Baruch ata Adonai
I’m a non-bar mitzvahed, or unconfirmed, Jew. I never went to the after-school Jewish school where boys were instructed in the religion and learned Hebrew, or at least enough bits of it to participate in the confirmation ceremony at age 13. At one point around that age, my father Morrie casually asked me if I wanted to have a bar mitzvah, and I said equally casually, No, I don’t think so. That was good enough for him.
The great point of contention between my father and his father, my grandfather Jacob, had been over religion, which my father as a boy had opposed on rationalistic grounds, while his father had defended the doctrine, somewhat hypocritically, not on grounds of belief, but for reasons of tradition. My own reasons for not wanting a bar mitzvah were considerably less intellectual: I saw Hebrew school as cutting into my time for playing baseball with the kids in the neighbourhood. My father had determined, as a result of the experiences with his father, that he would never impose beliefs upon me, especially ones he didn’t believe in, and would do everything in his power to protect my intellectual freedom. The news that I wasn’t going to have a bar mitzvah created considerable consternation in the family, but when various relatives voiced their objections to my sacrilege, my father settled all arguments with the pronouncement, “He doesn’t want to.”
So, no bar mitzvah. No Hebrew school. I don’t think I was in a synagogue more than a handful of times during my youth, most likely to attend bar mitzvahs of cousins and friends. Vague memories of an occasional dinner table ceremony at some kinsman’s home during a Jewish holiday. But that’s it.
How strange it is, then, to find, among all the thousands of things in my mind, decades after I last heard the words uttered, the Hebrew words, Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe,” the first line of the Jewish sabbath prayers blessing the wine, the bread, children, and the lighting of candles. Let the believers be comforted. I suspect, however, that my retention of that Hebrew blessing is less a testament to the enduring power of divinity and more an indication that memory doesn’t care about belief, but about music, the intoned melody of a few words.
Although his name was Dave Robinson, he was known to everyone in the gay bars of Vancouver in the mid-1980s simply as "Bones." He was a slightly misshapen man of spectral thinness and with a barely visible hunchback. He was an old carny—a guy who’d worked in the hustling, nomadic world of fairgrounds carnivals as a youth—and his grating, nasal voice still carried the echo of the pitchman’s promise of impossible goods and pleasures, bearded ladies, magic elixirs, two-headed calves.
Bones was rather despised in the bars, bearing the reputation of a con-artist, thief, betrayer, drug-user and drug-pusher. He made his precarious living by a little drug dealing, the sale of various sorts of usually slightly damaged goods, and some amateur pimping. Nonetheless, we struck up an acquaintance and, at times when he was down on his luck, I bought him a drink. I immediately recognized Bones as a go-between, a debased version of the Hermes figure who leads you between the worlds of the living and the dead, or at least from place to place.
One night, Bones took me up to a tower apartment in Vancouver’s West End where he was living during a prosperous moment, to introduce me to two young men whom he was letting stay there. I was expected to be interested in the younger of the two, but as soon as I saw the other boy, whom I’ll call Patrick, about 19, with straw-coloured longish blond hair and who was sprawled on a sofa strumming a guitar, I immediately intuited that I was meeting someone who would be in my life for a considerable time. And, as the story prescribes, one thing led to another—adventures, amor, scenes, introductions to Pat’s best friend, Fraser, more adventures, deeper psychological intimacies, the details of which deserve reticence. More than 20 years later, Pat stays in touch—now married, a father, driving heavy equipment on a pipeline project—phoning from some town in the middle of nowhere in Alberta on a holiday morning, to reassure both of us that we’re still friends. He’s one of the two or three people I know with whom I can share a memory of Bones, who brought us together.
Although most of the people Bones led me to didn’t turn out to be long-term friends like Pat, there were other surprises, ones that even Bones hadn’t anticipated. He introduced me to Sean, as I’ll call him, a guy in his twenties I’d seen around the bars. Sean was sexually attractive and I liked going with him for that reason, but what was magical about him had to do with something else altogether. Sean was one of those rare people—I’ve met only three or four of them in a lifetime—who could tell stories about his life with a level of detail that was utterly satisfying. In the middle of a story about how his older brother had first seduced him, I could interrupt and ask, What was the colour of the walls?, or, What was the traffic like outside?, and he would immediately reply, “Yellow,” or tell you about an 18-wheel rig idling outside the bedroom window, without wondering for a second why you needed to know. That is, he had the story so completely in mind that every aspect was accessible.
