Friday, December 4, 2020

I, Tonya (2017)

A recent haul of Value Village DVDs included I, Tonya (2017), a relatively recent film that, for some reason, was WITHDRAWN from the Burnaby Public Library. What accounts for a DVD, CD or book to be withdrawn from a public library? In the case of I, Tonya, it couldn't be the condition of the DVD, as it played perfectly.

Was it the content, then? You would think that the story of a poor kid from Portland, Oregon, who endured a lifetime of mental and physical abuse to achieve her dream as a figure skater, would be supported by Burnaby's librarians. Was the depiction of abuse in the context of a mockumentary too much for some borrowers, and one or more of them complained? If so, is there a mechanism for such complaints, or is the offending material simply (and quietly) withdrawn? 

Did I read somewhere that the placement of a comedic moment too close to a tragic moment scored poorly  in test viewings? I never know what I know anymore, whether I lived it or dreamed it or read it on social media. One thing I do know is that the Tonya Harding story is complicated and, as with many stories where gender, class and race intersect, goes to the heart of the American experience.

I cannot say enough about I, Tonya. And yet I've said nothing, really. But if the availability of books, music, film and television is being overtaken by the interweb, might we expect libraries to function as places where controversial or "withdrawn" materials can be discussed in open forums? Some might see Value Village as the perfect place for anything to do with Tonya Harding, and leave it at that. I'm just glad to have seen it. 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Tuesday's Walk

Across the street and slightly further south than yesterday's picture is the official entrance to Clark Park. Those first steps from the street into the park are steep for a path with neither traction devices nor stairs. In winters past I have seen young and old slip on this asphalt path, which can get icy.

Funny how taking a picture of something can bring out something you might not otherwise notice. For example, the square made between the two trees and the ground at the centre of this picture. Something about the bouqueting branches of the tree southwest of the tree to the left that brings out that tree's hard edge.

When I see squares like these I think of doors, gateways, but to pass through this door is to leave its referent behind, and then where are we?

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Buckling Sidewalk

Walking south on the east side of Commercial Drive, between 13th and 14th Avenues, just before it turns into Victoria.

The tree up top is about time. Ringed with years, it casts the hour of the day (1:03 p.m. when I took its picture). To determine its exact age, you'd have to cut it down.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Hastings-Sunrise (2015)

Another poetry collection I purchased recently at Pulp Fiction Books: Bren Simmers's Hastings-Sunrise (Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2015).

Named after an East Vancouver neighbourhood whose name was deemed too unfriendly by its BIA, Simmers's poet walks us past houses, parks and businesses, "[l]earning new streets by foot," mapping, logging, wondering aloud the difference between what is looked at and what is seen. 

Like so much of what was written pre-Covid, I check its imagery against our current moment. A trip to the race track -- imagine that!

Here's the opening stanza of a poem on Page 28:

Friday night at Hastings Park.
Our beer in plastic cups. Pre-race,
the announcer tells us to look for
     a big ass, a line of muscle along the abs
     as horses bounce and prance past
patio tables, retirees with circled stats,
hipsters in fedoras, weekend warriors,
families and first-timers craving novelty.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Wake-Pick Poems (1981)

The year 1981 is not among the more resonant years in recent history. Of course stuff happened in 1981, indeed everything happened in 1981, as it does every year, but it is not a year where many of us are prone to say, Oh, that was the year the AIDS virus was identified, or the year the word "Internet" was first uttered, or the year the UK, under the government of Margaret Thatcher, began the privatization of nationalized industries, or the year the Iran Hostage Crisis ended, or the year of the general strike in Poland, the first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Post It Notes ...

For those in Canadian literary circles, 1981 saw the launch of Icelandic-Canadian poet Kristjana Gunnars's Wake-Pick Poems (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1981), which I picked up yesterday at Pulp Fiction Books. How nice to finally add this book I have looked for for so long to another of my companion books -- Gunnars's Settlement Poems 1 (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1980). What is a wake-pick? A wake-pick is a small stick used by Icelandic women to keep their eyes open while knitting. Historically, to fall asleep while knitting is to fall behind on a quota designed for their very survival. 

