Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Two Poets in Belgium

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By Melanie Janisse


I am pacing with my luggage back and forth in Brussels North. It is six in the morning for me, having flown an overnight to Paris, jumped on an RER and the Thalys train to Brussels. I am searching for him in the sea of station movement. There he is rushing towards me in a rumpled black suit. There he is with a rose. Next I feel the sun of Brussels and the taste of his lips in a hot car. I am sitting in a café looking at a giant wallpaper mural of New York, drinking a café crème (thankfully old fashioned, nary a latte-art heart in sight) served to me on a small tray, with little packages of condiments and cookies neatly adorning the cup and saucer. As I recall Brussels for you, it is the frame of a comic book. I give to you a collection of neat and tidy frames and flashes that make up a series of stills.

We sit at the bar near to each other as he sketches a map of his town into my notebook. I learn of circles, the outskirts and the canal that slices through the city while periodically glancing at a mural of a deer on the wall that I really love. I have a pang for home as I recall the amazing stag quilts that my lovely friend Grant Heaps has displayed at the Gladstone Hotel and Made.

I am in a cathedral noticing how the paintings around the chandeliers look like ceiling tattoos.

I am alone standing beside a Mosque in a poorer Muslim area of Brussels feeling the oppressive sense of having tread the wrong way. It feels like Detroit a bit, where the more primal parts of your being know to be steady, but there's also a deep sense that openhearted gestures still filter out from here. I watch two Muslim boys play in a park and try to figure out where the damn canal has gone. It has slipped out from under me like an eel.

I am being instructed how to properly make a croque by a very bossy host. I want to punch him, but steady myself by looking out at the greens and purples and blues of his garden and laugh a bit at the intensity over cheese.

I am holding your hand as a tuba sings to our lower heart. You are crying.

I look back on my trip like a graphic novel. There are thousands of vignettes that flash out to me from my mind. It is at though a bit of the Belgians' love for compartmentalization rubbed onto me like a strange fairy dust. We sat in the cafeteria at the gallery and he pointed out the way everything (including the window treatments, which the Belgians are famous for) break everything up into smaller and smaller panels of information. I now recognize the beauty in bite-sized bits of information. It makes things definable and controllable, or at least gives me the illusion that this vast world that I live in may be contained and neatly presented. I consider it a gift he gave me this observation, and love it for its phobic, organizational beauty.


I must admit, I have never intuitively gravitated to the graphic novel. So, I probably do not have anything really poignant to say in this department. I can tell you, after the Belgian croque incident, I went to sulk upstairs for a while and happened to pick up a graphic novel lying beside the bed. It was about some guy who wanted to put a hood over a naked woman’s head. He turned into a randy monkey ape a few panels later. It was all right, I guess. Maybe a bit too, I don’t know, graphic for me.

Since I have returned, I have been given two graphic (or at least illustrated) novels from authors right here in Toronto. The first is Grotesque by Mark O’Connell. I went to his lovely reading and launch a while back at Type and loved the way he would read then show the audience the image like a grown-up show and tell. It was endearing and sweet. The tree drawings insisted quietly. I rooted for Ludvic as he tried to gain the affections of the dancer after their gym meetings. I hoped Lulu was okay on the subway platforms. I was reminded of the close study of buildings in Brussels. I loved the medieval men that adorned curved doorways. I loved how they turned sideways with the curve, levitating at the peak of the arch. The grotesques peering out from Mark’s pages reminded me of Bosch, doorways and dark, bratty men I know.

A few nights ago, at the launch for the Scream Festival, I met Alixandra Bamford. She sat at the same long table as me, in the neo-gothic extravagance of the Arts and Letters Club watching the sorcery of David Antin and Steve McCaffery. Near the end of the night, she took a couple copies of her new graphic novel Nearest the Mouth from her bag for Angela Rawlings and me to purchase. She is a brainiac who wants to be a medical illustrator. I listened to her and Angela chat about phonetics and discuss whether or not any of the letters make their own sound, or if they all need the help of other letters. Her book is Ontario gothic, moody, sweet. I have included a couple shots of my favorite pages, which are about death and vegetables.


Angela Rawlings finds me at the entrance to Trinity Bellwoods Park eating a giant carton of frites with pepper mayo that I bought to commemorate our post Belgium interview. The evening is strangely chilly for a park date, so we wander over to Swan for a glass of wine and some oysters. So, the two poets who traveled to Belgium face one another.

