Monday, April 22, 2019

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Hobo with a Shotgun

Dreamland Theatre.

Dreamland Theatre.

Rob Budde, Dreamland Theatre (Caitlin Press, 2014).

 

Rob Budde’s Dreamland Theatre is dedicated to Devil’s Club or Hoolhghulh in the Carrier language, a plant that “hailed” Budde when he was studying it with aboriginal elders on Haida Gwaii. The book’s cover shows the Dreamland Theatre, the iconic, long-gone local structure that was built in South Fort George, BC, and then, as described in the poem “1912 theatre,” moved (a kilometer or so) to Fifth Avenue and George Street in downtown Prince George. For the next few years the Dreamland showed movies and served as a venue for political meetings and benefit concerts.

The name of the theatre has also recently been attached to a local school of the arts and a poetry magazine, both operated by cultural impresario Jeremy Stewart. Stewart says this about the name of his school: “We thought the name was evocative and poetic, but that was only part of why we chose it. We wanted to have a name that reflected a passion for Prince George’s culture and history, and for downtown in particular.”

Stewart seems to mean “passion” in the sense of “filial affection,” but if Budde shares that feeling it is conflicted, kind of like God’s “love” for mankind after the fall. Budde has written about the title of Stewart’s magazine, “I imagine it is the hardworking, messy and probably often disheartening reality of the theatre that inspires Stewart.” While the theatre also sparks Budde’s meditations on the city and its surrounding “woods,” Budde is clear throughout the book that he prefers the woods to the city. He writes that the narrative of the moving theatre, “sunk in mud and propped by wooden planks . . . is narrow, determined, / and the rest is not worthy of a picture . . . .”

In “speaking in english” he says that Prince George’s avenues cover a “mass grave.” Presumably this is the grave of nature, but there was also an indigenous settlement in the area that was burned and bulldozed out of existence, its inhabitants transported upriver. Strictly speaking, only 20th Avenue might impinge on an aboriginal burial site, and only if the avenue had gone further east than it now is. Budde could also be alluding to these events in history as part of the reason for his conflicted view of the downtown: he loves it, but he disapproves of what has gone on there and still does, at least in part because he believes it was stolen from the local aboriginal peoples.

Rob Budde.

Rob Budde.

Budde is described under his photo on the book’s back-cover as a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. The jacket copy notes that he has published seven books of poetry and is a regular columnist in the quarterly magazine Northword, out of Smithers. The top back-cover blurb is from now-local poet Ken Belford, and reads: “There is a kind of poetry that doesn’t conform to urban forms, but instead talks about a different kind of economy. Come and listen in as poet Robert Budde thoughtfully asks ‘on what land am I standing?’”

The tone of Belford’s blurb is reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s idea that “in low and rustic life . . . the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.” As it happens, Belford is probably the closest Canadian poetry has come to Wordsworth in both philosophy and genius, with the caveat that Wordsworth hung out in a groomed English countryside infested with picturesque if miserable crofters at the beginning of the 19th century, while Belford has lived and worked in the Canadian wilderness during the late 20th century. If Belford’s blurb sounds a bit vacuous, that may partly be because Wordsworth’s idea of the noble crofter, which was his version of Rousseau’s “noble savage” who speaks a nobler language than most people, was quickly discredited both by theorists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and by imitative acolytes like the nature poets of the Victorian and Modern Ages. Wordsworth is recognized as a great poet, but not as a convincing interpreter of his own work or of philosophical ideas.

Belford hasn’t had much success as a critic of his own work, either, but he is a good poet. He has found his widest audience to date in Al Purdy’s Storm Warning (1971) and Margaret Atwood’s The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English (1984). In both anthologies, Belford comes across as a kind of Jeremiah Johnson, eking a living out of the woods around Hazelton BC as a forestry and highway worker and a hunting guide. His poetry is distinctive for its cryptic, assertive backwoods wisdom and lyrical descriptions of natural scenery, something that clearly impresses anthologists from Ontario.

