Dennis Cooley & Nicole Markotić
My exclamations begin (as always?) with interrogative punctuations: am I a prairie writer if I live in southern Ontario? does writing invent landscape in much the way that borders invent nation? can I still even label myself a Calgarian when I now reside/write/teach in Canada’s southern-most city? I dwell in my cozy home, on this demanding page. I am abashedly a poet, writing through where I read to where I geography. My lips part to taste snow and Michigan pollution and phragmites (some of which I photo-pasted onto a Dennis Cooley chapbook, published when he visited us here in Windsor). In this city, Canada geese hang out adjacent to the Detroit river, teasing the waves with grandiose, beaked promises. Locals listen to Michigan talk-radio stations, all while humming the lyrics to any 90s Bare Naked Ladies hit. Mere kilometres away, Pelee Island brags the southernest tip of Canada, a robust wine industry, and yet more (a plethora of) birds. In Windsor, I scatter seeds on the top of the earth and goliath sunflowers bloom, hip-height garlic shoots, a yard-full of basil and parsley and sage and oodles and oodles of thyme. In Calgary, I spent years coaxing vegetable kernels with daily watering, patient weeding, tender tending.
I suspect that my suspicion emerges, ascends, surfaces, sprouts from my still-forceful pull toward semi-arid ground: blanketed with hail and sleet and ice-flakes, or kissed by the passionate sun and chronic wind and sweat-defying temps. A near-desert, tucked in by thirsty foothills footing those massive Rockies, and grassy plains, and northern timberland, and a glut of vibrant mountain streams and tributaries. And a city of glass. Nestled next to wheat farmers and the prickly rose and a coal-glazed creek (crick, Cooley?) and Saskatoon berries. Oh yeah, and tales so tall they’ll blowhard your toque all the way to Ontario. All the way to “here.”
Estevan, in south-eastern Saskatchewan, is a sun-hammered place. That’s in the summer—a lot of slamming heat and pushy wind. The sky is big. There is nothing to stop it. In summer the sky is huge. And in the winter so is the cold. It fastens down like a ratchet. And the wind pins you to it. This winter in Winnipeg, 300 miles east of Estevan, day after day the temperature went down to -30 degrees. Celsius that is. -22 Fahrenheit for the metrically challenged. You don’t stroll in verdant breezes and apple blossoms here. Not in any season. Not on the prairies you don’t.
In the spring the Canada geese suddenly appear. The snow has barely gone, or not yet gone. You can hear them coming—a faint murmur at first and then gathering, the sudden quawnking and there they are, fat liquid pulses. They arrive like torpedoes in the sky. There’s a good chance they will land, skidding comically like parachutists, on sloughs still covered with ice.
The summers blaze in heat and sun. And in the fall the geese drag the heat out of the sky, tow it somewhere south. A melancholy sound.
Winter arrives as an ice palace. A clear bright sky and snow and ice sparkling under it. You have to close your eyes against the light. And sometimes the blizzards sweep across the place and you can hardly see a thing.
Note to self: BE a displaced prairie poet—revel in literature that refuses to behave! Reading Bloody Jack invented my turning point as a writer: I suddenly (and violently and viscerally) fathomed how prose and poetry could intersect and cleave. I could believe, while reading that book, in the outlaw as lover, in the page as bandit, in the reader as radical fugitive. Dennis Cooley the writer roams throughout the text, ever restless, ever editing and rewriting (and even rebooking). In Bloody Jack, Jack Krafchenko is stock-western hero, but what kind of western? What, to clarify the question, kind of west?
Let me interrupt myself: how dare Robert Kroetsch (in 1975 no less!) so brilliantly and unabashedly call Calgary the “Kingdom of the Male Virgin”? and where does his comment leave my (female) longing? Does Hiromi Goto’s rodeo-riding Obāchan in Chorus of Mushrooms survive in the same topography as Aritha van Herk’s pantie-pushing Arachne in No Fixed Address? Does Suzette Mayr’s mythologizing in Moon Honey lean more toward Ovid or Rudy Wiebe’s tar-sands Hutterite angel? Finally, what happens to poetic appetite when the language I most adore crosses from Nikki Reimer’s [sic], to Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting, to Weyman Chan’s Noise from the Laundry, to Jacqueline Turner’s The End of the Earth?