This is an important point, and I don’t want to skip over it too casually. Think of the people in your life who told you stories. I grew up in a family in which my father and his brothers and sisters were all pretty good storytellers. Of the great storytellers I’ve known who come immediately to mind are a shipyard worker I met in Gdansk, Poland, in 1981, who had participated in the famous Solidarity strike, and the Argentine novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez, whom I had asked to tell me about his fellow writer, Manuel Puig, and who not only told me in precise detail about Puig but about the sexual practices of Argentine automobile garage workers, the sort of men Puig sought out. And there is Sean.
I regarded Sean as a gift from Hermes, through his agent, Bones. When I reported to Bones my enthusiasm, he had no idea of the real reason for my delight, but simply regarded it as a future selling point, and whenever he introduced me to someone afterwards, he always assured me, “This guy is as good as Sean.” The go-between, however, is not required to fully understand where he has taken you. But with Sean, I wasn’t quick enough. At the moment it dawned on me that I had met a real storyteller and decided that I ought to record his tales, Sean disappeared to Calgary on a fool’s errand involving girlfriends, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Years later, I ran into him on the streets but, sadly, dope had replaced the muse, and it wasn’t possible to continue our conversations. I suppose the moral of the story is, Sure, beware of Greek gods bearing dangerous gifts, but when the Hermes Agency sends you a messenger who can tell you about the world within the world, pay attention.
Through it all, Bones had the soul of a shady salesman. Whether he was peddling drugs, sex, or household goods, there was always a selling point to be made in every offer, and you were always just another rube to be conned a little. His routine must have been persuasive, since I never resented it, even when I knew I was merely being sold on something. Ambiguous intentions apart, his virtue was that of all salesmen: he presented you with a bit of the world in a more promising light than it otherwise would have had. But of course the shadier side was always close to the surface. I remember one time Bones showing me a tweed jacket he was just about to sell to somebody in the bar for $50, and pointing out to me a little burn hole made by a cigarette, just to show me his ability to put one over on his mark. “He’ll never notice,” Bones cackled with malevolent glee.
Inevitably, one night in the bar—the Dufferin—somebody came up to me and asked, “Have you heard about Bones?” The last times I’d seen him, he’d been even more cadaver-like than usual, and death was visible in his face. Now, he was dead. “What happened?” I asked, and the man reporting the news of the dead said they’d found him in his rooms, sitting in his easy chair before the television, a burned-out cigarette butt between his nicotine-strained fingers, his face in the frozen rictus of a half-grin at some minor deception on the screen that had amused him. “Just like that,” the guy said. No doubt, when Bones met Charon, the boatman who takes you across the River Styx to the underworld, and it was time to pay the boatman’s fee (2 obols, I seem to recall), Bones had patted his empty pockets, and said something like, “How about 1 obol and a half?”
Fortress: At whatever writing desk I sit—in Vancouver, Berlin, a hotel room in Siem Reap, Cambodia—I stack up my books, however few or many, in piles, rather than as they’re laid out horizontally on bookshelves. Then I see that what I’m making is a child’s fortress, or fortified foxhole, like those we dug in the empty lot full of milkweeds behind the apartment building where I lived in Chicago in the 1940s, now reproduced in stacks of books on my desk.
Paradise Library: On my desk in Vancouver, the coffee mug I use during my morning reading was a gift from the Vancouver Public Library (where I had given a talk in one of its lecture series). The mug is white, marked with the logo of the library, and bears the inscription, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” a now famous utterance of the blind Argentine writer and librarian, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).
