About Charlene Kwiatkowski

A lover of cities, I write about urban spaces as visual and literary texts

‘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. 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.

The Art of Losing Part 3

Rebecca Solnit makes getting lost something to aspire to. In her collection of autobiographical essays proving there is no subject out of her reach, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she maps out various ways to be lost. Lost in place, time, music, conversation, identity, family, society, and so on. She frames getting lost as invitation to discover new things, not least about yourself.

She explains her terms early on:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in an onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 

p.22-23

Solnit’s imagery of the rear-facing view on the train immediately grabbed me. (Given current COVID times, I also could not help but add “masks” to the list of quotidian things I would see stream past my window).

But her description also horrified me. She moved from household objects to people in the same breath. You don’t lose a friend in the same way you lose a key or a bracelet. And what about the loss of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, spouses? Perhaps reading this book in a pandemic has heightened my sensitivity to these human losses that are far from romantic. Would people who have said goodbye to a loved one, or multiple loved ones, describe themselves as “rich in loss?”

Given her topic and her mention of “keys”, I thought Solnit would reference Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Art” that also talks about loss. In fact, I frequently title this poem “The Art of Losing” in my head since this line is repeated so often in the villanelle. (I’ve actually written on this poem before in Part 1 and Part 2). Bishop similarly moves from talking about insignificant objects like keys to weightier losses like places and houses until she reaches the subject of her poem, the loss of a loved one. It’s like she’s working herself up to be able to talk about the latter, as if by practicing losing keys or “the hour badly spent” will prepare you for losing someone you love. And though she keeps repeating that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” it becomes apparent through the poem that losing IS hard to master. The villanelle form requires Bishop to repeat that line but the reader gets the sense the speaker is only trying to convince herself. In the last stanza, she falters and concedes that “the art of losing isn’t too hard to master” (emphasis mine). In other words, yes, it is hard.

Whereas Solnit’s description of loss is rather flippant and viewed through rose-coloured glasses, Bishop’s poem doesn’t sentimentalize loss. Considering how erudite Solnit is and how eclectic her references, I thought it a real miss that she didn’t mention Bishop.

I came across this reading of “One Art” by Canadian high school student Sophia Wilcott and had to share it here. She captures the struggle of the poem so well.

That critique aside, there were countless passages in A Field Guide to Getting Lost that I flagged for copying into my journal. Take this section, for example:

Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practise as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis. 

p.80

Even though she puts people into two generic categories, is it not fairly accurate? (It reminded me of my niece when she was young who would go around saying: “There are two kinds of people in the world” followed by whatever she observed that day: “those who close the door and those who open the door” or “those who talk and those who don’t” and she would come up with all sorts of contrasts that were actually very illuminating). Even though it’s obvious that Solnit puts herself in the travel-far-from-home-to-find-yourself camp, I feel she is kind and even a bit in awe of those who grow up with an “unquestioned sense of self.” There is something to admire about both paths as long as they don’t lead to self-righteousness and closed-mindedness.

Those are just a few thoughts I wanted to pull out from this meandering but delightful book. (When you’ve flagged so many passages in a library book, it feels necessary to just buy it). Here’s an actual review of the book by Josh Lacey in The Guardian for those of you whose appetite may be whet and want to know a bit more about it.

Love in the Rain

On our first night in Paris, my husband and I took an open-top boat ride along the Seine. It wasn’t long before the sky dumped sheets of rain on us and the wind gusted so strongly it flipped our MEC umbrella inside out, rendering it useless the rest of the trip. We were soggy, jet-lagged Shreddies arriving home to our Airbnb. Welcome to Paris.

Before the rain…(I don’t have an “after” photo).

One of the many bridges we cruised under was Le Pont des Arts, more commonly known as the “love lock bridge.” Many cities have their version of a love lock bridge, but Paris is perhaps the most famous. With close to a million locks hanging from the grilles, the City of Paris decided to remove them in 2015 after part of the railing collapsed under the weight (about 45 tonnes). They replaced the grilles with transparent panels.

Above you can see the transparent panels, but you can also see people’s determinism to continue the love lock tradition, which started in Paris around 2008. (This photo was taken in 2017.) Although you would think Paris would be the origin of this tradition given its moniker as the City of Love, it actually began at Most Ljubavi (“Bridge of Love”) in Serbia during WWI. You can read the story here, which is actually more tragic than romantic. Now locals and tourists alike attach padlocks to bridges around the world and throw the key into the water—a contemporary urban ritual for couples to declare their love and its permanence.

(FYI, it is illegal to put a lock on a bridge in Paris, though how strictly this is enforced is debatable given the picture I took above. For the record, we did not add one.)

A year after the grilles on Le Pont des Arts came down, a love lock sculpture in Vancouver went up. Couples had been affixing padlocks to Burrard Street Bridge, and for the same structural reasons as the City of Paris gave, the City of Vancouver also said no, this can’t go on. They did; however, provide an alternative: a public art sculpture that could hold the weight of thousands of padlocks.

You can see Love In the Rain (2016) by Bruce Voyce if you visit Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver at 125 metres above sea level. The public chose this location from a number of recommended sites and it seems symbolic of love at its peak. (I’m sure this has been the setting of countless proposals—the first lock attached began with one).

Best view of Vancouver from Queen Elizabeth Park
Incidentally, my parents took their wedding photos in this park.

Four sets of couples embrace under umbrellas—their stainless steel frames the hooks on which the locks hang. A receptacle is located on site for people to throw their keys into (very Vancouver), with the purpose that the metal will either be recycled or melted down to use as part of another public artwork.

The human forms are meant to be ageless and genderless. The work “celebrates the shelter that love brings and the union that it forms,” according to a Park Board press release. On the artist’s website, Voyce writes that his sculpture “embodies love in the temperate rainforest.”

The umbrellas make the piece, in my opinion. Not only do they add height and visual interest, but they contextualize the artwork, answering the question, why this public artwork here? If Paris is the City of Love, Vancouver is the City of Rain.

I cannot help but think of a line in my own wedding vows: “to shower love and forgiveness like Vancouver rain.”

Now I am wondering for how many other couples is love linked to rain, fitting together like lock and key?

Do you have a “love in the rain” story?

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.