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Monthly Archives: April 2014

I was writing in a cafe the other day, and I saw this woman. I felt like she needed a poem

Pastries

She studies the pastries
as if they hold mysteries,
and maybe they’ll be found
if she looks hard enough,
though there’s not much time now
before they bring her latte.

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I spent a few days in Black Mountain, North Carlina a few years ago, and things may have changed since then, but it was a singular experience at the time.  We had been driving interstate highways for the better part of two weeks, passing sign after sign, billboard after billboard, all advertizing for big capitalism’s all-stars, places where you could buy everything from hamburgers to televisions to cars at prices that ensured their employees couldn’t make a proper wage.  We had driven from Guelph, Ontario to Waycross, Georgia and halfway back, stopping in dozens of towns, without finding a single place where I could buy a used book or a cup of truly fairtrade coffee.

Then, we turned into Black Mountain, and there, within touching distance of each other, were a used bookstore and an independent cafe.  There were also independent stores selling kitchenware, hardware, flowers, and everything else.  The reason, I was told, had to do with a law passed decades earlier when a bunch of hippy artists essentially took over the town, a law something to the effect that all business operated within town limits had to be owned by someone who also lived within the town limits.

Now, I may not have all the details right here, and I’ll leave it to someone from Black Mountain to correct me in the comments, but I will never forget the difference in the economic culture of that town compared to all the others I saw on that trip, and that difference struck me again the other day when a friend and I were talking about how on earth to rescue a democratic tradition that is increasingly dominated by corporate interests that have the money to lobby politicians, that own the media through which most people receive their news, that employ large portions of the electorate, and that often have influence internationally as well.  Even when simply acting legally in their own interests, these corporate entities can’t help but undermine many of the elements – freely elected officials, an informed electorate, a separation between public and private interests – on which democracy depends.  In other words, in order to rescue democracy, we need to rescue capitalism.

I have no real answers to this conundrum except to suggest that my experience in Black Mountain might be instructive.  What might happen, I wonder, if we were to permit the market to operate freely in most respects, but to insist that all businesses must be owned by people who live in the town where they are located?

I’m married to an economist, so I’m well aware that transitioning to this kind of model at this stage in our economic development would be essentially impossible.  I’m also aware of the whole set of legal and practical difficulties that might be created in this sort of system.  However, the more I think about it, the more I feel like the benefits would far outweigh the problems if people were forced to see their employees and their customers and their communities and their local environments in person every day.  I think that they might make different decisions in everything from employee benefits to environmental regulations.  I also think that our political arena would be more open, better informed, and less influenced by the interests of a very few.

I think we should give it a try after our current system collapses under its own corrupt weight.  It can’t be too long now.

I’ve never been someone who writes to music, neither to create a certain mood nor just for the sake of background noise.   When I write, I prefer just to write.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered the immense benefits of headphones when I’m trying to work in the midst of the lovely, terrifying, wonderful, impossible chaos that is my house most days.  That is to say, I have discovered music in the way that most teenagers have long known it, as an insulation against the world, and even with all the attendant temptations to antisocial behaviour, at this point I’ll take anything that lets me get editing done.

I’m also gaining a new appreciation for some of the music that’s been sitting on my drive mostly unplayed since I downloaded it in a fit of musical optimism or since my youngest brother dumped it there in a mostly failed attempt to improve my taste in music.  So here’s a brief list of what I’ve been putting through my earphones as I edit lately, keeping in mind that I have an extremely low tolerance for stupid lyrics and so listen almost exclusively to instrumental music.  These are not necessarily my favourites, but they’re the ones I find myself listening to at the moment.

Animals as Leaders
Do Make Say Think
Explosions in the Sky
Irepress
Jason Becker
Jeff Beck
King Crimson
Marc Rizzo
Maserati
Magwai
Mono
Ozric Tentacles
Pelican
Russian Circles
Scale the Summit
Solaris
The Yage Letters

This is another poem intended for the These, My Streets project. Oxford runs right beside by my house between the library on Woolwich and the highschool on Yorkshire.

Oxford

It isn’t your fault
that you disappoint
my expectations.
You do your best,
run from seat of learning
to seat of knowledge,
and it’s hardly your problem
that one isn’t Magdalen,
the other something less than Bodleian,
that neither has a spire
to wade in the river valley’s mist,
that neither has the river valley even,
never mind the mist,
but I can’t help it
if I want a little more,
some cobblestones maybe,
a buttress, a gargoyle,
a grass quadrangle
marked in arched walkways.

There was an insistent young man in the bar the other night. The waitress would have none of him, but he wasn’t taking the hint.

Off the Draw

She wears her hips slung low
like a cowboy’s holsters,
all swing and swagger,
and ample warning too,
that she six-shoots to kill,
shoots straight from those low hips,
so touch your hat, young gun,
and mind your wagging tongue:
you won’t beat her off the draw.

I have been reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, not for any very good reason, just because my particular university education made me an addict to a certain kind of theoretical style, and I needed a fix.

At the end of the first essay, “After the Orgy”, Baudrillard says, “One day the image of a person watching a television screen voided by a technicians’ strike will be seen as the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century,” and this reminded me of a curious incident in my own experience.

Once, during my MA, I walked into the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library, intending to study at my carrel on one of the upper floors (fourth or fifth, I can’t remember anymore). On my way I had to pass the computer pool on the main floor, a bank of computers set row by row, and I was met by the sight of seventy or eighty students all staring blankly, fixedly, at their screens, not typing, not working, just staring. It only took a glance to realize that there had been some sort of power outage or something, and that all of the computers were rebooting at once, but the effect was so eerie, so disconcerting that I decided to skip studying altogether and go find a beer instead.

My discomfort was with how the void on the screen seemed to have revealed a similar void in the people looking at them, as if they were only capable of activity when they were reflecting the activity of their monitors. Baudrillard describes this through the metaphor of an electrical circuit, where communication requires messages to circulate without interruption, and where silence breaks the circuit, revealing that it is only an “uninterrupted fiction designed to free us not only from the void of the television screen but equally from the void of our own mental screen.” In other words, our minds are now as void as our monitors when the electrical circuit of constant communication is broken, so that we now require this communication in order to maintain the illusion that we have any content at all, in order to keep us from staring blankly at our screens as they stare blankly in return.

This is another poem intended for the These, My Streets project. Exhibition runs north of my place, along a park of the same name.

Exhibition

Was it wise, I wonder, to make a street
an invitation to exhibition?
Were the city counsellors not concerned
to be taken at their word by old men
with a preference for gray overcoats
and the habit of forgetting short pants?
Perhaps no one wanted to be the prude
to raise that ticklish point in council,
so everyone raised up their hands, “Aye,”
but harboured secret, unspeakable doubts.
My suspicion is that the name expressed
the concealed desire of those counsellors,
in their dark suits and uncomfortable chairs,
to chuck it all, strip it off, hold council
on blankets in the park, count their budgets
with twigs and stones, let the grass press creases
in their fleshy thighs and naked buttocks.