The poetic rubbings of a defensive driver

December 1 1971


The poetic rubbings of a defensive driver

December 1 1971


The poetic rubbings of a defensive driver

Have two kinds of things to say about my country: (A) Since I’ve been

across it and lived in various widely separated parts of it for respectable lengths of time, I might try to say things about all of it. I say “might try” because Canada is not an island and even old Japanese artists who have walked over all the roads of their much more compact country hardly dare to say “all of it.” But you might as well try. How about this: Canada is a large endless farm made up of 10 fields and two wastelands — one Arctic, the other Metro. My Defensive Driving Manual calls this “taking the Big Picture,” and if you find this too sweeping I can also shift gears to the second kind of thing I can say about Canada: (B) Have also been born and bred in just one part of it and lived there a lot. Have lived in southwestern Ontario in what my geography book calls the St. Lawrence Lowlands; the London, Ontario, painter Greg Curnoe has a good name for it — Souwesto. I look forward to the day, by the way, when the Ontario government puts this up on highway signs rather than the sinister “You are now in the MODA tourist region.” I can see people living and enjoying themselves in a region called Souwesto or West Canada West (an 1850 possibility) but MODA — no! And it is this part of Canada, a very local grain of sand, that I think of as my home. No one gets up every morning saying “From sea to sea” and “Ellesmere Island, PEI, and Dawson Creek.” No, you get up in the morning and say “pyjamas — made in Hong Kong, toaster made in Cleveland, U.S.A.,” and backyard (still manufactured in Canada), a couple of streets, people both visible and invisible, dead and alive, and that is my nation. B things are very, very local, petty and probably unimportant but I believe that in the end Canada, despite the pyjama and toaster problem, may reside there.

So, of course, life is filled with both A and B moments. If, however, you go in for too much taking the Big Picture you miss something very valuable in the smaller picture. At the present moment hopelessly uncontrolled and undesigned megalopolises are on the march. Politicians cheerfully prophesy that the Detroit complex will one day melt into the Toronto system at London, Ontario! Well, wonderful. And what kind of human rat will scuttle around in this huge maze of freeways and parking lots? Zombies don’t know where they are; comforted by such phrases as “global village” and “you can’t stop progress,” they cheerfully face the prospect

of a world where all places are the same shopping plaza and all the shoppers are interchangeable units. For some reason or other I can’t cheerfully face this prospect. One way to fight it is to “know” where you are, and this means, among other things, your street, your apartment block, your window box, the faces of friends around you. However, there’s more I can say here later on. First let’s try some.


A couple of years ago we were living out near Victoria, BC, and the Windsor Driving School taught me Defensive Driving. Was also trying to write a play about the Donnellys, the 19th-century Souwesto family who were murdered by a mob in Biddulph township on the night of February 4, 1880. Eventually the time came to go home to London, Ont., (in whose courthouse some of the mob were twice put on trial) and for the first time this could be done in a car. Defensive Driving’s second rule is that you must ALWAYS Keep Your EYES Moving. Decided to try this for all aspects of the trip; there had to be some way of traveling so that afterward you would feel that you really had been in all of those places. Otherwise might they not simply blur into each other?

So before leaving Vancouver Island to journey across Canada I walked into Woolworth’s and bought (Blaisdel Black 173) a china marker, a greasy black crayon sharpened by unraveling the paper packed around it; also some loose-leaf binder paper. As we went through places we then could do rubbings of any interesting surfaces we spotted. For example, you are walking down the main street of Ladysmith; you decide that you would like to carry away with you a piece of that street forever. Kneel down, apply the paper, rub a small square with china marker, then get up

