Wednesday, January 2, 2013

6th Canadian challenge - 12th review (New)

This will be a joint review of W.H. New's Stone | Rain and the last section of Riverbook & Ocean.  It has finally been fixed up.

Stone | Rain (2001) is composed of three sections.  The first has some poems about New's memories of Vancouver, and the third heavily features bicycles in China (most likely New had visited but perhaps it is part of an imagined journey).  I can't even recall what the second section was about (probably nature of some sort), which is never a good sign...  I would have been interested in the bicycle poems for a variety of reasons, but I came across them as I was wrapping up my proposed transportation anthology and found them filling a gap (there are so few good poems about riding a bicycle).  I'll spend a bit of time on these in a moment, but want to start with historic Vancouver.

Stone | Rain was the first but not last time New decided to write about Vancouver.  Riverbook and Ocean (2002) ends with a section on Biblical characters transported to Vancouver (the other sections weren't nearly as interesting to me).  Underwood Log (2004) is a curious, somewhat closed-off collection where New titles all his poems by the longitude and latitude of the place he is writing about.  This might have been an interesting experiment on a blog where you could hyper-link to the place names, but it ends up being annoying and off-putting to the casual reader who is looking at a printed book (frankly too hermeneutic for my taste, both the poems and the overarching concept).  Still, it is clear that some of the locations in Underwood Log are in Vancouver, often the Kitsilano neighbourhood.  Finally, YVR is a book-length meditation on living in Vancouver in the present while recalling its past.  I have this sort of the memory overlay for Chicago but I haven't lived other places long enough to be haunted by the past (perhaps one advantage of always being on the move...).  YVR, however, will have its own stand-alone review.

Early on in the Vancouver section of Stone | Rain, New addresses the transitory nature of the urban landscape in the poem "Timing":
Something changed when they moved Birks’ Corner,
took away the clock: they just
shifted it a few blocks north,
but that removed the meeting place
and no-one stops there any more—
Funny, how you take things for granted:
Woodward’s, Scott’s, the Honey Dew,
they all disappear—and even Birks
got sold...

Certainly a number of poets have commented on the transience of "life," though not nearly enough urban poets have commented on the ever-changing nature of the urban landscape, particularly at the local scale.  Perhaps this is more notable in places like New York, Chicago, Toronto and Vancouver than smaller cities (despite its size, the pace of change in Vancouver is on a level with these other cities).  But this is where most urban poets are, so it is odd how little we read about this never-ending change.  I do think Alan Dugan touched on it, and surely some that I am forgetting.  It is the kind of thing that Frank O'Hara or Ted Berrigan might have picked up on had they lived longer (they were in New York when it was at the bottom of its reinvestment cycle and largely seen as a dying city with its best days behind it).

He casts back into his memory for times he felt worth commemorating.  This vision of community in "Pieces of Eight" probably ironically references Normal Rockwell:

Saturday night at 6:30—it’s a Rockwell cover
at the White Spot on Broadway, the whole city’s
eating, two cops in the first booth
drinking tea, getting a leg up
on overdue reports, so’s not to stay late;
the math teacher and two of her friends, dividing
the bill by 3, minus GST, adding
the tip outside the brackets;
                                         the waitress
knows them all ...

Slightly later in the poem, New mentions a somewhat discordant note: a Punjabi child trying to fit in by singing Christmas carols.  In this way, New references the major demographic shifts that Vancouver went through since his early adulthood.  Rockwell indeed would have made much of the stranger's face trying to get a look in at the "White Spot."  Vancouver today is a very multi-cultural place, in some ways more influenced by Asian culture than Toronto and gradually orienting itself towards Asia more than "back East."

In the poem "You know" summarily dismisses the Yuppies who are transforming Vancouver (he is probably half a generation older than the core of the Yuppie crowd).  Not that he is as cruel as some who attack gentrification, but their interests (jazzercising, espresso and arugula) and his do not seem to coincide.  Surprisingly, he doesn't mention yoga, as I have never been in a city so yoga-crazy, but perhaps that is more of a Gen Y/Millennial preoccupation.  I do like the last stanza where he is a bit knowing about how each generation does move in and kind of rubbishes what came before:
Anyway, the Y Generation's
already moving into unfinished suites
in some place different, what else is new,
finding space for the cds, and clearing away
the hula hoops from the basement corner.

