Norbert Ruebsaat's Blog

Reflexive Polyphony

Norbert Ruebsaat

Vancouver: A Poem

By George Stanley

New Star Books, 2008

125 pages

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,
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.

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)
His attention goes to the grungier
parts of town, the Downtown Eastside where Vancouver got started, and
crosses Burrard Inlet
and it frequently finds itself in gentrified Kitsilano, or looking
up to The 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

imagine a man as a city, Stanley, despite his reading efforts and focus,
cannot. Or does not.

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

That’s one thing. Stanley
describes it this way:

Globe and Mail

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
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:


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
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
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—
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:

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?

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:

And Stanley’s poem “Seniors,”
set in the middle of
is a must-read for those
who read Williams back then and who—yes we can—are still reading


Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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