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?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Outrageous! (1977)

A scene from Outrageous! (1977), where Craig Russell wows the crowd at Toronto's The Manatee with his impressions of Bette Davis.

How great to see this film again after not having seen it since it first came out, when, as a fifteen-year-old, I would often go to movies by myself. I am not sure what lead me to see this film by myself, other than the differences I felt with those I could easily see Star Wars (1977) with. Who was I then that I did not even think of asking someone to join me for a film about the relationship between a female impersonator and a young woman struggling with mental health issues? And who might that make me today, for saying so?

Canadian taxpayers contributed to another watchable film concerning mental health, though it is never advertised as such. Click here for Don Owens's Montreal-set The Ernie Game (1967).

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Extension (1967)

Here they are -- bill bissett (in pre-Covid mask), bpNicol and Phyllis Webb -- in an episode of CBC's Extension, a mid-1960s television show "devoted to modern Canadian poetry."

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Peacock Blue: the Collected Poems (2014)

Phyllis Webb is a poet I have known of for a long time, but whose poems I have never spent much time with. I am not sure why this is. Maybe it has more to do with the how -- not the when -- I get around to reading certain writers. 

A few years ago I was in Pulp Fiction Books when Chris showed me a copy of Webb's Wilson's Bowl (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1980). The book had just come into the store and I noted right away how lovingly it was put together. Nice paper, nice printing, nice endorsements from Northrop Frye, bpNichol, D.G. Jones and Margaret Atwood.

Wilson's Bowl begins with a "Foreword" by Webb that begins with a quote from Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse (1977) (published in English in 1979, a year before Wilson's Bowl). Rather than set off as an epigraph, the quote is imbedded in the body of the text, a decision (the poet's, I'm sure) that had bearing on my reading of the "Foreword". Something else that had bearing was John Bentley May's essay on Webb's work in a 1973 issue of Open Letter, an essay I had never read (until yesterday) but was aware of -- and reminded of when, in accounting for why Wilson's Bowl was "a long time coming," Webb referred to "critical wounds."

No, I thought to myself, I can't read Wilson's Bowl just yet -- I have to start at the beginning. Which I did the day after I picked up her collected at the People's Co-op Bookstore last Saturday, beginning with her first book, Trio (1954), followed by Even Your Right Eye (1956), The Sea Is Also a Garden (1962) and her last book before Wilson's Bowl, one of the most remarkable book-length poems I have ever read: Naked Poems (1965).

Naked Poems has its own entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia. Written by Douglas Barbour, it contains a quote from Robert Kroetsch that Barbour believes is "perhaps the finest and most concise statement about this innovative and concise work."

Kroetsch writes:

"On nakedness and lyric and yet on a way out, perhaps a way out of the lyric too, with its ferocious principles of closure, a being compelled out of lyric by lyric."

I agree, particularly the poems in "Suite I" and "Suite II". Reading them I was reminded of how I felt when, as first year undergrad, I read X. J. Kennedy's ekphrastic ode to Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting in my Norton, his "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1961) -- the woman who "wears/ Her slow descent like a long cape/ And pausing on the final stair/ Collects her motions into shape."

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

What's Going On (1971)

Awoke yesterday to the accented two-beat heard in alternating bars of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" (not the original single mix, but the album version). What I always thought was a sonar pulse is in fact a conga shot, presumably run through the attic echo chambers of Motown's 2648 and 2652 West Grand residences. Took a while to figure this out, helped along in no small part by Henry Weinger and Questlove's conversation on the making of this most incredible song.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Moments of Difference ("Against")

"The thin rain, falling past the square of my lighted window, looks like damp, finely-sifted flour, white against the black background of the road." -- Colette, Vagabond, 1910 (111)

"What does a victorious or defeated black woman's body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston's 'I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp white background.' This appropriated line, stencilled in canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies." -- Claudia Rankine, Citizen: an American Lyric, 2014 (25)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Saturday Walk

Yesterday afternoon was perfectly rainless, so I set off at noon for a walk to Commercial Drive, eventually to the Liquorice Parlour where I bumped into Veda, who I hadn't seen in years, and then back, with stops at the People's Co-op Bookstore, which was doing good business and where I purchased books by Claudia Rankine (Citizen: an American Lyric), Phyllis Webb (a collected) and the first two books by Danielle LaFrance, whose recent Just Like I Like It I thought so much of.