Belford, who retired to Prince George thirteen years ago, has his name in Dreamland Theatre’s acknowledgments, along with the names of Budde’s four kids. Irene Nelson and Si Transken are also acknowledged. Nelson is Budde’s “significant other” (the mother of Budde’s children is Debra Keahey, an internet “lifescape coach,” herself the author of a book of poems and of a study of “place” in Canadian Literature, and the editor of an anthology of writings by women about the academy). Nelson works as a “behaviour interventionist” for a Prince George company that helps families with disabled children. Transken is Belford’s wife. She has a doctorate in Equity Studies and teaches social work at UNBC. Budde has dedicated an article in Northword to her, describing her as one who “has done much to break down the barriers between the academy and the street through her work at AWAC, a homeless shelter for high-risk survival sex-trade workers and drug-addicted women.”

I’ve mentioned, and elaborated on, the apparatus of Dreamland Theatre in detail because it helps explain references that would otherwise be understood only locally. This is not necessarily a criticism of the poems; poetry is, as T. S. Eliot has said, the most local and allusive of literary genres, and often needs notes or (at readings) a patter. Though allusiveness in poetry can easily get excessive, a poetry that deals with the history and features of a small town is going to need some explanation. There are many obtuse allusions in the book to Budde’s friends, to his job at UNBC, to various Prince George landmarks, and to the poetry politics in the town. That’s fine, because this is a book about community. But if any of these poems were to become canonical, which is unlikely for reasons I’ll get to, they would have to be accompanied by notes.

Within the structure of the book, the character “Ken” is the narrator’s best friend and a sort of mentor, and has all the features of Belford. “Ken” is “a figure of outward” — Charles Olson’s puzzling term for Robert Creeley, whose voice Budde has used in “after creeley’s ‘for w.c.w.’” “Ken” “speaks of the Nass River and the Blackwater.” The Nass is where Belford had his guiding-outfitting business. Spruce Street, where Belford and Transken reside, is a focal point in the book, as is the “corkboard” on which “Ken” assembles his poems. In a film by Josh Massey, Belford speaks about using a corkboard, and cutting his poems into little rectangles or squares and then pinning them to the board. Then he moves them around, lets them “live together,” as he puts it.

“Ken” is described as reading at UNBC, and in one poem is also said to be in “the university of northern bc hospital,” which is his name for the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in downtown Prince George. Also, “Ken” and Budde are depicted as involved in a struggle with the “misogynist college” and the “college magazine,” a struggle that Belford too has alluded to in his recent book, Internodes (2013). The college is the College of New Caledonia and the magazine is put out by students there and called The Confluence. Likely, Budde applies the adjective “misogynist” to the college because Irene Nelson once complained on her blog about what she felt were the exploitive attitudes of Graham Pearce, a college instructor (the blog was quickly taken down when Pearce objected). Also, when Budde attacked the advertising for Pearce’s “postnorth” reading series as sexually exploitive, and the reading series itself as misogynist, Pearce published a defence on this site, using the porn star Sasha Grey as an example of someone who was determined to breathe new life into her act and so regenerate (so to speak) a tired audience.

Budde’s attitude seems to be that Grey has no identity other than that of a victim — victimized by men like Pearce. Budde’s attack on misogynist attitudes is contained in “15th and misogyny:”

 

gang rape all Hollywood glam and king

shit strut — it’s all prenorth contingencies that hold

sway, a blackwater cabal of fathers haunting

the former form and sad handmaidens

don’t care that the classroom holds

them in an unwelcome gaze

 

the measure of risk

is his own anxieties

because the college insider

is a psychology of fear

of being

found out

 

This is an example of a poem that is allusive beyond understanding; only a few locals could know what he’s talking about with any certainty. And they have reacted firmly: The Confluence has for some years resonated with lively student defences of Pearce and satires of Budde and Belford. One of them is called “Hobo with a Shotgun,” after a Hollywood B movie starring Rutger Hauer. As we will see, Budde does in this book assume the alter ego of a hobo. Also, when he thinks he sees injustice, Budde attacks without reserve, although not with a shotgun.

