Seeing Anne Carson on Monday is like surprising a gazelle climbing a hill on the savannah. It is like coming across a stand of three or four birch trees suddenly in a forest of maple. “I always sound so together,” she jokes at the microphone after she is introduced. We take a wrong turn from Charles street. I lead Caroline (who I have met incidentally) to the rear of the building, where there is no door, near the dumpsters. But inside the chapel I realize that the rear of the building is precisely where the reading is located—its four massive stained glass windows look out over that back parking lot. I want to take a picture of Carson standing at the foot of those windows and dwarfed by the light passing through them. But the architects of the building, who may have anticipated smartphones over one hundred years ago, ensured that the light would be low enough that the windows would always be dazzling by contrast. This is so no one inside forgets about God even when they allow their mind to wander. I see on the screens of phones raised in front of me that they are only able to pick up those four wide blocks of light. Carson reads us a story about a woman who is a forsenic splash expert who with the help of a corvid friend named “Shortpants” annoys local mafioso. It is somehow both paranoid and earnest. The protagonist reads verbal patterns like a poet. I imagine writing my own story, beginning somehow with that wrong turn. “Looking up they saw the chapel where the reading would take place. In the window a white face suddenly turned away. Impossible to say with any certainty who it was.” In the hallway outside the chapel they are selling a selection of Anne Carson’s books, including one that has yet to be released. But Anne Carson is standing about ten feet in front of the table, standing next to but not talking to one of the event’s organizers. She looks bored and casual. She is after all just a human being killing time for the same reason we are. But it is impossible not to feel scrutinized. I purchase a single book and find my seat. It’s Monday and soon we will be listening to a woman who I imagine has meant something to all of us. I keep wishing I was reading her on the page and vow to spend more time with her. A poet later claims on Instagram that they fell asleep in the second row. And as Carson introduces herself she says that her great-grandfather, one of the founders of the university, died when he accidentally mixed too much lead into his shampoo. “You may find his portrait downstairs,” she tells us. But I don’t.
The bus is a warm cocoon. Outside the day is bright and cheerful. We pass a park and a road named after the father, I am sure, of an old classmate: “H—- Park” and “H—- Road”. The park opens up into a wide ravine, and I’m pleased by the willow trees and their cascade of multifarious yellow buds. For a moment the bus drives along the concrete bridge that spans the ravine, and the ravine is all I think about: the willow trees line up like yellow pins as we pass them, all in a straight line…
At an intersection I notice a squat rectangular building, with four straight sides as a front, and a long slug-like back; the sort of shop-front you might see in the downtown, but there surrounded by hundreds of others just like it, creating a pleasing and varied atmosphere. Here it is all alone, stuck in the deep black of fresh asphalt, so new the parking lines have not yet been painted. Written on the acrylic sign: “COMPUTER SERVICES”, big and bold; followed in smaller type by “HARDWARE SERVICES; FAXING SERVICES; CD/DVD SERVICES; INTERNET SERVICES; PRINTING SERVICES,” and so on. A separate sign just beneath it displays, in interchangeable block letters, the games you can rent and play on the computers: “CALL OF DUTY 3 WORLD AT WAR WoW LEFT FOR DEAD”, etc. No attention is paid to grammar or distinction and the game names fuse together as if they were all the surface of an obsidian pool.
Video games, a virtual world, a key to alternate reality… and what are they exactly? In the past I have played them with more enthusiasm and frequency than I’d care to admit, and yet even so it was not hard to keep myself, and my emotions, removed from them– a respectable distance, one “plane” away. They were never “real”, not in the strictest sense, certainly, and not in a temporary “emotional” sense either… they expanded to the time I had for them, but they were never more than that. I have known those who blur the lines more radically than most– who throw the controllers across the room in disgust, who shout, who yell, who bang their hands hard down on the surface of their desk, so hard that they crack the wood veneer, and they don’t stop– they crack the keyboard, the arm of their chair, and the veneer on the spot of desk until it is nothing more than splinters. Smugly I have always thought myself better than them.
But what is really better? To engage oneself in something with the acknowledgement that is false, a lie, or to give oneself to it to the point where one really believes in it, where one gets angry about it, where one makes petty complaints about this or that aspect of the software and how it keeps one from really succeeding, when the terms of success are dictated, quite plainly, by all of the conditions of the software? Who is more alive? Who is more vital? I ask the question because on the bus I am reading “We”, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopic novel about a scientific future where everyone is reasonable and every impulse and thought is underneath government control… I doubt my own existence. Am I too passive? Later there is the line, as the protagonist awakens, “that one loves what he cannot control”– and I wonder is it better to love the game as you play it, even if that is insane or even abominable, or is it better to go on and on without really thinking about it? Which is worse– the self-deceiver, or the hypocrite?
These thoughts don’t mean anything. I will tell you that I was on my way to an interview. The franchise operates out of the owner’s house in a little subdivision in the northwest corner of the city. The subdivision was bright and clean, but empty. There were no trees and only one or two cars. Nothing moved. For half a block my path was followed by another man, and the world was so bleak and empty that you would have thought I would be glad to see him, but instead I was almost frightened… everything was so desolate that one understood plainly it was every man for himself. I looked all around me, at the houses, and you could tell they were dead inside, nothing moved, they were like cold concrete– and I wondered if that’s all these houses were really for, sitting in the sun on a breezy day, totally abandoned, as the men and women who lived in them worked in buildings miles away… ostentatious and useless lockers for a life’s collected knick-knacks, as far away as if they were on the moon…
The three honeybees sat looking out into traffic from their spot behind the gigantic picture window. Golden hair was constantly in motion, flipping from one side to the other, revealing alternate sides of smooth, shining necks. Red lips placed, and removed, themselves delicately from the thin, fragile panes of drinking glasses. Eyelids fluttered in the heat of conversation. Inside, the honeybees were speaking in tongues. None of the three honeybees would remember the conversation. Words were meaningless. All was performance: each gesture a gracious bow or elegant curtsy.
