Reviews

The point of contact they create

A review of 'Three Novels'

Three Novels

Three Novels

by Elizabeth Robinson

Omnidawn 2011, 80 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650513

Elizabeth’s Robinson new book Three Novels engages with an archaic form, in this case the Victorian novel. In particular, Eve’s Ransom by George Gissing, and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Woman in White, the latter two read to her as a child by her father, the former a book they shared as adult readers. In Kathleen Biddick’s book The Shock of Medievalism, playing off Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” she writes:

Trauma … resists representation since its traces recur fragmentarily in flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena. Past and present symptomatically fuse in such repetition, and, in so doing, the possibility of futurity — change — is foreclosed. Such fusing is typical of melancholy. To unfuse past, present, and future, to return to the narrative relation of temporality, requires the work of mourning. Mourning does not find the lost object; it acknowledges its loss, thus suffering the lost object to be lost while maintaining a narrative connection to it. (10)

This, in a book that sets out to historicize the institutionalization of medieval studies during the nineteenth century; germane here, though, because Robinson’s is very much a book that responds to trauma — the death of her father, with whom she first shared the above-mentioned novels — and hence a work of mourning. Further, there is clearly a sense of mourning about those novels as well: the lost world they reflect, the possibilities for eros and expression they offer. Which is not to say that Robinson channels some kind of nostalgia for her own childhood and a soft-lens Victorianism; one of the driving impulses of the book is to explore and confront the constraints of that era, especially those faced by the women depicted in the novels. As such — and here, finally, is the primary attraction of the book and its most difficult problem — these poems engage with the Victorian fascination with surfaces (manners, etiquette, decoration) and the obstacles these throw in the way of emotional contact. But also, finally, the way surface itself is the locus of contact.

The first “novel” consists of short prose blocks, and sets forth the issue of loss immediately:

Origin Myth

It has been said that the detective story has structural elegance because it begins with a murder and unravels neatly backwards to relate the cause of the murder: a solution. But this was not true of the first detective story. That story entailed no murders, only a loss, various losses.

Other lines focus with elegant lyric poignancy on those surfaces: “The eye flies over the naked body, yes, but sees only skin … the ability to read the skin, its legend of flush and pallor. The true body, the one which, despite all its acumen, cannot get away” (“Surface,” 22). Later, in a piece called “Sleepwalking”: “The purpose is to walk over the very surface of sleep, as Christ walked over the surface of water” (25). But there is, haunting this, a sense of loss and something underneath. “Think of the self as a locket in which one must carry something foul: a secret innocence” (“Pariah,” 27). The final line of this first section captures the tension at the heart of Victorianism (at least in my admittedly limited experience of it): “As the somnambulant gropes towards the site of loss, his beloved looks on in polite and silent bliss” (“Decorum,” 30).

This is beautiful. The first section of the book proceeds as almost an ekphrasis of the moods, themes, and language of the Victorian source novel. At its best, when most sensual, it hints at the lapse or loss between bodies, their unwillingness or inability to connect. The second section is laid out in sparser, fragmentary, lineated poems, while the third seems a hybrid of the two.

A good deal of the book feels like an extrapolation or extraction from the source text, a dance alongside it, an effort to understand its alien discourse of manners and indirectness, which seems a particularly poignant way of reflecting on the mourning that lurks beneath the poems’ own surface. A sense of bafflement pervades: at bodies, loss of bodies, the way that Victorian avoidance of contact can paradoxically bring bodies closer. (It is perhaps no coincidence, and something worthy of study, that the “shock” of medievalism emerges alongside the shock of Freudianism during the Victorian era.) Poetry, especially in the hands of someone as accomplished as Robinson, is the perfect instrument with which to explore this bafflement, this mourning, this loss, and also to hint at the era’s stunning emergences.

Ultimately, there is a satisfying lack of closure here that reflects what Robinson-as-reader notes in her source texts. If the dark harmonies are resolved at all, it’s on the level of language, where Robinson continues to prove herself a poet of some power in manipulating sound, image, and text. Examples abound; one chosen at random reads,

The blanket crocheted itself over the sloping plain, and all
was woolly and opaque            Not to be perturbed            Portent’s
sharp consonant softened to omen (44)

The resolution of vowel sounds in the final line, already deftly hinted at in the preceding lines, is expert, and the fact that it falls against the “sharp consonant” sounds sprinkled among them is evidence of the level of sonic awareness that Robinson brings to the task, the way that sound can slide into sense and vice versa. It is powerful stuff. If anything, I found myself yearning for more power in a different way — poems that hit with the force of death, loss of time, age, movement. In that sense, there is a poise or even stasis in some of the poems, perhaps caught up too much from the tone of the Victorian novels. But perhaps this feeling is the very lack that the poems, taken altogether, crystallize around, the point of contact they create.

