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Le fleuve saint-laurent

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Among my gifts last Christmas were two novels from Québec, Spring Tides by Jacques Poulin, in English, and The Iguana, by Denis Thériault in French, and reading them I was reminded of the huge symbolic presence of the St. Lawrence River in the early history of Canada, and its mythological presence in the literature of Québec.

I first got a sense of this not long after I moved to PEI. I still owned an old house in Ontario, just where the great river begins. We were on our way there by car and had dawdled our way through New Brunswick. Early evening, and I was tired of driving when we turned west at Rivière du Loup. We had no plans for the night, and on impulse, I turned off the highway a few miles to the west, and we drove down a steep hill and found ourselves at the old Manoir St. André. In the morning, instead of returning to the highway, we drove along the local road and through Kamouraska. We stared at the wide powerful river, the great blue hills on the other side, passed outcroppings of Appalachian rock, interspersed with flat salt meadows flooded and drained by watergates on the river. An uncanny beauty to it all, and at the edge of the town is the local seigneurie, site of the murder that is the dramatic core of Anne Hébert’s novel, Kamouraska, and the movie that Claude Jutra made from it.

Over the last decade we have made the trip at least once a year, sometimes stopping for the night on the south shore, on other occasions taking the ferry across the river to the north shore and driving down to Québec. We have stayed at a fascinating village called Port au Persil, built in a cove below the rock heights of the north shore. Once we drove northwest to Tadoussac to see the white belugas and the great whales that feed at the mouth of the Saguenay fiord. Another year, on our way back to PEI late in August, we drove all the way around the Gaspé where the river grows wider and wider until finally the north shore is invisible over the long reach of the gulf.

My acquaintance with Quebec literature and film is pretty superficial, but reading Poulin and Thériault I was reminded of the symbolic significance of the St. Lawrence. Spring Tides takes place on Île Madame not far downstream from Quebec. The Iguana describes the life of two boys somewhere on the north shore, further toward the gulf. Kamouraska has at its core a winter journey 400 miles along the south shore to the town where the murder at the centre of the tale takes place. In an essay on the films of québecois writer and film-maker, Pierre Perrault, the Canadian film critic Peter Harcourt gives an account of three of his films that take place on the Île aux Coudres, just off the north shore near Baie St Paul and writes about the centrality of the St. Lawrence River among the signposts of Québec imagination.

Existence along the shores of the great river has been documented as far back as the diary of Jacques Cartier—who called the north shore “the land that God gave Cain”—and at least one Anglo-Canadian writer has made use of the material. Cartier’s diary is one of many sources for Douglas Glover’s Elle, an historic fantasy based on an old tale about a sixteenth century French woman abandoned on an island in the gulf.

A magic place: on our bedroom wall hangs a black and white photograph taken on that first trip; the gleaming Kamouraska river flowing through fields toward the St. Lawrence in the early morning light, the rocky offshore islands called Les Pèlerins, beyond them the mountainous heights of the north shore—a graphic souvenir of the great river and the ancient settlements on its banks.

Abstract Art in Town

The Other Notebook

by David Helwig

I’ve always suspected that the latest art we understand, with a visceral connection, is the art that was being made when we were young. In my case that means Abstract Expressionism, the work of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline or Paul Emile Borduas or Riopelle, and alongside them, the other, more contemplative, abstractionists like Kenneth Rothko. Modern art up to that point—from the Impressionists through Picasso and Matisse—speaks a language I can understand. Art from that point on, especially the more conceptual explorations, I can sometimes enjoy, with a certain detachment, but it seldom moves me. Probably isn’t supposed to.

I once had an argument about these things with a critic and curator a bit younger than I am who said that all he could see in Abstract Expressionism was bravado. Maybe that was what I liked about it in my teens. What I observe in the more conceptual contemporary work is a very modest level of wit.

I was thinking about all this when I set off to look at a show of recent drawings by the Island artist Don Andrus on view at The Guild in Charlottetown. I knew from seeing a previous show of his work that he was an abstractionist, and I was intrigued with the idea of abstract drawing.

The drawings I saw are mostly—as described on the labels—done in oil stick on layered paper, some of them also using chalk and ink and occasionally collage. Glancing at the work from a distance I was puzzled by the reference to layered paper, and it was only when I went very close up that I realized that the top layer of the paper was at least semi-transparent, and what I was seeing was a layer of drawing with one (or maybe more) lower layers showing through.

Like most abstract work, the Andrus drawings are more interested in surface than in shape. The most common gestures made by the artist’s hand are worm-like curves and small dots, and from a distance the pattern is dominated by these, the square sheet of paper entirely covered with their patterns. I’m tempted to refer to the drawn gestures as strokes, but that sounds much more geometrical than any effect here. Sqiggles, I guess. With coloured dots.

