Archive for the ‘Canadian Literature’ Category

Justine knows this wrought iron bridge well enough.  As she looks up at it from the riverbank, she can see the full length of it. She knows the exact place where her name was carved on its bowstring truss one night a hundred years ago by someone who thought he loved her. A car passes across it, jostling its iron body, and stops her from thinking about how she watched his hand etch the letters deeply into the layers of thick green paint.  Something moves below the bridge and catches her attention.  A young boy crouches beside the dark river on the other side.  He’s not looking at her as he touches the surface of the water with his open hands. Testing the temperature, she guesses. Trying to see his reflection, maybe. Justine considers the slow way the river moves between them.  The skin of a beast flashing a thousand brilliant points of breaking light. Further along an overturned shopping cart is caught in flowing brown-green reeds of river-hair. A Dominion grocery store artifact stuck fast. A rusting discard. Its edges glinting as if new in the morning sun after a midnight joy ride down Blackfriar’s Hill.  On this side of the river, her two children have fallen under the shoreline spell of finding green bits of seaglass.

“Not too close to the water, okay.” Her two young girls in oversized black rain boots and unzipped spring jackets, take one, then two steps back before sitting on the pebbled shore, racking grey gravel for colour with tiny pink fingers.  Small handfuls at a time.

“Mommy, look at this!”

“That’s pretty, honey. See if you can find ten pieces each.”

Her children’s heads bow without question into the task. Justine’s attention wades back across the river. “He can’t be more than fifteen,” she whispers to herself.  The boy stretches his frame and peels off his torn parka.

She watches the boy disappear inside an oversized refrigerator box and re-emerge with a large green knapsack.

“Mommy, we’re hungry!”

From across the river the boy looks up at her, as if the words came from him.  She sees his eyes squint from the white path of sunlight that unfurls across the water.  Reaching.

“Yes, I know.  I can see that,” she says quietly, not taking her eyes away from the boy.

She watches as he turns away, as if he saw her but didn’t see her. He begins to climb using his hands and feet a-quarter-of-the-way-up the breakwater’s inclined grey cement wall.

“Elizabeth, watch your sister.  I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” her daughter says quietly as she peers up briefly before resuming her search, examines her kneecap where a small pile of sea glass has been sorted – three green one brown one pink stone

Justine makes her way up the embankment carrying a white plastic grocery bag.  The bridge reverberates with the thump-thump of passing cars, crossing from road to bridge to road.  From here, in the middle of the bridge, she can see a long way:  her girls on one side of the river looking for shiny broken pieces and on the other side, a boy.

“Hey!” Justine shouts, a bit surprised to hear her own voice.

Butch looks up.

“I’ve left something for you.”  She holds the bag up against the blue sky like a flag.  And without knowing it, her fingertips briefly touch letters from another time.

The lady who was across the river a minute ago is now on the bridge – waving like she knew him. A white bag hangs from an iron post in the middle of the crossing. Butch dusts some dirt off his shirt and makes his way, slow but not, to the iron-mouth-opening of the bridge.  He instantly catches a waft from the ancient black oil soaked into the bridge’s long wooden planks.  Its wetness, from last night’s rain, gives off a languid layer of steam under the heat of the morning sun. He feels the warmth on his face. Butch sees the lady as she stands on the other side, directly across from him. For a moment they both hold each other’s gaze. He thinks that maybe her lips try to make a smile. Her eyes shine like small stars. Then she’s gone.  Butch leans his body over the iron railing of the bridge to catch one more glimpse.  The lady collects her children. Seaglass clasped tight in small fists. Butch waits for her to look back over her shoulder so he can tell her that her eyes are like stars. But she doesn’t look back.

