The Great Empty vs. The Great Filling

As a UVic alumna, I receive their Torch magazine whose recent cover article features cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Robin Mazumder and his research on how cities affect our mental well-being.

For his PhD in psychology, his research focused on stress responses when people were dropped via virtual reality into two separate locations in central London: 1) next to a high-rise building and 2) next to a low-rise building.

I imagine the participants of the study being dropped into a high-rise scene like this for the first location. (Photo of NYC by me)

Not surprisingly, author Michael Kissinger summarizes:

What he found was that tall buildings make people uncomfortable when they’re surrounded by them. Conversely, people have less of a stress response when they’re in environments that are built at what’s considered “human scale,” or the European model where buildings tend to top out at five storeys. 

Reading this brought me back to my literature courses in university. In the early 20th century when the development of urban spaces was accelerating at a fast pace, German socialist Georg Simmel was similarly concerned about the affect of the city on an individual in his landmark essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from 1903. In fact, he was the one who coined the term blasé, which Merriam-Webster defines as “apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment.” It’s a paradox: to feel something so strongly that you end up not feeling anything at all.

Many moving parts on a typical street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Simmel says that the extreme excess or intensification of stimuli in the city “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally case to react at all.” Examples of stimuli he gives include “the grasp of a single glance . . . each crossing of the street . . . [and] the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life.”

Bryant Park in NYC. Love this dynamic park nestled behind the public library.

I have to admit that I am a city lover. I sang New York’s praises after visiting it for the first time (well aware now that living there would likely be a very different experience). In BC, I once had a job in what some would consider an idyllic pastoral setting where sheep and cows grazed in fields outside my window, their bleating and mooing a lunchtime lullaby. But I longed for blinking streetlights and fast-moving things: cars, bikes, people. Looking back, I think I was drawn to what those fast-moving things represented: opportunities.

While I don’t live downtown and am not surrounded by high-rises, I do live in a city and enjoy venturing downtown because of the different pace of life it offers. When Vancouver was shut down early in the pandemic and on and off since then, I looked forward to roaming around Gastown only to be dismayed at how empty it was. The photographs from around the world in this New York Times article “The Great Empty” capture that melancholy well.

Gastown’s famous steam clock (photo by me). What is time anymore?

If I were a subject in Mazumder’s study, I wonder what my response would have been. If he had conducted his study both pre- and post-pandemic, would there be a significant difference? Would the long amounts of isolation make a bustling city scene more attractive than normal? Would we be less stressed and more excited? Or would the long absence of this hustle and bustle trigger anew the anxiety of crowds and stimuli that we had forgotten we were used to?

Grand Central Station, NYC, back in 2011.

I have a chapbook out now called ‘Let Us Go Then’ that alludes to T.S. Eliot’s quintessentially modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that one could argue features a speaker (Prufrock) desperately trying to overcome the blasé. The first stanza of his poem comes to mind when I think about “The Great Empty.” Obviously Eliot is writing in a very different context than our current pandemic one, but he is addressing emptiness of another kind: emptiness with modern living and all of its “fillings” as I paradoxically call them in my final poem of the chapbook.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

“A patient etherized upon a table” and “half-deserted streets” strike an eerily familiar chord. I find a degree of solace in this world-weary speaker who presents as an urban, educated individual who is painfully unsure of the world he finds himself inhabiting (and where he fits in, as a result).

The speaker is longing for emotional, spiritual, and physical connection.

I joke that I never knew I was extroverted until the pandemic hit. Give me people! (another Paris photo)

This longing ties into Michael Kimmelman’s introduction to that New York Times article showing mesmerizing photographs of empty public spaces:

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. Covid-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

Burrard SkyTrain Station, Vancouver.

Human interaction indeed. That’s what Robin Mazumder comes back to in the UVic article: designing cities that are at a human scale, where most necessities are met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride, where spaces foster mixed uses and diverse users that create opportunities for community—a good kind of filling, maybe even a great one.

A mixed-use space (Woodward’s atrium in Gastown, Vancouver) I wrote about for my Master’s research.

Highway Guardian

Last December, I closed out the year on here with an Advent poem by K.D. Miller. This year, I thought I’d share one of mine. It’s published in CRUX (Winter 2020; 56.4), a journal of Regent College.

