Still in uniform, but one of earth and tar:
coral epaulettes, strings of sand for hair,
a longtail for a screaming, out-of-focus hat.
Weary, but with discombobulated grin,
he passes with your annual epiphany,
learned to love French like one of his brothers.
He was between bonfires and church bells
on Confederation day – allowed himself
to be hung with Riel, for the experience,
stowed away to stand with Billy Bishop
when he looked up at an azure sky to say
“Bet you don’t get mud and horseshit
on you up there.” Brock shook his head
over church-run schools meant to take
the Indian out of the Indians, the ban on
the sun dance, the potlatch, three Chinese
lives per mile of railway. His warm smile
grew into a laugh at the wind-slap of a subway
train arriving, and he thought “You and your
journey back and forth. It isn’t that you
can’t stay, it’s that you don’t know how to cling
to anything.” His hands behind his back,
he walked in the snow with Trudeau.
He still slumbers in parts of the land,
a song and a bullet in his heart.

 

from The Least Important Man


I recently participated in Brains, Words and Voices a charming new reading series located in a former coffin factory in Toronto. An atmosphere of respectful tribute to older poems (recited from memory) is all yours for a donation on admission that includes red wine and pizza. I brought the first Canadian poem to the proceedings by reading some Alden Nowlan, who made an impression on me as early as high school. You can follow this link to a YouTube channel for various readers, but do check out the series for the real experience.


I have mixed feelings about e-books. Generally speaking, they’re among the things helping bleed out independent bookstores. Imperfect as it is, my own solution is to continue to buy so-called real books as gifts, or if it’s a favourite author I want to sit as a tangible object in my hands, or if it’s simply a well-designed book. This year I’ve picked up Stoner (my favourite novel of the year so far) The Summer Book, Chess Story and other attractive New York Review Books. Getting an e-reader as a gift is a little like being body-snatched: you remember the person you were, but it’s also recognizably easier to have David Copperfield in your bag on a slim device. So, only certain books on an e-reader then, as an imperfect solution.

At the same time, one of the pleasant side-effects of these devices is a resurrection (or at least much wider distribution) of older titles, now public domain and widely produced as e-books to be read and discussed again. I recently enjoyed The Beetle, published at the same time as Dracula and initially outselling it. It’s loaded with paranoia about foreigners jerome(“This is London, not a dog-hole in the desert.”) but putting that aside as part of its era (and glaringly obvious), it’s quite an entertaining story, written in an often-elegant 19th century voice: “I’ve never seen a man more in need of the good offices of soap and water.” It’s also interesting, historically speaking, to read a book set at a time in England the characters can wire ahead to have “the Arab” stopped at a train station. Because, naturally, there’s only one in England.

But for me, the best of these resurrections so far is Jerome K. Jerome, who is somewhat misrepresented as a humour author. His essays are certainly amusing (“He listened to me in rapt ecstasy. I might have been music.”) but he’s often capable of deeply perceptive comments about our habits, far-sighted: “Will it matter to the ages whether, once upon a time, the Union Jack or the Tricolour floated over the battlements of Badajoz? Yet we poured our blood into its ditches to decide the question.” Or this, for example: “Why, if the universe be ordered by a Creator to whom all things are possible, the protoplasmic cell? Why not the man that is to be? Shall all generations be so much human waste that he may live? Am I but another layer of the soil preparing for him?” And finally: “Looking back the little distance that our dim eyes can penetrate the past, what do we find? Civilizations, built up with infinite care, swept aside and lost.”

Current whatever-crossed-my-mind essay collections owe something to writers like Jerome, who’s still as relevant and perceptive as any of them. He often sounds flippant and trivial before closing in on something more significant. “On the Nobility of Ourselves” has these thoughts: “History notes the wrong; but the patient suffering, the heroic endeavour, that, slowly and silently, as the soft processes of Nature re-clothing with verdure the passion-wasted land, obliterate that wrong, she has no eyes for. In the days of cruelty and oppression — not altogether yet of the past, one fears — must have lived, gentle-hearted men and women, healing with their help and sympathy the wounds that else the world had died of. After the thief, riding with jingle of sword and spur, comes, mounted on his ass, the good Samaritan. The pyramid of the world’s evil — God help us! Its rises high, shutting out almost the sun. But the record of man’s good deeds, it lies written in the laughter of the children, in the light of lovers’ eyes, in the dreams of the young men; it shall not be forgotten… Hate and Anger shriek to one another across the ages, but the voices of Love and Comfort are none the less existent that they speak in whispers, ear to ear.”