With the exception of a single drawing, the colour effects are subtle and muted, but from one drawing to another there is a good deal of variety in the rhythm and construction on the squares of inscribed paper.

When I looked at the works with care, I decided that they must be seen from very close up to have their strongest effect. From across the room, they are pleasant, decorative, rather quiet, but they are meant to be seen, I think, from a short distance, the eye no further away than the breadth of the drawing. At that distance the tension between the surface, and the less immediate but still visible drawing beneath creates a dance of perceptions, with a sense that both planning and chance are contributing to the overall effect. The drawings are dated by year, and the more recent ones effectively add lines in black ink on slightly smaller squares of paper, with a pattern of white oil stick on top.

The Andrus drawings belong to the more contemplative side of abstraction, among the mandalas, the pulsing colours of Rothko’s canvases. No bravado here, no expressionism in fact, only a quiet music of hand and eye, which reminded me, just a little, of the surfaces of late Matisse, but more inward—parenthetical meditations for the probing eye.

That’s what I saw and felt. Unfortunately for those who’d like to see the show and argue with all this, what with exhibition dates and the timetable of monthly publication, it will be gone by the time this appears. So I guess you’ll have to take my word for it.

Imagine a Senate

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

No, I’m not about to knock Senator Duffy, or to attack his appointment, but I am about to argue with him about the Senate and the Prime Minister’s assumptions about its reform.

As a young man—so far as I can remember that distant day—I believe I thought the Senate should be abolished, but after decades of sober second thought I’m not unhappy about its existence. But while it could stand reform, I’m not one of those who believes in election. Senator Duffy was appointed, I understand, with the proviso that he would support Stephen Harper’s plan to elect Senators, and in a television interview he argued that an elected Senate would have more legitimacy and would be treated more seriously.

But would elected members ever be content with the limited powers the Senate now holds, or would they regard themselves as the equal of MPs and demand an equal level of authority? And wouldn’t more elections increase the range and activity of those perhaps necessary but dangerous entities, political parties? Do we need more elections dominated by partisan calculation? The Canadian political system has its own mechanisms for governing and limiting power, and we don’t need to import a half-thought-out version of an American conception, and without sufficient consideration about how it might work.

From my boyhood I have been fascinated by politics, but I have never joined a political party. I’m not a joiner, and I don’t altogether trust those who pledge their loyalty to a group whose entire function is to seek and hold political power. To some extent, it seems to me, we are tempted to turn the ideal of democracy into a shibboleth, while political parties become the arbiters of power. I still don’t understand how Maritime Tories can comfortably work for a political party that has abandoned much of what represented Canadian conservatism.

If we are to have an upper house with renewed vigour, how are we to get it? The obvious answer is to look for Canadians who have served their country in fields other than party politics. Occasionally something like that happens now. A liberal prime minister appointed General Roméo Dallaire, a conservative prime minister has appointed Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. It would not be difficult to achieve this sort of thing on a more wide ranging basis and not to base it on the prime minister’s whim.

It’s not an entirely original idea. The Senate of the Republic of Ireland has members appointed to represent interests like agriculture, the fishery, the culture of the country, the universities, though under a complex set of rules, the current elected administration is more or less guaranteed a majority at any given moment.

Civic society has sometimes been regarded as a partnership of those who are living, those who came before us, and those who will come after us. In any living society there are historical and philosophical constituencies, as well as the commonly discussed geographical ones. Imagine a Senate representing these constituencies, members appointed by the National Union of Farmers, The Canadian Labour Congress, the Writers’ Union of Canada and its Quebec equivalent, the Federation of Small Business, the Order of Canada—I’m sure you can come up with others. Each could appoint a given number of members for a limited term. Perhaps the Prime Minister might still make an occasional appointment if he needed cheering up on a bad day.

It may be that the conventions governing the Senates activities—a veto, legally absolute, which has come to be only a delaying tactic—would need to be redefined, but almost certainly a Senate whose members include men and women noted for distinguished service outside politics would be treated more seriously.

So there—within the length of a short column—you have a brief sketch of the revolution. If it makes sense to you why not clip it out and mail it to your new Senator?

David Helwig is the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island, and recently published a new collection of poems, The Sway of Otherwise.

Annual Experience

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

This column will appear just as we are all preparing to celebrate the New Year, the arrival of 2009.

The month of January, as you may know, is named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways—perhaps originally the god of all beginnings—who is portrayed with two faces, one looking forward, one looking back. Traditionally New Year’s is an occasion for reconsideration, when we look forward and back and take stock, perhaps plan for the future.

