Monday, January 23, 2006

Thanks for All the Fish

An Endangered Canadian Poet, Once that Most Abundant of Species, Giving His Two Cents Worth
Poet Carmine Starnino Wants New Fishing Regulations

First it was the cod. There were lots. There were lots and lots of cod. There were cod coming out of Newfoundland’s magic waters for 400 years. There were big cod and little cod, all with their mouths like ladies' silk purses. You could row a wooden boat off of any bay on Newfoundland, dodge the icebergs, drop down an old bent-up coathanger, and catch cod until you thought cod were God.

God were cod.

Newfoundlanders were fishing for cod before the Plains Indian got the horse.
They used to sing songs and dance dances, as maps to the fishing grounds.

There were a lot of cod.

X Marks the Spot
1693 Newfoundland Pirate Map
Showing all the singing dories of Newfoundland, on the right.

Here’s an excerpt about that from the showing Living On Earth:

BEST: [SINGING] From Bonavist' Cape to the stinkin' isles, The course is north for 40 miles, When you must steer away noreast till Cape Freells Gull Island bears nor' norwest. Then nor' norwest 33 miles, three leagues offshore lies Whadhams Isles, where all the rock you must take there, two miles south scuddies from miles it bears...

BEST: Sometimes songs were used as navigational aids for people who couldn't really read charts and maps. And you wanted to be able to make the right turns to get around the reefs and rocks and stuff, you know.

BROOKES: So, it's kind of a sung map? The Whole Show. (Audio, too.)

All gone.

It’s for the tourists now.


Now, according to Carmine Starnino, in his book A Lover’s Quarrel, it’s poets, too.

Whichever Way You Look at it: Carmine Starnino is Unhappy


The heart and soul of the nation.

The mapmakers of the fishing grounds of our heads and our hearts.



Unhappy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Who would have thought it! Poetry as tourist attraction. Is that all we have left? It’s not as if we’re talking about the carrier pigeon here, folks. After four generations of government support, they’re everywhere. Who knew! Poets by the thousands. Poetry books popping out of the woodwork.

And few readers.

Ah, ahem. Really?

Canadian Poetry Reader Keeping His Eye on the By Catch
Worldwide, 1/4 of all fish caught in the sea are thrown back, dead.
Readers have never had it so good.

It is, of course, a wasteful way to make fish and chips.

But that’s what you get when you introduce foreign species into an ecosystem. Look what happened to the Plains Indians when they got the horse:

Horses helped Indians do virtually everything—move, hunt, trade, and wage war—more effectively, but they also disrupted subsistence economies, wrecked grassland and bison ecologies, created new social inequalities, unhinged gender relations, undermined traditional political hierarchies, and intensified resource competition and warfare.
The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures by Pekka Hämäläinen


They are left with masks. In museums.

I guess that's a choice we have to make sometimes: to keep using something, even if it goes ragged, or to pin it up to a wall and charge people to come and shoot at it.

Sooooooo.... while you're adjusting your aim, why not check out this little piece of museum work?

Newfoundland Poets Sing for their Supper (and their editors)
In his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the WorldMark Kurlansky has written what Library Journal describes as an "engaging history of a ‘1000-year fishing spree.’"

Well, that's one way of going about it.

Starnino’s solution to the disruption of ecology by the introduction of the poet to the Canadian diet is to institute a new list of fishing regulations:

Carmine Starnino’s New Fishing Regulations

A poem will rhyme.
A poem will use classical English metrics.
Anything else will be thrown back as a fraud.

Thanks, Carmine.

Fraudulent Poets, Thrown Back Into the Sea to Sink or Swim

Yes, that’s the ticket.

Go for the biggest fish. Nothing else will do. Take your big ideological trawler and hit the high seas, outside Canada’s 200 Mile Nautical limit. Let down your nets. Drag them around for awhile, and bring them back up. Put it all on ice, and Bring all those real Canadian poets home to Montreal!

Hint: You can serve them (or enjoy them) here.

Another hint: Here’s the seafood Menu:

Warning! This is not a poem! Read at your own risk!

Seafood Menu

Mussels Marinière
Fillet of Sole Meunière
Halibut Steak
Doré Amandine
Coquille Saint-Jacques
Frog Legs Provençale
Shrimps Sautéed in Garlic Butter
Scallops Sautéed in Garlic Butter
Fried Squid
Fillet of Red Salmon
Broiled Icelandic Scampis
Broiled Alaska King Crab Legs
Lobster Tail
Fresh Lobster Boiled or Broiled (market price)
Seafood Platter
Fresh Lobster Boiled or Broiled

Don’t forget. Specials start from $7.95.

The trouble with drifts nets, though, is they have a lot of by-catch. You know: stuff you throw back. Weird stuff. Stuff the gulls eat.

