Thursday, October 23, 2008

 

In his Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond argues persuasively – overwhelmingly – for the role of geography as the single most important aspect of the physical world on this planet, not just for nature, but for human society as well. For example, the domestication of animals is a phenomenon that moves East & West, not North & South. The taming of the horse ensured travel from the westernmost shores of Frances to the eastern shores of China & Russia. Yet the one animal domesticated in South America, the llama, had no such impact on the North American continent – only in the past century has it really been able to be transported beyond the Panama isthmus in any numbers at all. All the hyperbole Charles Olson used to employ about the role of space as a defining condition of life on our continent turns out to be true.¹

Vancouver, by definition, is the Canadian Southwest. Only Vancouver Island, on which sits the capital of British Columbia, Victoria, lies further to the southwest. The whole notion of “southwest” in the United States conveys an ensemble of images & connotations: sun, warmth, the visible presence of Native and foreign cultures along its southern border, the newness of cities. That last one is worth considering. Vancouver turns out to be a newer city than San Diego, Los Angeles, or even Portland or Seattle. Initially scouted out by the ill-fated British explorer George Vancouver & later by the trader Simon Fraser around the turn of the 19th century, Vancouver itself was not settled until the early 1860s after the discovery of gold along the Fraser River brought a raft of disappointed prospectors up from the hills of the Sierra in California. Strictly speaking, Vancouver is newer than all of the towns of Silicon Valley, the technological apotheosis of Pound’s modernist dictum: Make it New.

I mention this because that Vancouver is absent entirely from George Stanley’s long poem Vancouver: A Poem, published earlier this year by New Star Books, which operates jointly out of Vancouver and Point Robert, Washington. Composed over an eight-year period and openly modeled after William Carlos Williams’ Paterson – or perhaps I should say originally modeled Vancouver is only incidentally about the city & far more a phenomenology of age. Everything in Vancouver, starting with the city but more crucially including its author/narrator, is O.L.D. I almost want to get out some ice sculpture lettering a la Ligorano/Reese to make my point.

A decade ago, that conclusion might have struck me as a negative one, as I suspect it will no doubt strike some of the readers here. That I don’t now may be because I’m finally in my sixties, just a couple of years younger than Stanley was when he started this project. There are relatively few major poets who have begun anything approximating long poems after the age of 60, and most of them were Objectivists. One notable non-Objectivist, John Berryman, in his Paris Review interview, speaks movingly of the idea, but then he killed himself at the age of 58. Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, which is really a poetic series, was written between the ages of 70 & 74. Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, a “long” poem only insofar as its extraordinary concentration of energy has an impact of a work several times its 20 pages, was written in his 65th year. Charles Reznikoff published the first volume of As Testimony at the age of 69, tho obviously he had been working on it for some time. He was 81 when Holocaust appeared. George Oppen, the youngest of the Objectivists, was 60 when Of Being Numerous appeared. And of course William Carlos Williams, more a mentor to, than a member of, the Objectivists, was 63 when the first volume of Paterson appeared in 1946.

Even more than Marianne Moore, Williams was the great American modernist poet who never left home. Though he wrote important works occasioned by his travels to cities as diverse as Paris & El Paso, Paterson is the record of a man settled in a single town his entire life. Its insistence on place as a counterbalance to Pound’s fantasy of history as the grounds for an epic is one of that poem’s most important literary claims.

Stanley’s relationship to Vancouver, the city, is quite different. A native San Franciscan in the Spicer Circle, he, Robin Blaser & Stan Persky all moved to British Columbia in the years immediately following Spicer’s death. At rather this same time, Stanley also had something of a conversion experience that he relates to meeting the Irish (now Irish-American) poet Jim Liddy, who taught at San Francisco State in 1966 & ’67. Liddy never met Spicer but was overwhelmed by the experience of the poems he was then able to find in print, while at the same time introducing Stanley to the work of his own chief influence, Patrick Kavanagh. As Stanley tells it, the two poets traded Gods. In Stanley’s case, this offered him a new freedom as a poet, much in the way British Columbia offered him a new landscape.

Yet unlike Blaser, say, Stanley didn’t become a Vancouver poet as such, precisely because his work, much of it as an itinerant Poet-in-the-Schools in the northern reaches of the province. One never senses in Stanley’s writing that this was part of a back-to-nature program a la Gary Snyder. My take is that Stanley remained a city poet at a distance, maintaining an ambiguous relationship to Vancouver until he was able to secure a teaching job there at an age when many men retire.

So what we have here is a very different document than we would have had if, say, longtime residents like George Bowering or Gerry Gilbert had penned such a book. It’s not the chronicle of a man who has spent fifty years or more crossing the same bridges daily. At the same time, it is the work of a writer who has had some kind of relation to Vancouver now for over four decades. The ambivalence shows, even to the book’s cover, a photograph of a man (not Stanley) walking along an otherwise deserted street in front of what appears to be an empty industrial shop front, no product visible in the darkened window, graffiti tagging the metal doors. Because of earthquakes, brick hasn’t been used for construction on the west coast since the 1920s² which means that this building was constructed when Vancouver itself could not have been much more than 30 years old.

What we get, often, is a litany of what used to be where: the Caprice Lounge once was the Caprice Theater, Granville Books is gone, “the 900 block where Blaine Culling once planned to open two grand restaurants, one Mexican, one Russian,” and inevitably the names of friends now departed. And that’s just pages 105 & 106. Young as it is, Vancouver can be, if you look at it right, a city of ghosts.

Age is of course relative. You can find artifacts in the Cluny Museum from the settlement that became Paris that are 2,000 years old. Any book of the East Coast of the United States, as both Paterson & the Gloucester of Olson’s Maximus attest, inevitably must address questions of history. Vancouver, in contrast, is an infinitely more personal account even than Paterson. And that’s precisely where its importance lies. As Stanley himself seems to grasp. It’s a question he confronts most directly in a poem within this poem entitled “Phantoms” on the subject, of all things, of masturbation – “Wanking” in Stanley’s vocabulary, deliberately using the Britishism to avoid the associations that other terms carry with them. He quotes a poem on the same subject that Ginsberg wrote at the age of 70, regaling in its memory of all the imagined young men he’d once slept with.

The shame & defiance I feel
are my own, not language’s –
– and to be so dismissive,
nay, intolerant of the phantoms –

helpless (yes!) half-beings
that one must oneself become

a half-being
to touch

This is a book that might have been subtitled Half-being and Nothingness. It stares directly into that abyss, using the city of Vancouver as its lens.

Stanley is not without humor here. Indeed, right after “Phantoms” comes “Seniors” – the title piece of a suite within this poem – that reads

Seniors know everything.
Correction. Each senior knows everything.
The others don’t want to hear about it.

It’s inevitable, what with “modern medicine” & more importantly postmodern longevity, that we are about to see a renaissance of good, even great books on precisely the topic of aging. Hettie Jones’ Doing 70 certainly sounded that alarum a couple of years back. Vancouver: A Poem is a complex meditation & an interesting counterpoint to her work. It expands the grounds of what’s possible here & is one of the most moving books I’ll read all year.

 

¹ Thus Olson begins Call Me Ishmael, the groundbreaking study of Melville that inaugurates his career,  with

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It’s worth noting here that Ishmael is published before Williams begins work on Paterson.

² The mortar between the bricks invariably dries & gets brittle, allowing the bricks to pop out, causing the floors to collapse, pancaking to the ground.

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