A Brick Lover’s Toronto

I recently travelled for the first time since Covid—a solo trip to Toronto to celebrate my first year of motherhood (in a pandemic no less). It’s been two of both now but Covid got in the way of going earlier.

As someone who attended university in Ottawa, I had been to Toronto a few times on weekend trips and it was fun but not particularly inspiring. The destination of this trip actually wasn’t that important to me. What was more important was having a much-needed getaway (I am inclined to urban spaces) and seeing and staying with an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years.

Brick houses in Cabbagetown.

But the destination surprised me. It was so much older and beautiful than I remembered. I found myself enchanted with all the brick houses, taking picture after picture because they were all so beautiful and different and teeming with character. Coming from the West Coast where our building materials are wood and glass (Douglas Coupland nicknamed Vancouver the “City of Glass,” and it was only incorporated in 1886), there was something comforting about the solidity and permanency of brick. I wish I could call one of these houses mine.

Such love in the details here. And that red door! Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
The symmetrical, two-pronged staircase leading to the blue door is perfection. Also in Cabbagetown.
Yet another lovely duplex in Cabbagetown.
View from my friend’s condo in the Annex. It was not uncommon to see turrets. Turrets, folks!
Of course there were also turrets on Casa Loma.

Housing was on my mind as my husband and I had just learned that our landlord was about to sell the beloved house that we rent the top floor of in Vancouver. We’ve been there for three years and were hoping to have been there a lot more. Now we’ll have two months from date of sale to find a new home.

Looking back through my photos of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I noticed how many were paintings of houses and rooftops. Definitely a theme here.

A wall of Lawren S. Harris paintings in the Thomas Collection. Left: Houses, Richmond Street, 1911, oil on canvas. Top middle: Street Scene with Figures, Hamilton, 1919, oil on wood-pulp board. Bottom middle: In the Ward, Toronto, 1917, oil on wood-pulp board.
Maximilien Luce, Gisons, The Cathedral, 1897, oil on paper mounted to canvas.

These two women beside each other in the AGO also caught my eye: Saint Anne with the Christ Child (c.1645-1650) by Georges de la Tour on the left and Melancholy (c.1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen on the right, which purportedly depicts Mary Magdalene. They look like they could have been painted by the same artist. The works share so many similarities: dramatic late-night scenes illuminated by a single candle, two women with downcast eyes thinking and feeling deeply. They face each other, as if they are made to converse about life and death. I wrote a poem about the two women the next day at First & Last Coffee. The weather was delightfully warm enough in early May that I could enjoy their wonderful patio space.

One of my hopes for the trip was to have some quiet time wandering, reflecting, and writing. I headed to Toronto’s Necropolis, because just like Vancouver’s cemetery has inspired many a poem, I thought this picturesque Toronto cemetery could too.

Entrance to the Necropolis, featuring a Victorian Gothic chapel.
The most recognizable monument in the Necropolis. Jack Layton’s wife Olivia Chow created this bronze bust.

The Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, established in 1850. It sits to the west of the Don Valley Parkway, which is shown in this painting below by William Kurelek that my friend and I saw the day before at the AGO. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the hidden crucifix near the edge of the trees. We gave up and googled it instead.

William Kurelek, Don Valley on a Grey Day, 1972, mixed media on hardboard.

I also took a pilgrimage to Knife Fork Book, a poetry dispensary located in Capital Espresso on Queen Street and picked up some reading material for later.

Street art of…houses, what else?

As someone drawn to architecture and its endless forms, I found Toronto inspiring after all.

O Toronto!
Nathan Phillips Square with the Romanesque-style Old City Hall in the background.
Spadina Museum (a Victorian mansion) near Casa Loma.
One of many old stone buildings on U of T’s campus.
St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Old meets new in the Daniels Building for U of T’s architecture, landscape, and design program.

When I posted some of my pictures on Facebook, a friend commented, “Who knew Toronto could be so beautiful?” Indeed, who knew?

Historic home of Daniel Lamb, business man, City Father, a founder of Toronto’s first zoo, 1842-1920.

And for those curious, I do have a poem in the works that combines my love of Victorian houses with my interest in cemeteries and my surprise appearance in Jack Layton’s Ottawa rental before he was Leader of the Opposition. Strange what memories and alignments a trip might spark and a poem might allow.

Take this Waltz

She wanted to make a movie about desire. So Sarah Polley made Take this Waltz where desire is everywhere, even in the light-infused cracks of a sultry Toronto street in summertime. She said she knows she has a romanticized view of the city, and I think any person watching the film can see that. She made it look desirable. Tantalizing.

Margot (Michelle Williams) is an aimless woman married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a loving husband who cooks chicken all day in his effort to compile a chicken-only cookbook. Margot meets Daniel, her dark-haired, handsome artist neighbour who drives a rickshaw.