The Always Clever and Passionate Canadian Poet Carmine Starnino
He believes that the best way to have a Canadian identity is to be cool about it.

The question is: is it possible to have a country with no identity?

With the exception of Starnino, who is really annoyed that Canadian poetry is unknown around the world, the answer, appears to be, yes, it is possible — at least among those who realize, these days, that poetry is not written on paper, that it is, instead, written on the world.

Even Shakespeare knew that, though. Don’t believe it? Let’s peek in on the late night feature screening of his play As You Like It, shall we?

O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character;
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witness'd every where.
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste and unexpressive she.

See: you don’t need pulp and paper plants when you write right on the trees. You don’t need Ancient Forest Friendly Paper. That’s what Shakespeare imagined: a return to the garden of Eden. Poems on every tree trunk.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Reborn
and Happily Turning Trees into Trochees, Dactyls, and Iambs
Paper Mill in Quesnel B.C.
Check it Out. Here’s a whole forest waiting to go on stage.
Of course, you don’t get that view from Montreal.

No wonder Canadians are confused. Such a huge stage and the audiences don’t come. No wonder Carmine is trying to do something about it. My God Cod, I’m with him on that one.

I like those big trees. Here’s a few with poems nailed to their trunks:

Shakespeare on the Hit and Run
Poetry Without a Book to Rest In

Because we’re never ones to rest on our laurels, Canadians have internalized the disappointment. Has this helped?

Equality for all, we say. From $600 US.

Harold: Has equality for all helped, Eve?

Eve: Well, let’s backtrack and take it one step at a time, OK?

Harold: Ok.

Eve: Because you’re getting a little ahead of me here.

Harold: Ok. You want me to dance it instead?

Adam: No, no, Harold. That won’t be necessary.

Eve: Thanks, Adam. (Turning to me with a big smile.) So, you’re saying, up to now, we’ve tried to slip this identity angst through parliament as an issue of equity?

Adam: Including recent and controversial bills to legalize same sex marriage?

Harold: Well, yes. Without identity, the body is a blank slate for the mind.

The Body is a Blank Slate for the Mind, or
No Canadian poet can shoot down those futurist poets in Europe without the help of the working man.
Coming Soon to a Pulp Mill Near You.

Eve: Harold, that’s just what I mean. (Softening.) Oh, Harold. It’s good to see that poetry can still whip up some interest, indeed, but, you know, still. And, yesssss, maybe transgenderism and homosexuality are not quite the way to sneak it past the neighbour’s radar, but, well, still, right. Right?

Harold: (Crestfallen) Right. Would this work, then? I mean, to slip it past the neighbour’s radar?

Eve: (Shrugs and turns to Adam in despair.)

Adam: (Trying a new angle of approach.)
So, it’s a nation of poets?

Harold: And politicians, yes.

Canadian Politician and Auto Parts Heiress Belinda Stronach
Puckering Up for the Voters
She doesn’t look too happy about it, though, does she.

Eve: (Exasperating! Making another try.) So, if Canadian poets don’t get on Oprah. I mean, if they don’t get any useful recognition ...

Harold : Um... that would be all poets.

Adam: Right, if poets can’t get on Oprah, what reward have they had for their work? What possible reward could there be for turning yourself into by-catch?

Harold: Well, this, actually...

Poetic By-Catch
The Italian Renaissance Poet Petrarch Turning into a Teenaged Girl
Note the plucked eyebrows
This is what has traditionally been called Literary Cross Dressing.
Note the eyes that don’t line up!

Eve: (Still confused.) For this he invented the sonnet? I’m not sure I’d give that man a God to eat.

Adam: He looks a bit like a Cod.

Harold: The thing is, Petrarch was a Canadian before his time.

Eve: And there’s the trouble.

The COD has no entry for "sexual desire"
According to Lorie Boucher.

Here’s a teaser of what she says:

The reader’s noble quest for dirty knowledge ends thusly in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary; searching for sexual desire is fruitless. It’s not as though valuable dictionary real estate cannot afford one more compound word related to sexuality — the COD includes definitions for sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual interference, and sexually transmitted disease. If one were in the habit of highlighting coincidental omissions to suit his or her own theses and had no aversion to non-scientific, correlative deductions, one might wonder whether the absent definition for sexual desire is deliberate. As the Canadian language authority, is the COD making a statement about the Canadian sexual consciousness by circumscribing the points of reference to abuse, assault, harassment, interference, and disease?

Succinctly, she adds:

Luckily, the COD does not have the last word on Canadian sex language.


Still, in this age of overfishing, can you see Canada’s poets dressing up like Petrarch? Can you see them buying their laurel leaves here? (scroll down) Real quality: hand-made out of formed rubber, not paper? $3.00 each or 12 at $2.50? Sure, in the 14th Century, even, yes, in the 1970s, but now....?