I think this is the only Advent poem I’ve written, and one I had the opportunity to read at church. It’s also probably the most theological poem I’ve written, attempting to bridge (pun intended) the story of Christmas and Easter in the short form of a Petrarchan sonnet.

As I state in the poem, my reflections are borne from “this common world”: my commute from Vancouver to Surrey where I notice a bird’s nest on the S curve leading to the Alex Fraser Bridge. The associations spin off from there, much like the cars on this dangerous stretch of road.

It is this common world that strikes me anew in the Christmas story; that strikes me in another year of getting through. We are weary. In need of rest.

I also invite you to read “The Pulley” by George Herbert, which you may hear echoes of in my poem.

Merry Christmas all.

Nostalgia for Moving Parts

This latest poetry book by Diane Tucker makes me glad I am old enough to remember using a payphone. The title poem recounts in detail the speaker’s process of making a phone call on this antiquated device, this relic of a bygone era where “cold square buttons resist pleasantly / my index finger’s pressure” and where the handset makes “a real click” when put back on its cradle, none of the “digital ping” today’s phones bring. Yes!

You can tell the speaker takes pleasure in revisiting old things—whether objects or memories. I am too young (or uncultured) to know many of the other references she makes such as The Lawrence Welk Show, Eva Gabor, Three Dog Night, Gerry Rafferty, Pablo Cruise, Brigadoon, to name a few—but that didn’t stop me from enjoying her poems. In “Beautiful grade four teacher,” one of the early ones, she lists what was in fashion in 1974 and this gave enough context to situate the speaker in the world she is conjuring.

While Tucker highlights “golden-hour” memories like playing badminton in her East Van backyard with her brother in “As we leapt”; riding a merry-go-round in “The horse is a cathedral”; falling in love with theatre and its stars in “Brigadoon, 1979″ and “The star”; or listening to a mesmerizing busker in “Blue melodica,” she doesn’t just see the past with rose-coloured glasses. In “Dream of Old Vancouver,” the (day)dream comes to an end with the sobering realization:

This was how a woman earned her safety:
the workman noticed you and bought you drinks.
You played the well-liked woman; you went along.
You threw the dice of yourself and hoped you’d win.

Nostalgia, like memory, is complicated. “Love the sad men” is a beautiful yet bittersweet tribute to her father who showed his love in “scroll-sawed shelves to hold phalanxes of dolls” but just before, in “Tiny Dresses,” the speaker admits:

I saw the calendar ladies on the garage
wall not covered enough with pickle jars
of nails. Dad would give me long wood
shavings, curls as golden as Eva Gabor’s
hair. I guess I put two and two together.
This is what beautiful ladies are like.
This is what men like ladies to be like.”

The collection is divided into 4 sections: “The Child Is Still Kin,” “Tidal Volume,” “Keep Walking,” and “Though I am Tattered.” The first half delves more into the speaker’s memories of childhood and memories of her own children while the second half predominantly draws from nature and seasons in Vancouver to reflect on what lies ahead: life without her parents, her own aging body, mortality.

A recurring image throughout the book is that of a tree. In “World wall,” the speaker remarks:

A tree
seems able to stay rooted and yet rise.
How lovely it becomes, torso ridged

with strength. Crown full of mosaic light,
branches all airy elbows. All it receives
it wraps in rings around itself. Am I patient
enough to somebody be a tree? I want to try.

This wish, expressed in the last poem of the second section, surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all the glam and fascination with moving things in the first part of the book, the speaker aspires to be something that stands still, solid, rooted and steady. She’s moved from the 1970s into present-day Vancouver. “Imagine being planted long enough / that your roots grow up through the earth” she begins in “VanDusen Garden in October” and later muses, “I ache to be the maple / outside my father’s hospital room window. / Just standing there, she ministers healing / and need never worry about where to be / or what to do with her slender dark arms.” (“The day before my father died”)

When I read back through the poems, I noticed this tree image appears in the very first poem, too. Tucker describes her aging body holding a yoga position called “Child’s Pose” (the poem’s title) with her “small spine / a path from darkness to darkness” / arms twin tree roots cradled in earth.” The very last poem, “I’ll take the answer,” complements and contrasts this imagery with the speaker invoking the lullaby-prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” where in the darkness of night and even in unanswered prayer, the Fingerprint of a Creator burns, “making my body a light that cannot be hidden.”

