brass ones, and so on. The mall’s red brick exterior, which was not so easily muted, was made to look like the support structure for the mall’s new glass frontage, as though John Lingwood had built the brick structure as an armature knowing that the glass would come later. Cope-Linder built their steel and glass addition mostly upon the Gruenesque pedestrian terrace of Lingwood’s design as though it were literally ‘an artificial ground level’ – an elevated empty lot, a neutral plinth to hold their cathedral of consumption. Etymologically, the word “renovation” may be inaccurate in describing the process that the Market Square underwent. It was not merely made new again (renovate = re- ‘back, again’ + novus ‘new’), but rather made to look as though it was never old – always-already new.
At the time of the expansion’s unveiling, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record reported on the event with two counterbalanced articles by columnist Ron Eade. The first article presented the new development as a welcome change from the heavy-handed, Kremlin-wall architecture of the original building, while the second article offered a counter-argument against the renovation by Donald McKay, then Assistant Professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo. Ironically, McKay suggested that rather than opening up the Market Square’s internally-focused architecture with a steel and glass showcase effect as Cope-Linder intended, they had actually created a building that was even more introverted than before. McKay argued that the new glass galleria, complete with 25-foot tropical trees imported from Florida, created “a self-contained, climate-controlled inside wonderland – an imperial concept instead of a complementary one for the downtown core.” Furthermore, he considered the addition “a project conceived by Americans who are preoccupied with protecting shoppers from muggers on the streets – hence the overhead pedestrian bridges so no one need venture outside.” These covered walkways extended the initial impetus of the Gruen-esque raised podium, as seen in the Market Square’s first incarnation, to not only protect the pedestrian from the automobile, but more specifically to protect the middle-class consumer and office-worker against automobiles, weather and ‘undesirables.’
Architectural critic Trevor Boddy terms this protective sensibility the “analogous city,” wherein tunnels or covered bridges between private buildings begin to usurp the public functions of the city street. Boddy argues that passageways that float above or tunnel below the street should not be mistaken for “mere tools, value-free extensions of the existing urban realm”; on the contrary, because they are private space, “they accelerate a stratification of race and class, and paradoxically degrade the very conditions they supposedly remedy – the amenity, safety, and environmental conditions of the public realm.” More pertinently for Kitchener, like the shopping centre, such passageways subject their occupants to the logic of the free market. For instance, in Montreal’s underground city (the most extensive analogous city in Canada), Montreal’s urban planner David Brown observed that many sections of the labyrinth:
effectively screen clientele by keeping a watchful eye out for ‘undesirables’ and ‘undesirable activity.’ Occasionally these definitions may go so far as to embrace all non-shoppers and all non-shopping activity. […] The guards at many locations are instructed to move people along when they have sat for more than fifteen minutes.
All social activity in these ostensible extensions of the infrastructure of the street must yield to economic activity – free from constraint.
Left: early proposals for covered sidewalks, K-W Record, 1977; Below: proposal for the King Street
“bubble,” enclosing the entire street, K-W Record, 1981.
In the years leading up to the Market Square’s new addition from 1977 to 1984, the City of Kitchener had plans to build such an analogous city throughout the entire central business district along King Street. Initially, the Chamber of Commerce, led by manager Archie Gillies, began discussing proposals for “an acrylic glass canopy constructed over the sidewalk and attached to building fronts with curved steel beams,” or alternatively, a network of interior doorways connecting adjacent shops directly to one another and overhead walkways (like the ones attached to Market Square) connecting buildings across the street from one another. These ambivalent suggestions eventually coalesced into a single proposal for a massive arcade stretching from one end of the central business district to another.
While this new plan shared similarities with Boddy’s notion of the analogous city, two other architectural typologies also seem to have been at play here – the megastructure and the megamall. Despite still being concerned with the protection and management of pedestrians, megastructures were more intent on controlling architectural form on the scale of the city by treating buildings as units within a larger superstructure. Like a crystal (or fool’s gold), the ideal megastructure would guide any future growth of these units with a set of rules enforced by the superstructure, ensuring a mostly cohesive aesthetic while also allowing for some variation in the subsystems. The strongest synergies between the Market Square, Kitchener’s bubble over King Street and the megastructure movement, however, lie in the movement’s peripheral interests, rather than its central ones. In Reyner Banham’s Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, Banham describes the various theories and projects of this late modernist movement. Very few buildings were actually constructed by proponents of megastructures, and most of the buildings that were finished only partially articulate the tenets of the movement. Geoffrey Copcutt’s Town Centre (1966), Cumbernauld, UK, “‘the most complete megastructure to be built’ and the nearest thing yet to a canonical megastructure that one can actually visit or inhabit,” follows none of the points set out in architectural librarian Ralph Wilcoxon’s definition of a megastructure. It is not truly constructed of modular units, nor is it capable of ‘unlimited’ extension; it is not a framework supporting smaller units, and said framework is not expected to outlive these smaller units. For this reason, Banham begins near the end of the book to describe buildings like Cumbernauld Town Centre as having “megatendencies,” instead of adhering to this rigid definition. In particular he recognizes several high-density downtown shopping centres in English provincial towns that echo the methods and aesthetics popularized by canonical megastructures like the one in Cumbernauld. Like these English shopping centres, Kitchener’s bubble and the Market Square’s subsequent addition are not built to be megastructures, but show “megatendencies.”
Both the enormous scale of Kitchener’s planned “bubble” over King Street and its treatment of public transit echo Banham’s megatendencies. If the arcade were built between Frederick and Water Streets, it would have stretched four tenths of a mile and would have been the largest of its kind in Canada. This plan rivaled the ambition of some of the megastructuralist projects, which similarly occupied vast swathes of land. Also, the immense brutalist facades of megastrutures would often allow transportation to move freely into or through the building, as seen in Ray Affleck’s Place Bonaventure (1967) in Montreal, Quebec. Likewise, part of the King Street arcade was imagined as a transit bay that would allow buses to penetrate the bubble’s membrane.
The carnivalesque atmosphere of the bubble that Peter Diebel, then chairman of the Kitchener Downtown Business Improvement Association, imagined also echoed the idea of Homo Ludens (man at play) within megastructural discourse. Diebel described the climate-controlled contents of the mega-arcade as comprising “jungle-like rest areas, mini golf courses, skating rinks, gazebos, bandshells, play areas for children, fountains and even a waterfall.” Diebel’s dream imagined the reconstruction of Kitchener to accommodate the utopian inhabitants of a post-industrial city, recalling the technological optimism that had been put forth at Expo ‘67 fourteen years earlier: the Expo guidebook promised that with all the wonderful emerging technologies in production, medicine, and computers, “Man is moving towards an era where working hours will be less and leisure hours will be substantially more than at this moment of time.” Many megastructuralists, from Yona Friedman to Archigram, also took this projected transformation into a society of leisure as the point of departure for their projects. While the megastructuralists tended to envision the ludic pleasure of the new urban environment in terms of the malleability and mobility of architecture, Diebel, on the other hand, imagined a more conventional approach, drawing on theme-park-like imagery in his description.
A highlighted map showing the area covered by the proposed arcade, stretching from the King Centre in the West to the Market Square in the East.
Diebel’s dream of the pleasure dome over King Street more closely resembles the megamall’s conception of an architecture designed for the new desires of Homo Ludens, as seen in the West Edmonton Mall (WEM). Like a megastructure the megamall is a building on the scale of a city whose focus is the accommodation of a leisure class (though not an entire leisure society). However, whereas the megastructuralists sought pleasure through a radically adaptive, improvisational architecture, the megamall seeks pleasure through spectacle and simulation. The West Edmonton Mall pilfers Spanish Galleons and New Orleans Streets; it provides wave pools and gardens, but there is nothing radical about the West Edmonton Mall. It simply extends the already well-founded science of mall-making to a massive scale, recycling and embellishing content that can even be seen in a mall like the Market Square (consider the Floridian trees). Descriptions of Kitchener’s proposal for the King Street arcade follow a similar trajectory to the WEM’s extension of basic “mall science” principles, and in fact would have used the Market Square Shopping Centre and the King Centre (another shopping mall built on the other side of Kitchener’s downtown in 1981) as “anchors,” like the department stores of a traditional barbell-shaped regional shopping centre.
Unlike the megamall, which created a utopia of consumption as an alternative to the city, the King Street bubble imagined this utopia of consumption as the city. It superimposed the mall science of the regional shopping centre – designed to produce profit at any non-monetary cost, including the widespread abandonment of urbanity – onto the modernist motivations of the megastructure movement – to create a new society to suit the needs of capital-M Man. This elision of the megamall and the megastructure finds its apotheosis in Michael Anderson’s film Logan’s Run. Anderson used an amalgamation of the Hulen Mall in Fort Worth, Texas and the Dallas Market Center in Dallas, Texas to create much of the megastructural bubble city in the film. For Anderson and the people of Kitchener alike, it seemed as though the consumerist utopia (or dystopia if you are Logan) of 2274, where all production is hidden and automated, was only a step beyond the regional shopping centres of the time.
