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2006 03 16
Imagining Toronto: The City’s Literary Cartographies
It's a city of ravines. Remnants of wilderness have been left behind. Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighbourhoods, houses built in the treetops. .... Like diving birds, Athos and I plunged one hundred and fifty million years into the dark deciduous silence of the ravines. ... Beneath a parking lot, behind a school; from racket, fumes, and traffic, we dove into the city's sunken rooms of green sunlight. Then, like andartes, resurfaced half a city away ... (Anne Michaels, from Fugitive Pieces)
Jorges Luis Borges tells us of an empire whose cartographers drew a map so complete in every detail that it covered the entirety of the region it described. In danger of engulfing the land it was meant to represent, the map had either to replace the territory or be abandoned to the wind and weather.

A literary cartography of Toronto does not appear likely to confront us with a similar dilemma. Our dilemma is a different one. Unlike the terrain in Borges' invented empire, the topography of Toronto is far from flat. The landscape of Toronto is sedimentary; it shifts in uneasy dreams of the ancient lake before rising. bpNichol wrote,
ere I begin
among the streets & houses stand around me
How land over the bridge
(du pont) to Daven's Port
& in between a sea (mer)
full tragedies are played
(from The Martyrology Book 5)
If the great challenge of cartography is fitting the curved shape of the earth to the flat text of the map, then the great challenge of literature is fitting the curved shape of being to the flat text of the page. There is always a tension between the place and its representation: the territory is always a step ahead of the story. And perhaps this tension is compounded in urban literature, which must reconcile the city's linear structures with its irregular topography. But if we look closely, we see that the curved arches of the bridge are the source of its strength; we see also that the synapses of nature are glittering and sharp-edged. Dionne Brand writes,
Nothing in a city is discrete.
A city is all interpolation
(from XX; Thirsty)
In Topophilia, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan observes that we measure objects against the scale of our own bodies and mentally organize the space around us in concentric spheres. He adds, "[t]he contradictions of life are usually resolved in narration. A geometric figure may serve the same purpose of harmonizing the opposites." Accordingly, in this city the familiar stands out in sharp relief, and bridge abutments and roadways become the narrative frame beneath which the distant ravines are suspended. From the elevated perch of our high rises, we ache for a glimpse of the great viaducts joining the edges of the valley below them. We gain a sense of the city's scale and consequence not from one or the other, but from the juxtaposition of the two.

Toronto's ravines and the bridges that cross them are a regular and significant presence in the city's literature. For Michael Ondaatje they symbolize the tasks and costs of city building:
Again and again you see vista before you and the eye must search along the wall of sky to the speck of burned paper across the valley that is him, an exclamation mark, somewhere in the distance between bridge and river. He floats at the three hinges of the crescent-shaped steel arches. These knit the bridge together. The moment of cubism. (from In the Skin of a Lion)
For Margaret Atwood they are the site of both terror and escape:
... all around me are blue arches, blue caves, pure and silent. The water of the creek is cold and peaceful, it comes straight from the cemetery, from the graves and their bones. It's water made from the dead people, dissolved and clear .... The bridge is different-looking; it seems higher above me, more solid, as if the railings have disappeared or been filled in. And it's glowing, there are pools of light along it, greenish-yellow, not like any light I've ever seen before. (from Cat's Eye)
And in Anantas Sileika's Buying on Time, a boy might receive his first kiss from a girl perched in a treehouse above the Humber River, a week before she vanishes in the raging swirl of Hurricane Hazel, reminding us, as John Bentley Mays writes in Emerald City: Toronto Visited, that "the river will let us use its ancient flood plain, but on its own terms."

And so, we are reminded that Toronto is a city of mountains inverted. The city's ravines are the basin of its geologic history and the cradle of its industrial birth. Rising above these valleys, simultaneously suspending and being girded by them, the city's great bridges and viaducts embody the tensions between the arches of nature and the geometries of culture. They expose both the textual possibilities and the representational limitations of our urban cartographies.

(St. Clair ravine bridge image by Trevor Hunter; used under the aegis of a Creative Commons licence)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/16 at 08:23 AM

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