by Eric Miller
To the mainland
When we climb the stairwell out of the depth of the ferry, where our car rests parked amid grimy trucks, we find taut bands of yellow plastic tape setting off the tables and benches of the observation decks. We have to sit far from other people. Someone took pleasure in this prohibitive festooning, officious pleasure perhaps but also childish joy. It is like decorating for a dance, though its effect is opposite: to un-couple us, to make all of us wallflowers. A disinvitation to the ball! Now our huge white ferry sets off from Swartz Bay—a self-willed tower. Excluding wind and sound, impervious windows mute the passing islands, each projected for us as in a theatre. The thrum of the engine pleases, supplying constant reassurance that everything is fine. Its weak, unvaried arpeggio would seem to guarantee the integrity of our own simmering organic system. A humming machine befriends us. It defends and supports us by a flattering yet ideally stable mimesis of our private vibe, our autonomic hubbub.
The Salish Sea imparts not the least sensation of rocking to the vessel, the vessel is so big relative to the swell. When I see that yellow tape, however, I always worry about the disposal of it. It consists of a sort of plastic that stretches thin, but is reluctant to disappear. Round and round the globe like longitudes and latitudes, such tape persists impertinently after the end of perceived emergency that—once upon a time, it will have been so long ago!—cordoned off part of the habitable world from the rest. The rationale is Covid-19.
From where I sit like a moviegoer, I watch the water. Without pangs of apocalypse or a sense of my witness being in any way representative, my contemplation accumulates the fewest seabirds I have ever seen, the fewest birds in general I have ever seen, between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. Three gulls. Three cormorants. On other occasions Bald Eagles have been as common as crows, murres dove before the bland advance of our blanched castle, rafts of ducks, mergansers, all nonchalance, paddled a derisive minimal distance from our apparition. The ocean almost stagnates, preserving the bubbles of our ferry’s hours-before previous passage as though so surpassingly enervated as not to prick them. Flabby Neptune’s trident is too dull, this August day, to lance any eruption. We can see how little the skipper deviates from a set course by these viscous-looking residues. The brisk ship hurries to escape an ambient torpor.
We have to drop off the dog at a kennel. What a place! The yelping sounds desperate even when it is not. It is, I know, the sad music of segregation, dogs shut off from dogs. They are lonely, is all. But the grounds are kempt to a grassblade, to the last lick of paint. This spectacular neatness reminds me of miniature golf courses above all. Grooming is a preoccupation of the kennel and its people. I feel snatching at my idle hands the necessity of attending to any degradation of the impeccable surroundings. I too should get clippers of one kind or another. I, too, should fear and detest and anticipate organic process: the lengthening of hairs and nails; the chipping of paint; the rotting of wood; the extension of branches; the cracking of asphalt; the rusting of iron; the clouding and crazing of glass; the ageing of wires; scabby increments of lichen, padding moss, the meaty swell of mushrooms; the flaking of anything susceptible of fragmentation; the friability of skin; the total, tenuous possessiveness of dust; the untwining of cloth; the withering, the dithering… I could go mad from the exactions of exactitude. Elegant variation will take you only so far, it is a short chain. Metabolism we must tolerate, we wait with patience for its extrusions, metabolism is a clock and we pursue it to suppress it at the moment of its manifestation. Cycles are needful to the joy of routine. We take care of ourselves by taking care of others. How neat we are! A gland, for example, producing its secretion, is useful to amplify and satisfy our desire to predict its productions. Analysis almost precedes any innovation. The dogs are not howling from loneliness; I was wrong; they are howling to compensate for this will to order, their ragged ululation remonstrates, the pack wants to rove at will, the hoses wash away what would accrue, the empty sky itself requires scouring. Goodbye little dog, we will, after our voyage to Vancouver, spirit you away from here and back into mess. Foul paradox, to keep so fair a crypt for such a wanton! The dissonance is almost unbearable. We dodgy creatures, consciences squawking like fledged crows, flee the precincts knowing that we will return to a scrubbed and even a beribboned dog. The idea of miniaturization does not necessarily involve shrinking the scale of things; we can make small and diminish by a pusillanimous excess of purgation. This is a sort of visible morality, mocked by what surrounds the kennel and by what howls in the kennel, a natural protest song.