I'll return to the bicycle poems in Stone | Rain shortly.

I find it somewhat droll that YVR does not appear to have a single poem about the airport (that I recall anyway), but Riverbook & Ocean has the poem "Carousel":

On the Arrivals Level
a disembodied voice blurs its welcome
mix in static    the fairground chute
the trolley rides     the kiddiecar conveyor belt
a tired diorama

Signs everywhere warn
to port the flotsam follows    Sydney
Seattle Tokyo Rome   sisal
passengers with package tape & string
matched plastic & leather trim

Beyond the turnstile    calico observers
smile & smile     holding names
& brass rings      waving & waving
as though to generate the world

Not sure if New was familiar with the final scene of Tati's Playtime with the amusing scene of a huge mass of cars proceeding through a roundabout, much like a carousel*, and Tati of course plays it up in the soundtrack.  There is also a scene of cars at the airport at the end of Mon Oncle, when the put-upon father/industrialist finally manages to ship Tati off.  If one combined the two, it might congeal into the kind of scene that New is describing.  I don't think the airport carousels were as widely used in the early 70s or Tati would have had quite a field day with them!

The interesting section of Riverbook & Ocean is where New reimagines Biblical characters and places them in various Vancouver settings.  In some cases, it is pretty much a direct transfer (Hosea and Gideon).  In others, he is setting their stories in a more contemporary way (Samson and Goliath).  And in a few cases, he is trying to imagine how the religious impulse that animated these figures would find itself expressed in the contemporary world (Joseph, Jonah and Daniel).  A few figures no longer seem nearly as religious, but they still have some of their identifying characteristics.

For instance, Job is now a successful real-estate developer, but he finds there is "never a day without problems: con- /tractors, taxes, breaks in the power line, /permits delayed, plumbers on strike, dry-/ wallers working roofers’ time, rain..."

Yes, there is definitely rain.  I still see loads of construction going on in the rain since if you completely stopped for rain, you would never build anything.  And yet, I think it must mean that the quality is low, since the foundations out here never dry/cure properly.  While the houses do strike me as built better than those in England, that isn't saying much.  I have a hunch that the quality is lower than those in the Prairies and Ontario, but I would no longer automatically grant that they are worse than the construction in Quebec after these recent revelations on how mobbed up the industry is out there.  Canadian mobsters, who knew!

Ishmael, like his Biblical namesake, is in exile, though it isn't clear from where (though probably across the ocean) or for what reason or even if the exile was self-imposed:

Hundreds on a summer day skate
or stroll the seawall to Second Beach...
                                       Ishmael’s one of them
now, having somewhere along the line
come to stilted terms with exile— now
the sand feels like home, the sea an accident
of youth ...

New does a lot of (place) name-dropping in these poems: Jericho Beach, Extension Beach, Wreck Beach, University Beach, Iona Beach, the Stevenson Dunes (hmm, a bit of a theme here?).  But in many of the poems, this starts to come off as nothing more than a gimmick.  I mean there is no real reason for all these characters to be located here, and New's attempts to draw parallels between the figures from the Bible and contemporary folks that one would encounter in Vancouver just don't often hold up.

Perhaps the most successful of them all is "Jonah":
Jonah likes weekdays best at Stanley
Park—smaller crowds—& fewer swimmers
... {visit}
... the old aquarium.
                                   Jonah cleans there
now, wipes fingerprints off the glass
partitions three, four times a day, more
if school's in, & sweeps lunch litter
through the back doorway, out of sight,
newspapers, candy wrappers, bus
transfers, life.
                         When he's tired, he stops
by the orca pool, leans on the push broom,
& watches the animals ...
weren't you the one, he hears,
weren't you the one, his ears ringing with echoes
he learned at sea, before the nightmares started ...

I do have a minor quibble in that of all the whales, orcas would seem to be the very least likely to swallow a man and then regurgitate him, but the rest of the poem has a real down-to-earth nature that I like.  I can certainly imagine that a person who went through some traumatic experience would want to avoid the limelight, even though the whole point of the journey through the whale's belly was to force him to go out as a preacher.  Perhaps New is imagining a point after Jonah had discharged this duty and was left alone and more or less forgotten by the Lord. 