It is also traditional to make resolutions. This year I will lose weight, eat better, drink less, exercise more, quit smoking, stop shouting at my brother (sister), arrive on time, and so on. Personally I don’t think I have ever made a New Year’s resolution, at least in my adult life, less because I think myself perfect—though I have my good days—than because I think change comes largely by accident, and when it’s ready to happen. My changes in diet have nearly always had a direct and more or less urgent medical prompting and have occurred at random moments of random years.

Odd for us in the northern hemisphere to think of January 1 as a beginning. What is going on at this time of year is a battle for survival of the season of darkness, cold, storms. Spring is the beginning for gardeners, golfers, all those who play summer games. Fall is the beginning for those who teach or attend school.

    It’s possible to see New Year’s Eve as part of a symbolic battle against winter that commences with the fire festival of Halloween and goes on through the low point of the solstice, conveniently close to the Christmas and Hanukkah festivals of light, and on to that last boozy feast of disorder on the night of December 31.

    All these things are part of the story of the year, the way we shape the days into a meaningful tale, giving arithmetic a narrative significance. The year, the day and the month, of course, have a physical reality, based on the movement of earth, sun, moon—though our numerical renderings are a bit approximate and need occasional adjustment.

    But what about the week? There is a charming book by Witold Rybczinksi called Waiting for the Weekend, about the way human beings have chosen to punctuate our lives with an invented pattern based on the number 7. And about the related pattern of work and leisure.

    The question of Sunday shopping—recently raised once again in the Island—is most commonly thought of as raising conflicts between the religious, who insist on a Sunday sabbath, and the secular, who want to shop all the time. That is partly at issue, but an agreed-upon pattern of work and leisure may appeal to the irreligious as well. (That of course leaves aside the problem of the variable sabbath, Muslim Friday, Jewish Saturday, Christian Sunday.)

    Whatever we choose to do with our leisure time, most of us like to have a certain pattern to our experience. As a writer I can work at any hour of the day or night, but over the years I have mostly chosen a five-day week. No need for that, but it gives the rush of time a certain conventional shape. Alice Munro once said she worked seven days a week, which suggests to me a proceeding that is in part a chosen discipline and perhaps equally offers an escape from anxiety. (Don’t tell Alice I said that.)

    So we have the story of the week, bars with TGIF specials, church on Sunday for some, the Monday morning blues, then the story of the month, the predictable arrival of bills, the menstrual cycle with its signal importance in the life of young adults, and finally the annual recurrence beloved of gardeners and economists, its incremental arithmetic reminding us of our inevitable aging. And so we shape our narrative.

    PS. Happy New Year.

Mystery Writer

The Other Notebook

by David Helwig

The poems of Homer were not written by Homer but by another man of the same name who lived in the same time and place." I came upon that joke when I was in my teens, and it stuck in my mind as embodying a certain kind of truth about things that are lost in the mists of time.

It came back to me as I glanced through a copy of the last summer's issue of Queen's Quarterly and found an article by the journalist Michael Posner with the latest theory about that Great Literary Conundrum: Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

William Shakespeare you say?. Won't do. The article purveys the view that his works were created by a woman, Amelia Lanier, an Elizabethan figure who had previously been cast as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Posner offers list of celebrated artists and thinkers who have insisted that "a mere country boy" couldn't have created that great series of plays. The list includes such worthies as Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Henry and William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Galsworthy, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and Walt Whitman.


(It strikes me as odd that Dickens, the half-educated son of a ne'er-do-well clerk, should subscribe to this odd bit of snobbery.)

Shakespeare has often been called the National Poet of England, and his is the pre-eminent literary imagination for all of us whose first language is English. He wrote when the language was still highly malleable, before the rules and regulations of good English had been firmly established, and when the invention and intrication of words was part of the normal way of things. His poetic richness is a reflection of his age, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Certainly the known facts of Shakespeare's life cannot account for the imagination that produced A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, and all the other original and surprising plays that make up his body of work. A few days ago I watched a not-bad BBC television production of The Tempest and was once again left in a state of astonishment, less by the production than by the play, one of my favourite works of art, all poetic brilliance and human richness.

Human richness? Caliban and Ariel human? Well yes, in a way. Certainly Caliban and Ariel are something less and something more than mere men, and yet they seem to be not merely monster or spirit, but poetic extensions of what it is to be us

One of my favourite books about Shakespeare is Harold Bloom's Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, which attributes to the poet powers of invention all but divine. Of course it is strange that those complex and magical creations should be confected by a mere glove-maker's son from a small country town, married at 18 to an older woman already pregnant on their wedding day, a man who later became an actor and producer, and seems to have had a sharp way with money and property, able to leave a substantial estate to his heirs.

