Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Queen City chronicles

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By rob mclennan

We will go, you and I,
to the hated city.
           Raymound Souster, Queen City

Little did I know, when I worked on my own poetry collection celebrating 150 years of the city of my birth, The Ottawa City Project (2007), that Toronto’s Raymond Souster had already done the same for his, writing the poems of his Queen City (Oberon Press, 1984), which was “published with the assistance of a grant from the Toronto Sesquicentennial Board in honour of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the City of Toronto.” Enviable, that, to be sure, and all composed from his decades-long home on Baby Point Road. In his essay, “Mapping Raymond Souster's Toronto” from The Canadian Modernists Meet, edited by Dean Irvine, Stephen Cain writes,

For much of the modernist period, this city appears absent from Canadian poetry, and it is not until the rise of postmodernism, post-colonialism, and feminism that sustained and concrete examinations of Toronto and its districts begin to appear: Joe Rosenblatt's Kensington Market, the Annex environs of bpNichol's The Martyrology Book 5, the punk bars and Queen Street watering holes of Lynn Crosbie's “Alphabet City,” and the city centre of Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies.

Yet, long before Lee was officially made the poet laureate of Toronto, Raymond Souster was the acknowledged poetic chronicler of Toronto. Indeed, Souster has been represented, in both the popular media and in academic criticism, as the poet of Toronto for much of the twentieth century. While certain other modernist writers have occasionally used Toronto as a subject for their poetry — such as Miriam Waddington and Dorothy Livesay in her “Queen City” suite — it is only Souster who has consistently returned to Toronto as subject and inspiration for his verse over a lengthy poetic career of nearly half a century. In doing so, Souster has created a significant body of work that explores the site of urban modernism, and an investigation of his work raises questions about aesthetic representations of the city and its functions in the context of Canadian literary modernism.

How does one begin to write out a city? Is it even possible, or do the best books come out, instead, in dense fragments, a plural of parcels through neighbourhoods, among other more manageable concerns? Is this meant to be “Queen City” or what Souster’s downtown and decades-long view has discerned, building up knowledge going back to his days with Contact Press in the 1940s? And how different, then, from the versions served up by Lynn Crosbie and Stephen Cain, who write their own translations of city, adding another facet to an already-diamond? What of Victor Coleman on that 1960s lake, disseminating Island Press?

Working along similar plain-speaking lines as Souster was Hans Jewinski, a beat cop in Toronto for years, who produced a number of small press items that culminated in his mass-market poetry collection, Poet Cop (Simon & Schuster, 1975), but became invisible almost immediately after.

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Hans Jewinksi, writing out the footfalls of his immediate. As Greg Gatenby wrote in his Toronto: A Literary Guide (2000): “Hans was deeply troubled by the public and media reaction to the book. People marvelled that a policeman could have feelings, or seemed astonished that a cop could write something other than a ticket. Stung that few commentators paid serious attention to the poems as poems, has published nothing since.” Another part of the story, according to Ottawa poet and publisher jwcurry, was simply that Jewinksi wanted to be left alone to run his beat, and not, because of doing poetry readings, suddenly be asked to do safety lectures at schools. Since Jewinski’s recent retirement, there have been small sounds emanating from his direction, through poems; the first in decades. jwcurry, for example, has already seen a trickling of unpublished poems from Jewinski arrive in his mailbox, poems that have since been made into small publications.

            The docks are two hundred and forty feet out from the lake’s original shoreline. Landfill pushed everything forward. Buildings erupted out of it like weeds. The city, walking on water.
            Michael Redhill, Consolation (2006)

But what is the difference between this Queen City and Lynn Crosbie’s Queen Rat? Depth, I suppose, is the only answer. A rat moves freely, above and below ground. A city has no choice but to remain on the surface, and can only go further, perhaps, as an idea. Was it any different a city when Dennis Lee wrote his infamous poem “Civil Elegies,” a poem that appeared in book form in 1972 to win the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and a book that Nicholas Bradley, reviewing Robert Lecker’s The Cadence of Civil Elegies (2007) in Canadian Literature #196, called “a sprawling, complex poem about, inter alia, civic engagement, Canadian complexity with American imperialism and the connection between nature and the modern city — the ‘technopolis’ epitomized by Toronto.” Lee begins his poem with this:

Often I sit in the sun and brooding over the city, always
in airborne shapes among the pollution I hear them, returning;
pouring across the square
in fetid descent, they darken the towers
and the wind-swept place of meeting and whenever
the thick air clogs my breathing it teems with their presence.
Many were born in Canada, and living unlived lives they died
of course but died truncated, stunted, never at
home in native space and not yet
citizens of a human body of kind. And it is Canada
that specialized in this deprivation.

In December 2009 at Toronto’s Young Centre, Leslieville’s Mike Ross reworked Lee’s Civil Elegies as, Richard Ouzounian wrote in the Toronto Star, “the centerpiece of a thought-provoking and deeply moving piece of theatre.” Ouzounian continues:

Ross sits at the piano, where he intersperses Lee’s darker thoughts with some of his lighter or more upbeat poems, including “Spadina,” the piece inspired by the 1970 demonstration against the Spadina Expressway, which is the closest thing to a revolutionary ode this city has ever produced.

Again, like Colombo suggesting about the CN Tower, Ouzounian suggests Toronto’s lack of poems, lack of poetic power. Are there no Toronto revolutionary odes? Has he not read Dionne Brand? And does the city, specifically, require one?

***

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 robmclennan.blogspot.com. He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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