The Verse Map of Vancouver
November 4, 2013
Review By Jason V. Starnes
In A Verse Map of Vancouver, editor George McWhirter sets himself a compelling challenge: “to represent the city’s places and principal features in poetry” rather than to collect its most prominent poems or poets. The book’s coffee-table dimensions and gloss make it something of a hybrid in the world of poetry anthologies; while it uses a unique map-based organization for its varied place-renderings, a certain upmarket “tourist” aesthetic abounds. Still, many readers of poetry will appreciate this effort to bring poetry about Vancouver to a larger audience, even if it demands the accompaniment of the vibrant, accessible photographs contributed by Derek von Essen.
The collection starts strong with Pat Lowther’s “Vancity” and George Woodcock’s “The Cherry Tree on Cherry Street,” the latter evoking the history of a name by pinning it to local flora, the former a paean to the night-cloaked city as a massive metaphor. Essen’s photography captures attractive views of Vancouver, but the relationship of the images to the poems is one of mere documentation: all ambiguity has been annihilated here, leaving no interpretation to the reader. The poems are laid out as though they accompany the photos rather than the other way around, and, while this can’t help but detract from the literary imagery in the work, many of the weaker poems actually benefit from the photographic crutch – and this does not speak well of their evocative power.
Several pairings of images and poems would seem to be specifically for the benefit of tourists or out-of-towners: Lionel Kearns’s “Vancouver General” is mated with a photo of that hospital, and two turns later Bibiana Tomasic’s “99 Express – 8 a.m.” is helpfully illustrated with that very express bus bearing down on the reader. A general mistrust of the reader’s imagination is betrayed as George Stanley’s “Fire Alarm” is given the literal treatment with a photograph of firefighters rushing towards an apartment from their red truck. Show and tell would seem to be the modus operandi here.
But highlights abound: contemporary, experimental writers, including Michael Turner and Oana Avasilichioaei, paint with sound and disjunctive sense, not miming or merely describing the city but, through creative accumulation, representing the way the city presents. Elizabeth Bachinsky dares to imagine the eventual collapse of the Lions Gate Bridge, seeing it from up close as a massive machine and “from a distance / thin as a hair crawling with pestilent traffic” (138). The opportunity to experience Michael Turner’s “1a.m. this road, this way,” the first poem from his brilliant Kingsway, is valuable, offering the perspective of a local luminary of Vancouver’s literary history. McWhirter should be praised for collecting these contemporary, experimental views along with more mainstream fare.
Stephanie Bolster wasn’t exaggerating when she described George McWhirter’s own book of poetry, The Anachronicles, as one that “leaps from the sublime to the – perfectly – ridiculous.” This is a rather strange book, exploring McWhirter’s titular coinage, which melds “anachronism” and “chronicle,” and elaborating a formal style that hearkens back to Shakespeare, with pentameter rhythms and frequent rhyme. On the book’s back cover Gary Geddes touts it as “a wonderfully crazy romp through then and now”: “then” is represented by sixteenth-century explorers of the west coast, Hernan Cortez and Gonzalo de Sandoval among them, while “now” appears to be the late 1970s. The anachronisms manifest on the first page as the explorers happen upon a crew filming Bo Derek in the sexually decadent 10. The adventurer/conquistador’s interest in pop culture is piqued by Derek’s near-nudity, so the film-shoot offers numerous occasions for the time-travellers to absurdly comment in excited rhythms: “I believe / Our place usurped / By a pair of udders, not some English rudder, / and by thighs that stretch and stride”(11).
That McWhirter allows his figures of the past to view and comment on later times is interesting in that it redefines our usual sense of anachronism: something conspicuously old-fashioned rather than something from the relative future. The quasi-Shakespearean form of The Anachronicles obstinately hovers in a bygone era, extending anachronism into the formal dimension. This is hewed to with a faith both surprising and silly: as much as Bo Derek’s bathing suit might be a temporal disjuncture to the sixteenth-century Spanish, the pursuit of Renaissance-era blank verse in 2009 is positively jarring as Cortez and Sandoval take turns describing “Bo’s bottom” (18).
McWhirter’s figures from the past are established as time-travelling ghosts, seeing but not seen by the new-fashioned, new-found future they somehow established. These contrasts call to mind the profound decentrement in any comparison of eras (what is right, real, or solid amidst so much profound change?). When the movie camera is described as “the black eyeball and socket / Of a Cyclops,” an argument begins as to how it transports the beach babe and whether she will “disappear / Into it.”
McWhirter’s efforts to poeticize the historical details literally written into our immediate surroundings in the form of place names will be appreciated by those with an interest in the idiosyncrasies that produced the first North American maps and early European land claims of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The “view from above” of this history, the naming and renaming of bays and gulfs and harbours along the west coast towards Vancouver’s own Spanish Banks, creates a jarring narrative that nevertheless entwines voices in a same-sounding chorus.
A Verse Map of Vancouver and The Anachronicles are each a study in compelling, if occasionally unpalatable, contrasts: Verse Map is a relative of the tourist’s guide, a pastiche of work related to Vancouver accompanied by overbearing visual cues, while The Anachronicles is a bewildering concatenation of style and content featuring an inspired conceit but lacking the benefit of an overarching concept.