The line comes from Borges’ “Poema de los Dones” (“Poem of the Gifts,” in El Hacedor, Alianza, 1960), a poem about Borges becoming the head of the National Library of Argentina. “No one should read self-pity or reproach / into this statement of the majesty / of God, who with such splendid irony / granted me books and blindness at one touch,” begins one translation. Later in the poem, Borges writes, “Slowly in the darkness, the hollow penumbra, / I explore with a hesitant cane / I, who always imagined Paradise / will be a kind of library.” In a 1977 lecture, “Blindness,” given in Buenos Aires, Borges says, “In my life, I have received many unmerited honours, but there is one that has made me happier than all the others: the directorship of the National Library… I received the nomination at the end of 1955. I was in charge, I was told, of a million books. Later I found out it was nine hundred thousand—a number that’s more than enough… Little by little I came to realize the strange irony of events. I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Others think of a garden or a palace. There I was, the center, in a way, of nine hundred thousand books in various languages, but I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines. I wrote the ‘Poem of the Gifts’… Those two gifts contradicted each other: the countless books and the night, the inability to read them.” Paradise as a kind of library or, conversely, how often I’ve experienced a library as a kind of Paradise.
The Forest: I briefly worked in the University of British Columbia library, shelving books, an employee of the wonderful chief librarian, Basil Stuart Stubbs. As I made my way through its low-ceilinged, narrow-aisled, sub-basements with my book cart, deep in “the stacks,” as they’re called, the shelves seemed to me more and more like an oak forest. The stacks stretched out infinitely, the unknown number of sub-basements went deeper and deeper into the earth.
The library becomes all the libraries I have known, from the first one at Sumner Elementary School in Chicago, presided over by Mrs. Spiegal, who had only four fingers on one of her hands, and in which I first encountered the mystery of the Dewey Decimal Classification System (ten categories in which all the books were organized) to Borges’ notion of “The Total Library” and the “Library of Babel,” fabulist versions of the possibility of a collection of all possible books.
To a friend who’d returned a book I’d lent him, slightly worse for wear, I joked, “You’re the sort of person who would burn down the library at Alexandria, and I’m the sort of person who would defend it from arsonists.”
My favourite library building is architect Moshe Safdie’s Vancouver Library, with its brown sandstone-like curving walls that make the building resemble a styrofoam version of Rome’s Coliseum. Though criticized by architectural critics (for being postmodernist kitsch, I suppose), as soon as I saw it, I knew it was perfect. “It’s a fantasia,” I thought, “which is exactly what a library is.” Institutional libraries, home libraries, and sometimes the temporary library carried around town in a cloth bookbag: a single book, a streetmap of the city, a pocket dictionary.
The Devaluation of Books: One thing I didn’t imagine when I was younger was that one day books (and authors) would be devalued, would mean less, would no longer be seen as containing the secrets of the world. Mundane proof of this thesis: there is no object that can be left on the seat of a parked automobile today that you can be more certain will not be stolen than a book.
Reading: My teacher Joseph Tussman’s aphorism: “All reading is mind-reading.”
Landmark Books: Like the “pantheon” of authors I feel closest to, I maintain, as does each reader, a list of “landmark” books, books that were decisive moments at some point in my life. My father, for example, had introduced me to the writings of Jack London, giving me Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf to read. One day, when I was about 12, he said to me, “I’ve been saving this for you,” and handed me London’s The Iron Heel (1906), a science-fiction political novel in which a socialist revolution is fought in the streets of Chicago, the very streets in which I played.
Other landmark books in my necessarily idiosyncratic list: Balzac’s Pere Goriot, where the young de Rastignac stands above Paris, its twinkling lights spread below him, and hurls a metaphoric gauntlet at “society.” Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which, on re-reading, proves that landmark books may only be landmarks for the moment in which they’re read. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, introduction to politics; Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, introduction to homosexuality; Proust’s Within a Budding Grove (whose real title I think of as the opening words of the original French title, A l’Ombre… In the Shadow…). Books I’ve already mentioned here: Barthes’ Roland Barthes; John Berger’s Photocopies. Christa Wolf’s Accident; Marguerite Duras’ The Lover; Taddeus Konwicki’s A Minor Apocalypse; Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and with it all other “fragments from a ruined” civilization.
