Sunday, November 2, 2014

Running out into the rain: Remembering Bill Readings (1960-1994)

It has been twenty years since my friend Bill Readings died in an iced-up airplane that plummeted to earth in an Indiana soybean field. Twenty years since a phone call that Halloween night cancelled dinner plans, and turned our Montreal party into mourning. Twenty years since the world changed.

Twenty years is a lifetime, and no time at all. Enormous sorrow, but also every subsequent gift seems to flow from that catastrophic event; the finality of it has figured, one way or another in most of the major moves of my adult life, from the onset of an acute depression, to quitting my job, and an eventual recovery by and on the sea. I can trace back to that accident the fact that I've built an unusual but deeply rooted and sustaining family life, here, at the edge of my adopted country. I do not know if I would be a storyteller now, one who makes things with others, if that event had not interrupted the narrowing focus of my academic life and career, and derailed them. Now my life is filled with teaching, sure, but also with shared days and nights, fresh air, clouds or stars, frogs and owls, cats, dogs, poems, photographs, sailboats, sketches, videos, voyages, berry crisps, time to love, time to breathe, and walks with chickadees, who flutter by to feed from our hands.

Bill, I do not know if I would have had the courage to make those changes without the fact of your death before me, the stupidity of it, in a plane that had already been designated a "grave," on the return leg of an international academic commute, when what is routine turns suddenly deadly, and no fragment of you is ever recovered. How peculiar still to be thus suspended: we prepare for a meal to which you never arrive.

At first we waited. We thought you'd change your mind, come back from the dead. We thought we'd sit in your kitchen again while you pulled espressos and steamed milk from that machine that made you so proud, a salvaged restaurant-grade cappuccino machine you'd had plumbed in beside your kitchen sink. We thought we'd gather around your big glass table again, and drink and argue and eat exquisite meals (risotto with black truffles, seared squid, perfect greens), listen to tango, talk about politics and soccer, you with your slow deliberate French--your third or fourth language--carving enough room for all of us, no matter what or how we spoke. We thought we'd hear your reliable advice again, your homespun scholarly wisdom: the best way to pull down a grant, plan a trip, bend back the pages of a book so that it looked as if you'd read it.  You were expert at the rhetorics of the university, but you never let them master your zest for living. Until you died.

I remember one late meal on a cool fall night. Your house was full of visiting artists and scholars. One from Japan, two from Brazil, a friend from Switzerland, where you'd once taught, a scattering of friends from Montreal. I'd helped you cook dinner. You were telling stories about the first time you'd come to North America, on an open ticket that let you fly around the world. For a moment you were sober: I've taken so many flights in my life, you said, that sometimes I wonder if I've flown my number.

We all shouted you down: no, don't be silly! You're joking, right?

Two weeks later you were dead. And your comment haunted all of us who were there.

Would you have gone anyway if you had known how it would end? I know you hadn't planned to die; you'd come to see me just before you left. I'm sorry I can't stay longer, you'd said, but I'll be back next week. You were worried about your recent weight gain; we'd made a date to repot some houseplants, and to talk about something serious,  but what that was I no longer remember. How to survive the pressures of a long-distance relationship? Perhaps. Both of us had partners in the US and insanely large phone bills; we knew and shared those vicissitudes, the miscommunications and the loneliness of long-distance loves.

I remember one of the last nights I saw you. As I prepared to go and you hugged me goodbye, you clung to me, tearing, as if I were a life raft.

But that's what you had been--and continue to be in some respects--for me: the one who saved me from drowning, even as the storm of year death nearly sank me. Surviving that and the storms that have followed it have taught me what I know about strength and weakness, sadness and joy, living while and as you can.

Sometimes I still think I see you, tall form striding down a damp autumn street in your lemon yellow raincoat. You emerge from the crowd then slip back into it: ghost, old friend, guardian angel. Choose how you want to live, I hear you say; don't simply withstand. Reach out if you're unhappy; do something. Raincoats are so you'll run out into the rain.

I still miss you Bill; I always will. But now I'm putting on my coat and going out into the rain.