Belford may be the source of Budde’s visions of communal life in nature, even though Belford himself never lived in a commune. Budde’s poem, “home, cottage, woods,” is a comically idealistic celebration of the BC version of rural life that could contain details provided by Belford. The commune is an ideal in that it is “inside” and “just around the bend / in thinking.” Budde conceives of it as a kind of anarchistic (uninhibited, unregulated, non-hierarchical), rural, self-sustaining commune featuring a hut made of carefully fitted hemlock logs, a nearby stream, a pond, a hill with huckleberries, and a garden (with mint, broccoli and brussel sprouts) along the “misinformed highway” (a highway that thinks there is somewhere to go?). “Learning would be sunset and rest the rainy day.” The poet would live with an undefined “you,” presumably the reader.

Other anarchistic poems are post-apocalyptic, though in the more romantic sense of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy than in the grittier sense of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Budde’s post-apocalyptic landscape is more like Wordsworth’s post-enclosure landscape of ruined farms, villages, and sheep crofts than Belford’s grizzly bear-infested wilderness. A poem near the beginning of the book, “follow the crabapple blossom smell,” and a poem at the end (“unstable, after the end”), bracket the book in scenes from this post-apocalyptic world, a world to which Budde obviously looks forward. Here’s “follow the crabapple blossom smell,” the second poem in the book:

we hear 21st century love retreated from the coasts,

subsisted in the mountains, subsisted

on salmon and blueberries

we read “faith” in the remaining

records — but these codes

fail, these letters fall still, cars by the side

of the highway house

sparrows and squirrels,

a reorganized polis . . .

 

and I’d like to think,

of us by the side of the derelict,

highway, bereft and happy,

a fistful of yarrow and a wooden cup of tea

 

In “Unstable, after the end,” has Budde camped outside the “silent compound” of Prince George, a town that he and others have “shut down” in the previous poem:

 

we redevelop the downtown

around a lack

of ownership and a sense

of a collective, uncertain sigh

 

we are at home

 

this is called living

in a logging town

and shutting it down

 

Presumably the process of shutting Prince George down is conceived of by Budde as a peaceful one, though the people outside are referred to as “survivors.” These people adapt to the new reality: “The satellites wobble,” “the toxins are not yet over,” the survivors are eating “poorly preserved protein bars” with wild onion and soapberries, and there are cattle corpses and flies everywhere. Perhaps the survivors were vegans and so didn’t look after the cows. But, despite the fact that “paper is difficult here” and the laptop is dead, “this is a good thing for poetry, / a good sign.” It is good, presumably because, with “colonization” (Budde’s preferred term for civilization) over and the thinking that led to it discredited, people will be happier and more loving, and language will be purer and more impassioned.

Budde (the first person narrator) and “Ken” have alter egos: “hobo poem” and “poetry” respectively. These alter egos introduce a touch of humour and show an uncharacteristic albeit very limited self-awareness on Budde’s part. “Hobo poem” is a sort of innocent sidekick to “poetry,” worshipping him as a guru. In “khasdzoon yusk’ut” he writes:

I would not want to be

anywhere else but walking

with Ken, thinking about how

to stand and not betray.

The relationship is peripatetic, like that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, though that one was more a partnership of equals. As they move around Prince George, “Hobo poem” tests his ideas on “poetry” and shows poems and prose (on syntax) to him. “Hobo poem” even writes corkboard poems, like “map ink before it dries,” in Belford’s latest style, employing metaphors from science and technology. (It’s conceivable that the two—Belford and Budde—have collaborated on the real world writing of poems, as Wordsworth and Coleridge did.)

