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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

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The Take

 

 

*Vancouver: A Poem by George Stanley (Vancouver, New Star Books, 2008)

 

T.S. Eliot says somewhere that it is a curse to have a ruminative mind. He was probably thinking of William Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold (at their worst) and first-person Romantic lyric poetry at its most indulgent-which it often was, particularly in the long poem. Eliot himself, and his friend Ezra Pound, preferred Robert Browning and the dramatic monologue along with "direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective."

George Stanley's book-length poem about Vancouver starts with William Carlos Williams, "his universals as particulars, ideas in things" (3). About rumination, that voice too close to your face babbling interminably and insistently about things that are supposed to be important and ideas that are supposed to be profound, Stanley sticks to his guns: "It's no big thing to be a person, with a kind of life, yet that's what people are interested in, so I'll tell you — there's no need to make anything up" (56). So you're going to hear what this extremely unique and particular man thinks about the City of Vancouver and its people and things–but in a way that he figures, and kind of knows from long experience and practice, will be interesting. Stanley has devised his own lyrical rhetoric, from which he has derived a theory of life, about which-and by which-you're going to hear.

Vancouver: A Poem is George Stanley's "lucky take" (26)-which, according to Webster's dictionary, means "distinct or personal point of view, outlook or assessment"-on Vancouver and so, of course, on himself. That take is arrived at through precise personal distancing of the "anima" or "soul" from both "mind" or "words" (20) and from "body looking out the window" (108) at "phenomena" (74): "Landmarks. The mountains, the inlets, the trees. The sun. The soul with their names. Seeks to be entangled with them-oh, not the names, the others-says she does, anima. But in truth-no allusion . . . – plays a private game with words."

Stanley's anima is especially inclined to avoid too deep an involvement in the "private game" — in the "play room" — of words. He believes it can lead to "obsession," a kind of hell, though seeing it through leads to "sleep." Why, Stanley obsesses, after six whole weeks of dry weather won't the landlord's assistant John paint the porch: "Spasms of anger. Obsessing. Yet at the same time rationally comparing, cause of anger vs ? & lying. In bed. Thinking Brain going. And saying to the dark, ‘I can't stop thinking of this . . . !' Was it because/I had insisted, was he just trying to show me . . . Brain's on the phone, to John. ‘Doesn't this job ever get to first priority?' And all the while/mind is listening (& glancing at the clock,/how much sleep lost, when have to get up),/also thinking (on its own, under brain's hysteria) . . .John just didn't/feel like it. Ah, reason! Asleep/instantly." (59)

But when anima reaches too eagerly for this comfort of reason and decides that "she doesn't want to be any part of the world" or to "go outside the play room" — doesn't want to interact with paint, porches and people like John — another nightmare happens. "The trees, mountains and city turn menacing. "When she relents/and flows out to them, they accept her." And behind Phenomena, too, is sleep — the big one: "So let the landscape be foreground (right now some sense of pale brick & a gas station) — and let the darkness be background, let it be ground."

Stanley's anima, wanting balance "between the darkness of mind and the darkness of death" (56), "wants to go to a Rest Home for Phenomena" (20- 21), to "where the void calms down" (89). Anima knows how to go there.

The Rest Home for Phenomena, the place where the void calms down, is "the murk of ideologies" (19), is "illusion," (20): "Impressionism gives out/so take one step back/into the mind/and the next move is to the heart/the semantic heart/not knowing what it knows/no help from the body/looking out the window" (108). Phenomena and your person, the "man-city" in Stanley's case, are best seen through this murk, "dreamed of,/through the fog, of which I am/indissolubly part — & that is imagination" (74). It's a fog of history or memory too that Stanley has to stay in if he is not to be "left gazing at the inescapable body & mind."

One technique when you write is to "write carelessly." This becomes a kind of mantra for Stanley: "Take refuge in a long poem./Avert inspiration./Write carelessly." (27). "To write without any justification, carelessly./Ah yes. Not to create any structure" (66). "Write carelessly, but slowly" (73). Another technique is to work with what you've got. Stanley quotes Milton Hatoum: "In old age you don't choose the language you speak in." (103) You don't chose the circumstances you write in, either: "I hear the fridge hum, it kind of cries — the manual says it's a sound like water boiling –/but it's higher pitched. I got used to it./Also to the soft country/western leak through the walls/when I'm reading Spanish./I used to insist more/on silence" (79).

