Category Archives: poetry

Margaux’s Friday Pictures – Marlene Creates, opening tonight at Paul Petro in Toronto

 

Marlene-Creates_walkingtour

 

Link here to Marlene Creates’ great internet performance/ tour through The Boreal Poetry Garden (Portugal Cove, Newfoundland & Labrador)

 

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Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road (2007–)

 

MARLENE CREATES excerpt from Sleeping Places, Newfoundland 198

excerpt from Sleeping Places, Newfoundland

 

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Bob Wiseman, “mothface@yahoo.ca” and other titles on Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying (2013)

by Carl Wilson

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Bob Wiseman, Tracy Wright & Sky Gilbert.



Bob Wiseman’s new album, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, sets a series of challenges like crossword-puzzle clues. Each title is syntactically structured “[Subject] at [Location/Activity],” almost as if in an index. Together they ask: What difference does it make whether we get exactly what a song is about?

The subjects can be anything from cultural or political figures to personal friends: Neil Young at the Junos, The Reform Party at Burning Man, Aristide at the Press Conference, or Portrait of Phil at Various Times in a Closet. The one cover song both fits and breaks the mold, Sam Larkin’s Children at Play. (Here’s the original on Rdio.)

And one title plays on the fact that this is also the syntax of email: mothface@yahoo.ca, the address of the Toronto actor Tracy Wright (previously discussed here), who broke many of our hearts when she died at age 50 in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

The song tells the story of a time in the 1980s* when Wiseman agreed to act in a play Wright wrote “that made no sense” because he figured no one “in their right mind” would put it on, but then theatre artist Sky Gilbert signed on to produce it in his Rhubarb experimental-theatre festival. As a result, Wiseman sings, “I always knew that I had nothing in common with Sky Gilbert.” The line is repeated over and over, anthemically, in harmony.

Hearing it first at last week’s launch concert at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, it started annoying me: Who outside a small Toronto arts circle gives a shit how Bob Wiseman feels about Sky Gilbert? Why write a song picking on Gilbert anyway?

Then the lyrics cross-cut to Wright’s memorial, when Gilbert got up and said just what Wiseman was feeling and thinking about her, and moved him to tears. It turned out the two had something in common after all: “the love of you.” And I came close to tears myself.

I wondered whether other people, who hadn’t known Wright or who Gilbert is, would be so touched. Would they even keep listening up to the final twist? It made me ask, too, if the electricity of the launch, where many members of the local music community were renewing frayed connections, would come across to an outsider, and whether that mattered.

These are questions Wiseman’s album prods: the effects of reference, and specificity versus so-called universality.

The particularity of Wiseman’s subjects is part of his modus operandi as an artist engagé, a creative activist: the naming of names, the preservation of place, the marking of dates and times. Early in his solo career, he wrote songs that gave a blow-by-blow account of the Union Carbide disaster (live, starts about 0:55) or implicated the president of Pepsi Cola by name in the assassination of Salvador Allende. (A move that infamously got the first thousand copies of his first major-label album destroyed.) You could describe it as a Brechtian gesture of counter-propaganda, or as keeping shit real.

But it’s never solely political. It’s in Wiseman’s voice, a harmonica-like needling without a hint of false gravitas. It’s in the way he’ll often interrupt a catchy melody with a dissonant solo or silly backup vocal, recklessly undermining what might have been some kind of “hit.” It’s in the cranky energy and nearly painful innocence of his writing, which attest that these aren’t positions struck but art made by following the tracks of his preoccupations.

He sounds like a regular person who’s ruefully aware that his complaints can’t reroute the flows of power, but can at least take satisfaction in sharing and laughing or weeping over them. If some personal situations won’t be transparent, perhaps listeners will connect anyway with having relationships and experiences that are exactly that, obscure and opaque in the supposed big picture of news and celebrity. Just like our own. And no less crucial to us for being so.

I do have affection for certain email addresses. Maybe your loved ones’ familiar @’s also set off a warm and quiet hum.

Purposefully or not, the variations Giulietta Masina plays on the “X at Y” formula work through a range of possibilities about how we’ll relate to the subject of a song. Neil Young at the Junos, for instance, treats a figure Wiseman can rely on his audience feeling like it knows well, then tries to say something unexpected – neither hagiographic nor cheaply skeptical – about him.

