Acknowledging a City’s Dark History
Barry McKinnon. in the millennium. (Vancouver, B.C.: New Star Books Ltd., 2009. 144 pages. $19 Cdn. $16 U.S.)
This 13-part sequence of poems about love, loss, aging and decay of communities leaves me in near despair but also grateful for the unremittingly truthful description of what we face.
Barry McKinnon, the Prince George author of eight poetry books and, for almost forty years, a College of New Caledonia English instructor, writes about his personal experiences. Earlier poetry collections include Pulp Log, which won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1992, and The the, a finalist for the Governor-General’s Award in 1992.
“When writers write, as Robert Creeley says, they want knowledge of their own experience,” McKinnon said at the Postnorth II: For Science poetry reading at The Twisted Cork restaurant in Prince George Feb. 12, an event organized by College of New Caledonia English instructor Graham Pearce. “They put it into a syntactical twist.
“It says something about how complex your life is. Your poetry could be about your home town.”
In notes to “Head Out (A Letter, Essay, Poem — to Cecil Giscombe)” in this new collection, McKinnon writes, “My job as a poet is to see and unravel arbitrary and preconceived notions and definitions of reality, including what I might conjure as my own: the poet can’t help but do this because of the very nature of the energy & process of the language that’s chosen him or her. What has been mapped by manipulative and self-interested forces, from whatever source or reason, is firstly what the poet must at the most rudimental start of the thinking and writing process attempt to take apart. I must find myself asking unanswerable questions; there is no choice.”
In the final poem of this collection, “Prince George Core,” McKinnon finds that “the city hates itself,” ratifying the observation of a friend and colleague, Anna Djuric. He’s talking about a city where a former mayor gave voice to “simple mercantile presumptions” by saying, “Libraries are for loafers.” As McKinnon notes in an earlier poem in the book, “Prince George (Part One)”:
root hog or die
when a city becomes its coldest hearts
we live in the illusion of its habitat:
the invisible/visible: the city you see / did good in
becomes an old cliche in the toxic mill cloud that fills the bowl
and drifts with the winds — a swirl of stink in the
citizenry / penetrates the corpus while the corporate, that most
visible as the source, least accounted for in the non-existent
I can’t breathe
In this poem and others, McKinnon also records typical local taunts against writers and other artists like “when are you going to write something good?”
In Prince George, it’s a case of “us going against the global manufactured,” in the first poem in the book, with the same title as the whole collection.
“Bolivia / Peru” deals with a harrowing trip he took with his wife Joy and Prince George writers John Harris and Vivien Lougheed to some of the most impoverished regions of South America, basing it in part on journal notes he made during the journey. In some ways the violence, immediate or latent, the present or historical exploitation by imperial or corporate power and the poverty and hopelessness bind together experiences travellers in Latin America encounter and what visitors to Prince George’s downtown core must confront.
In “Bolivia / Peru” McKinnon says visitors find themselves walking
“…on the bones of six million worked to death / though no
graves to mark them (blacks from Amazon / kids from anywhere.”
…In Lima you land to trust it enough to leave your pack, go
to the can (young lispy guys hanging out
later, you get mugged
Further on in the poem he describes “the meaning of one’s big moment between life and death:
on a corner in Lima Peru.
(robber grabs purse, flash of red, no face / body — Joy screaming
my name — clutches purse to chest, then flipped / back to the
ground dragged in / along street, guy won’t let go, no thinking.
the pure action of all bodies adrenalized response. seconds?
I yell you cocksucker! raise travel book “Peru” above my
head and bring it down full force to guy’s head. Joy released….”
Yet it is not just in Lima or New York City that people stand aside and do nothing to stop a violent attack. “Prince George (Part One)”, written for San Francisco and B.C. poet George Stanley, recalls an incident from the 1980s in a seedy old Prince George hotel, replaced in the mid-1990s by the new courthouse, where a tourist was in the wrong place at the wrong time and paid for it with his life, with little intervention from bystanders:
stomp the tourist’s head into the walk — that part psycho
path — the city staggers in hoedown dance / wild
in iconic illusion of how it sees itself — dressed
to kill any thing in sight.
Later in this same poem he writes that
bloody head in its second of consciousness under the killer’s boot
— in metaphoric
be allowed to live.
In recent months McKinnon experienced yet another attack at Third and George, once the city’s central intersection and now arguably its toughest corner, where, after attending a performance at a local venue, he was surrounded by aggressive panhandlers. He hoped they would go away after he gave them a twenty-dollar bill. Instead they moved to harm him, and his son had to rescue him from the situation.
In “Prince George Core” the view in the same area is gritty, ugly.
“ . . . in this
heap, stolen bikes through snow — the grinning homeless lad
either in legitimacy says hello sir — the friendly light of human
greeting or as sardonic gesture: fuck you.
garbage, demise — butts, puke, sand / gravel, the snowy streets,
slush to mud by the Ramada / everywhere — the opera as
backdrop, the screeching of high human voice to keep these
humans away — bums on George. what wealth / squeezed,
burned, horded as the world went / everywhere else but here.”
the old city / core
disintegrates — simultaneously evolves / to malls / outsourced
plenitude — the perpetual motion of returned goods — an
isolation once sensed defines us being here without
in the millennium is a painful, difficult, but an essential part of Prince George history, the one it refuses to acknowledge.