Headframe: 2 by Birk Sproxton

headframe cov2

Review by rob mclennan.

I haven’t read any of Sproxton’s work before, but it would be difficult to not know that he has been publishing for years, including the long poem Headframe: (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1985), the novels The Red-Headed Woman with the Black Black Heart (Turnstone Press, 1997) and The Hockey Fan Came Riding (Turnstone Press, 1990), and the collection Phantom Lake: North of 54 (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2005). His newest collection is a follow-up to his long poem, the collection Headframe: 2 (Turnstone Press, 2006). A prolific editor, he is also responsible for the collections The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century (Winnipeg MB: Prairie Fire Press, 2006), Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing (Turnstone Press, 1986), and Great Stories from the Prairies (Red Deer AB: Red Deer Press, 2000).

Born and raised in the town of Flin Flon, Manitoba, Sproxton’s two book Headframe: writes the history and storytelling of his hometown, and the press release even includes information on the origins of the town, writing:

How the peculiar name “Flin Flon” came to be is where fiction begins to outweigh fact. It is said that the prospectors, who had little else to do on the long nights in the wilderness, were in possession of a tattered copy of a dime-store science fiction novel written by J.E. Preston Muddock called The Sunless City. The novel told the story of the adventurer Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, who ventured in his submarine to the bottom of the bottomless Lake Avernus and into the centre of the earth in search of the unknown. Exactly how the bottom of a bottomless lake was reached is beyond explanation. Reminded how the lake near the mineral discovery appeared bottomless, the prospectors felt that it was reminiscent of Lake Avernus. Thereafter the lake near the claim became commonly known as Flin Flon Lake.

A more factual account relates to the year 1929 when the C.N.R. was requesting a list of place names for sites along the rail line leading north out of The Pas. The diary of Hudson Bay Mining and Smelding Co. Limited’s radio operator notes the following, “They say they will call it Flin Flon if they don’t hear from us.” Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting never responded to the C.N.R. request and as a result, City of Flin Flon remains the only city in the world known to be named after a science fiction character.

I’m not sure exactly why this exists on the press release, with the Sproxton quote, “Towns must be imagined into existence,” but there is much here to do with the prairie, telling stories that range from Manitoba to Alberta, but it feels that Flin Flon is only the starting point; I would presume that the town is featured more in the first volume of the long poem, and that starting point is integral for reading the rest of the piece, but what otherwise would it have to do with this?

Built in nine sections — The Screen Door Chronicles, Benchmark, Notes for a Father, Hillside, Beaver Lake Notes, Scratch an Epitaph, Riverhunt Entries, Run to the Sea, The Screen Door Revisions — each gives a fragment of the story of a whole, stories told by the narrator of the poem from his own life, geography and those that have been handed down to him from the same, such as the poem referencing Frank Slide, the worst (to that point) natural disaster in Canadian history, as a mountain came down on the town of Frank, Alberta in 1903, killing all the inhabitants.

The Frank Slide

the face of the mountain fallsaway tumbling still across thevalley over the (buried) villagethe chunked rubble hooks nouninto verb, jointed, as if the earthhad been told to move        as if the earth needed to betold to move                slide Frank slide        Frank slid (into) home        and the game was over        the toll a long time                        counting

Moving through story and storytelling, history and his own geographies, I would like to see what he did with the first volume, to see where it all began; I like the loose feel of how connected these poems fit together, becoming accumulatively tighter as you move through the text. It’s interesting to catch the references to American poets in the first section, Ed Dorn or William Carlos Williams: “so much depends / upon // a red screen / door.” As well, there’s a lot of Dennis Cooley vernacular in these poems, flavour that could easily have been passed back and forth between the two so often that it becomes impossible to know where it came from.

Sproxton’s continued and continuing poem writes history and fathers, writes family reunions and what has happened in the wake between years, as well as stories ranging from fact to tall tales and everything in between. In a recent interview, Christian Riegel did with Sproxton in The Antigonish Review #132, Sproxton talks about the first of his eventual two book poem Headframe::

The documents section in Headframe: is a good example of the anatomy in textual terms. The documents section might call up the idea of a Caesarean section where the body is in fact cut in some way or another. So I cut the documents up with the hope content itself will become the form. The anatomy as a form includes exaggeration, especially of a philosophical type. Well, Frye explains that in the anatomy, or in Mennipean Satire, philosophical ideas are exposed.

He later goes on to say:

Yeah, I am certainly aware that most people wouldn’t think of my books as literature at all because they stay so close to the vernacular, for example, or to the working life or the life of the body. But it seems to me as you suggest in your question that these variants haven’t been much explored and in any case they seem to me to me to be the more interesting and the more lively. What I am interested in is the liveliness of the language an individual can find by staying close to the working life and the life of the body. In Headframe:, for example, after many years I discovered that I grew up in a world where languages were in competition with one another and that the language I grew up with didn’t fit the world I discovered as a university student. When I thought about it more I realized the language used by my parents didn’t fit the world that we lived in. They were from a Saskatchewan farming background and would use expressions I didn’t understand in any way. The words and phrases stood out for me as interesting anomalies. So I begin Headframe: with the father asking the narrator whether he is homesteading in the bathroom, and of course homesteading didn’t mean anything to me though it meant something to him. All I knew was that it meant that you had been in there too long.

What is interesting in Sproxton’s writing is the amount of serious play; the movements that have become so familiar in prairie poetry over the years, and how Sproxton adds to the conversation of play through his own variants. Why is it prairie poets are often the only ones who really know how to use space on the printed page? How can one not play in all that space?

We walk.To look up to see water or unbroken snow would be good, for to lookup is to resist the restlessness grave-pull of mourning or the simpleneed to negotiate the gravel and ice and stones. From this angleno lakes can be seen.                        The absence strikes me                        as a flaw in cemetery design.People need to see water in summer, in winter the lake-longsweet of unbroken snow.                        The absence, he said.


rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, even though he was born there. the author of twelve trade collections of poetry, most recently name, an errant (Stride, 2006) & aubade (Broken Jaw Press, 2006), he is currently working on a number of projects including a non-fiction book for Arsenal Pulp Press, Ottawa: The Unknown City (2007), a poetry collection, The Ottawa City Project, & finishing a novel, Missing Persons.