Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Overcoming (minor) disappointments

I have had to deal with quite a few annoyances over the last 2-3 weeks.  Probably the most serious is that there has been quite a rash of scammers on  They build up just enough positive reviews to be taken serious, sell some things (at low but not ridiculously low prices) and then abscond.  When you contact them about the issues with the tracking number or "where is my stuff?," Amazon announces mournfully that the seller has left their platform.  So then you have to file a claim.  Eventually you get your funds back, but it is still a hassle, and the scammer basically gets away scot-free.  At some point, Amazon will have to figure out a better way to deal with these losers.  What made it particularly annoying is that I had ordered a special book on coding as a present for my son.  The other thing I got scammed on was a box set of Leonard Cohen albums.  After poking around for a bit, I found both of them at fair, though slightly higher prices on the site, but now I have to deal with the whole issue of shipping to Canada, which has gotten quite outrageous.  Still that has been my way of dealing with that particular annoyance.  It could have been much worse, since I don't really end up out any money.

The second is that I have not really seen much improvement in my weight, despite exercising more and eating slightly better than I did a few months ago.  I have stuck to cutting diet soda (and really all soda unless I am at Toronto Cold Reads, where you sort of have to order something from the bar) out of my life, and I have recently stopped buying crackers, which was a minor vice.  I'm eating much more fruit, though I need to be more radical in cutting out processed sugar.  I'm not quite there yet...  I guess I see a little bit of progress, but I am impatient.  I did manage to convince myself to cycle in this morning, even though I didn't want to.  I probably need to add one more form of exercise, either jogging or swimming, so I am trying to summon the willpower for that.  And I really need to do a better job of staying more active next winter, since it is really the winters that undermine all my good intentions.

A slightly related frustration is that I seem to have lost a critical part of my bike pump.  I already feel that I should pump up the tires a bit, but I will have to go to the bike shop and buy a new pump (I really don't think the part is sold separately).  I must have dropped the part on the ground instead of inside the pannier the last time I added air, which would have been while waiting to see For colored girls... at Soulpepper.  It's certainly not the end of the world, but I should try to deal with it now, rather than a few weeks from now when the tires are really flat.  (And I really ought to also take my son's bike in for a tune-up, since he hardly used it at all last year, but that may have to wait for another time.)

I have mentioned that I recently got serious about the curtain project after a several month break.  I finally got the last panels pinned, which certainly takes a while for 60 inch long curtains!  I was buzzing along and ran out of thread in the bobbin twice!  But that wasn't the problem.  I had noticed a squeal that was quite annoying, but pretty much all the on-line help said it was probably the bobbin catcher that needed oil.  I was dubious but pressed on.  Anyway, I had about three inches to go on the last long seam on the final panel when the sewing machine completely seized up on me.  I couldn't even move the balance wheel manually as everything was jammed.  I dug a bit deeper into the on-line help and basically someone said that all the parts should be oiled.  So I took about an hour and disassembled the machine and oiled liberally.  It was still jammed up, and it seemed like the motor might actually have burned out.  It felt so unfair, since I probably only needed 30 minutes more at most.  I more or less gave up and went to look on Craigslist for used machines (though they often have their own issues).

I spent another hour or so straightening up the study.  Somewhat on a whim, I plugged the sewing machine back in and it worked!  (A minor miracle.)  I suspect it was a combination of the oil and the moving parts like the shaft just cooling down.  I was able to finish the seam and then hem the top and bottom of the curtains.  I have to say, they came out pretty well, definitely a bit better than the other pair.

But I think this is very much a temporary state of grace, and this post would have had a much different feel if the machine was still broken, since the options weren't great.  I don't think I could have hand-sewn the bottom and top hems.  Even now, I don't know that I trust the machine enough to undertake another major sewing project.  Small stuffed animals and perhaps a pillow cover might be ok, but I don't want to attempt a quilt, for example.  I really need to track down a sewing machine technician and have it serviced.  Maybe the cost won't be so bad now that I know I don't actually have to replace the motor or any major parts.  Anyway, that's what I should do, and I'll try to make a few phone calls next week to see what my options are as far as repairmen in the city. 

The last thing is a bit more speculative in that it has been fairly difficult to keep a group of actors all moving in one direction, since many of them are a bit flaky.  I then found out that Red Sandcastle is completely booked through the fall and early winter, which was a bit of a set-back.  However, today I found out that Kensington Hall does have availability and seems to be in the same general price range, so I think I will make sure at least two or three actors are interested and then book Kensington Hall.  This would be the perfect place for The Study Group and it should work pretty well for my evening of shorts, so I think booking it for the shorts this fall and working towards The Study Group next spring makes sense (at least as much sense as anything in the arts ever does...).  Anyway, I imagine if I go forward there will be lots of weird things and some disappointments, but I think the payoff will probably be worth it.  Mostly I would get my name out there and gain some experience in producing here in Toronto.  I have a tendency to move on (to other projects) when blocked, and I think to actually make headway, I need to show more persistence in overcoming disappointments and obstacles, so that will be my goal for the next few months.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Montreal (2017)

My main reason for going to Montreal was to see the Chagall exhibit, so I pretty much left it up to the kids to decide on the rest of the sites.  We had a bit more time on this visit than two years ago, since we flew in and took the train back.  I'm not entirely sure we'll do that again next time.  The airport is quite far from the downtown, and there was a lot of construction and traffic on the way in.  My daughter still struggles with car sickness, particularly when there are traffic hold-ups and also when there are strong scents in the car.  She basically just made it to the hotel but then she succumbed, so it was not a pleasant start to the trip for sure.

After some discussion, we decided to skip the Architecture Museum and no one really wanted to walk up Mont Royal.  We took the Green Line out to Viau, which is where the Biodome (one of the few leftovers from Expo '67) and the sports arena are.  I was not impressed by the Green Line.  The cars are far too small (maybe even narrower than CTA cars) and several of the stations were left completely unattended.  I've mostly been on the Orange Line on previous visits, and it is a much better experience.  Anyway, my daughter wasn't all that interested in the Biodome, but she wanted to check out the Botanical Gardens, particularly the Japanese Garden.

On the way in, we found out there was also an insectarium.  My wife wasn't at all interested, but the kids wanted to see it, so we went in.  I'd say it was 75% mounted moths and butterflies, but there were some glass cases with living insects inside.  It was relatively educational.

My wife somehow had twisted her ankle, which slowed down our progress through the gardens, though we finally found the Japanese Gardens, which were nice.

I was a bit disappointed to find out that the roses were not blooming, so we just left.  (I was even more disappointed to find out that Habitat 67 wasn't anywhere in the vicinity.)  At that point, my daughter now wanted to see the Biodome, but my wife wasn't up to it, so we took a crowded Green Line back to the hotel and found something to eat.  I took the time to finish up Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes, which is a bit like a SF version of Gulliver's Travels.

Fortunately, after resting the rest of the evening, my wife was able to get around on Sunday.  We checked out and walked over to the old city.  There was apparently some festival where a bunch of people dressed up like the original inhabitants of Montreal.

This was fairly amusing, though we didn't stay all that long to watch.  We were headed to the Montreal Science Centre.  I realized that while I wasn't going to be able to get next to Habitat 67, I could probably see it from the port (and indeed from inside the Science Centre).  So it wasn't a total loss after all...

Actually, the kids quite enjoyed the Science Centre and probably would have stayed another hour or two, though I was getting kind of weary of it.  We walked through Victoria Square (appropriate, given the upcoming holiday) and then tried to find food at the Gare Central.  I remember this was a problem on the last trip as well where roughly half of the restaurants in the station are not open on Sundays, which just seems ridiculous to me.  We had about an hour to kill and finally boarded our train.

