Saturday, January 23, 2016

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 Photo taken at Guildwood Park, Toronto
Filtered with Photoshop App

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Poem by Trevor Cunnington

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Life's Debris


love, a catafalque
decorated with celtic knotwork
bearing a loved one, soon to rest
under epitaph blankets

love, a flying buttress supporting
the ceiling of our aspirations, sistine
cages that entrap soul-vapours that
should disappear up the chimney's
conglomerate, the gates of sinuses
flush with that histamine rush

love, a dorian pillar embellished
by gargoyles, guardian angels
long since deserted, absent, on
a pilgrimmage to pleni-potential.

love, an arched proscenium, a window
between observer and observed
occluded by thick clouds, delicate
light grey billows weighing on
lungs during a scene change

love, the doorway you huddle in
during an earthquake, plaster hail
raining all around, plunging a trail
through floating, churning dust

love, that bitter metal taste
of carbonic acid after drinking
a vanilla coke.
 
love, the unending war
against dust.

love, that idol of idols,
that fire inside,
that phoenix
singing songs
that resound
through the ages,

ever anew.

______________________________________

Glossary

catafalque - a raised platform on which a dead body is placed
pleni-potential - a play on "plenipotentiary," a person with the authority to act on behalf of another
histamine - a chemical released by cells damaged or inflamed by allergies
conglomerate - a pebble and rock composite held together with cement

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Review of Frank Davey's Biography of bpNichol (2012), by Trevor Cunnington

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This biography, that connects the poet's life with his work, is a welcome addition to the corpus building around Nichol. It explores the relationship between Barrie Nichol - the living breathing human being, as excavated from conversations with friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances; from letters; and from archives – and bpNichol, the authorial persona created by Nichol to pull himself out of the dreamworld he inhabited, according to Davey.

It forwards the theory that Barrie's psycho-therapeutic work is a crucial tributary of his poetic work. While I am not qualified to evaluate this theory (I'm not versed enough in Nichol's poetry, having read only Zygal and some excerpts of the Toronto Research Group, bp's theoretical, albeit playful collaboration with Steve McCaffrey in a course I took with Christian Bรถk at the University of Guelph in 2002), I would still like to offer some reactions and thoughts.

My initial reaction to the book was “I think this is the first biography that has made me less interested in the person it's about than I was before I picked the book up.” However, I persevered, and I'm glad I did. Davey is an engaging writer, although his thoughts are sometimes muddled. For example, take this passage:

He [bp] told Bowering he was creating the whole narrative out of a series of images that would constitute a two-week period in the life of a family, a period in which, as one would expect, nothing is resolved. The reader enters and leaves the narrative in the middle, and 'hopefully' will experience a resolution through the leaving of it. The images will be all that the reader knows about it. That's why he's calling the novel 'idiomatic,' he told Bowering, because it's the normal 'family' story. The explanation, however, seemed to say as much about Barrie's understanding of family, or about what is usual in a family, as about the novel” (238).

Um, what? Seriously, what just happened here? Some of the clarity problem in this particular instance may have been inherited from Nichol himself, as he's the one being paraphrased, but if you're writing a biography, you better have enough of a grip on your subject to clarify some of the subject's more incoherent thoughts. Nothing is resolved, but the reader will hopefully experience a resolution? Is he talking about relating to the aimless structure of life portrayed by the in media res technique as itself some kind of resolution? Furthermore, idiomatic is a word used in linguistics to refer to expressions in language that are “more than the sum of their parts,” so to speak. Translating each of the parts of the expression literally will not produce the intended meaning of the expression. How does this relate to “normal family experience?” Idioms, I guess, are common expressions. So if you consider “normal” and “common” synonyms, this metaphor works. Ok, so with some very close reading, I could figure out that much. But what Davey means by the next sentence (beginning “The explanation, however. . . “) needs more elaboration as the logic is unclear.

Furthermore, Davey makes a big deal out of Nichol's intent from the 1960s onward to subvert the arrogance of many poets' preoccupation with precious (with that word's pejorative connotations culled from writing workshops) wisdom as the occasion for the writing of poetry. To express such wisdom, as an author with the mastery of experience, Nichol objected to stridently, apparently. However, in the sections detailing Nichol's work at Therafields, the experimental therapeutic community for which he served as vice-president, and Nichol's discussions of this work, he adopted the founder's discourse of mastery. Lea Hindley-Smith, the founder, “had been moved by Bergler's book to 'change her own destiny rather than blame others'” (82).This contradiction between his lived experience as a therapist, proclaiming mastery of experience and himself in a privileged position to help his clients do the same, and his avowed poetic intent to eschew such arrogant language, is a thorn in the side of Davey's poetry-therapy theory.

