Wednesday, May 09, 2018

How Festive the 'Cultural Acclimation or the #$@&%*! in FU

 If it is the job of the poet to capture the times in the same way that Shakespeare captured Jacobean society (or more certainly the language of Elizabethan England) or like the Psalms captured Biblical times then a modern poet must capture modern times surely?

In How Festive the Ambulance, an incisive stab at the quest to be heard (on several continents) the ambition of Kim Fu's assured début may put off many veterans of poetry who see poetry as a higher art form. That is not to say that the book falters because it is not finely written but more to say that poetry can be so many things. Alternatively if poetry is 'a trick on the page', or has a foot in both worlds as entertainment surely somewhere in the arrangement of words the reader must be intrigued to search for deeper meaning. This book achieves this quest in a subtle way by placing the voice deep in the text, like the voice of a plotter heard through a wall who may or not be saying: ' If you haven't caught it yet no one believes what you want them to believe: the message in many cases could be an unequivocal Fuck You!! If protest be the food of modern life, is it fair to ask what the protest is against?  HFTA seduces quietly by starting with offhand remarks.

'Winnipeg has the highest density
of mosquitos per square mile
on earth'

So starts the introduction to the world of FU in 'I READ SOMEWHERE'. 

This Winnipeg trivia, which would equally get a laugh in a pub as elicit a wry smile from a child in a Grade seven class, makes the reader feel like a fly on the wall spying on a group of passive aggressive millenials or singletons.

In the title poem, the poet's ability to arrange the words in a detached cadence is showcased:

How Festive the ambulance looks
studded with jewel coloured lights

ruby and amber on the outer rim of the Ferris wheel

The meaning of the poem is obscured by the slow style until we realise in DEAR RACHEL, I BORROWED YOUR CAR, that Rachel, has been put in 'neutral'  has rolled off the pier in her car and the ambulance may or may not be there for her. Is this the little sense of outrage in these times in which language is forgotten as if the Rosetta stone or translation services to the world have left us reduced to a simple stifled expression that no one can be bothered to respond to?
The delight of FU is that she is able to show this by taking stabs at the meanings of being alive and fighting to say I see you but perhaps you don't see me. Is the neutrality of the world there in the actions of the people, shrinking away from each other left to communicate through digital means, separated by miles and miles of email and data breaching? 


'A teacher says I would be punished
for my mediocrity with a tiny apartment
in the land of the dead'

So is there anything here other than a strange arrangement of words? If the poet must commit, then FU does a good job of keeping you ready, like a teacher hearing inane conversations before the class erupts and all the year nines have pen and ink on them. Speaking of teaching, how many high school students would tactfully restrain themselves before they picked up on the #$@&%*! in FU?

FU has a beleagured sense of modern life (and one may imagine the myriad electronic gizmos that accompany it).

'You left Buenos Aires for New York, New York for Bombay, Bombay for Paris. I am trying to find beauty in an overturned bread bowl.'


'That he addressed her in English: Don't
though his accent was Francophone...

Somewhere through all of this conversation there is a light bulb going off and the readers gets a sense of the silent subversive joker laughing at the world but also looking at the boredom and apathy around us.



I stay up late
because the act of brushing my teeth
and laying my glasses on the bedside table
means there is nothing left to see.

The self awareness is also palpable for someone who may prefer not to be seen as well. 


I have a forgettable face. It allows me to belch in public, to fart, to wipe snot on my sleeve, because I don't know these people and they won't remember me.

The poems talk about the end of the mind, the end of the reliance of the mind and the simple protests that are there in daily life to shriek out against this, in little stabs and knocks at the great slumbering muse in all of us.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Revenge of the Battery Hen or...If poetry is a magic trick on the page what does poet David Alexander conjure for the mother hen in all of us?

 If you've seen the recent McDonald's commercials (er at least ad vertz in the UK) you'll know that big business will go far to ensure the chicken on your plate is either Kosher, Halal, hand reared or otherwise plucked and de-clucked with kindness. Whether or not you believe this to be true is another thing and David Alexander's book of poetry, After the Hatching Oven, Nightwood Editions (2018) debunks a few of these myths and puts the pathos of henny penny back in favour of the persecuted pullet.

For those working at the Egg Boards of Canada Pluckers, how many may recall a shadowy janitorial figure with a late night case of the munchies, ambling into a 'bright, tiled place, (who) chewed through spicy tendons and veins and dropped bones onto the rain kissed sidewalk'?
How would the tragic end of a cybernetic fowl register with a child who watches with interest a beak peck through a brown egg in a primary school incubator?
 If poetry is a magic trick on the page, what does the poet David Alexander conjure for the Mother Hen in all of us? 