Here are lines 15-24 from Gunnars's "wake pick 1":

tonight again I pretend

to be salt

i separate myself again

fine from coarse

die another death tonight


& when I’m dead

i turn to knotweed on the knolls

to starlings in the rain

i turn to blood, hair, bone

i turn to stone

Sunday, November 29, 2020


You may know her as Sarah, "the top empath from the Berkeley School for the Clairovoyant in San Francisco," but I knew her before the strings and bangs, when she was just another kid from Fitchburg.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Vietnam (1967)

As a child growing up with television, we didn't always have cable, or colour, but we always had a TV set and it was always on, marking time with program theme songs, some of which signalled bedtime, others calling to me like a friend on the other side of the playground. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was among the programs that beckoned, and I remember how the broadcast sometimes opened with a graphic in the top corner of the daily DEAD and MISSING American soldiers in Vietnam.

I cannot understate the effect the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it) had on my development. Even as a ten-year-old I had the sense that this war was a fiction cast with unprofessional actors trying to maintain a reality similar to what I experienced at my classmates' birthday parties, or saw out my bedroom window when the park across the street was suddenly alive with what I later learned was a rugby match. Once, when I asked my father what the War was "about", I was told of the physical properties of dominoes -- how if you stand them on their ends within a length of each other, you get "an effect." As for my mother, she never gave the same answer twice.

As an undergraduate (1981-1986) I remember spending a Saturday in the UVic library reading (skimming) all I could on the Vietnam War. A book that often came up in bibliographies -- a book that was always referred to as "important" -- was Mary McCarthy's Vietnam (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), though when I googled "important books on the Vietnam War" yesterday afternoon it was not among the Herrs, Halberstams, Caputos and Hayslips. Last week, while walking back from the Save On, I peeked inside Susan and Sri's recently installed front yard book exchange and, for the second time in my life, saw a copy of McCarthy's book.

Though only a 110 pages (the last four are blank), McCarthy's Vietnam is crammed with remarkable observations made during the author's New York Review of Books sponsored February 1967 visit. Most interesting to this reader, and perhaps most relevant to our current moment, is McCarthy's attention to language and rhetoric with respect to what then-U.S. President Johnson referred to not as a war but as a "police action." Here is McCarthy on the difference between "honesty" and "truth":

It may be that the Information officers, whose job it is to give the reverse information ("How many of the residents have come back to Rach Kien?" Briefing captain: "Almost a thousand." Field major, half an hour later: "632"), are more honest, in a way, than the field officers who burst out with the truth. That is, the blunt colonels and sympathetic majors have not been able to realize that this is a war, unlike World War II or the Korean War, in which the truth must not be told, except when it cannot be hidden. Even then it must be turned upside down or restyled, viz., "the problems of success," which also comprised inflation. Those who lie and cover up are complicity acknowledging this, in some recess of their souls, while the outspoken field officer still lets himself think he is fighting the kind of war where an honest officer can gripe. (54)

Reading this passage recalled McCarthy's almost fifty year feud with Lillian Hellman over their contrasting views of reality. Nora Ephron attempted to bring this to light in her play Imaginary Friends (2002). For Ephron, McCarthy's problem with Hellman concerned Hellman's tendency to present fiction as fact, while Hellman's problem with McCarthy was McCarthy's presentation of fact as fiction. In 1980, Hellman sued McCarthy after the latter called her a liar on The Dick Cavett Show, an action that backfired on Hellman after McCarthy's legal team uncovered so much damaging information on Hellman that her reputation never recovered.

Might we expect something similar after lawyers go after Donald Trump on January 21st, 2021, or will his indiscretions only make him stronger amongst those who believe (in) him unconditionally?