as coolly as you can; it’s surprising how few people ever notice you. Was he tying his shoe? What you’ve got on paper now is a square finger print of Ladysmith’s chief pathway, set down by its masons whose trowel dints are just a bit less regular than those dotting the streets of Medicine Hat. On this piece of pathway you can see the pressure of feet passing by for years, initials scratched when the cement was wet; you can see the whole town. And. There’s still room on the paper for three more square fingerprints — Qualicum, Cowichan and Hornby Street in Vancouver. The sidewalks of Canada at first glance may seem all alike; but no, they never quite repeat themselves. Some towns have people who leave footsteps in the cement, sometimes small and bare, at other times big and fully booted (Dauphin); the graffito makers are more successful in some places than others — whole message, full names and drawings (some ambitiously obscene). In Qualicum, mixed in with the cement, are pieces of white seashells; in Carman, Manitoba, St. Andrew’s crosses are worked into the dot patterns; around motels where the pavement has been more recently laid you’ll find not trowel dints but a finish of swirls and flourishings. When I told some people from England that I had been making street rubbings, they insisted that I was putting them on. To them rubbing means brass rubbing, the results of which are silhouettes of abbots, bishops, knights and the inscriptions on the tombs of saints. I’m sure rubbing does mean this, but in Canada we have so few saints and abbots that we must make do with what we have, particularly if we would like to know the country, prevent it from becoming a blur. If you have always kept your eyes moving, seeing what there is to be seen, losing nothing that might make for more interest, then what have you accomplished with the china marker? A log in Riel’s house. An M scratched on the pavement of Medicine Hat the night everyone was indoors watching the first moon landing. The false Venetian ornament on a Winnipeg grain palace built in 1913. A manhole lid patterned like a steam engine’s hat. The grain of the wood in the Suspension Bridge at Sioux Narrows. Bullet holes in the rectory at Batoche. Wave marks in ancient Ripple Rock near Thessalon. A rayed sun from a tombstone in Charlottetown.

Besides finding a variety of things to touch I found also a wide, wide range of landscapes and people to paint and to talk about. Here are three or four

James Reaney is a poet and playwright who teaches at the University of Western Ontario in London. His poetry has won three Governor General’s Awards, and his plays have been performed throughout Canada. He is currently working on an anthology of his plays, to be published by New Press.

continued on page 46

MY CANADA from page 18

excerpts from my diary and sketchbook which show you a scene on Long Beach, Vancouver Island; then Qualicum Beach on the same island, then a motel in Alberta, next a beach in Manitoba and, last, a street scene at evening in Marathon, a pulp town on Lake Superior.


10 July Cox Point near Long Beach. How do you paint waves, breakers, surf just in from China? Green, green mountain wearing a fog cap and an Indian family walking off down the beach, their blue, brown and yellow raincoats reflected in the wet sand plus it’s pouring mizzle.

9 July A family on the beach at Qualicum. Fat-backed grandmother, dog, red-and-white beach towel spread out over a rock — good, now leave it there. Egg-pebble beach. Quiet protected sea. Logs. Yellow sweater girl. Kid in green trunks. Tennis court overgrown with — do that later. Don’t move very much, please, and don’t look this way.

15 July At one corner of the motel yard is penned a large black and white rabbit. He is nibbling a cabbage leaf. My eyes go back and forth between him and the snow on the mountains we have just come through.

23 July ... at Clear Lake bigger, chunkier man physiques than we’ve seen before. Could lead to bus manufacturers widening seats for Winnipeg, not having to be so generous with the seat allowance for Vancouverites?

1 August Several beers at the Egyptian Room (Austrian waiter, ' just out?) in Marathon. No building over 20 years old apparently. All planned — new church, as I stand with the sketch pad propped up on the back of a car, the local kids pour out of the recreation centre. The houses, the church, the stores are painted the colors of the sweaters the kids wear. A low cloud ceiling. Just outside of town a low purple mountain thinks to itself. The manhole lids were made in Fort William.

