MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Ivan, the terrible poet, takes a Leninist look at modern Canada

HAL TENNANT August 1 1968
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Ivan, the terrible poet, takes a Leninist look at modern Canada

HAL TENNANT August 1 1968

Ivan, the terrible poet, takes a Leninist look at modern Canada

so MUCH has been written about the inspiring cultural influences of Expo 67 that it’s refreshing to discover one Expo “inspiration” that’s bad — and fascinatingly bad at that.

It’s a poem in Russian called In The Land of the Maple Leaf, by Lev Oshanin, a member of the USSR intelligentsia who visited Expo and went sight-seeing as far afield as Niagara Falls. His poem appeared recently in Ogonyok (The Flame), a prestigious, Life-like Soviet weekly of two million circulation. Maclean’s editors learned of the poem from Misha Allen, a Toronto translator who regularly scans the Soviet press, and were intrigued not only by his translation but also by Ogonyok's sketches of Toronto City Hall and a roadside Esso sign.

Oshanin apparently liked Montreal, the Jacques Cartier Bridge, and the City Hall (though little else) in Toronto and couldn’t resist drawing the inevitable geographical comparisons with his homeland (“I cannot believe I am on a different continent. / This is not Volga nor Yenissey — / This is the river St. Law-rence”).

As a poet, Oshanin is apparently addicted to campy symbolism (“They say the river has the strength of a Beaver / With its paws spread out

like a Maple Leaf"). And as a storyteller groping for a rhyme he’s capable of straining both facts and syntax (“Montreal was conceived by a stranger — / A Frenchman called Cartier, the first name Jacques").

But the fascinating thing about Oshanin — in this poem, at least — is the way he manages to make so many of his lines read like “found poetry” straight out of Pravda. At every turn, he spots evidence of the excesses and deficiencies of capitalism.

As he tells it, Canada has ethnic problems far more complicated than any mere French-English conflict;

Human islands everywhere,

Nationalities of all kinds.

Like patches on a crazy c/uilt,

Each person keeping to himself and only to himself.

Be it Hungarian or Pole, all are lonely —

Ukrainians, Russians or Jews.

And it’s surprising how much he could see while whizzing along a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway:

A million trading posts along the superhighway —

All this in sum is Canada.

By looking closer you will detect:

Millions living in loneliness,

While the businessmen are demi-gods

Aloof from all, atop their cold penthouses.

Oshanin virtually ignores the issue of Quebec separatism, except possibly in one short passage about the Jacques Cartier bridge, which, he says, “trembles and sighs in anguish”:

What are these sighs about?

The load too heavy?

A re you unable to bring back the past?

Is it because Montreal, so dear to your heart,

Stopped being a Frenchman long ago?

It’s possible, though, to see those lines arc merely the work of a wistful romantic. Certainly his impression of Niagara Falls could have been written by almost any disillusioned tourist:

Niagara, Niagara,

Your white spray is like the smoke, Dut no one will observe you free

of charge —

Trying to preserve for a dollar

your drops of spray.

On my book shelf the dollar ashtray will be resting —

It will remind me of trips of yesteryears.

In Toronto, of course, Oshanin finds his most obvious target:

It is a quiet, short street called Day

That really matters.

All along and all across it, promoters are rushing.

Here fortunes are made and backs are broken.

For all our faults, Oshanin concludes we could be far worse:

You are so beautiful, oh Maple Leaf.

So please, friend, stay as you are.

Preserve your soul and fate

And call it all your own.

Do not transform on the way

Into an American star on a flag of stripes.

Come to think of it, anybody who

likes maple leaves, hates Bay Street and hands out warnings about U.S.

takeovers can’t be all bad.

HAL TENNANT