Furthermore, some of his poetry contains some of these golden nuggets he finds so repugnant and arrogant. Take, for example, these lines quoted by Davey, from “Book V” of The Martyrology Book 6 Books:


moving reservoirs of cells & genes

stretches out over the surface of the earth

more miles than any ancestor ever dreamed

. . .

tribal, restless, constant only in the moving on,

over the continents

thru what we call our history

tho it is more mystery than fact,

more verb than noun,

more image, finally, than story.


These lines are redolent of the “preconceived notion of wisdom” bp (and others such as Charles Olsen) rebelled against in poetry. While it is true that people certainly change their views as their experience changes them, it is Davey's job to elucidate this development in Nichol's poetry. Instead, Davey returns to this youthful rebellion several times, making it a central point or major departure for his poetic work. For a dedicated avant- gardist, the first stanza of this quote in particular has a harmonious sense of meter and rhyme (if partial, or slant). Most of it is insightful and “wise” as well. . . until the last line quoted. I find the frozen associations of the word “image” do an injustice to his previous line about history being more verb than noun. A photograph, after all, is an image extracted out of the flow of time. I suppose you could argue that this line is a subversion of the “preconceived wisdom” of the poem, but I think it weakens its internal coherence. I also think he missed an opportunity for a playful self-reflection of the line “tho it is more mystery than fact” as itself a fact, considering the always incomplete nature of archives. And by extension, this line and its implications allude to the challenge of writing a faithful biography, which by and large Davey has done.

Criticism aside, I found this book fascinating because of the connection it explores between Nichol's deep involvement with psychotherapy and his poetry. It was also edifying to learn about Nichol's peripatetic childhood, his hermetic “dreamworld,” and his relationships with other Canadian literary figures. I was familiar with his relationship with Steve McCaffrey, but his relations with other poets and writers such as Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, and bill bisset came as a surprise and a delight to me.

I was also surprised at how high-profile his sound poetry projects were, such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For a Nicholophile, to learn about how he felt like his creative input was constantly marginalized in that project is a must. The last chapter provides a useful summary of some of the main critical responses to Nichol's work: the “theological reception,” those that emphasize his “ideopoems” that merge comic strip art with conceptual visual poetry, and those that focus on The Martyrology as the keystone of his creative output. This summary is indispensible for those interested in a critical engagement with Nichol's work. Despite its shortcomings, Davey's biography was well worth the time.
 
Images from Zygal (1985), Coach House Press.
 
 



Tuesday, December 09, 2014

An Ecclesiastical View on Visual Culture (if you will excuse the pun)

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So it's been a while since I posted anything. If any of you are disappointed, I apologize. Sometimes the lemonade that life throws you can't be turned into lemons. Anyhow: busy is busy.  Here's something I wrote in 2009 about the "new" academic field of Visual Culture. Trigger warning: academic language ahead.


The Insufficiency of Linguistics in the Age of the Machine

Visual Culture is a discipline that tries to put in a comprehensible framework images, which are visual data that have been interpreted, endured in memory, become represented, and have accrued significance in the processes of interpretation, remembrance, and representation. It is somewhat analogous to Saussure’s seminal work on linguistics, but rather than focus on language as language, it analogically expands analysis of the structure of the communicable into the field of images, and their manipulation through techniques and technologies of seeing and looking. As culture is a way of life, as well as shorthand for organized and intentional sensual experience in the form of various arts, Visual Culture’s object is how visual data inform the practice of culture. How do configurations of visual data cohere as signs through structures of meaning? What kind of strategies do encoders use to enframe interpretation and to what ends? What strategies do decoders use to interpret, with what motivations, and to produce what results?

On the other hand, an image is fully communicable in language. Ezra Pound’s poem “In the Station of the Metro” or William Carlos William’s poem “The Codhead” are proof positive of this. Furthermore, in literate society the visuality of language irrevocably changes its use, as scholars from Eisenstein, Havelock, and Ong to Innis and McLuhan have noted. In Visual Culture, then, the problem emerges of the insufficiency of linguistics to interrogate visual data and its tendency to collect significance like a magnet collects iron filings. This metaphor is apt both because a sign, a certain distillation of sensory – in this case visual – data, starts off as many disparate parts, but in the process of encoding or decoding it joins parts into a whole, a whole which is greater than simply the sum of its parts. The magnet is consciousness. The extrapolation of linguistic concepts into a wider field of sign production, observation, and interpretation, such as that accomplished by Barthes, is the essential act of Visual Culture, and it is predicated on the irreconcilable hybridity of human, machine, and perception.

Is Visual Culture new, emergent, or any of the other modifiers that reveal the coy imbrications of academia with the market (new and improved!)? Emphatically no. The political cartoonist extraordinaire of enlightenment England, Cruikshank, in the process of observing politics and culture through various degrees of mediation – which necessarily implies representation – must have employed some of the same strategies, or at least trod in similar cognitive footsteps, as contemporary cultural critics have in their analyses in order to draw his cartoons in the first place. One must interpret visual aspects of culture at large in order to consolidate visual data and subsequently encode such a complex but simple-seeming formulation as a cartoon.