Such genius from a bourgeois with a theatrical streak, inclined to litigation, ambitious for position? Oh dear, surely not! But if that character doesn't suit as the author of the plays, what character would? Consider his colleagues Christopher Marlowe, the romantic over-reacher, atheist and spy, always in trouble, and Ben Jonson, the irascible bricklayer and scholar: each leaves the mark of his personality on his characters. But what kind of person is reflected in Shakespeare's characters, Bottom, Hamlet, Lear, Falstaff, Macbeth, Shylock, Cleopatra? No set of biographical facts could account for them.

Harold Bloom puts it well. "The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare," he writes, "the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe. How he was possible, I cannot know, and after two decades of teaching little else, I find the enigma insoluble."

Buying In

The Other Notebook

by David Helwig

Recently, residents of Prince Edward Island have been hearing news reports about the way the Provincial Nominee program, a program that brings in immigrant investors, has been run. The auditors and the investigative reporters are equipped to deal with accusations of inefficiency or impropriety, and I’ll leave all that to them.

But the nature of the program itself raises questions that bother me.

As I understand it the Provincial Nominee program offers rapid and more or less certain acceptance for potential immigrants who agree to put up substantial amounts of money, most of which is to be invested in Canadian businesses. Some of the money is treated as unreturnable expenses.

Put simply, what this amounts to is that we are asking potential immigrants who have a good deal of money to buy their way in. We are selling permanent residence status. In effect we are selling Canadian citizenship. Personally I don’t like it.

Immigration is always a complicated business. In the long run any country will have to construct an immigration policy that is in its own long term best interest. Immigration to Canada has provided benefits for the country and for those who chose to come here, though most immigrants will find the first years very hard. At the time my grandparents were choosing to move to Toronto from England there were still signs to be seen where hiring was being done saying No English Need Apply.

There were periods in the past when Canadian immigration policy was openly racist, and as attempts were made to change that, to achieve some kind of objectivity, various sets of rules were invented, in the hope of managing some kind of balance between fairness and self-interest. You can get points for education and training. It is an advantage to have family members here already. There is a board which attempts to decide which applicants claiming to be refugees are to be allowed in.

But it’s still a complex and difficult business, and mistakes will always be made. We read news stories about despairing refugee applicants hiding out in churches. We hear concerns about the creation of immigrant ghettoes. Probably we don’t often hear of the individuals who are disappointed in what they find here and wish they had never left home. As we analyze the social consequences of immigration, we argue about multiculturalism—whatever it may be—and whether it is a good idea.

Still, Toronto currently has the reputation of being the most racially mixed city in the world, and overall a lot of things seem to work out. Groups from new backgrounds find their way to economic success, find jobs and professions, begin to hold political office. Canada has had the reputation of the best place in the world to live, and certainly a lot of people wish to come here, whatever the difficulties.

But do we want to ask people to buy their way in? This is quite different from a concern about whether potential immigrants have the money or skill to survive. There is nothing wrong with allowing rich immigrants, just as there is nothing wrong with allowing poor immigrants, but Canadian governments have created various specialized programs, some to provide certain kinds of labour, some in the hope of providing investment capital, and I suspect that most of the obvious flaws in immigration policy arise in these specialized programs. Surely all immigrants should be treated in pretty much the same way. We don’t want “guest-workers”—that infamous category of immigrants within Europe—and we also don’t want to be seen selling citizenship to the highest bidders.

PEI may well be in need of a larger population and therefore of more immigration. It’s possible, even likely, that such immigration will lead to economic benefits. But to demand money up front from potential immigrants seems to me dishonourable and a devaluing of our citizenship—however proper or improper the administration of the program may turn out to be.

Lost and Found

The Other Notebook

by David Helwig

Your grown-up children, when they visit, bring with them their own world, their careers involving specialized information, strange news. My younger daughter, trained as a chemist, is now a conservation scientist, involved in research on works of art and other historic human creations. Recently she has been examining finds from the melting ice patches and glaciers in the Yukon and northern British Columbia.

This summer she told me about her most recent project. And about Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi.

“Long ago person found.” That’s the meaning of that phrase in the South Tuchone language, and it refers to a human body discovered by hunters as a result of the melting of long-frozen ice at a location in northern British Columbia. The discovery was made in 1999, and the body has since been cremated, but small samples were kept for research, and in the last year or so the results of the investigations have begun to appear. In April of 2008 a conference on the subject was held in Victoria, and some of the conclusions were reported in the press.