As we drive toward Vancouver from Tsawwassen, we see a Great Blue Heron or two standing in water like an abandoned life-model, committed to the pose. Let me admit I love herons and life-models, I am fixated by them as anyone might be by a fire, and I retrieve from within myself a wading philosophy and a naked philosophy. Would not a heron, yes, and a life-model relieve, those real seraphs, the desolations of a deathbed? I think so.
The lands of the Fraser River Delta have a Netherlandic aspect, flat, drained by canals. Maize already stands higher than a tall man. Industrial parks, as they are called, appear tossed randomly in place, as when children, called from a playroom, abandon their toys in a mess dispiriting to them even more than to their parents when they return, for to resume play so coldly after interruption means the power of imagination has dissipated and left a savour of the untransformable.
Only thirty per cent of the Delta remains wild, we peck with our projects on the fringes of that remainder yet in their hundreds of thousands the migratory birds still frequent whatever our chaotic planning has happened to leave intact. Seventy per cent is houses, is farms, is industries. Birds are like strange toys that belong to some other playroom, if we break or lose them it is not a loss from our box or chest of toys. Did you care about other kids’ toys? Only to the extent of stress-testing them when you were brought to their home. What a well-made thing a sandpiper is, but don’t you get tired of it pretty fast? I mean, what does it do and what can you do with it? Never think anyone really is an “adult.”
We have to make one wrong turnoff on every trip, it is a sacrifice to the wayfaring god. At once we plunge into a realm that feels remote from highways, cottonwoods, well-tended farmhouses, weeping willows, weeping birches—how people adore these lachrymose trees!—, hedges, narrow roads. We refuse to be flummoxed, decline to be irritable and, like an old-fashioned monoplane that has dipped briefly to brush the roofs of a secluded rusticity, we regain the illusion of altitude, detachment, dispassion, afforded by finding again the crammed flume of the tarry artery that feeds Vancouver’s heart of glass.
People refer to the “City” of Victoria. Yet to me, a former Torontonian, the place where I live doesn’t feel like a city. To go to Vancouver—now that is to go to a city. Ordinarily we islanders do not enjoy an experience such as this one. We will sleep where we have been assigned, fifteen storeys of regular fenestration above the street, and we will look out without weariness on many towers of great height and surprising narrowness. They are not broad-built buildings, they are thin by the standards to which I am used. This splindliness is provocative, it means more variation amid the close-clustering structures. Our view will be comprised of human cliffs halfway as narrow as turrets but lofted as giddily as what are called skyscrapers. Stunning to imagine all the people in all the rooms. Retreats and prospects! Voyeurs and exhibitionists, love seeketh not itself to please and seeketh only self to please. There is almost a way out of death, if only we could commune completely with so many, many strangers in their columbaria. Don’t be sad, I am here to keep you company. This neighbourhood is called “Yaletown” I think, and we have been assigned by the providence embodied in management to no. 1506. I could not be more satisfied!
We walk several blocks past shut shops to devour black bean burgers at a place imperatively called Meet. A patio stretches outside the restaurant. The adoption of masks deprives the world of particularity. Here is not the festivity of masquerade or the terror of banditry or the joy of trying on clothes in the change-room or the peculiar bliss of wearing gear proper to some sport or other, the dragonish helmets of mountain-biking or the snorkel, so perfectly onomatopoeic a designation, that stiffens like a conning tower over the rasping swimmer’s turtle pate. These surgical masks bore me, and make everything indistinct: as though an iconoclast had gone everywhere on a spree of defacing that masterpiece called, by the hopeful, the image of God.
Though I try to accrue information, I know little about anyone and recognize no one, can learn to recognize no one and the muffled voice is likewise subject to a bland distortion and it reaches the ear quite shorn of music. Past the terrace cement, past plastic barriers, strangers saunter gagged through Vancouver’s vast anatomy theatre, they could be anyone and no one, they are in a manner of speaking censored, doctored, unreliable. This way, ladies and lords of the league, to the vivisection! All, all are involved in one common fate. We have become as disappointing in our way as those victims in Pompeii whose remains an infusion of plaster or resin only approximates, filling a hole where once a human being lay asphyxiated. Who put us to the trouble of seeing that? It is not convincing. We err there and here, generic, misattributed, eroded, lost to one another and you could no more say, “That guy!” of me than I could say, “Of all people!” to you. ’Twas never Longinus, ’twas Pseudo-Longinus. Just where did you receive your education? A mask sieves the vital air, is a colander banning grit. Filters and buffers are the emblems of our sojourn. The only history you are going to get, I am afraid, is revisionist history.