For example, in this cartoon, Cruikshank depicts people from various classes working together to export orphans to the colonies. In the nineteenth century, children were not guaranteed the same rights as they are now. Corporal punishment was the norm, and orphaned children were a social problem that warranted, to some, an easily solution: ship them out to the far reaches of the empire. It was common practise also to ship unwedded and pregnant women to the colonies in the interests of "social hygiene." With a nod to Jonathan Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal," Cruikshank here lambastes the practise as dehumanizing. The top hat and erect stance of the man in the centre emblemizes "polite society," that of refined gentlemen. The other man's stance, slightly stooped, and his raggedy bowler testify that he belongs to the working classes. A woman, in the background, also pitches in. This cartoon shows the co-operation of different social groups, often in conflict in other arenas, all working together to rid their society of a group beneath them all -- unwanted children. The tension between the emblems of civilization and an obviously barbaric act -- shoveling children into a cart -- shows the active nature of Cruikshank's "reading" of his visual environment, and then redeploying its parts for persuasive purposes.

With regards to "newness," I usually side with the author of Ecclesiastes, who laments “there is nothing new under the sun.” To claim there is something new is at the same time to claim complete and total knowledge, an act of arrogance, and further, of ignorance of one's own ignorance. However, the pixilated milieu of contemporary existence, especially with regards to communication, has made it such that these liminally conscious processes should be brought into the foreground and conceptualized, following Marcuse’s notion that the image and its superabundance militates against conceptual thinking.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Letter from Tom Thomson to the world

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I have found enlightenment.
My body was never found
Because I absconded
To the muskeg
Further north
North further than the last road.

I am not rotting in the muck
In tea lake.

Ironically, perhaps,
enlightenment
Lurks in places
Unlit.

Thoreau is here,
We discuss
Our proud sons,
Lawrence Harris and Mahatma Ghandi.

If you wonder
How I got this letter
Through, if my
Situation is as I say;
Suffice it to remark
That here we don’t
Need any radio, laser,
Telegraph, phone,
Smoke signal,
Or even seanceer.

We live in your minds,

Which wrote this. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fruitvale Station Review by Trevor Cunnington

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Fruitvale Station is a special film that does almost all the right things. I find my thoughts returning to the film quite often in the week since I’ve seen it. It takes a familiar narrative, adds a few surprises, bucks the mold of emotional evocation in film, does some daring things, some plain things, and some innovative things all with panache. It acquires a particularly intense gravitas because of its roots in real events in recent history. I saw it in Toronto, in a less than half-full, smallish theatre, and I hope it was less than half-full because it has been running for a while. This hope is particularly strong because of the resonance between Oscar Grant’s murder by the BART police and the recent murder of Sammy Yatim on a street-car in Toronto. Where is the word of mouth momentum?

The familiar narrative is that of the struggling young black man in urban America, and the difficulty of escaping the ghetto. It takes as its point of departure a cell phone video of the real life event of Oscar Grant having his head slammed into the concrete of the Fruitvale transit station in Oakland, California, and then being shot by BART police officers. Thus, it does a daring thing, narratively speaking – it shows the end of the story first. Not only that, but the footage is so jarringly authentic, I must admit it made me feel a little nauseous. (The advantage of this approach is that the film can’t be “spoiled”). Then, it rewinds to the day leading up to this event, and we follow Oscar trying in difficult circumstances to be a better person. Difficult circumstance #1 is he cheated on his girlfriend, with whom he has a young daughter. Difficult circumstance #2 is he has been fired from his job at a grocery store for lateness. Difficult circumstance #3, we find out later, is a troubled relationship with his mother that he tries to mend by taking on responsibility for the success of her birthday party on December 31, 2008.

After a terse interchange about his activities for the day with his girlfriend, he heads out to the grocery store where he used to work to try to get his job back. One of the innovative things about the film is the blending of onscreen action with a second screen: that of his cell phone as he texts and dials various people. Thus, it tries to deal with the opacity of phone interactions in real life to offer a more internal glimpse of Oscar’s life to great effect. The sequence in the grocery store is marvellously executed. He gets his friend to get him some high-quality crab for his grandma’s famous gumbo, and notices a young white girl struggling to make a decision for a type of fish for a fish fry. After some slick signals with his friend, he lets her know he works there, but is on his day off. Then he calls his grandmother, a master traditional cook, to instruct the young woman. The meaning of this scene is lent some interesting ambiguity by the context of his conversation with his girlfriend in the second scene of the film about cheating and the context of his visit to the grocery store. Being that we don’t know a whole lot about the character yet (except that he has the characteristically fatherly tendency to curry favour with children out of the disciplinary reach of the mother), he could either be trying to pick up this young woman, or he could be trying to go the extra mile in customer service to get his job back. When we learn more about his character, the latter becomes the more likely interpretation.