It was an uneventful but long train ride.  I was glad that the rain held off until we were actually on the train (whereas it rained most of Sunday in Toronto).  The kids did start getting restless with 90 minutes to go, but at the same time I think trying to fly back would have its own issues.  I spent most of the train ride back reading MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night and got 200 pages into it.  All in all, a fairly good trip.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Montreal and Chagall

I mentioned once or twice that there is a massive Chagall exhibit running at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  It runs through June 11, so there is still a fair bit of time to view it, though the last weekend or two are likely to be very crowded.  It was overwhelming in pretty much every way, both in the amount of material on display and the fact that it was a very popular exhibit.  We turned up at about 11 am, and unfortunately had to pass through two guided tours that were clogging up the galleries.  I'm still glad I went, but it probably would have been better to experience on my own, since I would have fought the crowds to try to see some paintings a second or third time.

The exhibition has Chagall's focus on music and works he created for ballet's (costumes and backdrops).  Here are some of the costumes for a production of Mozart's The Enchanted Flute.

Given how many of Chagall's paintings include a fiddler or an angelic harp, there was a lot of material to choose from, and it doesn't feel like too much was sacrificed to make this exhibit come together.  The catalogue is pretty exhausting, and going through the exhibit in person is even more so, particularly with the crowds.  I was somewhat surprised that most of the paintings could be photographed, though a few were off-limits.  I didn't take too many photos, but here are a few.

Marc Chagall, The Yellow Room, 1911

Chagall, Dusk aka Couple Between Darkness and Light, 1938-43

Marc Chagall, The Wedding, 1944

It wasn't particularly surprising that some of the paintings in the catalogue were not on display, but what was a bit more surprising is that apparently some of the paintings in Montreal weren't actually in the catalogue.  I'm fairly sure that The Yellow Room isn't in the catalogue.  I'm somewhat less sure about Birth (from the Art Institute of Chicago -- not pictured here) and Dusk, but I don't think they are included.

I was glad that there was a room of Chagall's stained glass pieces, though they didn't photograph particularly well.  As I said, it was a pretty overwhelming amount of Chagall and really too much to take in in a single visit, but I won't be able to go back unfortunately.

On our last visit to Montreal, we spent far more time on the Quebec artist installations housed in the building across the street.  This time around we just went to a couple of floors and focused mostly on the Beaver Hall artists.  I liked these two paintings quite a bit.
Philip Surrey, Night, 1938

Adrien Hébert, Corner Peel and Sainte-Catherine, 1948

After this, we took a quick look at the gift shop.  I was somewhat surprised to learn that the museum owned some modern art by European artists, as I don't think I managed to see that on the previous trip either.  So I left my wife and daughter on a bench, and my son and I went in for a lightning strike visit.  I would have liked to spend more time obviously, but I did see the Picasso and Matisse and other modern paintings.

My favorites were these three.

Henri Matisse - Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window, 1922

Lyonel Feininger, Yellow Street II, 1918

Philip Guston, Rain Cloud, 1973

As this post is long enough, I will discuss the rest of what we got up to in Montreal in a follow-up post.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hidden theatrical gems

I thought I would mention a couple of shows that are still a bit (or a lot) under the radar.

Tarragon is doing Ntozake Shange's for colored girls.  It is a powerful production, though as many have noted it isn't a traditional drama but different monologues about Black women's experience.  It has gotten a fair number of reviews, but there still doesn't seem to be a lot of buzz around it.  This is a slightly updated version with a poem about HIV/AIDs (and partners being on the DL -- down low) and then an abusive partner gone crazy largely due to his service during the Iraq Wars.  So it has somewhat blurred the original timeframe of the 70s, but some things seem to be timeless.  Anyway, I think it is worth seeing, though I will admit I went and scored rush tickets...  (Details here.)

Much more underground is The Best Dad in the World and other Sad Characters, which is an interesting piece with 3 actors who do short character sketches set in Toronto (I think).  Each one is performed as a stand-alone piece, though the characters all kind of interact in one way or another.  So there is a young cancer patient, whose step-father showed up at the hospice ward and played God.  On one of his visits, he attached a therapeutic clown.  The clown then shows up later, very anxious to meet his drug connection.  We find out that his girlfriend left him after he quit or was fired from his hospital gig.  We also see the man who is now dating his ex, and who was suckered into buying a Botticelli painting at an art cafe!  So it is a fairly intricate kind of sketch comedy, based on character studies.  It might have been interesting to have the characters interact, particularly for the final sketch or two.  In addition to the art cafe sketch, where the menu contained some outrageous puns on artists' names, the sketch about the trans-woman who came from the town of Whimsy was truly peculiar and funny.  This show is at Red Sandcastle through the end of the week.  (Tickets here.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Grab bag (with curtains)

Now that it is nice out again, I've been exploring the neighbourhood a bit.  I went back to the bookstore at Pape and Dingwall and picked up the hardback edition of The Watch That Ends the Night.  (I'll be visiting Montreal soon, and I wanted to make sure I had a copy to read on the train.)

I think this is the first time I cut across Dingwall (to then cut through the projects to get to Jones).  I saw one of the Little Free Library boxes.  These are so cute, even though I probably won't ever use it.  I think the other one I saw was in the Annex, but there are several around Toronto.

Anyway, I was off to check out this pizza place that supposedly does deep-dish Chicago style pizza.  It's called Double D's.  It's actually quite close to Gerrard Square, which is fairly convenient for us.

It's pretty good.  Nowhere near as good as Giordano's or even Pizzeria Uno's, but probably the best equivalent we'll find in Toronto, and it is close as I said.

I've been fairly good about the biking, and I'll bike at least three times and perhaps four times this week.  Drivers are only slowly getting used to cyclists being out.  I haven't had that many close calls myself, though I've been cut off a bunch of times or blocked from the bike lane by a car (or the 144 bus!) where it isn't really supposed to be.

On the way home I saw the aftermath of a major accident at Queen and Sherbourne, where somehow a car and a van collided in the intersection and then the van smashed into a telephone pole.  So glad I wasn't in the area when that happened (maybe 15-20 minutes before).  Indeed, I had worked late today, so it isn't inconceivable that I could have been right in the middle of it had I left on time.  While the damage to the van looked quite bad, I don't believe there were any serious injuries or at least there wasn't an ambulance anywhere in the vicinity.  (Oops, my bad.  Looking at the photo again, there is an ambulance, but no one was put on a stretcher or anything like that.)

On a completely different note, it's been quite interesting checking out the weather report for the Toronto Islands.  The rain has really socked it to the Islands, and the lake level is also higher than it has been for years.  Consequently, large parts of the island are flooded and tourists aren't going to be allowed on the Islands until the end of June at the earliest!  I think my office had a picnic excursion planned, so now it will have to be July, but everyone will be wanting to get out there then, so perhaps a rethink is in order.  (I had kind of wanted to take my family, but maybe this should be something we try to do next summer.  On the flip side, it might be a lot easier to canoe the Humber River compared to last year when the river was so low...)

Finally, I thought I would talk about a few things that are paying off.  I tried to plant grass seed, and I think some of it is coming up, though one corner of the yard is so beaten down it probably needs a soil transplant!

Also, we planted flowers (from seeds) in the flower boxes, and I think these are coming up as well, though it looks like we should have tried to spread them out a bit more.  I should know soon if these flowers are going to bloom this year or not. 