The way we tend to compose, or hear, poetry these days

A review of 'The Odicy'

The Odicy

The Odicy

by Cyrus Console

Omnidawn 2011, 88 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650520

The title of Cyrus Console’s book THE ODICY is a pun that references Homer’s epic and Leibniz’s 1710 book Théodicée, which coined the term “theodicy,” a defense or vindication of God in respect to the existence of evil. As such, it immediately calls into play related, but disparate texts (and indeed, modes of discourse), as well as different cultural-historical moments. And it hints at what is perhaps a fatal overdetermination of elements at work in this book of poems. The poems are written in pentameter. They proceed in six-line stanzas, three stanzas each — except for the third section, which repeats an acrostic on the word “rainbow” — and occasional use of end-rhyme, or near-rhyme. As to theme, there is religion (especially fundamentalist fears about the apocalypse), the dangers of sugar and sugar substitutes (the cover is an image of a giant mound of sugar in a warehouse), and the “personal” odyssey of a narrator variously referred to as Tony and Anthony (and the lyric voice of same).

 That’s a lot; and the book, even in five sections, is not particularly long at eighty-three pages. With its formal constraints and thematic scope, it recalls long projects like Berryman’s Dream Songs, Berrigan’s Sonnets, perhaps even Eliot’s The Waste Land or Four Quartets. But I was also reminded of W. H. Auden’s 1947 book (reissued this year) The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, written in an approximation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and exploring in six sections questions about individual identity and spirituality in an industrialized, urban world. There, as here, part of the challenge for both reader and writer is the grappling with an older verse form; there, as here, a prominent feature of the text is the way it dates itself, thematically and formally, to both distance and bring to the surface contemporary issues in the somewhat blurry lens this dating creates. Also, of course — as with any poetry that embraces constraint — another implicit challenge is to justify the need for the constraint; how does the content dovetail with form?

In the case of Auden, there was a strong history with Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse that seemingly justified his delving into it. Auden studied with arch-philologist J. R. R. Tolkien, and his early poems bear the heavy mark of alliterative rhythms. In terms of subject matter, the argument can be made that the form reflects Auden’s own linguistic anxieties about transitioning from England to the United States, and the poem’s theme of introspective psychological reflection in a changing, alien world certainly echoes with Old English elegies such as “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament,” etc. — a correspondence with postmodern lyric concerns that makes such poetry both a continuing point of fascination for contemporary poets, and woefully understudied. For Console, the touch is at once lighter and the burden heavier. That is to say, the emphasis on pentameter is not likely to be so overbearing as repetitive, alliterative stress. All the more so, because Console’s pentameter is only intermittently iambic: many of the poems actually scan trochaic, with dactyls for further variation. In that sense, it is perhaps more accurate to say that Console works in syllabic verse; but that is part of the difficulty of meter in an age of printed poetry, anticipated by Pound all those years ago — it is simply not the way we tend to compose, or hear, poetry these days.

And that feeds into the burden here, which is that Console’s case for the formal constraints he employs seems somewhat artificial, even arbitrary. But perhaps that’s only because we’ve gotten so far from the high-modernist idea (to again reference Eliot and Pound) that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” Some sense of meter or at least rhythmical pattern is still, one hopes, the concern of well-trained poets determined to work with the line, which Console clearly is. If this book had come out even fifty years ago, it would be no remarkable thing that the author had pursued a more or less regular metrical line. It remains then to examine how regular, and how effective, that line is in its actual deployment.

