Title: Vancouver Walking
Author: Meredith Quartermain
Publisher: NeWest Press
Review by Jenna Butler.
Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking is a sensory and historical exploration into what creates a sense of place; specifically, how identity becomes layered onto a place by the different groups of people who live there.
It’s the title series of poems in this collection that lend Vancouver Walking its immediate appeal. Eye-catching on the page and thick with snippets of history dredged up from Vancouver’s archives, the “Vancouver Walking” poems serve to instantly drop the reader into Quartermain’s recreated landscape. She doesn’t pepper her work with overriding statements or emotional judgments; rather, the arrangement of the text on the page and the inclusion of certain historical statements allows the reader to develop his/her own emotional reaction to the work:
Lord Lucan, Lord Cardigan: look, I don’t know what this means
but ten mounted men mustered at evening parade.
(“Frances Street” 34)
Psychogeography is, I think, the word that best describes Quartermain’s explorations in this collection. She is concerned with the relationship of different groups of people to the land, how each group carries a unique perception of its relationship to its surroundings. Her meticulously subtle descriptions of the ignorance, racism, and injustice that characterize so much of the history of the west coast of Canada draw the reader in, for instance. In this way, the poems are more than simple snapshots of little-known Vancouver history; they are intelligently constructed pieces of social commentary in which the reader, as much as the author, makes the connections between bits of historical data and everyday events.
Aside from this carefully-developed layering of place, the “Vancouver Walking” series quietly reveals humanity giving way beneath a new age of industry. Just as the coastal First Nations communities faced tremendous hardship at the hands of the European colonists, so did the colonists themselves begin to find their own needs falling prey to the development of mining and the railroad:
the miners were allowed to elect the gas committee
well Mottishaw and his partner found gas in some place
the company didn’t like and it fired them
they had to flood the mine to get the bodies
every man was killed.
(“Frances Street” 47)
Whereas the historical texts themselves, read alone, would no doubt constitute fairly dry reading, they take on a new interpretive life of their own when integrated into the series of poems. Read together, the historical segments and Quartermain’s own observations create a larger, workable text endowed with a lively and uniquely human sense of history. It is a history on the cusp of the industrial age, when life was still lived at a non-mechanized pace. Thus, the title of the sequence is particularly apt; walking not only as a sign of the age, but as a means of more closely examining history as an overlooked aspect of society. Vancouver’s history is wherever one goes in the city – not immediately visible from behind the wheel of a car, but just beneath the surface whenever one takes the time to slow down and search for its traces.
The second portion of the book, “International Rooms,” is an equally strong set of poems placed in a more contemporary time period. Here Quartermain is at it again, although her poems at this juncture are more personal, experiential. The discrepancies and inequalities in everyday life draw her attention: the “squeegee kid on his haunches” (“First Night” 60), the men “trad[ing] hits or cigarettes” (“Cathedral” 62) when the government has promised to help them find some sort of gainful employment. She is pulled by the subtext of the city and writes toward the hypocrisy of the government’s attempt to airbrush away that subtext.
There is hope in this segment of the book, too. Poems like “Record” function not only as a written representation of urban life in this century, but serve to contrast a fast-paced, industrial society with the small examples of humanity within it:
that a red truck stood tipped on a hill of dirt in the park –
dinky-toy yellow earthmover
caterpillar climbing the fresh soil – scoop hooked up
under its snout.
that we still believe in building parks.
Yet there is tragedy inherent in the hope: at the same time that we are building parks, our children are growing up in them, playing at industry in miniature. In this segment of the book, more so than any other, Quartermain reveals how industry and mechanization have become accepted undercurrents of our everyday lives, to the point where even our children unconsciously emulate them.
“Coast Starlight,” the final section of the book, takes the reader on a broader tour of North America; yet here, as well, is the same underwriting of place that is present in all the Vancouver poems. Everywhere, too, is evidence of consumerism and hard industry: the sawmill “vomiting brown sludge / from a long arm” and “Home Depot Wal-Mart / their empty black-top roads” (“Pacific Northwest” 82). Even the fields have been transformed from agricultural to bases for mechanization, and human beings to mere commodities:
Then a field of small planes, snubnosed
yellow – where do they take off,
and fly. Sound Meat Distributors.
New world. Landscape.
(“Pacific Northwest” 83)
The book as a whole examines different types of understanding: that which is general or societal versus understanding specific to a certain place or a group of people who inhabit that place. Nowhere in the book is this more clear than in the “Coast Starlight” section. Here, Quartermain brings to life a number of towns and cities across North America. In each place, the overriding language and understanding is industrial in nature, even though the underlying cultural understanding is often something quite different. This is especially evident in poems such as “Tacoma Bay,” wherein the lush scenery is imbued with great history, and yet the girls’ gym class that plays there comprehends nothing of the nature of the place nor its significance to the First Nations people from whose language its name was derived.
What emerges in this final section of the book is a hunger, a vast need for a means of naming one’s surroundings. Quartermain is not speaking of specific words for objects, per se, but rather a greater way of relating to a world and a landscape that we are so isolated from in a predominantly mass-produced, anonymous age. What is real, she wonders, and what is constructed? Are the trappings of society what ought to concern us, or are they simply shielding what is real from our sight? As she says, “Without guns, / how do you talk about the real?” (“Waiting for Coast Starlight” 107).
We are missing what lies beneath, she concludes: the simple meal behind the fancy name, the land secreted away beneath the tarmac, the beliefs and understandings of the cultures who called this land their home far before any colonists arrived. This is the message that animates Vancouver Walking – that we must learn to see beyond our own constructs, our obsessions with tags and labels, to life as it truly is. Without this way of seeing, we risk living on the skin of things, naming, but never knowing.
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.