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Margin of Interest

Margin of Interest

Essays on English Language Poetry of the Maritimes
tagged : canadian, poetry
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From "Maritime Poetry: A Unifying Field Theory"

One of the great temptations of any book of criticism is to generate a thesis which can be tested throughout its length. The point of publication, for some, is to devise a new idea which adds to the body of knowledge about a person, place, or thing. It's tempting to try to fashion descriptive and analytic tools. Since this book is about my people (Maritimers), my place (the Maritimes), and the most valued thing outside of my family (poetry), I was sorely tempted to reinvent the wheel.

I've rejected developing a novel thesis about Maritime poetry. I don't believe the idea of a single theoretical model which can incorporate the region's writers and writings. In 2006, Marta Dvorak and Coral Ann Howells wrote in their introduction to the special issue of Canadian Literature devoted to east coast writing that there is a 'richness of social and cultural histories, such a multiplicity of voices speaking from so many different angles and in such a variety of literary modes that what is produced amounts to far more than a mapping of region.' Instead, 'any definition of regional specificity' is both comprehended but also exceeded.'

Universalizing ideas only cause trouble, anyway. I'm not able to offer a unifying theory because I lack the intrinsic understanding of French-Canadian/Acadian and Indigenous identities and histories, and these literatures are far older than relatively recent English ones. Moreover, one could argue that other identity shards should be added to my (ironically) centrist history-the history of women writers in the Maritimes, the history of LGTBQ2S+ writers in the Maritimes, the history of Africadian writers in the Maritimes. By now you must realize that any theory I might offer an audience is already suspiciously narrow, but if it did include all the aforementioned categories, it would be uselessly broad. Besides, any claim for the primacy of a single idea is inherently suspicious. Such an idea would suspiciously become 'the centre'-a centre ridden with exceptions, as is the rule in any critical framework with specificity. I would soon want to write a book about the exceptions that disproved my idea, trying to make my own idea marginal. As Wolfgang Hochbruck writes in his introduction to Down East: Critical Essays on Contemporary Maritime Canadian Literature, '[N]o one perspective will ever suffice to explain everything' and 'summarizing and centreing statements will always be made at the expense of margins, fringes, and diversity.' I might even get bored with the Unifying Theory since it seemed so Unifying. Finally, we're talking about a region that has been told to Unify For The Sake of Survival for several decades now, and take it from me, contemporary Maritimers don't like that kind of talk. If you're disappointed, though, reassure yourself that the centrist homogenizing edicts are reflected in your disappointment. This place is too various and diverse to conform to your expectation.

[Continued in Margin of Interest...]

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The Essential Douglas LePan

Coureurs de bois

Thinking of you, I think of the coureurs de bois,
Swarthy men grown almost to savage size
Who put their brown wrists through the arras of the woods
And were lost-sometimes for months. Word would come back:
One had been seen in Cr�ve-coeur, deserted and starving,
One at Sault Sainte Marie shouldering the rapids.
Giant-like, their labours stalked the streets of Quebec
Though they themselves had dwindled in distance: names only;
Rumours; quicksilvery spies into nature's secrets;
Rivers that seldom ran in the sun. Their resource
Would sparkle and then flow back under clouds of hemlock.

So you should have travelled with them. Or with La Salle.
He could feed his heart with the heart of a continent,
Insatiate, how noble a wounded animal,
Who sought for his wounds the balsam of adventure,
The sap from some deep, secret tree. But now
That the forests are cut down, the rivers charted,
Where can you turn, where can you travel? Unless
Through the desperate wilderness behind your eyes,
So full of falls and glooms and desolations,
Disasters I have glimpsed but few would dream of,
You seek new Easts. The coats of difficult honour,
Bright with brocaded birds and curious flowers,
Stowed so long with vile packs of pemmican,
Futile, weighing you down on slippery portages,
Would flutter at last in the courts of a clement country,
Where the air is silken, the manners easy,
Under a guiltless and reconciling sun.