And I have finally made significant progress on the curtain project.  The sewing machine is still squeaking a bit, but I am able to run off roughly one curtain per night now.  (There are far fewer problems with the bobbin with this material, thank goodness!)  I really ought to pin the next one, but I am fairly tired.  I wish they looked a bit more professional, but this isn't too bad for 100% home-made curtains (we'll probably tie them back anyway), and the final set ought to come out just a bit better.

I have roughly one more week to finish the second set and finish straightening the study and the basement.  At that point, I will have to decide just how serious I am about making a stuffed fish for a friend's child and then starting in on a quilting project.  I kind of promised I would do it, so I think I will at least attempt the quilt (the top at least) and see how it goes (though I am open to paying for a long-arm quilter to put the whole thing together).  Maybe it will be relaxing once I really get the hang of it.  Or at least that's what I can tell myself now...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Most quoted authors

I wonder if there has ever been a comprehensive study of which authors get cited or quoted in other authors work.  This does exist for academic works (most of the articles I contributed to have been cited fewer than 20 times, but four have been cited 80+ times and then two of those have hit the 100+ mark).  I'm not aware of anything nearly as systematic for fictional works, not least because you don't list one's references at the back of a novel (and only in the copyright page if you quote extensively from other works).  I suspect if Google really wanted to find this out, they probably could do a study, given that they have scanned most books that are still in print, but I don't think they consider it worth their time, at least not now, since it is hard to image a revenue stream that would emerge.

Now when I mean quoted or cited, I mean it in a fairly general sense, so it might mean an epigraph or sentence being quoted in another work, but it might just be a riff, like saying someone is stingy like Scrooge or even a situation is Kafkaesque.

From my recent scan of literature, I would say that a fair number of British authors, particularly from the Victorian era through 1950 or so, tend to cite Roman authors, like Horace, Virgil, Ovid or Juvenal.  I'd say that has died down a bit lately, however.  American writers always were a bit more likely to reference the Greeks (particularly Homer) but that also seems to have declined a bit and Greek and Roman literature (and even Chaucer and Dante) is not really part of the curriculum any longer.

I suspect Shakespeare remains in the top position, even among American writers.

Lewis Carroll is probably not that far behind, since so many authors want to explore dreamlike states, and Alice is a convenient shorthand reference.

I'm not sure what the list looks like after that, but I'll offer up some thoughts.

I suspect Kafka is the single most influential and/or cited "foreign" author among writers working in English.  I could certainly be wrong, of course.

I suspect that Dostoevsky far outpaces Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov as far as Russian influence in English literature.  In terms of specific Dostoevsky works, it is probably Crime and Punishment in the lead, then the Brothers Karamazov with The Double and Notes from Underground fairly far behind.  I don't think Demons is particularly influential anymore, which is a shame, as it is a bit of neglected masterpiece.

Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita seems to be gaining in influence, which is well deserved.

It's kind of interesting that when Hemingway is invoked, it is sort of for the whole of his oeuvre as well as his macho image, whereas when Fitzgerald is referenced it is virtually always in regards to The Great Gatsby.

While Dickens has certainly generated quite a lot of interest in a wide range of his characters, the ones from A Christmas Carol do sort of eclipse all the rest.  The same could be said for Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

At least people do read their other works, for Mary Shelley and Charlotte and Emily Bronte, they are all defined by just one novel each, which is a bit unfortunate no matter how great those novels are.  (I suppose it is still better to be a one-hit wonder than to not have that level of success in the first place...)  Orwell is more of a two-hit wonder with 1984 and Animal Farm being quite influential, but with his other novels and essays being generally neglected.

I would say Faulkner may be at a low point now, as I certainly haven't seen too many other novels reference his characters (though perhaps I do remember coming across a reference to epic stubbornness that was actually a reference to As I Lie Dying).  (Other long and fairly complicated novels such as Moby Dick* and Ulysses have somewhat fallen out of fashion these days.)

I really don't think I could hazard a guess at which poets are still cited, though I do see T.S. Eliot (especially The Waste Land) pop up from time to time, as well as Walt Whitman.

Anyway, this is what I have come across in my relatively recent reading.  I am happy to make corrections based on submitted comments.

* Melville's character Bartleby the Scrivener does have legs, however.

The Stupid Baby Play

I am sorry to report back that last night was another example of a really solid cast in what I consider an unworthy script: Albee's The Play About the Baby.  Now most critics consider this a black comedy or more precisely a black, absurdist comedy, minor but still intriguing.  I basically feel this is a case where they can't bring themselves to say that the Emperor has no clothes.  I think Albee has written a pretentious, post-modern wank-fest that is only a pale shadow of his other plays, particularly Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  There isn't a single moment where the perfectly reasonable questions of "Who are you?", "What are you doing here?"* and "What have you done with the baby?" are answered directly.  I suppose the last one is answered indirectly.  (SPOILERS coming.)  But there is no motivation established, and instead the older man keeps going off on a variety of tangents whenever asked a direct question.  Some of these aside are amusing (or at least amused the majority of the audience, though I found them too self-indulgent and theatrical), but they are certainly evasive.  I suppose this is the same sort of thing that he and Pinter have done for years, but I just didn't think that the dialogue is interesting enough to carry the evening (again, at least not for me -- many people in the audience enjoyed it).


Since the role of the older couple is never explained, my mind tries to impose meaning on the vacuum.  The most likely explanation is that these are mental projections of the young couple as much older and wiser people, which only partially explains why the older man says that the young man touched him in the groin (as he would obviously have done if the two are the same person), but then this no longer makes sense when the older man says that he was in the hospital giving birth (rather than the young woman).  It just fails to cohere in any way that makes sense, and when things don't cohere, I have absolutely no interest in them.  Again, trying to impose some sense on this, I generally came around to the idea that the woman either had a miscarriage or lost the baby very early due to SIDS, and then this play is them coming around to accepting trauma in the Now (rather than Later when they are older and more used to pain, as the young man tries to bargain at several points).  And yet, if this is so, why is the older man so gratuitously cruel to his younger self?

The whole thing was treated like a joke by the older man, who also breaks the fourth wall quite frequently.  At one point he says he has six children: two Black, two white, one green and one is not described.  Then he says he had the Black children when he was Black.  Then he catches himself and says that he had one Black child, two white ones and a light green one (which he gave birth to incidentally).  What is one supposed to do with such ramblings, aside from turn the older man into a trickster character like Coyote or even Loki, who is a more malevolent trickster?  It just means that nothing we see is real and can be inverted or reversed at any moment.  I have no interest in plays that refuse to have ground rules, and it is very rare indeed that I like absurdist plays.

There are definitely interesting moments along the way, and I'll touch on just a few, although for me the destination wasn't worth it. In one of his monologues designed to distract attention from what is going on (and now that I think about it, it is quite pointless that the older couple spend a lot of time talking to the audience without the younger couple around and yet they do...), the older man talks about going into the Royal Academy Museum in London and experiencing a sculpture exhibit for the blind by closing his eyes tight and having a guide show him to the pieces.

The older woman talks a bit about trying to interview creative types and not getting very far, particularly when a writer says he would rather die than let her watch him write (or as she puts it, translate his ideas into words).  She gets really quite indignant about this rejection, but of course why should she have any right to impose upon the artist, particularly when she seems to want something from him in exchange for nothing?  (I assume this was Albee's dig at a bunch of reporters who must have always been pestering him about his craft.)  Just coincidentally, I read a follow up piece on this comic/performance artist who is trying to goad Jason Segel into responding to his videos where he eats Segel's photo every day.  He sounds like a total knob when he complains that he is being ignored and assumes that he has a right to make his name off of Segel.  I mean he has a bit of fame already, but the more he complains, the more he comes across as an entitled jerk.  (This is one of the rare cases where I wish The Star had comments turned on, since I thought they would be illuminating, though there are comments here at an earlier point in this guy's quest for fame.)  I guess Albee helpfully(?) points out that entitled jerks were around 20+ years ago, even if there do seem to be more of them today in the era of social media.

