As I mentioned in a previous blog, YVR by W.H. New won the 2012 Mayor of Vancouver cultural award. This poetry collection covers Vancouver's past and present, focusing on New's interaction with the city and his memories of growing up here. I think I mentioned that he never actually writes any poems about traveling to and from the YVR airport in this collection.
The book opens with "Lines" where New mentions how often he has said goodbye to Vancouver.
"But here I am," drawn home again.
New immediately tackles Vancouver's defining characteristic (its weather): "We're born with gills, we say to strangers."
If it isn't raining, people spend all their time on the beach, it seems. (He does occasionally mention the mountains which are certainly another defining characteristic of the city, but water seems more central to his vision of Vancouver.)
"Subduction Zone" references the seismic activity in the region, often downplayed to outsiders:
faultlines beside us, the Juan de Fuca plate / offshore, seismologists warning: / The Big One, / still to come ... not The Best Place on Earth, no / for all the ads and lotos-eaters; / a city of spring and fall, about to bloom, on the edge of decay; / tremors, / underground."
He definitely seems more resistant than many residents to fall in line with the city boosters, who definitely do pitch Vancouver as Nirvana on earth. Perhaps that comes from having grown up in the city, unlike most current residents. And perhaps his vision takes in the darker aspects of Vancouver, like the refusal to clean up the Downtown East Side.
He then has a few poems about his early childhood during war time. Given he was born in 1938, it's hard to believe he would recall much of anything about W.W. II, but perhaps he is lumping that together with the Korean War conflict. At any rate, these aren't as interesting to me.
The first "Main Street" poem goes back to Vancouver's founding and considers how some streets were named:
From the beginning, margin matters,
city fathers drawing a line on the earth:
they call it False Creek Road, join Hastings town
to plank and privateer, eyes on the loggers' camp
at the edges of the slough, the rough sawmill
where fortunes rise and fall...
New continues peering back to Vancouver's early days in "Speculation" when South Vancouver was a separate city and briefly voted itself dry to the dismay of many. Still, there was "never any problem buying beer, / no border guards on the streetcar."
The PNE (Pacific National Exposition) was running even when he was a child, and he loved the rides, especially Shoot-the-Chute and being able to climb up and pretend to run train engine 374. I expect this train still was in semi-active service back then, but it is now basically out of service and stored at the Roundhouse in Yaletown.
In "Disposed," New airs more of Vancouver's dirty laundry: "Surveyors build 'Champlain Heights' / on top of the old city dump— / what's in a name—golf greens sitting now / where bedsteads used to mound, / ashcans / pots, / broken bones ..."
In the second "Main Street" poem, New has moved to Pender & Main, just outside Chinatown and he sees a lion dance, presumably around Chinese New Year. Perhaps inevitably given the massive change in Vancouver's demographics, lion dances are no longer confined to Chinatown and have spread to shopping districts in South Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby and presumably Surrey.
In "Outside In," New returns to the theme of water: "downpour, drizzle, / thunder along the mountains, the grammar / of cloud and timing: / my favourite forecast: / scattered showers, / changing during the day / to occasional rain— / the hundred words for dampness ../"
Engaging in a bit of gallows humour, I guess.
New seems thoroughly in the present when he visits Granville Island in "And Yet": "try standing rigid on Granville Island—im- / possible, activity dis- / rupts, engages: coffee / corrugates the air."
In the third "Main Street" New has moved even further north to the heart of Vancouver's dark side.
Where Main crosses Hastings used to be
the centre of town, columns and cupola:
now it's the edge—poverty, trafficking,
lines of powder, tales of abuse ...
He starts south but heads north in the next "Main Street" poem:
I used to take the #7 streetcar the other
way: north into town, up Fraser past
Govier's, Houghland's, the Imperial Bank,
McBain's and Buckerfield's, Cunningham's, Macphail's,
past Hilton's Dairy and the five and dime, past
Mountain View (angels, pebbles,
David's star), past all the mission halls
and the fundamentals:
screech left at Kingsway (the monocled
Aristocrat doffed his top hat
and twirled his neon cane), then
rattle down Main past the old hotels,
already seedy before I knew
what seediness implied:
(I think this is my favourite of the Main St. poems -- it certainly has the most landmarks mentioned. Mountain View is a local cemetery, by the way.)
The next "Main Street" actually "cheats" a bit in that Main St. doesn't quite touch False Creek or the False Creek flats, but it does "get close" as New writes. From this starting point, New discusses how most of the False Creek is built on landfill and then pivots to a discussion of the changes nearby: "Yaletown's all condos now, Strathcona gentrified, / a seawall separates the flats from the sea"
New continues to present his bona fides, like his connection to the oldtimers "eulogizing Woodward's ... Tuesday, once-a month, / My mother useta buy everythin' there."
But he doesn't completely ignore that new blood also brings some benefits; Vancouver is certainly not a city preserved in amber: "Walk, Broadway to King Ed, read / the signs: new life along the strip, / baby shops, sushi, yams, cassava, / vegan, organic, hundred-mile green, / the latest embraces among the young."
However, the very next poem ("Intersections") he is back in full nostalgia mode.
Driving Kingsway: where it crosses Victoria, the old
Colonial Motel's renamed—a sense of Empire's still strong
though, fast food chains on all the corners. Burgers. Donuts.
Used to be a carriage road through bush and woodlot, Gassy
Jack's Gastown to New West, the Royal City ...
A few corner stores persist, pails of daffodils in front,
dollar-ninety-nine for five stems, bread and cigarettes
the staples. Used to be Sweet Caps in the window, Crush in
the cooler, Malkin's Best or Singapore's on crowded shelves,
jar of all-day suckers on the counter, ice cream a dime.
In the next "Main Street" contends he did grow up in an immigrant neighbourhood, though at the time, the Irish (and to a lesser extent the Scots) were the newcomers/outsiders. New offers up praise for a system that can integrate all these cultures, even if somewhat uneasily. He envisions this mostly happening through the public schools, "where cultures mix to become now, / the lion dance as everyday as / Robbie Burns and Hallowe'en."
In another "Main Street" he investigates how his old hood is host to a different group of immigrants:
At 49th, nearing my old neighbourhood,
is it myself I'm looking for? the grey false fronts
have gone, the ramshackle stores:
the land agent sports a chain realty marquee,
the drug store's plus-sized: Punjabi
Market's open, dancing to bhangra rhythms,
feasting on barfi, seasoning the air with
coriander, garam masala: I am only
close to home ground:
... a college sprawls where I used to
practise what I once called golfing, on the
bush edge of a clipped Langara green:
what do I reinvent now, reaching here:
how do I change, having left to return:
I listen for the earth to move: a thousand
sari shops spill dazzle onto the sidewalk,
the flash of spring azaleas:
In some ways, I feel the most connected to this particular poem in YVR, as I have only known Vancouver such a short time. Langara was well-established by the time I arrived. And just down the street incidentally. (I have even taken a few evening courses there.)
In general, YVR is a bit of a jumble (not unlike this review!), organized loosely as New stumbles across something interesting in the present and then either stays focused on the present (and he is usually good-natured but somewhat dismissive of the youth-oriented nature of contemporary Vancouver) or delves into nostalgia (this occurs slightly more often and in nearly all the Main Street poems). His rambles along Main St. are the closest to any true organizing principle for the collection.
I'm not sure he does subscribe to any overarching theory, but he seems to consider being open to new experiences as a good in itself. I'll close with some lines from the moving poem "Moments": "Stumbling into random beauty / takes the breath away ... / Places in this world stop us, / hold us in contemplation ... / we are custodians of such places— / call them moments: / they do not last, / unless we notice them."