The first thing that comes up as I remember our conversation is the Canadian inclination for the thank-you. Over and over again, my friend asked me to stop thanking him for everything. Angela also became conscious of how the thank-you was received by the Belgians. They find us very strange for our thank-yous. I feel relieved. It explained something to me about us Canadians and also assuaged my thick neurosis. I truly thought I was just some strange pushover as an individual. As it turns out, the famous "Canadian politeness" is a truth. We thank others far too often for their comfort — or at least the Belgians.

Angela begins to tell me of her relationship between Ghent, Reykjavik and Canada over the past couple of years. On a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, she chose to collaborate with Maja Jantar, Jelle Meander and Helen White (members of polypoetry collective Krikri), whom she met during a Belgian poetry festival they organized in 2008. During her initial visit in 2008, Krikri introduced Angela to the Logos Foundation; in 2009 and 2010, she performed via sound and movement with Godfried-Willem Raes's robotic orchestra and gesture-control systems. Angela also performed vocal improvisations with Moniek Darge and Sebastian Bradt. Throughout it all, she saw also snails by the hundreds after rainstorms.

Our conversation went everywhere. I felt relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one that found the streets of Brussels to be akin to a strange midway ride. I felt like I scrambled out from the Grand Place in just about any direction, only to bump right back into the Grand Place. Mystifying. I also mentioned earlier in this essay very basic things, like that the canal continued to vanish right out from under me. Or, I would get a place in my head, like the famous chocolate shop Pierre Marcolini and have no clue where it may be, only to find myself a few moments later right in front if it. Odd. Magical.

We also both noticed the amazing local fashion that Brussels boasts. I was super charmed by the world famous hats of Elvis Pompilio and spent the better part of a day marveling over his creations. Angela begins to tell me of a great boutique she discovered near the canal. She was especially charmed by a dress that boasts a photo of a road. I was incredulous. This was Ydress, a boutique owned by Aleksandra Paszkowsk, and I happened to own that very same print in a skirt that I purchased while I was there. I knew that Angela was going to be at the opening for the Scream festival, and so I made sure to wear it for her.

"I dated you on a volcano." This is how we began our conversation about our strange and intense friendship, my Belgian and I. When we decided to see each other again after thirteen years, he jokingly asked me to meet him in Iceland – a sort of halfway. The very next day Eyjafjallaokull erupted. Angela was there during the eruption, and in fact was reviewing a Peaches concert when her friend texted her about a volcano. It took her a moment or two to realize that was not a club or bar downtown. Later she was able to visit the volcano, edging around the parameter of the affected area. Strange to me how Iceland factors into an interview about Belgium, which in turn factors into two Canadian poets hearts, but nonetheless, the volcano prevails. It sounds to me like Angela has found a soul home, a kindred and a deep love affair with the strange moonscape of Iceland, and I know she is returning this week for another dose. While I am quite certain that my love story is in another intermission, I am intrigued about Iceland now. It is looking like flights are pretty cheap for September, so you never know. In the meanwhile, my head is full of European architecture, waffles, chocolates and gardens. Thank-you Belgium for the richest of fodder; I toast a poem to you.


on a journey north,
snails wound their
sluggishness around grape
vines, green entwined
and twinned. snails
bent over, knotted,
the soft and the
brittle, the ooze and
the metal. snails sharp
as, snails superfluous,
superfluous sharp as
snails. on a green path
north, Rome is a
backdrop of sunlight
and memory. malleus,
incus, stapes.


the inner ear canals
sound into tangible
destiny. information
is reared in cochlear

in Ghent, an
orchestra of
in Ghent, an
orchestra of
in Ghent, an
orchestra of


* * *

the sound is a soft wall
us, we
strange shellfish
exposing our soft bellies
softness to sound softness
strung together fingers

in shop windows
lace maker’s butterflies
in the most perfect
twenty minutes of my life

standing in the Grand Place
before the razorblades were discovered
under the marmalade
sweetness before the sweet pain

(bagpipes, tubas)

plant the Hollyhocks without me
while I stare out at your garden
from the upstairs window

forever is a sound
found in the lower heart
while the trains pass
through the trestle work

forever is a sound

- Melanie Janisse

Click on any image to start the slideshow of photos by Melanie Janisse

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

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