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The title track unfolds most like a riddle: When Wiseman started playing it at the launch, my friend and I said to each other, “Do you have any idea who that is?” Then partway through I said, “For some reason I’m thinking about Fellini.” And just as I was looking her up on my phone, Wiseman sang the final words, “8½.” Giulietta Masina was Fellini’s actress spouse.

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I only later discovered that Ruby Bates at Grad School, one of my favourites, is about a woman who’d been an accuser in the racist 1930s Scottsboro Boys rape case, but later recanted her story and was vilified for it. I haven’t identified the second woman, more contemporary, described as dying in an ambulance in the last verse, and am glad I haven’t.

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I knew right off who the protagonist of Robert Dziekanski at the Airport was – the Polish immigrant the RCMP mistakenly tased & killed at the Vancouver airport in 2007, and then whitewashed. A straight protest song, a bit obvious. Then I read a college student’s review of the album who was startled to find out or be reminded of this event six long-to-him years ago.

Finally there’s this guy Phil in the closet, along with someone named Rob Noyes who apparently dies, and “the campers of B.B. you’ve heard so much about.” No clue. But I’m stirred by its final plaintive lines about wanting to repay Phil, “it’s awful,” for “being there at the airport or hospital.” Would listening to the song about Tracy feel like this to others, like an emotional mystery?

My misgiving about Wiseman’s songwriting is that he often is too literal for my tastes, even if I see why. This album, more than any since his now-storied debut In Her Dream, when he pretended to be singing songs by someone named “Wrench Tuttle,” unsettles that directness fruitfully.

In his new book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, the psychoanalyst and critic Adam Phillips has a chapter called “On Not Getting It.” He investigates how our drive to get the point, to nail down the meaning of a joke or a poem, to understand ourselves, to truly “know” other people (especially our lovers, our families), may become an evasion of other ways of existing and of allowing others to exist with and apart from us.

In Bob Wiseman’s more literal songs he gets at things worth knowing for certain and stating clearly, most often how an injustice has been perpetrated or excused. But there are things worth being clueless about, worth never knowing – such as not knowing what we do and don’t have in common, so we can be surprised when perhaps we need to be. Such as not knowing how to repay certain debts when all that really can be done is to acknowledge them.

Music has an unusual capacity to say a lot without knowing everything or even much at all. We can “get” a song’s texture and its atmosphere without wanting to “get” all its content. We can hear it many times and only “get” something like “blah blah blah Gilbert, blah blah blah Gilbert … the love of you,” and yet treasure the song.

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Phillips quotes the notoriously elusive poet John Ashbery as saying that he writes as he does because if all you do is tell people things, they stop listening. But if they only overhear, they will be curious. On this album Bob Wiseman has things he wants to tell, but also lets us eavesdrop on him talking to himself or to others, about things we might not know or even need to know. The sites from which he sings can be nearby or at a distance, his phrases sharp or indistinct.

By ranging this way, by not always demanding we understand him, he implies that it is okay if we, his listeners, aren’t utterly knowable too. By extension the people he sings about, at his best, cannot be captured and summed up, not reduced only to political subjects but allowed to be humans like the one who is singing about them.

At the least, a cop and an immigrant, Neil Young and Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Oscars and the airport, the halls of parliament and an ambulance all are, and acknowledging that may be to admit they share something unnameably more than everything that isn’t** – including so-called universals such as patriotism, duty, righteousness.

In this sense, being specific, if you are specific about a great many things, might be a different program than we at first thought: less like itemizing a legal brief, and more like giving up on coercion.

—————

This section originally said Wiseman and Wright were dating at the time; Wiseman writes to tell me I misread his use of the word “girlfriend” – they were just friends.

** The basic idea about things that exist having existence in common is someone else’s that I heard, read or was told about recently. I don’t remember the source. My elaboration on it is my own (mis)interpretation.

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Marker Starling, “Author”

by Carl Wilson

Marker Starling is Toronto’s Chris Cummings, who recorded a series of great albums of “visual music” under the monicker Mantler until jazz musician Michael Mantler (apparently taking out whatever were his own frustrations over his stature in the world as he approached 70) threatened this little-known Canadian artist with legal action and forced him to adopt a new name. No matter, no matter, the beauty carries on, with Cummings’ ownmost amalgam of smooth R&B, disco, organ music, sex and poetry. Just stand back and gape at this opening acrobatic sequence:

Like a face bears a noble expression, it’s not the words you love, it’s the voice of the author. It’s not the story spoken, but the impression furnished.

