Desire Path

My dad loves to remind me that I once described Langley, where I grew up and where my parents still live, as “the place where romance goes to die.” Needless to say, I am not a fan of the suburbs. As a poet, I love writing about place, but these places are always cities. I have one poem about my hometown and it reads more like an instruction manual: “leave suburb / make new home.”

So I came to Taryn Hubbard’s debut poetry book Desire Path published by Talonbooks in 2020 with curiosity, aware that it’s about growing up in Surrey, BC, and I was impressed. A whole book devoted to the suburbs—that’s commitment. I couldn’t do that for Langley. I kept looking for the speaker’s attitude towards the suburbs, towards this awkward adolescent place rapidly changing from rural to urban, and it wasn’t obvious. Sometimes she felt critical, other times accepting, and in this evocative description from “In the Afternoon,” mournful:

Commuter hearts
start like the engines of diesel
trucks when field across
station, free for all-day parking
gets dug up.

Hubbard pays attention to Surrey. Even the gas stations, parking lots, and fast-food joints—things that don’t often make it into my poetry. I once had a writing teacher say that “parking lot” isn’t a very poetic phrase to put in a poem so Hubbard’s book feels like a middle finger to that teacher. Yes, she can write “parking lot” in a poem and do it well. She can write an introductory poem (“Heirloom”) that begins, “I was born across from the first / McDonald’s in Canada” and hook me immediately. Hubbard can use a ubiquitous landmark to anchor her self and her work.

Over the past couple decades, attention has shifted from major metropolises like Vancouver and turned towards outlying cities growing up in their shadows like a younger sibling. After Hubbard’s debut, there can be no talk of a body of literature about Surrey (from a growing coterie that includes Leona Gom, Kevin Spenst, Veeno Dewan, Phinder Dulai, Fauzia Rafique, Heidi Greco, Renée Sarojini Saklikar) without mentioning Desire Path.

Construction near City Centre Library, Surrey, in 2011. Photo by Charlene Kwiatkowski

Hubbard summarizes the plight of the suburb in her poem “Wayfinding”:

it’s hard to find
the idea of here
and there
from a form
that grew only
with the idea of
car & home

For this reason, the “here” of Surrey could be the “there” of Oshawa, for the nature of suburbs is wash, rinse, repeat, something echoed in the structure of Hubbard’s collection that has four repeating poems aptly named “Repeat (I) (II) (III) (IV).” The poet has a hard task cut out for herself then in writing a whole poetry book about the suburbs and maintaining the reader’s interest. In “Markers,” she writes:

“The streets are empty, the houses are far apart including the empty lots saved for a rainy day when it will be more advantageous to redevelop them into something with suburban density, which is code for a strip of three-story townhouses cut apart like pieces of bread.”

Fortunately, Hubbard largely avoids the suburban cookie cutter (or shall I say bread cutter?) fate by varying her poetic forms. She scatters prose poems between free verse poems while also including a fifteen-page poem of fragments called “Attempts” near the end, about being pregnant during wildfire season. The poems that are most successful in standing out from the rest are ones where the speaker removes her distance glasses and gives us more personal details linking her to this no-where/every-where. For this reason, “Heirloom,” “Weighted Keys,” “Dear 203B,” “Shadeless,” “Boarded-Up Strip Mall Church,” and “Little Holubtsi” are my favourites. 

Overall, Desire Path is a tight collection that boldly asserts a place like Surrey is worth paying attention to, not in spite of, but because of its contradictions; its tension between past and future, rural and urban; its identity crisis; its complicated role in shaping a speaker from here to there, then to now, child to mother.

There is something to be said for really knowing a place, for taking the time to pay attention to it. It’s a form of love. This love is perhaps most evident in “Flagpole” where Hubbard begins: “One summer I walk the same path each day with the idea of creating a folded corner on a very specific patch of grass.”

I dog-eared a few poems in this book, folding back the corners of the pages like she folded the grassy path that led us here.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Things have changed since having a baby: I like going to the dentist. I go alone; the hygienist introduces me to The Great Canadian Baking Show and I watch two full episodes as she cleans my teeth. My mouth waters looking at all the things a dentist would say don’t eat: chocolate ganache, lemon custard, crème caramel, black forest cake. I am the very hungry caterpillar I read to my daughter at night. My body has changed in ways I’m not sure are reversible. The caterpillar bursts into a beautiful butterfly but all I seem to do is burst. I’ve ripped two pairs of jeans buckling my daughter into her car seat.

I am naming parts of the body when we dress, bathe, play. I show her my belly button—a deep-set cherry in a sponge cake. Lots of bounce back, the judges look for. Her finger finds it with a pirate’s enthusiasm when landing on buried treasure. Every diaper change, she lifts my shirt. Then we find her belly button—a bulbous thing like a door handle splattered with a café au lait. My mouth homes in on it. 