From there to the government liquor store where I picked up another bottle of that nice Latour Bourgogne Gamay 2018 and, at the produce stand just south of it, some fresh vegetables -- before stopping once more outside that failed instance of street access rooftop parking between 7th and Grandview, a building that, at its south end, is a "craft brew house + kitchen" known by its possessive -- St. Augustine's. How odd to name a bar after a saint known for his Confessions. Do I regret stopping there? No!

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Lamppost Watches Power Lines

Tuesday was the heaviest rain day this week, but it stopped around four.

Layered up, I set out for my walk. East or west?


At the end of the block, north or south?


At Kingsway the clouds parted. I lifted my head and the sun touched my face before setting.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Black Pioneers (c.1990)

A couple days ago I sat down to watch the October 3 digital launch of Canadian Art's "Chroma" issue, featuring co-editors Denise Ryner and Yaniya Lee, along with David Woods, Kelsey Adams and host Alex Bowron, whose opening "moment of reflection" is both a land acknowledgement and a recognition of the systems and structures that define our contradictory cultural present.

As the elder member of the panel, Woods has much to say about his work in -- and on -- Black Maritime Canada. As Woods spoke of the importance of the artist Harold Cromwell, I went looking for what wasn't pictured and found among other works Cromwell's Black Pioneers (c. 1990), a marker and ink on paper drawing of 19th century Black settlers arriving by sail from the U.S. (see above).

There's lots to say about Cromwell's drawing, from its minimal markings beyond the bodies of those arriving at a less-coloured-in and undefined land, sea and sky to the ship in the distance (pointed in the opposite direction) to the title itself (why "Pioneers" and not "Settlers"?). Here too Woods has lots to say on Black Maritime cultural production, but not at the expense of those on the panel who are working in other parts of the country, and whom he asks at one point to speak about their understanding of the Black cultural experience as represented in Toronto and Vancouver.

As a Vancouver resident with an interest in -- and some understanding of -- local histories, I was curious to hear how Ryner, who directs and curates Vancouver's Or Gallery, would respond, what she would highlight; if she would speak of Andrea Fatona and Cornelia Wyngaarden's Hogan's Alley (1994) or Stan Douglas's Circa 1948 (2014) or indeed Cecily Nicholson's essay on The Cheeky Proletariat art space in the current "Chroma" issue. That she chose instead to mention "the work Michelle Jacques and Charles Campbell are doing in Victoria" is fine by me, because the story of Black migration to -- and through -- the former HBC fort is important. But that choice -- I wonder what informed it?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Road Near New Westminster

While scrolling through the Ormsby Review I came upon a supplementary image (above) provided by the magazine's editor Richard Mackie of a circa 1884 engraving by the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914).

Entitled Road Near New Westminster, the engraving was first published in the Marquis's Canadian Pictures (1885) and is a rare view of the former pre-contact Coast Salish footpath that was widened by the Royal Engineers in 1865 when New Westminster officials feared the city was at risk of a Fenian invasion. 

To this day it is unclear whether the road was intended to allow British Navy soldiers an overland route to defend the city (the Fraser River was too shallow for Navy ships), or allow its residents an exit. 

At one point this road featured some of the largest Douglas firs ever seen in the Lower Mainland, the last of which were cut down to make way for that post-WWII innovation known as the used car lot.

The road has had many names since it was first widened, but we know it today as Kingsway.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Wet Market

For those in the rainforest, November is the cruelest month. The flowers are gone, and the green, blossoming trees of summer are reduced to their supports. In February I will insist that February is the cruelest month, only because those grey November days take so much out of me. At least in February the days get successively longer.

In past Novembers (and Februarys) I would visit the Vancouver Aquarium. Not the orcas' jump-and-touch-it show, but the huge glass tanks inside. I love the variation in these tanks, where a slow moving shark will glide amongst rock fish and an octopus I want to believe is older than I am. I also love the lighting, how the halls are slightly darkened to accentuate the light inside these tanks. A little like watching a monitor? Sure, but without the eye strain. 

Now that the Aquarium is closed I have had to seek alternatives. Though T&T Market uses lighting similar to other grocery stores, they do have living sea creatures. Included among them are crab, lobster, geoduck and my favourite fish to look at -- the tilapia (picture above). 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"... the only thing left to people in their despair is reading"

Yesterday, while waiting for my prescription to be filled, I walked west to Tanglewood Books to see what's new in used. More Woody Allen DVDs and Michel Houellebecq novels than usual. Not nice men as men go, we are told, but this did not deter the nice man who acquired them for his store.

I purchased Allen's Zelig (1983) because I have always wanted to see it, and because (I bargained with myself) the film came out before Allen and his now ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow's daughter Soon-Yi Previn took up with each other. I purchased Houellebecq's Submission (2015) because I have always wanted to read it, and because the price was so low the owner was practically giving it away!

