Refusing to acknowledge where you come from is an act of amputation
Three hours past midnight, Highway 17 between Ottawa and North Bay, November, I’m looking out the Greyhound bus window at the almost nothing I can see. Coffee taste still with me from the Ottawa station, where I was marooned four hours because someone in Toronto mixed up the schedules; I sat writing letters and trying not to watch as the two waitresses disposed of a tiny wizened drunk. “I been all over the world, girlie,” he told them as they forced his coat on him, “I been places you never seen.”
The headlights pick out asphalt, snow-salted road borders, dark trees as we lean round the frequent bends. What I picture is that we’ll pass the motel, which they said was on the highway outside Renfrew — but which side? — and I’ll have to walk, a mile maybe, carrying the two suitcases full of my own books I’m lugging around because there may not be any bookstores, who in Toronto knows? A passing truck, Canadian Content squashed all over the road, later the police wondering what I was doing there anyway, as I am myself at this moment. Tomorrow at nine (nine!) I’m supposed to be giving a poetry reading in the Renfrew high school. Have fun in Renfrew, my friends in Toronto said with, I guess, irony before I left.
I’m thinking of summer, a swimming pool in France, an acquaintance of mine floating on his back and explaining why bank managers in Canada shouldn’t be allowed to hang Group of Seven pictures on their walls — it’s a false image, all nature, no people — while a clutch of assorted Europeans and Americans listen incredulously.
“I mean, Canada, ” one of them drawls. “I think they should give it to the United States, then it would be good. All except Quebec, they should give that to France. You should come and live here. I mean, you don’t really live there any more.”
We get to Renfrew finally and I step off the bus into six inches of early snow. He was wrong, this if anywhere is where I live. Highway 17 was my first highway, I traveled along it six months after I was born, from Ottawa to North Bay and then to Temiskaming, and from there over a one-track dirt road into the bush. After that, twice a year, north when the ice went out, south when the snow came, the time between spent in tents; or in the cabin built by my father on a granite point a mile by water from a Quebec village so remote that the road went in only two years before I was born. The towns I’ve passed and will pass — Arnprior, Renfrew, Pembroke, Chalk River, Mattawa, the old gingerbread mansions in each of them built on lumber money and the assumption that the forest would never give out — they were landmarks, way stations. That was 30 years ago though and they’ve improved the highway, now there are motels. To me nothing but the darkness of the trees is familiar.
I didn’t spend a full year in school until I was 11. Americans usually find this account of my childhood — woodsy, isolated, nomadic — less surprising than do Canadians: after all, it’s what the glossy magazine ads say Canada is supposed to be like. They’re disappointed when they hear I’ve never lived in an igloo and my father doesn’t say “On, huskies!” like Sergeant Preston on the defunct (American) radio program, but other than that they find me plausible enough. It’s the Canadians who raise eyebrows. Or rather the Torontonians. It’s as though I’m a part of their own past they find disreputable or fake or just can’t believe ever happened.
I’ve never read at a high school before. At first I’m terrified, I chew Turns while the teacher introduces me, remembering the kinds of things we used to do to visiting dignitaries when I was in high school: rude whispers, noises, elastic bands and paper clips if we could get away with it. Surely they’ve never heard of me and won’t be interested: we had no Canadian poetry in high school and not much of anything else Canadian. In the first four years we studied the Greeks and Romans and the Ancient Egyptians and the Kings of England, and in the fifth we got Canada in a dull blue book that was mostly about wheat. Once a year a frail old man would turn up and read a poem about a crow; afterward he would sell his own books (as I’m about to do), autographing them in his thin spidery handwriting. That was Canadian poetry. I wonder if I look like him. vulnerable, misplaced and redundant. Isn’t the real action — the real action — their football game this afternoon?
Question period: Do you have a message? Is your hair really like that, or do you get it done? Where do you get the ideas? How long does it take? What does it mean? Does it bother you, reading your poems out loud like that? It would bother me. What is the Canadian identity? Where can I send my poems? To get them published.
They are all questions with answers, some short, some long. What astonishes me is that they ask them at all, that they want to talk: at my high school you didn’t ask questions. And they write, some of them. Inconceivable. It wasn’t like that, I think, feeling very old, in my day.
In Deep River I stay with my second cousin, a scientist with the blue inhuman eyes, craggy domed forehead and hawk nose of my maternal Nova Scotian relatives. He takes me through the Atomic Research Plant, where he works; we wear white coats and socks to keep from being contaminated and watch a metal claw moving innocent-looking lethal items — pencils, a tin can, a Kleenex — behind a 14-inch leaded glass window. “Three minutes in there,” he says, “will kill you.” The fascination of invisible force.
