Vancouver: A Poem by George Stanley
(New Star, Vancouver, 2008)
in the millenium by Barry McKinnon
(New Star, Vancouver, 2009)
After the Olympics were over, I realized the Canadians had won more gold than any other nation at one winter games. They also probably spent more gold for the right to show off British Columbia in images of trees, streams, mountains, valleys, vines, city lights, snow, and sunshine, all glitteringly rounded off like the neutralized accents of the nice people placed digitally in front of these pictures of their “home.” They won the right to celebrate by thousands in the streets where I had once marched to free Leonard Peltier from extradition. They bought the right to show first peoples as feathered dancers and not to show loggers or logging at all or the homeless who clog the city streets between Chinatown and Gastown’s tourist-trap bistro-bars that have replaced the old pubs. This is what some Canadians might call suc-cess and pro-gress. The Olympics are over; we have moved on to South Africa and another set of games.
The old Olympiad brought out verses that have lasted down the centuries from the lyre of Pindar. I remember Robin Blaser in Vancouver and how gloriously he brought Pindar out of Greek for us, though there was Greek in the old pubs. The waiters at The Cecil used to appreciate an order of “Two, please said as “Tio se para kaló” before the topless dancers took over and then the bistro bit. Two poets who go back to when the Cecil served served trayfuls of affordable beer have published stunning new books in recent years, looking at their BC towns. Their works may be worth less than their weight in Olympian gold to most of the world, but we poets should join in celebrating them: George Stanley and Barry McKinnon. Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) and in the millenium (Vancouver: New Star, 2009) present a Canadian consciousness other than what you might have seen on TV. One puts Vancouver in a different light, and the other puts the very different city of Prince George in the literary spotlight Barry has been shining there for three decades.
“Vancouver is breaking through
your understandable reticence.”
This simple sentence could be a motto for those Olympics as well as for Stanley’s own book, but it offers other candidates as well. Those lines are in the book’s strongest section, “6,” out of the thirteen that compose it. “6” images the homelessness the BC ad ignored even while protestors showed it to the world off-screen. Twelve sections of the book are titled with numbers, and one (between 10 & 11) is called “Seniors.” That section, written by an American immigrant in his early seventies, speaks up about another population not in the commercial. Stanley’s nearly Olympian effort to let the city be fully visible is not all about what he includes but more about how he includes things. Like McKinnon’s, Stanley’s consciousness has developed a syntax that comfortably interrupts itself to be inclusive. Both writers include the greatest interrupter: death.
“City of death, city of friends” (49) ends a poem that centers around the demolition of a building and the re-installation of its classic cornice, “some figure of a nurse” that was “repositioned at about the same height on the new Cathedral Place building that had taken its place” (47). No matter that the truth of the matter slightly escapes the poem: the 1989 replacement of that 1929 building, with its tributes at three corners to WWI nurses, replaced them with replicas (Lee, John. Walking Vancouver: Berkeley: Wilderness P, 2009: 7). The poem has its sharp accuracies, though, in the stops and starts of long lines like: “Sky Train to Waterfront—faces reflected impassive as in an old T.S. Eliot poem—as if the set of the face belied the interior mind—and it does—try it—I could teach this to the young” (Stanley 45).
These lines, like poems in themselves, add depths to the overall construction that Stanley comments upon by mentioning WCW as a guide occasionally from the first page on. This is not, though, a man & his city poem; neither Paterson nor Gloucester, Vancouver is present to the composition as a “real” that can call froth something like the concept Blaser spread around Vancouver. He found it in Giorgio Agamben’s Coming Community: “The world—insofar as it is absolutely irreparably profane”—the Irreparable as “an opening into our contemporary task” in the face of “the destruction of experience” --“seeing something as simple as neither ‘necessary’ nor ‘contingent’” (quoted in Blaser, The Fire from Berkeley: UC Press, 2006: 107-9). This shows in sections 5’s line: “& so there’s a mind—I can’t say––& summer’s over, the whole latitude is moving. If it’s there as an image—if it’s there as inhabiting the poem—that’s important, because it’s so for some I, almost random, but menaced by something that won’t die—but that—is in itself—death—“ (35-36).
The challenge that George Stanley’s writing presents for us as it presents it for himself, in lovely Joanne Kyger “I hear thinking—I overhear” fashion, is the web of tension between that background presence of “something that won’t die” and the foregrounding of “things—to describe—not to describe” (35) as focused by a mind and what it may be “afraid to know” (55). This is the poetry of finding out not of declaring, of presenting not describing, of writing “without any justification, carelessly, ah yes” (66), without object. It has two beliefs that carry it (as Bach’s belief written by Robin Blaser from Charles Olson’s phrase does) through. “I will not believe in my own mind, then” is one along with the “belief tat the world has in its own / real time, of which we are part” (74).
