Chasing the Clock & Stepping Back in Time

For this post, I thought it’d be interesting to contrast two places/experiences in the city I had recently. First is the artwork at the Canada Line terminus station downtown Vancouver. This is the same space I previously wrote about here where each panel had a list of first lines from songs that all begin with “Here comes…”

The art at this location tends to be time-related, which the current exhibit makes obvious.

IMG_0956IMG_0950IMG_0951IMG_0953I like the bright colours of the vortex clocks, but I don’t find this work as engaging or intriguing as “Here Comes.” Yes, we’re busy and frantic. Yes, we wish we had more time. Does this artwork invite us to stop in a busy area and breathe a little easier? Reflect on something hopeful? Or does it just reinforce the fact that we’re late, need to hurry, walk faster? The sameness of the panels, minus the colours, highlights the relentless regularity of our lives. The tone of the write-up takes a similar doom & gloom stance with descriptions that give all agency to the clock, in which humans are “trapped in its vice forever.” Is its triumph really inevitable? Are we slaves to time? What about all the times we stop people, look at the little girl eating an ice cream cone, listen to a busker belt out melodies; share a conversation with somebody in the grocery line-up?

IMG_0947From chasing the clock, we go to stepping back in time. I was on Broadway Street this morning, meeting friends for coffee & lunch and exploring some shops in that area. My friend suggested we go into a store called Stepback (neither of us had been before) and we were there for almost an hour, oohing and ahhing at its many vintage treasures.

Unfortunately their website doesn’t have any pictures, but you can get a sense of the kind of items they have from this short write-up that VanMag did with the owner two years ago, as well as this blog that has some awesome pictures.

I was especially thrilled as the wedding theme I’m going for is vintage, so I was surrounded by inspiration! The window display was decorated with dozens of old hardcover red books (homage to Valentine’s Day) and pewter dishes. The store contains a stack of suitcases from the 1940s, typewriters, Scrabble letters, eye exam & bicycle posters, plenty of hardcover classics & dictionaries, wooden block letters, old postcards, stamps, matches, wooden chairs, and more. This store may even rival my love for Urban Source!

I will be stepping back there again, taking all the time in the world.

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Here Comes the Revolution

As you’re making your way from Waterfront Station on Cordova Street to the underground platform for the Canada Line, a wall of poems meets your eyes. Like a list of flights at an airport, or arrival times of the SkyTrain line, these lists of ordinary and extraordinary things are paired with specific times in no apparent order. 6 minutes and 43 seconds until desire. 3 minutes and 4 seconds until the sun. 7 minutes and 48 seconds until the revolution. Alex will show up in 3 minutes and 22 seconds; Larry’s a little faster at 2:06. Is he the special boy in the line above?

There are so many arrangements and re-arrangements to be made from these simple, profound lines. They stop me every time. They make me think twice about the transit I am about to hop onto. Am I really waiting for the train or am I waiting for something else? What am I counting down? And is there panic or is there excitement? Do I want goodbye or do I want to squeeze out the night?

When I stopped to take photos, it was late evening. There were still enough people walking by that it was difficult to get the empty shot below. Since the font on the plaques is a very faint white, they’re difficult to read unless you stop. No one was looking at them until I got out my camera and started taking pictures. And then it seemed everyone walking by was looking. Was noticing.

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I remember walking downtown on Canada Day. My friend and I passed The Province building, looked up at it, and, at the same time, backed away in panic. The angle we were looking from made us convinced it was going to fall, like Chicken Little and the Sky. I’ve never been that tripped out by a building before. It was the weirdest optical illusion and we kept looking, wondering how can this be? I’m sure we looked strange with our necks cranked upward but then we started seeing other people walking by with their necks cranked up too. My friend and I looked at each other and smiled: we had started something.

(Here comes the revolution)

I recently did an interview with a contemporary painter who said art is about teaching people to see. To really see. To stand under or stand in front of something and let the work move you. After the SkyTrain and Province skyscraper experience, I’ve come to think maybe it’s not just artists who can teach people to see. Maybe there’s space for in-between people to draw a line of attention that connects eyes of see-ers to things waiting to be seen. By simply looking at something a little out of the ordinary and a little magical—and stopping for it, maybe regular people like you and me are more noticed than we think. Maybe we can direct eyes; teach people to see.

See differently, see past, see better, see through, see ourselves, see anew.

Going Underground

This was an exciting week, getting to see this piece I began a year ago find its home on the pages of Maisonneuve magazine.

