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On Canada and its poets, and getting the words right

Earle Birney, poet, in 1973

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

This summer, expat Craig Taylor is rediscovering his homeland through the Canadiana collection of the Abbey Bookshop in Paris's Latin Quarter. This is the eighth instalment in the series.

Some days, I feel like one of the addled city-dwellers captured in many of Zsuzsi Gartner's short stories. Some days, after staring at a computer screen for hours, I end up thinking of a family friend named Jim.

I know Jim mostly from legends and old photographs in which he's pictured with wild hair and a Cowichan sweater. I know he loved to fish and camp and hunt. He gave my mother a fishing reel as a wedding gift, stretched traplines across parts of Northern Ontario, and drove his own firetruck up and down farming concession roads. I know he admired the poetry of Earle Birney.

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Jim spent much of his life tramping through wilderness, and he must have been pleased a poet like Birney had traversed similar landscape and returned with vivid language. One poem in particular, David, was important to Jim. For a lot of men like him, it was practically part of the camping equipment.

The other night, when I asked about Jim, my father started to describe a feeling: "Standing in a river with him," he said, "washed by that water, feeling it push against my waders in that fast-moving stream, the beauty of that moment. Then Sunday – packing up the car to go back to Edmonton, that sad, empty feeling as we were leaving the river, forsaking that place to live in the city. It was such a strong, hollow feeling. It's hard to put into words."

One of the reasons to read new Canadian poetry is, simply, to find new words and replenish and refurbish the old. I know the frustration my dad feels. You try to capture images and feeling. You try to get the river; you can't do it like a poet.

For instance, I've seen fish in the rivers in late October, but look at Tim Bowling's description from his poem The Last Sockeye. He sees those creatures with "scales like bloodied coin/ a glove of chain mail/ after a Crusades slaughter/ the living hand still inside." Here's the bird from his poem The Great Blue Heron: "hunched in its shabby raincoat/ like a terrorist, smoking long/ cigarettes of mist/ coolly staring at life."

I'll stick with animals for a second, only because Karen Solie's Sturgeon isn't really about the fish. It's us: "…We take our guilts/ to his valley and dump them in,/ give him quicksilver to corrode his fins, weed killer,/ gas oil mix, wrap him in poison arms./ Our bottom-feeder,/ sin eater."

Sin eater. We're now in the silt, far from the heights of Birney's mountain peaks. I wish Jim could have seen where Canadian poetry was headed, how it both linked to and broke with the poetry he enjoyed. "The notion of Canadian poets as what Charles Simic has called 'voluptuaries of words' should not be dismissed," writes Carmine Starnino in the introduction to the the 2005 anthology The New Canon, "because the element is present in the poetry." Of course it is. These professionals are ready to provide necessary new language.

The anthology reminds us of the dangers of describing Canada in outdated ways. Many vested interests would like to keep reusing a now undeserved set of descriptions. "Isn't most of Canada untouched wilderness?" I get asked a lot by foreigners. How does one describe Canada now?

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Starnino reminds us that poets working in Canada now are neologists, lovers of vernacular, and able to convey complexity. The push forward into the new is both a creative and political act – to see things as they are and not just how we'd like them to be, not just in a convenient cliché: Canada is, unfortunately, fish in weed killer, it's the photos of Edward Burtynsky. It's poet John MacKenzie's description of the "devastation beyond town": "a scrattle of/ steel buckets & blades pushing into shale, the crumbling/ edges of shale pits lined with garbage."

Poets are especially effective at conveying the complexity of a mixed landscape. Anita Lahey's Cape Breton holds "…water cold and deep as prehistoric/ joy. A Tim Hortons every hundred feet."

Ken Babstock writes from the point of view of a 7-Eleven, which is now as valid a piece of the Canadian landscape as any wheat field, "…a super-/ nova on a quiet corner, beacon to that fleet/ of 4runners and Acuras disgorging their thunder/ of hip-hop and jungle. I haven't slept since 1983," says the accursed 24/7 store.

As for replenishing my own personal stock of images, I often turn to a West Coast poet named Joe Denham to give me a hit. When I can't conjure the coast from afar, or if I'm stuck behind a computer, breathing recycled air, I think of his poem Splicing, in which he balances the complexity of nature and industry, of "…dusk/ sifting down through Bowen Island/ cedars. Gulls perched silent on each/ dock cleat. Creosote. Cog grease…" That's home for me.

Jim died in 2005. He remains a mythical figure in the family lore. What is his legacy? What did he leave behind? Perhaps it's simple. In her poem Java Shop, Fort MacLeod, Karen Solie offers up a line for those who knew the pleasure of walking through the landscape – an Alberta "burning orange/ all your finest summers in its leaves."

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