Alexander is philosophical the plight of the innocent fowl and considers a chicken who may have 'rebel'led  and perhaps fomed a 'language for revolution'. That is not to say  this is a glib critique of the consumer society, although it is certainly a celebration of the place in history of the beloved farm yard hen. Many of the poems in the collection pay tribute to pheasant's domesticated cousin, gallus gallus, through literary forbears, or friends:  H.G. Wells, Bp nichol, Ted Hughes, Dani Couture, Elizabeth Bishop, Kate Sutherland; those familiar with allegorical tales may delight in nods to Animal Farm or tales from Brother's Grimm. The art of the poems is to put the lens on the hen from different vantage points: public health advisories, recipes, parables, terrorism acts. Crossing time zones and states of mind each poem is an individuated, self contained-riff on how we got to cram all those birds in small heated spaces and forgot our own modest beginnings in the doing.  From a Review of the London Poultry House, an online course on chicken behaviour and welfare, the recurring theme is our little red hen friend, and their quiet existence in our lives under duress. In Elegy a rooster crows 'who was she, was she yours?'

If you have even lived on a farm you know the cluck of a contented chicken like the purr of a contented cat. You may also know about the weird sense of itchiness that comes when you visit a chicken battery, an "Auschwitz for hens" a Jewish family friend once remarked. Is this the subversive protest of a friend left behind?

The sensitivity for the beloved bird which has been subsumed in Knorr Cubes and deep fried wings is relayed as if slogans or calls to arms, pasted on a Town Hall wall.  It is as if these carefully chosen pastiches of separate comic, existential or biblical poems is addressing a separate audience but asking the same question: would chickens be as kind to us if the roles were switched?  If chickens were as big as a Tyranasaurus Rex, if they could spread an avian flue epidemic, if they could show love to us,  would they? Or is the yolk really on us? Idiomatically, chickens as a subject, can't be topped surely? After all, you don't have to be a good egg, to know this is chicken soup for the soul, no? But is this book of poetry a simple run of cliches on our feathered friend?

No. This is a late night behind the barn with two people who are going to duke it out for the rest of the village because there is no better way to express the rage of oppression. This is the pamphlet that lies in the corner, the newspaper, the spitoon bucket, each sheet of paper a leaf of anti-hen slavery rhetoric.

This is a warning to multinationals and those persons seeking to exist on fast food. What goes around, flies right back in your face and conscience. Is it really better to persecute or beloved bird and claim ignorance and run afowl of our own conscience? After all when we drive through the KFC, isn't it better to ask how we got to this point or, seeking to bury our heads in modern convenience do we even know that if we are not careful about how we look at familiar things – surely for the benefit of our own souls –  our own goose may be cooked, our own chickens may come home to roost as well?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Love in Aging Minds (from a work in progress)

I did not mention this yet but things happened very quickly in England and my great aunt died of old age. As a family of habit my great aunt never married and was living in an old farmhouse with her cats; she entertained, with a kind of reluctant acceptance, the villagers who came round to call on her. She was my favourite aunt and when we were little she took us down to the orchard where the chickens were and fed them scraps. We would marvel at the eggs we would bring back, amazed that every Sunday one chicken was bound for the pot. The male chickens were the ones that went first  – and as young as we were we could still see that my aunt did it with a gruff sense of purpose; she wasn’t mean, just dogged and practical and on an Edwardian farm, a wartime lady she surely was.
“Never saw much use for men,” she said once when I quizzed her in her back garden and I wondered how much was directed towards me, a wistful eighteen year-old who lodged with her after high school and worked for a next door cousin's marquee business. Many times she was awoken from her slumber on the second floor of that old farm house by the anxious voice of my high school girlfriend whom I'd left back home who had no clue a school night in Nova Scotia was the witching hour in ol Blighty. 
"Silly girl!" My aunty chided but I could tell there was a slight tinge of regret as if she had loved a man as a teenager. She never spoke of this but I could feel it during hot summers when skyward glances during weeding sessions followed war planes in air shows from nearby Brize Norton airport. "Oh what a carry on." She would say gruffly. "Next I suppose it'll be the colonel driving past in his mustard tin car, following the hunt," she stated as if she didn't really want to go and watch the hounds and the men come through on horseback. I found her a bit of an enigma, as if to say that she put many things down, but had no real mean bone in her body. Once I asked her what she thought of Warren Beatty whom was one of the best looking men in Hollywood in his day. “Oh I suppose he’d be all right to sit on a park bench with,” she said.
She was tallish and had swollen legs and big dark severe spectacles that she wore very imposingly but she squeaked with delight at the cats took in strays and loved nature. I always marveled at her sense of purpose, pushing through the old Edwardian farm house with her cane and fielding once a week phone calls from her sister, Saturdays in the stairwell.  The reason I was with her had been set up a year before by my parents. My mother wanted me to get some work experience in the UK after high school and my aunt was my mother's, aunt and godmother. Arrangements were made for me to work the for my cousin's marquee business. This all done after she came to Nova Scotia to visit us when she was seventy three – Seventy Three! She had a cake on the plane, was waited on by all the ladies 'in all their finery', the stewardesses.