On the breakwater’s inclined cement wall Butch opens the bag under warm sun. Three sandwiches, three juice boxes, three small clementines, three chocolate chip cookies. He studies the way the sandwiches are wrapped.  Wax paper carefully folded in the middle, and the triangles of extra paper are tucked under, like a gift.  It dawns on Butch that some people make an effort to wrap a sandwich.  It was probably still dark when she made them.  Bare feet on the cold kitchen floor.  A cutting board ready.  She opens her refrigerator.  Full.  She has to move the carton of milk and leftovers out of the way to reach packages of cheese, liverwurst, turkey. Butch thinks about opening his fridge.  The light inside doesn’t work.  Doesn’t matter cause there’s nothin’ to see.  He closes his fridge and thinks about how soft the bread is from the cupboard above her head.  She probably has to stand on her toes to reach it.  How her hands move.  A hard calm. Tearing. Placing. Folding. Tucking in. She probably smoothed her full hand across her kid’s forehead just before they woke. Butch’s stomach grumbles. He opens the folds carefully (sandwich balancing on his knees), picks up one half, eyes the filling, and takes a bite.

The river is deep.  He tries to see the bottom.  “Standing at the bottom of a deep dark well you can see the stars in a daylight sky,” he says to himself with his cheek full of liverwurst and Wonder bread. He looks to where the lady stood and imagines her.  Imagines her hand on his forehead.  He takes another bite.  A ball forms in his cheek.  His eyes close with the weight of the sun and absently he reaches into his knapsack for his book. Instead, his fingers feel the edges of the metal pipe.

Image

The ‘v’ was bleeding.  Almost into a “y” before it dried.  That’s what I’d say, if you asked me.  But why should I tell you?  Tell you about the dark red letters painted on the side of the white truck:  Sam Sheep’s East Side Movers.   Under my breath I practiced my s’s:  “Tham Theepths Eathed Thid Moverth ssh th ss.”   Funny, the things you remember.  I remember my seven-year old body wanting to bounce.  Sometimes it did, but mostly I kept it in.   Start agains.  That’s what me and Butch called our moving days.  The scent of opened paint cans, the shafts of uncurtained window light, the steps of something better walking in and out of egg-shell white, empty, unsorted rooms.  Only thing was, Butch was saying start agains different.   It wasn’t just in his voice; it was in his whole body.  A turn to cold.  A mean cold that would slip in from under a trapdoor.

On moving day the van appeared from out of nowhere.  Its motor rumbled, ready and eager to get a move on – a beast on a leash.  Me and Butch sat in the square open mouth at the back, thrown in with the luggage and the boxes. Told to stay put.  Butch climbed a small crag among the cardboard’s mountainous range.

“All our worldly possessions right here under my ass!” he shouted as he lifted his body up with his arms and dropped down hard on the precarious edge. I sat on a brown vinyl suitcase below him.  He bit his nails and spit white semi-circles down at me.

“Stop it or I’m gonna tell on you!” I whined, waving my arms trying to deflect bits of nail.

“Ha! Who ya gonna tell?”

I didn’t turn to look at him. He just thumped his feet hard on the boxes and sang songs I didn’t know.

Butch leaned back heavy on our laundry basket stuffed with winter coats, almost toppling it. I remember my army green snow pants and a pair of red mittens fall from above and land near my feet. I looked up ready to say something but he was busy reaching his hands into the basket. They emerged with a set of bongos he stole from the grade 9 music room. “Fuckin’ A,” I heard him whisper.”Fookin’ A.”  I looked away to watch the outside. A marmalade cat tucked herself into the shade beneath a parked car.  The only other traffic on the curbless, sun-filled street was some hanging laundry  from the low rise balconies catching an occasional breeze, and the cicadas’ singing, piercing through the summer heat. Then from inside our darkened cavern ever so lightly with his fingertips (oh, so lightly), I heard Butch tap out a rhythm. Skin on skin. Tilting my head up, I watched him from below.  The smooth wood of the instrument was clamped tight between his legs. His long thin back curved over the double-hided spheres. His head poised to one side, his thirsty ear listening. As if he was looking for something far away.  A darkness was lifting. I liked his face this way.  Like the moon.  One side always dark.  Butch liked the moon. At night we’d walk around the empty streets with nowhere to go and look up at the moon. It was like a compass thrown into the dark ocean of sky. Like a spell, he’d rhyme off the moon’s seas: Mare Frigoris, Mare Imbrium, Mare Cognitum, Mare Crisium …

But they’re not really seas.

