“I’ve skated over some pretty thin ice in my time, but when I first walked on water I knew I'd finally made the Canadian scene”
PHYLLIS WEBB'S CANADA
“I’ve skated over some pretty thin ice in my time, but when I first walked on water I knew I'd finally made the Canadian scene”
In August, 1969, William Vazan, an artist, drew a crescent line by walking along a sandy beach at low tide in Victoria, PEI, while another artist walked a similar line along the British Columbia shores. “Of course,” said Vazan, “when the tide changed, the water erased my crescent line, but for a whole day we had Canada in parenthesis.”
When I read that story in the newspaper something joyfully tumbled over in me. Those wild men on the beaches (from sea to shining sea) had made a witty, imaginative, sardonic statement about Canada, and they’d created, if not art, at least an event. It was an event of the imagination and therefore magical.
It went beyond a spoof of those fa-
miliar word assemblages such as International Pewter (Canada) Ltd. and the economic and political realities they represent. It went beyond the dictionary definition of “parenthesis”: a word, clause, sentence inserted into a passage to which it is not grammatically essential (apply that one to Canada and it’s pretty devastating). Canada is a whole bundle of parentheses, and emotionally we are all caught in the embrace of those inhibiting arms. Even Canada’s role as mediator in international disputes can be seen in terms of this image. The magic of the event was the psychological revelation that, once we see, feel and make external the bind we’re in, the tides can come and wash it away. (The tides can also come in and wash us away.)
I wonder if many Canadians share the secret ambition I had to be buffeted by the Atlantic and prevail against the winds off the Pacific. It took a few years and a little good luck to get from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Long Beach, British Columbia. Just to feel the limits of the land. To be at the extremes.
I’ve settled, temporarily, for inland waters and quiet, parenthetical ways. Salt Spring Island on the west coast is a good place for star-gazing and navel-gazing, a nice shy corner of the universe that doesn’t clamor for recognition or glory. A good place, maybe, for getting a perspective on life and times.
To put my Canada in perspective I have to put myself in perspective, line
up the labels and mix the metaphors. It’s not much fun. Now in early middle age, I find myself more rebellious, more radical, less patient, often in despair at the insanity of our life, from which I believe I’m saved by profound public and personal angers. I’m disaffected from my governments, even from the process of government, and from many of the institutions of the society that formed me. I’ve become a snarling writer of letters-tothe-editor, which I never write, a supporter of causes I never join. I am a voter who has never voted for a winning candidate, and a law-abiding anarchist. No party would have me if they knew what I really think. I won’t have any of them because I know what they really think. Spiritually, I’m
a French-Canadian separatist; in fact and in flesh a purebred west coast WASP.
As I sit here brooding on this nest of paradoxes — lay it on the line, Phyllis, lay it on the line — I’m confronted by what is for me the best of all possible worlds. Today I can watch from my window the sea shifting from cobalt blue to dove grey. The cliché seagulls make little white sun reflectors out in the harbor; trees on the tiny Three Sisters islands are a cold, green resting place for the eyes. The ferries of Wacky Bennett’s navy push on to / continued on page 47
Phyllis Webb is a west-coast poet whose work is noted for its striking imagery. Her individual collections are Even Your Right Eye, The Sea Is Also A Garden and Naked Poems.
MY CANADA from page 9
Active Pass, moving whitely and stately through the Strait of Georgia. A study in blue, white, green, grey. And when the tide goes out I can gather oysters. C’est mon pays. It’s my country.
But what is my Canada? This best and very temporary world on a Gulf Island is just a corner, and I don’t own an inch of it. I don’t possess any real estate. My Canada is unreal estate, a fantasy that changes as I change. I can’t fix it.
When I was a schoolgirl in Victoria, BC, there was that big event, the coronation. Not Elizabeth — King George the Sixth. I remember the coronation mugs that became a part of the household china, though I don’t remember how we got them at school, or why. I remember flapping my hand at the King and Queen as they drove through the streets of the city “when they came to visit us.” I suppose that’s part of my Canada. It’s a vivid memory. The weather was fine. But I think I became a Canadian and claimed my country when I was 17 and arrived at political consciousness. That sense of being a Canadian was later amplified and made more subtle by a literary consciousness and a general broadening of my horizons.
These things came to pass not in the airy rafters of my brain alone, but in places, and the places are all mixed in with love, friendships, food, seasons, poems, neurosis and nonsense. I could name you streets, restaurants, hotel rooms, beaches, grassy nooks, classrooms and bus routes that are as much my Canada as Parliament Hill or the mountain ranges of the west coast. But I’m not writing a novel.
When I was 17, the war had not yet burned and blasted to a halt. I suppose when my social science teacher trundled her chicks off to the BC legislature she didn’t know the trip was going to hatch a teen-age “radical” and that four years later I would be running in a provincial election, the youngest candidate ever fielded at that time, for the CCF. In 1945, the CCF had been demanding, among other things, votes for Asiatics and native Indians. That plank in the party platform was for me a springboard, and I jumped in. In 1949 the CCF ran the first Indian candidate. He won. I lost. (Fosing is one of the important experiences in the life of a Canadian, but there’s no need to make a habit of it.) So at that time I was beginning to identify the needs of this country and project a vision of what it could be.
I can still see a Sikh temple on a high hill in Victoria where I gave a campaign speech. The beautiful worncontinued on page 49
MY CANADA continued en in their saris — saffron, green, plum, cerise — on one side of the temple; the handsome men in their turbans on the other; a great birdlike fan above my head, an interpreter by my side. And the gnawing thought that “we had their vote.”