So we chew our good food in limbo where the discountenanced, their expressions suppressed, drift diffusely. No way I can characterize the server, though I know her for a woman. Cutlery clashes like distant arms! So much I can say with confidence after a reconnaissance of our environs: thuggish men often have delicate girlfriends. There are plenty of thuggish men. I mean muscular, with a savour of danger to them, unnecessarily loud voices. By “delicate” I mean women whom these men could crush in anger were it their desire to. What keeps these men and these women together? To look thuggish is not to be thuggish. Appearances!
Yet some of them are the sort of men who raise their voices uninhibitedly and laugh, to my ear, mirthlessly. Now let me advance a claim. As I say, to look brutish is no guarantee of real intrinsic brutality. But you have heard them, haven’t you? Those laughs are fake and are intended to intimidate. I concede, much false hilarity, harsh though it sounds, is meant for a social emollient by awkward males, who think loudness an index of roistering good company.
But me, I am a collector. I collect the harder kind of laughter, I amass a bouquet of cachinnation: for as noise all this is available, even vulnerable, to contemplation. I stow the cruelty like arrows in my quiver, the arrows that hissing sow the field and can be extracted and, at need, reused. I build my arsenal by seeming to submit. Perhaps that is the method of the delicate woman too.
A night walk in a windy city! How we love the monumental! How always we hope for more from a monument than it can give! More of good and more of evil! But it bulks in the night, stone and metal, and that satisfies. Here are buildings that bespeak Canada to us. Sober in looks, unostentatious yet large, an aspiration lost to Canada or to architects some decades since. The wind, serious, strong, animates even stone, even still walls of glass: the wind tears at our clothing but never tears it off, and it runs over our skin like water and like souls, and it cautions us not to resort prematurely to impulses of satire. People are few, it is hardly mid-August, but I sense in the air fall’s first migratory birds winging through the night.
The light is what they call lurid for it calls forth the pockmarks and scars of architecture and streets and people. I like a model to have acne, to have stray cuts, hairs, insect bites, bruises. We come to Victory Square, a photograph mounted on a plaque shows us how recently this attractive park was forest. Like a pin, the war monument attempts to hold history in place. These dead mean this. But the pin itself is historic, it is corroded, meaning keeps moving like the dark wind of this night. A cenotaph is a tautology, the cenotaph of a cenotaphic impulse. Men hunch in the shadows as though encamped round the memorial to soldiers. They are not themselves soldiers, it is peacetime. They have no gear. They defend the smallest space round their bodies. It is not no man’s land, on the contrary it is parcelled out man by man, it is for a small space this man’s land and that man’s land. Even the people who remembered the dead are dead now. They are dead. Death lies down next to all the men who are trying to sleep in Victory Square.
And here before government addresses (whose modesty—a style of the recent past—I find noble), trash rolls as though borne by dusky combers ashore. This refuse does not make a travesty of old intentions. Not everyone was bad. Once I knew a man who would roll on the ground like that, I mean like the trash. He could not help it, when I walked with him and something perplexed him (whether it pleased or agonized him), he would roll on the ground no matter how dirty it was. He was a strange fellow but a good conversationalist, and we would walk the nights away. I had to wait for his fit to pass; it always passed. He never hit out at me or at anyone, it was merely an episode. Long ago, his father had beaten him so badly his spine was deformed. The trash rushes this way then rushes that, turns about, flicks a tail, looks over its shoulder, shudders, creeps, halts, spins, hops into a gutter and dances up a curb.
When the wind dies away sound arrives from several directions, from the perches of sundry physical plants, ranting or grunting tattered vagrants magnetize to garbage cans, a rat shoots like a soiled star from a corner to a corner.