We have no rest. Wakeful is our enemy
Nei
ther solitude. O he is many
No dark cham
ber. For iniquity
Is always working. Sad irony
We bar
ter enmity for enmity
Alone. Alone we sing close harmony

Walk away, Anthony. Walk away
Alone among the lilies of the valley
Of the shadow of mortality
On water deleterious to memory
Unaffected by renown or money
Lov
ing every person equally

Go now, Tony. Else you got to stay,
Ton
y. Fix a stocking to the chimney
Dec
orate a tree this holiday
Art
ificial is the only way to fly
Wal
king is the best activity
In your sleep is the better way (15)

As can be seen from my amateur scansion of the above poem, from section one of THE ODICY, the meter in the poem is far from regular, though discernible patterns emerge from time to time. There is, for example, a faint overtone of the iambic in the first stanza, broken in each line by a tendency to string two unaccented syllables together — and the echoing y sounds at the end of each line practically necessitate a falling stress there, thus giving a dactylic feel to some lines (“enemy,” “enmity,” “harmony,” etc.). In fact, the heave at the start of many lines, and the frequent use of three-syllable feet, reminds one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s rhythms, an acquired taste that, as with Hopkins, the poems will hopefully acclimatize the reader to as he or she goes along. The recurring end-sounds, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, also exemplify the arbitrary nature of the project from a formal standpoint (there is no obvious reason for them here, and nowhere else is rhyme hinted at so overtly). In these ways, the poem demonstrates the risks and rewards of the project as a whole. The greatest risk is a tendency to swerve into a sort of formal diction and archaic lyric tone. This risk actually pays off (at least to my ear) in the above poem, since the tone set by the first two stanzas makes the sudden switch to the informally voiced “Tony. Else you got to stay / Tony” really pop out.

Therein lies the reward. But I’m left wondering if, given all the determining factors that went into the making of these poems, it’s enough to sustain a reader’s interest.

A great poet once told me that obsession is the key to a long poem (or series of poems). Clearly, that is the case with Cyrus Console’s THE ODICY, in terms of both form and subject matter. But obsession does not guarantee success. I find myself wishing, contradictorily, that the project had been pared down in certain respects and extended in others. Section three, “THE OPHANY,” with its “RAINBOW” acrostic structure, tamps down the emphasis on pentameter — there is still a strong sense of rhythm, but some lines include only eight syllables — as well as spirituality, and recalibrates to a less formal tone. Instead, the focus here is the sugar industry and big corporations such as Monsanto. This is by far the most compelling and cohesive sequence in the book, and I wanted a lot more of it.

'another personal narrative burns to a heap of citations'

A review of 'Bharat jiva'

Bharat jiva

Bharat jiva

by kari edwards

Litmus Press 2009, 132 pages, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-9819310-0-5

In the contemporary mythology that is rendered, critiqued, created and reflected in language. In the shape-shifting sand-sifting stance that is gerunds, malleable and didactic pronouns, economic prose-code syntactic snakeskin shed and swallowed whole adjectival smackdown. In foraging late-human detritus vocabularies is kari edwards and nowhere in the sentences and fragments and planets of bank deposit syllabics is everywhere. What we have is words and words fail

I can not represent myself … the whole impossible to represent (52)

and rise from ashes. Reconstituted and reinterrupted “a thousand times a day,” edwards’s words pile up, assemble, and skew our pop and dream rhythms that have been absorbed and contorted. That ole pat standard from Home on the Range becomes “where boredom is preferred over a discouraging word and the skies darken by day” (19). Bharat jiva is a collective individual unconscious. Consciously singularly communal. And always urgently ticking like the bombs we forget proliferate under fingers. If anything remains posthuman for future investigation into this past, could one book be that search? We are all a “heap,” part of a gyrating biology alive to die. Here is our subatomic anthropology, a broken patterning of cracked ceramic nouns on a dig. Artifacts in the act. Sacrificial individual, the rhetoric in broad time. But not the straight line. Caduceus quiver(er). Bharat jiva as hermetic bearer.

Centered prose columns alternate with staggered, fractured, sometimes centered lyric lines, then become bound again in authoritative right and left justified pillars framed in page space. Words twist within and finally unravel, fray at the edges at the ends and the book again releases into lyric spatial openness. Form as forum. Each word an origin. Pun. Enough skidding occurrences like “between tao and them” instead of now and then make our eyes seek and see what’s not but was and is almost, there. “[R]adio” in “ratio.” “[L]ies” and “files” cause the crypt word “flies” to appear before us. “[M]annerist destiny” absolute play on manifest. Not a yuk yuk pun. Real world word conundrum. Any oral urge might be utilized, undoing original use intention making firm the Wittgensteinian slip chain in our hands. In our eyes, the words flicker on the pages.

