A bit about source texts in Fast Commute
The wind is there with you. And you are there with the wind. — Leroy Little Bear
I’ve been asked a few times how I wrote my new book, how I put it all together, kept its threads intact and untangled, how I found its form. Fast Commute is a 70-or-so-page poem that casts a wide net (flails about wildly?), moving through suburbs, archives, watersheds, construction lots, ditches, industrial yards, demo sites. It’s on roads and rails a lot. It looks out many windows.
I’ve been spending this week next to the waters of Nottawasaga Bay—turquoise to pewter, stingingly cold, the dog lies down in it in any kind of weather, the birds so busy around it, I’ve seen so many swallows it’s making me homesick, and swans patrol the area, cormorants, and millions and millions of midges, enough that the verb collide comes to mind when I walk into a swarm of them—and I happened to bring with me the notebook I was keeping as the idea for the book was taking shape, the notebook that was once and at first the poem.
I had forgotten how truly crammed and ranging this notebook/poem was to begin with, and how it started its life two-pronged: as a process of listening/looking that I’ve written a bit about, and a process of reading. The notebook collected the evidence before I knew quite what I was collecting or why. The sense of needing to dig in is there, along with showing settler folly and damage. More a scrapbook in places, clippings taped into it, notes to self, references, bigger pages folded in, and many, many excerpts taken down from books. A dozen flips of the pages shows passages from Derek Hayes’s Historical Atlas of Canada:
CPR stock had declined, which was a serious matter for financing that used stock as security. In September there had been a severe early frost on the Prairies, and it had done a lot of damage. The western land boom, which the building of the CPR had touched off, collapsed, and there were attacks on the CPR in the press. By March 1885 Stephen felt that the end was near for the railway, but help arrived at the last minute. Macdonald’s government was too tightly identified with the Pacific railway to let it flounder at this stage, a fact they came to realize at the eleventh hour. And public [I insert a note here saying Read: Eastern] sentiment suddenly changed with the outbreak of Louis Riel’s North-West
Rebellion. [Deface the quotes!] The relatively speedy transport of troops, despite problems at the gaps in the track and sections of unballasted track north of Lake Superior, graphically demonstrated the value of the Pacific railway [as war tool], making it much easier for MacDonald to gain passage of a bill to provide further assistance to the CPR. [and the Last Spike driven by commander of troops]
Gregory Younging in Write magazine, Fall 2017:
In contrast to Eurocentric thought, almost all Indigenous thought asserts that property is a sacred ecological order and manifestations of that order should not be treated as commodities.
Marianne Brandis in The Grand River: Dundalk to Lake Erie:
This river—here—is everywhere….It’s still/again a beautiful river.
Rebecca Belmore, from Lisa Myers’s show Carry Forward at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery:
The people who cut this down didn’t give any thanks. They just took.
I try not to be “objective” about anything. I fear those who are unemotional and I solicit emotional response whenever I can.
Leroy Little Bear, from a feature in Alberta Views magazine:
Only when the rocks begin to know you will they tell you their story.
Much fodder from booklets made by the North Battleford Board of Trade, 1906 & 1911:
Railways make a city and on this fact we place our assurance for North Battleford’s future.
Every visitor to North Battleford comments on the purity of the water used by the town. The water is taken from an intake well on the banks of the beautiful Saskatchewan River. The water filters from the river through a large sand bed into this well, the supply being inexhaustible.
Partridges, prairie chickens, mallard, teal, canvas back, pintail ducks, wild geese, cranes, badgers, wolves, antelope, etc., are common while bear and moose have been seen and shot.
I have caught eighty-five pounds of pike and pickerel in a few hours fishing. We caught 4,500 white fish, which shows that fishing pays.
Money! Money! Money!
If you want to make it, see…
J. T. Simpson
The Man Who Sells the…EARTH
You will find him over the post office
And a quote attributed to Joseph Howe in a pamphlet for the Fort Battleford National Historic Park, published by National Parks Canada in the 1950s:
A wise nation preserves its records…gathers up its muniments…decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead…repairs its great public structures and fosters national pride and love of country by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the past.
My thinking at this time was to continue where Settler Education left off—with the moment after the Resistance, the resulting influx of settlement—and to do a similar thing as that previous book and draw the connections between that time and this present one, show their similarities and connections, commit a bit of conflation, have that history hover alongside and overtop the present-day, my present-day, my trips to work, my walking around, my finding the trails beside rivers in new cities, my wandering around those cities’ fringes.
I have a whole glut of saved links as well, to Peter Mettler’s Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (which, significantly, I can’t watch all the way through without falling asleep—something about the sound in it, and something also lulling and familiar about it); Ron Bashford & Bob Lower’s A House on the Prairie (“Shelter is the first necessity, any shelter. At first, the land supplies it.”); to Wilfred Laurier’s speech in defence of Louis Riel (mostly for the number of times the word I appears in it); to a brief compendium of food spills on the 401; to the history of lilacs in Canada; to books about William Notman & Son, commissioned to photograph “the instant settlements created by the railway,” as Dan Ring in The Urban Prairie describes it.
All of this was sketching out the larger contours of the book, a way for me to find my legs, find the voice that would tell it. At first, I thought it would all go in the book, a collage of my own words and the words, the evidence, found in the secondary sources, but as the work progressed I realized those sources were the scaffolding, and eventually they’d need to be removed. But traces of that scaffolding remain in the book, help comprise its thinking, help it teem. I needed to hear all these other things before I could start saying anything.
Interspersed with the many references and quotations are scant words I wrote in reply, housed in square brackets so I could keep track of my own voice. Those scant words, I see now, were the poem.