“Hobo poem” exhibits two features of the classic hobo. First, he inhabits the transition areas between the city and the wilderness, where the landscape features industrial detritus like abandoned cars and “aesthetic”-looking abandoned factories. Second, “hobo poem” is sexually ambiguous, as hobos have traditionally been believed to be members of a society made up mainly of men. Oscar Wilde acknowledged having sex with hobos, describing it as “quite enjoyable, once you get used to the smell.”

Wordsworth used religious analogies in describing his “impassioned relationship with the landscape; as a deist, he saw nature as God. Budde uses erotic, possibly homo(hobo?)erotic images and scenarios to illustrate his connection to the woods and the city and to his friend Belford, AKA “Ken,” AKA “poetry”.

The first poem in the book describes PG’s riverfront and Budde in a passionate embrace: “we are / current / star moss glides / under hips / love algae / or otter dive / this embrace / a fine balance / two heads, together.” Dreamland itself, downtown PG, is encountered in one poem, “Skytongue and Speaking West,” in terms that seem to involve a kind of civic fellatio—or cunnilingus:

it takes the whole afternoon in

Prince George, gorging myself on

Victoria, Queensway, Ospika buildings,

flecks of moisture and rain a rinse a slow

groaning into hills, arch, the rise of river

 

rub along esker, Connaught

caught between teeth and tongue, thighs

roll over Nechako

 

it’s an utterance, a long vowel sound,

a low growling howl, a shout to the 15th Ave traffic letting

go of clothes and conscience the valley

a cup and taste

taste tip and pluck a wedge

seeping into salt and books

my mouth puffing wide inside

this evergreen bush this word

tangle this cutbank curl

 

it takes all afternoon, takes

soft soft taste softly laid

Budde’s describing his relationship to the downtown in this way seems odd, maybe even necrophilic, in view of his conflicted attitude to the downtown as covering a mass grave. Finally, “Ken” is treated by Budde, in the poem “Double me down 10th Avenue,” with a kind of Whitmanesque abandon. This happens in the course of a bicycle ride:

 

is it you steering or

me wishing

you would

 

turn and kiss

my cheek

because of something

we’ve discovered

about ethics

 

caring about language

emissions and how

 

we, careening

got there

Budde’s meditations on his title image, the theatre that gives its name to both his book and to his vision of downtown PG (in that the downtown is a kind of colonialist dream), are informed by the anarchistic view of history that he shares with / inherits from Belford. In “1912 theatre” Budde asks the question: “to what end does that image / lead?” This seems to be the central question, the theme as it were, of the book, but it is not to be answered in the terms of conventional history as might be expected in view of the obviously archival cover photo of the Dreamland with its scribbled caption identifying it and its location. Budde already knows “to what end” the image leads — to that mass grave alluded to in “speaking in English.”

The accompanying question — the question that has interested Belford throughout his career — is, “on what land am I standing?” The image of the relocating theatre is described from three perspectives. First is the image of the theatre itself, a cultural icon but a “narrow, determined” one. On the book’s front cover, it is situated on George Street as the caption says, with posters advertising various silent movies on its front face. Second is an imagined “outside the picture” (rain, skids, mud, logs as rollers, horses pulling). This perspective is, strangely, “not worthy of a picture.”

Third is an imagined “watching / from the woods.” Only this third view has legitimacy for Budde. That’s because the land that Budde stands on, and for, is the aboriginal wilderness. This is a view of the theatre as representing a “European” psychopathy—in his view, the compulsion to eradicate nature and aboriginal culture.

Conventional history derives cause and effect relationships from details of location and chronology, sometimes passing judgment or deriving conclusions or moral value based on these relationships and descriptions. Budde accepts location and chronology (the image and dating of the theatre etc), but refuses cause / effect answers to his question “to what end does that image / lead?” As an anarchist, he substitutes intuitive judgments for cause / effect. Budde’s intuition, his faith, his ideology, his (in contemporary academic terms) “theory,” his view from the woods, is that the theatre is an illusion of progress and of culture, a prettifying façade for a mass-burial site.

