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Beverly Dahlen

Some notes on George Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem

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You could begin anywhere, because it’s a poem of anecdote, of discrete instances, of fragments of narratives and conversations, of a place of course, a city as it’s experienced over time. And the poem itself chooses to be disordered (in many senses) so there really isn’t a “beginning” and “end.” [Later: this isn’t right. Yes, there’s a beginning and end, but there’s also a sense in which it’s ongoing, doesn’t reach a conclusion, or does so only tentatively: “all this writing never thinks of having an end — .”] And reading around in this way, sometimes the reader finds herself stopped on a line or a set or series of lines (what to call these things? sections or sub-sections of the poem) as I was, near the start of the first numbered section (these are numbered consecutively—nothing arbitrary there):

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“I am not a man & this is not my city.”

"I am not a man & this is not my city."

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What does it mean? to say “I am not a man… .” LE reminds me that GS became “a tall, serious girl” in his last book. I think about that, but it seems too simple, too easy. This is not about gender, surely, it’s about the mind, not a man but a mind, “the darkness of the mind” he calls it, a sort of shadow, writing:

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not to be a man,
to be a thought

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And

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So a mind passes through these scenes, acknowledging them,
as also its transitory term…

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And

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The darkness of the mind & the darkness of death,
& in between the bright day, bright city

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(Remember the story in Bede about the sparrow flying in from the darkness, flying through the bright, warm dining hall and then out again into the winter storm? From darkness to darkness we fly, the old melancholy of Anglo-Saxon poetry.)


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“There is more here than memory.”

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Set off, at the beginning of the first section like an epigraph. There is memory of course but the poem is not about that. The poem is busy, constantly in medias res, “back and forth.” Reading Paterson perhaps as I am reading this poem, back and forth, perhaps as the poem was written. As the poem says it was written: “back and forth.” [Later: I don’t like that “poem is busy… ” Busy on the surface, maybe, but here, now, there is the question of depth. Is there surface and depth in poetry? Or is it all surface, no inside/
outside? What “surfaces” over time.]

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And the instructions for writing the poem a part of the poem, not hidden, and the difficulties with writing, not hidden: “stuck stuck stuck what kind of feeling down/ in Woodward’s basement… ”


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More than memory, more than meets the eye. Not a difficult text, apparently, no fancy language, it moves along, a placid surface, or a roiled one, little storms of thought punctuated with dashes—but on the whole a poem easily accessible (should I put that in scare quotes?) – no, not much irony, not facile, not given to conceits. Apparently. (Somewhere GS writes: “I don’t mean to be obscure.”)

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Mountain ash out the window—another form of life.
Then it disappears from these lines. This life.

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Two lines: a discrete poem within the poem. It sits there, a little paradox, a knot. Because the tree will never disappear from these lines: what disappears is the thought, the instant of perception. There are two lives here, barely meeting, inhabiting the same world. And there is no reciprocity between them.

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There are souls. The poem speaks of them. [Later: but tentatively: “& do I think of them as souls? Did I say souls?”] But trees are not souls, nor are there souls anywhere but among humans:

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… I don’t care about nature-
If I have only one happy moment & a kind of
sketch of the external—shape of being radiating
outward from this one of all others, now absent,
but they are the context, they are where the care is…

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“… now absent… ” It all disappears. Language, the poem, marks what is absent.

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No. What doesn’t disappear is the name of the tree. Names of friends are there also, inscribed fully, as if one does not want the names to disappear, though the people do. They disappear, are absent, they come and go through the poem, and they die. Sometimes they die:

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Angela on her last afternoon

spent her last afternoon
with the Finnish genealogists
exchanging information

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And then a refrain begins:

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city of death, city of friends

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But see how it enters the poem the first time:

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a single ape

in complex light

city of death, city of friends

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The complex light reveals lovely difficulties and contradictions: not a man, but a mind, not a man, but an ape. A mind, a soul — - and Darwin agonized about the soul: when did it enter the body, when did higher primates acquire souls.