Imaginary Books: ever since I began writing, I’ve always had in my mind a shifting pile of to-be-written “imaginary books,” as I call them. Among them: Cities of Desire, an erotic auto-geography of the cities where I’ve been in love; Reading the Twentieth Century, a multi-volume, genre-crossing assessment of the writing of the last century; At the Poets’ Table: A White Rabbit Memoir of the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1960s; What Does Some of it Mean?, a philosophy book—a modest version of Thomas Nagel’s grander What Does It All Mean?; Democracy and the Body Politic, a re-write of philosopher Joseph Tussman’s Obligation and the Body Politic and his Government and the Mind. There are others, all of it an imaginary self-produced future library in my head.
The Book: Mallarme, Borges, Jack Spicer have all imagined The Book. But the greatest imagining of all is Bruno Schulz, the Jewish-Polish author of Cinnamon Shops (1934; in English, The Street of Crocodiles, Penguin, 1995) and Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937; Penguin, 1988), who wrote in a 1936 letter, “The books we read in childhood don’t exist anymore; they sailed off with the wind, leaving bare skeletons behind. Whoever still has in him the memory and marrow of childhood should rewrite these books as he experienced them.” (See Ruth Franklin, "The Lost," The New Yorker, Dec. 16, 2002.) But on my shelves in Vancouver, I still have my first books: Animal Friends and Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. On the end pages, my first writing, an exercise in penmanship: unevenly drawn lines on which I practice writing the letters of my name.
In his story, “The Book,” Schulz recalls the volume whose magic pages, when rubbed, produce fragments of kaleidoscopic colour. Schulz writes,
“Sometimes my father would wander off and leave me alone with The Book; the wind would rustle through its pages and the pictures would rise. And as the windswept pages were turned, merging the colors and shapes, a shiver ran through the columns of text, freeing from among the letters flocks of swallows and larks. Page after page floated in the air and gently saturated the landscape with brightness. At other times, The Book lay still and the wind opened it softly like a huge cabbage rose; the petals, one by one, eyelid under eyelid, all blind, velvety, and dreamy, slowly disclosed a blue pupil, a colored peacock’s heart, or a chattering nest of hummingbirds.”
Years later, when the young man asks his father what happened to The Book, he is told that it is “a myth in which we believe when we are young, but which we cease to take seriously as we get older.” Yet, the young man searches ceaselessly for the lost Book. When he finds some tattered pages that he believes were part of The Book, he discovers that the text has been destroyed, and only old advertisements remain. Yet even the tawdry remnants rise “over the sphere of daily affairs into the region of pure poetry.” No image ever appears twice; the writing “unfolds while being read, its boundaries open to all currents and fluctuations.” This book, the young man is quite sure, is “the Authentic,” to which all books aspire. “They live only a borrowed life, which at the moment of inspiration returns to its ancient source.”
Of George Bowering’s many books, the one I’m especially attracted to is his picaresque “postmodern” novel about the European discovery of Vancouver, Burning Water (Musson, 1980). In part, that’s because its vision of Burrard Inlet in the 1790s is strikingly similar to, but far more imaginative and playful than my own recurrent fantasy about the city of Vancouver before it became a city. At the corner of First and Larch, looking north down the slope (my house is just a half-block below), there’s a panoramic view of the inlet basin, along with the 900-hectare dark green patch of the trees of Stanley Park jutting into the water at the end of the downtown peninsula, and across the inlet the ridges and houses of the North Shore (blinking windows caught by the sun in West Vancouver), and behind them, the Coast Mountains. Beyond the mountains, more mountains, further and further north. In my vision of it, modern Vancouver disappears and is replaced by the earlier forested slopes; maybe a native longhouse down on Kitsilano beach.