The poem is the process of Stanley inhabiting the murk, and the benefits of the process which are the benefits of thoughtfulness or the gifts of memory and of occasional bodily ecstasy when the daffodils (here the "Lions,"the cool air "before Yuppie brunch," "the trees") are glimpsed. Or when he sees a Chinese couple on the number 10 bus playing with their child "in joy," and then "to see reproduced typescript of Ginsberg's Howl at UBC bookstore & die." Stanley has always been the poet of what in earlier books he calls "the stroll." The mind can't march to any certainty that isn't abstract and the body doesn't perceive anything certain out there but death and darkness. There is only the stroll.

Older now, Stanley walks a bit less and rides the bus more — he gives all the numbers and interesting stops so you could use the book for a Stanley's Tour of Vancouver. Ever wonder about all those wired-off empty lots all over the place — like the one at Broadway and Maple or at Broadway and Commercial (now a Skytrain stop)? Why fenced off, so kids can't play in them anymore? Stanley will explain the possibilities, and as well he will tell you what used to be on the lot, how locals have sketched pictures on some of these spots and listed names of what used to be there, kind of like epitaphs, as an aid to not getting lost and to acquiring a sense of continuity, the sense that things are planned in some way or another, not totally random.

Stanley does this all the time, in his poem/stroll. The "W" above Woodward's, "turned against the sky/like a reminder/of people of people /impersonal/reminder of a certain way of life . . ./like an X-/mas star, a reminder of people as people . . ./thronging the streets, post-war/in search not so much of luxuries/as of attractive (or acceptable) necessities/to continue/living in a golden age. . . turned against life, against death,/against mortality, eternity, turned, turned./(& in this era of vegetarian pizza,/disappearance of the Government, & of the People). . .Who were we?/The ones that got dirty/or, fanatically, stayed clean/(But we all got ‘dressed up'/to go downtown/on the [street?]cars, on Saturday)/Who were we/They [the older downtown folk] have to shop/at the Chinese stores/where they can't read the language/since the Food Floor closed." Stanley admires the post-war generation of adults for their "dedication" (12). Vancouver's star of Bethlehem, or the memory of it, reminds him of them.

His own generation, he thinks, is characterized by "displacement." Stanley is interested in displacement. You couldn't use the book as a guide to places to eat because Stanley is not interested in the food but in the history of those eateries, a history that Stanley calls "reterritorialization" He is interested too in the history of their locations. The Banana Leaf (frequented by the Premier) on Broadway was once Saussi's (a pub that closed on September 30 and so had to hold their last Oktoberfest in September). The Saussi was once the Modern, a bistro, "fr Russian bistro, fast)./I imagined a restaurant: Fishtro." For coffee (dark Sumatra) Stanley goes to a "pomo place" called Trees Organic Coffee Co near where the old Post Office was, where there was a demonstration/police riot in 1938. He has coffee and danish at Eatons ("‘rescued' by Sears . . . Sears will manage Eaton's as a traditional department store, not high fashion but will keep the Eaton's name because people who shop downtown aren't interested in garage door openers." [In the book's "Notes," Stanley informs us, "It's now Sears"]. He drinks at Darby's, the Tank, Poncho's and Mark's — no history, but these replace the older places that he used to drink in, some of which are described.

You could maybe find some of Stanley's "crowd" but that would be more difficult as locations and last names are seldom given. If you've read Stanley before, names like "Stan," "Sharon," (she lives — or once lived — on west 18th) and "Robin" have resonance. "Stan" reads Stanley's poems as they are written and gives advice about words and facts: "'Wanking' is British. How about ‘jacking off?'" (81). Later, Stan tells Stanley that it's not a kind of ape that recognizes its reflection as a reflection, it's a kind of hominid (78). You learn that Stanley is located in a network of friendship. When last names are given — Barb Munk and Angela Bowering — that could mean that those friends are dead, formalized in remembered comments and incidents that say something about life, or that they are more public figures (though if "Stan" is Persky he's pretty public).