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“We know the body is immortal, but the spirit dies.”  — George Stanley, Achilles Poem

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World without end, then, a chaos of matter hurrying through its transformations. When did mind enter? When did spirit begin?

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is that all, just
location, location, location—a grid,
the special sciences
dutiful, perfunctory — & yet a pleasure
not to have any ‘meaning’ interfere,
long, drawn-out, even before it’s thought.
Let’s be clear
(blank) there’s nothing to say here

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“Take refuge in a long poem.” Take refuge — -from what? the incessant making of, the ‘interference’ of, meaning? With what does it interfere? Perception, feelings? One wants, paradoxically, a language which is not a translation, a language which is silence. One wants an unmediated vision.

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Take refuge in a long poem.

Avert
inspiration.

____

Write carelessly.

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The long poem as refuge, holding out against language, not trusting inspiration (the breath of something beyond, some spirit? god? force?). Be careless. Write before you think. Is there something more here than the old idea, borrowed from Zen in the ’50s, of trust in the spontaneous moment? No, something different, there’s something different going on here, trying to see page after page something like the difference between illusion and the real.

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Something. What is it I’m not seeing? can’t name?

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Mind in the grasp of mind, thinking in opposition to itself: “… This is not not, this is where not is exposed, laid open to view & shown to contain precise distinctions—almost the 0 & 1 from which 2 arises—in defiance of pristine order… ”

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To defy pristine order, the cold symmetry of being and nothingness, to assert evidently the not not, the double negative that cancels itself. Something. Not zero. (Heidegger’s famous [fundamental] question: “Why are there essents rather than nothing?) Not nothing, then.

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no idyll but the weird crisscross
of being & time—only to simply not go
& yet to be bound to go—‘the descent
beckons’ –the privilege
of being part of becoming

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An autumnal poem, at least the first ten sections seem to have been written through the fall of the year, through the failing of the light, the rising darkness. So “being & time” (not nothing) and the “descent” (is that quoted from Williams?) to “the darkness as a place, an excavation—ongoing (this is something from Duncan—but I don’t know what—don’t remember—which poem) excavation of darkness—of self—of poetry”

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[ “Who?
              let the light into the dark?… ”
                      — Robert Duncan, A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar]

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But RD is all myth and magical revelation, “out of this world,” while GS finds “the ordinary taking over, by its lack of magic denying time—as if it were a puff of wind—nothing compared to the ticking of the clock which is a real clock… ”

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One would have thought the “ordinary,” the very idea of order and measure at its heart, would include a sense of time, but here it denies time (this isn’t magic) and of course a moment’s thought will confirm that impression. Our subjective senses of time are anything but fixed, orderly. Time “slows down” or “speeds up” or “stands still”: this is all part of the ordinary. Time as measure is recalled by “the ticking of the clock… ” And that clock “is a real clock… ” The clock is privileged by the adjective “real,” and “the real” reminds us of our limits. Thus, this passage concludes with those beautiful lines I have quoted once before:

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The darkness of the mind & the darkness of death,
& in between the bright day, bright city

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I keep thinking about “the darkness as a place, an excavation… ” and I remember Freud’s metaphor of the mind as an ancient city, layered, a site to be excavated. [There it is—that metaphor of surface and depth.] But there’s another metaphor from psychoanalysis, I don’t know whether from Freud or perhaps from Melanie Klein, the metaphor of the child excavating the mother’s body. In any case, these are my associations, not the poem’s, and I hesitate to pursue them further. But the notion of “excavation” is intriguing here, coming as it does in a passage that touches on the possibility of scandal, or at least the morbid curiosity people harbor about another’s knowledge and fears. All this flickers in the darkness, or against the background of darkness, the light in the cave, and then succumbs to “the ordinary” and finally to “the real.”

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Vancouver: a city like all modern cities, incessantly destroyed and made over, “reterritorialized.” “It seems the city sustains—stays the same. (Of course it isn’t the same; when one goes down another goes up. In between is the vacant lot… .”