When I came back to England from Toronto, in 2003, I went to her 90th birthday party at her old farmhouse. It was a grand affair with some local dignitaries and her favourite, a jockey. My aunt asked me if I was still very vain and had I found a woman who wouldn’t make a fool of me?  She sat in a large marquee at one of the main tables table and held court for as long as she could; all of the elderly relatives and passed around photo albums and told me stories of my grandmother, Judith and my aunty as young ladies during the second world war, letting down their hair at dances, in nearby Carterton, and Eynsham, and Witney. In 2003, even though I had lived most of my life in Canada, we were still connected; no matter my lack of success in any proven field other than being a painful word obsessive we had formed a bond after high school. As I mentioned I had lived with her for a year in her old crumbling farmhouse, working at a factory and as a barman and labourer in rural Oxfordshire before I went back to Nova Scotia and University.

When she died, now a very old lady who had recently celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday party, sitting with blinking eyes on her couch, sitting for pictures with all and sundry out to see her, she was becoming house bound. She was struggling a great deal. Her sister (my grandmother) had recently died and she missed her weekly phone calls to her sister to see how things were. Then as the relatives trickled to a halt and she became more resigned to the infrequent visits, she asked me if my wife, “the little one”, was taking up all my time; when the Polish “ladies in waiting” came round to tidy up she was abrupt with them and if they did get too close to things, (meaning trying to dust or tactfully declutter), my aunt gave them their marching orders, sharpish. She still had the sharp tongue we loved about her but her fire had died. I received calls and letters from “her carer” and her niece saying that they didn’t think I should come out and see her in the ways that she had fallen into around Christmas, forgetting things, falling silent, drinking a little; when she went into the nursing home I knew that she was ready that way but I did not listen to any warning not to go.  I went to say my goodbyes in the Windrush Hospital in Witney; she was propped up in bed, in her gown, sedated, her eyes were closed, slightly reddish, her teeth were out and she was snoring away but when we huddled round and started to talk she stopped snoring and I know that she was listening. Of course her life had been hard but also fair and eventful as well. 
She was a no-nonsense type of person and her sister had been the beauty and my aunt had been the one who had never married and had cared for her parents instead, both of them who had lived well into their eighties, and nineties, too.   
I went to her funeral in the country and read a poem that I had written for her in the country church with all there to listen. It was emotional and I followed the funeral procession out into the grave site and watched the coffin get loaded down into the ground. She was my great friend, the befriender of her nieces' Canadian kids and then offering advice to an eighteen-year-old teenager and I did not want to deny her, her day. I loved her and I would always love her, sitting as she did with her blankets across her, crossword on her lap. She said once that she read The Insolent Boy and “couldn’t make head nor tail of it” but after a while, “the penny dropped.” I had started writing at her farm when I was seventeen, so in a way a filament of that desire to try and make a go of it was kindled in me then; even her sister, my grandmother - a great personality and talker, wit and gossip and beauty as well had never been published as a writer.

And so after her passing I am resigned to the fact that that Idyl is simply that a meory now and I continue to work at whatever jobs I can and make myself a ghoul, haunting my house till late hours creeping from the marriage bed into the study where I pound on the keys till the late hours. My wife say, “come to bed” but I do not she lays there with here hands in her hair pulling at hairs, in her pajamas, waiting for me to come in quietly. I klutz in and cave in eventually, in the darkness of the night whispering to her; “Do you love me? Do you love me? Will you love me forever and so on.”
The replies  – always the same: “Yes, Papi.” Till it all gets louder and more irritated; a grown woman, under siege.

The jobs I work I throw myself all over the city into different situations, predicaments. The other day I was working in a market research job in the East end of London, Enfield, which is up in North East London but because the trains were down I had to take a replacement bus to the main terminus, in Finsbury Park, to get a connector service. The East End is still rough, living in Leytonstone I know why David Beckham runs so hard on the pitch when he plays football ­– he never wants to come back here again. Two stories come to mind; perhaps both caused by  a problem with the transport system. In the first case the replacement bus was stuck in traffic on a Saturday and cramped in the back back, sitting with yobs, pensioners, we were suddenly all told to 'get off the bus' because the quietish but sinister young man with the hood had a dog and the dog had shit right in the middle of the bus without anyone seeing it happen. Someone said “its been sick!” the dog has been sick but  it was shit, everyone could tell by the smell of it and the way it was in three separate pieces. The bus driver said everyone off and the crowds out in Walthamstow were fierce, milling around Black Horse Road and trying to figure out whether to take train bus or tube and wondering at the same time where the boy with the dog was, thinking he must be having a chuckle now ducking down a back alleyway? Later on, I was on a door-to-door market research job, knocking on doors and some old, ancient, man invited me into this place said "sit down" he’d be "happy to answer all the questions I had for him."
“What is this all about then?”
 “It's for the council,” I reassured him as I looked into his living room, all the furniture was covered with plastic, little porcelain figurines, crystal, like a strange abandoned trailer. The first clue was the long bony fingers on my collar, and a puppetish smile. A bit creepy. Problem it stunk in his place like there hadn’t been anyone in there for days; the place was covered in a thin film of dust and inactivity, like it was preserved in time, on the day the President Kennedy was inaugurated or something; he was dressed in his night shirt, stooped, spidery thin, was ninety four and deaf as a post, not to mention smiling like a little George Burns, Jewish, gay as the hills. He said, after we had conducted the interview about the council, “I’m rearry attracted to you.” I said, “What?” and he put his hand on me and shuddered and mustered with all his strength “I quite fancy you…” and he was ninety four years old, cuteish, (this must have been his charm as a young man, as he said that he was a tailor) and gave me a hug, he said “AR quite fancy you.” and I said OK Thank you God bless as if I was honoured in a weird way to be with the chief of a nearly extinct time and place but I was in such a state I left in a hurry without my bag and all he said, “I can be very discreet ­– come any time you like.”