These practices and beliefs are the understory of a current in BC poetry half-a-century old now, referred to in the perhaps self-mocking title of a sequence by Barry McKinnon—“The Death of a Lyric Poet.” In it, McKinnon writes “if you could sing, the song / is all that wld go // anywhere” (The the. Toronto: Coach House P, 1980: 12). This set tells of “ceaseless / irritation” in his small northern city, and he allows the radio in as a voice of it—“to pile absurdity upon absurdity until / it becomes a town / a city: on the radio” (20). We hardly have that disembodied machine anymore, but the radio serves still as a figure for all that absurd and irritating voicing. In Vancouver: A Poem, it is what makes the poetry insist that “this is not my city” (3 & 74).
In Barry McKinnon’s slightly more recent publication, in the millenium, his adopted city of Prince George figures heavily and centrally. In “Prince George (Part One),” dedicated to Stanley, we have these gists and piths:
when a city becomes its coldest hearts
we live in the illusion of its habitat
the they. The who, the us in the disintegrated
disintegration—nothing can be known; its own hopeless
statement—the north / everywhere (but not revealed)
the city exists / knows itself / cannot change
the density of context peeled was revealed to a momentary
sense of simplicity, that it could be known, and therefore, the
man could know himself, being a city : unto himself
a language in its attempt to equal
the anxious swirl in an angular world of charts, graphs—
the gizmoed patter claimed & believed as real—that any power
required subservience to its whacko notions, be revealed as public
sense: not agreement, but truth of one’s condition faced
in shame that now the city can not be made
That work on and of a language goes on in “Prince George Core.” More tragic than Stanley’s vision, McKinnon’s “city is organ. it sees itself. disintegrated. its body and mind its own demise” and “fucked / without a choice” (139). But still “that beginning illusion” stands: “I so lost in whatever task sought … in the fate of a force sent out to beat it” (140). McKinnon writes of “the mind as habitat,” but this is not as refuge; it is there as task, and a “complex mask” (142).
This poet defines his defiances in a Philly Talk “post Response: Supplement” inserted in “Head Out” for his great companion Cecil Giscombe (whose own Giscombe Road is another fine book of BC body politic). The explanation reads thus: “The poem is in process that defies the static, the set, the static arbitraries that herd most populations through life and language.” This follows a clearly political thrust: “What has been mapped by manipulation and self-interested forces, from whatever source or reason, is firstly what the poet must at the most rudimental start of the thinking and writing process attempt to take apart” (69). These words comment on the work as a poetics statement, but they are in the work as well. And on the previous page, the book tells us that McKinnon sees Stanley too as companion: “he writes / builds a line that seems dismantled at the same time—to reveal accurate processes of mind and life moving to their jagged truths” (68).
These two seems to write to each other somehow. Stanley challenges himself about the “no good” that comes of “hoping to sneak back into some sense of words–– / some house of being” after the experience of the “hot air” of the world words “have to come out of” (Vancouver 88). In “Seniors,” Stanley moves literally through the world that gives writing its place in such poems as “Common Areas”: “When my fellow tenant and I are both going out, / we are each going into the world, into our secret lives” (90). McKinnon’s answer is in “the world / a contradiction of attempts at connection to it” (in 4), while he sees real life as moving “into and out of the language and world at hand” (68). Stanley’s response might be in his lines “Now the words tell of something so obvious / as to see the air in front of you” (Vancouver 94). As one might “crave loneliness” as the “opposite” of a world of contradictions (in 4), the other tried to fend off the “raw longing to be alone” (Vancouver 87). The balance found in Baudelaire’s famous prose poem on “Les Foules” comes through in Stanley’s words as “Multitude, solitude: these are equal, reciprocal terms, / for the fecund poet” (111). Together, these poets articulate a personhood true beyond its self and to it. If any of you might be nostalgic for Olson or where he would lead, try following these two.
If you’d like to carry on where the Olympics dare not go, get these books from New Star. For the best in hockey poems, see another New Star book by George Stanley called At Andy’s (2000) and read “The Puck.” For an envoi to the Olympics, we can borrow from Stanley’s “Word On the Street” in Vancouver:
Vancouver will continue on in peace,
undeserved, no, deserved,
by the ones with no guile in their hearts,
no time for guile—
lose your need
to be one with (them)
And from “The Tank”:
The mind is this street
only the interiors
But perhaps the last thought here should bring back the Olympian Pindar. As Blaser handed it to us, Pindar’s “Seventh Olympic Hymn” says: “art’s language / discloses powers without trickery” (The Holy Forest. Berkeley: UC P, 2006: 144). If, we should say with Barry McKinnon, “its activity is also its own resistance” (in 107).
T.C. Marshall, AKA “Rev Doc,” AKA “Grampa Tom,” enjoys life in the California mountain village of Felton where he reads and writes and walks and talks much as he has ever since Norman O. Brown first dragged him up that hill as a nature guide and conversational foil once upon a time a long long time ago.