The body, the scientists report, was that of a man, dressed in a cloak of fur made from the skins of arctic ground squirrels, and with a hat of woven of spruce roots. He seems to have travelled back and forth between the interior of BC and the coast. His death is estimated to have taken place 200 to 300 years ago, and DNA testing has discovered a number of First Nations people currently living in the area who have a family connection.

My daughter is not an anthropologist or physician, so she has been investigating, not the body, but a wood and iron tool that was found with it. This kind of research is immensely detailed, all the resources of modern science directed at, for example, the rusted remains of the blade on the man’s tool—a puzzle, since the people of that time and place did not smelt iron. Analysis of the rusted remains may help to document the source of the blade; the most likely source is wrought iron obtained through trade.

We think of world history as an account of large scale events, movements of populations, tribal migrations, arrivals from far off, but it is the slow and precise analysis of documents and objects that allows historians to paint these broad outlines. The substructure of detail is the factual basis for the narratives and theories that are put into words.

I might have read about all this in the newspaper reports, but instead I got the news when I asked my daughter what she was working on these days, and suddenly was made aware of the dead man, frozen for centuries, appearing out of the ice, the tool that had fitted his hand passing temporarily through the hands of my family.

How did they feel, the First Nations men and women who proved to be related to the frozen traveller? A great-great-great-great uncle or cousin—about twenty years old he was—journeying over the glacier one summer day and struck down somehow, found hundreds of years later in his cloak of ground squirrel and his woven hat.

I wonder what was he thinking that day as he travelled inland. Probably he had plans for where he would spend the night. But the night went on for two centuries. Perhaps years later a family member speculated on why the young man hadn’t returned from that journey. Might have wondered if he met with interior people on the far side of the glacier and remained with them.

Now that news is out you can google Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, the South Tutchone name by which the rediscovered man is known, and turn up dozens of references. A day traveller over the ice field, then a lost and hidden body, he has now become one of the many ghosts in the populous electronic universe.

The Grass is Greener

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Irving Layton has a poem somewhere about golfers. “No theory of pessimism is complete,” he says, “which altogether ignores them.” Yes, the game can be obsessive, pointless, infuriating, but I spend quite a few summer hours on the green fairways, hitting and pursuing a little white ball.

At best golf is a collaboration with the landscape. It’s a geographical game, and it was an accident of geography that brought me to it. When I was ten years old my family moved away from Toronto to a house in a small town, two blocks from a golf course.

The course had been constructed on the edge of the water where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario, and it was built on public land leased from the Crown, so they couldn’t be too restrictive about those who went down the high banks to swim.

Now and then, while you were swimming, you would hear a splash as a golf ball hurtled down from the fairway and into the water. Or sometimes you would find one that had rolled down the mud bank into a clump of grass. Boys would patrol the banks or walk and swim the shallows to pick up lost balls. The balls found in the water were stowed in the finder’s bathing suit, creating the effect of some bizarre urinary disease.

My first contact with golf was finding lost balls and selling them outside the clubhouse. Then I began to hang around looking for someone who might need a caddy. The first couple of clubs I owned were bought for two bits at a church rummage sale. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen I had a summer job in a butcher shop, and was able to lay out the money for a junior membership. In summer I worked all day and in the evening I hauled my second-hand, unmatched clubs down the street and played nine holes before dark. I learned to play by reading about Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and by imitating the best players on the local course. I remember one named Dominic Kolbuck—usually a finalist for the course championship—who had a long lazy swing that sent the ball a good distance down the fairway.

I was nineteen the last time I spent a summer in Niagara, and then I stopped playing golf. I attended university in Toronto, worked various places in the summers, then married, went to England, had a child, and as my life went on, there was no time or money for golf. My old clubs disappeared somewhere.

By the time of the new millennium I was a grandfather who had settled on Prince Edward Island, and once again the accident of geography had placed me close to a golf course. It was forty-five years since I had picked up a club, but the idea of playing again was in the air, and one day I asked my friend Hugh MacDonald if he might be interested in a round now and then. When he said that he might I went off to a store selling second-hand sports equipment, and in ten minutes they had offered me a good deal on a set of woods, a set of irons and a bag.

Golf is just a way to spoil a good walk, they say. And there are days when you don’t see the hills and the trees and the water because you’re buried in the game. But on another morning as you stroll along you see or hear a new kind of bird. I still remember that long lazy swing I saw as a kid, and there are moments when, with an effortless sweep of the club, the ball soars through the air. Look at how it sails, then comes back to the ground, bounces, rolls to where it waits for you in the perfect green grass.

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