Oceanus Procellarum …

Usually he stood in its eclipse, but just then, the shadow turned away, briefly. He was a waxing gibbous. Luminous.  A warm light.

“You two bandits okay in there?” From outside the truck came a raspy voice like a chase through loose grey gravel.  Thick with debris. Followed by a long cough.

A man, telephone-pole tall, clad in faded blue coveralls, edged around from the side of the truck.  Pant legs too short.  Sam was written on his shirt pocket all fancy in dark blue.  His eyes were set in a squint from sun and smoke.  A tuque sat atop his head.  A dollop of black wool.  In the corner of his mouth a cigarette burned. Long ash doomed.  He leaned his hands against the rim of the truck as if holding the sides open with all his might.

“Hey, is your name really Sam?” Butch asked with a wide smile, heels thumping the boxes.

The Moving Man looked steady – not moving.  For a minute I thought he was going to reach in and throw Butch out and onto the road. Instead, in a single fluid motion, his cigarette ferried from one corner of his mouth to the other.  The ash broke.  The Moving Man adjusted his cap. “Just helpin’ out my brother.”

Butch shot back in disbelief,  ‘Ha! You mean your brother makes you wear his suit? The thumping stopped. The two stared at each other.

“That’ll be enough outta you little man,” he said pointing, adjusting his cap “Just yous keep ‘er down in there.” A smile appeared across the Moving Man’s lips like a strange wave frequency.  He flicked his smoke to the ground.  Orange sparks.

The panel door scraped downward. Rattling chains to pitch black.  The beast revved.  A low rumble vibrated our bodies.  The truck lurched forward and we both reached out into the darkness.   In moving black, Butch drummed while I kept my unseeing eyes wide-open trying to sing along to songs I didn’t know.

Humans are odd beasts especially when confronted with acts of transgression.  When, for example, a rogue force unhinges the ideological glue that was so carefully applied to “fix” a specific social narrative.   Unpredictable. Unorthodox.  Dangerous.   Three words that share a commonality among Green Eggs and Ham , Mein Kampf, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover along with thousands of other books that earned the status of banned.

But what exactly does it mean when a book is banned?   The banning of books has a long reach in history including Thalia  by Arius in 250 AD and more recently Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s Fist Fight in Heaven.

The etymology of the word ban is from Old English bannan or “to summon, command, proclaim” or from the German bannen “banish, expel, curse” and originally from bha “to speak publicly.”  In the late 14th century, Old Norse banna was “to curse, prohibit … to speak or a threat.”  In Old French ban was “outlawry and banishment” and the Germanic root is “banish, bandit, and contraband.”  Implicit in the word’s language formation is the circulating power between, among, and within both the sovereign and the outlaw.

But how does it slip from the strategic minds of those who mark an object as outlawed or as banned that they are actually highlighting an already existing discourse and by branding it with the Scarlet Letter provokes instead, as if by magic, a desire for it?  Hawthorne’s book, by the way, was also banned.  An outlaw, of course, is a misnomer in that by marking something or someone as transgressor or “outside of” they remain always and more potently “inside” as a threat to the status quo.  The Panopticon it seems, in its social architecture, will imprison those who watch and those who are watched.  To ban is to recognize and to authorize an object’s power – it has the power to change to shift to effect to affect.  The book is an object, a container filled with ideas and actions that are already circulating and have been circulating in other networks: from kitchens, to alleys, to libraries, classrooms, pubs, bedrooms, fields, living rooms, emails, graffiti, canvasses, music, t-shirts or no shirts,  footwear, theft, charity, hacking, poisoning, hair styles, marginalia, picket lines, fires, buses, marches, leaving, bearing witness, to undocumented silences that say so much more than that which lies between any published covers.  Why then is “the book” so dangerous?  Perhaps because it forces individuals to slow down as explained in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:  “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly”(9).