In dusky theatres of old, in auditoriums dark with age, the speeches actors would unfold, the poems fluttering from the stage: garlands of love, daggers of hate, waistcoats and gloves, prop pieces of eight, fiery hues for burning at stake.

Better pay your union dues: They’ll write a part for you.

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“Video Killed the Radio Star,” as used in Take This Waltz by Sarah Polley (2012), a movie about love and, perhaps, technology

by Carl Wilson

[NOTE: This post “spoils” major plot points.]

I couldn’t be less capable of forming an opinion about Sarah Polley’s recent Take This Waltz. It is set not just in Toronto but in my exact Toronto – Parkdale, Kensington Market, the Island, the airport. Call it what you want. (I know what you’re calling it.) The star, Michelle Williams, hits me emotionally on screen more than any of her contemporaries, even when she is just interacting with shafts of light (as she often does here); her romantic foils are Seth Rogan, who’s charmed me ever since Freaks and Geeks and can be enough reason to see a movie that looks unpromising, and Luke Kirby, who’s an old friend-of-friends. (The plot, boiled down to a peashoot: Williams leaves Rogan for Kirby.)

It’s a little difficult, too, living here, not to have preconceived reactions to the very idea of Sarah Polley that I wouldn’t if she were in L.A. or London. (I couldn’t make it through her last film, feeling bored, though I should try again.)

More potently it is also about the Toronto I know because it is about marriages between decent people that break up mainly because, as Sarah Silverman tells Williams in the movie, “Life has a gap in it, it just does,” and it is hard to know how large this chasm is supposed to be and which resorts to bridging or filling it are fair, reasonable or crazy ones. (It is about, in other words, How Should a Person Be?) Some friends and their friends were also on the soundtrack. And it’s titled after one of my favourite songs, more about which later.

But mainly I can’t form an opinion about it because I was crying for the entire final third of the film, almost certainly a personal Guinness Record. I cry easily at movies, which means my eyes are streaming sort of neutrally (I’m not gasping, heaving; often I’m laughing at the same time) while I continue to watch, like an android weeping over a dead electric sheep, but I don’t pretend my judgment can be fully engaged then.

I suspect the film has significant flaws, but I would have to watch it again to articulate them … aside from the sex montage with the two threesomes – one MMF and one FFM, too symmetrical, too concerned with what it might have said to pick one or another, which contributes to the way we fail to get any sense of the second relationship compared to the first, except that there is sex finally, and in a ravishing loft space that those characters could not realistically afford.

That’s broadly a legitimate choice, but its execution seems representative of what the movie doesn’t quite achieve. It feels more like Seth Rogan’s character’s paranoid fantasy of what would be happening (cf. John Cusack in High Fidelity: “No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian in my head”). Although of course early-relationship sex can in fact be amazing.

But there’s one thing I can judge, which is that Take This Waltz makes the best use of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the history of that song, if we discount (as we must) its literal, legendary use as the shot-across-the-bow first video on MTV in 1981.

The other music in the movie is indie twee, though not bad. I loved the Feist cover of “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen (which features Afie and Jason from Bahamas and Mike from Zeus) in the fraught party scene, thinking in that moment that it would be so smart if the movie didn’t include any other Leonard Cohen, especially not the title song. Then that song shows up in the sex montage, and it’s all but awful there, way too weighty, with its double-barreled Cohen/Lorca imagery and lush continental tune, for the scene.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” comes up twice: First, it plays while Williams and Kirby are on an illicit date at Centre Island, on an amusement-park ride, the Scrambler, that they choose ostensibly because it goes “so fast” that they won’t be able to do anything inadvisable, a ridiculous rationalization (yeah, being on a tilt-a-whirl, thrown against each other involuntarily by the force of gravity – no one’s used that metaphor for love ever). There the song is all momentum, giddiness and dreamlike tacky-innocent nostalgia, which is what “Radio Star” typically represents in movies, TV shows or real-life dance parties.

But then it comes back at the movie’s end, when Williams is unsure, half-regretful, over her choices, but also stuck with them, and perhaps content to be. On one level, a conventional flashback – remember the Scrambler, when none of this was real yet and therefore thrilling but also as safe as a stupid old 80s song? Now that’s gone. Nostalgia has lost its innocence, and so is doubled.