And don’t. 

being able to only harness life through dead words (46)

Yet writing is “a lamp amid darkness / on lips of poor fruitless attempts” (47). There is a searching body, of the work, the speaker, the reader, but it is perpetually dying, “those buried alive,” the “prophets” eaten through with toxic caustic comment. Seeing and speaking is hurting if determined. From the book’s epigraphs: negate the will to live. Negate the body. “[E]veryone’s dying / everyone’s dying to die” (80). And yet a book of body (as) remains. In hand. Must.

yet, after loitering in morning’s death, in the
mirror  glistening fragrant outside,  amongst
mangled  bodies  and  scattered  twist  ties,
unhealed from unheard names,  I am called
back,   repulsed,   confronted,    tormented,
laying in sleeping hands ready to snap. (33)

“[C]alled back” to life. Urgency in agency. Agency in urgency. Futility. “[T]o snap” to painfully come alive “trying to find the pleasure in everything moment, right there laying on the street staring to the sky” (63–4). Coincidence the Oscar Wilde connection? We are all of us in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars. We are all of us in a body, some of us seeking beyond “the clumsy ground” (103).

edwards seeks through writing. Seeks writing as writing to provide, perhaps become, what is sought. To atomize and make hyperreality upchuck itself molecularly to revisit a bottom line. Banking, marketing, culcha, metaphor on metaphor, the meter of advertisement tagged in the book (“yes, we have a winner … call 1-800- complete resignation”; 67). The language of owners proffered to be debunked. “[G]uarding against the onslaught of foreign ornamentation, language goods and skin color bar codes” (20).

Bharat jiva a penultimate comment on the banality and glimmering potential holdout of humanity. Philosophy of philosophy, planetary biological religious cosmic consideration afloat on the tension of gerunds manifesting without always an I, yet I speaks (“did I not say”). There is agency in the dynamic vibrational circumstances through an accumulation of modifying phrases that eventually land on a sentence’s subject, but not always and not definitively, and the subject transmogrifies through sediment layering accumulation.

in the face of “can’t read it,” against  the
rules of  suddenly  perceiving  enormous
episodes  knotted  in  inexorable  reason,
begging cat affection and flash formulas,
those  surprise  expressions  through the
great stream of images, loving  the  right
place  at  the wrong time for  the  wrong
reason, long  for  another  wrong reason
lost place long time lost longing, mulling
exacto  knife  dollar  bills,  interpretative
false   ideology,   drowning   complaints,
latent  aggressive  scenic  tedium, and […] (21)

“[I]n the face” modifies. “[A]gainst the rules” modifies. “[B]egging cat affection” —  modifying. “[T]hose surprise expressions” are possibly the subject, the agency here, yet they are moving “through” and continue on “loving” and “long” and “mulling” but maybe not. Either the subject is immediately modified again or more likely is sliding moving. Then the accumulation of possible subjects so that none of them stands out as singular agent, they are all motivating forces ministering to and being modified by the adjectival phraseologies. Also, the subjects are not solid. “[I]nterpretative false ideology” is such a movable mover. Is the ideology capable of interpreting or is to be interpreted? Neverthematter, it isn’t true, anyway.

How to read this book in the face of can’t read it? Through a lens of contemporary writing situated within hegemonic globalized forces. Where does this book stand? To speak to this return to the title of the review: “another personal narrative burns to a heap of citations” (11). Appropriated writing (citation) now the rage in the current deluge of internetted everyone as broadcaster — what Jodi Dean and others call communicative capitalism. So a present-day urge toward construction through reiteration. Sustainable poetry — reuse to reduce. Conversation with other works. The frame as the work. Demonstrative. Contextualative? (Tzara, Rukeyser, Reznikoff et al. the predecessors.) Look many places in contempoetics and you will see the word commons. Seven billion of us and I suppose we must. Our tribe cannot simply move out of Africa for resources elsewhere to avoid conflict as it is said was the case for Homo erectus. Does this mean a surrender of I?

We continue to consider what it means to use personal narrative post-Language. Or still, say, against Language. (Against Against Expression.) Post-post. What it might mean to be an individual in the corrupted commons of language. How Silliman’s pre-Now call to constrain syllogism in writing conflicts with the problems Dean sees in the continuous enjoinder to contribute (“communicate”) in the media sphere. All accumulation, no discernment or reasoned argument. All “ands” — no “therefore” or “but.” Not communication or dialogue. Not even dialectic. Nothing absorbed for synthesis. Merely added to in an amnesiac stream of the 24-hour news cycle which replicates itself as readily as one can click the refresh button on the computer.