But like the Gruenized downtown core that never was, this dream of the downtown as a megastructural wonderland ran aground, and its remnants washed up on the shores of the Market Square. Only the beginnings of Market Square’s analogous city – the pedestrian bridges and glass galleria – stand as a testament to this grand scheme of a controlled, connected and protected downtown core. The invasive “climate-controlled inside wonderland” that McKay saw in the Cope-Linder addition to the Market Square two years after the dome proposal was deemed too expensive, represented only a fraction of what Gillies, Diebel and others envisioned for the entire downtown core.
Reuse: Junkspace and Jouissance in the Market Square
In the years since the Market Square’s last major renovation, its identity has become increasingly unclear. Throughout the 1990s, the mall fell into decline. It endured a recession early in the decade, the loss of the City offices across the street after the new City Hall was built in 1993, the loss of Eatons as the Mall’s anchor in 1997, and finally the loss of the Farmers’ Market in 2004 as it moved into its own building. This most recent chapter in the Market Square’s history, characterized by rapid tenant turnover and constant conversions, has shaken the building’s definition as a shopping centre.
Left: the Eaton’s anchor store of the Market Square has now been converted into an office for the K-W Record; Right: rows of exercise bikes currently occupy the food-court-cum-fitness-club.
The history of Market Square and particularly its final descent into entropy is what Rem Koolhaas terms “Junkspace” – “what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout.” It twists Kitchener’s dream of the megastructural wonderland into a dystopic parody. Where megastructures attempted to reign in aimless, kaleidoscopic growth by placing it within the cells of a unifying, modernist superstructure, “in Junkspace, the tables are turned: it is subsystem only, without superstructure, orphaned particles in search of a framework or pattern. All materialization is provisional: cutting, bending tearing, coating: construction has acquired a new softness, like tailoring.” In Market Square, spaces have been divided and subdivided with makeshift walls, and in other places once-permanent walls have easily been dismantled in attempts to reprogram the space. Half the food court has become a fitness club; the entire bottom floor of the mall and the old Farmers’ Market area have been converted into offices for a design consultation company.
Because it was once a mall, the Market Square also bears the “infrastructure of seamlessness” that Koolhaas finds crucial to Junkspace. Escalators, air-conditioning, atriums, mirrors and reverberant spaces make the Market Square an interior world autonomous from the surrounding city, and these techniques also constantly strive to disguise the many disjunctures – nonsensically intermingled styles and functions, leaky ceilings, abandoned cafés, elevators that can accidentally whisk an unwary shopper off into the building’s hidden office space. This aesthetic and proprioceptive muzak binds these fragments into a “seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.”
Koolhaas defines this mutational, systematic approach to building as the death of architecture and the architect, in a sense: “Inevitably, the death of God (and the author) has spawned orphaned space; Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian…” Evoking Roland Barthes, Koolhaas insinuates that like writing, architecture has lost its filial origins – its author-God – and has become instead a rhizomatic phenomenon. Furthermore, just as the signifier in the Text has forever lost its signified, the architectural form has forever lost its intended function: “soon, we will be able to do anything anywhere. We will have conquered place.” However, where Barthes sees the death of the author as an opportunity for the play of the reader, who could now engage with the Text unfettered from the singular voice of the author’s intentions, Koolhaas only sees the effect of Junkspace on its inhabitants as “the central removal of the critical faculty in the name of comfort and pleasure.” 
Left: a bank of TriOS College classrooms, converted from empty storefronts; Right: the courtyard created by the design consultation firm that converted the first floor of the shopping centre.
Taking Barthes as a point of reference, could the collapse of architecture into Junkspace not also be seen as an opportunity for the endless play of functional potentials within architectural forms? Because the building’s original program is not considered sacred in the floundering Market Square, some recent conversions have produced playful conversations with the leftover forms of the building’s life as a shopping mall. For instance, TriOS College, which has taken over one bank of shops on the main floor of the mall, exploited the superficial similarities between the topology of a school and that of a shopping centre. They converted a row of shops into a row of classrooms that are now closed to the central walkway of the mall, and converted the utility hallways behind the stores into the new main hallways of the school. Likewise, the aforementioned design consultation company that now occupies the entire bottom floor of the mall, adapted their office plans to the conventions of the shopping mall, rather than adapting the mall to their needs. To accommodate the gap in their ceiling that once served as a balcony overlooking the lower level of the mall, their floor plan includes a central courtyard mimicking the quintessential gardens of the regional shopping centre, such as the Garden Court of Perpetual Spring in Victor Gruen’s seminal Southdale Centre. Like the play of words in Barthes’ concept of the Text, these interventions play on the orphaned post-shopping-mall forms of the Market Square’s Junkspace.
In How Buildings Learn, writer Stewart Brand recognizes the joy of reuse – or the jouissance of play as Barthes might put it – revealing how Market Square’s reuse may yet give the building a new significance. In the book, Brand explores a series of case studies investigating how buildings adapt to the needs of their many tenants over time, and more importantly, which buildings age well and which do not. In a chapter on preservation, Brand discusses the joy of reuse that emerges in buildings when they survive long enough to become well-liked. He quotes architectural columnist Robert Campbell on the subject of adaptive reuse:
Recyclings embody a paradox. They work best when the new use doesn’t fit the old container too neatly. The slight misfit between old and new – the incongruity of eating your dinner in a brokerage hall – gives such places their special edge and drama… The best buildings are not those that are cut, like a tailored suit, to fit only one set of functions, but rather those that are strong enough to retain their character as they accommodate different functions over time.
While perhaps the reuse of commercial architecture lacks some of the romance of “eating your dinner in a brokerage hall,” the Market Square’s character (generic though it may be) continues to shine through in the conversions of its new tenants. They do their best to integrate seamlessly (as Koolhaas’ Junkspace would have it), but ultimately the compromises and “the slight misfit” they produce give them a certain awkward appeal and quirkiness outside of Junkspace’s anaesthetic program.
Furthermore, the mere fact that the Market Square was built to endure may eventually earn it the reluctant respect of its community. Ironically, those solid, imposing walls of the original building that so quickly fell out of fashion may be the complex’s salvation in the long term. Brand observes that a common pattern for buildings that do not adapt well is graceless turnover; a rapid succession of tenants streams through the building without making any permanent contributions to it, until eventually “no new tenant replaces the last one, vandals do their quick work, and broken windows beg for demolition.” However, Brand notes that time-tested materials, like red brick, and simple, adaptable layouts, like that of a factory or the empty box of an anchor store, are one way that unsuccessful buildings are often saved from the wrecking ball. Underneath the veneers and atriums of its addition, the integrity of the Market Square’s design earned it a masonry award for construction excellence the year it was built. This, if nothing else, may guarantee the Market Square’s survival and eventual appreciation.
Ruins: Market Square and the Ethics of Re-
Thus far, I have intentionally considered the Market Square primarily through a lens of progress. Even in the last chapter on reuse which described the entropy of the current state of the shopping centre, the creative potential of the building has been given far more recognition than the decaying reality. If one wished to, one could easily construct a history of the Market Square as a recurring process of ruination and failure; however, as a resident of Kitchener, I have seen that perspective represented all too often and felt it was important to offer a counter viewpoint of the Market Square as a repository of Kitchener’s utopian aspirations and potentials. That said, it would be naive to not acknowledge this building as a ruin, because this is the position it most often occupies in the cultural imagination of Kitchener.
Left: the pediment of Kitchener’s old City Hall mounted above the doorway of THE MUSEUM; Right: the clock tower of the old City Hall as a centre piece of Victoria Park.
Even from its outset, the project has been a ruin of sorts. In an article written three years before the opening of the Market Square, artist Douglas Ratchford commented that he was surprised to hear about the project because only four months earlier, he had created a painting titled Market Place depicting the City Hall and Farmers’ Market in ruins from the perspective of a Mennonite horse carriage. In the article, Ratchford commented, “I painted it because I think that’s our society’s hang up. The loss of that building is going to affect us more than the people who use it, like the Old Order Mennonites.” His words were prophetic, for this is primarily how the Market Square has been remembered: as “the city’s ultimate pledge of allegiance to the wrecking ball,”  as a byproduct of the destruction and deterioration of Kitchener’s distinct cultural heritage in the downtown. Today, the dismembered City Hall building haunts the downtown still; its clock tower sits in Victoria Park and the pediment that sat atop its doors hangs inside the front entrance of a local museum. But even such ruination could have potential.
The art critic and historian Cesare Brandi’s theories of art restoration could be useful as a model for thinking about how architecture could engage with its history. In his article “Facing the Unknown,” historian D. Graham Burnett explains that Brandi believed the only ethical way to restore a painting would be a method that recovered the original ideological content of the painting that had been erased by time, while simultaneously not denying the work as an archaeological object that had been shaped by decay over time, like a ruin. To extend Brandi’s approach, the ideal renovation or reuse of a building would then retain a sense of the building’s original identity, and record the changes the building has undergone since its construction, including decay and the contributions/adaptations of users. But of course, architecture’s relationship to such historical significance is complicated by something art need not worry about – function.
Throughout the Market Square’s history, it has always put function first, in spite of both the identity of the buildings on the block and their condition as archaeological records of decay and change over time. In redevelopment, the City Hall and Farmers’ Market, were completely wiped out and replaced with a new identity – the rationalized and Gruenized market/shopping centre. During the renovation and expansion, in order to improve the functionality of the shopping centre, Cope-Linder attempted to rebrand the building by erasing Lingwood’s design. In both cases, the original identity and the history of change in the building are jeopardized to some extent for the sake of function. Only in the recent adaptive reuses of the building have drastic changes been made while creating a dialogue between the past and present identities of the Market Square, as seen in the design consultation firm’s homage to the Garden Court of Perpetual Spring. While functionality is crucial in architecture, in order to facilitate a sense of shared, built history in a city, renovations and reuses of public or pseudo-public buildings should attempt to provoke a dialogue about the origin of the building or the way that time has affected it.