Yet of course that rhymes perfectly with the lyrics of the song: “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” And so the the film and the song begin singing questions into each other’s mouths: When we move from one love to another, is it as shallow a difference as that from one delivery method for the three-minute rush of a pop song (or of sex, of a moment of affection, of a good teasing joke that makes the world warmer) to another?

Adam Phillips, in his book, Monogamy: “For the monogamist the thought of infidelity is the secular equivalent of the afterlife. It is the thought of something infinitely better or infinitely worse: something perhaps one has to earn; a blackmail of sorts. Certainly something for the future. But then what no one ever dared think about the afterlife was that it might be exactly the same as this one.”

The Buggles: “Pictures came and broke your heart/ Put the blame on VTR”  (video tape recorder).

Did the eclipse of radio by video really remake the musical/media world? For the better or the worse? The joke “Internet killed the video star” has been made many times, framing this within a shift we tend to count as more profound. But perhaps video did have that impact. We came to relate to music through a different scrim after that, one with less mystery, just as the invention of the rock star had altered that balance decades before. Indeed, from the Residents through Jandek and the Weeknd, there’s a recurring counterreaction, artists set upon stripping away visual and biographical cues, restoring mystique to music and therefore in a sense its freedom. (Who would fantasize about fucking Jandek? Someone, surely.)

In our personal lives, as in our pop-culture lives, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions beyond knee-jerk opinions. Everything takes on a cast of inevitability, and so we rationalize in reverse to say that the way things went was how they had to go: Who could have known that a high-speed tilt-a-whirl would be so arousing?

There is a more compelling logic, it seems, in technological change than in personal change, though it’s still open to critique: Read thinkers like the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul on techne, or Ivan Illich, not to mention environmentalism generally – are we as a species unable to take any other forks in the road than we do? Are we unable to think preventively, and should we? (Put another way: Does free will exist?)

Now reflect that back on the intimate version: Are we unable to do anything else with the ebb of passion than to surrender to the next flow, at least without a social support system that integrates love, and our impulses around it, into a more finely tuned ecology? The downtown-urban life, so pleasurable in so much of this movie, lacks a lot of the traditional embeddings of long-term monogamy, such as the extended family. The movie is careful to show that Rogan’s and Williams’s marriage does have a reinforcing network – though notably, that it is more his than hers, and it is called into existence at gatherings, on special occasions, not so much in the neighbourhood, the day-to-day battleground where magnetic temptation may be just across the street.

A chance meeting on a trip, on a plane, can be more powerful than the bonds of five years – at least in a life in which five years at once feels like a long time and can be compressed by the magic of traumatic transition into a forgettable moment.

Further, can these modes, of sequential passions versus long-lasting loves, somehow coexist, or must they be engines of mutual destruction? And is that dilemma different for men and women? The movie is serious about that.

Phillips again: “For some of us – perhaps the fortunate, or at least the affluent – monogamy is the only serious philosophical question.” That might be the bigger definition of what’s wrong with Take This Waltz. But there is a broader question, implicit in “… Radio Star”, about why people who have so much are so inclined to stop wanting it, to be driven to replace it. These are intractable issues about the persistence of hungers, of shortsightedness, of how much humanity can change. If we cannot find balance in these close-up interactions, with people we understand, can we find it between nations and peoples? Or can distance be the saving grace?

Apparently the lyrics of “Video Killed the Radio Star” were sparked by a J.G. Ballard story in which an opera singer is found hiding in a sewer by a mute boy, in a world in which music has been abolished. That expands what Trevor Horn, in his casual pop-culture tone, is asking: Does video conquering radio mean music itself vanishes? Without marriage, is there love? Like the boy in Ballard’s story, as a viewer in tears I was in a sense mute, unable to join Take This Waltz in duet. Or in a deeper critique.

I knew the injudicious weeping was going to happen when I watched this movie. For that reason I put it off for a few weeks, and waited till I had the right person (who was also of course the wrong person) to watch it with me. When we go into relationships, or enter optimistically into new eras of innovation, don’t we know, really, what is going to happen, at least if we are not kids anymore? (Williams’s character here is about to turn 30.) Yet we “lie awake, intent on tuning in on you,” as the Buggles sing. (I don’t think my viewing companion ever cried.)

