Subway under Byzantium
October 29, 2013
Review By Jason V. Starnes
Vancouverites Maxine Gadd and Meredith Quartermain each pursue unique place-based poetics in recent books of poetry that deploy historical, geographical, and philosophical disciplines in ways that map specific social spaces in British Columbia. Their related practices display a global range of voice, description, and activism marshalled by locally critical and socially conscious poetics.
Gadd and Quartermain both write from first-person experiences of their immediate community and geographic surroundings. Both inspired by and affiliated with Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing, their works are not limited to the specificities of place and space around them but, rather, arise out of their first-person engagements with communities that persist in contemporary traces of history.
Maxine Gadd’s Subway under Byzantium represents the continuation of her works about the dual spaces of the Gulf Islands and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, extending the project collected in 2005’s Backup to Babylon. This dialectic of places explores the shared and distinct qualities of these areas. Gadd evinces the illusory character of any singularity separating “nature” (in its pristine island manifestations) and “humanity” (propagating in the [fallen] structures of urban ecosystems): “‘More production.’ Invent a new kind of justice / or a plastic gizmo to fill up the holes in the roads. Who goes there any / more to fix the cracks wherein did fall / the many who are few?”(38) Her British Columbia is one in which “the eyes in trees” report panoptic data to “strange minds in the mountains planning casual chaos” (12). Gadd’s Marxist politics are in evidence as she gives voice to economically and socially disempowered victims of capital: “Capitalism is caused by wars; Communism by floods. / There comes a point where you can’t refuse yr neighbour at the price of being inhuman” (119).
Gadd’s poetic affinities include a concrete aesthetic that appears more frequently towards the end of Byzantium’s sequence, culminating in expressive typographic forms arrayed against Mandelbrot sets. Her interest in humanity’s position in the ecology it generates recalls Lyn Hejinian, to whom a poem is dedicated here. Her affiliation with the community of Kootenay School writers shows through in the directness of her radical politics and the post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E aesthetics of her fragmentary yet lyrical lineation.
Meredith Quartermain’s Nightmarker is an exploration of the history embedded in local space, and in many ways it is a sequel to her BC Book Award-winning Vancouver Walking (2006). As in that work, which poet Margaret Christakos calls a “lived epic of how specific native soil became appropriated to a condition of contemporary real estate,” Nightmarker develops a poetic psychogeography as Quartermain delves into both the geographical and archival specifics of her urban environment. The epic designation is important here, conjuring Nightmarker’s extension of Ezra Pound’s “poem containing history.” Quartermain’s epigraph from Charles Olson’s Special View of History denotes her epic sensibilities: “A thing done is not simply done but is re-done or pre-done. It is at once commemorative, magical, and prospective.” Extending this maxim, Quartermain explores the concrete manifestations of history while showing the present as spatially, contingently engaged with the past and directly determinative of future forms. History in Nightmarker is a paratactic field versus a linear path, and Quartermain beautifully arrays the synchronic materials unearthed and gathered in the course of her Olsonian Projective cartography: “Cartographer at Work sails the 20th Century grid – no longer trees, but streets named Chestnut. Cypress. Arbutus. Maple” (23). One perception leads to another with no loss of momentum or abstraction of critical insight.
In “Night Bus,” Quartermain notes that she has been called a philosophical as opposed to an anecdotal poet. This seems a fair description of her relationship to forebears such as Robin Blaser, with whom she collaborated in Wanders (2002), and Robert Duncan, both of whose poetics engage philosophy as organic content. Conjuring a persona called Geo, who may represent both a philosophical echo of George Vancouver and the Earth itself, many of the poems appear in the form of letters: “Sir, The universe is expanding… Shale, sandstone, yanked thin by mountains drifting west, grinding under tectonic plates…. 10 million years later, humans reading this” (35-36). Geo bears a relationship to Olson’s Maximus, a mythic concatenation of historical personae that addresses letters to the polis of his hometown in The Maximus Poems.
While Gadd and Quartermain pursue slightly diverging practices, themes of orientation and disorientation in the postmodern welter of political-spatial experience are shared in the poets’ work, and the trope of way finding takes on allegorical significance. Gadd’s suite of lyrical personae, rich in politics and idiosyncrasy, enunciates the lost “i” of the unrepresented: “Leave me, fear that i will not find my way” (8); while Quartermain’s epistolary poems, packed with dense philosophical allusion, engage a psychogeographic mapping through the medium of language: “To speak is to echolocate” (11). For both Gadd and Quartermain, the public space of politics is a constant theme. They each develop a poetic geography, never far from the reality of community and the fantasy of history. These books represent important extensions of a tradition specific to British Columbia, one that offers social critique and philosophical resonance pertinent to any citizen of postmodernity.
BC Studies, no. 163, Autumn 2009.