Alar Kongats, Hespeler Public Library expansion, 2007, Hespeler, Ontario. Left: exterior view, showcasing Kongats’ glass addition; Right: interior view, revealing the original Carnegie building inside the glass cube, like a ship in a bottle.
In response to this challenge, two buildings come to mind that I believe fully engage with their history, rather than concealing it. The first, the Hespeler Public Library (1923) in Cambridge, Ontario, engages with its origin particularly well through a Brandian approach to renovation. To address his great impasse of how to restore the original idea of an artwork while not hiding time’s effect upon it, Brandi decided that all inpainting must be done using the abstract technique of tratteggio. Thus, when looking at the painting from afar, the viewer could see the painting in its original form, but if he/she were to approach it, they would clearly see that it had been altered. Similarly, the addition and renovation of the Hespeler Public Library by Alar Kongats (of Kongats Architects in Toronto) utilized a form of abstraction to distinguish between the old and the new. Rather than erasing or fundamentally disfiguring the original identity of the building and hiding the process of renovation and expansion that took place, Kongats’ modern steel and glass addition was built around the original Carnegie library. At a glance, the viewer can only see Kongats’ addition from the exterior, but as he/she moves around the building, glimpses of the old facade can be seen through the glass. When the viewer enters the building, nearly the entire original library structure becomes visible. The ceramic tiles built into the windows of the new addition (which serve the practical purpose of lowering solar heat gain) cast the shadow of a broken line onto the old brick facade, as though it were placing it sous rature. It acknowledges the insufficiency of the first building, and yet allows this insufficient element to remain legible. Like with Brandi’s tratteggio, the viewer can oscillate between experiencing the original identity of the library, and the redesigner’s intervention depending on their bodily placement in relation to the object.
Rapp & Rapp, Michigan Theatre, 1926, Detroit, Michigan. Partially demolished in 1976, but elements remain to ensure structural integrity of adjacent buildings.
The second building, Rapp & Rapp’s Michigan Theatre (1926) in Detroit, Michigan, presents a more provocative approach to history. In 1976, the building was partially demolished and the remainder converted into a parking garage. While it does not hermetically seal the building’s origin in a glass cube like a display in a museum, the Michigan theatre fully engages with its own history of failure and decay. It has not concealed time’s decomposing effect on the building or the destructive force that adaptive reuse often necessitates. Koolhaas criticizes architecture for becoming soft and malleable like tailoring, but the ruin exposes the hard truth of building reuse – it comes always at the expense of a partial destruction of the building. I call the Michigan Theatre’s new life as a parking garage a Benjaminian approach to reuse. Walter Benjamin wrote about the evocative character of the ruin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. As Craig Owens synthesized Benjamin’s musings, “here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay, a progressive distancing from origin.” By leaving a sense of ruination when adapting a building to a new use, the building acknowledges the inevitable and sometimes tragic “distancing from origin” that a building must undergo. In the Michigan Theatre, the tattered 1920s ceiling has been kept intact despite the building’s profound transformation into a parking lot. Furthermore, where walls have been cut to make way for parking spaces, there has been no effort at concealing the damage to the building. This treatment gives a sense of the tragic and sacrificial quality of reuse, the partial destruction a building must endure in order to survive, rather than trying to conceal the process as redesigners customarily do.
These two examples only begin to represent the multiplicity of methods that could be employed to actively engage a building’s history. I believe, however, that they both create particularly poignant dialogues about the issues that haunt all built history. On one hand, the Hespeler Library recognizes the tension between preservation in the face of functionality. On the other, the Michigan Theatre evokes the tragic necessity and inevitability of destruction in architectural practice.
As factories in Kitchener are being quickly claimed by developers, the city must consider judiciously whether the historical significance of these sites is being retained in these adaptations, or whether these projects are reducing history to a skin no thicker than the murals painted by Ratchford for the Market Square. We must consider whether history is being allowed to exist for its own sake, or whether it is being appropriated to further an agenda, like the Farmer’s Market as a precursor to the shopping mall. As new plans for a light rail transit system declare it will boost positive urban growth in the region, we must listen for the echoes of a modern, utopian downtown Kitchener that never was.
As for the Market Square itself, I hope that the city does not repeat its mistakes and tear down this piece of our recent cultural heritage. It may represent the destruction of historical sites in downtown Kitchener to many people, however that too is a part of our city’s history. Whether we like it or not, history is not always progress. Charles Jencks once said,
Without doubt, the ruins [of Pruitt-Igoe] should be kept, the remains should have a preservation order slapped on them, so that we keep a live memory of this failure in planning and architecture. Like the folly of artificial ruin – constructed on the estate of an eighteenth-century English eccentric to provide him with instructive reminders of former vanities and glories – we should learn to value and protect our former disasters.
Like the iconic Pruitt-Igoe project, the Market Square may have been folly, but it is the most palpable record of an ambitious half-century of plans and compromises, dreams and failures in Kitchener, Ontario, and should be maintained if only to remind us of our former vanities and glories.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Augustus Pugin, Contrasts: or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day; Shewing the Present Decay of Taste (London: Charles Dolman, 1841) 1.↵
Later renamed University Heights Secondary School, before closing and becoming a part of Conestoga College.↵
Angel Castillo Jr., “K-W artist to put county flavor into design of new market,” K-W Record (Jun. 26, 1971).↵
Concrete was particularly in vogue in Southern Ontario during this period. In Toronto, it became a modernist medium par excellence. See Concrete Toronto by Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart for more.↵
Kitchener’s designs likely mimicked Gruen’s because the economic studies that gave rise to The Plan were executed by the economist Larry Smith, a collaborator of Gruen.↵
Kitchener Urban Renewal Committee, The Plan… Downtown Kitchener. (Kitchener, Ontario: The Merchants Printing Co.) 6.↵
Margaret Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 15.↵
Castillo Jr., “K-W artist to put county flavor into design of new market.” A hex sign is a traditional symbol for good luck that the Pennsylvania Dutch often place on barns and other buildings. By this point, such symbols were also often fabricated as tourist souvenirs.↵
Charles Jencks, “Part One: The Death of Modern Architecture,” The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy, 1991) 31. Developer architecture differs from Post-Modern architecture as Jencks goes on to propounds in the rest of the book because the latter uses ornament and historical reference with specific (often witty) intents in mind, rather than simply relegating design to becoming an ersatz product of the statistical analysis of taste.↵
Similar shopping centres to the Market Square have been built in Brantford, Chatham, Guelph, Hamilton, London, Peterborough, Sarnia and Waterloo, all with the hopes that they would bring new life to the downtown.↵
Sandra Coulson, “Upgrading to overcome Market Square weaknesses,” Western Ontario Business (Apr 22, 1985) 3.↵
Henry Koch, “Restored Market Square has style, sizzle,” K-W Record (Apr. 26, 1986).↵
The only element of Cope-Linder’s renovation that loosely hearkened to Kitchener’s history was the new clock tower that evoked the one that used to sit atop the old City Hall. The connection between the two structures, however, is purely functional. The City Hall’s clock tower was built in a neoclassical style with heavy, greystone pillars on top of a circular base, capped by a dome which bore the clock face; meanwhile, the Market Square’s clock tower sported a shape that would almost resemble Jean Omer Marchand and John A. Pearson’s Victorian Gothic Peace Tower (1927) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, if it were constructed of steel and glass and had a string of lights running down every corner.↵
Eade, “Market Square gets an overdue facelift.” He goes as far as to thank the god of capitalism for breathing life into Lingwood’s austere design.↵
Ron Eade, “A shopping mall by any other name…,” K-W Record (Mar 26, 1986).↵
Koch, “Restored Market Square has style, sizzle.”↵
Trevor Boddy, “Underground and Overhead: Building the Analogous City,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 124.↵
D. Graham Burnett, “Facing the Unknown: History, Art, Loss, Recovery,” Cabinet Magazine 40 (2010): 42.↵
This technique consisted of filling the affected areas with tightly arranged vertical lines of pure pigment that would optically blend into the rest of the painting at a distance, but be clearly abstract when approached.↵
Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism,” Art in Theory: 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003) 1027.↵
Jeff Outhit, “Can transit transform the region?” The Record 25 Feb. 2011, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 21 Mar. 2011 http://www.therecord.com/news/local/article/493258–can-transit-transform-the-region.↵
Jencks, “Part One: The Death of Modern Architecture,” 31.↵
We live in an ideologically polarized culture; the noisiest religion is a clamoring family values political movement; the liberal left distrusts talk of God. It’s difficult anymore to speak of things like prayer in a rational, quiet, productive way. Spirituality now enters mostly through the side door, when we seem to be talking about something else.