We are the creatures, as Cohen has it, of “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz” – hear him sing it four times, not the musically symmetrical three, always waltzing one time too many – with “its very own breath, of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea.” Does this stale heady air belong to the waltz itself, or to our own mortal, social, erotic myopia, or is it even possible to tell the waltzer from the waltz? What a relief, then, whatever the case may be, to give in, to give it away. “It’s yours now, it’s all that there is.”

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Friday Pictures – Clint Griffin, last weekend for exhibition at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects

 

walking the water

 

 

leave me

 

 

fall

 

 

 

we land just within the clouds

 

 

 

 


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Lynn Crosbie – Life Is About Losing Everything

by Margaux Williamson

I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with the writer/academic/cultural critic Lynn Crosbie in the past few years; I have been a fan for much longer. Though she is famous for many things, there was something about her weekly column in the Globe & Mail that I needed and have always paid close attention to. In retrospect, I think, in some ways, her column was teaching me how to talk.

I remember, when I first started reading it years ago, I was living in a gloomy basement by the Leslie Spit and finishing George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch. Middlemarch has an unsual narrator – a narrator that is sometimes omniscient, sometimes addressing you directly, and sometimes trapped within the knowledge limitations that a typical literary character (or human) often has. The confidently wandering nature of the voice, to where it needed to go, was both thrilling and strangely subtle, both reckless and completely masterful. It was a hilarious voice to have in a novel where the main story arc involves an earnest and intelligent young woman, Dorothea, who wants to use her limited powers on this earth to aid the middle-aged Edward in finishing his great work The-Objective-History-of-Everything.

*SPOILER* (Edward turns out to be not-such-a-big-genius.)

I felt an actual sadness in letting this strange voice of Middlemarch go when I finished the 1000 pages. I’m a slow learner and sometimes 1000 pages isn’t enough to understand  a new thing. I remember feeling grateful that Lynn Crosbie’s column came every week – her deeply human and masterful voice was just as thrilling to me as George Elliot’s had been. I think Lynn Crosbie’s column helped me to learn, slowly and in my bones, that speaking clearly, from where ever you happen to be standing, with the information you happen to have, accepting of flexibility and imperfection, can be a thousand times deeper and more useful than the boring tomb of carefully constructed cliches that Middlemarch’s Edward hoarded and handed down with shaky authority from that fancy desk he had in his study.

In Lynn Crosbie’s column,  there are no qualifiers, there is no fear, there is no condescension, there is no sense that the topics or subjects aren’t heavy enough or in the proper location for the world’s spotlight and respect (or respectful wrath!). She is always just getting down to business, starting or participating honestly and earnestly and humorously in a conversation that she is invariably an asset to.

I was thinking about Crosbie’s work recently (and its effect on me) because, in April, I read her new book of poetic prose Life Is About Losing Everything. Though is about that, about losing everything, when you look up from the book while riding on Toronto’s Dufferin bus, everyone and everything looks so much more valuable.

Though I know her work very well, I was still kind of amazed at both the depth and the strange brightness of this book. Her heavy talent and heavy intelligence somehow makes her genius seem so light and natural. Maybe in a way it is, and it’s the living that’s so hard. It’s written in short chapters, and involves my always-favourite art project: how to take the bones of loss and meaninglessness and make meaning.

It is my favourite book of hers so far. I’ll be co-hosting the book’s launch, under The Production Front, along with House of Anansi Press at The Mascot on May 10th.

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The Colalogues, by Lauren Bride

by Chris Randle

Maybe you know of the arch-Torontonian and blog friend Lauren Bride from these love letters, or her prose fiction, or her acting, or her sisterly videos, but she writes poetry as well, which I discovered during a spree of soft-drink-related versifying on Monday. Look at these fizzy couplets:

Drink a lot of pop, morning, noon and night,
a Doctorate in Pepper, my undergrad’s in Sprite.

This leaves me overqualified where there’s real employ,
I can’t help my expertise, I just gotta chug my joy.

When next you find you’re struck with thirst and don’t know what to do,
find me in the Appalachians, sourcing fair-trade Mountain Dew.

I wax of unwaxed citrus joys, Limeade, Crush, and Ting!
rinds of an ancient marinader, with a contemporary zing.

Visit @bridebride and scroll backwards for much, much more, a sprightly dance of bubbles and brand names. For all the caffeine she’s figuratively ingesting, her jokes remain poised throughout.

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