Something is hovering in the night, it is a terrifying thing but a good thing, there is more than what they say there is to this place and to any place. I will call it by a German name, Zugunruhe. Those who try to trace allusions, they are lost for the allusions fuse to make an inscrutable alloy. Something is rushing, it will not be detained, it is not the future that human beings surmise but it is the future all the same. The exegetes, whom I pity and in whose ranks I sometimes enroll myself, parse the rolling trash and with each step they mutter and twitch their fingers, surely a revelation is at hand. Yet there is nothing but revelation, there never was anything but revelation.
Then the plaza is still and empty and resembles a patch of the mist-dematerialized Salish Sea. The Salish Sea is a waste plaza of Gastown and of Yaletown, a water-calm afflicts and eases us. Have a good sleep.
What delight from the fifteenth floor of our hotel to witness inching and sliding cars like earwigs and pill bugs in a garden! More pleasure still in saddling oneself vicariously on the backs of crows and pigeons. They find the highest balconies and least accessible ledges, the most unfrequented rooftops, as accessible as I do my bed, my desk and my closet. They demonstrate (so long as I ride them, pleased with my incapacity to coerce their choices) the difference between the instant steadiness their pink or black, scaly feet derive from gripping a frail high railing, and their careless plunge into the abyss. Imagine just shrugging your shoulders, you could swing out into the gulf whose only feature is the tremulation upon the ether of a truck reversing or a siren several blocks away.
In this neighbourhood, people become the manikins of their addictions. A drug, whether intended to help a person or reckoned to be destructive, always displaces personality. I dislike drugs, they have characters terribly stronger, it would appear, than the most distinctive human character. That man’s pain is not visible from our height, though his bent and agitated gait makes a definite impression. Such figures shake in the margins of our dreams on occasion. A dirty pigeon may fall many storeys as gently as a petal, but for all my being propped on the fifteenth storey of a hotel, I can see that you, dear reader, and I are not separable from that guy down there. My health and your health and his un-health are simultaneous, a crevice in the sidewalk divides us. Any bad fate and good fortune are not to be cordoned off from each other with yellow tape. Yes: I have the impulse to drag those motorists down there out of their deluxe cars and acquaint them with that man, this feeling contributes to what we call “moralizing” and all its defects are as apparent as the man’s addicted state. I do not descend to address him, or to help him, but I cannot ignore him either. People pick up such a figure like an earwig or a pill bug, and twitch him at others saying, “Think of him! Think of him!” which is a pleasurable way of failing to think of him themselves. It is the casting of a hex. Pass the image of him on, effigy of a guilt attachable to no one. No one helps him meanwhile, at least not within sight. Yet he shakes there, well within sight. So crush him next, like a pill bug or an earwig, by blinking hard and, at the same time, shifting your gaze. See, the problem is solved. Get back into the car, or your hotel room. By driving past him I show my awareness of him, see? I have made him a habitation of a few sentences. Your conscience aches, and I have disposed of the topic. It is a friendly operation: a way we have of greeting one another over the heads of people who are dying faster than we are. Just like adults at a summer garden party talking over the heads of kids. But that’s living and that’s dying.
Here’s something I have learned: when someone shakes the little man at me to make me feel bad, I know there are more little men crawling on my tormentor, afflicting him or her, than on me. It’s just the way things are. They scratch themselves bloody. In some respects I am such a little man myself. But to what degree and in what respects exactly? And him? He might say, “Leave me alone.” With weak fists he would batter back the sirens convening on him, he does not necessarily want his peace to be kept. Often self-defence and assault are confounded in this world. It is possible he is happy, I have known and I know strange happiness. That’s where morality sits in a corner and gets high.
Surely, dear reader, you object! You will say as uneasily as I do, But we attend at least minimally to the presence of the more familiar homeless, the ones who tent just a block away in our neighbourhood. Oh yes, you know, over by the tennis court. Our attention is ambivalent, ambiguous, but real and steady enough: as self-protective as it is anything else, apotropaic if we are honest in spite of abstract sympathy. But when we choose to travel, concede we have no such relation—not even the one I have described, not even an inimical relation—, to the homeless. There are, besides, many kinds of homelessness. “Lessness” is quite the concept. I have been close to homeless, it was voluntary for me in a sense, a scoured and scouring proximity to hard surfaces, to weather and to a mockery that did not bother me as much as it would now. In those days the sky and the earth fit together more closely than ever since. I was consoled by a sense that no one had an idea of what was going on in my head. It is true they did not. So my thoughts I guess, mingled with physical discomforts, a sort of furniture, comprised my “home.” This is now, however: and then no longer matters. I am nowhere near homeless in the present moment, which is just as well.