Or maybe this?

Codfish Imitating Canadian Poet John Ralston Saul

Eve: Exactly. Cod was always playing with fish.

Oh, what a tangle of lines and lures! Now the poets of Canada are writing poetry reviews. Now they’re dancing for the tourists. Now they’re off leading poetry workshops. Now they’re, gasp!, turning away from cod, to ... wild salmon.

Here’s a picture of Canadian poet D.C. Reid, after landing a real vilanelle.

In fact, now they’re secretely writing novels.

Hey, sometimes not so secretely.

Margaret Atwood is a Poet Who Writes Novels
She outed herself years ago, with a novel called, appropriately enough, Surfacing

Now she’s outed herself again with a device that will sign books at a distance.

She claims it will better allow her to stare her readers in the eye. Vote here on Atwood’s poem about the fish hooks and eyes. When I last checked, it had a user approval rating of 82%

Eve: Gasp!

Adam: (With notebook in hand.) Ummm.... how many poets are still in the closet?

Harold: That’s not the point. That’s not what Leonard Cohen has been asking us to realize for fifty years. Leonard wants us to realize that we’re all guilty. Being from Montreal, you see, he had a healthy confrontation with French culture, like, I would expect, this police photography session from the movie Les Quatre Cents Coups/ The 400 Blows:

Demonstration of French Aesthetic Technique
from Les Quatre Cents Coups

334 CU. Mme Doniel is sitting in the Judge's chambers. During the interview, she is very nervous and continually fidgets with her scarf and shifts her eyes.

If it came to that we could take him back, but he'd have to promise to change completely. If only you could scare him, Your Honor.

335 CU of the Judge.
But that's not my role, Madame.

336 CU of Mme Doinel.

But we can't control him.

337 CU of the Judge.

Perhaps you exercise control, too . . . intermittently. Tell me, is it true that for an entire weekend he was left . . . alone at home?

338 CU OF Mme Doinel.

MME DOINEL (pausing a moment):
My husband is busy with an automobile club . . . It's possible we left the child alone sometimes . . . He hates sports - he'd rather stay shut up for hours at the movies and ruin his eyes.
scene from Les Quatre Cents Coups / The 400 Blows

Those French know how to take a shot.

Oh, but that’s not all that’s out of line in the Canadian house of literature. Now the novelists are complaining that no one buys novels anymore. Now the non-fiction writers claim that no one buys non fiction. Well, what are they buying? Poetry?

Aha, so That’s What People Are Reading in There!

I think it’s fair to say that nobody knows what they’re buying, actually. To combat this, though, some poets are bringing out the heavy guns.

Canadian Poetry Field Artillery:

"I used to hate poetry. I still do at times - another clever image, another felicitous line and I'll go crazy." Carmine Starnino

Carmine Starnino, Montreal poet and critic,
who believes that "a Canadian poem must, in a sense, be cold to its Canadianness" (The Danforth Review), and who says, his voice drenched with good old chill-you-to-the-bone Canadian snow,

"I’m having a lot of healthy fun hurting my career, especially when the concern for one’s "career" is, as you well know, part of the sophisticated payback system of checks and balances put into place to better maintain our conspiracy of silence,"

believes that Canadian poetry is the confrontation of English poetry with Canadian experience.

Christian Vézina: A Canadian Poet
I ask you: is this English?

Poète, récitaliste, amoureux des mots, Christian Vézina réinvente l'art de dire. Depuis près de vingt ans, Christian Vézina monte sur scène pour nous faire découvrir les trésors de la littérature et démythifier la poésie.

I’m not so sure what Starnino thinks of French Canadian poets, or poets in the west who, because of isolation from Starnino’s beloved and lovable Montreal or just a completely different history altogether, have confronted American or European poetry instead, or, even, have confronted Canadian poetry from the outside, because that’s the kind of country it is, but, you know, I think Carmine Starnino, who passionately wants Canadian poetry to be part of the world, well, he should be more careful with this words.

Otherwise it’s not even funny anymore.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien
Proud to be French
He kept us out of the Iraq mess, too.

I don’t get it.

English tradition? Canadian experience?

Yeah, maybe. Still, Starnino’s parents came from Italy in the same decade during which my father came from Germany. If we’ve confronted British tradition, it has been from a Canadian experience rooted as much in Europe as in Canada.

Mussolini the Toy Soldier (Centre):
A Piece of European Tradition Which I Can’t Get Out of My Head

The symbol of Italian fascism was the bundle of sticks tied up with a rope and an ax, carried by the soldier to the right. In this old roman device, each stick symbolizes industries, people, or nations bound together. Individually they can be broken, but together, and bound by an axe, a single strong leader, they are invincible.