Bowering’s Burning Water begins, as it should, on the pristine wooded slopes of Burrard Inlet, where two native men are talking about “whatever it was, the vision, [that] came out of the far fog and sailed right into the sunny weather of the inlet” on a mid-June day in 1792. It is appropriate that the story begins from the perspective of the indigenous inhabitants who watched Captain George Vancouver’s tiny ships sail into the inlet. It’s here, at the outset, that Bowering makes his first move. Bowering’s natives are not Hollywood Indians talking Hollywood Indian talk (“Many moons have I travelled, o Great Spirit…”). Instead, they’re postmodernist 18th century philosophe natives, or at least one of them is as he makes the distinction between fact and fancy. “Okay, what do you see?” asks the older, smarter and thoroughly ironic native. “I see two immense and frighteningly beautiful birds upon the water,” burbles the younger man, who is naïve, romantic, and filled with horseshit ideas about becoming “a full man of the tribe.” In addition to his romanticism, the younger brave is not very good at catching fish, which is the crucial fact in the lives of the tribe.
“These young ones could be pretty tiresome,” comments the not-omniscient narrator through the mind of the older native. “Full man of the tribe. Talk talk talk. The second Indian looked over at his companion, who was now leaning back on a bare patch of striped granite, idly picking at his navel. And now he is seeing visions.”
The young one is impressed by the fact that the vision has been revealed to him. “Then you do think there is something to facts?” asks the older native. “Of course,” replies the other, “But facts can only lead us to visions. Some of us, at least, were born to see visions.” “That is perhaps why you have so much difficulty getting a fish to leave the sea and come home with you,” says the second Indian wryly, adding, “He is a fact whether he is hidden under the surface, or changing colours on the rocks. To make this fact your fact, you need skill and a well-made hook.” The young one is not only tiresome, but also obstinate. “But a vision is not a fish, my old ironic friend,” says the youth. Sighs the older native, “I was perhaps making that very point in its opposite order.”
The point is, we don’t know what the aboriginals said to each other when Vancouver’s ships appeared in Burrard Inlet, and we need a storyteller to imagine some sophisticated banter. “You see those visions of yours?” asks the older man. “Yes, I do see them, and so do you, so that takes care of your precious facts, too,” sneers the younger one. “’Not quite.’ Now he was going to get the brash little squirrel. Little prick. ‘Those are boats,’” says the older native. The younger one laughs. “Two large dugouts from another people, as I said,” the more experienced man reiterates. “Oh sure, dugouts with wings,” continues the sneer. “Those wings are made of thick cloth. They catch the wind as we are supposed to catch fish in our nets, and travel far out to sea.” The younger one complains that the other is only trying to discredit him. “No, I am discrediting only your fancy. Your fancy would have the fish leap from the water into your carrying bag. But the imagination, now that is another matter. Your imagination tells you where to drop your hooks.” Later, the older man adds, “The vision is made of wood. Hard, smooth, shiny, painted wood.”
At the end of the chapter, since this is a postmodernist novel (i.e., one that reveals its making alongside its telling), Bowering introduces us to the author, who is staying in Trieste, Italy, a town where the writer James Joyce once lived. “In Trieste, it was raining most of the time, and he would bump other umbrellas with his own on his way down to the piazza, where he would look out at the fog that had drifted in across the northern end of the Adriatic. It was his idea, crazed in all likelihood, that if he was going to write a book about that other coast as it was two hundred years ago, he would be advised to move away in space too.” The “he” in that passage is Bowering himself, and the book he’s thinking about is the one we’re reading.
The Bowering who’s a third-person character in Bowering’s novel about George Vancouver—a lonely writer in the dismal drizzle of a far-away city—is, in some ways, more present to me than the Bowering I’ve known in a casual friendship over some 35 years. The Bowering I know is tall, has a mustache, and a craggy face. He’s, to my mind, quite shy—what hells reside behind the shyness, I don’t know. The shyness accounts, I think, for his manner, which often features the telling of an intentional bad joke (thus making it ironic in its badness), followed by a donkey-bray hee-haw laugh. He has a sort of Donald Duck brightness and tilt. His friends roll their eyes, and say, “Oh, George,” forgiving their gawky pal’s foibles. But behind the cracker-barrel façade, I remember that a long time ago, at a time in Canada when it was fashionable among writers to display an anti-American literary nationalism, Bowering had the courage not to go along with it. Instead, he insisted that the “New American Poetry” (of Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley and others) was preferable to a lot of academic Canadian verse, no matter how loyal that verse was. That is, poetry didn’t have nationality, it only had reality, or it didn’t.