The poems in Nostalgia for Moving Parts speak to a poet who’s in love with the created world and who describes it so poignantly and concisely. One of Tucker’s favourite methods to quickly set a scene or mood is a compound adjective, especially when it comes to colour: “rust-orange carpet,” “blue-black air,” “blue-boxed breath,” cartoon-red beefsteaks,” and by far, the winner for this reader: “”February skies hang rodent-grey.”

There is so much colour in these poems, so many news ways of looking at old things (for example, “slow ducks ink themselves in”), and so much courage from her aging, gaping heart she calls a “begging bowl” that is still open, ready, and waiting to be filled even when venturing from the known past to an unknown future.

‘Let Us Go Then’ Chapbook Announcement

Ever since arriving home from a Europe trip with my husband in 2017, I got the idea to write a poem for each place we visited. Four years later, these poems are going to be published in my debut chapbook titled ‘Let Us Go Then’ coming out this December with the Alfred Gustav Press as part of their Series 26, which includes three other people’s chapbooks. For those unfamiliar with the term, a chapbook is a very short publication or the literary equivalent of an EP.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

“Let Us Go Then invites you down European streets into scenes framed with art. Like parallel trains travelling through space and time, the poems map a trip alongside a marriage.”

If you’re interested in ordering, here’s the link with details. Note it’s a subscription-only press so orders must be placed by October 1. http://d-zieroth.squarespace.com/the-alfred-gustav-press

Signing the contract for my chapbook in 2020. A long-hoped for day.

I have loved writing and editing these poems and I can’t wait to have them out in the world, in friends’ and families’ (hopefully even strangers’) mailboxes before Christmas. Not every poem/place could fit within the scope of this chapbook (sorry Florence, Vernazza, and Munich), but the 10 poems that did make the cut give a good sense of the month-long journey that I feel incredibly privileged to have taken and grateful as to when I did it. Sights include Paris, Monet’s Garden (Giverny), Nice, Rome, Venice, Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria), and Amsterdam. Some poems were written on location (though morphed into very different poems through the editing process); others were written soon after arriving home; and the most recent were penned in 2020 after rereading my travel journal.

I did a lot of writing on the train. This is somewhere in France.

In anticipation of the book’s publication, here are some photos (taken by me) that capture scenes addressed in the poems either overtly or subtly. Think of these photos like easter eggs in a Taylor Swift song. Can you guess where they’re from?

Something Missing: The Whale Without Jonah

Whenever Douglas Coupland has art in Vancouver, I’m usually keen to check it out. The city has a few public artworks by him and Vancouver Art Gallery held the first major survey exhibit of his work in 2014 that I reviewed here.

I’ve read many of his books, spending the most time with Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) as that was one of the books I analyzed for my Master’s research paper. The book is set in suburban North Vancouver where Coupland grew up, and I looked at how place shapes characters and their interactions in contrast to characters in another Vancouver-based novel who grow up in a walkable, high-density neighbourhood. I recently learned Coupland is recreating the book through photos via The Rabbit Lane Project.

The Whale Without Jonah by Douglas Coupland at Dal Schindell Gallery, Regent College.

Coupland is a writer, artist, collector of objects, and cultural critic. His novels and artworks have an uncanny ability to speak to our times, ask the big questions, spark connections to unlikely things, and make you feel a little less alone. He’s an interdisciplinary thinker par excellence. As a result of his focus on contemporary culture, topics like humanity’s obsession with technology and our role in the environmental catastrophe frequently recur in his practice.

The latter is a prominent focus of his current exhibit at The Dal Schindell Gallery in Regent College, a theological graduate school in Vancouver that positions itself as a place where students come to ask the big questions (I know this because I used to work in their marketing department!)

Douglas Coupland, The Whales Without Jonah, 2021. This piece was toddler candy.

The focus of the exhibit The Whale Without Jonah is the title piece, an installation of found whales ranging from battery-operated plastic Fisher Price toys to wooden sculptures mounted on rods, all swimming the same direction. There are some plastic heads of action figures lying on the bottom, probably meant to represent the ocean floor, and a few “Jonahs” hanging out of select whales’s mouths, but for the most part, Jonah is conspicuously absent.