And, yes, it’s necessary to mentally note that “man” isn’t the term that would be appropriate today. And one of his essays begins with a long, tedious, entirely dated description of how flighty women can be before he settles into something else. But again, these are books from a completely different era, and don’t deserve to be swept into the dustbin because of it. His two collections (Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow) weave together an easygoing intelligence, humour and impressive observations, making him as thoroughly enjoyable as he is worthy of your time. At one point a “put out the stars” reference seemed to me to be the inspiration for the famous W.H Auden poem, Funeral Blues. Based on these collections, I’m looking forward to another non-fiction title of his, Diary of a Pilgrimage and I’ll look at his fiction too. All these titles are available from The Floating Press (recommended as an e-book publisher).


As a fan of films, and particularly older films, founditmoviesI’m very glad to have a poem in a new anthology called I Found It at the Movies, edited by Ruth Roach Pierson. I’ll be reading (just the one poem) to help launch it on May 1st, 7:30pm as part of Livewords at the Black Swan Tavern with a pile of other poets: Sue Chenette, Glen Downie, Catherine Graham, Maureen Hynes, Tanis MacDonald, A. F. Moritz, Blaise Moritz, Jim Nason, Lillian Necakov, Molly Peacock, Jim Smith, Adam Sol, Richard Teleky, Kurt Zubatiuk. 


Burning Blake

03Mar14

There have been interesting things going on over at blakeHazlitt, named for William Hazlitt. Glad to have my new poem Burning Blake posted over in the poetry department, where you’ll find new work is posted every week.


As many of my friends know, I enjoy the escapism of Doctor Who: a benevolant alien with many faces travelling through time and space. While not a perfect show it’s a very creative one, and it often insists humanity is essentially worthy, and an individual is important. It turned fifty last year, and while there were various forms of celebration, I think this animation I recently discovered by Richard Swarbrick is a terrific one. After fifty years, there’s quite a bit of mythology built up, and yet it all remains quite accessible. Neil Gaiman, explaining why he wrote a particular episode, said “I like mythologies, and I knew what a Dalek was and what planet it came from, or what TARDIS stood for when I was five, before I knew who Thor or Anubis were.”


I like people. When I meet them, I say “Good to meet you,” because my view is that it’s good to meet them, until they prove otherwise. I even like dogs. I never had one until I was forty, and while I initially found a puppy exasperating at times, now I shower him with affection, rolling him onto his back to rub his stomach, and laughing openly at some of his clumsily expressive moments.

But I go out into public and become an angry old man. I sat on a streetcar where a woman – blissfully ignorant of everyone around her – sat on her phone saying, “OK, OK, OK” with a regularity equal to the drip of water torture, so that I had to put on my headphones. I sat in a Starbucks where a man on a phone spoke so loudly he actually penetrated my music, standing at times to adjust his hair in a chrome pillar, and sometimes circling around the tables. He left, and I felt relieved. He came back and sat again, and I started to feel a low-boil of anger. Hugely outgoing people on cell-phones are far too involved to interrupt, but I’ve considered printing business cards that say You’re too loud on your phone, to simply drop on a table and walk away.

In university, I had a brief friendship with a tall, lanky philosophy major of German background. He used to say things like “There’s nothing worse than a fart.  It comes out of someone’s ass and when you’re smelling it it’s going into your face!” The world is replete with people who don’t hate others, but require greater personal space, and our society is increasingly not designed for them. I can relate to David Foster Wallace – writing about the cruise ship experience in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – when he finds he needs to retreat to his cabin to recharge, even spreading work around to give room service the impression he’s not just hiding. Studies are showing this is biological: introverts are more easily stimulated and need to seek out privacy regularly to recharge, while extroverts are the other way around, less easily stimulated and always seeking out ways to engage the world. It could only have been introverts who sometimes gave in and ran from the ongoing clamour of shells during the First World War. There’s a story of a man brought back, sobbing, to be gently tied up and shot. I studied under occasional public school teachers faintly desperate to create a calmer environment, telling us you don’t need to crumple up paper to recycle it, you don’t need to drag a chair to move a chair. It’s only decades later I recognize they were certainly introverts. Wallace has some sharp comments about overly outgoing people that are perfect: one man “looks like he’s posing for a photograph nobody is taking.”

