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.

In Anticipation of Camping

from All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews:

We spent the whole time, it seemed, setting everything up and then tearing it all down. My sister, Elfrieda, said it wasn’t really life—it was like being in a mental hospital where everyone walked around with the sole purpose of surviving and conserving energy, it was like being in a refugee camp, it was a halfway house for recovering neurotics, it was this and that, she didn’t like camping—and our mother said well, honey, it’s meant to alter our perception of things. Paris would do that too, said Elf, or LSD, and our mother said c’mon, the point is we’re all together, let’s cook our weiners.

AMPS

Carried Along Kim Thúy’s Ru

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t posted as much in the last while. I’m not exactly sure what’s all been keeping me from blogging, but this has been one of them:

ru.jpg

Ru is the début novel of Saigon-born, Montreal-based writer Kim Thúy. It isn’t a very long book (145 pages) and not even all the pages are full of text (the chapters are more like vignettes that read like prose poems). Normally I’d read something like this in about a week, but it took me oh at least 3 times that long because I wanted to read it in the original French. (some French words are éparpillé [scattered] throughout this post so I can try retaining them!).

Ru reads like a memoir, recounting Thúy’s refugee journey at ten years of age, along with her family, from their palatial residence in Vietnam to Canada in 1979. She was a child of war, born during the Tet Offensive. (I didn’t know anything about the Vietnam War before reading this, so I also got a history and cultural lesson all in one). Before arriving in Canada, her family spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Mixed in this narrative that switches between past and present, memory and history, are vignettes of Thúy returning to her homeland as an adult to work with people from the communist north and capitalist south.

I know I didn’t catch every nuance, but even with my intermediate French, I can say this book is beautiful. In this CBC video interview, Thúy talks about loving words—how her first motivation for the book was to spend time with words. That certainly comes through. I’ve always loved the French language and this book only deepened that affection, which is why I’m going to concentrate primarily on her language in this “review.”

kim thuy

What works so well (and why I could read the book) is because the sentences aren’t complicated or grandiose (though some are long and undulating). She’s not trying hard to be lyrical or emotional. The narrator, in fact, almost has a détachement [detachment] when she describes certain memories, even harrowing ones like a little boy’s death and a mother’s loss. But she’s not aloof with an “I’m too cool to care” attitude. Her prose is simply unadorned, stripped of embellishments and red herrings so the work is on the reader to sort out how we feel. Dépouiller [to strip, skin, undress] is a verb that appears in her story a lot, and it’s a good word to describe her prose. It also fits her journey—stripped of her home, her possessions, her culture, her language that became inutile [useless] once she landed in Granby, Quebec. In fact, Thúy talks about how as a child, she spoke very little, sometimes not all. Her cousin spoke for her, and she was her ombre [shadow].

This witty Vietnamese saying sums up her unadorned life and choice to not own too much stuff:

Seuls ceux qui ont des cheveux longs ont peur, car personne ne peut tirer les cheveux de celui qui n’en a pas.

Only those with long hair are afraid, because no one can pull the hair of those who don’t have any.

Thúy gives tribute to her hybrid identity (Vietnamese and Québecoise) in the epigraph of the novel where she defines what “ru” means:

En français, ru signifie <<petit ruisseau>> et, au figuré, <<écoulement (de larmes, de sang, d’argent)>>. En vietnamien, ru signifie <<berceuse>>, <<bercer>>.

In French, “rue” means a small stream, and figuratively, a flow (of tears, of blood, or money). In Vietnamese, “ru” means lullaby, to lull.

The book reads as one long “ru” or flow of words. You get a sense of this intention when you read her comments in this Globe and Mail article:

“I didn’t choose to write it or not to write it, or to structure it in any specific way,” she says. “I just wrote, and I followed its internal rhythm. For me it’s one breath.”

(Side note to aspiring writers: what a breath of fresh air to see a book can win awards like the Governor General’s without having a structure!) The book’s description on the Random House website of the English translation plays more on the metaphoric meaning of ru: “the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters.”

ru-cover

One thing I found myself paying attention to while reading is how many French verbs are taken from their nouns. For example, broom is un balai and to sweep is balayer. Piano is the same in French but the verb to tinkle on the ivories? Pianoter. How sensible is that? My new favourite French verb is papilloner, taken from the noun papillon, which is a butterfly. So what does papilloner mean? To flit from one thing to another. And that also describes how Thúy flits from memory to memory. The book is really one long game of word association where an image like an anchor or red leather will close out one vignette and open the next, even if only loosely.

Here’s an example of her beautiful language. She’s describing her Vietnamese neighbour in Quebec who survived, through writing, the horror of the reeducation camps operated by the Communist government after the Vietnam War:

Sans l’écriture, il n’aurait pas entendu aujourd’hui la neige fondre, les feuilles pousser et les nuages se promener. Il n’aurait pas non plus vu le cul-de-sac d’une pensée, la dépouille d’une étoile ou la texture d’une virgule.

Without writing, he wouldn’t have heard today the snow melt, the leaves grow, and the clouds go for a walk. He wouldn’t have seen the cul de sac of a thought, the remains of a star, or the texture of a comma.

There are so many evocative lines and reflective anecdotes that I want to gather from this book and share with you (but that might take me another 3 weeks!) Apparently the English translation by Sheila Fischman does it very good justice too.

And how winsome is she when she talks? Soft and rhythmic, comme une berceuse.