As the object of Margot’s desire, Daniel’s character is fairly two-dimensional. We know him the least. And I suppose this is to be expected when someone is made to represent something. (His biggest, most personal action was moving away). It’s a brave task to make a film about that which eludes, but Polley played out well the complexities of this difficult thing called desire. How anything you desire, you kill once obtained. It never lives up to your expectation. You like it better when you didn’t have it.

And so you, the viewer, can see clearly the path Margot is choosing the more she hangs out with Daniel. Polley holds off the sexual tension between them for so long that you know it’s going to come big when it eventually comes, but the sex scene(s) to the titular song by Leonard Cohen felt the most anti-climactic of the entire movie. Maybe because you know what’s going to come next and you wished Margot had enough foresight to see this too. But as Polley says, this movie is about flawed people. She even calls it a celebration of flawed people.

Interestingly, as soon as Margot runs away (literally) from her husband, the plot lags. I thought the film was over. The latter parts with Daniel weren’t nearly as interesting or coherent as the “boring domestic scenes” with Lou. In the “Making Of” feature of the DVD, Rogen comments on how different it was for him to play a character who was in a committed relationship. He mentions how it was fun to pretend to be married and play those everyday scenes like making breakfast in the kitchen, spraying your wife with the sprinkler, joking around, brushing your teeth while she sits on the toilet.

Polley said she wanted people to be uncertain what decision Margot should make. Yet I think she makes it pretty clear, early on, that Margot will choose Daniel and that it will be a mistake. Her sister-in-law Geraldine (played by Sarah Silverman) is a recovering alcoholic and the wisest, most honest and likeable character in the movie. We get a lot of these clues through her looks and the comments she tells Margot. Women figure out other women pretty quickly, and we know she knows exactly what Margot is up to. She subtly hints/warns Margot in the after-aqua fit shower scene: “New things get old,” but she doesn’t criticize Margot directly until Margot leaves Lou.

In the best line of the movie, she tells Margot, “Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”

This might be one of my favourite movie lines, period. Maybe Margot’s not completely happy with Lou but she’s less happy when she’s finally with Daniel. The regret is all over her face when her and Lou talk again at the end, in what is their last conversation.

She comments on the success of his chicken cookbook and he shares in her surprise: “Yeah, who knew so many people would like chicken.” She adds, “And in so many different ways.” It’s probably true that she didn’t appreciate all the ways to know and love Lou until she left him, but the movie implies that that is a lesson taken on faith without having to experiment with the greener grass. As Lou tells her when she hints at them getting back together, “Some things you do in life, they stick.”

The annoying and yet completely human thing about Margot is that she doesn’t know what’s the matter and she doesn’t know what she wants, and maybe the two are one and the same. Even Daniel asks shortly after meeting her, “What’s wrong with you? You seem restless, but in a permanent kind of way.” If her unhappiness and restlessness is permanent, this was another clue that it doesn’t matter who she’s with. Her gap isn’t something someone can fix. It’s about her learning to live in the gap.

You know you’ve watched a good movie when it reminds you of other art on the same topic, when it participates and adds something to the conversation. Two poems come to mind.

The first one takes us back to 14th century Italy. Petrarch is a goldmine on the deadly nature of desire. This figure of early humanism obsessed over Laura, a married woman he saw briefly in a church and whose image inspired a life-long passion/agony he channeled into verse.

No. 141 from Il Canzoniere

As sometimes when the sun shines bright

a foolish butterfly, seeking the light

in its desire, flies into someone’s eyes

and kills itself and makes the other cry:

I, too, am always racing toward the fatal

light of her eyes that show me so much sweetness

it makes Love careless with the veins of reason,

and who discerns is vanquished by desire.

And I can see how much her eyes disdain me,

and I am certain I will die from it–

my strength cannot hold out against such pain;

but so mellifluously Love dazzles me

that I mourn for her wrong, not my own pain,

and my soul, blind, consents to its own death.

The second is a modern poem written precisely for women like Margot.

The Feast by Robert Fass

The lovers loitered on the deck talking,

the men who were with men and the men who were with new women,

a little shrill and electric, and the wifely women

who had repose and beautifully lined faces

and coppery skin. She had taken the turkey from the oven

and her friends were talking on the deck

in the steady sunshine. She imagined them

drifting toward the food, in small groups, finishing

sentences, lifting a pickle or a sliver of turkey,

nibbling a little with unconscious pleasure. And

she imagined setting it out artfully, the white meat,

the breads, the antipasto, the mushrooms and salad

arranged down the oak counter cleanly, and how they all came as in a dance when she called them. She carved meat

and then she was crying. Then she was in darkness

crying. She didn’t know what she wanted.