Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The CN Tower

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The CN Tower

by rob mclennan

On September 21, 2009, as others may have celebrated Leonard Cohen’s 75th birthday, there was a ceremony at the CN Tower’s Horizons Restaurant, coinciding with the release of Guinness World Records 2010, as representatives of the publication were there to confirm the structure has retained its status as the world’s tallest free-standing tower at 533.33 metres. There had been local concern over the construction of the United Arab Empire’s Burj Dubai, which surpassed the CN Tower’s height on September 17, 2007, yet its official status remains “building” as opposed to “tower,” rendering it ineligible as a threat.

How is it that John Robert Colombo wrote that the CN Tower “has yet to impress writers,” with brief mentions of a visual poem by “Vancouver poet bill bissett,” “mystery-story writer Tim Heald,” “Palm Print (1980), a police-procedural novel by the British novelist James Barrett” and nothing more? Has the CN Tower really refused that kind of attention? Have writers given any more attention, for example, to the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington, or the Calgary Tower? Perhaps it hasn’t grabbed the imagination in ways that he suggests, or had hoped, but I’m not sure what he might have been comparing it to, this inattention. Since Colombo’s listing was published, there was the late Daniel Jones’ poem “Things That I Have Put / into My Asshole” from his poetry collection the brave never write poetry (1985), which might just be one of the most evocative and controversial of poems referencing the Toronto landmark, and his list that included a great number of things, starting with:

Saliva and semen and butter and baby oil,
tongues and thumbs and fingers of women,
the cock of an old man,
the cock of a Mexican boy,
the cock of my sister’s boyfriend,
my hand,
candles and felt marking pens,
cucumbers and carrots,
Sandra’s mother’s vibrator,
the intersection of Bathurst and Queen,
Honest Ed’s Warehouse,
Hamilton Ontario,
and just today the CN Tower:

After poet, fiction writer, editor and publisher Jones’ (the name he went under for many years) death by his own hand in 1994, an informal group of “outsiders,” including jwcurry, Nicky Drumbolis, John Barlow, Daniel f. Bradley and David Owen, were sporadically involved in reproducing this poem on the anniversary of his death. Not every year but most, acknowledging Jones on February 13, and his poem distributed around the city in homage, a different way each year. Some reproductions included spray-paint stencils of the poem on buildings around the city, and even producing it as a small sticker, left in various subversive locations even further than Toronto street corners, public washrooms and at small press fairs. Who wouldn’t think, perhaps, any tower the size of such to be portrayed as nothing more than phallus? Who wouldn’t think, a tower you can see in so many parts of the city, reproduced as a poem seen in as many more?

As Jones wrote, phallus, or, as something else? Was this purely punk, or pervasive to the point of all-encompassing, this tower seen from all corners of the city? As the late Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, writing in his Moby Jane (1987; 2004) once wrote:

for one clear moment I couldn’t find the CN Space Syringe
the habits some people put up with
just to remind them what hit them

In a pub in southwest Ireland with Stephen Brockwell in 2002, sitting in Dingle, sliding up to the bar and seeing a statuette of the CN Tower above me, mere souvenir inches, this tower as old as my sister. Just how far can a shadow cast? The tower, from where I was sitting, comparably close to my house; what are the odds, a small Irish outpost, going thousands of kilometres to get so close to home? I even wrote it, there, in notebook pages from those thousands of miles distant, surrounded by Irish green. Back in Toronto, over her lakeshore stove, where Lainna holds an equivalent distance, her Eiffel Tower replica, to remind herself to learn how to cook, as she enters this new city.

Why this CN Tower or Grand Canyon? Why display
One Parthenon and not another?
          Christopher Doda, “Aesthetics Lesson,” Aesthetics Lesson (2007)

In the back of my parent’s car a few years ago heading along highway 417, my daughter at my side, both listening to fragments from the radio. There was an interview with Sarnia’s Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, talking about what he could see of the surface of the earth, apparently able to see Toronto’s Skydome, white on black, but not The Great Wall of China, resting brown against otherwise brown.

As part of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche festival, for one night only, Ottawa artist Ryan Stec used the entirety of the CN Tower for a sound and light show. Accessible by land, water and air, to anyone who could see it, with a listening station at Front Street and University Avenue, exploring the tower through sight and sound from sunset to sunrise, exploring “Toronto’s free all-night contemporary art thing” through the structures that already exist.

Through all of this, I wonder if I should write, amid this mess of condos, hotels and office towers, a “King Kong” poem in tribute to these wayfaring scrapers, citing Michael Ondaatje’s “King Kong” verse from his Rat Jelly (1967), or earlier, William Hawkins’ mid-1960s same, Ottawa poet, musician, songwriter and otherwise troublemaker? After Rotterdam and Tallahassee, boys, where would the giant beast reside now, if at all?

king kong on the waterfront

loses track of high points; towers,
cgi containment, the CN Tower

a tired cliché, & oh-so done

lift your head up, eighteenth-century brick
a crumble of beach sand, waves

& water, water everywhere,
not a drop to drink


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review ( seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

1 comment

Hey Rob; --

John Robert Colombo wasn't quite accurate when he claimed, in Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984), that the CN tower had "yet to impress writers." By the mid 1980s the CN Tower had attracted considerable literary attention, including from poets Pier Giorgio di Cicco and Gwendolyn MacEwen.

In "Six Months of the CN Tower," di Cicco wrote,

"it reminds us what it takes up
place for / an absence / something to
occupy us"

In Noman's Land, McEwen describes the tower as "a monument to nothing, a space-ship that would never have lift-off, a rocket without a luanching pad."

She adds,

"They didn't know who they were, so they came and built these big cities in the wilderness. They still found it empty so they stuck up this tower in the emptiness. They were so lonely they didn't even know it, maybe even lonelier than me."

In its three decades, in addition to occasional appearances in poetry, the CN Tower has been featured prominently in a long list of novels, including Bruce Powe's Outage, Catherine Bush's Minus Time, M.G. Vassanji's No New Land, Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, Darren O'Donnell's Your Secrets Sleep with Me, etc..

It seems, to me anyway, that analysing the CN Tower is one of the city's principle literary tropes. Its shadow glides ceaselessly across our encounters with the city like the second hand of time.


Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010). A large and expanding database of Toronto literature is accessible at

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