After this exchange, he tracks down the store manager to beg for his job back. The manager refuses, and we see Oscar has a temper as his voice escalates in anger. The sound editing of this part is masterful, with very subtle ominous tones accompanying his raising voice. As a tactic of persuasion, he asks rhetorically and heatedly if the manager wants him selling dope again (marijuana). This makes no difference, as the manager has already hired someone else. Then we see Oscar driving around in his car, alternately listening to music, and making plans on the phone. One of the plans is his mother’s birthday party, so he speaks both to her and his sister, who can’t make it because she’s working (probably a low-paying job). His mother chastises him for talking on the phone and driving, so he jury-rigs his phone under his skully hat so that he has both hands on the wheel, then he pulls over, showing how he is trying to be more responsible. He’s 22, and we can grant him some slack on this front. He also makes a phone call to a drug buyer to make an appointment.

It is on the rocks (the visual symbolism is telling) of the waterfront that he has a memory, narrated via flashback. The memory is of the year before, when he was in prison for his mother’s birthday, probably for dealing marijuana. His mother visits him, and they discuss his girlfriend and his daughter, from whom they’ve kept his incarceration secret. During their terse conversation, which begins with his mother asking about a welt on his face, a leering inmate makes a stray comment directed at Oscar, and Oscar explodes in anger. Presumably, this is the man responsible for the welt. After this explosion, Oscar’s mother implores him to calm down, and then tells him she will not visit him any more. He then erupts again and is restrained by prison guards, but it is not in anger this time, but despair, as he repeatedly yells an apology to his mother as she walks away in the foreground. This scene likewise has great sound editing, with the same ominous tones accompanying his outburst. We can see the absolute no win situation he’s in: if he doesn’t put on his tough front, he’s liable to suffer consequences later, but by putting on the tough front, his mother’s regard for him suffers.

After this memory, we see him take the bag of marijuana, and empty it over the rocks and the water. When his buyer shows up, he hands him a small packet for free and apologizes by saying he already sold the pot. The buyer rolls up and smokes, and then he goes to pick up his girlfriend from work and his daughter from the day care. His girlfriend verbally heckles him for smoking pot in the car before picking up his daughter, and he doesn’t bother to correct her. We realize later that he is probably mulling over what to tell her regarding his lost job. When they pick up their daughter Tatiana, we see him race her to the car, and this scene is tastefully rendered in slow motion with the sun in the background helping to signify the great relationship he has with his daughter.

Later, as they plan to go out to the city to celebrate the new year, he suggests staying in. She presses. A sequence of his mother’s birthday party is likewise well rendered with overlapping dialogue and a nice touch of domestic realism. His mother urges him to take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) instead of drive to San Francisco so they don’t have to worry about being sober to drive. All good advice that ends in catastrophe, with all the tragic implications that the girlfriend and mother must bear afterwards. The train gets delayed, so they are stuck on it when the new year turns. But, never fear! Someone has speakers and an mp3 player, and the subway car erupts in a party. Then, to return to the familiar narrative, Oscar’s prison past catches up to him when the man who threatened him during the conversation with his mother recognizes his name when the woman whom he helped at the grocery store sees him and calls his name. In this moment, his troubled past catches up to him and erupts in violence. The BART police are alerted, and the tense events leading up to the shooting are well-acted on all parts. My favourite thing about this film is the editing in the last few minutes. While Oscar is in critical condition in the hospital, having been shot in his back, the bullet piercing his lung and causing massive internal bleeding, we see a shot of him and his daughter Tatiana, speaking lovingly with each other. Unlike most films, which use music manipulatively in moments like these to evoke emotions, Ryan Coogler chooses to leave this segment totally silent. The result is heart-rending. The last two shots are absolutely gut wrenching, as the director includes in the final shot footage of a shy, downcast real-life Tatiana attending the anniversary of her father’s death. Thus, the film is bracketed by amateur video shots to lend its story an extremely endearing authenticity. This is the only film in the last six years I’ve been to that I’ve heard people audibly sniffling at the end.

For my theory nerds, this film is a great example of Benjaminian historiography; it does important work of salvaging history from the distorted view of the victors by telling it from the perspective of the people who get squashed in its imposing march. It is aesthetically wonderful: it doesn’t shy away from metaphor and symbolism to add heft to the story it tells and it is also daring and innovative. For me, it is a close call between this and The Hunt (Jagten) for best films of the year. Indeed for these two films and The Place Beyond The Pines alone, it has been a great year for film.