How and why in this cacophony to speak through an I that isn’t solely using personal minutiae (“celebrate the small things”) to attempt its reflection of something universal? How to be beyond individual epiphanic and yet one? Bharat jiva does not make nice self-help solipsistic discourse. Clearly voice forming sentence. Querying mind and tongue. It is uttered poetic rhetoric, yes, but more like therapy as ontology. A second millennium common era problematized enactment of speaking. Is the only way to an “impossible to represent” whole (if there is such a thing) to assert and risk hurt? To sacrifice oneself in and through the act of speaking? Or are we already compromised as body.   

maybe  a  speechless  idiot   idol,  feeling  the
return,  returns to the flesh,  something sent
through   the   gate   returns  hollow,  broke,
expansive,  turned  from no  longer mind  to
almost human. (37)              

This, then, is the most personal and universal (we of flesh) of work. Vulnerable. To face and speak is to put one’s body on the line. In the “aftermath,” the book’s denouement, we are “expelled from injured paradise” The work is contemporary and more than of its moment. Post-apocalyptic and upper-Paleolithic. Or, perhaps, pan-Edenic.

Notes on a phenomenological poetics

A review of Kevin Varrone's g-point almanacs

g-point almanac: passyunk lost

g-point almanac: passyunk lost

by Kevin Varrone

Ugly Duckling Presse 2010, 104 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-933254-52-4

g-point almanac: id est (9.22-12.21)

g-point almanac: id est (9.22-12.21)

Kevin Varrone

Instance Press 2007, 96 pages, $14, ISBN 9780967985466

g-point Almanac

g-point Almanac

by Kevin Varrone

Duration Press 2000, 42 pages, $6, ISBN chapbook

Kevin Varrone has written a series of works entitled g-point almanac.  An early installment was g-point almanac (9.22–10.19), available as a Duration Press e-book.  Others include the 2007 g-point almanac: id est (9.22–12.21) published by Instance Press and 2010 g-point almanac: passyunk lost issued by Ugly Duckling Presse.  The almanacs echo, record, build an encounter with language that is based first in an encounter with a shifting world, quite real in its slippery emotional geography. It’s satisfying to read the books as elements in an ongoing project, one that tours the weather and the city of Philadelphia and maps traces of intimacies blowing through it, gently organized in a Book of Days format. 

Varrone’s poetry speaks to the notion of an urban ecological poetics, the lyric self in weather in city in song, a poetics that is simultaneously a philosophy of being in things: a phenomenological poetics, perfect for the urban contemporary.  Being, in these books, is constantly in formation, determined by environment and intersubjectivity: fluid, shifting, live.

Among the most illuminating cycles in the series, clarifying the kind of topography of the mind developed in Varrone’s work, is “that worst part after,” which appears in the two earlier books. (Why not revisit that worst part after? We always do. We savor it.) But what is that worst part after? We read, and we fill in the blanks. The lyric reader is a builder of imaginary emotional landscapes. Varrone writes:

cities (are they?)
               epiphanies of desiring

                            scapes:

We are propelled, here with punctuation, but also with the desire the writing sets up, the blank spaces that allow us to open up the possibility of perceiving the felt.  We are dropped into the next line, through more blank space, into

gaps & apertures, absences,
              that worst part after —

Accepting the impossibility of completion, the poem reveals the gaps inherent in language, investigating this in particular at the site of experiences that are the most difficult to translate because of their emotional thickness: that worst part. Coming close to articulating the experience without actually articulating it. That worst part after — it hurts most in all its gaps and empty spaces. Varrone leaves blanks, then offers some signs:

                                                                     — that worst part
after romance,
                          this corpse
                          left for science

g-point almanac (9.22–10.19)

The reader gets some resolution on this page — the after is “after romance” — a filling in of one blank. We understand the worst to be an emotional texture, and then we are moved back towards the body, hollowed, the “corpse / left for science.” Varrone is a poet capable not only of exploring the complexities of the lyric field — spreading the page wide with space, shifting through enjambment and expansive vocabularies — but of letting the poem enact an important philosophical moment: a moment where the language is at once embodied and lyric. The poetry moves through the pages without settling on a moment of profundity, yet guides us through a phenomenological encounter with both thought and world. It is therefore appropriate that these words echo in the Instance Press book, only condensed into one page with less white space, “this corpse” becoming “a corpse”, an indefinite object, at a remove, with less silent space on the page, less raw emotion (16).