 I looked into the room where I am certain he entertained favourite nephews and sisters who have married and moved on with having good jobs, families and the like, but it was so dark and it was so stale the place, a like he covered it in plastic so when people left he wouldn’t have to clean it. There are things you don’t want to see, things about your aged aunts and uncles and you don’t want them to see them in you either. Does this old gay man, feel this way as well? Was he a teachers pet as a child or a favourite nephew who had to keep mum about his own gay inclinations?
Of course I was in the street, feeling strangely naked and vulnerable like when you have forgotten something you can’t quite remember (a friend from one of those jobs would just as easily say you would lose your nose if it wasn’t attached to your face!) so I went back to get the bag he left in the place I could not get in and he would not answer, which made me think that old people are smarter than they let on. I tried the number he had provided for back checking but he when I tried to call it gave a wrong number. And my interview bag was still in there, Crafty old codger.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

MUDLARKING ON THE THAMES (solace from the city)

Bones of dead Londoners fill the banks of the Thames

A brief reflection on life in London: places of solace you can find where you might not expect them. (from a work in progress)
Under the the gleam of The Shard, lines of chatty, card-qualified Mudlarkers, decked out in their waterproofs, trudge up and down the beach line of the Thames, scraping at the ground for bits of tooth, shell, porcelain plates, clay pipes whatever they can find. I am bunking off some temp job, lowering myself down onto the beach, fixated by buttons which are rusted out and nearly completely disintegrated in my hands. There is a kind of weird solace, as if the place still has a tiny shard of the placidity it once had in Prehistoric times and seems, oddly comic too. Couples peer over the banks of the Thames pathway, some sitting up there sunning themselves; a couple of gay men, immersed in their world, intently lean forwards, balds heads almost touching;  they hardly notice when I climb up the ladder, three rungs at a time, into their conversation, underneath Millennium Bridge. I am burying myself in this ritual the last few days of the summer while looking over nearly every type of drenched and saturated human bone and animal bone that there can be: clavicles, ulnas, spines and so on; hiding under my hood like Obi Wan, it is not long before some spotty kid comes along the beachline
  'Ullo, found anything?'
He must be experienced because – and this happens when you are down there, lost in the forensic examinations – you saw him coming  and you are looking for a reprieve from  the people zooming;  still he managed to get into your space; you think how can you simply smile and ignore him? It is a bit like being a teacher trying to finish up some marking and a kid wants to tell you about their pet scorpion. Sir, Sir, Sir!
You you feel a little glimmer of kinship; he is shuffling along with his glasses and nondescript jacket,
'Anything nice there?'
 You are jack-knifed on the ground, in his eyes you are shielding yourself from intrusion reclining almost on the beach, as if a day out with friends having a picnic. You might even be, as your father says, a lucky sod!
'Well this place has been picked clean,' the young lad says, 'I can tell you now, won’t find much in here, mind, though,' he says, 'I can show you this...' and he pulls out a tiny bit of metal, which looks like a farthing, or ha penny bit.
'What is it?' You ask.
 'It is a fifteen-century counter for counting out weight and measurements. It is not even silver or copper, never mind gold, but brass.' He is keen and he is casting a shadow right over this little washer sized slip of metal.

'Are you a geologist?'  you ask and he says, 'No, but I’m studying to be an archaeologist.'
 You say 'That would be a job for me.' (Lets face it, you’d never find a roman coin on the banks of the rivers back in Nova Scotia, maybe an arrow head or a dinosaur bone but no belt buckle or ornate stuff like that).
You take time to reflect with this keen kid,
'What a great burden on you to see all those bones, just laying there, washed from some grave somewhere, and then all that talk of raw sewage and disease and so on.'
 You ask him if he had a job for the summer and you remember what it was like trying to find one, when you were at school and that having a job meant that you had money for gas and could also afford to take a girl out on a date and feel so much more some kind of useful then, and so you say,
 'I was at University once, myself,' he says 'Oh?'  but then you bury his academic querying by telling him that you used to go around with a rock and roll band quite a bit when younger.
'Which one?' he asks and you say:  'Kings College' because you are not in a great rush, and he says 'Oh? Uh London?' and you say a little briskly, 'No,  one in Canada - they are all over the world.'

