Diamond in the Rain
This piece is 800 words or about two pages long.
The grand romance of Canadian history was the improbable laying of railroad track across the seemingly empty continent to the little city at the end of things. For the portion of a person that is still European, that outpost on the edge of a giant unimaginable ocean was dark, scary exoticism, with a fascinating light in the middle. Guillaume Apollinaire, the great Italian-Russian surrealist poet who wrote in French, said it this way:
Où le train blanc de neige et de feux nocturnes fuit l’hiver.
Of course the railroad has been succeeded by the highway and the airlane, but the romance remains, as Canadians in the snow exaggerate the mystery of the warm rainy city at the foot of snow-headed Pacific mountains. Blaise Cendrars, the great Swiss poet, friend of Apollinaire, and ceaseless traveller, wrote a poem called “Vancouver,” in which we hear: “ces halos bleuâtres dans le vent sont les paquebots en partance pour le Klondyke le Japon et les grandes Indes.”
The names of our province, our city and our streets are still European, but on the edge of the world, as we must seem to be to easterners, we do not live in history. We live in mythology. We are consigned to nature. We do not like to eat indoors. We share the madness of California but we import our oranges. And we are less European all the time. More than a third of the people who live in Vancouver are descended from Asia.
When I walk across the street, I tread carefully, because I do not desire to be hit by that silver BMW driven by a young Chinese woman with a cell phone held to the side of her head. She is a Vancouverite as I am. I am on my way to that sushi bar over there, where I will manipulate ohashi, little sticks with clumps of salmon roe between them. Yum!
How can I convey our life on the rim? Toronto has more novelists than we do, but we have more poets. Montreal has more federal politicians than we do, but we have more mad people in the streets. Ottawa has more doughnut shops than we do, but we have more cups of organic tea. When we jump onto a plane, we fly to Thailand.
Rivers flow quickly from our mountains into the sea, and the salmon who came down those rivers four years ago have been to Japan and back, and now they are going back up those rivers to give birth and to die. The Native people said goodbye to them four years ago, and now they are saying hello. They have been doing that since time began here. When we Europeans and Asians came here the “Indians” showed us how to prepare and eat the salmon.
If we look down from our mountains we see blue halos in the ocean, behind the long sea canoes of the Native people, who showed us how to find the fur seals, so that the men and women of Europe could wear flamboyant hats for three hundred years. By the time that Blaise Cendrars found Vancouver the trains filled with Oriental silk were departing eastward, filled too with armed guards, dangerous mystery on steel wheels over snowy prairie.
Really, we rest protected by an inland sea, surrounded by hundreds of mountain-tops protruding from the ocean, our Pacific islands covered with cedar and ferns. No wall here is as old as the stone fence around an ancient convent in downtown Montreal. But from our windows we see stones billions of years older than any human ambition, and we feel the desire to stand among them. We can see every year of human life around us-stains, wounds, expensive show-homes scarring the high slopes of the mountains on the north shore of our inlet.
After the railroad tracks and the highways and the airlanes came the Internet. In February the people of Vancouver like to e-mail their friends huddled under piles of snow in Ontario and Manitoba, and tell them about the flowers that are blossoming in their gardens and along their streets. In return, people in Ontario and Manitoba say very rude things to their friends in Vancouver.
The scientists say that one day, not too far in the future, there will be an enormous earthquake along the west coast of Canada, and Vancouver’s forest of highrise apartment buildings will collapse into a tangled mountain of glass and steel. This is the dark dream that enters the minds of Vancouver’s citizens while they sleep. But in the mornings they forget. They look into the rain clouds overhead and imagine that they see a patch of blue sky. If that patch is there, and if it begins to spread, and if the sun shines its light on all the wet trees and bridges of the city, the wide awake people see the most beautiful sight ever seen inside or outside a poem.
George Bowering, in the Parliamentary Library of Canada.
George Bowering was born in 1936, in Penticton, B.C., Canada. He attended Victoria College (Victoria, B.C.), University of British Columbia, and University of Western Ontario. He served as a Royal Canadian Air Force photographer from 1954 to 1957. He was Writer in Residence at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, and has taught at the University of Calgary, Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University), and Simon Fraser University, with short terms at various colleges and universities in Canada and the United States, as well as Rome, Berlin and Aarhus. In November 2002 he was appointed resident poet to Parliament Hill for a two-year term.
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