I'm sure I started the evening in the wrong frame of mind, wanting to be proved wrong that this play was not worth my time, but, despite fine acting, I still felt it was a waste of my time.  I can't judge whether others would feel the same.  Most people in the audience did seem to be digging the play, more engaged in the discursions than I was.

* While it is sort of hinted at, I don't think the younger couple ever asks "How did you get in?," but I may have just overlooked that.  The fact that the older couple can apparently just sort of walk through walls just adds to the unreality of the play and the fact it has no ground rules.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Sidewalk Sale

I am not particularly organized when it comes to putting on big events, but fortunately there are others in the neighbourhood that are.  They usually put on a sidewalk/yard sale every year, and I just tag along and try to get rid of some stuff.

Over the past few months, we thinned out the kids' toys and put them in a box in the basement.  I had tried to thin out the books as well, but there was no movement on that front.  I wasn't quite ready to part with some of the childrens' DVDs, though they haven't watched them in years, so I'll plan to put more of them out next year.  I did consider putting out a bunch of jazz and classical CDs, but right now CD generally do not sell.  LPs, even lousy ones, do better in the yard sale context.  I'll try to take them back to the one local shop that still pays for used jazz and classical CDs.

The main thing that I managed to sell was a bunch of Lego sets.  I tried to put them together and decided that 95% of the core pieces were there, plus all the instruction books, so it was ok to sell them as individual sets.  The more interesting sets were the Harry Potter Knight Bus and an Alien Invasion set.  The kids never were really that into Lego, at least in part because 1) my son felt bad about mixing up the pieces from different sets, so that limited his creativity and 2) my wife made a fuss if they strayed from the play area and eventually no one wanted to bother.  It was so different from my experience growing up.

I sold the whole bunch to one woman and threw in a free pair of bunny ears.  I did warn her that there were a few missing pieces, but that the core pieces were all there.  I even turned up all the dinosaur teeth for another set.

It looked like rain, but actually the rain held off all afternoon, and it is just starting now (unfortunately I need to head back out).  Some folks down the street managed to put out tables and tables of stuff.  I was actually quite good and only picked up a single book from a neighbour (apparently he and his wife had been at an event and John Irving signed one of his new novels and they were willing to part with it -- of even more interest is that John Irving has moved to Toronto -- I had no idea).  Thus, I got rid of more than I brought home, which is really the primary goal of these sales.

Fairly shortly after I sold off the Lego sets, I just put out a free sign for the rest and then walked away.  Most things were gone when I strolled back.  (Others held out longer, but eventually started giving away a lot of stuff.)

My son and I then left for TCAF at the Toronto Reference Library (where I did manage to spend on comics what little cash the sidewalk sale had brought in, mostly on the Toronto Comics Anthology).  TCAF is on tomorrow for those interested.  I know I won't be able to go back this year.  All in all, a pretty good day.

Friday, May 12, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 29th Review - Queen Rat

Lynn Crosbie's Queen Rat is actually the third poetry book in a row with a connection to House of Anansi Press.  Queen Rat originally came out in 1998 and was reprinted as part of Anansi's A List series in 2014.  At the time it was a bit of a hybrid, with about 2/3rds of the poems from Crosbie's first three collections, but then three new groups of poems.

The first new material is a series dedicated to Fredo Pentangeli from The Godfather 2.  I have to admit, these poems didn't do much for me, as I never got around to watching The Godfather or The Godfather 2.  I realize that is an unforgivable omission, but I just haven't found the time.  The two movies have permeated the culture to the point that it feels like I have seen them, however.

The second grouping, Presley, focuses on a news story about a child who was so disturbed by the death of her dog that she put it in the freezer.  This is fairly creepy, and not that far off from Faulkner's Emily, though the child apparently nothing to do with the dog's death.  To sort of add to the overall effect, there are photos of a child, a dog and a refrigerator, almost as if this was a true-life story and not a bunch of poems.  To be honest, I thought this series was too manipulative.  Plus, I don't like dogs, not even a little bit, so these poems didn't do anything for me.

I did like Alphabet City, however, as Crosbie sort of memorializes a bunch of bars, taverns and booze cans that she spent time in after her arrival in Toronto circa 1982 (after growing up in Montreal).  While most of the poems are based on her memories of the mid to late 80s, a few reach into the mid 1990s.  It's fairly unlikely that our paths would have crossed, since the pubs I went to were all near UT and I hung with a fairly sedate crowd.  As one reads about Lynn's various adventures, she started to come across like a Canadian version of Jim Carroll.  Many of the misadventures are her own, but she was surrounded by other drug users and documented their struggles as well.  From "Western Hospital": "Some things I remember I would like to forget: / blood soaks the inside of his thighs 3 A.M., the way the street / always looks at this hour on this ride; / the arc of Bathurst opening into emergency; / inert ambulance, waiting to sleep; / then he is staggering through the corridor while I confiscate / syringe, tie, and spoon...".

I would say in general, in her early career she did buy into the notion that outsider artists like Jim Carroll and William Burroughs and Rimbaud (who practically started this all) make better art, and therefore one ought to live on the wild side and perhaps even do drugs to enhance one's artistic powers.  She seems to have come through this, though she is still fascinated by dark and/or tragic characters as seen in her book Paul's Case (a very controversial novel about Paul Bernardo) and Where Did You Sleep Last Night, which envisions the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain into a teenager (but still no happy ending).  

Her experience in Toronto, as related in Alphabet City, is not all bad, and she describes being part of the literary scene and going to and giving poetry readings.  She falls in love from time to time, though typically with other drug users.  She records a trip to Niagara Falls.  For me one of the technically most interesting poems is "Union Station," which seems inspired partly by Robert Lowell, but then somewhat by Anne Sexton.*  "Green and white boxcar heading west past / moulting ferris wheel pasture rows of houses each alike... / ... / the conductor calls; / paterson Johnson tynkaluk adlai hazen cuddy dent trudi nixon lauzon / ... / stops I miss, static, sleep, / train I ride half-dead / objects falling back, smaller, in perfect miniature: the line / of little cats' teeth, bridging sharp incisors, that comb the body, / drawing out tangles in long tined tracks."

Several of the poems drawn from Miss Pamela's Mercy and VillainElle are about murderers or murder victims ("The Black Dahlia" and "Poems for Jack the Ripper").  There are also poems more focused on S & M and power relations more generally.  For instance, "Strange Fits of Passion" ends as follows: "He was quiet also, and I whipped him, / I ground my heels in his chest / until he begged for mercy."

I'm not entirely sure where "Carrie Leigh's Hugh Hefner Haiku" fits in here, as Carrie Leigh is still alive and never accused Hugh of any physical abuse.  (There is a slight connection between Leigh and Crosbie in that Leigh is Canadian and she and Crosbie are the same age.)  I do think it is an interesting exercise in writing a long poem, formed by a number of Haiku (and I had completed writing Double Sabbatical with its Haiku before I read this poem).  I would say that in one critical way they fail the test of classical Haiku in that the poems are supposed to be self-contained and these clearly are not.  They are still amusing, however.  The poem opens: "Hef brings me flowers / tiger lilies, ochre veined / downcast, sleek black cups // small shadows, are the puckers in his pyjamas / where his skin caves in // tired profligate, I / sigh and pour the oil along / your circular sheets".