You hesitate. The trees are entangled with menace.
The voyage is perilous into the dark interior.
But then your hands go to the thwarts. You smile. And so
I watch you vanish in a wood of heroes,
Wild Hamlet with the features of Horatio.


Wild orchid, veined with tenderness,
that reaches down to glacial rock
past moss and rotting ferns and pine-cones
and the droppings of porcupines, raccoons.

This your just signet, seal and impress,
a moccasin plant on granite growing,
pink in the sun-shot shade of June,
frail trumpet, satin-smooth, and clear.

A flower, so fragile, soon will fade.
But while it lasts its fine-meshed membrane
both holds and hides a veined perfection,
a slipper that a prince might search for.

This emblem of the sensitive
and strong, triumphant short-lived song-
for you this emblem will not fade
but blazoning be and heraldry.

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From "Deadwalk"

'Mr. Postman. You gave me the wrong letter!' Jillian Hampstead held out an envelope toward Joel. It was a standard airmail envelope: light blue with red and blue hashmarks along the edges. It looked like it had been through a washing machine. It was faded and tattered. Six stamps were missing, leaving behind dark blue shadows. Six stamps remained-pale yellow ziggurats, mustachioed men, splayed fruit.

Joel studied the elaborate cursive script on the front. It was addressed to Ms. Wickks.

Joel said, 'Sorry, Mrs. Hampstead. I got all mixed up yesterday when I looked over at your neighbour ... you know, Ms. Wickks ... and noticed that she was ... kind of dying ... on the sidewalk. You are right though, I should've been more careful with your mail. Sorry.'

Joel was the king of passive-aggressive. Another reason why he was now single and would probably remain single for the rest of his life.

Jillian continued holding the letter.

'Sorry,' Joel said again trying to sound sincere.

Jillian said, 'Anyway I opened it by mistake, you know, an honest mistake, I just open up whatever comes into my house, don't think about it, you guys should be more careful.'

'No worries. I'll slap a damaged sticker on it and the UMO can RTS it.' UMO stood for 'undeliverable mail office' and RTS was short for 'return to sender'. Joel hated jargon, but it had its uses. It was good for bypassing coherence or meaningful engagement.

Jillian clutched the letter. 'Started reading it, didn't make much sense. All squiggly wavy lines ... realized it wasn't addressed to me. Still don't make sense.'

'That's okay. Life doesn't make sense.' Joel stifled a yawn. He was tired. Socrates [his blue-eyed cockatoo] had spent many hours late last night 'securing the perimeter' and being otherwise inconsolable. Her behaviour had probably been triggered by the scent of butter chicken on his breath from dinner at Lenora's house.

Delicious, delicious, murderous butter chicken.

Joel's face shimmered between a half smile and a full yawn. 'Anyways, I have to carry on, deliver the rest of the route you know ... neither rain, nor shine, nor misdirected mail.'

'Aren't you gonna read it?' Jillian asked.

Joel shook his head. 'Not allowed to ... privacy issues ... could be fired.'

'Well, it's mighty queer, you know.' She stepped backwards into the house and shuffled toward the kitchen.

Joel hesitated, then followed her in.

Jillian's kitchen needed a makeover, or maybe a blowtorch. Joel seated himself at a 'country kitchen' table, probably purchased at some discount department store many years ago. The knobby spindles on the back of the chair rubbed against every incorrect pressure point along the length of his spine. The fridge and stove, harvest-yellow derelicts from the '70s, had broken knobs and dented surfaces. The kitchen countertop, off-white Formica with badly pitted chrome edging, was a petri dish of encrusted grime and forgotten sauces.

The walls and the cabinets were painted pink-thawed, cadaverous pink. It did not have a calming effect.

Above the sink was a large window. It was hazy outside. The hydro towers stretched into the distance and disappeared beneath the horizon. Black hydro cables spread out like spider silk.