Creating the world by perceiving it, as we do, the poem does not crystallize experience but continues the ongoing process of creation. The instabilities of the body in motion through which emotion winds and unwinds. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted, “We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive.” Varrone puts it slightly differently:

                                we amble

through versions of the city
                                             beneath these versions

of sky

& say remember &
in the eyes of others
remembering looks like crying —

g-point almanac (9.22–10.19) (11) 

The landscape of a book is the expanse of the page, often mostly white; the landscape of a book is the words, the punctuation, the sprawl and the spread of them. The landscape of poetry is still the words themselves, even their shape.

In g-point almanac: passyunk lost, the poems move through winter, following sometimes a daily journaling format through January, February, March. The book commences with the uncertainty of perception, a parenthetical lyric interpretive turn:

                                                              (a freckling effect across the sky)

undercut, informed by:


(what I mean is: sky’s            frighted with false stars, adidas
across powerlines                         what I mean is chuck t’s I

g-point almanac: passyunk lost (13)

The book opens like this, and aptly so, for then the book the thought the language unfolds in this way, both suggesting and performing a kind of thinking that is simultaneously a way of seeing. In Philadelphia, a poet sees “round table. plastic chairs. propane grill,” the mundane stuff of domestic urban life. But this life never escapes its groundedness in the ethereal, so to speak. Does that ring ironic or absurd? All the more apt. This is a poetry that will not let us get away with cynicism and will not let us get away from lyricism. In the propane grill and the chuck t’s and other quotidian objects we find “the quality of silence / harnessed // for inelegant use” (68).

We, too, may have seen the way objects in the world collide with the mind, do violence to it.  In Kevin Varrone’s work, birds:

there are birds that hover & those that take off at steep pitch. those that make
noise in morning & those silent at noon. things said & words after
words, as if in latin. a desperate octave of the throat. a tom waits song.

g-point almanac: id est (53)

An almanac is a collection of agricultural and meteorological information, but Varrone’s poems collect the information of poetic perception — a lyric Book of Days, a love letter, a Book of Loss. Nostalgic and documentary at once, with song throughout, it reminds us to listen better, often to the silence.

To get you out walking

A review of 'Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto'

Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto

Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto

by Shawn Micallef

Coach House 2010, 312 pages, $22.95, ISBN 1552452263

I have been going for walks since 1994 when I first moved to Montreal, long perambulatory explorations of back alleys, train yards, industrial wastelands and whatever neighborhood I found myself living in. So I was excited to hear of Stroll, as I’ve been interested in psychogeography for a number of years. I decided to take the book for a stroll …

I’m coming into Toronto from where I am spending the holidays with in-laws in Hamilton. The GO Train is the best way to arrive, the clicks and clacks of the rails warm and lulling as the train skirts along the lake past Exhibition and into the dark tunnels of Union Station. I’m leafing through the book, trying to decide which tour to take. I want to walk a route through areas I have never been, which would be most of Toronto. Plenty to choose from! But the season being dead of winter, I decide to go where it is most convenient. This is how I end up downtown.

Oh, glorious Toronto hot dog stands! Montreal has no street food to speak of. I watch the hot dog man score the hot dog to let out the juices, then grill it to barbequed perfection before dropping it neatly onto a fresh bun. To me, this is an essential part of Toronto.

 

As the man hands me my change, I drop most of it into his tip cup (thank you, he says, seeming surprised), and one quarter falls between my fingers, disappearing. I hope it didn’t fall into the pickles. I heap on the sauerkraut and the mustard, the things I like best on a hot dog, then wander off down Front Street, pausing to savor each hot, juicy bite. Hmmm.

Will I go down to the Harbourfront or over to Yonge Street? I look at the landscape to see how I feel. The Harbourfront would be to my right, where an underpass looks somewhat foreboding, not at all inviting. I decide to head over to Yonge.

Micallef starts his Yonge tour right at Lake Ontario, where he describes Captain John’s floating seafood restaurant. But how do I get to Yonge Street from Union? The lovely hand-drawn maps by Marlena Zuber help immensely, and there is a large, color foldout one at the back of the book.