After that we examine beaver damage on his property and he tells stories about my grandfather, before there were cars and radios. I like these stories, I collect them from all my relatives, they give me a link, however tenuous, with the past and with a culture made up of people and their relationships and their ancestors rather than objects in a landscape. This trip I learn a new story: my grandfather’s disastrous muskrat farm. It consisted of a fence built carefully around a swamp, the idea being that it would be easier to gather in the muskrats that way; though my cousin says he trapped more muskrat outside the fence than my grandfather ever did inside it. The enterprise failed when a farmer dumped out some of his apple spray upstream and the muskrats were extinguished; but the Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the muskrat market anyway. The fence is still there.
Most of the stories about my grandfather are success stories, but I add this one to my collection: when totems are hard to come by, failure stories have their place. “Do you know,” I say to my cousin, repeating a piece of lore recently gleaned from my grandmother, “that one of our ancestresses was doused as a witch?” That w-as in New England; whether she sank and was innocent or swam and was guilty isn’t recorded.
Out his living-room window, across the Ottawa River, solid trees, is my place. More or less.
Freezing rain overnight; I make it to the next poetry reading pulling my suitcases on a toboggan two miles over thin ice.
I make it to North Bay, an hour late because of the sleet. That evening I read at the Oddfellows’ Hall, in the basement. The academics who have organized the reading are nervous, they think no one will come, there’s never been a poetry reading in North Bay before. In a town where everyone’s seen the movie, I tell them, you don’t have to worry, and in fact they spend the first 15 minutes bringing in extra chairs. These aren’t students, there are all kinds of people, old ones, young ones, a friend of my mother’s who used to stay with us in Quebec, a man whose uncle ran the fishing camp at the end of the lake. . .
In the afternoon I was interviewed for the local TV station by a stiff-spined man in a tight suit. “What’s this,” he said, dangling one of my books nonchalantly by the corner to show the viewers that poetry isn’t his thing, he’s virile really, “a children’s book?” I suggested that if he wanted to know what was inside it he might try reading it. He became enraged and said he had never been so insulted, and Jack McClelland hadn’t been mean like that when he was in North Bay. In place of the interview they ran a feature on green noodles.
Later, 30 poetry readings later. Reading a poem in New York that has an outhouse in it and having to define outhouses (and having the two or three people who have actually used one come up furtively afterwards and say that they, too, once . . .). Meeting a man who has never seen a cow; who has never, in fact, been outside the city of New York. Talking then about whether there is indeed a difference between Canada and the U.S. (I been places you never seen . . .) Trying to explain, in Detroit, that in Canada for some strange reason it isn’t just other poets who come to poetry readings. (“You mean . . . people like our mothers read poetry?”) Having someone tell me that maybe what accounts for the “strength” of my work is its fetching “regional” qualities —“you know, like Faulkner . . .”
In London, Ontario, the last poetry reading of the year and perhaps, I’m thinking, for ever, I’m beginning to feel like a phonograph. A lady: “I’ve never felt less like a Canadian since all this nationalism came along.” Another lady, very old, with astonishing sharp eyes: “Do you think in metaphor?” Someone else: “What is the Canadian identity?” That seems to be on people’s minds.
How to keep all this together in your head, my head. Because where I live is where everyone lives: it isn’t just a place or a region, though it is also that (and I could have put in Vancouver and Montreal, where I lived for a year each, and Edmonton where I lived for two, and Lake Superior and Toronto . . .). It’s a space composed of images, experiences, the weather, your own past and your ancestors’, what people say and what they look like and how they react to what you’re doing, important events and trivial ones, the connections among them not always obvious. The images come from outside, they are there, they are the things we live with and must deal with. But the judgments and the connections (what does it meanl) have to be made inside your head and they are made with words: good, bad, like, dislike, whether to go, whether to stay, whether you live there any more. For me that’s partly what writing is: an exploration of where in reality I live.
I think Canada, more than most countries, is a place you choose to live in. It’s easy for us to leave, and many of us have. There’s the U.S. and England, we’ve been taught more about their history than about our own, we can blend in, become permanent tourists. There’s been a kind of standing invitation here to refuse authenticity to your actual experience, to think life can be meaningful or important only in “real” places like New York or London or Paris. And it’s a temptation: the swimming pool in France is nothing if not detached. The question is always, Why stay? and you have to answer that over and over.
I don’t think Canada is “better” than any other place, any more than I think Canadian literature is “better”; I live in one and read the other for a simple reason: they are mine, with all the sense of territory that implies. Refusing to acknowledge where you come from — and that must include the noodle man and his hostilities, the anti-nationalist lady and her doubts — is an act of amputation: you may become free floating, a citizen of the world (and in what other country is that an ambition?) but only at the cost of arms, legs or heart. By discovering your place you discover yourself.
But there’s another image, fact, coming from the outside that I have to fit in. This territory, this thing I have called “mine,” may not be mine much longer. Part of the much-sought Canadian identity is that few nationals have done a more enthusiastic job of selling their country than have Canadians. Of course there are buyers willing to exploit, as they say, our resources; there always are. It is our eagerness to sell that needs attention. Exploiting resources and developing potential are two different things: one is done from without by money, the other from within, by something I hesitate only for a moment to call love. ■
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