The letter addressed to Evelyn Wickks lay open on the table. Joel looked at it. Sentences of tightly wound Cyrillic, slithering Anglo-French, and maybe some Spanish or Italian sprawled across the page. Worse still, odd pictographs and odder symbols popped up in those same sentences.

Most letters are written as an act of communication.

This letter was an act of subterfuge.

[Continued in Rerouted...]

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Bite Me!

Bite Me!

Musings on Monsters and Mayhem
tagged : canadian
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My Hungry Muse

In Bite Me! I am letting the famished imagination out on a field trip. It matters little whether I am following the explorations of ethnobotanists or zoologists-what I am keenly interested in is the bizarre side of Mother Nature's handiwork in the wilds of a tropical rainforest. I have this obsession with undiscovered gigantism in boa constrictors assumed to be extinct, relegated to prehistory along with the dinosaur. I want to chant a mantra in celebration of those lengthy elongated reptiles: 'Come out of hiding, I know you are there.'

But are they there, those primeval super-snakes slithering about, who according to some researchers in herpetology are a mind-blowing eighty feet long with a girth of five or more feet-besting those present-day anacondas half that length with a girth, on average, of a mere metre?

What especially provides a stimulant for the appetite of my hungry muse, more than snakes with lengthy trains, are pitcher plants who manage to lure small mammals to their deaths. To sustain those monsters, the poor devils end up liquefied as essential protein in their bellies.

And as if this bent fascination in giant reptiles isn't enough, I am earnestly interested in hearing about man-eating plants. As yet, I have not seen any scholarly articles in any reputable science journal having to do with those leafy carnivores preying on humans, but that doesn't mean those floriated monsters, having acquired a taste for human flesh, aren't around-waiting patiently for their next weighty meal in some steamy setting in the Amazon basin. In the meantime, I will settle for the commonplace: an octopus snacking on a seagull, or a Conger Eel going for the leg of a diver.

What especially fascinates me and excites my ravenous muse is the marine life existing at the bottom of the deepest oceans, bioluminescent critters that appear like ghostly mermaids to mariners gazing through the window of their bathysphere. It borders on the supernatural, for what is one to make of those colossal clams inhaling the noxious fumes of an active volcanic chimney belching fire, or a lumbering gigantic squid approaching that bathysphere with the intention of embracing it with its sprawling tentacles?

Bite me!

'Bite me!' said an extended leg to a conger eel
comfortably sheltered deep inside a briny cave.
Gritting all his teeth-he was not a pretty sight.
A lengthy demon, more a snake than a fish
lashed out-tore off a generous hunk of meat.
His vibrating jaws invoked a symphonic poem
as he wriggled his body and beamed out a smile.
'You've eaten him!' shrieked the remaining limb.

Soon it, too, was eaten by that burbling diner
who, in exalting praise of his meal, spewed out
a stream of flesh, bits of bone, bristle, and blood.
I kept on descending into a malaise of despair
while each of my arms pleaded 'Bite me!'
to an approaching monster who wore my face.

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The House on Major Street

The one window of Tallis Haley's second-floor room looks out over an exquisite garden. In this garden stands a fine sculpted fountain, erected overnight by unseen hands. So it seems. Because when Tallis Haley-the comet, man! Weird light! Watch that little shit go!-was removed from Children's Hospital and restored to his own bedroom, the next-door site was a rubble-strewn field. He remembers this clearly. Yes, and rolling hills, trees, swollen streams. Teepees. Muskrat and chipmunk, buffalo!

From a high limb you could see all the way to Winnipeg. Turn a snitch and there is ... Buffalo.

Another century.

Each night now, in the dead of night, no less than a dozen women perambulate, with elaborate cries of ecstasy and considerable expertise in the charm area. A dream. Oh, it's a dream, by anyone's account. Bewitching, yes, a joyful ceremony. And every night, you understand, which is hard on a boy in the comate status.

Fantastic events unfolding, here at 2X8 Major.

Ask Daisy, ask Emmitt. Inquire of anyone.

Chekhov is rumoured to abide here.

