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2006 07 04
Imagining Toronto: Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Noman (1972) and Noman’s Land (1985)

I have been reading Gwendolyn MacEwen's Noman (Oberon, 1972) and Noman's Land (Coach House Press, 1985) alongside Rosemary Sullivan's rather gripping biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen (Harper Collins, 1995).

If, as Canadian literary critics reliably continue to hold, Canada is "the lonely land" (A.J.M. Smith), "a country without a mythology" (Douglas LePan), its writers constrained by a pervasive placelessness (Stephen Henighan), their creativity doused by the country's impenetrable wilderness (Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood), then Gwendolyn MacEwen's work marks two turnings: the first toward a genuinely urban literature, the second toward exposing the rich mythology underlying and infusing the city. MacEwen wasn't the first to write about the city, but her work was the first to lay out its tropes.

In her widely anthologised story, "House of the Whale" (from Noman), MacEwen describes Toronto's rising towers as sterile replicas of Haida totem poles:
I went up, and the cold steel felt strange against my skin and I sensed long tremors in the giant skeleton of the bank, and it was as if the building was alive, shivering, with bones and sinews and tendons, with a life of its own. I didn't trust it, but I went up and up and there was wind all around me. The city seemed to fall away and the voices of the few men who accompanied me sounded strangely hollow and unreal in the high air.
Returning to this image more than a decade later in "The Loneliest Country in the World" (Noman's Land), MacEwen describes the CN Tower as "a monument to nothing":
They didn't know who they were, so they came and built these big cities in the wilderness. They still found it empty so they stuck up this tower in the emptiness. They were so lonely they didn't even know it, maybe even lonelier than me.
MacEwen's city dwellers are lonely because they don't know who they are, mainly because they are lost, rent apart from culture, history, and familiar places. They are lost in the same way the city is lost, its underlying terrain ravaged and salted by its marauding builders. MacEwen writes, "the city had no winged sphinx at its entrance, no riddle and no reward." But just as a buried and culverted stream will sometimes reassert itself by breaching huge potholes in the city's roadways, so too do the city's inhabitants find pieces of themselves splayed across the urban concrete, laid out after a murder or readied to be gathered together and remade. MacEwen's work recounts our collective sense of loss and displacement, but it also offers some tentative pathmarks for restoration. In her poem, "Sunlight at Sherbourne and Bloor" (published in Afterworlds; MacLelland & Stewart, 1987), MacEwen writes,
the present is the logical outcome
Of all points in the past, and that building going up across the street has been going up forever. Everything we do now contains the seeds of its own unfolding. The bridge eases over the deep ravine.
The secret, then, to the city's identity isn't to be found in the relentless building and rebuilding of its structures, nor in the inhabitants' disquieting and unceasing quest for visceral entertainments, but in our connection to (and displacement from) the city's subterranean terrain and our own half-buried past. MacEwen's city dwellers are transient and deliberately interchangeable, but they are also fierce and sometimes free. A son of the Haida ventures into the house of the whale and challenges its structures and their resemblance to his own ancestral totems; a woman burns up disused English words as well as their meanings in the fireplace of her Toronto flat; a descendent of gypsies makes arrows and rides into Kensington Market; a man discards his identity and memory in a single flash of lightning.

And what do we do in this city, nearly twenty years after MacEwen's death? We keep reaching for something, feeling back behind us as if we know where there is a solid lip in the cliff, as if there is a sure limb somewhere on this giant tree, as if a ledge in the stream will buoy us out of the darkest pools. The CN Tower has become our totem and surest landmark, and the city's hidden laneways a kind of map to our past. The city grows solid around us, like the shell of an egg, and we burst out of it in intervals, recorded in the city's literature.


A reminder that The Scream literary festival launches tonight, featuring daily events culminating in next Monday's Scream in High Park. I'll be reading original and borrowed prose during the Scream's literary walking tour of Kensington Market this Saturday, beginning at noon at the Embassy (223 Augusta), along with the [murmur] project, host poet Gregory Betts, Barry Callagham, Emily Pohl-Weary, Klyde Broox, and Mark Truscott.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/04 at 10:41 AM

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