Of the three books that Crosbie drew upon for Queen Rat, Pearl was the last published (1996) and seems the most assured.  Most of the poems appear to be titled after movies ("Have Gun, Will Travel," "Superfly," "The Snake Pit," etc.).  At some point, I will go ahead and track down Pearl to see what I thought of the poems not collected in Queen Rat.  There are several spots on the internet that claim that Pearl is all about Crosbie's relationship with Tony Burgess, but there are also some sites that claim she and Burgess are (still) married, which does not seem to be the case.  It's probably not terribly relevant to know the truth behind these poems, other than they are about a male partner struggling with drug addiction.

"The Snake Pit" is indeed dedicated "To Tony": "He is often tired this fall, his eyes -- purple shadows, / narcotic flowers. Glassine bags, black envelopes, ill-concealed secrets / I discover, sunflower dust, faint streaks of powder. / ... / At night, he combs the winter streets for / heroin, and sinks deeper / into the glacial corners of his sheets."

The poems named after Blaxploitation flicks seem to be an imagined rendering of this relationship as it would be in a B-movie.  From "Have Gun, Will Travel": "How pleased he will be when I surprise him with the cool barrel, / when it arouses his neck, his temple. / Its sight lowers to the silver zipper, its cold teeth clenched, / closed to me / ... / I want to excite him this way."  Speaking from experience, it is best to leave the gun fantasies on the screen and not bring them into one's life as a marital aid...

Ambrosia seems to be a cautionary tale of trying to hold onto love too long, particularly when one partner wants to be out of the relationship.  "He became restless: the guy wanted to leave and I didn't want him to leave. / A heart-shaped box, the candies are moss green; I have held on to this / too long. Anger hot / enough to incinerate each scalloped chocolate...".  (Note the shout-out to Kurt Cobain.)  It isn't clear if Crosbie is talking about her fraying relationship (with Tony) or a previous one, but in any case, it isn't healthy: "I crush his throat with a metal paddle (stolen / from the factory, sweetness is only mine to steal), / wrap his confectionary body into plastic bags, and then retrieve it. / To kiss the rigid wrists and neck that belong to me...".  Again, the poem has strong connections to A Rose for Emily, which also featured in Presley, a slightly later work.  It's possible that Crosbie goes a bit too far and overplays her hand when she adds "As a child, I would preserve insects in formaldehyde," since the concept has been well established.  I can certainly understand how someone reading this poem would be a bit hesitant to let the poet into his (or her) life, but it is pretty effective.

I'll close with a short meditation on "After Illness."  This poem is a bit more cryptic than some of the other ones.  It isn't entirely clear whether the illness is a literal sickness (like a very bad winter cold), drug addiction or being addicted to love, i.e. staying in this unhealthy relationship.  It might be some combination of all three, though the poem doesn't suggest she is actually out of the relationship with Tony.  "February returns -- a ribbon of pink, a paper wand sealed in ice. Blue / star, a girl in violet tulle and diamante glitter brocades her little bodice. / ... / I have been desperately tired, / and he irons this sickness from me in smooth circles."  Almost all the imagery in this poem relates to winter: chilly, blue, pearl, diamond, etc.  It may be a more effective poem precisely because I am not entirely sure what is going on at the end and what will happen when she emerges completely from her illness, so there is an air of mystery about it.

I liked quite a few of the poems in Queen Rat, particularly those in Pearl and the Alphabet City series, though I do feel Crosbie got swept up into the cliched role of outsider poet throughout the 90s.  It is basically impossible to imagine separating the poems in Queen Rat from this pose (and the actual drug use and the sketchy situations she got herself into during this period).  For some readers, this literary slumming is quite exciting and perhaps a few will be glad that Crosbie did the "hard time" and brought back these poems along the way, while others will be less sympathetic (not that I imagine Crosbie would care either way).

* One of the most interesting facts about Lynn Crosbie is that she completed a PhD on Anne Sexton in 1996, so I might have theoretically crossed paths with her in the U of T English department, but the students taking courses and those that were ABD didn't typically interact. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Play-writing progress

While the audience at Sing-for-Your-Supper was quite small (and at one point almost the entire audience was cast in one play!), I think Double Sabbatical went quite well.  People particularly liked the revenge haikus.  (I would say for my part, I feel I am getting the hang of establishing a mood and a basic plot in under 10 minutes.  In general, this helps me from writing pieces that are too flabby.) There were two other pieces that I enjoyed -- one about a household where everything was locked up or password protected, and then another one where it turned out that Jesus turned Lazarus into the first zombie.  This play was particularly notable for one character twittering on and on while the zombies threatened to get in.  It wasn't quite Abbott and Costello, but sort of along those lines.

I have to admit, I may start passing on Sing-for-Your-Supper until either 1) they get a permanent home or at least improve their notification system or 2) I decide for certain whether I am going to stage some shorts in the fall.  I am starting to lean that way, and if so, I will need to recruit actors who will work for a small honorarium and a cut of the profits if any.  (While the evening is probably already overstuffed, I wonder if I should include "Double Sabbatical."  It's probably a stronger piece than "Blue Grass Mash" or whatever I am calling it these days.)

Toronto Cold Reads was fun, though I don't think the scripts stood out as much as on other evenings.  There was one piece about a shyster and the somewhat mentally slow man he is trying to scam.  It had funny bits, but overall felt a bit too predictable.  My piece, with the X-Files vibe, went over pretty well.  Again, trying to get so much to happen in 10 pages is a huge challenge.  The musical guest was very good, though I was feeling kind of broke, so I didn't buy any of his CDs.

Toronto Cold Reads is becoming my favored cold reads event, though they only have a few more shows before taking the summer off.  I probably can't make the event on the 21st, since I'll be coming back from Montreal that afternoon.  What I really need to do is to join up with the writers' group, particularly if they are going to be meeting periodically through the summer.

I spent what little time I had on making revisions to Corporate Codes of Conduct.  I'm getting close on the first act.  I must have chopped 15 minutes.  It probably would still be better losing another 5-10, though I probably do need to see it read "live" to see what can be cut.  I think the key is what do I want to come back in the second act (the WWII references?, more about Li's unresolved issues with her father?, etc.) before I can really decide what to cut.  (Also, I added a bit where there is verbal ping-pong between two dyads on stage, and I don't know if that works or not.)  The second act needs to be completely redone, and I have some ideas on where to go, but it will take a while.  I was working towards a deadline (of yesterday!) but I finally decided that while this did feature a strong female lead character (particularly with the edits I was going to implement in the second act), it is still largely just a work romance story (and one where the male lead saves her bacon), so it just didn't feel very "feminist," so I ultimately did not submit it.  Nonetheless, this has kick-started me into taking another look.  I think over the next few weeks, I will try to fix the second act and then try to convince the TC Writers' Group to workshop it.

After this, I probably just want to finish Straying South, and then start editing Dharma Donuts.  And then finally I need to decide whether to work on Final Exam or The Study Group.  Some hard choices to make down the line, but at least a glimmer of a payoff here and there (like the last two evenings where the audience liked my work).  So there is a point to it all, I suppose.  Ciao for now.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Midsummer in Edinburgh (Tarragon)

We are just back from Midsummer at Tarragon.  It's light entertainment and predictable but still entertaining for all that.  Given that the play talks about the constant rain over the Midsummer weekend in Edinburgh, it felt quite appropriate, given the massive rainfall we've had over the past 4 days. However, I thought the play could be tightened (maybe losing 10-15 minutes, particularly the number of times songs were "reprised").  My wife thought it should lose 30 minutes.  Perhaps the single most amusing line was the message reading on the car park ticket machine saying "Change is possible."  I never saw that when I was in Edinburgh, though I also never drove anywhere.