The teaser for it:

As she rides the SkyTrain, Charlene [ . . .] longs for the sounds of the Underground.

To go with this text, here are some images of the Underground I took in the London Transport Museum a few years ago:

The London Transport Museum is located in Covent Garden and is actually a pretty cool museum. It takes you through the history of London’s transport system, from horse and buggy to steam cars and the present-day tube and double-decker buses, with life-sized models of all the various machines.

My Literature and Place class took a field trip here because understanding the history and importance of the tube to London was essential for some of the stories we read, such as Charles Higson’s “The Red Line.” I recommend it if you’re in the mood for a sad read where so many bad things could have been avoided if people thought differently. The way the Underground was marketed highly played into an essay I wrote about it, hence the many photos I took of the ad posters.

Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map makes for some creative interpretations. On the left is a version made from ‘tubes’ of paint. Clever, eh? There’s also a Lego and flower version featured on this blog. The possibilities are endless. I’d put up this map in my apartment.

And because I reviewed The Great Gatsby a few weeks ago and liked it, I’ll leave you with a Gatsby-inspired tube station makeover, courtesy of @LovelysVintage:

If only all tube stations looked this good all of the time!

What are you looking at, wishing there was something else to look at?

A week of work has already come and gone for 2012. That means many of you are back taking transit in whatever form that might be: the subway/metro, bus, streetcar, train, etc. I was riding the SkyTrain from Surrey to Vancouver over the holidays and noticed the ads inside. Directly in my line of vision was a poster for the show New Girl, which, due to the unfortunate absence of other reading materials with me and nothing else to stare at, I repeatedly read and memorized the tagline of this show through no willful intention of my own: Boys will be boys. Jess will be Jess.

As much as I like Zooey Deschanel (who doesn’t?) and her show, I got thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to read something else when you’re in transit and have some time to kill? Something a bit more inspiring and thought-provoking?

In the 1980s, a group of Londoners were thinking the same thing. A few of them got together and mused, “How pleasant it would be, we thought, to read a few lines by one’s favourite poet on the Tube, instead of advertisements for mints or temps.” And so Poems on the Underground was launched on January 29, 1986. The first poems were installed on the Tube ride from Aldwych station.

Reading these poems collected in the above anthology, I imagined myself a Tube rider encountering them underground, in motion, instead of in a book. Is there something special about reading poetry on this unconventional medium and in the company of others similarly in transit?

London's Tube map

I think so. In comparison to novel-length prose, poetry is short. It offers a quick read while often making a long impression. In this sense, it’s an ideal text for people on-the-go, for commuters, for travellers, and for urban dwellers. And it confirms the idea that poetry should not be confined to books, but that it should also be integrated in daily life because poetry speaks to daily life.

Think of how appropriate this sonnet is for the early-morning commuter who feels that he or she is up before the city even wakes, and the solidarity he or she feels with other travellers sharing this experience:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

(“Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” by William Wordsworth)

It’s hard to deny the suitability of the following Imagist poem for underground riders aptly entitled “In a Station of the Metro,” written by Ezra Pound in 1912:

The apparition of faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

While some of the poems featured on London’s Underground are lengthy and profound, some are very short, humorous, and witty (and often equally profound), making them easy to digest and remember, especially if you’re not staying on the Tube for too long.

I wanna be the leader

I wanna be the leader

Can I be the leader?

Can I? I can?

Promise? Promise?

Yipee, I’m the leader

I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

(“The Leader” by Roger McGough)

and this one:

When I am sad and weary

When I think all hope has gone

When I walk along High Holborn

I think of you with nothing on

(“Celia Celia” by Adrian Mitchell)

The tagline of my blog reads “not the kind of texting that comes to mind” to differentiate the kind of architectural and literary texts I discuss in distinction from text messaging, but, in many ways, this underground poetry functions like brief text messages, packing a punch in relatively few lines and few minutes. If one of the poems strikes your curiosity, you might make a mental note to remember the author and look it up later, or even stay on the Tube longer to finish it — and dare to miss your stop!

Vancouver SkyTrain

The editors of the anthology say that through this literary experiment on London’s Tube, they discovered that England is a nation of poetry-lovers. I’m sure England – and Londoners – aren’t the only ones who would enjoy this welcome change from ads on buses, subways, and (Sky)trains. What about Vancouverites? Could we embrace poetry – not underground in our case – but in the sky?

What about other cities? For those readers living elsewhere, do you have more interesting texts to stare at on your commute, or are you similarly looking at ads you wish you weren’t?