Ok, let me (finally) close out this post by dropping in a few of the bicycle poems from the final section of Stone | Rain.  These were among my favourites. 

At 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, forty-
four people go by in less
than a minute, cycling to work and school,
their faces as impassive as Yang
figurines moulded in clay: scholar,
fortune-teller, cobbler, baker,
in Nikes and blue uniform.
One young lover pedals
dreamily, his eyes inward. Perched
side-saddle behind him, his girlfriend,
legs crossed, polishes her nails.

At night the bicycles disappear
into a waterhiss of wheels
turning, lightless, in the dark.
Voices carry.  No-one speaks:
leaf and path alive with riders,
bus and bench alive with lovers.
Toads croak. Shadow bends.
The scent of jasmine hides the moon.

The women who ride bicycles rise
early, leave by 6 for the hour’s
trip to where they work: bank,
bar, computer factory. Some
jobs are uniformed: the women
who sell silk and lipstick live
all day in gloss and blue apron;
the tellers count kuài in brown.
Behind doors and walls, some
are uniformed, steaming rice,
mending cotton, rising by six.

Abandoned bicycles gather in the outer
court of Confucius Temple. Across
the bridge of the pan pool, marble
carving itself, all is silent.
Taxi horns recede. ...

Down streets, lanes, alleys
every sidewalk market sports
a bicycle repairman. All men,
some arranging brake shoes, locks
and handlebars, most content with pump
and patches, a waterbowl nearby
to test for air. The elegant woman
whose tire bursts outside the Workers’
Museum spurns them all; the garnet
silk’s deceptive: she fixes her own,
inflating, calm, on platform soles.

Looking these over, it is obvious that New loves lists, building a poem from somewhat disparate parts, trying to triangulate the world.

* I mistakenly thought the carousel scene was in Trafic not Playtime (and just fixed that after watching Playtime again).  I was going to link to Trafic (and possibly Playtime), but Trafic seems to have gone OOP already.  There often seem to be rights issues with Tati's films, so I'm glad I got it when I did!  It is generally easier to pick up Tati in Region 2 DVDs from BFI, though Trafic is the only Tati film not available from BFI.

Edit (12/17/15) With some things, particularly movies and books, if you wait long enough it will come round again, and there is an impressive DVD or Blu-Ray Tati set out now from Criterion that I ended up springing for, even though I had most of the material already.

On the other hand, to tie back to the ever-changing urban landscape, once department stores go, they do not come back.  I remember going into Woolworth's in Ann Arbor (there was one quite close to campus) and then six or seven years later to the one in Evanston, where it was clear the chain was on its last legs.  I assume Woodward's (mentioned above in one of New's poems) was a similar kind of store.  While Rodney Graham is trading on nostalgia in his photographic work The Avid Reader, 1949, I am not quite sure what the message is supposed to be.  Is he saying that even at its height (and Woolworth's would have been thriving in 1949), that one should have considered the eventual decline of this commercial empire?  That the temporary closure of a store (for remodelling?) is a stand-in for the chain going out of business in 1997?  What's kind of interesting is how things evolved at a corporate level (the core holding corporation that once ran Woolworth's now focuses on Foot Locker) and in the urban landscape the role that Woolworth's once played is now largely filled by the down-market chains like Dollarama and Dollar General. 

What is more depressing to me is that the middle range department store seems to be on its last legs in the U.S. and particularly in Canada.  Sears is struggling, and I expect it to completely close up in Canada within 5 more years.  Eaton's is gone.  I am personally turned off by The Bay, though I guess it is doing ok in Canada.  J.C. Penney seems to have retrenched a bit but still exists, though not in Canada either.  Of course, Target, while not a true department store, filled many of the same roles, had such a poor reception in Canada that it lasted only 2 years, actually less time than I lived in Vancouver.  Given that nothing has really replaced Target (which itself was supposed to replace Zellers) it really does feel like there is a fairly sizable hole left in the urban fabric.  Same thing with the general decline of bookstores and DVD rental places.  I guess we're all waiting for the next big thing...

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