One thing that she found really puzzling was that the play seemed to be set in 2016 (or at least in 2009 when it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe), given how much emoticons were used in text messages (and the phone noises seemed fairly contemporary).  However, if the main characters really were just turning 35 in 2009, then they would have been 9 in 1983 (probably a bit too young to sneak in and see The Jesus and Mary Chain).  Perhaps this was more of a passing reference to when the band formed, but Bob definitely said he had seen them in 1987, which would have still left him at 13 or so (and 5ish if we are to assume the play is set now).  I didn't let this bother me too much, but she felt it was a pretty big inconsistency.  (So some theatre goers do sweat the small details.  I've recently decided that Corporate Codes will be set in 1999, so I need to make sure all the internal references square up with that.)  If they had said the play took place in 2000, then the internal chronology would make much more sense, but they would have to have ancient phones that only texted and basically no emoticons.

On further reflection, I have to say 35 is a pretty weird age to suddenly discover that it is worth ditching everything and making that long delayed ferry ride to the Continent to busk.  I'd say 28 or 29 is about the latest it would really not seem "too late" to change one's life.  (It's also a little hard to believe 35 year olds would hang with the goth teenagers even for just a wild night.)  On the other hand, if Bob and Helena were in their mid-40s, then there might be more comic potential in watching them try to reclaim their glory years.

The program included this amusing map, which only has a few tourist attractions, favoring the Ikea just out of town as well as the industrial estate.  I suppose if one lives in a place long enough, then one probably does navigate by more personal landmarks rather than the big touristic ones.  (If you've never read Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City, it's certainly worth a look.)

I went ahead and dug out a few of my photos of Edinburgh.  Just looking through them, I am exhausted, since I seem to have criss-crossed the city three times in two days.  I'll just post some ones that remind me of the trip, but I won't be able to label them or anything.  It was a nice trip (I also visited Glasgow on the same trip) and I wouldn't mind going back, though I think it is somewhat unlikely at this point.

Canadian book blow out

There are only about 7 weeks left in the 10th Canadian Challenge.  While there will be an 11th Challenge, I still have a fair number of books I wanted to review.  Looking over this list, I think I will have to reorder my reading list yet again.  At this point, I will still get through Murakami's 1Q84 (which I am enjoying, but which is very long!) and then move all the relevant Canadian novels way, way up the list.  Then perhaps I will mostly be back on track.

The books I really hope to get to are:
Morley Callaghan The Many Colored Coat
Hugh MacLennan The Watch That Ends the Night
Jane Urquhart The Stone Carvers
Findley Not Wanted on the Voyage

I'm not quite as fussed about Bissoondath's The Soul of All Great Desire, but it's fairly short, so I'll probably sneak it in.

Ideally I would also get to Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness, but they aren't as pressing, and they'll probably be among the first books I review for the 11th Challenge (along with Atwood's dystopian trilogy beginning with Oryx and Crake).  Similarly, if I can read Munro's Friend of My Youth or a short story collection by Mavis Gallant, that would be great, but perhaps not worth distorting my reading list any further.

I no longer appear to own a copy of The Watch That Ends the Night.  I'm pretty sure I owned one back in the 90s, and I'm leaning towards buying another copy.  I dropped in at this odd bookstore that has just about reopened on Pape.  There was a nice reading copy of the Book Club edition from 1959 in stock, and I probably should have just bought that.  However, I am most familiar with the 1986 paperback edition, which would be cheaper (and also easier to read on the train).  He said he might have a copy of that in storage, and I said I would check back in a couple of weeks.  Maybe I'll end up springing for the hard cover in the end

10th Canadian Challenge - 28th Review - If Borderlands

I wasn't entirely sure whether If Borderlands, the collected poems by Elise Partridge, should count towards the challenge.  Partridge was an American, though she moved with her husband to Vancouver in 1992 (itself an interesting date, which implies it was not a political move but probably one done based on her husband's work, which she actually confirmed in an interview -- the interview itself is quite good on her thoughts on publishing poems that had such intimate details about her illness).  Partridge only lived 15 or so years in Canada, before dying from a remission of cancer, but all 3 of her individual poetry collections were published in Canada and she became a dual citizen, so it would be quite begrudging not to include her.  In fact, she became quite a mainstay of the Vancouver literary community (although she had other admirers, including Robert Pinsky), and there was quite an outpouring of grief when she died in 2015.  (Indeed, it was particularly sad that Partridge did not live long enough to see the publication of her third book, The Exiles' Gallery, which came out on House of Anansi Press.)

Somewhat unusually for a 20th Century poet, most of the poems, particularly in the first two books (Fielder's Choice and Chameleon Hours), follow the more formal rules of poetry, i.e. the lines are generally metrically even and there is usually a rhyme scheme.  She includes poems with ABAB scheme and couplets (like "Temp").  In this she seems to be following in the footsteps of early Marianne Moore or very early Adrienne Rich, though Partridge seems to have been modelling herself on Keats, at least a little bit.  She also writes slightly looser poems where the stanza is 5 or 6 lines long but the first and last line of the stanza rhymes (I didn't check to see if the inner lines rhyme across the stanzas, but they may have).  I have to admit, it is very difficult for me to read formalist poetry written post 1960.  It just somehow feels wrong, after the vast majority of poets abandoned this approach.  It's my own hang-up to be sure, but it did mean that I sort of glossed over many of her earlier poems.

That said, I thought "Temp" had some brilliant couplets .  The temp is here riding the elevator (not into the sky but just to her desk): "She watched the gleaming silver doors / parting to show identical floors / painted a flat oyster white, / pebble-gray rugs, fluorescent light. / A briefcase and two suits stepped off. / Pinstriped shoulders; stifled cough..."  After a day spent filling in, answering phones, making copies, filing, etc., things start winding down: "3:25, back at her station, / she double-checked the pagination / of reports that had to be couriered / by 4 p.m.; retyped a word;" (she is approaching Byron's Don Juan levels of stretch here...).  It is possible that my empathy with the temp, uncertain who will be friendly or not on a week by week basis, has colored my perception of the poem, but it was one of my favorites.  My temp days are long over (and generally jobs for secretaries and assistants are being reduced as office workers are all expected to "type" up their own reports and make their own copies and file them if necessary, so the temp market has presumably shrunk quite a lot), but this did bring up memories.

It is probably not that surprising that, as Partridge was a poet who wrote about her own medical procedures and the struggles of other cancer survivors (and who died relatively young from cancer), most reviews focus on this aspect of her work (see here and here).  I'll basically be following in this same tradition, since these poems do seem to be the most compelling and have the most urgency.  (What may be a bit more surprising is that no one seems to have linked Partridge with Audre Lorde who had a long struggle with cancer.  Perhaps this is because The Cancer Journals was a non-fiction memoir and Lorde's poems were more generally devoted to social justice issues.)

In "Chemo Side Effects: Memory," Partridge talks about the impact of chemotherapy on her memory, which seems particularly cruel for a poet: "Where is the word I want? / ... / I can hear it / scrabbling like a squirrel / on the oak's far side. / ... / No use-- / it's turning / out of sight, /  a bicycle down a / Venetian alley--".

The chemo also affects her vision "Gnats in dervish clouds, / indistinguishable, words fizzle / Or keep fading in and / out of focus--" and she worries that she may never fully recover her eyesight: "So many small things I still want to see / sheen of my nephew's corner eyelash, / snowflake circuitry, fleas' thighs, / ... / the peaks and valleys of each mustard seed."