I’ve skated over some pretty thin ice in my time, but when I first walked on water I knew I’d finally made the Canadian scene. Before I moved to Quebec, I’d never seen a large body of water frozen so hard trucks could drive over it. When I walked on Lac St. Louis at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, I understood something about miracles. A poem began steaming out on the cold air, “Almost a Jesus, I walk on waters white with a white stride . . .”
Yes, this was really Canada! Snow, ice, freezing rain, trees draped in icicles, pristine, dazzling against a blue sky. In Quebec, each season was a challenge. Winds and drifts in winter; heat and humidity in summer; spring sprang out like a green lion, and autumn was almost too beautiful to bear. It was a challenge, but after a few strenuous years I realized the climate was a form of natural madness and fled.
Each of my self-imposed exiles — to England, France and the U.S. — ended in return. Now I’m a permanent resident. Why? One day in Paris, sitting in a café downing one more grog, I came up with a new punning name for myself: I was a Parisite. With my limited talents, I could only feed off France. I felt I wanted to do more with my life than be a parasitical guest at a gourmet feast. A remnant of the Puritan ethic still numbed my taste buds. Then there was language. As a poet I could only write in English if I wanted to say what I meant. And as a Canadian poet I had access to a network of poet friends across the country who were nursing an infant unicorn called Canadian Poetry (now at universities it’s called Can.Lit. ). I wanted to help the dainty monster grow.
Maybe it was all much simpler than that. Maybe I kept coming back because it was simply home.
In Canada, I’ve worked as a cookie packer, a waitress, a cashier-hostess, a secretary. I’ve been a teacher, a broadcaster, and on the staff of CBC public affairs. And, throughout all, for love not money I have tried to write poetry. I’ve done these things in Victoria, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. That route and all the people on it have been my lifeline to the experience of being Canadian.
Right now I’m afraid for my coun-
try, not because Quebec might separate (that might force us into some useful original thinking), but because so many Canadians don’t give a damn about their freedom. They rock in the cradle of the Great Parenthesis, sucking their thumbs, humming an old tune, Law And Order. So what* if Vancouver’s Mayor Tom Campbell threatens to round up hippies and draft resisters under the War Measures Act? Vote him in for another mindless term. So what if innocent people in Quebec are jailed? A good place to think. (It certainly is.) So what if you can be retroactively guilty? C’est la vie. As a professional non-joiner, I’ve done a very amateurish thing. I have become a member of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. That may seem like a very pathetic gesture, but it’s the kind of gesture most Canadians of my generation are still capable of acting out without embarrassment or humility.
Last summer, shortly after I had come to the island, I received a letter from a young man — I presume he
I’m afraid for my country because so many Canadians don’t give a damn about their freedom
was young — telling me to “get lost.” And why? Because I wasn't, he thought, writing about Canadian problems in my poems. This seems to me to be carrying the new nationalism a bit far. Anyhow, I’m not 100% Canadian content, as a person or poet, and I fear anyone who is. It’s a question of relative values. Once again William Vazan leaps out of the headlines to help me make my point: “Artist Draws A Line Across Canada — Why?” Vazan answers, “It all comes out of the idea that the world is shrinking. The line will mark space and distance elements that have been changed so much by things like moon landings that they don’t mean what they used to mean.” It was probably fun getting eight galleries across the country involved in taping Canada, but with a few words I can put it more bluntly: Canada is not the belly button of the world. Nor, thank God, is it the panic button. If I’m grateful for anything I’m grateful for that.
If I say my Canada is unreal estate, that is a personal and idiosyncratic way of saying time passes, the pictures change, and we will always be dreaming up new pictures for new fu-
tures. It’s also a way of indicating where the real estate is. I find it helpful to think that my corner of Canada this minute, with its cobalt sea, is an infinitesimal part of the globe, and I am aware of this every time I switch on the news or watch the sun come up. The earth is our real estate, our terribly threatened royal domain.
I often think that in our search for a Canadian identity we fail to realize that we are not searching for definitions but for signs and omens. The ancients used to read the entrails of sheep; we keep reading our own entrails and end up with ulcers. I’m not good at book history, at dates and the chronology of events that surround the Macdonalds and Browns and Lauriers, to speak only of Canada. But recently I have been going into a different past for a few lessons. I have been studying stones. The rock art of the Indians of British Columbia has been neglected in favor of the more dazzling (and portable) wood carvings, like totem poles and masks. Today I received a letter from a friend who shares my enthusiasm for petroglyphs and who has seen them in many parts of the world. She had just been to visit a recently discovered and relatively unknown site on Vancouver Island, and she writes: “ . . . a huge ceremonial place, most of which is probably still to be uncovered. There are many styles and probably periods, but the design and workmanship are beautiful beyond belief. The water from above was running across carvings of sea snakes and eels and the effect, which I am sure was intentional, is one of rich marine life swimming. A Chinese dragon of a beauty I have never seen anywhere, the hermaphrodite crouching on top of it all, reminding me of something I have seen before — a Maya glyph? Two dancing figures, one beautifully masked, almost Egyptian, the other with a huge phallus, the legs like a Buddhist statue, big feet . . . There seems to be a definite relation to the sun, which hit the figures from the west head on and made them dance, all facing east down slope. The whole site must have been worked, leveled, polished . . .”
The site may well be pre-Canadian, but geographically it lives at my back door. It adds a dimension to the pastness of where and how I, a Canadian, live. It beckons me into its wisdom. Soon I shall go and see it and try to read the signs and omens of those figures dancing for the sun. I think they will have something to say. (I may even find in them some Canadian content.) ■
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