The lurching men make a contrast with the solid stone nineteenth-century architecture. Urine scents the facades. These edifices are not ruinous; they are urinous. Men spray the stone that will not yield to their wish for a better life. Others of us try to school them out of that wish. “But sir, that is no idea of a better life!” The men water the stone regardless, almost like gardeners, like loving gardeners; they stand, for example, in the intercolumniation and they dampen the fluting of a shaft or a neighbouring pilaster. Here is the tomb that they will not be able to afford, the tomb that they cannot quite foresee (in spite of the proliferating omens) and that no one will dedicate to them. Why do I hate especially these expensive cars? They are expensive! I guess that’s “moralizing.” Its defects are well known. Don’t accuse me of hypocrisy. It really is instinct I am pretty sure, all of us do it. And a kind of play. Listen to the chorus of those who know better! Better than me and better than you, dear reader. Ah, a harmony like wolves in the wilderness—or grasshoppers in the brush before the changing of the guard, when the more thoughtful crickets replace them. Who among us is not a drive-by chider? We review others’ lives. I wouldn’t assign many stars to that wretched spectacle! Yet such is our weakness, we keep watching.
Facts assist us. The installation of strobe lights, flashing faster than a frightened heart beats, discourages men from sleeping in the alcove doorways of shops. If I were a merchant, I would probably follow suit. What do we find in one such strobe-lit niche during a nocturnal promenade, but a dead Cooper’s hawk? Close to midnight, we discover a sylvan hunter’s cadaver. Aren’t wild animals more than strange—aren’t they frankly becoming obsolete? Their needless-seeming elaboration consigns them to the status of antiques. Yes, the fine care with which birds and beasts are put together seems the warrant of the old-fashioned. I am a little suspicious. Did political prisoners make this fluffy, taloned gadget? How exactly does it work? Ethical sourcing is a headache. Look, tied to the shank of the accipiter is a folded message from the inmate who bent over this item: “Hello, I am Number Six. Help me. Please help me!” Of course, we will toss the note away, Number Six could be anybody at the bird factory, which is doubtless bigger than the Colosseum and quite pungent. Besides, a hawk! We ought not to make such a dated reference. A hawk isn’t young, whatever its chronological age: and to be young is all. To appear young, to appear the right way: not as a rotting accipiter strobe-lit in the shuttered doorway of a failing business. It won’t sell. Stark light reverberates on our retinas. Jovian fulmination is less athletic than a common strobe.
Even a Cooper’s hawk hatched in our year appears anachronistic in several respects. First, for a predator it is strikingly feeble. Second, the detail is excessive. They don’t labour over things like that any more. Third, the taste exhibited, as I hint above, savours too much of times past. Times of oppression! Nature is a poeticism, a personification—too true; it is overdone, and is passé. Let’s move on. Look what’s on the screen. I am already, don’t nag. See, it’s about homeless people.
Sometimes we stagnate in the hotel suite. Why travel at all if you just stay in your room? Let’s escape briefly. The armoury is close by. On the sidewalk stand two old tanks. They look sloppy, despite being made of metal. They just have an unaesthetic appearance. One is a Sherman and the other of a kind I don’t recognize and, although I read the label carefully I can’t recall what the label says. I might not even be there in front of this contraption, since my memory has decided not to come along with me. Really how little we are present to. Did this steel beetle see service in the Korean war? Don’t ask me. It looks heavy and impractical. More approachable are pairs of mid-nineteenth-century cannon. They look like well-fed descendants of Nelson’s great guns. Sometimes it bothers me to see the smug, strapping sons of fathers who had to strive hard, and always took it on the chin. Inheriting too much wealth can be bad for a person, I think.