The written word is proof. Permanent.  A testament. An entry point. Social evidence. Militaristic in its very technology.  A public declaration.  Gutenberg did not only unleash the medium of print production but also a material potential of mass distribution to an unknown public, as Wilkie Collins categorized the growing demographic when criticizing nineteenth century penny press readers, who could escape marshaled codes of conduct by transgressing, without surveillance, in their own imaginations and their own will to think about stuff.  Censorship is a state praxis of population control that enables fallacies such as unification, democracy, and security by delineating “the enemy” be it in a book, individual, group, or nation, but alternatively it also earmarks distinct and very real anxieties operating through and through social systems.

The recent banning of books in Arizona relating to Mexican-American history along with cutting Ethnic Studies by the Tucson Unified School District is an example of a very real social and political anxiety and fear that manifests in the 1,951 mile long barrier wall that travels across the U.S. Mexican border.  It remains unsurprising that the state of the wall is called Operation Gatekeeper and that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is among the books on the state’s banned list.  Freire espouses a teaching philosophy that encourages students to think critically and for themselves by removing social hierarchies and educational barriers.

To ban anything or anyone by any measure makes socially explicit the relevancy and power of that which is cast out, while simultaneously revealing the fear and anxiety of those who dictate the order.  The book is an object filled with static visual codes that are animated in the act of reading and thinking:  a potentially dangerous action when individuals are left to their own devices to interpret words and meanings for themselves (The Reformation remains a significant example) or call into question state narratives held in place by a vast range of ideologies. Alas, what the history of book banning does make evident is that illicit books will be read and evaluated regardless perhaps to a greater degree than books that enter the status quo unchallenged.  Humans are odd beasts especially in their desire to know (and more dangerously) that which they are forbidden to know or to do which includes the reading of the banned and the outlawed because it lets loose, especially in the unwatched confines of the mind, our desires, transgressions, and fears.

[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644)

Among the titles included in the recent Arizona school banning is Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The figures of Prospero and Caliban have undoubtedly released yet another post colonial allegory in Mexican-American relations, as well as inject new meaning into Caliban singing:  “Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban” (2.2.).

Other notable banned books include:

All Quiet on the Western Front (Enrich Maria Remarque, 1929)

Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)

Areopatitica (John Milton, 1644)

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)

Catch 22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)

The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949 (Lung Ying-tai, 2009)

The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century)

The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1947)

A Feast for the Seaweeds (Haidar Haidar, 1983)

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973)

Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss, 1960)

The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien, 1960)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence, 1928)

Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler, 1925)

July’s People (Nadine Gordimer, 1981)

The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)

American Psycho (Bret Easton Eillis, 1991)

The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine, 1791)

Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller, 1934)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)

Operation Dark Heart (Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, 2010)

The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948)

Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs, 1959)

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644).

 