One of psychogeography’s main methodologies, as described by Guy Debord and his Situationist cohort, is the dérive or the drift, and involves following one’s feelings (hence, “psycho-”) in response to the architecture and geography. A problem with taking a prescribed walking tour is the lack of spontaneity, for one is not able to “drift.” Of course, you could detour from the walk but then, do you try to get back to it or do you just wander? One could say that it matters not, for the book has already done its purpose, to get you out walking … (but then why read the book?)

Well, what I expect from a tour guide is knowledge of history and architecture. Micallef does a good job at including healthy doses of both on his tours, though I was always expecting more. Every time I saw something of interest, I wanted him to have also noted it, but of course, this doesn’t happen.

For example: As I reach Yonge Street, I am surprised to see the Hockey Hall of Fame there, as it wasn’t mentioned in the book. Instead, Micallef describes the Sony Center on the southeast corner as “a perfectly modern performance venue.” The Hockey Hall of Fame didn’t register in Micallef’s emotions? I’m not a hockey fan or a sports fan in general, but as with any icon of tourism, I have to stop and gawk. Like everyone else around me, I take a picture.

 

Turning the corner, I peer into the lobby where the entrance to the Hockey Museum is, and am surprised to see this space-age Christmas tree hanging over a fountain.

I’m compelled to enter and take more photos, alongside crowds of tourist families. The building is quite impressive, and there are these strange lights that look to me like floating Mickey Mouse heads.

Part of me protests, no, I’m a flâneuse (the feminine form of flâneur), not a tourist! But really, what is the difference? It’s only a slight readjustment of attitude! I have a camera, a guidebook, and I’m looking up at the buildings.

Micallef describes the area between Front and Richmond as “a concrete canyon,” with no particularly interesting pedestrian experiences to offer. The one building he notes is One King West, which is best seen from more of a distance, as its thin silhouette will attest. I crane my neck up to discover that I can barely see it.

But speaking of looking up at the buildings … I was astonished to find the unique juxtaposition of old and new architecture, everywhere I looked on Yonge Street! In fact, some of the old, stone buildings looked as though they had contracted some modernist virus that turned them into metal and glass.



I’d never before bothered to walk in the “touristy” areas of Toronto. I wander up Yonge with all the other families and couples through the capitalist display of wealth and glamour. The stores are mainly retail chains you can find anywhere, but it’s easy to just wander in a daze. Micallef has a good deal to say about the history of Yonge Street here: its big-city cliché moments, its glory years of tawdry spectacle, the early gay bars like the St. Charles Tavern and the Parkside Tavern that no longer stand, the Colonial Tavern where “jazz greats from Gillespie to Holiday to Brubeck played,” the grisly murder of a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy that prompted the cleanup of the street, and the eventual decline of Yonge. It’s a good read, though there’s nothing to look at in connection with it.

Micallef then takes us back to the present: “So where have you gone, Yonge Street? Walking along, it’s hard to find a drink in reasonable surroundings, and the good bands and DJs don’t play here anymore. The center of the strip now would appear to be Yonge-Dundas Square, probably the most controversial bit of real estate in the city … On humid nights, the air glows hundreds of meters into the sky around the square, as if filled with electrified neon” (22).

Arriving at Yonge-Dundas Square, I feel like I am in a smaller, less-crowded version of Times Square, obviously intentionally so. It also reminds me of Las Vegas, which looks almost run-down in the daytime, but is spectacular at night. I actually like the glitz, but in the light of day, the electric billboards aren’t as impressive against the grey, winter sky.

I note the diagonal crosswalks that I haven’t seen in any other Canadian city. How very megalopolis it is, like Tokyo, like London!

I drift around the Square for a while, looking at the holiday decorations and avoiding the young people giving away samples of synthetic cake. At this point I am beginning to get cold, so I decide to switch tours. Micallef follows Yonge Street all the way up into North York, past the 401 highway.

I consult the map and happily discover that Nathan Philip Square and the PATH System are only a few blocks away. The wind seems to blow colder and harder as I make my way from the crowds of Yonge Street to what I expect will be a fairly deserted City Hall. I arrive to the sounds to children screaming in delight. The ice rink is packed today.

I wander around the Square, checking out the space-age City Hall that I glimpsed once on an episode of Star Trek: The New Generation. It is surrounded by construction.

Micallef notes that there is a Henry Moore sculpture, which I find tucked away between scaffolds.