There are many more writers I could name, writers to celebrate as part of this conversation. But how to appropriately describe how their words tiptoe around in my chest? I don’t, actually, consider myself a “prairie poet” so much as a poet whose page has been pre-scripted by Mennonite writers and first nations artists and Winnipeg musicians and flood-savvy mayors and die-hard cyclists. That bicycle paths run through and around the city I used to live in, greens my envy during balmy Ontario months! Whereas in these cold days, I long for the pine-cracked taste of a Chinook on my tongue, its tall-tale zealotry grazing my chin.
Nicole Markotić also claims to come from the prairies but her city, Calgary, hardly counts. It gloats about its winter melting, falls mute in the summer when the snow falls there every month, all year long. The fickle weather should perhaps be expected from a place that once fancied itself a lah-de-dah British outpost, before it decided it wanted to be a cowboy and then to be an oil baron. The Calgary terrain is no less suspect. It rolls and lolls and lolly-gags its way until it stumbles up the Rockies, sheer failure alongside the steady and level-headed prairies. The place I came from is honest-to-god dependable as all get out: when we have summer we have summers that simmer and boil, and when we have winter we have bolt-down-the-cold winters. No hoity-toity hills and mountains, no blowing hot and cold every day of the year. They should be embarrassed, those pretenders in Calgary.
I grew up on a farm in a corner of the prairies. In the 1930s most of the Canadian prairies were devastated. The Dirty Thirties, we called that decade. Your Dust Bowl. Stories of those times haunt those whose lives have been long attached to the prairies. The region is dry enough that the spectre of drought is never far from us. And, though the 30s were long before my time, they have pushed into my writing. Since 1989 I have been working on a long poem, love in a dry land, that takes its life from that period and from a remarkable novel, Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House, set in the Dirty Thirties.
And to interrupt the interruption: how does the poet reside within prose? how can fun maintain its serious edge? John Cage asks: “You want to know what we’re doing? // We’re breaking the rules. Even our / own rules.” Especially our own rules, I’d add… What’s the page/stage/tag/lollygag/folly translation? W.H.New calls landscape “history-in-place” to distinguish it from a chronicle of antiquity to become “an act of observant participation.” For me, Windsor-Ontario-Canada is gradually seeping into that charmed fiction of “here”: a city that butts up against urban Detroit yet remains unpretentious and humble. A city that doesn’t understand pedestrians (let alone cyclists!), dying from the dying auto industry. A city where a Virgin Mary (see Kroetsch: you’re not the only one who can invoke virginity iconography!) wept so hard the police had to cordon off several suburban blocks. A city where Pierre is pronounced Peery, where the Canadian underground railroad began, where you can buy Paczkis at Tim Horton’s on Fat Tuesday, and where I inhale the baked-bread-and-spice-infused aroma of distilling whiskey on my drive in to work every morning! Where? you ask. Here!
Place for me is a lot more than landscape. I suppose it is for most people. It has to be. What I have especially drawn upon are the stories and memories of those who peopled that corner of Saskatchewan, especially my family and relatives. The world I knew was full of farmers and labourers, and their lives, and the ways they carried themselves and spoke, have stuck with me. I listened as adults talked about the bloody Dieppe raid during WWII that included a lot of men from Estevan; when they talked about what it was to endure the Dirty Thirties; remembered their days of playing baseball in a shrivelled land and spectacular barn-storming teams from the States; my dad’s years working in an underground coal mine; the enthusiastic beginnings of the CCF, a socialist party in answer to the Thirties and the world-wide economic collapse. Many years ago I began a long poem, 1931, about a miners’ strike that ended when the Mounties shot three of the miners. Place is also all the writers and friends. For me that especially has meant Robert Kroetsch in his long poems, above all Seed Catalogue, with its wondrous rounding of vernacular and document and lyric.
Photo By: Brian