Even in the poems not directly about cancer often have quite a melancholic air, and some explicitly focus on the pangs one faces when considering the "path not taken."  In "Childless," she frets that her genetic legacy has terminated: "Helixes snapped like crepe-paper streamers, / our DNA ladder / sways with frayed ends, an idle last rung. / No filaments spiraling us to the future..."  She then moves into more sociological territory, positing that those couples without children are not valued by society.  There is probably some truth to this, but certainly less than there used to be.  Anyway, her comments are fairly cutting: "Minor characters from a serial novel, / we turn out of sight down a boulevard / hand in hand, at the end of Book Three."  This theme returns in "Gifts" where she wonders what she will leave behind after death: "I leave / nothing of enviable worth ; / no children; tureens of cracked / china (an aunt's). / Why shouldn't I drift off / like a lost balloon?"

"A Late Writer’s Desk" dwells on a discarded desk, useless now that the writer who used it has passed away: "They couldn’t give it away, I guess, / so left it by the side of the road, / where, obdurate, it warps."  This poem was published in The Walrus, and is still available on-line here.

I found two poems that sort of explored the issue of alternative futures, i.e. what-if scenarios, to be interesting.  The first ("Alternate Histories"*) is almost as compressed as a Edward Gorey story and presumably details a whole range of fatal events that might have been avoided with just one change (just as Partridge must have dearly wished her circumstances to be different): "If they had straightened, not veered, / if they'd caught the night ferry. / If the Consul's clerk had replied, / if west-running tracks had cleared. // If she'd taken the hallway stairs. / If he hadn't missed the warning / while he whistled at tea. / If they'd walked home late from the fair."  It is worth noting that the first and last line of the stanzas rhyme or are near-rhymes.

The If Borderlands collects Partridge's 3 collections and adds a small handful of uncollected poems, which she was able to revise before her death.  There is no question this is the definitive collection of her work, although if I had to pick a single stand-alone collection it would be The Exiles' Gallery, which includes "A Late Writer’s Desk," "Alternate Histories" and ends with "The If Borderlands," which is another mediation on what-ifs.  "The If Borderlands" considers a wider variety of things that might have turned out differently and seems a bit lighter or at least less tragic than "Alternate Histories."  In this imaginary land: "Gifts never shrivel, / no one flails in the whirlpools / of a culture's lies. // We don't lose visas / in cabs; with the loves / of our lives, / we raid the warehouse / of inerrant fortune cookies."

Not all of Partridge's poems speak to me, but those that do are quite powerful.  She wrote about living life fully, even under a death watch, but at the same time acknowledged how much she wanted her life to be different.  She had an eye for the unusual, and, at least in a few poems, demonstrated a sly sense of humor.  I can certainly recommend interested readers check out The Exiles' Gallery and then perhaps push on to The If Borderlands for the rest of her work.

* I have no particular reason to believe that Partridge knew about Constance Urdang, whose final book of poems was called Alternative Lives, though I have no reason to believe she didn't know about her.  In addition to the title poem, the book contains "A Life You Might Say You Might Live;" both seem thematically a bit similar to "Alternate Histories" in the expression of a rage to live, however quietly expressed (to borrow shamelessly from Pope's Epistle to a Lady).  In addition to some of my other ideas, offered up freely, a study comparing Urdang to Partridge seems like a worthy endeavor.  One minor difference that I can see is that Urdang lived for 6 years after Alternative Lives before dying (also of cancer though at 73 not 56).  Also, Urdang and her husband, the poet, Donald Finkel had several children.  So Partridge does appear to get the rawer deal from life when compared to Urdang.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Too much cyclical time?

This past weekend, I saw Amici play Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.  This is a challenging, yet beautiful piece of music, and I generally seek it out whenever I know it is being played.  (However, I did pass on a chance a few months ago to see Jonathan Crow play the piece in Kingston, since I then learned he would be the guest violinist with Amici in Toronto, which was an event not to be missed.)  It was great, though I realized that I thought the piece ended with the clarinet playing impossibly high and fading into nothingness, but it is actually the violin.  (Probably a good thing, as I am not sure a clarinet player, even as good as Joaquin Valdepenas, could sustain that note.)

I was talking with a friend before the show, saying that this would be the 4th time for me seeing the piece, but I couldn't recall the details of the second time.  I poked around in my collection of programs and learned that I had seen Amici playing the piece in Toronto in Walter Hall in 1994!  In addition to Joaquin, David Hetherington was with the group, but they had a different pianist 23 years ago.  This is actually Amici's 29th year as an ensemble, which is itself pretty incredible, and I'll try to make one or two concerts next year on their 30th anniversary tour.

Just to contrast how professional and/or slick they have become over the years, here are the covers of the two programs.

This set me off on the path of searching my memory to contrast Toronto from 23 years ago to today (I left right before amalgamation, but also before the 1995 Quebec referendum).  While I naturally prefer older Toronto, since it corresponds to a time in my life I was younger and less disillusioned.  I think it is probably fortunate that I was only in Toronto for a year and I did stay fairly close to campus.  This way I haven't completely choked off the Toronto of today with nostalgic memories, since there are plenty of neighbourhoods (particularly in East York) that I didn't visit at all.  I'm quickly reaching the point where I will have lived in Toronto three times longer than on my first stay.  I would say it is time to bury the past, but I actually do need to hang onto it a bit longer -- at least until I finish Straying South (which is set in the 90s) and then my novel, Northern Lattitudes (ditto), if I think I'll ever actually make real progress on this, presumably after I wrap up Straying South.

I guess I'll close out this mini-meditation on how some events do seem somewhat cyclical by noting that I have a chance to (somewhat) redeem myself with my daughter.  Last year, I missed going to her art show at school, so I will make sure I make it this year, even if I have to leave work a bit early.  I really did feel quite guilty last year (even though no one had put it on my calendar), and I can't let that happen again.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 27th Review - Civil Elegies

Not having grown up in Canada, I was not exposed to Dennis Lee and his poems for children, such as Alligator Pie (though I fairly recently heard about them due to the Soulpepper show aimed at children).  It was a recent Toronto Star article discussing Lee's upcoming collected poems Heart Residence that convinced me that Lee was an important figure in Toronto's literary history (not least because he was a co-founder of House of Anansi Press) and that I really ought to check out this collection.  (And indeed I have Heart Residence on hold at the library, and I expect to be able to read and review this later in May.)  The article also mentioned Lee's connection to Rochdale College, and perhaps by coincidence the Star had a fascinating article on Rochdale just a day or two before.  I had no idea that I lived right around the corner from Rochdale in the mid 1990s, though the co-op had been closed down in 1975 with the residents evicted.  It served as senior housing by the time I lived down the street, and I did a lot of shopping at the grocery store that was on the first floor (perhaps this was actually one building over from Rochdale).

While this is a digression, the poems in Civil Elegies are very much focused on Toronto and how the city should serve its residents (particularly the somewhat marginalized, i.e. youth and students and artists and seniors).  Civil Elegies came out in 1968 (when Rochdale was just getting started along with Anansi Press), but I suspect even then Lee was suspicious that the good times wouldn't last.

I like the cover of the reissued Civil Elegies with its focus on City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square.

There was a lot of urban redevelopment to make this urban civic space (basically wiping out The Ward, which was essentially Toronto's first slum).  The new City Hall opened in 1965, and it must have seemed incredibly futuristic at the time.  I'm still a big fan of Nathan Phillips Square and have seen some nice concerts there (including Joshua Redman back before he became quite so famous) and even The Flaming Lips!  I'm not good enough at skating to skate there during the winter unfortunately, and I've also kind of given up going there for fireworks displays, since the crowd control is pretty dicey.