Coupland explains why:

I can’t help but wonder that with the Book of Jonah, the medium was the message, and the message was the whale itself. I have to believe that God’s message to Nineveh was ecological, because so rarely in religious texts is the natural world ever even addressed, meriting only casual statements along the lines that humans have dominion over nature, which seems merely to have given license to humans to do whatever they please wherever they please.

Detail of The Whales Without Jonah.

I had never thought of this interpretation before and I am still considering it. To me, the confounding story of Jonah reads like a satire and makes even less sense if it’s all about the whale and not the reluctant prophet on either side of the sea voyage, but I digress.

His other installations include racks of spice jars from the 1970s, Band-Aids from the artist’s AstraZeneca vaccines, a pile of his clothes “left behind” in the rapture, and vintage Christmas spray cans of snow he calls Global Warming.

Douglas Coupland, The Rapture, 2012-2021. The 1.5 tsp of nutmeg under a glass represents the approximate amount of DNA in the average human being.

While his arrangement of objects is somewhat interesting to look at, what is more interesting is reading the pamphlet about the works available at the Gallery entrance. In my review of his 2014 exhibit at the VAG, I said a similar thing—that after reading his statements, I realized, “Oh, there’s a lot more to this piece than meets the eye.”

After seven years of working in an art gallery myself and being that much older/bolder, now I would say I wish there was more that met my eye, more than kept me looking at Coupland’s art. My 21-month-old daughter was with me and her reaction to the artist’s Band-Aids mounted in a frame illustrates this point: she glanced, pointed, announced “Band-Aids” and then ran to the next piece in less than two seconds. In his lengthy write-up about the Band-Aids, though, Coupland talks about provocative slogans he would put on his Instagram feed to elicit reactions and how COVID revealed people’s worst behaviours. Okay, but what’s the connection to the actual Band-Aids hanging on the wall, other than that he believes in science and that the vaccines are a modern-day miracle? (with the latter phrase, I’m just assuming that based on the artwork’s title).

Douglas Coupland, Miracle, 2021.

Similarly, when I saw the wall of old spice racks, I looked closer to see if I was missing something, if he had changed out the labels or done something with them. No, they were spices exactly like you would see in your grandma’s kitchen. In his written statement though, he philosophizes about them:

Spices were from some place far away, and difficult to obtain and spoke of other worlds and other realms. I began to see the connection between spices and death—both the ancient Egyptians and the Vikings included spices in burial sites as offerings to celestial gatekeepers. They were rare and valued and it is only now, as I type these words, that I’m making the direct connection between my need to collect 1970s spices and my father’s death.

From left to right: Frankincense, 1972 McCormick’s spice bottles; King Tut’s Tomb, 1983 Crystal Foods spice bottles; Myrrh, various 1970s American spice tins.

Given that the atwork’s titles aren’t even beside the works (they’re printed in the pamphlet), there is nothing in the art itself to communicate these compelling connections to the viewer. If the medium is the message but the message isn’t getting through, perhaps the visual medium is not serving him well here.

At the risk of sounding the opposite of interdisciplinary, what I’m trying to say is that the exhibit shows Coupland as a collector and I’m more interested in what he can create as an artist.

I wonder if this point is related to my disappointment that I didn’t actually need to experience these works in person—the photographs on the website sufficed just as well. There should be a difference, right? Shouldn’t there be something additive about seeing a work in person?

I think the other reason the physical experience didn’t add value is because there wasn’t much, if any, craft to see in these works. That’s the nature of found art installations—you’re putting things together that already exist, but you’re not demonstrating a level of craft like painting or collage or weaving or photography.

I shared this critique with my husband who has an MA in Painting and studied Arts and Theology at Regent College. He says the issue he finds with a lot of conceptual artists is that they don’t take their ideas far enough and don’t seem to care about the actual material. Their message or idea is more important than the medium used to express it (which is interesting given that Coupland quotes Marshal McLuhan in the quote I pulled earlier from The Whales Without Jonah).

Douglas Coupland, Global Warming, 2019.

He gave an example: with the aerosol spray cans containing Freon that is known to damage the Earth’s ozone layer, Coupland could have taken those cans apart, hammered flat the labels stating their toxic chemical contents, cut and pasted it on top of the continents on an actual globe. That way his clever paradox of showing Global Warming with snow cans would still hold and be even stronger because he’s manipulating the material to make something new that matches medium with message, form with content.