Monday, November 16, 2020


Selected Misspellings


alot without the space between

the article and the noun

an adverb now like plenty

I have a lot of time for misdivisions


I fold that time, wedgit between us

you can’t see it, but it’s there

not the time but the fold

I should stop here, end on fold

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Decolonizing Methodologies (1999)

While conversing with someone about Alert Bay, Cormorant Island I brought up Ruth Benedict's configurationalist Patterns of Culture (1934), where she writes of the "Dionysian" Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) in contrast to the "Apollonian" Zuni, with whom she did her fieldwork. 

Here is the concluding paragraph of Benedict's mostly Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) chapter:

The section of human behaviour with which the Northwest Coast has marked out to institutionalize in its culture is one which is recognized as abnormal in our [Eurowestern?] civilization, and yet is sufficiently close to the attitudes of our own culture to be intelligible to us and we have a definite vocabulary with which we may discuss it. The megalomaniac paranoid trend is a definite danger in our society [Mussolini, Hitler, Franco]. It faces us with a choice of possible attitudes. One is to brand it as abnormal and reprehensible, and it is the attitude we have chosen in our civilization. The other extreme is to make it the essential attribute of ideal man, and this is a solution in the culture of the Northwest Coast [and, as of this week, 72+ million U.S. voters?]. (195)

The person I was speaking with was both intrigued and repulsed by Benedict's conclusions, and so in a fit of social responsibility I told him I would pick up for him a copy of Patterns of Culture and we could read and discuss the essay together, perhaps in light of the Beau Dick hosted potlatches he had experienced during his visits to Cormorant Island.

Pulpfiction being my first stop for used books, I stopped there, only to be told by Chris that he was "almost certain" the store didn't have it, but I could look (Aisle 5), and if I found a copy he would be "amazed." No amazement for Chris, but unexpected amazement for me when I found in a jumble under the bottom shelf a book that is now, for some inexplicable reason, almost impossible to find: Linda Tuhiwai Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999).

Here is the opening line of Smith's "Introduction":

From the vantage point of the colonized, a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term "research" is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. (1)

Saturday, November 14, 2020

How I Found It

Lightning struck a stump exploded an animal step from the forest.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Gene Cafe

When Gideon James opened Gene in Vancouver back in the 2010s his mother placed potted plants throughout the cafe. These plants were a specific kind of geranium that I have not seen anywhere else and, as such, am tempted to ask the current owners if I can take a clipping.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Image Bank

Image Bank co-founder/ingénue Vincent Trasov (valise) and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (suitcase) performing Text Costume (1977). The picture and reproductions of Cavellini's stamps beside it appear in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin/Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver's Image Bank catalogue.

Cavellini (1914-1990) was an artist/collector best known for autostoricizzazione (self-historicization). His book titles indicate what Cavellini found historically important: Abstract Art (1959), Man Painter (1960), Diary of Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (1975), Encounters/Clashes in the Jungle of Art (1977) and Life of a Genius (1989).

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Having Arrived at the Age I Am

She was unable to make plans, so she gave up drinking. Soon enough the cravings replaced the drinking. To combat the cravings she took up gardening. She had visions of raised beds, winding paths ... 

But gardening takes time, and she wanted something now, so she asked me if I would drive her to Southlands' to purchase a half-barrel planter, a bag of potting soil and some annuals, which I did.

Once home, she went looking for the trowel that came with her mother's stuff and found an unopened mickey of gin. She placed the gin at the bottom of the barrel and filled it with soil and primula. 

This was years ago.

Last August her daughter phoned to ask me if I could get the planter from the yard before they tear down the house. She said it's all her mother talks about, and if she could see it from her window, with "something colourful in it," it might cheer her up.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


What do I think? Well, I'm sure anything I have to say is already out there under different names. Seems to me the fuss he's making is not just poor sportsmanship or vengeance or blind rage but an attempt to scare up a deal that would have him pardoned for his crimes and debts, free him up for the inevitable civil suits. Not that he'll stick around for those. Because if you ask me, I think he'll bolt, take up residence in Sochi, a guest of the oligarchs. People used to do that when things got heavy. And things are heavy for him. Time has shown that when you take things to extremes, there is no turning back. Like the fruit at the end of the branch, you are either picked and eaten, or you fall off and rot.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Memoirs of Hecate County (1946)

"Where are you from?" I asked. "Where do you come from?" "I'm a myth," she replied, with her coquetry. "But what part of the world do you come from? Or are you a universal myth?" "I was born in Minnesota," -- I could see it was a reluctant confession -- "but I have lived in the east since I was fourteen." "Have you got any Irish blood?" "My father was born in Ireland -- in County Galway. My mother's people came from Sweden." "Then you are a universal myth: you're Brunhilde and Iseult in one. I think you're really more like Iseult, though. But Iseult's eyes are blue, of course. Yours are much more exciting. Close them -- let me see how they look."