These cannons, then, are Nelsonian specimens wrought to a higher pitch of accuracy and bulk and shapeliness. They never saw action. Permit me, meanwhile, to polemicize in behalf of crudity. Eighteenth-century cannons retain individuality, a crew had to get to know them, and from what I have read they did. These later nineteenth-century cannons have elegant iron wheels and longer barrels. They have been painted, and repainted. Craquelure is a principle of urban life. Time takes aim at everything. Smug and strapping sons stride past.
We see a wedge-shaped building, what is often called a “flatiron” building though flatiron is not a word I otherwise use. It looks more, in my experience, like a slice of cake. What a sweet moment it is, when we decide to have cheesecake! But that is not what is served in this Lebanese restaurant. We descend under the confection of brick and stone, its isoscelar sharpness, a likeness in late nineteenth-century style of the wonders of Petra, though it is carven not from the living rock but from the thin air; we descend cement stairs into the Lebanese restaurant. What strikes us at once is a set of three round, stout pillars. They remind me of the temple of Neptune at Paestum: Doric patience. If you listen hard, you may hear the grand ideas of the pre-Socratics. Suddenly we sense, as though we shared the slightest part in their task, these pillars hold up the whole heavy brick and stone building above. The restaurant performs a mighty office, and glorifies us, moreover, with the sentiment that we, too, even when we leave, hold up something immense. What is it?
We take a seat at a table along a wall. Turquoise and tiles are prominent aspects of the décor. Behind the bar is a shelf with a fine big stringed instrument to which I cannot put a name. An old affinity impresses itself on me again, the likeness of such instruments to old sailing ships, both have hollow hulls and rigging and music of form accompanies audible music. My grandfather sailed on four-masted iron barques and he did the sailorish thing, after he retired from the sea in the 1920s—simultaneously with the last sailing ships—, of bottling and painting, too, similitudes of his endeared Lord Shaftesbury. This ship visited Vancouver. He had run away to sea in preference to being beaten. I’m with him on that preference. There is a saying, “You asked for it”: but there is a wisdom that also says, “I have the restraint not to give it.” Retaliation is intolerable, and renunciation is adorable, don’t you think? I have stayed my hand more times than I can count. Yes, I take pride in it. “We’ll do this if you do that” is the motto of ferocious weakness. Sorry, no one is allowed to impersonate Nemesis. My grandfather thought nothing, when he came to depicting the barque, of mixing house paint with oil paint—equality. He embarrassed my mother by his saltiness as he walked through the probity of Toronto, become a gardener. But embarrassment sometimes affords a blushing bliss, satire is intrinsic to a sailor such as my grandfather, if kings need fools so do queens. My mother recalled especially with watering mouth the most excellent tomatoes they grew. A redheaded server comes and as for me, I order salmon tabouli. The Vancouver streets are vacant as under martial law, our windows open just at street level and no people pass.
Later, needing to buy eggs, we wander with a sense of distress. Everywhere we look a broken man or woman huddles, not imploring us for change or offering us a show of aggression. Roosting for the night. We want to get back up onto the fifteenth floor which shows the relative size of the experience of fate. We seize upon a Chinese store, a store catering to a Chinese clientele, we buy our eggs which are neither Chinese nor un-Chinese. We note the graphics on packages and how the zoomorphic mascots of brands appear different from culture to culture, briefly we are a Linnaeus of world cartooning. I am fixated by these odd personalities and cannot divine their connection to these crackers, that sauce.
The setting in which people poorly nourished and addicted die day by day is exquisite, flies litter the corner of many a splendid window. Windows are lovely portals, so many sizes of them, so many sizes of apartment buildings and office buildings, and hear the Cyclopean clang of a construction site, a ziggurat with cranes jutting from it, how safe the shabby gulls and rock pigeons are in precariousness like the kid in the crow’s-nest in Shakespeare. We like our suite, no. 1506. True, our bed is a little too soft and the kitchen is a little too dark, no windows.
We pause before visiting Kitsilano Beach, at a joint called Pane Rizzo. A young family of crows nasally bawls high in trees perilously close to the busy road. The upper branches are lifted out of danger, the road is irrelevant to the airy chambers they sustain; but the bird who stoops faces danger where metal and glass rush together.