I’m old enough to remember using a typewriter in university. I thought it was the cat’s pajamas because it had a quick-erase ribbon. Of course, computers were around in the early 1990s but I didn’t feel then that I needed one, and I couldn’t have predicted that we’d eventually have devices so small we’d carry multiple ones, making sure we’re equipped as we go out: cell and iPod, check. In a subtle way, taking all these devices from home erodes the barrier between the private and public world. Take this to an extreme – or hand this opportunity to the people who fling the door wide open – and you get people talking loudly in movie theatres, publicly discussing private issues on phones, or eating a sandwich as they deal with a clerk, all of which I’ve seen.

I resisted a cell-phone for years, and became among the converted fairly recently when I met a woman I was crazy about who lived on the third floor of a house with a broken doorbell. That’s all it took. It was either join the twenty-first century, or literally stand out in the cold.

But I do use my cell-phone sparingly, and mostly privately, because while our perception is that we use technology, I think it also changes us, in subtle ways. I stood on a subway platform with my girlfriend as a guy on the opposite platform sang a warbling, off-key version of an old show tunes classic. He was alone, and wandered up and down the opposite platform like it was a stage. He finished to a smattering of applause, and stood there awkwardly. Turning to my girlfriend I sarcastically said, “Nice to see people carry themselves with such dignity these days.” She called me a grumpy old man, and I gave it some thought on the way home, deciding that lack of dignity wasn’t the real issue. The best I could come up with was “It never used to be a culture where people assumed they had the right to impose their lives on yours.”

Aside from a culture dedicated to narcissism while paying lip service to ideas of community and family, there’s a lack of reverence to consider as well. People can never simply be where they are and appreciate the moment anymore. I’ve been on a quiet streetcar gliding through fresh snow, passing straight through the middle of a quiet city when someone two seats behind me makes a call and starts talking about how he got drunk and puked last night. Until the TTC starts equipping streetcars with tranquilizer darts, a trip on public transit can only be as quiet as the least serene person. I’m frequently forced to retreat behind my headphones, where the real world is veiled behind my music, where strangers are even less real to me and I’m more disconnected. The chances of any small moment of community or shared experience – unlikely to begin with – are even more remote.

And these things spill over into communities in subtle ways too. How often, now, do people say excuse me when they bump into you? When a new cashier opens up in a busy grocery store, do they get the next person in line, or do people dart over from the end of various lines? In subtle ways, we’re all diminished when we can’t anticipate respectful treatment in public places. Undoubtedly, people didn’t have perfect manners ten or twenty years ago, but I think there’s a cumulative, ongoing effect when we can’t find ways to embrace technology without letting it define us. None of this means we need to embrace a complete package of dated values, just a framework of civility for our daily lives.

The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), pay closer attention. There are various scenes where people attempting something – from a personal exchange to a bank transaction – are suddenly (sometimes even inexplicably) surrounded and judged. There’s no question the film is almost cartoonishly heavy-handed at times, but try to find a more recent film that takes the point of view of others looking in, and not the main character looking out, or a film that’s unabashedly about community and our responsibility to something other than ourselves.

In high school, I had a math teacher named Mr. Graham, who taught us in a thick Irish accent. He was strict but fair, taking his time teaching us each concept thoroughly before testing us. He stopped class one day to say he could get a discount on a ticket to Ireland if he lied and said it was a family emergency, and went around the class asking each of us if we’d lie for a significant discount. The first kid said he’d lie, and of course there wasn’t a single teenager who wanted to be the first to sound chipper and superior, so we all said we’d lie. He was particularly fond of me, and stood back, hands on his hips to say “Even you, Alex. You’d lie.” To this day I regret what I said. He used to stop class simply to lecture us about manners, saying things like “Manners, class. More important than math, manners!” He’d pick his way through a crowded hallway at the start of the year to put his hands on both my shoulders and say “Great to see you!” Somewhere in the untidy mess of years that I was sorting out what kind of man I wanted to be, I surely saw him for the last time without knowing it. I used to think he was a bit of a dinosaur. Now, I’d say he was on to something.




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