 

There are also portable washrooms behind the skating rink, strangely called “comfort stations.” This reminds me of “comfort women,” a euphemism for women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II. Of course I know this is unintended! But there you go, that’s what I thought of.

I’m really cold now, and the indoor PATH System sounds quite appealing. The PATH is a “twenty-seven-kilometer-long network of underground passages and tunnels that connects over fifty downtown buildings” (63). Micallef describes it as “Toronto’s version of Paris’s arcades, ‘a world in miniature’ where philosopher Walter Benjamin wandered in the 1920s when trying to understand that city. At first glance the PATH is a fairly generic shopping mall, but the impressive sum of its parts and the people who populate it make it remarkable. As you walk through it, the stores start to repeat like the background in a cartoon chase scene” (64).


Now how do I get to the PATH? There are numerous stairways leading below, but it seems that these are leading to a parking lot (each whimsically labeled with Canadian fauna).

Micallef notes that City Hall is connected to the PATH, so I head in. Walking down the stairs to find the PATH, I find myself in what is considered its worst stretch, the very parking lot that I was trying to avoid. The supposedly car-free PATH goes through a parking lot? I’m a bit miffed that I wasn’t warned about this. As a flâneuse, I generally avoid dark-ish, underground parking lots as not the best place to be drifting around. However, the door locks behind me so that I can’t reenter City Hall, for some unknown reason (as I could easily get in above ground).

 

I see another woman wandering around, looking for the exit and talking on her cell at the same time. I spot a yellow striped road that should get me outta here, and I look for the woman but she’s gone in the opposite direction.

Cautiously, I follow the yellow striped road through the parking lot until I reach the basement of the Sheraton, which then quickly becomes mall-like, but the most deserted mall I have ever seen. Most of the stores are still closed for the holidays, and I spot only the occasional couple or family wandering through.

Without people to populate it, the PATH feels unremarkable, maybe even unsafe. I’m tired now, too, and I just want to get out. I exit the underground at the first opportunity and head back towards Union Station. My strolling here is done.

Now, I still live in Montreal, and have never lived in Toronto. My strategy in approaching Stroll is thus an outsider’s perspective. Walking in your own city, even if you go to places you have never been before, means walking with an accumulation of memories that make the city your own. It’s different when walking in a city that you don’t live in. I mention all this because Stroll is written for Torontonians; Micallef’s walking tours are based on his columns in the Toronto paper Eye Weekly. His narrative voice addresses the reader as “we” and assumes often that our points of reference are the same. For example, Micallef begins the walking tour “Spadina” like this:

Spadina is a strange word. Say it. Spa-die-nah. Now repeat it a few times. You’ll soon wonder how we use it in conversation without pausing in curiosity. Yet we say “Spadina” easily, and it means “Toronto” just as much as the Ojibway word it’s derived from, Ishapadenah (the word has various spellings), which means “hill” or “rise in the land.” To get a perfect view of the street, climb the Baldwin Steps at Davenport, stand next to Casa Loma and look south over Toronto and the southern, downhill length of Spadina … to its glittery, skyscaper end. It looks as if somebody cleared a wide swath of land through Toronto to make the street — the “spine of Toronto” as the late writer Matt Cohen called it — and, in a way, that’s true. (152)

Now, passages like this one make me want to go there and see it, regardless of whether I fit into his “we.” But one’s psychogeographic response to the city changes according to such identifiers as race, gender, height — all things that predict different emotional responses to, for example, a dark, underground parking lot. Micallef acknowledges this in his introduction, a “Flâneur Manifesto,” but I would have appreciated more awareness of it within the actual tours. 

I was also disappointed to find that, while the Situationists — the originators of the term “psychogeography” — were “trying to strike a blow against capitalism and society” (as Micallef puts it in his Manifesto), Stroll takes a lighter view. But why divorce the historical context from the project? There’s a great opportunity here for political or social commentary, for an updated dérive that motivates involvement on a deeper level than “simply getting excited about a place.” A tourist observes, but a citizen engages and interacts.

Stroll’s tours are not really very psychogeographic then, if one is going to use that term. Although there are plenty of stories, histories, and interesting facts, I wanted more than a tour. I wanted more of Micallef’s own emotional mappings, more engagement. However, the writing does provide many interesting places to start, and getting to know your city might make you think about what it means to live in a city, and to be a citizen.