This is one of the most moving essays so far published in Numéro Cinq, not for its secrets confessed or trauma disclosed (though always those are sad enough and never to be diminished), but for its gentle, careful, and intelligent unfolding of the art and throw of poetry and prayer. It reads like an extended aphorism, a balanced equation with poetry on the one side and prayer on the other. “Poetry obligates a measure of freedom: prayer obligates a measure of surrender.” Its references stretch from Stephen Crane to Coleridge to Jean Valentine to the Psalms to the Tao Te Ching. It makes emotional sense of knotty philosophical problems and romantic mysticism by reducing them to the human and the humble, always respectful of the otherness of the Other. “I don’t read poetry or prayer to directly encounter God or The Way. I read both to encounter voice at its most tentatively human. I can only be guided by the unmighty…”
William Olsen is an old friend, a colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a brilliant poet, and the author of five books of poems, including most recently Sand Theory (Triquarterly: Northwestern University Press, 2011). He has received fellowships from The Guggenheim Endowment, The National Endowment of the Arts, and Breadloaf. He teaches at Western Michigan University as well as the aforementioned Vermont College of Fine Arts. (See a selection of poems from Sand Theory published earlier on NC here.)
On the Prayerful in Poetry
By William Olsen
Here is a poem about the subject of God as figured in the Bible by the young Stephen Crane: it’s from Black Riders. Crane’s poetry was championed by William Dean Howells but parceled out by Howells into single poems for initial publication and, even when published in book form, strictly edited and reorganized—Crane’s intended order lost for decades—because the poems not only seemed so errant in form, but, at the end of our 19th century, alarmingly distasteful:
You tell me this is God?
I tell you this is a printed list,
A burning candle and an ass.
And here is a poem about the subject of God by the elderly Czeslaw Milosz: it’s from Second Space, his final book, one that plays out the struggle between doubt and faith bound to occur for they who think in such terms once personal end-time is imminent:
If There Is No God
If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.
Both poems are as modern psalms. Both share elements of prayer at its least pious. Both speakers are dead serious in their humor. No, both are living serious. The former protests; the latter instructs. Both more than allow for disbelief: Crane with acidic refusal, Milozs’s with seasoned acceptance.
Both are spirited. The first is fiercely impassioned; the second is fiercely dispassionate.
Poetry and prayer do sometimes overlap or even co-exist. It is impossible to make a categorical statement about their relationship. But it is possible to volunteer a conditional distinction.
Poetry obligates a measure of freedom: prayer obligates a measure of surrender.
For me the most instructive and consoling verse in western poetry appears in the opening of Psalms. As legend has it, Psalms was written by King David for the lyre. David is the archetypical songwriter of western civilizaton. Here is the first verse of the first chapter? song? poem?:
BLESSED is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the almighty, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
As a reader, I am being asked to enter this gateway to Psalms to hear something other than an almighty voice. I can experience this initial blessing as advice coming from some place other than on high—say, from an absolute power or an absolutely powerful king. Because I am not intimidated by it, I can take comfort from the guidance I seek. I have already stepped out of the way of those not interested in the guidance I seek by virtue of seeking guidance in verse, yet another human activity that is no absolute thing. In the act of reading verse I have already forgotten those who would mock my holy enterprise! At the very outset, this benediction becomes self-fulfilling. This Ur-verse, whether it is prayer or poetry, effaces its authority, so that its reader can follow suit.
The most instructive and consoling verse I know in eastern verse is in the Tao Te Ching, verse 27:
A knower of the Truth ………..travels without leaving a trace ………..speaks without causing harm ………..gives without keeping an account
The door he shuts, though having no lock, ………..cannot be opened
The knot he ties, though using no cord, ………..cannot be undone
This verse also offers a self-effacing counsel for travelling of a special sort: that the traveller does not have to clean up the mess he has left behind because leaving behind a record of the traveller is and never was the point of truth.
The doors and knotty thoughts of Meaning—maybe they aren’t the psychodrama I would like to think they are. This moment of verse largely exists in causing no harm, has nothing to do with gate-keeping, and is anything but abstruse.
I don’t read poetry or prayer to directly encounter God or The Way. I read both to encounter voice at its most tentatively human. I can only be guided by the unmighty, by those who relinquish any authority ordained by cultural identification, those confident enough to surrender confidence, or assumed power.
Some of the qualities of prayer crop up in surprising places, and even a skeptical poetry can give off sudden glimpses of a spiritual life. I’m thinking of Robert Lowell, a poet at his splendid best unbound by the very cultural identifications he understands as oppressive, free of the fated familial roles from which he knows there is no psychological or literary escape. What’s most true for Robert Lowell of prayer as it involves poetry is that any human truth is differentiated. Lowell prays for memory and accuracy, not for the imagination, which, it must be assumed, Lowell takes to be innate; and not for passion, which Lowell takes to be a problematic precondition of freedom. His poem “Epilogue” ends with this counsel: “Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like a tide across the map/ to his girl solid with yearning./ We are poor passing facts,/ warned by that to give/ each figure in the photograph/ his living name.”
Lowell’s last book, Day By Day, particularly its last section, centers on spiritual questions and the god idea more directly, really, than Lord Weary’s Castle, the title of which says all you need to know about the wearisome mania of Eliot and modernism that the young Lowell inherited. In Day By Day there is no custodial myth-keeping. As is said of Ulysses, the prototype for the artist in “Ulyssess And Circe,” the first poem of Day By Day, “He dislikes everything/ in his impoverished life of myth.” This recognition could be a deft two-line criticism of the weird poverty or lack of vitality in Lowell’s first book—for him and Eliot the regeneration myths actually had the effect not of restoring but of draining of actuality the human experience poetry is, calling for that much more regeneration myth, and creating an above-the-earth spiral of modernist triumphalism, or as Lowell wrote in another poem, the “climacteric of want.”
In Day By Day the god idea is brought up, like everything else of crucial significance in this book, casually. It is prompted by a masculine tradition but it is figured in feminine terms. Not an innovation, figuring the divine in terms of the beloved, but in Day By Day the divine beloved is earthly. The healing consists of coming down to earth from unearthly spiralings. That’s what happens in Lowell that doesn’t get talked about: amidst any turmoil of spirit or technique one can find a preternatural calm that really is like nothing else in English poetry. In “Caroline In Sickness,” a poem to an ailing wife from a speaker himself struggling through the last challenging year of his life, Lowell strikes, I think, some of John Donne’s own radical sincerity: the divine is more thoroughly transformed than ever into the beloved, precisely because the beloved herself is ailing and mortal and flawed and merely human. As in Donne’s most intimate poem “A Nocturne Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”—an improvisation of sorts on the trope of the dark night of the soul made actual because the poem is not about a Beatrice-like fantasy but about a dying wife, the real loss lived through, without the theatrics of being battered—in “Caroline In Sickness” it is not the spectacular metaphysical couplings but, to quote the single most instructive phrase from Donne’s poem, the “ordinary nothing” moments of personhood in the poem that are innovative.
Here is Lowell’s prayer to his beloved, not dead but suffering the ordinary afflictions of late-middle age:
Caroline In Sickness
Tonight the full moon is stopped by trees
or the wallpaper between our windows—
on the threshold of pain,
light doesn’t exist,
and yet the glow is smarting
enough to read a Bible
to keep awake and awake.
You are very sick,
you remember how the children,
you and your cousin,
Miss Fireworks and Miss Icicle,
first drove alone with learners’ cards
in Connemara, and popped a paper bag—
the rock that broke your spine.
Thirty years later, you still suffer
your spine’s spasmodic, undercover life . . .
Putting off a luncheon,
you say into the telephone,
“Next month, if I’m still walking.”
I move to keep moving;
the cold white wine is dis-spirited . . .
Shine as is your custom,
scattering this roughage to find sky.
There is a coarse delicacy to this tonal and textural mess. The roughage must be assumed to be not only the images of this poem about the ordinary burdens, but also the narcissistic passions and thoughts and artifices of the poet-speaker, and perhaps the roughening up of tradition by the poet himself, freed here of Big-Time Agon-ism and perhaps as well from such rough times as this poet has put himself through. Custom is evoked, almost casually, in an ordinary, unassuming gesture, and with it all of Influence, at its most elemental—the moon, which in an earlier poem of Lowell’s called “History” “a child could give . . a face, two holes, two holes/ my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no hole.” But “Caroline In Sickness” ends not on a self-portrait of history or on an emblematic death face. It is prayerful. It is heard by some other, drawing attentiveness outward not perhaps to vision or epiphany so much as to clarity and to an unintrusive, clear look at the heavens, or “sky.” This poem ends on a grace note of address. It does so in an achingly contemporary way, wholly aligned with human experience. Some stalled but unremarkable or “ordinary” despair seems to be almost audible between in these endstopped lines and these short-breathed phrasings. The spectator first person “I” is curiously effaced here from as many descriptive junctures as possible. And actuality is added to technique. One night. Wallpaper. Comically apocalyptic childhood names of the poet’s beloved. No thunderous occasion. The experience of the occasion is not irrelevant. But this is by no stretch of the human imagination an occasional poem, as the human condition is not most deeply understood as occasion, or even art, but as the possibility of a human voice rising to plea and permitted directness and personality as by some unspoken trust.
“The sense of justice is an enemy to prayer.”
