Monday, June 27, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 20th Review - Vancouver Walking

Vancouver Walking is a 2005 poetry collection by Meredith Quartermain.  It's somewhat difficult to review, as it is basically falls into two categories: the first two sections "Vancouver Walking" and "International Rooms" are multi-layered and frankly quite academic poems based on walking around Vancouver, whereas "Coast Starlight" is a section comprised of more straight-forward poems about taking a train through the Pacific Northwest and into the heart of the Southwest U.S.  The Coast Starlight train only runs to Los Angeles, but Quartermain may be drawing upon other visits to the States when she writes about Nevada or Utah or even a very jolting ride to finally get to Denver.

I didn't dislike the first two sections, but they didn't do much for me, and I think they would be fairly alienating to a general audience.  (I guess I was hoping for something more akin to W. H. New's YVR.)  The "Coast Starlight" section was more approachable and entertaining.

The poems in "Vancouver Walking" appear at first glance to be the spiritual cousins to Paul Blackberry's poems, spread out all over the page, but very much in the moment.  However, it is very quickly apparent that Quartermain is going for the palimpsest effect, where she discusses a street intersection in the moment (often a fairly run down vision), then she moves back in history, looking for an another important moment, which she then writes about in tandem with what she is looking at.  There is actually an essay by Maia Joseph that delves into this aspect of the poems.  By the last two poems, she is going all the way back to the European "discoverers" of Vancouver and Vancouver Island, and she seems quite inspired by George Bowering's George, Vancouver: A Discovery Poem.  (Again, I have to be frank and say that this chapbook-length poem never worked for me.)

What is a bit different is that the poems are more politicized than Bowering's generally are.  By the second one in the sequence "Walk to commercial drive," she is thinking back to the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants and the head tax and eventual ban on further Chinese immigration into B.C. in the late 19th Century.  She seems to be operating in a similar space as Wayde Compton in "Seven Routes to Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's Black Community" from After Canaan.

It is almost impossible to pull out any representative lines from the first section, but the second section has slightly more conventional poems.  "Night Walk" actually is closer to New's YVR and more like I imagined the overall collection would be like: "Further on, Joy Mansion-- / lo-rise cubicles for old folk, / bank of mail boxes, / brown carpet wall-to-wall. / ... / Street-market trinketeers gone home. / City barricades still up. / Lichee nuts, gailan, durians / at the place on Keefer that's always open."

"First Night" is a bit of a shift, since Meredith is taking a bus home on New Year's Eve when the buses run for free: "... the bus / jammed with jolly people tiny pointed / hats rainbow coloured wands / a woman with pink hair another / with earrings flashing lights blue and red / all starry eyed crowds at Burrard's Bridge..."

"Backwards from Pender Lake" is a stroll around part of downtown Vancouver that I used to visit frequently, though it would have been relatively rare for me to actually walk from International Village (on the east side of the Stadium-Chinatown station) to the main library (a few blocks further west from the station).  I would normally do one or the other, since I don't like backtracking on the same trip.  The trip to the library is one that I made dozens of times while I lived in Vancouver, and this is apparently Quartermain's primary destination as well.

Pender Lake is actually an ironic label Quartermain gives to a hole in the ground where they are eventually going to lay the foundation for some development: "Pender Lake--a hole in the ground / for a tower of stores and condos. / On the side to the sea at False Creek -- / ... the concrete tangle of viaduct and transit tracks to and from the city."

The poem ends as Quartermain returns to the Stadium-Chinatown station: "Down the sky-train steps--how heavy the books-- / no one was buying tickets. Sky train, / the Japanese tourist said, last night. He had no other / English, except Excuse me. / / Down the steps to Pender Lake / and the picket pickers and the man and the starlings -- / where is the train to the sky?"

As already mentioned, the "Coast Starlight" section is a bit more straight-forward, with Quartermain observing things from her bus or train window and not feeling quite as compelled to layer on historical meanings to what she is seeing.

In "Pacific Northwest" she is on a bus, presumably heading south from Seattle to Tacoma and beyond.  "Seattle bus--six a.m. / From my window-- / man on a railway track / no train in sight. ... / ... / At a weigh station--lots and lots of wheels / of trucks rolling down the hill / back to the highway -- / dinky toys. / Truck drivers, thru tiny windows / in their cabs. ..."

Apparently Quartermain can't quite refrain from commenting on some of the odd fellow travellers.  (By now she is on the train.)  While the couple she is talking to seem pleasant enough in "Don't get side-tracked," they are stunningly ill-informed: "They / from Milwaukee say / we have been here for 2000 years / since Christ was born / and before that we just don't know."

"In the parlour car" Quartermain observes "people doing crosswords, / drinking beer, wine, / swiveling armchairs / at passing mountains."  She overlays a conversation about politics with someone asking their neighbour for help with the crossword.

This is a reasonably good metaphor for what she was going for in this section with criss-crossing trains of thought but no real sustained or deep thoughts on her tour through the Western U.S.  There is no question I would have been more interested in the collection had it been more along the lines of the third section, but it was worth reading about walking around Vancouver, particularly when I could so clearly visualize my steps from the station to the main library.

I guess I am feeling a tiny bit of nostalgia, so I'll put a few pictures together to memorialize the route.  (Notice that I started with a rainy day photo, since that was a big part of the Vancouver experience, though one not at all hinted at in Quartermain poems -- W.H. New is a bit more honest in that regards, if I recall correctly, and certainly Bowering wrote about the rain.)

P.S. I'm currently debating whether I will actually review Quartermain's follow-up collection, Nightmarker, which is even more directly indebted to Bowering's George, Vancouver.  It appears that all of the poems are basically prose poems, and periodically one of them is written as a letter from the explorer George Vancouver.  The collection would certainly appeal to those who were intrigued and moved by the first section of Vancouver Walking, and the prose poems contain a bit more overt humour, but I think it may be a bit beyond me to actually review this collection.

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