“Hi honeybees, my wife and I saw you on Tuesday night, sitting at a table along the window at the Avenue Bar and Grill. We hoped to stay for the performance, but we were embarrassed, in our shabby clothes, and so we only continued to the pharmacy…”
By the time the two returned, frozen hands clenched tight in their respective pockets, the three honeybees were gone. The table was empty, a void, and the many diners behind it seemed ashamed to be so exposed, as if they were missing something vital.
Two of three parts of a full year of post-secondary education are changing seasons in Toronto. So when the weather is mild, gloomy, and wet, I can’t help but be reminded of my three aborted years at the University; years, it seems to me now, which I mainly spent in quiet self-reflection shuttling myself between classes and my apartment. I don’t think I ever took public transportation for that purpose, and I can only remember taking a taxi once, or perhaps twice, when I felt the weather (rain) merited it. My coat, my usually bare hands, and my neck, I am sure, took the brunt. My legs, already strong, grew stronger. My beard turned green from moss, and my lungs tainted from pollution and smog.
Though I am, I don’t feel as if I am attending school right now, I think because I lack this physical connection. I’ve driven past (or taken a streetcar which passed nearby) the Humber College campus only once, two or three years ago, and that was when I first learned of the writing program I am enrolled in now, which I’ve since seen mentioned in the Toronto Star and advertised in Harper’s. I’m ashamed to tell you that I can’t remember where my mentor, my sole contact to the institution, lives, but I know it is not Toronto and have a vague idea it’s a small town in Ontario that begins with the letter “B”. Like me, he does not make the commute. We send pages back and forth over e-mail. I recommend the program for anyone interested in novel writing who has a stable social life and does not need school for friends, reassurance, or validation. If I’d entered the program as soon as a year and a half ago, the results, probably, would have been disastrous.
Monday I have some time (hours) after work, and I find myself at the Robarts library. In the weather, the high wet, concrete ceiling above the second floor entrance looms like that of a Gothic cathedral. Continue reading →
I leave the apartment at midnight. It is colder than I remember and I thrust my hands deep into my pockets. At the corner, the two teenagers still stand waiting in front of the convenience store, stepping and leaning around the shopfront tentatively, like children. Their cheeks are red and the girl’s nose drips. She is completely silent, and she scurries to and fro, crossing my path several times and never even making eye contact. Perhaps she is searching for a very specific aspect, perhaps she is only passing the time.
The boy is wearing a thick black parka with a bluish-grey bandanna tied underneath a sideways ballcap in Raiders colours. He isn’t short, but he’s thick and his features are vaguely Latin. A thin black beard describes his lower jaw. He coughs nervously and speaks out of the side of his mouth. He obviously doesn’t remember me from before.
“Hey, uh, do you want to buy us bud?”
I still don’t know what he means, but I shake my head no. I’m embarrassed for him. They’ve been here for hours. “No, sorry,” I say. My tone is polite and, I think, understanding. It’s first nature, though it feels awkward for this situation. Should I be aggressive? Condescending? Should I threaten to call the police? And what’s he asking for, anyway? Does he want me to buy him some papers, or schlep my way over to his drug dealer? The latter idea seems ridiculous, but what enterprising teenager could be so desperate over papers? Even I know there are other ways to smoke marijuana, and no shopkeeper is going to turn down a purchase of a 600ml pop bottle and a ballpoint pen. The boy looks disappointed. Broken, though because of his clothing I expect him to be belligerent. I have two hundred dollars in cash in my wallet, which feels dangerous. I make a mental note to conceal it while I’m paying, in case the shopkeeper is in league with the teenager, or the teenager is more industrious than he appears.
Construction at Queen’s Park station this morning. They’ve blocked off an escalator and gutted the bottom platform. Greasy machinery is exposed. Two men are standing in the fenced-off area, wearing work clothes and looking matter-of-factly at the passing commuters. Their aspects are sullen. One of them stands up straight as a nail, with long dirty black hair that sticks out like a lion’s mane, his hands on the escalator rails. The other is shorter and stands to his side, leaning heavily on a wall, his arm stretched out for support. He is bald and his eyes are framed by thick glasses.
The second man looks at the first and sticks a finger in his mouth, digging it into his teeth.
“I’ve got a fucking piece of pork chop stuck in there,” he says. “From last night. It won’t come out. It’s huge. It’s… the size of a cow.”
The statement strikes me as awkward: I want him to say “the size of the cow it came from,” and think of this compulsively the whole way up the stairs. The sound of children filters down from above, an anticipatory rebounding noise which leads me to believe that the whole room is filled with them, spread out on the ground and eating lunches pulled from polystyrene bags. “Children know where pork chops come from,” I think. “It’s likely that the man does too, but when you’re a child you think about origins more than anyone else.” I crest the stairwell and am surprised to see that the children only account for a thin single-filed line snaking through the turnstiles and making their way down the opposite staircase to the station below.