Mussolini liked that idea. He put this symbol on his flag.

He also got his very own cigarette lighter.

Dictator With a Fiery Tongue: Flip Top Mussolini

He also got his very own poet, although the evidence suggests that he didn’t really want him: Ezra Pound, American, modernist, angry, devoted. During World War II, Pound considered himself the only patriot left in the United States — so much so that he spent the war in Italy, broadcasting to the American troops that if they understood their constitution, if they understood economics, if they read poetry, for God’s sake, they would realize there was no need for war, that the war was, in fact, not only inconstitutional, but in really bad taste.

Pound was interred for 13 years in an insane asylum for that one.

Needless to say, he did not get his very own cigarette lighter.

Still, even when you’re a strong-willed man used to telling people what to do, when tradition tells you to look in one direction and your heart tells you to look in another, where, exactly are you going to look?

The Elderly Ezra Pound,
returned to Italy as an unrepentent Fascist,
showing his readers where to look.

Here’s what he wrote about Mussolini, while the American Army held him in a gorilla cage:

"The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders."

The other inmates housed along with him were the murderers and rapists of the American Army. Murderers and rapists, in an army? Now, that takes some doing, I would expect.

With his line about the shoulders, Pound, the man who invented modern poetry in English, suggests that Mussolini was a peasant who brought a real message of the people from the land itself. Pound goes on (and on) to make links, links to ancient sacrifice. In fact, the suggestion is that Mussolini’s blood is going to fertilize another revival of people from the good earth.

Something like this maybe?

Dictator as Future Fertilizer
Martin Sheen Sacrifices Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now
British Literature Meets American Literature Meets Vietnamese Experience

For a modernist, Pound wasn’t so modern in the end, now was he!

Pound wrote his famous lines about Mussolini, of course, after his experiment with poetry as dictatorship came to ruin, and before he was sickened by the brutality he saw within human nature: before he figured out that the only way to win a war was to become the war.

Fast forwarding to Ezra’s final years, when soldiers from his country were going on manhunts in the jungles of Vietnam...

in Apocalpyse Now it becomes pretty clear to everybody that no civilized man can win a war. Nobody likes it much, but there you have it.

It’s in the script. Did you see it?

Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s character in the movie, has this to say about war:

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now
We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig. Cow after cow. Village after village. Army after army....

Sound familiar? Just compare:

Mussolini: Poster Boy for Italian Wine
Compare the image on the Right with Colonel Kurtz Above

Still not convinced that the blood sacrifice worked, that the American sacrifice of Mussolini in World War II came back to haunt American experience? Try this:

Was it Really Marlon Brando Playing Colonel Kurtz?

Literary influences are awfully hard to track down, aren’t they, but there it is, in a nutshell: Pound’s map to poetry, put in practice: image set against image, set against image, and out of that a world is born, human consciousness is born, as a spark of light.

Poetry as quick work with a pair of sharp scissors and some glue.

That’s how Pound saw it.

Or as Pound said himself: A poet uses an axe to fashion an axehandle out of a stick. The model for the handle is right there in his hands.

The Difficulty of Making Axe Handles in a Beetle-Killed Forest

Here in the Interior of British Columbia, in the West of Canada, the problem with applying fascist principles is readily apparent: just try bundling this firewood (and the axe, too) up with a rope.

Na, truth is, when it was still a tree, that’s when it had some strength.

Nothing that a few beetles pumped up on global warming can’t take care of, though.

Nothing that a few beetles rich as kings in a province that replaced all of its forests with quick-growing lodgepole pine can’t take care of, though.

In Chinook Jargon, the trade language of old British Columbia, that’s what trees were: sticks.

Such as: I live in the sticks. Meaning, I live in the bush, meaning "This is beyond the end of the earth."

What with our pulp mills and global warming, can we really afford to say that anymore?

Central Planning Kingpin Benito Krampus Mussolini
Hanging onto his stick to the very end

Eve: OK, OK, so central planning has had its successes and failures in British Columbia.

Harold: It sure has.

Eve: How did it work for Pound and poetry?

Adam: Yes, that’s the thing. Did people pick up Pound’s books and follow the map? That’s what Carmine wants to know.

Eve: Yes, that’s what I was asking.

Adam: And if they did, if they picked up his books on art, economics, poetry, and the love songs of Ancient Egypt, where on earth did they end up?

Eve: Yes. Love songs. Precisely.

Adam: (Looking up brightly.) In the confrontation of British Tradition with North American Experience?

Harold: Not exactly.

What Confrontation?
U.S. Revolutionary War Reenactment, down home style.

Next week: Ezra Pound’s Atomic Bomb


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