by JOHN NYMAN
ACROSS TIME, STYLE, AND GENRE, VIA VANCOUVER
Vancouver for Beginners
[Toronto: Book*hug Press, 2019, $12.99 – $21.00]
These are not the potatoes of my youth
[Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions • icehouse poetry, 2019, $19.95]
breth / th treez uv lunaria:
selektid rare n nu pomes n drawings, 1957-2019
[Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2019, SALE: $22.46]
If you truck with the Canadian creative class, you’ll soon realize that BC’s big city holds a special place in this country’s literary and artistic dreamscape. Despite growing up in the centre of the universe, for example, I’ve read more and better books about Vancouver than my own hometown of Toronto. Any single answer to the question why would be grossly oversimplified, but Alex Leslie has certainly tapped into one of its richer veins in her entrancing, surreal, and poignantly contemporary reinvention of the city’s mythos in Vancouver for Beginners.
While the city-in-a-book conceit might seem broad to the point of being silly, Leslie reins it in with a direct and astoundingly effective aesthetic approach. Each piece in Vancouver for Beginners coalesces into something between a fable and a postcard, but with the relentlessly metaphorical logic of trying to pin words to a dream. Consider the density and elegance of this passage from “Barter”:
Forest of pipes traded for a river. First city bartered for a struck match. An inlet for a swimming pool named prosperity, dosing fentanyl into the veins of a chemical dawn. And somewhere back there, the past was traded for a different past.
Under the surface, Leslie’s choice of the prose poetry form reflects her mastery of storytelling rhythms driven by straightforward, present-tense description. From the punchy part-sentences that open the passage, through the weave of subordinate clauses layered into its third sentence, to the open, familial gesture of “And somewhere back there,” these lines balance pure material accumulation with the flowing continuity of address and delay. Most poignant, however, are the images, which make up a kind of basic compositional unit throughout the book. By rapidly chaining compact phrases like “struck match,” “dosing fentanyl,” and “chemical dawn” into kaleidoscopic picture-strings, Leslie excites an intensely visual aspect of language that could nonetheless never be captured in a two-dimensional frame.
Many of Leslie’s poems achieve the best endpoints of her process, as the stereotypical vocables of talk about Vancouver are granted powers beyond their dictionary definitions. Repeating word-images like “oil drum” and “developer” echo with the runic magic of Old Gods. Their bizarrely familiar pantheon is filled out by the sticky, nostalgic feeling of mid-century middle-class progress animated by poems like “Morph,” in which “[a] realtor appears at your door holding a bottle of beefy Zinfandel, wearing a priest’s collar: thinking about a change?”
At the same time, these relatively new-fangled forces bicker and mingle with the equally revered and ubiquitous auras of land, sea, weather, plant and animal life, and Indigenous experience. In the resulting vortex, Vancouver for Beginners crafts a new, amodern urban mythology. The “beginners” of the book’s title aren’t newcomers or the uninitiated, but anyone (re)starting at the city’s beginning, seeking—and then suddenly submerged in—the foundations of a place without foundations.
Leslie shows that such cycles of return and reboot—and the inherent subversion of linear time they imply—are nothing new to Vancouver. Still, she also stresses that political and economic actors’ blindness to these undercurrents comes with profound consequences. Among these is the systemic inequality allegorized by the two neighbouring buildings in “Two”: one that houses the living, and one that houses the dead.
The resonances of Leslie’s mythical vision meet reality most violently in “Intersection,” which reflects on the collision of state authority, Indigenous spirituality, and settler-colonial apathy—“Traffic steered itself away from public shame”—accompanying the erection of a replica coffin at the intersection of Granville and Georgia during the Missing Women’s Inquiry. But while this real-life event serves as a key inspiration and centrepiece of the collection, Vancouver for Beginners triumphs in its ability to imagine far deeper than its historical and geographical baseline. Accessible, insightful, compelling, and bizarre, the book offers all readers (even those who, like me, have never visited its titular city) a glimpse at how specific localities reflect and ultimately give meaning to the cosmos.