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Neil Young Live In Berlin 1982

Monday, July 04, 2016

My Snow - from 'You can't bury them all'

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Notes on Dickens Walks: recalled to life

I didn’t study Charles Dickens’ novels with a magnifying glass in High School nor take any serious interest in Victorian literature as a student while haunting the corridors of the Angel’s Roost at a small liberal arts college in Halifax in the late 1980s. I was at best, an average student who majored in History,  worked part-time as a service bartender in Halifax and barely made it through Drama and English classes at Kings’ College, sleeping my way through classes far more interested in trying to impress women, than studying literature or books. I wasn’t a slacker but I wasn’t a scholar in High School either, more a bona fide track and field geek with an interest in band. So as an awkward teenager, of 15, 6'4 and 167 pounds, skulking like a spider in a black and gold Horton District High wrestling singlet after school in winter and training summers in the Pole Vault pit my future as a burgeoning poet and man of letters looked bleak    Dickens' novels rated down there with serving at St John’s Anglican Church on Sundays or cleaning out the rabbit hutch on Saturdays.
  Books were on the shelves in my father's study and propped up windows, casually flipped through by my library loving mother. Robert Graves, Bernard Berenson, yes, great literary lights, but I was more Encyclopaedia Brown. I wanted to play sports and go tubin, not admit that I loved to read. 
However by 17 my interest in literature was peaked by my grade twelve English teacher, Mr. Sheppard, who was serenely poised as the entry point to university. He was laconic, laidback and cool in a way that was mildly compelling to a independently spirited kid who'd been brought up in a tightknit community. He'd been out of the community and he'd been back again. He'd been in a band, hitch-hiked through Europe as a teen, edited a student newspaper of  60’s counterculture at Acadia University and told of his escapades of hippy life  on 60's communes to a rapt audience of naïve, valley-obsessed teenagers in English 421 in 1985. 

So it was to Shep a young male of dubious writing talent and even more dubious life experienced turned for inspiration. English meant 'stories' to me, though, not novels and Shep was good at keeping our attention in grade 12; unlike other teachers who  drilled ‘outline method for studying’ into us or insisted we do a book report of fifty classics over the course of the year, Shep was more laid back. He was Mormon, or rumoured Mormon, blond and balding, a little on the dumpy side but kind of handsome; he was a kind of shaggy dog enigma but also well established within the school. This was the 80's, so part of the charm, the cult of the English teacher; many students made  efforts to impress him either by sitting at the front of the class or taking him up on his offer of merit points for public speaking. Occasionally he fell down in class from a bum leg and he spoke with great affection about Hemingway and his vaunted BS detector. To be fair I think the “BS Detector” was directed towards us as a class, as if to say: "Do you really know what it takes to make a great writer? Do you know the significance of the great books of literature other teachers might tell you must read?"

I don’t know if I really understood my English teacher but I admired him. Shep also spoke personally about a reclusive Ernest Buckler, author of The Mountain and the Valley, whom Shep visited on occasion further down that way. The part that stuck with me was that the old writer wasn’t too keen on visitors and had to warm up to you in the kitchen before you were invited into the living room of the old farm house. This telling detail sparked a curiosity about writers in my mind at seventeen and an inkling of who I wanted to be in my life was formed. What did they talk about? I was wondering about that man Buckler, what he knew, what did he have to say about things he had seen, and what had he seen? This to me was part of the charm and love of literature of English 421. One further story from that English class stuck with me: Shep spoke of visiting an old pensioner friend who had an old cat that died that winter and the old gent was so traumatized he stuck the dead cat in the freezer till the spring thaw so he could bury it properly, as he loved the cat so much. I could relate to that. We had cats and I loved them. Therefor English class meant ‘stories’ to me not novels and certainly not Victorian novelists. English meant Lord of the Flies, Macbeth, More Joy in Heaven. My favourite book was The Crucible – the main character John Proctor, stood out. I was fascinated how so many teenage women could lead one innocent man to hell.

My personal connection to Charles Dickens is small, only that I liked the musical Oliver! very much as a boy visiting my grandparents in London whilst my parents uprooted the family from the Annapolis Valley in NS, for a  university sabbatical in the 1970's. For my father, a Londoner, it was a homecoming. For us kids it was a new experience riding the tube with my grandmother, holding onto her coat tails through the Science Museum and Museum of Natural History, wondering at crowds on busses, feeling separated from the valley but also strangely enervated at meeting our English relatives in bustling London.