Stanley has a literary pedigree and the sort of cognitive network that provides. William Carlos Williams in Paterson used the man=city idea, but Stanley has a different take than Williams: "I am not a man [Stanley thinks of himself as "a thought" — 6] & this is not my city" (3). "No ideas but in things" is extended to "and no things but in glimpses." T. S. Eliot in an "old" (Stanley doesn't use "earlier," suggesting that Eliot is more "past" than Williams) poem, probably "Prufrock", reminds Stanley that you "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," which is what Stanley does, especially on the bus, and something (the poem and the mannerism) he "could teach to the young" (45). Kenneth Koch defined what Stanley means by writing "carelessly," "one line crazy/and one line serious . . .one line true and one line . . . fast," so you can write about the city which is "not knowable/it's real" (41-2). Robert Duncan in a poem — the title of which Stanley doesn't record — talks about excavating light from "the darkness of mind and the darkness of death" (56). Virgil, Horace, Houseman and dozens of other writers are mentioned as indicators of what Stanley is up to, of where he is located. Stanley even, in a nice poem, imagines himself as Verlaine riding the 99 B-Line bus: "an unread Province on his lap/transported by a vision? — a white form,/a sweet, insistent voice addressing him,/while he, in response, murmurs the syllables/of a Name whose cadence quells the bus's rumble."

Stanley is a bit of a curmudgeon, feeling that he is locked in the obsessions of city planners, transit authorities, manufacturers and retailers: "Fucking bank machine. Fucking banks without clocks./And you always have to go somewhere to pee. The Bay,/Pacific Centre Mall, McDonald's, the SeaBus station" (58). But he accepts the city and its systems, as it (and the systems) has been created. Other poets, less thoughtful but like Stanley, on the left, might treat the system more as an inhuman conspiracy, might think you can choose the language you speak in. Stanley knows the system is human and thus well-meaning but flawed and requiring attention and love. If the hum of the fridge bothers you, check the manual to make sure the fridge is running right and if it is, get used to it or turn it off and drink warm beer. You have to accept the system and learn how to get around in it and how to obsess imaginatively. Stanley is not going to rant about the system.

A positive outlook helps: "I'm glad Victoria screwed up on the convention centre deal. It means I won't have to walk another 200 m to the Seabus." "Here I am in this bank without a clock again,/but since it's open, I know it's after 9" (64). "At least there's a bench" (58)."Oh my/people, stop driving!' I cry, as the 22-Knight goes by, & I'm kept/from getting to it by cars making left turns into Macdonald" (58) or "A toonie for the young guy," (103) he says, perverting Eliot, in connection with the inevitable street beggar, covering for the resentment, the anger felt at being taken as a mark and illegally obstructed in his stroll: "they should be sitting by the wall." About his coming up with the concept "fishtro," Stanley quotes a line uttered by J.M. Keynes at age six: "my brain is wondering how it thinks. It ought to know." I hear Keynes' remark as outrage at his mind. Stanley might wonder about his mind, tending to off-color, obscure humor — "vertigo. Vair [a kind of fur, and pronunciation of ‘where'] to go?" (3), "the illusion has many mansions" (28), etc. Humour helps:

The long poem puts a person in your face for a long time, even if you read it intermittently. A bunch of revelations, anecdotes and allusions illustrating that person's attitude — the poem/person has to be entertaining, and being meaningful is a part of being entertaining. Stanley is an "aboutist." He is has perfected his rhetoric by watching and being considerate of his audience. The reader needs to be clear as to what the poem is about. Stanley describes his take as made up of "precise distinctions. . . in defiance of pristine order — hors d'oeuvres, instead" (28). According to Webster's Dictionary, the French means literally "outside of the work" and indicates "any of various savory foods, usually served as appetizers."

The appetizer I like best is "4 shortened," made up of four short lyrics that I take to be shortened versions of Stanley's "take," like Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." It could be taken as advice on, and a perfect example of, how to entertain someone:

Lack of desire. To do something with a guy, A friend.

 

And know that these words were so strong I could live in the world they made.

But that I had made the words myself to build a world — a world we could talk about, using the words. To forget it was just raw longing Not to be alone.

 

Maybe I'm better

Off now, without any common language. I have to Take a chance.

Words have to come out of the

World (like ‘gold ink'). There's no good flopping around like a fish

 

or hoping to sneak back into some house of words — some house of being —

 

those houses of being are full of hot air mine is the cold lack now a being that excludes even me.

Because Stanley goes on like this I like the poem and I like the whole book better than any one of its poems. It's a meal made up only of tasty things. A meal where, as Stanley puts it re. hors d'oeuvres, you get to "start again," over and over. Where you can't get bored, meaning you're always entertained, which is the point.

 

July 19,2008/2792 words.

 

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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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