When I look at these diary fragments and the journey they represent I hear someone saying, “But what do they tell me about your Canada?” Sorry. I can’t wrap it up now with a point or two because when you cross the country, trying to take the Big Picture, there come at you and into your diary and sketchbook a whole bunch of little things — footprints in pavement, then different faces, street scenes, the smell of yarrow growing

continued on page 51

MY CANADA continued by the sea — and all different. There were different kinds of light, different ways of walking, different potatoes. Different — if you looked for it. We tried to increase the variety by zigzagging across the prairies — from Medicine Hat up to North Battleford (in search of the Riel and Métis country) then down into Manitoba to Pelican Lake and Pilot Mound, up again to Winnipeg. This strategy resulted in the feeling that underneath the modern world of french fries or English-style fish and chips there lies another quite recent world—past and tragic. Poundmaker’s grave, horse-drawn wagons on the roads there, suddenly; the rough cement over the common grave of the Indians hanged after the rebellion by the North Saskatchewan River; the whole slope down to this river at Batoche and the narrow farms each with their barking dog along the river road. In British Columbia too we’d had a similar experience of sensing another level under the traffic lights and drugstores of a mountain town, Golden; we were looking for the grave of James Carroll, one of the vigilantes involved in the Donnelly murders I mentioned earlier. He left Souwesto years before we did, but, unlike our bodies, remains somewhere out there. Where? As we traveled we could always ask that; is this where ... at that time, then? And of course we were always saying — this is the way it feels, looks, smells — now. So — to finish up A and taking the Big Picture — look back yourselves on all the things, times, faces, places and fragments I have mentioned. My country is the sort of place where I can truthfully remind you that if you were able to look into my diary and sketchbooks (which you aren’t) you would find hundreds and hundreds more.

Before I start up B there are some dull, disturbing things I noticed. All that I’ve talked about was made possible by a car, and the car works both ways, for and against the place we live in. Now that I’ve learned to drive I sense that a great many people I meet in Canada are “driving” all the time. They apply their driving patterns (and they’re not defensive ones) to conversation, discussions, politics, meetings, the ways they “get ahead.” The ethics, the rhythm of our lives, the way of seeing things = CAR and its faster versions, though I hope the family jet plane is still around the corner. This creates another country where the little things I’ve been discussing hardly show up at all. Motel BLUR Motel BLUR Motel Blur traffic lights (must be a large town, this one) blur is what Canada quite often really is. Only if you can create some

sort of cross current, a current in your life that crosses the very necessary road and car — does the other country I’m talking about show up. If enough of us don’t start this sort of thing — getting out of the car both invisible and visible that has become so important to us — then Canada could become (is!?) a very dull place to live in. Now for B.


Earlier I said that B things about my country are very local, even petty, but that they also involve, besides a couple of streets, people both visible and invisible. I think everyone in the neighborhood they live in has a landmark, a favorite sound or object that makes the place home for them; it can be everything from a red neon sign saying SNOWFLAKE PASTRY to a dying elm to the sound of traffic past a particular building. Not far away from my street there’s a small white frame cottage with a front door painted a particular shade of light yellow. Most of the year you just notice the door, but in July, August, September there’s a bed of marigolds in front of the veranda; these marigolds are the precise shade of light “white” yellow the door is. Whoever planned that, although I’ll never meet them, is a friend and neighbor. Such countrymen are to be found for the walking, or sometimes just looking out a window.

Already something very local and small, a front porch and some marigolds, has grown into something much larger than a grain of sand, something out of which good places to live are

built. Let me show you how the local front door painted yellow connects up in a different way, this time with an invisible person. In my house I have a book called The Collected Poems Of Isabella Valancy Crawford, published at the turn of the century by (alas!) Ryerson Press. She was a poet who lived and wrote up above her uncle’s store on King Street, Toronto, and she has the following:

Love . . . has its own sun, its own peculiar sky,

All one great daffodil, on which do lie The sun, the moon, the stars, all seen at once and never setting,

but all shining straight Into the faces of the trinity —

The one beloved, the lover and sweet love.

When I think of this passage in which everything around you turns into a giant yellow flower, well ... I don’t think anymore. Every time I walk by the yellow door and when the marigolds are out, at first I didn’t quite realize why, I felt a charge. I now know why. It’s because I’m reminded of the daffodil poem. My country is the sort of place where that kind of very simple ecstasy can take place; a great cleanser for the windows of the soul (let me remind you of the bilingual motto on Bon Ami cleansing powder cans) and if our country survives after the approaching end of the Industrial Revolution, one of the reasons will be the possibility of such humanizing and peaceful experiences. ■