“speaking in english” presents two views of another of the Prince George downtown’s, or “dreamland’s,” features, its avenues. One view is termed “magical” and the other “unmagical:”

 

you could walk along an avenue here,

unmagically, and begin to peel away

its imposition, to trace the paths

of its assertion, to unearth (much like

an unearthed mass grave that had gone

unrecorded) the measures of violence

That made this avenue you walk

 

you could walk differently along this

incline of forgotten waterways

and smell the uprooted vegetation

notice a furtive movement here

a motion that is magically you.

The unmagical view is, in Budde’s ideology, the anarchistic view, the view that building the avenues of Prince George was destructive of nature and human nature. The waterways were buried — Prince George is built on a delta where the Nechako flows into the Fraser, once through a myriad of channels but now tamed into one. The other channels were filled in. (“Incline of forgotten waterways” is strange; the filled-in waterways would have been perfectly flat.) The vegetation was removed. The unmagical view see pretty much only the mass grave beneath dreamland.

The unmagical view is not conventional history, which does uncover mass graves from time to time but also uncovers artifacts and stories of individual and group accomplishment, and doesn’t necessarily or always see the advance of “colonization” as an hostile imposition or negative assertion or as automatically leading to the apocalypse. The unmagical view results from the imposition of the belief that colonization is bad, in the Wordsworthian sense that it disconnects people from nature — from natural affections and natural language. None of the poems in Dreamland considers any alternative to this faith — like, say, that the Dreamland Theatre might also represent humanity’s primal instinct to create and experience art including literature, or that Prince George or the Dreamland theatre itself might represent the instinct to create community and ensure its survival, even if the community and the survival is primarily “European.”

As Budde frames it, the magical view may be mandated by the negativity of the unmagical view, but does not take any of its features from it. It is “different,” “magic” in the sense that it comes out of a part of the mind that does not employ cause and effect reasoning (what Budde refers to, contemptuously, as “linear thinking”). This thinking is employed by the language that comes “crashing in from Boston” (site of Harvard University and the first English Department?), with “the inane blathering of news,” with “soggy messes of intention.”

For Budde, magical thinking comes out of nothing. To try to explain it would be to destroy it, would be to assume that the unmagical could connect to the magical by rationalizing it. Thus, for him, the magical view comes out of pure faith — the faith (parallel to the Christian one) that the world built by humans through hundred of thousands of years has been doomed from the start.

Conventional history has always included a questioning of triumphalist interpretations and conclusions. If Budde in his poems wants to speculate on where history has taken us and if he wants to prove a theory that Western Civilization is a unrelieved disaster, he could have found plenty of sources (Malthus, Marx, Weber, and Nietzsche in philosophy, or Eliot and Pound in poetry) to back him up with serious arguments. If he also believes that life in a primitive state of nature is happier, more generative and regenerative of community values, he has Wordsworth and two centuries of critical (and poetic) responses to Wordsworth and to Romanticism to consider, although a few weeks living in the bush during black fly season without a vast array of technological aids might cure him permanently of this naïve view.

Similarly, if he believes that aboriginal communities were happier and more sustainable, and that aboriginal languages are purer, there is a wealth of anthropological and linguistic evidence arguing for and against. But without any serious thinking about history, and without rigourous research, Budde seems merely to be working over the tired tradition of writing derivative poems about noble savages, poems that are grounded in the bankrupt ideology of academic Marxism.

Lacking considerations of historical cause / effect, Budde’s faith seems silly and his poems fatuous and naïve, and his “critical” comments on colonization and linear language have all the intensity of a prolonged whine. That said, Budde has practiced writing extensively, and so is able to generate convincing nature poems with pretty and dramatic images, like “through the valley of the high light.” He can handle metaphor. But he is, in Joseph Conrad’s terms, like a man in possession of a high powered rifle who believes that, because he owns the device and can load it and pull the trigger, he is a hunter or soldier. Budde may have studied his weapon, but he doesn’t know anything about his prey, and the primary device he deploys against his imagined enemies is a barely-argued moral contempt.