The first two pictures are copies of photos taken in 1994--of Bill's last birthday party, on a ski holiday with his wife, Diane Elam, and friends Annie and Carolyn, as well as me and my partner then, Kristin Bergen.

The last photo is from a collage of images of an early snowstorm in La Fontaine Park, which was near my house in Montreal.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Against usefulness

for J, after a conference in which she was discouraged from teaching "useless knowledge"

If your useful abolishes poetry, I call for the end of utility.

How long can we live without dreaming?

Could you think if you couldn't drift?
What about a patch of colour on winter's blankest day?
Tell me you don't need to anticipate spring:
how long would you last without hope?

Is there anything in your house but white walls? 
Does your coat have a check, a fanciful button, a bit of flair
or style?
And what about your shoes?
Off with anything not your most stringent need: 
sackcloth, rubber boots, the plainest of hats.

Do you like to look from your window or follow the arc of a bird in flight?
Drop your eyes now; stare at the square of your desk:
this is your world entire. 
All else is uselessness.

Take the salt from your table.
Seek no new flavours, palate teasers, surprises, adventures. 
Who needs food or fetes or dinner meetings? Focus on the task. 
As for the rest? Try Ensure.

Now empty your shelves,
your music library.
Strip the paintings from your walls.
Give away your television, your rings and baubles, your photographs,
the bottle of porto at the back of the cupboard,
your mother's favourite coffee cup, 
every extra jacket.
Leather? Utterly impractical. Toss that too.

Strive for flatness in all that you do.

No cappuccino; no sweet thing in the morning or after a meal:
these are clearly useless,
ornamental, mere

If necessity is your rule, go ahead, I dare you:
live by it!

Forget singing. Turn your radio
off. The shower is for cleaning,
not dreaming. 
Scrub, don't showboat.

Keep each gesture to strict economy.
Destroy your gardens. 
Eat no cake.
The wine at dinner, your crystal decanter, who needs it?
Paint your car grey.
Pitch anything that resembles colour or pleasure or play.
Renounce eloquence and all of her sisters,
rhetoric, rhythm, persuasion, storytelling:
rhizomes rooted in poetry, these tropes are not for you to use.

Bureaucratic rationality carries us only so far--
you who purge and pleat betray other obsessions
(what is the sound of a heart past broken?)

Foolishness plots to leach the world of its lovely, to exile
exuberance, omit intensity, destroy

Sure, there's use in such reductiveness
--use, your name is murder--
but nowhere, life.

Usefulness, step aside:
my currency is fancy, and all
profit is in it.


I took the photos in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia, in the fall several years ago. The flowers were from our garden; I cut them before a hurricane blew them down.

The quotation in italics is from Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Security. Lockdown.

If it rains enough you forget how it was before the rain.

You think it will never not rain.

It rains all day Wednesday, and then all night, the wind stacking waves, their tops curling, breaking white, throwing spray over every reef.  

Hard in this wind to hold the car door open: it slams on her cheek, leaves a cut, a blossoming bruise. The steps at school are slippery; the heel of my shoe keeps falling off. I press the nails back in place, but what I really need is glue.

What's it like out there? someone asks as I blow in on Thursday just before 11, rain in my hair.

Wet, I say, shaking my head. Windy. Not too cold.

No, I mean, she says, were the police out there? Someone said the square was full of police. 

I didn't see that. 

She tells me a story. Earlier this morning, just three blocks away, a man was spotted on the street carrying a gun wrapped in a blanket. The police have been searching for him. Then word came that they had caught him, right here, next door. But some people are claiming there were two people with guns, and the one they've caught isn't the one who was walking down the street earlier.

Here we go, we say, rolling our eyes. After the shootings on Parliament Hill yesterday, the whole country's gone crazy. Everyone turning paranoid. Turning American. One mentally ill too often homeless Libyan-Canadian kills a soldier, rushes Parliament with a long gun, and is killed, and all anyone wants to talk about is terrorism. International threats. Security. No one wants to discuss domestic problems, gun control, poverty, racism, or mental illness. These deaths are a warrant for war, not a mental health strategy.