My grandmother, Mabel, was a big theatre goer in the war years and I was impressed by her interest in theatre and in plays. However it was whilst watching the musical Oliver! with her, one Saturday afternoon,when I was taken by the  boy, the story and music; I could relate to the idealistic young Oliver, his sense of justice despite being under intense pressure to go along with thieves and pick pockets. That beaming, searching face stayed with me from that family sabbatical in the UK to when we returned to the valley; I was so impressed when we returned, I considered trying out for the local Kipawo Showboat Production of the Musical Oliver! in Wolfville. I went to an audition in the back of a travel agency but soon chickened out when I realized there were far more children in the valley with greater determination and singing talents than me. Instead I took a back seat, took up the violin and trumpet and sang in the Port Williams Elementary School musical, The Frog Prince! 

When I came back to London in 2003 at the age of thirty-seven, I did so knowing that this was a bigger step for me than leaving 'The Port' in 1995 and going up to Toronto to make a go of things. I really only had a couple of ideas in my head and those were to continue writing and performing in London, the stories/sketches anecdotes of the Annapolis Valley which had catapulted themselves to the front of my life    a few years before, in Toronto, and which were connected to the poetry book Scouts are Cancelled. Part of the reason I started writing the Scouts are Cancelled poems in Toronto was that I missed the Valley so much. I was younger too, 28, when I went up to Toronto. I was also haunted by this idea? Could the poems translate in London in the same way?  Was I also biting off far more than I could chew in taking this one in middle-age?

2003 to 2008 in London. Married. Money pressures. A lot of writing, a few more books published back in Canada including Taking The Stairs, plus a film version of Scouts are Cancelled, which covered those Toronto years. Some accomplishments were made, including breakthrough publications in London Magazine, New American Writing, Amnesty International Events and many more publications in other journals, involvement in influential writing groups, a citation by the Poetry Library at The Royal Festival Hall. But no great breakthrough in London literary society and to be fair was this ever likely to happen at my age? Was I ever going to finish any more work about the valley and or any more work in general?

Inspiration for a middle aged man?

The idea of reading Dickens first came when I was holed up at the BFI and watching some of the old movies from the 1940’s to pass the time after receiving word that I had lost my job. The film I watched was David Lean’s first version of Oliver Twist, not the musical I had remembered as a boy. Why Oliver again, you might ask, when there are so many films about London? Why not a film about how to get and keep a job in London? Well if you read this far, I'll try to explain. I guess that character that stuck with me as a small boy was still there and I was still haunted by having chickened out for an audition for the Kipawo Showboat Production in the 1970’s in my hometown of Wolfville. I was reminded in that small cubicle of watching that movie, that I was an edgy character now, gassed up on caffeine and aging. I was also reminded that I was still that excitable person, mired in self-analysis and implosion. I felt like my time had come – and passed.

When I saw the David Lean version of Oliver, I was impressed by the scene around Saint Paul’s and where the boys sneak down the steps towards the water and the water fountains through snaking alley ways. The water fountains are still there! Since the Lean version with Alec Guinness as Fagin was even better than that old 70’s musical, and had different lines in it, I decided to have a look at the actual text. Cue my time in the British library looking through books and coming across the most famous of them all A Christmas Carol. There in the texts I saw the words themselves:

“Bah Bumbug.”
“Dead as a doornail.”
“As solitary as a lobster.”

Seeing the words made the caricatures of so many movies just fade into the background. It was like reading a movie script of an old classic film with the notes of the writer penned in the margins. There was the mind sprung to life on the page.

“Bah Humbug,”
“Old un.”
 “Recalled to life”

“Bah Bumbug.”

Later on I read Sketches by BOZ which were compiled from Dickens time as a court reporter. I read it was not BAWZ as I imagined the North American inflection but ‘Boze’ as in ‘Moses’, which was what Dickens called his younger brother Moses. Instead of saying: “Moses”, he said ‘Boze’ like when you are suffering a cold. Seeing the words on the page – both Dickens’ ear for language – and choice of words gave me inspiration as well as seeing the energy and wit and wisdom in every line; I knew that Dickens was a man who didn’t just write to show off. He wrote because he knew deep inside him that if he didn’t do it, who was going to do it? "Bah humbug"
A cliche perhaps, but a cliches is nothing more than a very successful turn of phrase, no? SO "Bah Humbug!" was the start of my being hooked on Dickens at age 43 or 44, in the same way I had been so impressed by Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, and in an earlier period, TF Rigelof – yes – and JD Salinger and my musical hero, Neil Young.

So this time of my life which coincided with the bicentenary of Dickens and a number of high budget BBC Television productions of works such as Little Dorrit, Bleak House and other Dickens books, I decided to finally get to reading this man and get a better sense of the measure of him as well. There are so many books, but I went through the main ones Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, Sketches by Boz, A Tale of Two CitiesBleak House, David Copperfield, portions of a Christmas Carol and parts of Martin Chuzzlewit.