Sunday, November 8, 2020

From "Monuments for Nowhere or Anywhere" (1970) by Dore Ashton

"[Michael Heizer] keeps returning to the primeval wilderness to leave monumental reminders of his manliness there. He tunnels through the summit of an isolated plateau, at the expense of enormous energy and finance, but he is unwilling to conserve the results of his endeavour (Double Negative, above). Weather will ultimately erase his tracks which, by the logic of these monumental rebels against bourgeois values, justifies his position."

Friday, November 6, 2020

Unknown Translation of a Poem by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973)

I Step Outside Myself

I step outside
myself, out of my eyes,
hands, mouth, outside
of myself I
step, a bundle
of goodness and godliness
that must make good
this devilry
that has happened.

Thursday, November 5, 2020


If you were poor and had no options, maybe you would join the military. A decent job, provided your parents could afford your body armour. Then again, voting Democrat might decrease your chances of having to use it.

Interesting to see how subdued Fox News has been the past couple days. It's like they got the Paddy Chayefsky speech, the one Ned Beatty's character gives in Network (1976) -- only this time with the addendum that they keep up the illusion: that politics keeps us honest.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020


While scrolling down the Vancouver Sun site on Hallowe'en morning.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Mockingjay (2010)

On Page 332 Katniss becomes Trump on the eve of the 2016 election:

I did not come all this way, and lose all these people, to turn myself over to that woman.

On Page 334 Trump becomes Katniss:

On the television, we watch a terse Head Peacekeeper lay out specific rules regarding how many people per square foot each resident will be expected to take in. He reminds the citizens of the Capitol that temperatures will drop well below freezing tonight and warns them that their president expects them to be not only willing but enthusiastic hosts in this time of crisis. Then they show some very staged looking shots of concerned citizens welcoming grateful refugees into their homes. The Head Peacekeeper says the president himself has ordered parts of his mansion readied to receive citizens tomorrow. He adds that shopkeepers should also be prepared to lend their floor space if requested.

Monday, November 2, 2020


When the question was, as in mathematics, not what we arrived at, but how. The way we feathered our ideas and experiences and expectations into what the status quo called institutions (if you must), how we governed not with expediency but with care, as encouraged by our teachers who knew better. And then, as we grew, we were told that growth has its own calculus, and that growth, like the means we took such care in, must be maintained, the conflation that arose as we fell into growth for growth's sake, as progress.

As public institutions (artist-run centres, university art galleries) we were rewarded by public funders for working with private industry to maintain, if not accelerate, that growth. Just as private industry grew more corporate, eschewing industry for business (and ultimately finance), we welcomed its participants on our boards. Soon enough the corporate rationale set the tone for how we do our business, which feels more and more like ends over means, no longer how but what.

Most of us don't know why Vince Tao was suddenly walked out of 221A last year, though we have heard that curator Allison Collins was terminated by the Western Front earlier this year because its board and Executive Director had decided to eliminate the Media Arts program Allison was charged with -- without any consultation with its society's membership or its publics. Last Wednesday Emily Carr University of Art + Design's Libby Leshgold Gallery Director/Curator Cate Rimmer was fired without cause.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Fox (1991)

Winnipeg writer Margaret Sweatman published her first novel Fox in 1991. I noticed the book a couple weeks ago while perusing my friend Craig's bookshelf. Because it looked older and was published by Turnstone, a press I admire (see David Arnason's Marsh Burning and Kristjana Gunnars Settlement Poems, both from 1980), I read the first paragraph, then the second, until Craig asked if I was staying for dinner.

Great writing! Like Stein and Faulkner are great. And Nathanael West. And Renata Adler. How come I had never heard of this book? There was a time when I was reading everything I could "on" the Winnipeg General Strike, including poetry and fiction -- but oh how this crafty Fox eluded me!

"Rent" is an exquisite chapter. Same goes for this tuft of prose:

a simple sun tells a warm & yellow story in the lane where the handsome sunnybricks mumble brickdust, cobble & knuckle & yawn away because it's hot June, & the lane is long & innocent, & the footsteps & the horses & the toot toot of the new cars clamour & shine somewhere far off but in the lane, a simple summer afternoon turns its sweatered back to the radio. & snoozes.