We imagine what implement the guy sighted in Halifax might have been carrying: a pool cue, a roll of sketches, a bassoon.  Or perhaps he was a reenactor, headed for the latest costume drama on Citidel Hill, and stupid enough to carry his cardboard rifle on the street. Out of the rain, under a blanket.

I head to my office; a day full of meetings unspools.

Government offices are on lockdown. So are the banks. A nearby high school. No one may enter, even later, even long afterwards, after a young man who had run from a city bus and left behind his weapons was arrested and taken into custody.

In Halifax, no official says anything about terrorism. Nor do they mention mental illness. Instead, the doors remain locked, public offices closed to citizens, a gesture that speaks volumes. Today we are dangerous; today in our raincoats we might be a threat; today we cannot enter the archives to look at some photographs hanging there. Openness is risky.

Didn't you hear, another friend quips, today is International Long Gun Holiday? And then he apologizes: I'm sorry; that was in bad taste.

We drive home through the rain and the falling leaves. Once home, we remember to lock the doors. 

As if what is out there is sure to be more harmful than what lies within.


On the shootings in Ottawa:

On gunmen in Halifax:

Pictures were taken in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on 23 October 2014.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fruit Machine (gonna make you sweat!)

queen  circus  gay bell 
whole blind bull camp 
coo cruise drag dike 
fish flute fruit mother 
punk queer rim sew 
swing trade velvet wolf 
blackmail prowl bar 
house club restaurant 
tea room top men

breast  farm hammer 
blonde stiff radiator 
erect politician stroke 
cigar child newspaper 
fight asphalt

Another found poem. This one comes from an infamous chapter in Canadian history--the effort on the part of the RCMP, mandated by the federal government and the military, to build a machine to identify queer people. This top-secret high security undertaking, the "Fruit Machine" project, gets going in the 1950s and 60s, when "national security" is evidently threatened by that scurilous curious hybrid, the "commie pinko fag" and all of his or her friends.  The idea was to show gay and straight pornography to suspected gay people strapped in barber's chairs (only a couple of rhetorical steps away from the electric chair here), and to use a device to measure the dilation of their pupils as they looked at the gay pornography. The idea was that the more the pupils dilated, the greater the involuntarily revealed interest. (If this story makes you think of some infamous scenes from Clockwork Orange, you're on the right track.) A second phase of development was supposed to measure sweat responses to stimuli, but results from the first phase were so unsatisfactory (unreliable) that the entire project was ultimately abandoned. Apparently finding willing test subjects was also profoundly difficult. The RCMP resorted to shadowing gay and lesbian clubs, secretly photographing patrons, and pressuring subjects they picked up to reveal the identities of various suspected queers. Many people refused to become informants, but over the course of this period, data was collected on some 9000 Canadian citizens, and hundreds of queer people, particularly in the military and the civil service, lost their jobs.

The words in the poem come from word associations used in initial "fruit machine" tests. Words in the first stanza are clearly supposed to evoke associations with the gay life; words in the second stanza are designed to suggest "strong," "upright," "straight" ("manly?") associations and virtues. ("Wanna fight?")

The text of the poem is drawn from Gary Kinsman & Patrizia Gentile's important book The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Also worth looking at: Gary Kinsman, Dieter K. Buse and Mercedes Steedman, eds. Whose National Security? Toronto: Between the Lines, 2000. Note, the first time I called up and perused this book on google books, the framing language (when the book was published, where one might buy it, etc.) was all in Hebrew. It took three tries and several specific searches for the book title to pull down a google book with English framing. What does this mean? Your guess is surely as good as mine.  

For a brief video introduction to the "Fruit Machine," see the following clip from the CBC digital archives:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Today I will different

After a summer on the boat away from my desk and the internet, save speedy incursions into my email boxes from laundromats equipped with wifi, I've stockpiled quite a bit of work. I thought of back-dating and posting it all, but the organizational effort involved in that exercise of documentary fiction--"as if" I really were here, posting chronologically, all summer--made me miserable and hopeless. I felt as if I'd never be caught up. Add to that, the commencement of a new teaching semester, and I began to feel overwhelmed. Until some part of me--the better part of me--rebelled. Why begin a new term in arrears? Why not simply begin today, and see what happens? Sudden relief, as if I could breathe again.