I remember coming across this—what would you call it?—an assertion, an observation, a statement, thinking out loud, whatever it is that it should take up a whole page in Unattainable Earth, another later-career book by Milosz. However grand the idea may be, the language sounded ordinary—it didn’t sound like poetry at all: but I liked the challenge it constituted. For years this one-sentence page attracted me into misprision. That is, I read it wrong. I read it to mean, the sense of justice is an enemy to wishful thinking. Because I myself assumed prayer to be wishful thinking. To be magical formula. And because I assumed religion to be, along with capitalism, the greatest perpetrator of human oppression. So prayer would be an enemy to justice. Just to pray is not to act. Prayer is self-motivated, isn’t it? And I am not!
It occurred to me years later that this line is freighted with rich Blakean contraries: justice and prayer, ever in need of reconciliation. Injustice motivating prayer. Only in the last few years have I acknowledged the power of saying that the expectation of justice—if justice consists in waiting for the world to change before one can take up some responsibility for it and commit to an irreversible interest in it—can be an enemy to prayer. As in: the world isn’t fair, so why should I bother asking for guidance, why bother asking for anything? I don’t feel unconditional love of god or of anything, powerful or powerless or creaturely or human. I feel unconditionally aggrieved.
I have heard this line now so many times in my head that it has become something like a mantra. It turns me inside out and back into the world as it is and might be, and it does not cancel either justice or prayer but calmly evokes both. That is how I hear it now, today, at the moment I am writing this. As something I wish to hear. As something, in order to hear, I must say out loud in a way. Science now tells us that reading literally activates many of the same facial muscles that speaking does. Speaking and listening at once, each the same and ever the other—poetry can call both into being.
My favorite line of Whitman is from his long song of the earth “The Compost”:
Now I am terrified of the earth, it is that calm and patient.
As one ages, perhaps there is happiness only if, as Lowell puts it, there is a “terror in happiness . . .”
I now imagine I can hear some of that calm and patience, and even perhaps the terror, in the little bit of Milosz that takes up an entire page.
Imagine a prayer without exhortation, exclamation, apostrophe, avowal, thanksgiving. Imagine a poem that achieves a significant degree of stillness in the very act of reaching out to be heard, with no such exact division between speaker and the divine, only finalized meetings of addresser and address that defy some of the more stilted workshop notions of audience.
“Be still and know I am God,” Psalms 46:10. Still, from the Hebrew “rapha,” to let go, to be weak—weakness, not power, at the heart of faith. Or to cause yourself to let go, to willingly turn your life over—“rephai’im” is also used sometimes as a synonym for the place of the dead.
Be still and the division between dead and living, and the division between the writer-and the reader, dissolve. Jean Valentine’s poems bear likeness to prayer in this regard. They are not liturgical. They seem to come out of something like meditation, or what some orders call contemplative prayer. In their stillness, voice moves first inward, then outward. “But when you pray, close the door, go into your room” (Matthew 6:6). No workshop I have ever been in has offered more practical counsel to an aspiring writer! Writing poems calls upon at least that much seclusion. To be sure, it might be easy to view contemplative prayer as the culture views poetry: non-outcome oriented, inactive and non-productive. And a poetry that is even a little like prayer calls its writer, and its readers, away if never entirely free from more overtly public modes of discourse.
Elements of contemplative prayer and dream are united in Valentine’s poetry—by the very real need of healing. One reality of meditation and prayer, and, perhaps, of at least one sort of poetry—is healing. A prayerful poetry that attains to the reality of healing requires not just physical seclusion and silence but a deeper silence, a silence of a different order, a being still, or rapha, a letting go—a trust—not so unlike negative capability as all that.
Here is Valentine’s most public prayer: ruthlessly honest, it is not a cri de couer. It merges song and utterance and masters noise: it utilizes only to collapses pronouns “I” and “we,” also collapsing “I” and “Thou”:
I came to you
I came to you
Lord, because of
the fucking reticence
of this world
no, not the world, not reticence, oh ………..Lord Come ………..Lord Come
We were sad on the ground
We were sad on the ground
“Fucking reticence,” a phrase that the poem maybe finds to be too glib, too defensive, falls short of sounding defiant. It authenticates this public avowal of the lyric self, flipping to testimony, recouping in a kind of verbal ritual—of chant, of verification through incantation. A lower case “you” inflected into the upper case “Lord”; the chant summoned and become foundation, against an emphatic if heartbreaking claim on earth, or home, or homeland—an earthly source. At its most elemental, “ground.” Whatever public plague or ceaseless war or desolation visited upon the “we” in the last two lines is lost. Voice, bared of all the veracity of public record and of history, remains. Plea. Petition. And precisely because voice does not produce any visitation here, it holds up. It bears itself. The last two lines are both tenacious and vulnerable. They are an irrefutable statement of acknowledgement, so they have healing power.
Here is a far more introspective poem by Valentine, the title poem of Door in the Mountain:
Never ran this hand through the valley
never ate so many stars
I was carrying a dead deer
Tied to my neck and shoulders
Deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest
People are not wanting
to let me in
Door in the mountain
let me in
The circumstance seems dream-like, and primitive, an archetypal vignette, perhaps, of hunting? Or is the circumstance a default grieving? The “what” or “which” is beside the point, but the burden is not. In either case, how actual this meditation is in its details: not “dreamy” but physical, concrete, bodily. Every stanza. Spiritual progress not by way of public testimony, but by way of inwardly turned address. Not towards verification of cultural identification. A mountain that cannot be found on a map and a door: back to animism: and the quiet, universalizing yet self-differentiated utterance “let me in.” The voice here is not particularly vatic, the vocal gestures are all downsized to human. The poem ends not with the shout of demand, or the whisper of capitulation but with an audible human plea to something other than human.
The voice is pressed outward.
When my wife and I fly together, sometimes as a measure against fear she will recite to herself the last stanza of Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.” Said a few miles up in the air, perhaps it restores her to earth. It is addressed not to the divine but to Coleridge’s son Hartley, yet it bears evidence of some order that is other than human, that culture—and horticulture—may embellish but does not invent:
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
In greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Between the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eaves drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Of if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
“Heard only in the trances of the blast”—Coleridge’s single-most frightening line. In part for its quiet, the understatement of something like a terror in happiness. Unheard, or heard to no effect, except that of trance and turmoil. Over and against such oblivion this verse paragraph merges the seasons in an address from father to son that is a benediction of secular ministry, moving from bounty to clothing to shelter and finally taking us out of doors and into winter. It hangs so long on the line break following the comma after “blast” that voice seems almost to lose heart, and yet only after this quiet hesitation can the tentative conditional “or if” initiate a self-fulfilling vision of selflessness. “To” is the most important, the most prayerful, if you will, word of the last line. Not “at.” Not “under”. All actuality, even when silent, is expressive. Creation always speaks out to farther reaches of creation. The sentence weaves the seasonal into simultaneity, relativizing space and time, till the future happiness of the child implies the future absence of the father, and revelatory stillness hangs like a drop on an icicle.
“Absolute attention is prayer,” Simone Weil said. “Something understood,” George Herbert says of prayer. Disciplined, jaw-slack listening. Deliberately awestruck gaze.
You look at the world and it may seem whole or it may seem broken but the world looks back and some sort of reciprocity that is not romantic and is not of any school of poetry or any single denomination happens, and in our absolute attention we feel attended to:
………………………... . . for here there is no place
That does not see you. You must change your life.
You can’t very well fall into contemplation or attentiveness and beat your chest at the same time.
The world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet—
Issa wrote this poem upon struggling to come to grips with the loss of his baby daughter.
I am not qualified to talk about poetry as prayer. There’s not a poet in the world qualified to talk about poetry as prayer.
Even if it were possible, I would not wish to write down and share any prayers I pray deep into a sleepless night.
Novismus. The newest thing there is. Closer to thee than thee. This freshness: it is not always found in prayer or poetry.
What poetry I experience as prayer is not ever my own but always that of others. When I say to myself George Herbert’s “Bittersweet,” I can hear prayer in it, in both the rhetoric and the spirit of it, and I can hear it and use it and be used by it as by prayer. But I can talk about it only as poetry. Its motive is, as the prayer by St. Francis put it, “not to be understood . . . ”—and isn’t making yourself understood a limiting, workshop-ish concern—but “to understand”:
Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise,
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.
“Bittersweet” has only a twinge of the vernacular that erupts in Valentine’s “I came to you,” but the effect is the same: “ah, my dear angry Lord” introduces a familiarity between listener and speaker that is not possible on anything but intimate terms. So this poem breaks with the vatic, the liturgical. It turns divinity into an intimate. It has proleptic effects in its balancings of contrasts like “love, yet strike,” “cast down, yet help afford,” “complain, yet praise,” bewail, approve,” and the homely “sour-sweet”—so that the linkage of lament and love at the end, a personalized notion here, seems as inevitable as it does fresh. A subliminal paradox of grace and will resides at the last in an instable syntax. The last two lines—“and all my sour-sweet days/ I will lament, and love”—is the sense here that the speaker is bound to lament, and love, for the rest of his days, or that he chooses to lament and love these selfsame days? Free will or grace? And that last comma. The little hitch of it, the hesitant lump in the throat of it.
Perhaps a single ordinary day of turmoil is what this poem responds to. No more, no less.
This poem about affliction’s spiritual functions is voiced on a human scale, not a transcendant superhuman scale.