Rob Budde is a well-intentioned and generous person—when he’s not on a crusade, wielding his social conscience like a shotgun. He is active in social and environmental causes, which is good in that he follows up his ideas with action. As the poems show, he lives in the city, sits in the coffee shop talking poetry with friends, reads his poetry to those friends, and evidently enjoys living on top of what he believes is a mass grave. He seems to have little inclination to start a rural commune (rather than be forced by an apocalypse to live in one) and his attraction to aboriginal culture is, at best, condescending. His political anarchism appears to be some sort of “mindset”—an array of optional lifestyle choices and moral tenets that he can dismiss at will whenever he goes for coffee, gasses up his car, goes on a road trip to Kelowna (as in the oddly entitled poem “rumble strip”), selects good linen (recycled) paper for his book, or earns his living teaching Creative Writing at UNBC. His desire for an apocalypse that will project him out of this life, along with his vision of the post-apocalyptic world where survivors will sit around a fire drinking yarrow tea from a wooden cup (at the “Second Wooden Cup”?), is embarrassingly naïve.

But you have to like the guy, even while you want to advise him to abandon “theory” as soon as possible. Here he is, in “downtown revitalization,” in the Second Cup, not reading Yeats, Pound or Eliot, but worrying about his fellow citizens:

Therapy for the rescued

Handouts and a reconnection

To the river, assessments

Of who is here and why

 

The heights harbour such

Tax relief

 

The car no longer keyed

Conversations begin on George St.

Where none were before

 

It begins partly in a townhouse

On Spruce where awareness

Is assembled on corkboard

 

It begins with that early contradiction

Love for the violent place,

The men who left, the women

Who took over

 

Like millworkers and treeplanters

Eyeing one another at

Second Cup — a culpability

And an invitation over —

The first question being

‘what’s going on out there?’

 

It’s sweet, his utopia. “The heights”, by the way, are College Heights, a newer, wealthier suburb above the bowl area of old Prince George. It’s where most of the big-box stores are located, along with UNBC. Presumably Rob is complaining that the people there (not Rob, who lives downtown) get all the tax breaks. Presumably, too, Rob’s friends Irene and Si are downtown assessing the needs of the disadvantaged and preventing the keying of cars, doubtless a freaking nuisance to UNBC profs when they have to go down to the Wood Innovation Centre, UNBC’s downtown campus, as Rob does in one of the book’s poems. It seems to be that nobody ever had a “conversation” on George Street until Rob and his friends came along, despite the fact that the Dreamland Theatre was a social center, used for local meetings.

Belford—or Ken” or “poetry”—meanwhile, is in his townhouse on Spruce Street with his corkboard, reconfiguring English syntax to make it less hurtful to oppressed minorities and less employable by his imagined enemies. Meanwhile too, millworkers and treeplanters, who carry out what Douglas Barbour calls in his totally vacuous cover blurb (beneath Ken Belford’s) “capitalism’s incursions,” are, while “culpable” (unlike Budde working at UNBC?), getting together to sort things out. Presumably Budde is imagining them as starting to “redevelop” the downtown (“logging town memoirs”) and “shutting down” Prince George.

Are the millworkers asking the treeplanters (who would be in from “out there”), “what’s going on out there?” In the sense that the millworkers are concerned about a continued timber supply? Is Budde interested in asking the treeplanters or the millworkers about any of this stuff?

One hopes that they’re not asking him, or listening to his plans for “after the end.” On the evidence contained in Dreamland, he doesn’t (as the millworkers and treeplanters would almost certainly perceive and say) have a fucking clue about what’s going on anywhere.

 

4570 words  June 3, 2015

John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

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