CCM Imperial Mark IV

I’m not the smartest fellow on the block.  That’s what they all tell me and chase me as I ride my electric-blue CCM Imperial Mark IV bicycle with side mirror, reflector pedals, dual-colour saddle seat, and back-wheel spokes clicking the clothes-peg-clipped Hank Aaron baseball card my dad gave me before he left: “For luck, son,” he said, on my thirteenth birthday.  I like gliding smooth and long, sometimes lifting one hand off the handlebar to wave or push my glasses up while riding around the block around the block around the block taking the corners no slowing down         leaning          leaning baseball card clicking for luck for luck for luck frluk frluk fluk fluk fluk fluk fluk. After dinner’s the best time, better than noon when the sun’s high and my back sweats, making my shirt all white cotton-sticky and the Three Deegan Sisters out roamin’ and whippin’ Mrs. Walsh’s old crabapples at anything “they set their goddamn beady eyes on,” my mom says, as she stands on the wood porch, arms crossed with a face mixing a happyworry.  She tries not to show it but I see as I wave and pedal away.  Her chestbreath holds        that I’m in Room One with Miss Sutherland who’s smart and smells real nice and I told my mom to get that kind of perfume but she slapped me and told me that kinda talk was “the seeds of sin, son … the seeds of sin.”   I don’t think Miss Sutherland is sinful.  She just smells like a spring river opening, like when I take my feet off the pedals, legs straight out, goin’ down the hill to the river and the wind makes my glasses go crooked, musses my hair-part to the other side.  That’s what I was doing, going fast, Hank Aaron clicking and I looked into the woods beside The Old Mill and I saw the Three Deegan Sisters in the second-oak-clearing with shovels digging a hole in between the trees. Digging.  I caught only a peek, going so fast and the leaves not-out-full-yet and one of the sisters (I can’t tell which one) saw that I saw, only I swore I didn’t see.   I swore I didn’t see but she kept running after me and even on my electric-blue CCM bicycle it was slow and hard and The Old Mill Road was all up hill and Hank Aaron clicking for luck     ffff ooorrr   lu       ck   ffffor   uck and my legs heavy because I’d been riding around the block, taking all the corners maybe twenty times – no stopping.  I felt her swearing on me, her feet sandpaper quick running, her hand grabbing the back of my shirt my mom pressed this morning and it began to tear top-button choking.  All I could think of, as I stood up pedaling and twisting, was my mom ironing and the smell of Niagara starch to lay my buttonholes down smooth and the ripping stopped as my bicycle crashed down on my leg.  My glasses fell off and all I could see was the three of them, circling out-of-breath blurs, standing over of me. A circling blur, like they where half-erased saying words I can’t say ’cause my mom would take my dad’s belt to me.    Glass crunching under one of the sister’s feet, her blurry hands on her hips lifting something, shaking it and even though it was after dinner my back started to sweat.  “I didn’t see!”  I said loud and tried to stand but one of the Deegan Sisters all blurry put her knee on my hand and called me names Miss Sutherland tells me to “never mind” and they put something in my mouth that tasted like blood and they said if I told they would             they would                You see I can’t tell that bit, not with my mom standing just there, arms crossed, face looking a way I’ve never seen before.  Mom says that from now on it’s best that I just sit right here on the porch’s bottom step, from now on “stay out of trouble” and not hang around the neighborhood trash, from now on just watch the cornerless windless street, hair nicely combed, but all I see are pieces of a baseball card falling through the air and my electric blue bicycle at the bottom of the river, red reflector pedal catching the noontime sun, handle bar streamers pulling long in the current like they were taking all the corners, no slowin’ down

Imagine it’s two a.m. Eirin Moure sits in front of a second storey window in an empty house on Toronto’s Winnett Avenue.  It’s mid winter. The air is cold, the wind colder.  She opens the window a crack, to let in some air.   She sips from her glass as she sifts through Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s manuscript.  Translations into transelations into transcreations.

Maybe a little tipsy, maybe a little tired, absolutely a little cheeky, she begins to see, without thinking,  “What, me, guard sheep?” (3). Read further.  Pessoa’s long-ago pastoral countryside is transformed by an urban grid, as Moure makes accessible histories that were paved over.  When I finished reading Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, pen marked up the pages, dog-ears bent the corners, and I realized that Moure’s transelation is a process of unlearning – an allegory for poetic seeing.

Turning the pages, I’m reminded of a time when l peeled away layers of wallpaper in a room I rented in an old Toronto semi.  With history, patterns and poetry at my feet, I had to begin at the beginning to answer the question:  What is this?  Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person is a translation from the Portuguese book of poetry O Guardador de Rebanhos (1914) by Fernando Pessoa written through one of his heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro.  Moure translated each of Pessoa’s poem-lines in a chant-like response.  Several themes, including metapoetics, emerge in Moure’s translation/mediation/deflection.

Initially, I questioned Moure’s motives in translating another author’s work and then claiming an ownership.  Although, Moure has altered voice, as well as phrasing, the original meaning of Pessoa’s poetry remains.  However, Moure’s work is more than a translation – it’s her twenty-first century response to Pessoa’s twentieth century work; she had become a pupil of seeing, an apprentice of unlearning under Pessoa’s tutelage (viii).  For Moure, history and memory are bound to language and translation; for example, the Galician language, which refers to “a lost chunk of the Portuguese nation,” became Moure’s (125).