What is so odd about it is that I came to see London in the same way I saw my own small town in the Annapolis Valley in NS. Both, arguably, have had the great influence of the American War of Independence hanging over them. For the good folk of the valley it was the empire loyalists and planters who settled the region, loyal to the King and who were given favourable tracts of land to settle on; to the people of London it was the news that the colonies had fractured and their riches lay east not west; thus, by Victorian times England had long gotten over their responsibilities in the US and was profiteering from their ventures  through the East India Company.

Geographical comparisons to London must also be made. I come from a town which has a winding tidal river running through it, though when I was growing up in Port Williams the population was closer to 250 persons. Dickens walked, sometimes up to more than ten miles a day from his childhood home in Kent, (also on a tidal river)  into London where he crossed the river and explored the city in a way that he must have known every blade of grass, every back alleyway, every turn from Borough Market to The Strand through to Hungerford Bridge near to where he worked at the Blacking Factory as a child. He was also a man of secrets and bitter disappointments and tragic loves. He was a tireless worker, walker and amateur actor with a rumoured exceptional temper.

I know from my old routes I would take in the valley, as a child, up behind the barns and down onto the dyke lands. I know of the cow corn, we would walk through and play cowboys and Indian in, the routes through the eight-foot stalks of corn. I knew of the sand pit, where we were forbidden to go, where old truck cabs sat dormant, farm hands who lived in mobile homes sat with pulp chips piled high out back, carcasses of old farm machinery sat dormant, the chicken barn where we would steal soft rotten eggs from (softies) or ‘two and three yolkers’ to throw art each other, the stray cats that came into the milking room, the hay barn where we would make forts and stay in for hours after school, jumping like Tarzan onto hanging ropes till the skin burned off our hands and we fell to the ground. For me growing up the valley, I knew my routes well; I knew the old school burned down because I watched it burn with half the students on our street. I water skied the Minas Basis when the tide was in, crashed my fathers car twice on the Wolfville Ridge Road. I knew the black berry patches, where the wild cucumbers were most populous and also that those cucumbers made excellent weapons for wars we had in the back words.  I walked those routes for nearly twenty-five years and saw the changes. Elm Trees which had to be pulled down because of Dutch Elm Disease, new subdivisions coming in all of it.

The first Dickens clues to his routes in London were in the books, and so I went back to my old standby Oliver Twist and read with interest. Now I better understood the term Hackney Cab, (rarely does a Hackney Cab arrive in a Dickens novel when something good has happened or is about to happen) and read with interest that when Oliver first comes into London with The Artful Dodger he comes by way of Barnet area and through The Angel, down into St John Street and through Islington and into central London, to the rookeries of Holborn or more importantly, Clerkenwell and Saffron Hill where he settled in with the old con man Fagin. Seeing as I was working in Angel it didn’t take me long to try and retrace the route  – and while the old crowded back alleys are long gone, – Saffron Hill, the drinking dens, One and Two Tuns, are still there tucked in behind some imposing Insurance buildings. Thus, finding Fagin’s lair, in person I was hooked and like a serious word nerd and history boffin, set out to retrace the old route of Oliver’s London.  I learned and walked the route that Bill Sikes takes in his Hackney cab from Shoreditch and Bethnal Green out to Holborn and through the various law chambers and ‘Golden Squares’ of Nicholas Nickelby, followed the route Sikes takes Oliver to rob a rich house, then over time, came to identify the work houses which were featured along the way, just off high Holborn. I discovered Grimaldi’s lonely grave, (Dickens’ favourite clown) on Pentonville Road; Grimaldi deserves  a biography of his own. What the Dickens?" you might even ask.
 Grimaldi is a special case, a throw back to that childhood love of theatre and acting and plays and Dickens so loved Grimaldi that he personally took and worked on Grimaldi’s autobiography (and if you read close you can see it had to be written by the ‘inimitable’). This I found touching as the pathos and comedy is there in that Grimaldi book (filled with colourful tales of robbers, beatings, bets, swindles, poverty, dying clowns) the same as in Pickwick Papers. Following along in Dickens' hood, I found the Streets where some of the characters got their names, Margery Street, which he must have nicked for Joe Gargery the kindly Blacksmith uncle in Great Expectations, who comforts poor Pip just like Peggotty comforts David in David Copperfield. This street name just outside Islington Square was a particular find and I can imagine the thoughts going through Dickens’ head as he wandered these regular routes close to where he lived in Doughty Street (now the Dickens Museum) where he was holed up with his wife and her sister and first children, working feverishly in Oliver Twist and then Nicholas Nickelby. It took me some time but I soon crossed the Thames and found the old walls of Marshalsea Prison on the road in from Kent, where Dickens' father was incarcerated for debt, behind Borough Market and the old Inns where the coaches rest when many characters from The Pick Wick Papers, including Mr Jingle and Cocky cockney cheekie chappie Sam Weller, first stop for sustenance and ponder the pickles and various predicaments they find themselves in.  After some time I laboured to find Ye Old George and Vulture Pub featured predominantly in The Pickwick Papers and of course was astounded to find Goswell Road, home dwelling of Mr Pickwick, where his landlady mistakenly thinks Mr Pickwick has proposed to her. Further on my travels down on The Strand I came upon the private banks, namely Coutts where Sidney Carlton the characters of a Tale of Two Cities frequent. Further along I discovered the sign for the Old Saracens Head Pub, which wasn’t far off Saint Paul’s either. This Is where ye ol  Wackford Squeers the miserable school master comes in search of Nicholas Nickleby to serve notice of his intent to sue him for assault and perhaps lay claim to bringing charges against Nickelby for kidnapping, the mentally disturbed Smike.  I came to realise how small a city London was in his time; Nickleby finds decent lodgings for his mother in Bow, a small hamlet in the countryside, now falling in the shadow of the Olympic Park and Stadium in the East End.