In many of their poems, Walsh speaks frankly about growing up queer in a poor East Coast potato farming family—one in which intense toxic masculinity and compulsory heteronormativity led Walsh’s father to disown Walsh’s uncle, Bryan, upon the latter’s coming out, and to tell Walsh that Bryan had committed suicide. Every line in These are not the potatoes of my youth is steeped in this experience, but you wouldn’t know it until about a third of the way through. Up to that point (and in many of the poems that follow), Walsh eschews the confessional mode to instead cultivate non-sequitur, irony, and an observational approach to tracking character and emotion. Alongside the gorgeously textured stanzas that result, the collection takes the slow-burning incongruity between this style and its origins—as well as Walsh’s ceaseless exploration of what it means to bear that incongruity—to startling depths of self-knowledge and reinvention.
On the level of artistry, Walsh’s writing exhibits a practiced gait, ambling through long-ish lines with either flaneurial absorption or a stand-up’s shuffle from candour to punch line. While the collection as a whole is more deadpan, the second stanza of “Downtown convos”—also the second stanza of the book—showcases some of Walsh’s strongest poetic flourishes:
I love to walk—it helps me see better the world, to be moving,
see what people are about and what they are doing
just saying hello, wow, taking my ear-
buds out, interacting, and I have made so many mistakes.
The force of Walsh’s verse comes through their emphatic lyricism mixed with broader self-reflection and, most importantly, a kind of whimsical ecstasy, expressed here in the stanza’s hurried syntax, interjecting “wow,” and sharp change of topic at the end. These are not the potatoes of my youth is also chock-full of playful, almost brazenly wrong-footing enjambments—like the above passage’s slip from “doing” to “doing / just saying hello” or “taking my ear-” to “taking my ear- / buds out”—which often suddenly expand or diminish the gravity of Walsh’s phrasing.
Less wholesomely than in “Downtown convos,” Walsh often uses enjambment to juxtapose late-capitalist banality with the promise of deeper meaning. Such is the case in “Kiss a horse”—“At Starbucks I am about to ask for a restart / on the free internet”—and “Flaneurial”—“I found a fortune on the pavement: two days from now tomorrow / will be yesterday.” Aside from their wit (which is also well captured by the collection’s title), these lines are marked by their interchangeability. Woven together, they create a kind of Kevlar irony-armour, employing humour and artifice to guard against sentimentality.
This style is by no means foreign to postmodern poetics, and Walsh achieves it competently. However, the pieces that exploit it gain immensely from the context of Walsh’s more confessional verses. In this light, Walsh’s glibness is less hard-boiled than scab-like, emerging as a bulwark against the recurring pain of real trauma. The same kind of insistent repetition that looks like ornament in some pieces morphs, in others, into an expression of the ineffable difference between a cold, hard, pointless world and an impossible world that could be. Note, for instance, the repetition of “sometimes” as Walsh narrates their mother’s experience in “Your mother underground in St. Clair Station”:
They may need to put a little needle in her brain,
to explore the ellipses of little black dots on her X-ray
but sometimes she just wants to sit in the grass and dream
While it would be simple and satisfying to draw a straight line from Walsh’s poetics to the real-life necessity of coping, what keeps These are not the potatoes of my youth interesting is the tension between its voices. Walsh interrogates this tension at numerous points, including, poignantly, in “Life of Bryan”:
I had interior-decorated poems with metaphors hanging
all over them, was told simply by straight peers stick to the fluff
topics. Like Drag Brunch recaps, or?
To be unclear about death or the fact that Bryan was alive
when he was dead, well, I know how that is.
For me, such dialectics make it difficult to find the centre of Walsh’s collection: neither style nor statement seems enough to make up for (or perhaps live up to) the other. Insofar as this difficulty mirrors some of Walsh’s own, however, it also makes the experience of reading through and with These are not the potatoes of my youth incredibly enriching. The tensions in Walsh’s underlying poetics endure, yet it is precisely their irresolution—and its origins in a deeply traumatic upbringing, boldly remembered—that makes Walsh’s work worth reflecting on.