Moure insists that “I want this book to be judged not just as my poetry but as translations of Pessoa” (ix), translations that are whimsical with an urban, sharp-witted snap that contrasts Pessoa’s pastoral earnestness.  For example, Moure refers to Christ as “too urbane to fake out” (25); she twists nature “because sunlight is fab” (15), and she kicks-a-can at not-seeing because “thinking bugs me” (3). Moure’s transcreation urbanizes Pessoa; his lines become a grid guiding Moure to see outside her Winnett Avenue window.

While Moure does deflect from a direct translation, she is faithful to Pessoa’s vision in her refusal to translate the word choses (thing), which is central to Pessoa’s objectivism.  Sheep are like Pessoa’s thoughts; he doesn’t keep them, he sees them ¹.  In translating, Moure’s thoughts connect to Pessoa’s, and textually in the very object of the book, the poets live side by side, neighbours who call out to each other, across an alley, in a poetic banter.

“Rhymes get on my nerves, Rarely” is Moure’s transcreation of Pessoa’s metapoetics, questioning the methods, ethics, and aesthetics of the genre: “what do you think of those two trees rhymes?” (47). Moure recalls that “when they filled in the ravine, they buried the bridge too.  I unburied it with Pessoa” (ix).  Moure unburies the poetry’s infrastructure, as well as a poet’s “learning to unlearn” (67).  Pessoa sees things as concrete: “they have colour and form // and existence, barely” (71).  In response, Moure conveys the poet’s intimate struggle with the contours before them when writing concrete poetry: “how hard it is to shake off, and see only the visible!” (71), a struggle that keeps me wanting to know the buried bridges I cross over.

Some of Pessoa’s lines are translated verbatim, others are Moure’s deflection of what she sees and does not see; for instance, a manhole cover is not just a manhole cover, a foundry stamp gives it history and below it flow time and politics (vii).   Although Moure uses concrete imagism, she rattles Pessoa’s argument that “what we see of things are the things” (67).  Moure’s translation interrogates the geographical tensions that problematize what we see in historical and global narratives, such as “missiles // fired over high seas by satellite into Iraq” (33).

Urbanity for Moure and modernity for Pessoa distort the divinity in internal rhythms:  paving over its nature (23).  Poetic elation reached Pessoa and Moure in a divine form of ecstasy.  Moure observes how “it set my heart murmur going” (viii), and Pessoa wrote thirty of the forty-nine poems in a possessed fervor (vii).  For Moure, urban sprawl translates into non-seeing: “Downtown, huge mansions lock sight away // Obscure the horizon, flatten sight and wrench us far from the sky” (23).  But as Moure sees a neighbour throw lasagna to the crows (79), I wonder if a poet’s poetry would (be)come without the tension between traffic and pastures?

While reading Moure’s work, I was taken with the desire to see. I decided to use Moure’s “Rhymes get on my nerves” (47) as my guide.  I opened my winter window to let in some air:

What do I think of those two trees rhymes?
Like my two hands, rarely
equal, one beside the other
snow on branches has no colour but all colour
my way of writing is imperfect like trees, I am
just here, seeing two rhymes
two hands, that are mine

I realize that “the hard bit is to know how to see” (67); how to translate life’s details that get buried or wallpapered.  Sheep’s Vigil is a lesson in poetics to get over the “hard bit,” learning that “plunging into thought” (67) can confine poetry instead of opening a window to let in a bit of snow.   Moure’s final poem sits alone:  “everywhere I learned to see again” (123), illustrating a writer’s reawakening.  No longer with her guide, Moure is seeing, “sure of all, sure of nothing” (123).

¹ Jonathan Griffin, Selected Poems: Fernando Pessoa.  (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1974) 75.

Erín Moure (Eirin Moure) is one of Canada’s most eminent and respected poets, and a translator from French, Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Furious, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Domestic Fuel, and the AM Klein Poetry Prize for Little Theatres(which has also been published in Spain in Galician translation as Teatriños), Moure has published twelve books of poetry, including A Frame of the Book, co-published in the U.S. by Sun and Moon Press, and five books of poetry in translation, including Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Fernando Pessoa, shortlisted for the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2002 City of Toronto Book Prize. Moure lives in Montreal.