After the dentist, I shop. Gone are the days of rushing back to nurse her, the anxiety of growth curves. She drinks cow’s milk now—another change that is irreversible. I push a cart through Winners. It is lighter than a stroller and doesn’t have snack cups or water bottles flung from the sides. I buy jeans that fit, taking my time trying on this pair, then that one, going back for a second look, smiling. I’ve pulled off a great disguise. 

In the car, I welcome every stoplight, belt out an adult song and take the long way home.

That’s a Wrap: A Poem for Myrrh Bearers

I want to close 2020 on here with a poem I read recently by K.D. Miller in The New Quarterly, which is becoming one of my favourite Canadian Lit magazines.

I am reading an interactive children’s book of the Christmas story to my daughter for Advent. She presses buttons to go along with the reading. One button plays “We Three Kings” and her tiny finger repeatedly presses it and points out the bold yellow star on the page. The detail that has stayed with me from this story since I was a child is how this star was unlike any other star. It was bigger and brighter, otherwise how would the wise men know which one to follow?

Image by Jago from Jesus Storybook Bible: A Christmas Collection.

But Miller starts her poem saying, “The star looks just like any other”, immediately inverting the familiar story many of us have to come to know through images like the one above. There’s a tone of disillusionment, fatigue, and disappointment.

The speaker (who I’ll call “she”) goes on to say, “The story sounds more absurd each year.” Is it absurd because if it was just a regular star, how could the wise men find it (and thus the implication how could the reader believe it?) Or is the story absurd because the star takes on epic proportions?

Absurd is a good way to describe this year, from pandemic lockdowns and toilet paper shortages to undemocratic democracies, to name a few. But the speaker keeps on, bearing her gift. I love the double meaning of “bear” here—to carry, but also to endure. How many times this year have you felt like you’ve been barely bearing?

Given the poem’s confident title and the lead-up to her gift by the end of the first stanza, I assume the speaker will go on to talk about myrrh, a sap-like substance used throughout history as perfume, incense, or medicine.

myrrh a yellowish-brown to reddish-brown aromatic gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste obtained from a tree (especially Commiphora abyssinica of the family Burseraceae) of eastern Africa and Arabia

Merriam-Webster
Myrrh. Image from timelessessentialoils.com

But she never names myrrh in the lines that follow. In the second stanza, the speaker self-deprecatingly lists four non-tangible things she brings that, by the end of the stanza, don’t really seem like gifts at all:

She “bring[s] an eye that squints through doors / cracked open.” (fear, scepticism?)

She “bring[s] a step reluctant to be taken.” (wavering commitment?)

She senses death “in every new beginning.” (pessimism/realism?)

She brings “the argument that clouds the clearest word.” (a cantankerous spirit?)

The speaker reminds me of the proverbial kid on a long car ride asking, “Are we there yet?” But unlike a kid, she’s travelled this life road for a while—years actually. So perhaps all the stars are starting to look the same now; perhaps there is less anticipation and more fatigue. She’s ready to call it quits. Ready for this year to be the last. Ready to give up.

“Then doubt, my oldest friend, puts out a hand.”

This last line is not what I expected, and that’s why this poem grips me so much. The speaker indicates a turn or shift with the word “then”, but rather than hope, faith, love, or something of a positive nature putting out a hand, doubt does. DOUBT?! Because of the shift in language, I don’t think she’s being sarcastic. I believe her that doubt is an old friend but how will doubt help her carry on?

She doesn’t say. (An aside: my mark of a good poem is that it leaves me wanting more). All she says is that doubt puts out a hand, with the implication that she takes it. Can one travel with doubt so long that its presence actually comforts? Is the presence of doubt evidence, in fact, that its opposite exists?

I have shared this short video before but I am still drawn to the late Roger Lundin’s words about how doubt is intrinsic to faith—not separate from it, not a precursor to it, but a companion along the way.

Roger Lundin: Modern Literature from Regent College on Vimeo.

I picture the wise men making the journey to the Christ Child, travelling not only with each other, but with doubt—wondering if they’ll ever get there, if the story is true. Miller’s poem leaves room for faith and doubt to walk hand in hand. After reading the ending, I revisit the second stanza and wonder if “an eye that squints through doors / cracked open” is a gift, after all—a gift of choosing to see, to look for that star even through the smallest gaps. And her title “Myrrh is Mine” is a way of claiming this gift; a mantra she needs to repeat again and again to believe it is true.

Speaking of wise men, I would be remiss not to link to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi“. He and K.D. Miller share the same squinted vision where faith and doubt blur in the wood of the manger/the wood of the cross. Christmas ushers in Easter. Birth and Death.

