Vancouver: A Poem
By George Stanley
New Star Books, 2008
The idea that your mind could hold a city within itself, and that a city could be a kind of group mind, was exciting when many of us first read William Carlos William’s book-length poem, Paterson, in the 1960s. Williams’ suggestion to give our attention to the things immediately around us, to “the local,” in order to experience a place directly, uninterrupted by inherited ideas or wayward thoughts, excited many. “No ideas but in things,” ran Williams’ imagist slogan, and a person, especially a poet, by applying it, could become “a man” (gender delineations were strict and exclusive in those days) in a city that was “his” in a previously un-thought-about way.
George Stanley’s new book, Vancouver: A Poem, picks up Williams’ heady theme and asks how it looks and feels here, today. Stanley takes us on walks and bus rides through our Paterson, reading Williams’ text as he goes, and he pays attention to the things. There are old things: the W atop the former Woodward building (the beacon could originally be seen in Chilliwack); the shoe department at the Army and Navy store; the Stanford pub at Pender and Gore. And there are new ones: vacant city lots fenced off so resident children can no longer use them as playing fields of the mind and body; “seniors’ homes” where the old (they used to be old people, now they’re seniors, Stanley quips) wait for a moment…they don’t know what kind of moment…they know there will be/ the right moment… the right time—. His attention goes to the grungier parts of town, the Downtown Eastside where Vancouver got started, and crosses Burrard Inlet …many times—/peaceful waters of the mind; and it frequently finds itself in gentrified Kitsilano, or looking up to The Lions, Landmarks… We see two rocks, & call them Lions.
Stanley’s observations are sharp, almost mercilessly truthful. They have rhythm and heart in the objective sense, and are direct descendants of the imagist tradition Williams taught.
I noticed major differences, though, between the two poets and their books. Where Williams could imagine a man as a city, Stanley, despite his reading efforts and focus, cannot. Or does not. I am not a man, and this is not my city, he states, right at the start of the book. He means this in both the autobiographical sense (Stanley grew up in San Francisco and came to Vancouver in the 1970s) and in the metaphorical sense: A man cannot, he implies, be a city anymore in that old manly sense, and a city can’t be owned (or, let’s say, held by) a set of verses. The romantic wholeness and sensual democracy that Williams envisioned can’t be known (biblical sense) anymore in the utopian mode that energized the exuberant ’60s.
What happened? Two things. One is that the things of the city (and when he mentions things, by the way, Williams also means voices, people, written records, newspaper clippings, land deeds, personal letters, etc.) have shape-shifted. They are not the often natural but also human-made objects Williams knew and could encounter phenomenologically, that is, without historical or rhetorical baggage—for Stanley, they are things, more often, in the economic sense. They are commodities. Things today in our cities (cities are no longer ours, by the way; they belong to something else called the market) signify exchange, not use value (to use the Marxist shorthand).
That’s one thing. Stanley describes it this way:
I’m perched on a welded steel stool leaning on the steel counter of a pomo coffee shop which I guess is called Trees Organic Coffee Co. (at least that’s what it says on my coffee cup—dark Sumatra coffee—the image—the image of the map—of Indonesia—from the Globe and Mail & BBC on-line—in mind) east side of Granville just north of Pender…
The other thing, as you can already start to see from the above, is that what a person is has also changed. A man is no longer a man, or even a less specifically gendered being; he is a consumer. Of places and things and experiences. The transformation of reality into products, (or of the local into the post-modern globalized) is pretty complete in our day, and even a poet of Stanley’s acute sensibility—especially a poet of such sensibility—takes note of this.
What’s the result? Stanley’s prosody echoes the fragmented, enthusiastic, sometimes over-the-top-and-breathless “heart” rhythms of his mentor, repeating the dashes, half-stops and full stops that mark Williams’ peripatetic verse style. But Stanley’s interruptions are of a more contemporary kind:
Watching it go by on the bus even—that’s relativity—I mean watching me go by—the city. So a catalogue of moments, glimpses—no, just a disconnected (I imagine a poem about Vancouver in which Vancouver never appears—no, I mean no glimpses—Vancouver only in the mind of—trying to let it be, thinking that if (and what about the subject position? that revealed coyly or just blurted out?)…
What’s happening here? Well, we hear the poet as often as we hear the poem. We get a reflexive polyphony that reminds us of our selves even as we hear the voices of the commodities on offer. It’s almost, at times (at least it was for me), as if we—poet and listener—were one of the commodities, a celebrated thing among all the other things trickstered into products.
The idea that the poet should step between the poem and the reader with autobiography was a no-no for Williams, but Stanley, with what sounds often like a sigh—Take refuge in a long poem//Avert/inspiration.///Write carelessly—lets in the postmodern self/voice that encounters itself while it walks and busrides though the city. Yes, we are on display, it says. The self that Williams called the mind, splits: I can’t stop thinking of this—my mind’s/a captive audience of my brain, doomed/to hear it out. Brain says—/I’m running this program, & you/just pay attention.. [My brain] is wondering how it thinks. It ought to know… and: The thought has no words and no name./If it had words, it could be given a name.
This mind-brain split becomes a major player in Stanley’s Vancouver, and I read the book at times as elegy. If my mind holds in it nothing more than my brain (or does the brain hold the mind?), what happens to the city? When names become brands, how do we talk? What happens to place and the local and the things and voices that in Williams’ world were still numinous; that had—yes, let’s say it—heart?
The good thing about Vancouver: A Poem is that Stanley asks these questions and gets our readers’ minds and brains and temperaments—and, yes, our hearts—involved, and he does not at the end cash in his chips and leave the split-decked pomo table. He persists; he makes poetry. He makes it new: leave it to the brain,/leave it to the big boy to feel, even if it/makes big mistakes, it’s the big boy,/it’s the one/must/(& I will not say die.
And Stanley’s poem “Seniors,” set in the middle of Vancouver: A Poem, is a must-read for those who read Williams back then and who—yes we can—are still reading today.