I have come hear this poem the way I hear the Milosz line, as a charm as much as a poem. But it is a faithful charm. Its sincerity is different than the sincerity that we look for in contemporary poetry: its authenticity seems not finally to lie in its spontaneity but in how considered and even pre-tested it sounds. The willingness avowed here seem already to have been experienced. I think a line from of Bob Dylan’s great song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”: “But I’ll know my songs well before I start singing.” Or apply to poetic practice what Herbert says in The Country Parson, a prose instruction manual from one parson to others and something of a self-help manual for anyone else: what is needed for a sincere poetry is a capacity for “dipping and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts before they come into our mouths, truly affecting and cordially expressing all that we say, so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep.” Herbert does not storm the gates of the divine nor does he need to be stormed and ravaged as his friend John Donne did in his Holy Sonnets. Instead, he deliberately submits to a stillness that creates the latitude necessary for some crucial reconciliations. There’s cordiality here—contemporary readers of poetry, imagine that! Not poetry as divine struggle. Poetry as plea.
Odes to and for the beloved or odes to the moon or odes to the glass of water on the bed table or odes to rust stains on the ceiling or wet newspapers or unpaid bills scattered across the face of the earth are as prayerful love poems to and for the same each in all.
A prayerful poem simultaneously praises and protests.
Twentieth century poets who wish for poetry a more public role are unnecessarily confounded by the seeming inaction of poetry. But that gets changed in Fannie Howe or in Muriel Rukeyser—all the possibilities of the psalms, including outrage, are restored to poetry. For W. H. Auden, until his conversion to Catholicism, Christianity implied a covering up, and phony sublimation. For me it is still his secular poems that come closest to the healing quality of prayer. In “Sept 1, 1939” with its unifying yet self-differentiated affirming flame. Or in these holy lines from “Homage to Sigmund Freud”:
But he would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night ………………….Not only for the sense of wonder ………………….It alone has to offer, but also
Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg ………………….Us dumbly to ask them to follow; ………………….They are exiles who long for the future
That lies in our power. They too would rejoice
If allowed to serve enlightenment like him, ………………….Even to hear our cry of “Judas,” ………………….As he did and all must bear who serve it.
The terms for the father of psychoanalysis and for a teacher figure could not be much more religious here, and there’s a winsome sabotage of propriety in the implicit comparison of Freud to Jesus. This passage is more rapt and has more stillness than maybe anything else in Auden. It runs deep by going for broke, and it goes well past broken. It opens up to the subconscious. It extends an allusive invitation to human needs, and in its disintoxicated reasonableness it manages to outfox the logic of suppression. That is, it opens out to vastly internal transports. In an unprecedented way—consider, for instance, how distanced by second-hand attribution and how dispassionate in tonal register “our cry of Judas” is here—the voice is one of sanity and humility. At this charged moment, when the underlying mode of elegy defers to contemplation, the poem becomes prayerful.
Auden again, this time in his elegy for Yeats:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying.”
Poets, who should know better than to depend on cherry-picked one-liners, often tend to remember the phrase “poetry makes nothing happen” and to omit the following phrase “it survives . . .” To survive, poetry must be passed on, not in the valley not of death but in the valley of saying.
In a poetry that uses a kind of intimately public correspondence, in the manner of the Epistles in the New Testament, Auden’s elegies to Freud and Yeats permit the essayistic into poetry, thereby lending the poems—poems of unflagging belief in the ideal of a selfless ambition—a candor of the personal and the citizenly: not a one-size-fits-all voice, but a more reliable voice, the voice of one. The poet as citizen, not poet king. And without reneging on how indispensable poetry can be. Auden is as a secular Paul in his mid-career public poems, writing contemplative, prayerful epistles to hitherto unenlightened lands.
The latitude Auden brought to something one might call a prayerful poetry may still be more or less unsurpassed. Yet there is an accommodating ease to these poems. Tory Dent gets at a tough, even confrontational kind of contemplation. Her “Atheist Prayer” in Black Milk, her final book, is a heartbreaking marvel of a long poem and I wish I could quote all of it. Dent’s poetry enjoys some of the rich spectrum of subjects that the Psalms do: politics, history, personal loss, heedings, advice, protest, bitterness, gratitude, self-revelation, avowal, appeal. Radically sincere contemplation that can rise to outrage. “Atheist Prayer” is a prayer addressed to, among any and all other senses of audience, the polis. In it, prayerful poetry is not a matter of begging or groveling. And its voice is not that of a single tribe or nation but of the whole tortured earth:
This is what suffering reduces you to,
as the Hanoi Hilton inmates attest,
those who signed confessions after weeks months years of torture,
“they can make you do what you don’t want to do.”
So we begged from North Vietnamese angels and Nazi party angels,
we begged from apartheid angels and Reaganite angels,
we begged yoked and harnessed by their self-imposed glory,
their smug, omniscient unattainableness,
and we actually cried from the inanition of our begging,
so vary attainable were we in contrast.
Our words uttered in unison, words gestate in the stomach and groin
rather than larynx, brought us, as if strong-arming us to tears,
to cry the spirit-breaking kind of cry only total defeat produces;
the self-lacerating, wholly humiliating, soul-eradicating kind;
the wounded, the sick, the lynched, the historically persecuted kind;
the kind emitted perhaps from those engraved names we read nonsensically
after a while, like calligraphy or hieroglyphs, on memorial monuments
decades later; multitudinous objects of genocide
who most likely begged, in rushed elliptical entreaties, for their life
from the small, dark corner of what’s left of their life,
Don’t you know yet?—
You, who have not had to beg yet,
listen to the coffin maker running out of nails,
listen to the yelling of babies, orphaned and red-cell depleted
who must receive transfusions with HIV-contaminated blood
because the clinics can’t afford the requisite lab equipment
for seropositive testing. There are no metaphors,
no “happening” adjectives or interesting, original uses of language,
no new line breaks,
You just have to smell it. . . .
Prayerful? There is gravity here and, yes, hope. “Atheist Prayer” is unguardedly current in subject matter—AIDS, the plague of Dent’s generation and here with us today, right now. Unguarded in its devotion to accuracy and memory, it dispels the mania of contemporary poetry for innovation. This is a poetry that refuses to say no to any subject matter, or any level of degradation. Or any level of human indifference—“the greatest of all human cruelties,” Proust said. “Atheist Prayer” is only seemingly defaced and profaned by fact, by science, by holocaust, by sweeping comparison, by not-so-immortal public shrines. Its voice does not at all seem to be coming from behind the pulpit: the poet is in fact speaking from a death bed, and the poem, however essayistic, is not a lecture but rather an explosive kind of intimacy—through a language at some points poetic and at some points informational and scientific and at some points vernacular and at many points openly heartrending. “To cry the spirit-breaking kind of cry only total defeat produces” is as heartrending a line as poetry can produce. The fellowship the poem propounds is of the elemental sort. “You just have to smell it. . .” however foul. “Aethiest Prayer” is a bardo. Of lament, and love.
With no new line breaks . . .
Whether poetry can be prayer—may that be fodder for the sophists. I live more fully on this earth when I read this poem, if only to myself.
I now think that introspection is pure boredom—that is, if you see introspection as self-absorption, and not as attending to the voices of others, the living and the dead.
Introspection isn’t boring when it’s transformed into prayer. It’s directed outward then, toward power. It becomes an arc linking weakness and strength.
I find myself almost at a loss for words. Maybe a prayerful poetry speaks out, or intuits outward, with utter familiarity, in a voice rendered more not less vocal by discord, radically sincere in its testifying. The human voice sounds not so much defiant as—and this must be an effect of cadence and syntactic spell—almost serene, and not to the purpose of compliance or bliss but to the purpose of action—in the case of the speaker of “Atheist Prayer,” a woman on her deathbed, the action of words, of getting it down in words humanly holy all the way to the end. A prayerful poetry is a construction, as any poetry is. A prayerful poetry is also a dialogue. A cleansing, towards healing. Yes, it has power, to be sure, but it can be almost unbearably open about its needs. In the case of the passage from “Athiest Prayer,” what power makes possible is vulnerability. Willingness. The facts may remain unshaken. The silence surrounding these facts is broken, though.
Herewith a collection of short essays (okay, call them aphorisms, extended aphorisms, epigrams, essays—delightful, meditative, exciting short thingies often constructed in balanced antitheses or with a Borgesian twist in the tail) by the award-winning novelist Mark Frutkin. These are from his forthcoming book Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously:Short Essays and Alternative Versions (Quattro Books, Toronto, Spring 2012). Frutkin grew up in Cleveland before moving to Canada during the Vietnam War, settling there (he lives in Ottawa) and making his way as a writer. He is one of a brave band of American/Canadians of that era, many of whom had a profound influence on the development of a nascent Canadian literary brand in the 60s and 70s. For a lively recollection of his early years in the Great White North, read his 2008 memoir Erratic North, A Vietnam Draft Resister’s Life in the Canadian Bush (Dundurn).
Story is what we use to conjure order out of chaos.
We charm chaos into narratives that replicate and reflect established perceptions of reality.
Though it appears to be nothing but fragments, the world is in fact a unified field: of cities, thoughts, food, language, dreams, bodies, hopes, fears and passions. The unifying factor is story, the ongoing whisper we hear in our heads, the tale we tell ourselves, no more real than any other story, a play we imagine, a dream we dream.