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“(At Broadway & Commercial, was that a bank, or was it a coffee shop?—a low building – cinder block?)”

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“Memory of that bank or coffee shop/bookstore/drop-in centre they tore down to clear land for the SkyTrain station…  — -that grimy wall, that had been there since before I knew it & the transfers & gum wrappers & occasional dogshit on the old grey sidewalk.”


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So Vancouver, like all modern cities, undergoes the “creative destruction” (wretched oxymoron) of late capitalism. What’s created out of the rubble? New private spaces for people with money to live, work and play in. What’s left over is the commons, the public places where we are strangers to one another, the streets and sidewalks, the buses and streetcars, the lobbies and hallways of buildings:

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The common areas are where we meet
but don’t meet.

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These silent encounters occur in the lobby or “lounge” of an apartment building, one of those large (one assumes) residential buildings designated for “seniors.” (I think of them as senior ghettoes.) That discomfort, that guardedness in the chance meeting of others is heightened out on the street. Our streets, where they are not actual battlegrounds, are often sites of hostility, of neglect, of abuse. In Vancouver, as in all modern cities, people live (attempt to live) on the streets. They are a part of what’s left over when the new condos are built, the new boutiques, the new restaurants and bars. They are a part of the disaster our public spaces have become.

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Two men push loaded carts
one behind the other, on the street,
not the sidewalk, outside the line
of parked cars. A third, dark, bearded,
watches from across the street.

You pass them coming toward you, pushing,
& you know you can’t speak, you know
caste
here

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And later:

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Crossing Macdonald:
‘Excuse me, sir.’
(no answer)

Reaching the other side:
‘Could you give me some change, for a hostel?’
(Digs in pocket, finds the toonie, the large coin, by touch,
withdraws hand from pocket, places the coin
in the other’s palm (no word. no eye contact.)

‘Thank you, sir.’
(silence)

(resentment, anger)

They should be sitting by the wall.

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Have I ever before seen an account of one’s meeting with a beggar where one’s lack of charitable feeling was so ruthlessly displayed?

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The poem’s one big ironic moment comes a few lines (one sub-section) later. In the midst of these scenes of encounters with those utterly destitute on the streets, we see this ad:

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(‘Experience open living. Vancouver style redefined. This is SWELL, 47 modern flats on Broadway at Quebec, where the city’s hippest residential, creative and downtown neighbourhoods connect. A prototype for intelligent design in a locale that is ultra-convenient and uber-chic. Think fresh, flexible and everything essential. A study of poetic and spacious practicality contained remarkably within.
from the $300,000s’)

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And finally:

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Is that huddled mass a person?
No, it’s not large enough.

It’s a person’s belongings.

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The bitter aftertaste of “… your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… ”

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Vancouver: “… not my city.” But who can claim a city as one’s own? Whatever is meant by this denial (not the city of my birth, not the city of my youth, not the city I once knew, the city I no longer recognize) the poem is nevertheless written as if one were an actual moving, functioning part of the city. A citizen. Which is really all that anyone can claim. And the observant mind which is writing the poem notes the changes, sees the city as illusory (“It’s just an image in the eye—it doesn’t exist”), or unreal (alluding to Eliot), as “Necropolis” (but of course all cities are also cities of the dead, of ghosts) and, in a passage both tender and ironic, imagines Vancouver as a lover:

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What is my relation to this city I am not at home in? And from what angle to expose it so that maybe I could fall in love with it? Expose some side of it as if the city were a man but not my man. Who is he Vancouver?

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Then:

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to turn over (as if in bed)
and expose
the side of him who is
Vancouver to come

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One can’t privilege any single characterization of the city; but among the many articulated in the course of the poem, we find this:

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the city
is not unknowable
it’s real

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So what makes it real, finally, is that it’s “knowable.” The city can be known, and the poem is the evidence of this knowledge, the unique, if partial, knowledge of one poet of Vancouver in the early years of the 21st century:

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a territory we will keep until someone has
some other use for it
that will keep us, tracking each one, until
it has no time for us…