How crowded the beach, you would think it an ordinary not a pandemic day. Few swim. One of us, not I, swims longer than is his custom. I want to swim but have forgotten to change into a swimsuit. I wade therefore with rolled cuffs. The day of a funeral, decades ago, I did the same in Holland. The obsequies over, we went to a café named for Charlie Chaplin, built right on the sugary North Sea sand. Formal wear fastidiously hoisted out of the staining salt, cool ankles, shapely persons disporting themselves: a boldness in nakedness characteristic of the place. Let me say the ocean has a sludgy, particulate feel just here, a dubious pipe runs out into water, the russet hulls of numerous freighters float, corrosion is beatified by sunlight.
The Dutch beach projected up and down its distance a certain gentility, even with the doffing of all clothes. Kitsilano, on which nobody dares go naked, is rougher, a bit like Cherry Beach in Toronto in the old days—that is to say, when I was a kid. Kitsilano for its part seems to have absorbed and survived, barely but truly, much rudeness, much garbage. On Cherry Beach, on Sundays, we ate Cracker Jack, and we strayed. A beach is gritty as a matter of course or of definition but Cherry Beach communicated even to a child a sense of uneasy bodiliness, hard carnality got without the stripping of persons wholly—police beatings, illicit sex, all that. Ribbed condoms gummed to gravel, bloodstains dyeing this pebble and that pebble but not those inbetween, a red whimsy. We’ll pulp this guy, but not that one. OK? OK with us. Have you guys noticed it even hurts to beat a guy up? The pain you’re causing us!
The omnipresence of residues, sexual and otherwise, suited with the stickiness of fingers extracting from the Cracker Jack box a plastic treasure—but I cannot for the life of me recall what any such treasure was. The joy was knowing it was in the box, the lesser joy was destroying it in short order.
I can still pick out from between my teeth the squeaky savour of comminuted peanuts, of parched popcorn, of brown syrup all ground up while we halted to stare in wonderment at a nymph’s damp bra, discarded (pink as dawn) on the strand, the cast shell of breasts (the Ontario Field Naturalists might report it). Or, look, a tern defunct, both disorderly and neat. Though stainless as the albinic bonniest of clouds, it trickles gamily with red ants.
At Cherry Beach locks barred from public use every white clapboard public building, whether change room or coffee- or tuck-shop, a child turns the door knob and no matter how often he twists it the door will not oblige. Round metal occupies the hand, one need or another the body. Shutters protected windows against storm, against season (any season, every season): and this impermeability suited with all the absences that gave the place life, twisted lingerie, wings and claws of birds, crusts lean squirrels refused, leaves that conferred together in a heap and then made a run for it, cottonwood leaves with their bitter whiff as of close-smelled hair.
A disused parking lot impresses a visitor with its irremediable hardness, conceived for the toxic accommodation of machines. In the wind-slapped space there only sat a taxi and a police cruiser. Styrofoam cups, easy to disintegrate into white particles, bore flecks of the coffee I did not yet drink. Later, decades later, I heard some music concordant with the capabilities of the view. It was on Queen Street West, I worked at a bookstore. Down the block at the Bamboo Club, the Pukka Orchestra delivered it with a Brit-pop intonation, I got a bone to pick with you (they sang), not so friendly boys in blue.
Do I want a drive? asked the incredulous Orchestra. Do I? Then it lamented, That’s why I’m riding on the Cherry Beach Express. My ribs are broken and my face is a mess, and the name on my statement is under duress. That’s why you’re riding on the Cherry Beach Express. Does the pain get any less if I confess? The name on my statement is under duress. My ribs are broken, and my face is a mess. That’s why we’re riding on the Cherry Beach Express, and I never dreamed it would be like this. I never dreamed it would be like this.
Now I am sure you can guess why the constabulary of Toronto tried to ban this song from the airwaves. It returns on itself like many such artifacts, criminally repetitive or “catchy” as the cant phrase goes; and anyone who mouths these words is, lyrically speaking, metamorphosed into the likeness of a repeat offender. That state is best whose law enforcement is its inexorable art critic, don’t you agree? Do you covet the impoverishing compliment, to have your thoughts snatched away even in the moment of their articulation? Are you a nationalist? Some think the nation’s anticipatory suppression the best and only proper honour. In sooth, it does confer a prize such as few receive. Are you ambitious for it? Already you intuit, dear reader, the really important part is the acceptance speech. Take the dangerous podium. Here you improvise: here you repeat not a thing. Threats, like songs, have a monotonous aspect, and are themselves rather a popular form. We may hum along with an incantation that intends our destruction, and destroy it in turn by winsome extemporaneousness. You want to make history? All right, then.