It’s as simple as this: I found your letter in a bread box, a paper folded lengthwise three times. A missing page, Oma, with your voice pressed on tissue blue writing paper – the same colour as the sea it crossed over.  A paper folded in between love letters, divorce papers, and a pencil sketch of a ship’s graphite lines fading into fog. The letter is a story, a mother’s mother’s story.

I always see you standing right there: your back to me in your small kitchen on Havenstraat in Holland. Your waist is wrapped with your long white tea towel. Stained with the colour of meals. You lean into the counter, feet slippered. You’re chopping something (but I can’t quite see what) and a pan simmers smoky the smell of cooking onions and garlic and trassie memorized on my tongue. The back screen door is open and the hanging green blue copper batik fabric is tied back to let in a cool summer breeze and your five, no six dogs, in. Misha, your old black lab, pushes heavy into your leg, that’s all, just a push and walks nails across floor into another room.

You don’t know I’m here, do you? How could you know that I am here, now, with all these things on my lap, listening to something written, something that comes in from the outside and waits

for your back to turn, our mouths to speak.

“Memory is for me always fresh, in spite of the fact that the object being remembered is done and past” (Toni Morrison, 213).

In Dionne Brand’s novel At The Full and Change of the Moon food and memory are connected both figuratively and literally, rooted in to Marie Ursula’s acts of revolt and carried forward to her descendants.  As Erica Johnson points out, “as a source of psychological and transgenerational haunting, the horror of Marie Ursule’s story continues to have undeniably real effects on individual lives.  No longer is the question of accuracy the most important with regard to memory, for whether the event is recalled or not, it acts upon Marie Ursule and her descendants” (8).

Moon - Antares sequence of the medieval Castle of Sümeg in Hungary

Marie Ursule (“queen of malingerings and sabotages”) gathered the ingredients: methodically.  In an act of counter conduct, she plans and follows through in a mass suicide with her fellow slaves. Ursule, however, makes sure there is one survivor, her four-year-old daughter, Bola, who is taken away to another part of the island and then carries with her the weight of a memory she doesn’t remember.

Food is an oral element. The infusion of food develops multiple physical dimensions and celebrates “this is where I came from” and “this is where I am.”  Food enables the symbiosis between the two states:  accessing a traumatic past and the control of the present by articulating embedded memories of place and history.   As Susan Brison suggests in her essay “Trauma and Memory,” “the past is not simply there in memory, but it must be articulated to become memory” (42) and the process of articulation is shaped partly by the power dynamics that enter the discourse.

When considering the representation of “women who poison” it is important to recognize in Brand’s novel that the character of Marie Ursule shifts the balance of power in her act of poisoning and her representation differs from the colonial trope of women. The difference is in the articulation of motive, the counter-trope of food as medicine to heal her condition of slavery under her oppressors: “and in her goings about she discovered medicines that cure all sickness.  And life was a sickness itself” (297).  A striking image of women empowered by food in the course of subversion, resistance and social change occurs in Brand’s novel with Ursule countering the myth of victimization and resisting her oppressor, even in her death:  “meeting under curtains of heavy rains or unrelenting night, they had told Marie Ursule of the most secret way to ruin.  Woorara they called it, their secret to rigour and breathlessness” (2).  Consequently, Brand binds Marie Ursule to the land, a relationship of  respect and love that instills in her a power to wield it and send it forward into the future:

Wandering when she could wander, Marie Ursule husbanded the green twigs, the brown veins, the sticky bitterness, the most sanguine of plants.  She loved their stems, their surprise of leaves as veined as her palms, their desperate bundles of berries, their hang of small flowers, and most of all the vine itself, its sinewed grace.  She ground the roots to their arresting sweetness, scraped the bark for its abrupt knowledge.  She had though of other ways, bitter cassava, manchineel apples, but their agonies could last for days.  Woorara, the Caribs had told her, was simple and quick, though it had taken her years to collect.  And wait. (2)