Once Bowering has established the terms of Burning Water, the rest is a wonderfully-drawn knockabout account of the 35-year-old Vancouver, who had sailed with the late Captain James Cook; Archibald Menzies, the Scottish ship’s botanist who is Vancouver’s bete noire; and the secret hero of the novel, Vancouver’s older Peruvian-born Spanish counterpart, Juan Bodega y Quadra. Behind the historical reconstruction, the postmodern issue of writing nags, or hums. In the historical reconstruction, Bowering makes his characters “real” people rather than realistic figures, and he reminds us that Vancouver’s ship, the H.M.S. Discovery, is ninety-nine feet and a few inches long, the length of two lifeboats on a modern-day B.C. ferry heading to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. On a 99-foot boat, carrying a complement of 101 officers and men, you can see how the captain might get annoyed at his Scotch botanist. “The little fucker has the deck cluttered up with his stuff, and he is taking over more and more space every day… there were the plants, bushes and trees and weeds from New Holland, New Zealand, the Sandwiches, the Societies, and now the North Coast. I cannot set anchor but the little porridge-eater is off in one my boats, having commandeered two of my men, to dig up another obnoxious weed… The vessel is ninety-nine feet long, and he hopes to cover all of it, I’m certain.”
Meanwhile, the author of Burning Water thinks “about the good old days, when the realist novelist just had to describe the setting and introduce into it the main characters. He could have told you a hundred things he had seen in Trieste. For instance, the guy with no legs in the rain on the Corso Italia, with his leather peaked hat, and the dainty man in the hound’s tooth suit who crossed the street just before he came to him, pretending that was his car over there, or he had been mistaken in thinking so.” Against the mundane moments of Trieste, Bowering spices up the historical tale by imagining a love affair between the elegant Quadra and the practical Vancouver. Like the philosophical conversations of the natives ashore, the erotic invention is a bit of tender slapstick. The narrative plays with the fuzzy border between myth and history, just as the appearance of Vancouver’s ships ply the boundaries between fog and clear air.
But Bowering, who later wrote histories of British Columbia and Canada, informal but accurate, is clear enough about the political history of Vancouver’s mission: 1) to chart the northwest coast, which he did more accurately than any sailor before him (filling in the gaps left by Cook’s earlier mappings); 2) to prove once and for all that the fabled Northwest Passage across North America didn’t exist, which it didn’t; 3) and to settle the disputed claims to the coast between Britain and Spain, which had established a fort at Nootka on what came to be called Vancouver Island, but which Vancouver named Quadra and Vancouver Island, as a token of his friendship with the Spanish commander. Behind the geo-politics is mercantile capitalism: the political end of Vancouver’s mission is designed to set the stage for the dominance of the British fur trade in Canada. Menzies and his botanical expedition is an Enlightenment add-on, and, indeed, it is true that Menzies and Vancouver bitterly quarreled, just as it’s the case that Vancouver and Quadra became friends. Bowering sends up both the friendship and the quarrel in good-humoured fashion. The “real” Vancouver died a few years later in England, at age 40, while writing up his Voyage of Discovery.
When I stand bemused on the corner of First and Larch, as I have countless times, my imaginings are focused through Burning Water, thanks to Bowering. His range is, expectedly, far broader than the single snapshot I’ve chosen to consider. In “Musing on Some Poets,” (from Blondes on Bikes, Talonbooks, 1997), he says, “I have no remaining skill for form, / just feel words jostle each other in doorways on the way out…,” as he sits among friends, who silently agree:
those poets gave us a way to waste our lives
saying useless things, smiling indulgently at each other’s personal diaspora,
carrying mismatched goodies on the way to the grave,
trip, fall into hole, write on dirt walls
a first and last sonnet,
solving all, coming to rest, combing hair, adjusting socks,
kissing no one but the image of Jesus, disbursing mind as if it were mercury,
listening for the voices to arrive with the worms.
That, too, is what I see, looking from First Avenue toward the “burning water” of Burrard Inlet.
Berlin, July 27, 2004