As a poet and artist—but also, unforgettably, as a person—bill bissett embodies an absolute dedication to creative freedom and community building that has nourished his acquaintances, admirers, and anyone familiar with his work for decades. Meanwhile, his exalted status in CanLit has been maintained by perhaps the most anti-systematic of systematizers: scholars of the Canadian avant-garde. While I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the marriage of ivory tower dissertating and bissett’s plainly anti-institutional DIY poetics, breth ensures that there’s no need to choose between the two. Luckily, bissett’s newest new and selected has something for everyone who draws from the poet’s well.
For students and scholars, breth is a much-needed compilation of favourites, rare works reprinted from decades-old ephemera, and selections from bissett’s Talonbooks catalogue of, frankly, too many books to keep track of. More importantly, however, the book’s design is a refreshing re-enactment of the radically democratic small press magic for which bissett is so widely loved. Typeset by bisset himself in big, bold Helvetica Neue, the book’s 500+ pages are unabashedly crammed with songs, chants, sound poems, line drawings, concrete texts, and bissett’s trademark eccentric spacing and spelling—just like you’d find in a zine-y, hand-stapled chapbook. While detailed publication notes and an index of first lines are available at the back, the book’s poems are presented in an organic, achronological order that can be entered into from any point.
All of this sets the stage for the deceptively simple harmony of image, sound, language, and being that pervades bissett’s poetry and philosophy. Bolstered by his famous “phonetic orthography”—which enstranges the pace of recital by making some words easier to read and others more difficult—bissett’s writing combines authentic wonder with an enlightening grasp of everyday conversational rhythms. Here’s one of my favourite stanzas, from “th first design”
yu put on yr shirt in
th early morning nd its a
sheet uv ice ovr yr skin
While the stanza is formed partially in the interest of visual, concrete shape, its line breaks also propel its meaning according to bissett’s hyper-colloquial speaking style. Breaking at “in” and “a” keeps the recitation flowing (in many poems, bissett’s stanzas can be seen as each comprising a single “breath unit,” like each of Allen Ginsberg’s lines in “Howl”) while also highlighting the sequence’s key evocative phrases: “th early morning” and “sheet uv ice.” At the end, the slurred Rs and short vowel sound of “ovr yr skin” pull the reader back from poetic grandiosity, keeping the tone quotidian in spite of bissett’s momentous imagination. At other points in the collection, this strategy allows bissett’s writing to achieve the rare honour of being intensely philosophical, maximally playful, and unashamedly grounded all at once, as in “we ar kreetshurs uv unknowing”:
we ar kreetshurs uv unknowing
strangelee skilld at spekulaysyuns
based looslee on previous ms or mr
undrstood narrativs always changing
like th tides uv th see cumming in
Throughout breth, the mystical energy of “we ar kreetshurs uv unknowing” flows not only through bissett’s verses, but also in and out of his visual pieces—including calmingly consistent text patterns and typewriter works—sonorous chants that echo his performance voice, and a delightful mix of not-too-serious sound poems. Among the latter, a single, large-print page of permutations of the syllables in “avocado” is perhaps the most fun thing to read aloud ever.
bissett’s poetry is undoubtedly a particular thing, difficult to compare with anything being written or published today. Yet it also represents the utter and all-encompassing merger of art and life, and in this sense breth contains everything and so much: post-structuralist ars poeticas, environmentalist tracts, surreal dream worlds, madness, political activism, conspiracy theories, dedications, collaborations, folk Marxism, all kinds of animals, poems in French “traduit par bertrand lachance,” tales of Bohemian living in the ’70s, families both ancestral and adoptive, gay relationships, gay sex, public sex, satire, laughter, and just plain love poems.
It’s easy to forget that breth looks back on over 60 years of creative output, when it also offers such a wellspring of energy for the future.