[Continued inThe House on Major Street...]

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Beyond Walls

Beyond Walls

Theatre Passe Muraille 1968-1975
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On Wednesday, March 5th, 1969, the day the Theatre Passe Muraille production of Futz was scheduled to open, producer William (Bill) Marshall challenged his city, 'We want to see what you can put on in Toronto.' The Toronto Star printed an arousing article, 'Futz brings nudity, bestiality to Toronto stage'. The Toronto Police showed little interest: 'If all it's got to show is a couple of bare mammary glands,' declared a spokesman, 'I don't think we'd even bother with it.' Marshall's producing partners, lawyers Miles O'Reilly and Arthur Pennington, invited crown counsel Peter Rickaby to the opening night. Rickaby was both the complainant and prosecutor in the 1965 obscenity conviction of art gallery owner Dorothy Cameron, still a scandal in Toronto. At the Central Library Theatre, a Toronto Police morality squad plainclothes officer asked Rickaby if, in his opinion, obscenity charges should be laid. 'It would be laughed out of court,' Rickaby told him.

Hours before the opening, the Futz company stage manager telephoned his actors with a warning that the police might charge them right after the performance. To avoid running into any law officers after the opening, the actors made their exit via the theatre fire escape. On Thursday, March 6, after the second night's performance, the Toronto Police preferred charges of 'staging an indecent performance' and the following day legal summonses were issued to the director, Jim Garrard, the three producers, the actors, the stage crew, and even the Central Library's teenage coatroom attendant.

As the play's scheduled three-week run proceeded, new summonses were issued to everyone after each night's presentation, each performance constituting a new offence under the law. The daily legal ceremony was covered by press and television, a major media event. Publicity put ticket sales through the roof. The producers scheduled additional performances and invited the surprised American playwright, Rochelle Owens, to Toronto for interviews. Her rather 'Manhattan' comment was, 'This couldn't happen in New York. All this prurient sex. It's very corny.' Torontonians who weren't offended by 'an indecent performance', as the warrants read, or by the denial of free speech, were unhappy with the rather provincial character of the entire affair. The Toronto Telegram commented, 'The press, the police, and those responsible for the production have this much in common: they have all become excited by a trace of smut.'

[Continued in 'Chapter One, Busted: Theatre Passe Muraille at Rochdale'... ]

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The Essential Charles Bruce

Nova Scotia Fish Hut

Rain and blown sand, and southwest wind
Have rubbed these shingles crisp and paper-thin.
Come in:
Something has stripped these studding-posts and pinned
Time to the rafters. Where the woodworm ticked
Shick shick shick shick
Steady and secretive, his track is plain:
The fallen bark is dust; the beams are bare.

Bare as the bare stone of this open shore,
This building grey as stone. The filtered sun
Leaks cold and quiet through it. And the rain,
The wind, the whispering sand, return to finger
Its creaking wall, and creak its thuttering door.

Old, as the shore is. But they use the place.
Wait if you like: someone will come to find
A handline or a gutting-knife, or stow
A coiled net in the loft. Or just to smoke
And loaf; and swap tomorrow in slow talk;
And knock his pipe out on a killick-rock
Someone left lying sixty years ago.

Eastern Shore

He stands and walks as if his knees were tensed
To a pitching dory. When he looks far off
You think of trawl-kegs rolling in the trough
Of swaying waves. He wears a cap against
The sun on water, but his face is brown
As an old mainsail, from the eyebrows down.

He has grown old as something used and known
Grows old with custom; each small fading scar
Engrained by use and wear in plank and spar,
In weathered wood and iron, and flesh and bone.
But youth lurks in the squinting eyes, and in
The laughter wrinkles in the tanbark skin.

You know his story when you see him climb
The lookout hill. You know that age can be
A hill of looking; and the swaying sea
A lifetime marching with the waves of time.
Listen-the ceaseless cadence, deep and slow.
Tomorrow. Now. And years and years ago.

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