Totem poles and welcome posts
We want to visit the Museum of Anthropology, a great painter by the name of Kent Monkman is exhibited there today. Outside the Museum of Anthropology, which is near the ocean, we savour a hot day in the knowledge that not all days are hot. We lay up days against other days, it is human. Scent of red cedar and Nootka roses blows. Wreck Beach stretches below a steep bluff, which drops down past the Museum. We will visit Wreck Beach for a few minutes, after we have looked at Monkman’s art. Meanwhile, a view of the ocean comprises both glitter and mist. And this glitter has its counterpart in the hummingbird haunting the blackberries. A blackberry flower smells quite like a blackberry. Here in a field grow bouquets of weeds you might find anywhere in North America, Queen Anne’s lace, vetch, and tansy.
Outside the Museum stand both welcome posts and totem poles. Let me address these beauties, before I turn to the great work of Monkman. In situ, such a post or pole seems grown like a tree, which it is, of course: but people toiled to socket it some distance from where it grew. It appears at once to decay and to resist decay, it exemplifies standing out under the sky. We want a deputee to do this, to experience every instant of weather, daylong, nightlong. I wish I could do that but I have other things to do, and besides I keep falling asleep.
The artful carving which distinguishes such a pole defies rot but also conscripts rot into a journeyman since the attritions of rot become augmentations of art, that is to say ruination is an intention of human beings as much as perfection or completion. By welcoming defeat, we prevail. The outer circumference of a totem pole regarded from up close, for we can come close, strikes us equally as that of a tree and not a tree.
Move a totem pole indoors, display it in a gallery, it conveys some other feelings. Nature hardly notices men and women, men and women are more casual than they seem, there is no human race there is this man and that woman, and hence the idea of the Anthropocene is easily discredited. I am over here and you are over there, what is this between us? Quite a bit of stuff, I’d say: and also, both of us are dying. Where exactly, then, are you setting up that thrilling colossus, almighty Anthropos? Look at this, something sturdier: a totem pole. I don’t understand it but I can appreciate it.
Today the effect I like most of all when I consider the totem poles is the fall of light on the visibly chipped and hewn sides. This resembles an ancient (to me) and recurrent experience of reading, which the screen can never give. I hold, at the angle most conformable to personal comfort and illumination, a page curled away from its sisters and brothers. Each alphabetic character appears before me as singular as a model in a life-drawing class, each imparts unwearied fascination, each is denuded of sense, each is robed in sense: I think I see naked truth herself. The letters (I say), the letters litter the paper with a trail like the scrabbled thoroughfare of under-bark-dwelling beetles, instinct with meaning I startle myself with prising out of them once again, as with a fingernail more than an eye excavatory. Yesterday I was lying on a bed reading Northanger Abbey, I got to the core of Jane Austen’s wishing, still breathing despite all the rings laid down since. Smoothing sprigged muslin over a lap, I perceive there is barely a discrepancy between a totem pole and Austen, don’t be misled.
A totem pole resumes and perpetuates and elaborates the persuasion of our earliest years, that the grandest edifice in existence is a tree. A tree trunk is permanently improbable. We walk past them having learned to ignore them, did we pay attention to them we would be detained almost like trees ourselves enrolled in the holy grove. The tree as totem pole or welcome post discloses by the Pacific to our nuthatch inspection its heavy, its brute rondure—also its simultaneous softness, its developing taste for punkiness. The gently jagged shadow falling round the side of the totem pole is very like the shadow that marks the edge of the moon when it is close to full. I never quite got the pastoral but the sylvan: that I embrace. “Silva” is a good old name for a collection of verse, let’s get lost in the woods. I used to do that with a friend, during obligatory sessions of cross-country orienteering. Her company was as sweet as murmuring trees, and ignoring the shivering needle we were truer than true north.
The photograph of Lord Shaftesbury is care of the State Library of Victoria.