Compare these two lines from each poet:

“The death I sense in every new beginning.” (Miller)

“…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” (Eliot)

Boy, we do ever feel death (in universal and particular ways) as we say goodbye to one hell of a year and greet the new one.

So maybe we too, like the speaker in Miller’s poem, are bearing myrrh. Our gifts feel bittersweet this Christmas. We are drawing towards 2021 with squinted sight and half-hearted belief that it will be better. We hope, but who knows? But if a bitter-smelling gift was acceptable to greet the Christ Child so many stars ago, it is surely welcome now. And maybe one day, in the not-so-distant future, our myrrh will transform into mirth, thick and sweet and pouring down our faces.

A Tale of Two Trees

I live near Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. When my daughter was young enough that she was taking her naps on me, I often walked its paths, reading the odd gravestone, admiring the beautiful trees, composing poems in my head. Now my daughter takes all her naps in a crib and I leave her with my husband to run those paths, admire the beautiful trees (especially this season), and compose poems in my head.

While there recently, I ran by some art installations that compelled me to stop. Two trees: one dressed in red, the other in white.

The first tree is called REDress and brings attention to the 1200+ missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. It’s a response/continuation of artist Jaime Black’s REDress project, in which she hangs red dresses in various public settings. She writes on her website:

The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.

It is not an accident the dresses are red. Red is for blood. Red is for love. Red is for anger. Red is for warning. Red is for stop, look, pay attention.

The other tree’s branches hung with white baby carriages, fabric stitched taut over stick frames, weightless and rocking in the wind. The installation was next to the infant’s cemetery, where each stone in the river commemorates a baby lost. There are many stones in the river. The oldest one I saw was inscribed with the date 1902.

It is not an accident the carriages are white. White is for innocence. White is for milk. White is for purity. White is for a fadeout screen in a film. White is for ghosts. White is for baby shoes. White is for a blank page, an empty photo album.

Two trees dressed in grief. People have remarked that running through a cemetery is creepy. I have never experienced that feeling until the day I saw those red and white trees in broad daylight. They were haunting.

They have become more haunting after reading theologian James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone connects the cross Jesus died on with the trees that thousands of Black people died on in the United States because of white supremacy. Cone writes:

The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.

While not ignoring the historical and theological differences between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone concludes:

The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.

These are powerful, haunting words. Reading Cone’s short and accessible book (for non-theologians like me) was illuminating, horrifying, and necessary. Just like the red dresses and white carriages render presence through absence in Mountain View cemetery, Cone writes for America (particularly Christian America) to remember what it has all too easily forgot, ignored, or even justified.

He reminds us of the strange fruit hanging from trees that Billie Holiday inscribed on the ears of anyone who listened to her sing this indictment.

Listening to the song and looking at the cemetery tree photos, I wonder what the late Cone would say about Canada’s collective violence towards our Indigenous peoples, people we have sought to kill, assimilate, dehumanize. We have our own strange fruit, our river of stones, our Highway of Tears to reckon with.

Life and Death in Venice

Like others earlier this year, my heart leapt about the news of swans and dolphins reclaiming the Venetian Lagoon due to the lack of human activity during Italy’s COVID-19 shutdown. Too good to be true? Yes, as The National Geographic pointed out. It was fake news. Nevertheless, the waters are a lot clearer than they used to be.

Here’s what they looked like three years ago when my husband and I visited. (Click on the National Geographic link above to see what they look like now).

I really wanted to love Venice, but I didn’t. Maybe it was the mist, or the predominant grey, or the fact that I was starting to feel homesick, or the lack of green spaces and the abundance of tourists (and yes, I was one of them), but all of this accumulated to a melancholy that clung to me like water on a dog.

View of the elegant and symmetrical Doge’s Palace (right) and the Campanile (bell tower) in St. Mark’s Square from a vaporetto (the public transportation boat system that work like our city buses)
Artist painting the striking Rialto Bridge

To be fair, when the sun visited for a few minutes, I couldn’t believe how much the city transformed. What was dull and grey seemed to burst into colour and glisten.

Venice was very much alive with tourists, but dead of locals. As a stroller-pushing mother now, I can see why the city isn’t appealing to young families. I wouldn’t want to be running errands while manoeuvring a stroller across narrow cobblestone streets and up and over the many bridges, as beautiful as they are.

Everything costs more in this city of a hundred islands because all items have to be transported from the mainland. Apartments are small, expensive, up many stairs and/or prone to flooding. Maintenance costs alone must be astronomical, not to mention the bureaucratic red tape one needs to navigate to do any repairs while preserving the heritage of the buildings.