We glimpse letters everywhere: the H in the ladder and the fence, the S-bend in river and road, the alphabet on the telephone keypad, in the tangled garden, in the limbs of bodies walking the crowded street. The taps pour out letters in foaming chaos, so too do letters fly from the banner whipping in the wind. The Tibetans believe prayer flags, when fluttering in the breeze, release over and over the prayers printed on them. Cars and buses release sounds that represent alphabetic nonsense. Every mouth has a balloon attached, a bubble filled with words. Another balloon stretches and swells inside our heads. The three electric wires passing over my back yard are a lined page waiting to be filled in. The city is a kind of text, Borges’ infinite library broken free of restraint and gone mad, as if the letters and words have been liberated and come pouring out of the neo-classical building like inmates released from an asylum. The letters are a kind of god: ubiquitous and omnipresent. Like a primal foundational energy, they magnetize themselves, gather, cluster, resonate, creating an ongoing story of infinite complexity.
House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s new “Book of Raunch,” as he calls it, is an impish, jaunty circus of sex, a porn film directed by Jacques Tati, a Broadway extravaganza devised by Kenneth Tynan and Julia Taymor – with puppets!
In a world where sex is either furtive, tracked along the deleted search histories of internet porn, crudely commodified in the sterile ardor of beer commercials, or simply forbidden and demonized (abstinence education in school), or else lost in the dray horse drudgery of daily life; where even commercials for sex performance drugs show couples in separate bathtubs, or men alone solving other intractable problems (broken sailboats and mud-locked horse trailers), this book has a revolutionary message: sex is fun, sex is funny, sex is the essence of living and we spurn it at our peril.
Slithering through pin holes and the back of industrial washing machines and any other orifice the physical world provides, the characters in Baker’s book travel from the chilly world of dating and day jobs where sex is rarely even discussed to The House of Holes, a bizarre carnival world where no one talks about anything else. Even the tradesmen are sexual: the ass-infused wooden bowl makers and collectors of wet dream memories
Chris Milk’s music video for Gnarls Barkley’s “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” starts laden with clichés: “I need space,” the woman tells the man she’s breaking up with. It’s a painful juxtaposition, a broken heart brutalized by empty words said in quotations, stolen from a thousand movies. This made me think of the narrator of Jeanette Winterson‘s Written on the Body and his / her (it’s ambiguous) lament “‘I love you’ is always a quotation.” Apparently ‘I don’t love you’ is too.
What draws me in with this video is not the surreal turn, but how it changes the break up. How by ripping his heart out and giving it to her, they suddenly speak with lucid honesty, devoid of cliché. Once the heart is on the table, literally, truth is all that’s tenable. The sentiment is not original, but the expression of it is.
Perhaps the culmination of this is the end of the film, as the story turns in on itself and the heart rips out its own heart, the story comes full circle and ends without words, a monstrous ending beyond quotations of any sort.
The heart, though singing, maintains its abject messy self throughout. It’s what prevents the story from lapsing into cartoony sentiment. Its bloody footprints, unsightly arteries. We see all this from the frame of the knowing sympathetic and pained look of the waitress, as though she’s saying ‘I know your pain, I know your abject, messy pathetic heart. I know this song, because it’s mine too.’
Milk, in an interview with Globecat, describes the inspiration for the video:
“It stems mostly out of the personal experiences I’ve had in relationships. I’m more drawn to these sort of stories and would love to tell them more often. Dark, comedic, surreal, this is the type of material I respond to in features, and it’s the kind of music videos I love to write. I’ve actually written a lot more of these but they’ve never been produced. Some of my favorite Kanye videos are sitting in a notebook and will never happen. This Gnarls video I’ve pitched to 3 or 4 bands over the years. I’m actually glad they all said no because I think it was predestined to happen with this song. The emotion and musical tonality line up too perfectly. It had to be this track. As far as the “take away” I don’t really like to think in those terms. All I can do is make something I personally find compelling, put it out there, and maybe it works for other people. I’ve certainly had occasions when it hasn’t worked for anyone. My ex-girlfriend for instance did not care for this Gnarls video at all.”
Milk is a prolific music video and commercial director who also has his hand in experimental filmmaking. In next week’s NC at the movies I will be looking at a couple of his experimental titles.
Here’s another, even more amazing, text & photo essay from the intrepid painter/writer/naturalist Laura Von Rosk (see her first report from Antarctica here) who flew to Antarctica (it’s spring there) early in Septembet as part of a scientific team headed by Albany, NY, cell biologist Dr. Samuel Bowser (friend them on Facebook at Bravo! 043 or visit his blog). In this report, the team continues its training at McMurdo Station’s “Happy Camper” school before heading to their own research site. The team’s mission is to dive (under the ice) and conduct studies on the the single-celled organisms known as Foraminifera from a field camp at Explorers Cove, situated at the base of the Taylor Valley, in the Dry Valleys, west of McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
View from the Observation Tube: Henry, Cecil, and Dannie
Over the last three weeks I’ve had some unusual experiences which included camping out on the Ross Ice Shelf with about 20 other Happy Campers, as we are called, observing tiny sea creatures 20 feet below the sea ice in the Observation Tube at McMurdo Station, taking my 1st Helicopter ride over McMurdo Sound, Assisting the divers at Explorers Cove, hiking to the massive Commonwealth Glacier, and seeing Weddell Seals up close as they popped up through two of our dive holes.
Here is a little street theater, a charming bijou, something concocted out of the air for the delectation of passers-by. Lipstick and Cigarettes was originally performed last year, June, 2010, at Asphalt Jungle Shorts VI, a drama festival in Kitchener, Ontario (the place where they invented the Blackberry, in case you didn’t know). Lipstick and Cigarettes, like all good theater, rises in silence and resolves itself in silence, and in between it seems, on a tenuous line of dialogue and the slightest of actions, to imply epic motions of the spirit—the drama of age and youth, a girl’s passage into womanhood, temptation and the Fall, and the joyful exuberance of life.
Dwight Storring is an old friend from dg’s newspaper days. In the mid-1970s, he was a photographer at the Peterborough Examiner when dg was the sports editor (a place and time immortalized in dg’s novel Precious). Now Dwight lives in Kitchener (did I tell you about the Blackberry), about a 50-minute drive from the farm where dg grew up. He is a digital media artist and producer who dabbles in many disciplines including playwriting. The photo above shows Jessalyn Broadfoot playing Angel. Dwight was a resident artist playwright at Theatre and Company during the 2005-06 season. He is currently exploring the connection between story and place through the Latitudes and Longitudes Digital Storytelling Project and his work with community agencies where he teaches the creation of personal narratives as a fundamental part of daily life.
Lipstick and Cigarettes
By Dwight Storring
Evelyn – a woman, approaching 60.
Angel – a girl in her early teens or at least appears to be.
The play opens in a small green space in downtown Kitchener. The space nestles up against the spiraling ramps of a parking garage – Kitchener’s Guggenheim.
Angel perches in the tree that arches over the benches in the park. She is dressed crisply in a gingham dress with a white apron over top, her hair in braids. She is iconic.
Angel sings an old jazz standard to herself, perhaps “It Amazes Me” or “I Walk a Little Faster.”
Evelyn, dressed in her housecoat and slippers, trudges into the parkette lugging a cheap, battered suitcase.
Evelyn places the suitcase on a bench and starts unpacking it. She joins Angel in the song. She removes a slinky red dress and drapes it gently over the bushes followed by a slip. She sets out a pair of matching shoes. The clothes have all seen better days.
She carefully sets out a bottle of wine and two glasses. She opens the wine, pours a glass and takes a drink.
Took you long enough.
Evelyn ignores her and continues to sing.
Took you long enough!
Evelyn continues to ignore her while she waltzes her glass of wine around the park.
Hey you. Evelyn, remember me?
I’ve been waiting here forever.
Evelyn bursts into loud peels of laughter as she dances.
Are you laughing at me … Stop … stop it, come on. Where have you been?
Trying to bring her laughing under control.
Stop it, stop it, stop it … Stop it … right now! Momma’s probably crying her eyes out wondering where I am and you’re laughing your ass off!
Poor Momma. As if.
If you’re so worried about Momma, what’re you doing here?
These are views of Alexandria during one of Islam’s most revered and holy festivals. Together with Eid-al-Fitr (a festival at the end of Ramadan), these feasts represent the completion of two of the five pillars of Islam, through which the devout fulfill their duty and renew their commitment to God.
On Eid-al-Adha the offering of an animal symbolizes the prophet Abraham’s obedience to God and readiness to sacrifice his only son. Today, sacrifice is re-enacted not as a blood offering nor as penance, but in remembrance of Abraham’s submission to God’s will.
Those families that can afford to sacrifice an animal retain one third, give another third to relatives, friends and neighbors and donate the remainder to the poor and needy. Giving to others, an expression of generosity, is one of the pillars of Islam.
Beginning on the 10th day of Dhu’l-Hijja, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, sheep and cows and camels fill Alexandria.
Soon streets & sidewalks in the Anfushi market pool with blood.
Butchers prepare racks of ram,
or beef or goat or camel..
Heads, for soup, and later, to be used as cups for drinking.
Husband and wife don their finest garb,
and join those bound for the mosque for special Eid prayers.
At Qaitbay citadel—which stands on the ruins of the ancient Alexandrian lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world—tourists snap shots with camera or computer,
and snap again.