“Starved with remembering” is a critical configuration since there is an inability for the protagonists to return to the primary location, a lament that simulates the inability to return to the location where memory is made.  A memory that boils, cooks, changes, cools, and comes from the same place but is no longer accessible.  Brand twists the metaphor of starved to articulate that the act of remembering is never completely fulfilling.   As well, the rock in the ocean that figures prominently in Brand’s novel, I found to double as a symbol of exile, as well as reclaimed territory:   “the rock out there seems another land, her own” (59); it is not connected, yet is wholly connected to the earth and the future.  A place of escape (60) “where she had succumbed to tastes and smells and the sharp graze and cool sting of the body” (62). From here, Bola loved to “put a warm stone in her mouth to comfort her hunger” (57).  Erica Johnson studies the corporeal and psychological impact of trauma that transcends the primal location of the event through the lives of subsequent generations and she refers to a phantom that circulates memory and knowledge or “a direct empathy with the unconscious … matter of a parental object … the phantom is alien to the subject who harbors it … the diverse manifestations of the phantom … we call haunting” (8).  Food narratives reveal how the edible is one of the diverse manifestations that arise in both metaphorical or practical applications.   Unforgetting the origin of the food-associated-rituals is essential to Sri Owen who retraced her roots in Northern Sumantra and imparts that Indonesian food is on the endangered species list:  “this is what made me want to contribute, in my own small way, to the work of saving ‘traditional’ food ways from oblivion,” keeping the ritual alive for subsequent generations (3).

Tamarind Tree

In Brand’s novel, Tamarindus Indica or the tamarind tree figures significantly and is a place where one of Bola’s children, Samuel, finds sanctuary: “he sat under this tree everyday.  A tree perhaps brought here from Africa in the seventeenth century.  Probably brought here by his great-great grandmother” (73).  Brand also shows how the seed of the tree passes through the body before sown into the ground (75). A core element in Brand’s narrative is the link between land/place to culture, memory, identity, survival and self and how this element is articulated.

As Diane McGee suggests, “in a complex of ways, food and the systems surrounding it make up an important text, one by which we – consciously or unconsciously – live our lives” (23).

Transgenerational memory and food are reflected in Brand’s work and represented with the plantation slaves detesting the estate food: “they didn’t want to see another estate and they didn’t want their children to see it either.  They hated cacao, they hated coffee, they hated cane.  If they could pass this hatred on in a chromosome they did, their hatred was so physical” (64). Interestingly, even though they wanted their children to “hate” these foods their descendants eat cacao throughout the novel.  Symbolically even “hated” history is consumed and constructs a parallel of how memories are chosen (and not chosen), and how food is ingested as an unconscious communion with the past.  Although the enslaved want their descendants to be detached from any food related to their violent history – their children are irrevocably linked to it.  They consume their history, their exile, whether realized or not – the past is present in food.

North Coast of Trinidad

“For her memory to thicken” is a metaphor Brand draws upon as an allusion to cooking and memory (23).  Something on the fire simmering, shifting, stirring.  Food is organic and individual relationships to it change, decay, renew, yet remain a memory to thicken.  For example, in Brand’s novel, when Bola licks the sand that came in an envelope she decides “maybe this was my mother’s way of taking me to the sea” to the place her great grandfather was born (284).  Food and place become a language, and as a discourse can illuminate, dominate or subvert collective memory.  As Mieke Bal imparts, redefining is also essential in the work of memorization.

Susan Brison suggests, “the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (49). Food makes accessible the silent gaps in history, creates a narrative path to otherwise inaccessible passages and makes memory tangible, offering those who are starved with remembering some nourishment.  “Life will continue,” as Bola imparts. ” No matter what it seems, and even after that someone will remember you.  And even after that it could be just the whiff or thoughts of things you loved'” (Brand 298).

 

Bal, Mieke, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer, eds. Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

Brand, Dionne. Full and Change of the Moon. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Brison, Susan J. “Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self.” Bal, Crewe and Spitzer. 39-53.

Johnson, Erica. “Unforgetting Trauma: Dionne Brand’s Haunted Histories.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. V2.11. (Spring 2004): 1+.

McGee, Diane. Writing the Meal:  Dinner in the Fiction of Early Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001

Morrison, Toni “Memory, Creation and Writing” as featured in The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Owen, Sri. Indonesian Regional Cooking. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.