Since the city loses about 1000 residents a year, I wonder how long before Venice itself becomes a “fake city”; somewhere you travel to like a theme park, but not somewhere you live.

I hope this is never the case because it would be a loss if Venice was rid of local life (the garbage boats collecting people’s trash; the woman picking up after her dog who shat in a campo) and was flooded with even more striped-shirted gondoliers, brightly-vested tour guides holding up fluorescent flags, smartphone and selfie stick-yielding tourists posing and reposing again until the shot is Instagram perfect.

View through one of the windows of the Bridge of Sighs that connects the Doge’s Palace with the prison
St. Mark’s Square with St. Mark’s Basilica in the background
Gondoliers
Doge’s Palace

Intentionally getting lost is one way to avoid the crowds (and just a good idea in general if you’ve got time to spare in a place like this). My husband and I stumbled upon some quiet, empty scenes but they were such a contrast to the “alive” Venice that they felt more eerie than refreshing. It’s as if you have to choose between the carnival Venice of St. Mark’s Square or the ghostlike Venice of back alleys. Can I opt for neither?

Cycling the Waterland in a Day

I suppose the easiest way to travel right now is through memory. As I do more cycling around my neighbourhood these summer days, I’ve been thinking of the cycling day trip my husband and I took in fall 2017. We took a ferry from downtown Amsterdam to Amsterdam-Noord where we rented bikes and explored the Waterland, the picturesque countryside east of the city that boasts traditional Dutch farms, separated bike paths built on dikes, and charming seaside towns.

Notice how flat it is to bike here—such a nice change from Vancouver! This excursion was an excellent and easy break from urban sightseeing.

In typical fashion, I try to pack too much into a day though (as my husband would readily attest to). Cycling from Amsterdam to Marken to have lunch, and then hopping on a ferry to Volendam, heading north to Edam and coming back through Broek in Waterland to have a bite to eat and being back at the bike shop by 6pm (and getting a bit lost on the way home too)? Yeah, we count our lucky stars we made it just before the owner was locking up. My legs were spinning like the windmills we passed.

Well, not this one. This one wasn’t spinning at all.

We saw a lot more of these modern ones, though the romantic in me was wondering where all the traditional windmills are? Are they a thing of the past?

The village in the photo above is Durgerdam, a town of about 430 inhabitants that we quickly passed through. Check out the cobblestone street (not the most bike friendly, but it certainly gives it character!)

Marken was our first stop. This small fishing village was originally an island until engineers connected it via a causeway in 1957.

The rows of green houses with triangular roofs were particularly striking.

There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing other peoples’ quotidian routines when you are far from yours. If there is an art to laundry hanging, I think this person’s got it down.

I tried some tasty kibbeling for lunch (the Dutch version of fish and chips). Marken used to be a fishing hamlet in danger of being abandoned but it’s been able to survive as a tourist destination.

The main reason we bit off more than we could chew regarding our ambitious cycling day was because we met some fellow tourists who told us you could take a ferry from Marken to Volendam. It would be quicker than backtracking to get up to Edam, and why not enjoy a ferry ride with new scenery? For those who know me well, spontaneity is not my strong suit (a friend joked with me many years ago that I had to “plan my spontaneity”). I laugh but it’s kind of true. Not so on this day!

The bikes were stored on the lower deck where there was also covered seating. I didn’t last long up here—the winds were something else! We said goodbye to Marken . . .

. . . and about 30 minutes later said hello to Volendam, of which I hardly have any pictures because we couldn’t linger long in order to reach Edam and all the way back to Amsterdam on time. And besides, Rick Steves called it “grotesquely touristy” and we believe everything he says, so that settled it.

Who am I kidding? Of course I took another photo, and I’m not sure Rick, this residential street looks rather lovely . . . maybe I’m just a sucker for canals, which reminds me, I have yet to post about Venice. Next post maybe.

Speaking of canals, Edam‘s were picture perfect. Here are our colourful bikes in the centre of town.

We took a peek into this cheese shop below—why we didn’t buy any, I don’t remember. I wished we had more time to explore this quaint town. Edam is famous for its cheese of the same name covered in yellow or red wax. Too bad we weren’t there in the summer on market day where local farmers bring their cheese into town by boat to get it weighed and measured.

Just your regular fowl hanging out by the side of the road:

Instead of hugging the water, we took a faster inland route back to Amsterdam that led us through the beautiful town of Broek in Waterland as the sun was setting. This is the town’s lake that, in the winter, becomes an ice rink.

The town is known for its extreme cleanliness. Not much was open by the time we got there but thankfully this restaurant was so we could have some sustenance for the last leg of our journey.

And then we were back in the big city to witness night cast its spell.

What places have you been revisiting in photos, dreams, memories?