Meanwhile, Monty bar at the old Hotel Cecil in downtown Alexandria—where Laurence Durrell, Somerset Maugham and EM Forster once drank—stays resolutely dry.
Freed from school, some boys ride carts along the seafront in the afternoon,
or sit, talking;.
still others sell cotton candy.
A woman enjoys the Mediterranean,
men play backgammon,
or wait, with their sons, in smoke-filled corners for roasting meat.
The author skating two miles from the Lake Ontario shore.
This is a chapter from Steven Heighton‘s Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing(just published by ECW Press)—amazingly enough, a book of aphorisms (epigrams, whatever–short, pungent thingies). Many of you will recall that ages ago, when dg had the energy for such, NC used to have aphorism contests. It was mentioned then that, in fact, people, real writers, often wrote aphorisms and published them in books. It is an astonishing form, little taught in the creative writing schools, and here is living proof of its exuberant viability.
DG had the devil (yes) of a time picking from the book. Every section is deft, dry and delightful. There is a section in which Steven writes to himself as a younger writer.
Let failure be your workshop. See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.
There is a gorgeous section on inspiration (& boredom).
(It’s the Buddhist teacher and writer Thich Naht Hahn who says instead, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” A small act of subversion in a society that has no use for stillness, silence, inward vision—that extols speed, productivity, the manic pursuit of things that by their nature can never be caught and retained.)
This book is an embarrassment of riches. In the end, dg chose the chapter of definitions (the definition is one of the ancient forms of the aphorism).
Steven Heighton’s most recent books are Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing and the novel Every Lost Country. His 2005 novel, Afterlands, appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice; was a best of year choice in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK; and has been optioned for film. His poems and stories have appeared in many publications—including London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, The Walrus, and Best English Stories—and havereceived four gold National Magazine Awards. He has also been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award. In 2012 Knopf Canada will publish The Dead Are More Visible, a collection of short stories including “A Right Like Yours,” which appeared in Numéro Cinq.
Julie Trimingham’s film triptych “beauty crowds me”
Introduced by R. W. Gray
In Julie Trimingham‘s triptych of poetic short films, words become breath and thought, visuals flare into being, fall away, then return and hang and haunt. The films take Emily Dickinson’s poems as their source for inspiration, but the words are given to us as an intimate voice over, repetitively and meditatively delivered.
I have to confess a sort of skepticism about the clash / collaboration between art forms; such collisions seem to colossally fail more than find beauty. In particular, the danger of bringing film to poetry is that the moving image can easily literalize the words, or, conversely, the words can dominate the visual medium. Trimingham’s collisions work for me because they aren’t too grounded in one form or another.
The action is poetic, and by that I mean improbable, unrealistic, yet familiar. In “I heard a fly buzz,” the second film, the claustrophobic dance of the couple who can never leave their apartment, their bed, the tub, and their movements choreographed, both uncanny (in moments he seems like a fly on the window sill or on the tub) and sublime.
Marilyn McCabe is a singer/poet/essayist/friend. She has already appeared on NC with her own poetry, translations, and in song–which makes her a kind of regular, an old favourite, at least an old favourite of mine. Herewith we offer a poem by the 19th century French poet Paul-Armand Silvestre with a Marilyn McCabe translation and Marilyn McCabe singing the French version put to music by Gabriel Fauré. This is gorgeous to hear, especially to listen to while you gaze at the screen reading the poem (or maybe you’ll just shut your eyes and listen). Marilyn’s poetry manuscript Perpetual Motion was chosen by judge Gray Jacobik for the Hilary Tham Capital Collection by The Word Works, and will be released in January 2012. Her chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011. She earned an MFA in poetry at New England College.
Paul-Armand Silvestre’s “Le Secret”
Translated & Performed
By Marilyn McCabe
Click the button to hear Marilyn McCabe singing “Le Secret.” .
Je veux que le matin l’ignore
Le nom que j’ai dit à la nuit,
Et qu’au vent de l’aube, sans bruit,
Comme une larme il s’évapore.
Je veux que le jour le proclame
L’amour qu’au matin j’ai caché
Et sur mon coeur ouvert penché
Comme un grain d’encens, il l’enflamme.
Je veux que le couchant l’oublie
Le secret que j’ai dit au jour,
Et l’emporte avec mon amour
Aux plis de sa robe pâlie.
I want the morning to ignore
the name I spoke to the night,
and let it, with the dawn’s breeze,
silently, as a tear, evaporate.
I want the day to proclaim
the love I asked morning to hide
and make it in my open heart,
like a grain of incense, ignite.
I want the sunset to forget
the secret I told the day,
and sweep it, with my love,
in the folds of its pale robes.
Danila Botha is a South African-born short story writer who lives in Toronto. She’s the author of Got No Secrets, a collection of stories in the Bukowski-Burroughs-Easton-Ellis tradition of black romanticism/alienation but with young, feisty female protagonists. “Jesus Was a Punk Rocker” was part of that collection and earlier appeared on these pages, as did two new stories “The Other Other” and “Valentine’s Day.”
What It’s Like Living Here
From Danila Botha in Toronto
I am back in Toronto, back at my parent’s house (at 28, after moving out at 18, it feels surreal, to put it mildly). My parents live on a beautiful, tree-lined street in Forest Hill surrounded by large, striking houses: cold, cube-shaped modern structures or light and dark brown brick homes with cottage-style thatched roofs and salt water swimming pools. Their palatial home is full of silk curtains, French antiques, grey and white swirling marble floors, expensive fabrics in shades of cream and gold and dusty pinks. My bedroom has needle point carpets adorned with roses. I stare down at my chipping nails, my wrinkled Black Flag tank top, the new tattoo on my arm. I twirl a strand of greasy hair around my index finger. I am reminded of a Chantal Kreviazuk lyric: “…it’s crowded and I feel lost in here, I’m trying to find a familiar fear/I look everywhere but I just can’t see/there’s not anything that reminds me of me.”
My favourite piece is my bookshelf. It’s beige wood, with light green leaves painted on it, an antique I’ve had since I was five, stuffed with my favourite books: Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies For Little Criminals, Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, the Zoe Whittall edited collection of stories called Geeks, Misfits and Other Outlaws, Lynn Crosbie’s Liar, Aryn Kyle’s Boys and Girl’s Like You and Me, and Jami Attenberg’s Instant Love. My collection of first editions is on the top shelf—Catcher in the Rye, Frankenstein, and Naked Lunch. I think they’re the first things I’d save in a house fire. On my mint green and silver leaf antique chair, there’s a pile of my old stuffed animals, including a white owl, a lime green Care Bear, and a two-dollar toy machine creature that resembles a cucumber with eyes.
I go for a walk with my little brother to the plaza near the house. The air is heavy and humid. The plaza feels both comfortably familiar—it has a Second Cup, a Winners and a Shoppers Drug Mart—and horrifyingly foreign, like the nightmares I have when I’m jet lagged. My brother points out the sunset. I know the violets, periwinkles and magentas are the result of pollution, but still–
The intrepid painter/writer/naturalist Laura Von Rosk (see her paintings here on NC) has flown to Antarctica (it’s spring there) as part of a scientific team headed by Albany, NY, cell biologist Dr. Samuel Bowser (friend them on Facebook at Bravo! 043 or visit his blog). The team’s mission is to dive (under the ice) and conduct studies on the the single-celled organisms known as Foraminifera from a field camp at Explorers Cove, situated at the base of the Taylor Valley, in the Dry Valleys, west of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s a great pleasure to be able to publish Laura’s early report (dated October 9) and some of her photos. There will be more.
Laura Von Rosk (normally) lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde. She’s an old friend and a wonderful landscape painter.
What it’s like living in Antarctica
From Laura Von Rosk
We arrived at McMurdo on Tuesday late afternoon. We have been very busy since, with training, reviewing plans for the season, etc., and just getting adjusted to the new environment. Each night I think I’ll get to email – but end up exhausted. Usually in bed by 11 PM, and up around 6 AM.
We weren’t sure we would get here on Tuesday because the night before we left Christchurch it was “Condition 1”  at McMurdo.
Today, Sunday, Oct 9th, is Condition 3 – beautiful sunny day, 0 degrees F, -18F wind-chill.
Condition 3 (nice weather): Winds up to 48 knots, wind chill down to -75 degrees F, and visibility over 1/4th mile. Unrestricted travel and activity are allowed. Condition 2 (not so nice): Winds 48 to 55 knots, wind chill -75 to -100 degrees F, or visibility 100 feet to 1/4th mile. Restricted pedestrian traffic only between buildings is allowed. Vehicular travel is allowed in radio equipped, enclosed vehicles only, and check out is required. Condition 1 (crazy…) Winds over 55 knots, wind chill lower than -100 degrees F, or visibility less than 100 feet. Severe weather is in progress. All personnel must remain in buildings or the nearest shelter.
In this special post-Halloween edition of Numéro Cinq at the movies, we’re featuring “I Love Sarah Jane” by Spencer Susser. Viewer warning: there’s some gore here, but the originality of the story makes it worth it.
I’m not a zombie fan by trade, but have come to appreciate the genre because of its apocalyptic questioning of who we really are under our (sometimes few) civilized masks and what really matters to us when the those masks fall away.