Today's poem then, another sonnet (something about this form is haunting me, and bit by bit, creating its own shape), thematically apt.

You wake, you say
today will be different, today
I will do what I do what I must what I will
today I will      efficient      today
tasks completed     today    organized   today
desk in order.
Today I will   different.
Do today as if some one other
un-waylaid by wind or whim or
        : this is the song you sing when you're dancing with a ghost
when samba flings your solar plexus when
deepstep come shining across
your painted sill  waves at your feet suck
sand to sea  beckon you to swim.


Italicized lines quote Alice Notley (the song you sing) from Benediction (2000)--the version found in her Grave of Light: New and Selected Poetry and C.D. Wright (deepstep come shining), from, of course, her Deepstep Come Shining (1998).

The photo, of old, new and blasted trees rooted in the same spot, was taken in a provincial park on Keats Island in Howe Sound, BC.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Pulmonia (Shadows of Mazatlan)

Mazatlan is a coastal city on the Mexican mainland. In the afternoon, where they aren't stopped by high rises or cancelled by ever expanding parking lots and pavement, sea breezes cool the city. At least in the winter.  If it gets too hot, however, you can always hail one of the city's famous "pulmonias," "pneumonia cars," so called because they are doorless and windowless converted, canopied VW bugs. Most are tricked out with superb sound systems and all sorts of detailing on the dash and steering wheel. You can bomb through town, the wind in your hair, listening to the whatever music most pleases your driver, swerving around corners, hanging on so that you (and your luggage) aren't tossed from the side.

Here we drive along a mural painted by school children, past a tortilla factory and through several neighbourhoods enroute to the Tufesa bus station. Our driver, Mario, is a return economic exile from the US. He worked for many years in California, but now all of the jobs have dried up, so he's back, cobbling together a living as he can, like everyone else clambering into the middle class in Mexico. It's a heroic but not hopeless effort, unhelped by US and Canadian "security" measures, which figure Mexico and Mexicans as unreliable and dangerous.

But let's mention this: assault rifles are not legally bought and sold in Mexico, and the personal ownership and use of firearms is more highly regulated and more generally frowned upon than it is just north of the Rio Grande. Indeed, many Mexicans complain that lax US gun regulation has led to a flood of weapons across the border from the US into Mexico. Recently, activists in the infamous Ciudad Juarez (called "Murder City" by reporter Chuck Bowden) have posted a giant billboard, built of letters made from crushed firearms that reads "NO MORE WEAPONS!" According to reporter Claire Shaeffer-Duffy a study released in March 2013 by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego and the Brazil-based IgarapĂ© Institute "estimates that upward to a quarter million weapons purchased in the U.S. are smuggled into Mexico annually."  

Of course, the profitable trade in illegal weapons isn't the only thing contributing to violence in Mexico: poverty, corruption, extortion, the distortions created by the US appetite for and war on drugs, not to mention the ongoing failures of a largely inoperative investigative and legal system each contribute to the overall picture.

Still, it wasn't lost on us that the latest US mass killing, a rampage in Santa Barbara, happened during the twenty hours we were on the bus from Mazatlan to Phoenix. In fact, according to, there's a mass shooting in the US every five days, and by one count, also in the US, there were 11, 419 gun deaths in 2013. Is Mexico significantly more dangerous than the US? Really?

Let's be clear, and keep our eyes open. Mexico is certainly not without serious problems--the ever larger scope of the drug cartels and the lack of a working justice system are particularly notable--but to pretend that it's somehow especially rough, while the US isn't, or that we "other" North Americans aren't co-contributors to "Mexican violence" is just a big old lie.


You can also read my account of Chuck Bowden's terribly sad and sobering Murder City here:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Incoming Tide

The tide: is it coming in or going
out? With every wave, the sea shifts, breathes.
and so do we.