Here are a few of my photos of the area in the late 2010s.

I must have a picture somewhere of the entire city hall, but normally I am focused more on the activities in the Square itself (including art installations).  The first photo in the sequence comes the closest to capturing all of City Hall, whereas the second photo does include the Henry Moore sculpture The Archer (though it is very small).  In the other photos there are too many other people in the way.  This is in complete contrast to the cover of Civil Elegies which prominently features the sculpture, but the plaza is otherwise empty aside from one lonely citizen.  (While there is something to be said for the alienated artist, alone even in the midst of a bustling city, I definitely appreciate that in reality crowds continue to come out for all kinds of civic events and that Nathan Phillips Square is a well-used space.)

And finally I suppose I should actually review the poems in the book...

The introduction in the reissued edition (2012) is helpful, since it points out that between 1968 and 1971, Lee revisited and revised Civil Elegies, adding two new elegies (2 and 4) and modifying some of the others.  Apparently, Margaret Atwood helped him re-edit the poem!  In the space of only 3 years, the mood had gotten more somber, as Lee felt Rochdale was already on its way to failure, and in general whatever had been left of the spirit of the 60s (the high of Expo '67 for example) was being crushed.  In addition to the changes to Civil Elegies, 16 new, separate poems were added to the front of the book.  In Heart Residence, these stand-alone poems have been relocated towards the back of the book into a section titled "Not Abstract Harmonies But."

Despite Lee's more recent efforts to put some space between them and Civil Elegies, I will still review them here.  Of the 16, my favourite is "400: Coming Home," which may in fact be the only poem I am aware of that sort of celebrates Toronto's 400-series highways: "You are on the highway, there is a kind of / laughter, the cars pound / south  ... And you are still on the highway. There are no / houses, no farms. Across the median, past the swish and thud of the / northbound cars, beyond the opposite fences, / the fields, the / climbing escarpment ..."  The poem seems almost a dream where no matter how far one drives, one is still on the highway.  (I suppose the only difference is that in the late 1960s, one would actually be driving all this time, whereas one might well be stuck in traffic in the 2000s.)

Roughly half of these first 16 poems seem to be about the domestic arrangements of the poems' narrator (which may or may not be Lee).  While there are some hints that whatever issues he and his wife are having, they can partly be attributed to city living and or living through a period of war (Toronto had become quite a haven for Vietnam War resisters, though perhaps not quite to the same level as Vancouver).  I do prefer the poems that are more directly about the city, such as the poems about High Park or Sibelius Park.

I have never actually visited Sibelius Park, since anytime I exit the subway at Spadina, I stay on Bloor or head south.  I'll have to check it out one of these days.  "Sibelius Park" is a poem where the poet seems to be questioning his purpose: "and behind him, five blocks south, his other lives / in rainy limbo till tomorrow: / Rochdale, yes   Anasi / the fine iconic books, sheepish errata / shitwork in a cold basement, moody / triumphs of the mind".  He is sort of trudging along with these (largely mental) burdens.  The park offers a refuge and a kind of renewal: "And then Sibelius Park! / The grass is wet, it / gleams, across the park's wide / vista the lanes of ornamental / shrub come breathing and the sun has filled the / rinsed air till the green goes luminous and it does it / does, it comes clear!"

I've read "Civil Elegies" a couple of times now, and it really is quite an ambitious poem.  I may simply be unaware of a comparable poem that tries to tackle Toronto's complexity, whereas I can think of book-length poems by George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, W.H. New, Meredith Quartermain, and George Stanley that cover Vancouver.  Of course, if I have missed any major Toronto poems, do leave a comment below.

Civil Elegies opens with Lee (or rather the poem's narrator) sitting in Nathan Phillips Square, in the heart of old Toronto.  Lee is probably intentionally drawing comparison's to Eliot's The Waste Land when he writes: " Therefore the spectres arrive, congregating / in bitter droves, thick in the April sunlight, / accusing us and we are no different, though you would not expect / the furies assembled in hogtown and ring me round, invisible, demanding / what time of our lives we wait for till we shall start to be."

Some themes that arise from time to time in Civil Elegies is the complicated history of Canada, particularly how the land was taken from Natives, and how Americans (though not really the draft-dodgers) threaten to take over the city.  Elegy 3 contrasts the sleepy complacency of lunchtime workers "and the people come and they feel no consternation, dozing at / lunchtime; even the towers comply" with the fact that the city is built on stolen land.  He seems to be griping a bit at the name of the Henry Moore sculpture (which isn't technically called The Archer at all): "that [greedy] people will botch its cities, its greatest squares / will mock its money and stature, and prising wide / a civil space to live in, by the grace of its own invention it will / fill that space with the artifacts of death."

I have to say this section (Elegy 3) is a bit overwrought and reminds me more than a little of William Kurelek and his view on what made Toronto a false city upon the hill and indeed one that would be wiped away either by God or war, but in either case the city would be purified by fire.

William Kurelek, Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years, 1972

While Kurelek and Lee would surely not agree on what was wrong with the city, they both had that zeal and fervour, which so often leads to uncompromising posturing (political or religious) and, indeed, sometimes armed conflict.  I doubt very much Lee would ever have taken it that far (and in the interview he does say he was still fairly square, though he interacted with plenty of radicals through his time at Rochdale).

Lee continues a bit in this vein in Elegy 5 where he worries that our attachment to children (and more broadly to our personal needs and comfort) does blind citizens to all the misdeeds that politicians do in our name.  (It is hardly surprising that within a few pages, he calls out the Canadian politicians who did not attempt to do more to halt the Vietnam War.)  It is a fairly uncompromising (and unrealistic) stance from a leftist perspective.  I would say it does undermine the poem in some ways, but it mostly just shows that Civil Elegies was very much rooted in its era.  In some ways, it is impressive that certain passages still hold up and have a certain grandeur to them: "once in summer looking up I saw the noxious cloud suspended / taut above the city, clenched, as now everywhere it is the / imperial way of life that bestows its fallout."

Elegies 6 through 8 continue along these lines with Lee railing against the need to compromise one's principles to live a comfortable life in the West.  Modern life cannot easily stand such scrutiny, and yet few are willing to truly follow their principles and become martyrs (or even just social outcasts).  In Elegy 8, Lee starts winding down with a return to the public square, training his attention on the crowds who are less conflicted (or less obviously conflicted) than he: "caught once more in the square's great hush with the shoppers, / hippies, brokers, children, old men dozing alone by the pool and waiting, / feeling the pulse in the bodies jostling past me driving to climax and dollars and blood, / making my cry here quick and obscure among many in transit".

The final Elegy begins with the plaza emptying out: "The last few tourists pose by the Moore and snap their proof that they too were alive. / ... / Across the square the crisp leaves blow in gusts, tracing / the wind's indignant lift in corners, / filling the empty pool."

This leads to a weird discussion of the void (apparently since the modern life can have no inherent meaning and the contradictions of life in capitalist society cannot be squared) and how acceptance of this void may come to supplant religion.  For what appears to be on the surface, a fairly nihilistic position, God (even if denied) certainly turns up a lot in this elegy.  It is also possible that Lee is flirting with Zen here: "We enter void when void no longer exists."

Politics aside, this is a very complicated and rich poem, which I intend to return to from time to time.  It has generated a few academic articles (here and here and here) and an entire monograph by Robert Lecker written about the poem!  And yet it doesn't seem particularly well known, perhaps because Dennis Lee's poems for children have so overshadowed his poetry for adults.  It is possible that Heart Residence will change that, and I will return to this issue in that forthcoming review.