Key amongst all this was how interlocked all of these places were, the regular haunts of the Old Bailey: courts, clerks in and around Holborn, London Bridge with its constant flow of people coming into London. I thought of how I always felt crossing the bridge to come back home into Port Williams.

Another feeling I got from the text was most certainly when Mr. Pickwick returns to Dingley Dell and the land of his most fond remembrances and where he escapes from the charming machinations of one Mr Jingle, the stress of a mistakenly besotted landlady and where Mr Pickwick feels most at peace with his friends, even the ever curious fat boy, who spies on all comers and events. This Dingley Dell reminded me of my own home in Port Wiliams of the fantastic traditions, the winter camps with scouts, the pickles and relishes, the strawberry suppers, the Apple Blossom Parade, the feeling of being close to people and of knowing them well. The escape from the jibes and competitiveness of the city – in my case Toronto, first –  were the same for me coming back to The Port , coming back home. This could be the same as Copperfield must feel when he escapes with Ms. Peggotty to her family on the Dorset coast, and to the family there, where Dickens feels most welcome and at peace with the good citizens of Dingley Dell. For the world outside this world is a foreign place and who would want to go and inhabit it? I remember as a boy how I felt when we took family drives down to the South Shore in the summer and or went into the big city of Halifax, through Bayers Road, to go to the Sears Mall. I forever wondered how people could live down there, how could anyone choose to live in such a place which was not the Annapolis Valley?

Many times I have wondered have I done the right thing, a country boy from a small valley town of two hundred and fifty people coming all the way to London to live and work in the city. But having this experience and knowing the routes and walks and that the city of London is just simply a series of linked villages I have found a way to survive, both by walking but by taking the roads less traveled and keeping a valley point of view and staying in the sidelines. The truth is that when I first went up to Toronto, I did so to get away from distractions, so that I could hole up and write. When I left Toronto, it seemed like I was getting to know many of the writers in the city and though I loved the writer friends I met, I felt like I needed my independence once again. I will always miss Toronto, what might have been there? In this way I know I can never be as big as Dickens as he was never as big as the London he came to inhabit. But in my small way I can find my own voice for my own upbringing and use the experience and passion of Dickens to continue to motivate me to try and get my time in the valley down right.
John Stiles was born in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada, and currently lives in London, England. John is the author of the comic novel Taking the Stairs and is the subject of the critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry documentary Scouts are Cancelled. John’s work has received praise in: Publishers Weekly, The New York Times and in his work has appeared in Poetry London, New American Writing, Trespass Magazine, The Literary Review of Canada and The Globe and Mail amongst others. John attended the University of Kings College in Halifax Nova Scotia, the former Atlantic School of Theology. John is currently working on a novel set in the Annapolis Valley.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Taking the stairs brief reading by John Stiles

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Some notes on a tent trailer

 Some notes on a tent trailer
by John Stiles

In the barn with the sun slanting through
bailer twine hanging down, like a noose,
nits, flies and moths fluttering, broken egg
shells, yolks on the ground like pancake,
puddles with oil, pin pricks of a  rainbow. 

The smell of cow manure, a white dog called
‘ghost’ nipping at the wheels of a big boat car.
Late to come with the mail, all the post in a bag
in the side door, taking all the routes, chugging
down a backwoods road.

Dad in a technicolour windbreaker

Three kids belted in back of a car, looking out
wondering if the tent trailer is hooked on the
back and the clasp and chain link is attached?
The mother in front turning around and asking
if all are fastened in and hoping the homemade

leg is tucked up inside the tent trailer and screwed in
not dropping onto the road, clanking down a highway,
as if a hammer might land as if dropped from a height?
Wondering if you left it there on a tenting site, thinking
it might be possible to drive back and have a look

It was always raining when you left the valley, when
you were down on the south shore it seemed so different,
bakeries, bait stores, with Mepps Black Fury and three prong
jig hooks,  you really did wonder how did people live
down there?
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