Wanting to give credit to my husband where credit is due, I’ll share another idea he had. With the spice racks, Coupland could have dismantled the wood, used it to make a miniature tomb or coffin, and put the spices inside of it. Then your material is helping communicate the message about spices and their relationship to death.

Douglas Coupland, Umami, 2021, Various 1980s American spice bottles with wood rack.

Maybe that’s the missing piece I go to art galleries in person for: to see and marvel at how an artwork is made and to contemplate how the making contributes to the meaning. I wanted more how from Coupland in The Whale Without Jonah; I wanted art that held my attention before turning to the pamphlet to read about it instead.

What do you go to an art gallery for?

This exhibit is showing until September 5. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Trying to Love the World: Maggie Smith’s Good Bones

I, and others I know, have been searching for poetry collections about motherhood—not with clichés or Pollyanna sentiments, but with intelligent, fresh poems that speak to the nuances of what it means to mother.

Maggie Smith does this with Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017). She walks the thin line between darkness and light. Maybe you’ve read her titular poem that went viral in 2016 featured on Poetry Foundation.

She’s not afraid to name the darkness: darkness in the form of miscarriages; of an absent father; of a child’s picture book that reminds her of a friend’s suicide; of pedophiles luring children into panel vans, of a mother who jumps from a high-rise building with a baby strapped to her chest; of a world that is “at least fifty percent terrible.”

Lest she be overwhelmed by all this darkness, she reminds herself in “Let’s Not Begin” to make a list of “everything I love / about the world” for the sake of her daughter. “I’m trying to love the world,” she writes with an honesty that guts me. This collection reads as her aspiration to love the world.

Let’s begin
with bees, and the hum,
and the honey singing

on my tongue, and the child 
sleeping at last, and, and and—

If I had to put a theme to this book, I would say it’s about a mother trying to reconcile bringing children into a broken world. I wish I didn’t like these poems; I wish they didn’t ring true. I’ve written some poems that similarly ask: How much do I keep from my child? How much do I share with her? How much can any mother protect her child? As Smith says in “Rough Air:” “’Motherhood / never kept anyone safe.”

The book invites the question: Where does darkness come from? It seems that some people are more burdened by it—they have a greater sensitivity to suffering. Smith reveals to her daughter that she is one of these people in “At your age I wore a darkness:”

several sizes too big. It hung on me
like a mother’s dress. Even now,

as we speak, I am stitching
a darkness you’ll need to unravel,

unraveling another you’ll need
to restitch.

Do future generations inherit darkness? Later, in her poem “What I Carried,” she writes:

I carried my fear of the world
to my children, but they refused it.

These lines give me hope. Every mother I know worries about passing something awful down to her child—anxiety, depression, fear, anger, resentment, impatience, you name it. But children don’t necessarily accept our “gifts.” Thank God.

As much as darkness hovers like the hawk that flies over the girl in many of the poems, Smith’s attention to ordinary things—to language and colour— is an act of beauty in itself, of paying attention and naming what is, of being present.

She takes her daughter’s questions (what is the past? what is the future? how do leaves fall off the trees? does the sky stop?) and engages with them via poems. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on intimate, tender conversations between a mother and child. The daughter’s golden baby curls become bedding for the hawk’s nest; in another poem, the mother knows the curls “will darken” “like honey left too long in the jar.” (“Lullaby”)

This change of colour—from blonde to black—found throughout the book charts the movement from innocence to experience, wilderness to city, childhood to adulthood. I can’t help but think of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The girl and her mom live on a mountain (the man is away for long periods of time) and the hawk’s presence is akin to that of a pet on a leash: “They are tethered, an invisible / string between them.” (“The Hawk”) And yet of course a hawk is nothing like a dog. 

In one of the last poems, “Mountain Child”, Smith writes:

When the girl leaves the mountain
she is no longer a child

but she has not outgrown the hawk.
She wears its shadow on her shoulder,

an epaulet. It bears the weight
of allegory.

What began as a mother’s journey becomes threaded with her daughter’s journey towards knowing and loving the world. If the hawk represents the wild, untamed, and dark side of life, it doesn’t go away with age. Perhaps it’s a weight you get used to, or at least counteract. It doesn’t have to be an albatross. 

Smith concludes her collection with a poem that poignantly gathers all these ideas. I find it incredibly fitting that it’s called “Rain, New Year’s Eve” because it reads like a resolution, something hopeful to carry into a new year.