Dead is just the beginning. Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. When it was his funeral he out and out disappeared. We found him at the docks waiting for a boat. "O' when is there going to be a ship to bring my true love to me." He came with us without a word and according to the contractual agreement we buried him in his favourite boat where he first got married.
On a typical weekday morning, Michael Boughn, like millions of others across the GTA, is stuck in traffic.
As the congestion tightens its grip on his Volvo station wagon, it stirs his rage but - unlike you or me, content to just slam our hands on the steering wheel - the traffic also becomes his muse, for Boughn is a poet and in his poetry traffic has become a recurring theme. Here he gives eloquent voice on behalf of that massive mute throng of people screaming inside their cars across the city:
Various ramps announce
impassable blockades of jammed
up steel and rubber founding economies
He continues, expressing the absurdity of being alive in a time when we can sit inside machines that could take us faster than any humans ever before, but nobody's moving:
of the sky caught up in rivers
of red lights, silent and still
stretching into fields of grief.
Boughn gets stuck in traffic while driving his daughter, a hockey goaltender who dreams of playing for Team Canada, to various hockey practices and games around the city and its far-flung exurbs. “My last 20 years have been all about children,” he says, as a motorcycle comes to the stoplight, rumbling. “I started writing poems sitting outside their tennis lessons.” The traffic poems are part of a three volume work of poems that Boughn is writing about the city. Carrying around a black notebook, he writes poems wherever he is, all over the city. Asked about a line from his first book --
fibrillations or analogical
eruptions into parking lots across
GTA, little gestures of love oozing
into front seats with hot pizza
-- Boughn recalls that it was written while he sat in his car across from Sports Village in Vaughan. “In the car in front of me there was a dad and his son eating pizza.”
So there is goodness and love in cars, though Boughn notices something off about cars and traffic, perhaps even a culture-wide but hitherto unacknowledged BDSM practice where we are:
sewn tight, imposed angular
bound vision into knotted
contortions leave limbs
wrenched, dislocated, cramped
Traffic, it's weird -- and getting worse. Statistics Canada reports the average time spent commuting to and from work nationwide increased from 54 minutes in 1992 to 63 minutes in 2005. In a year, that adds up to about 32 working days spent sitting in traffic (five more than in 1992). And that’s the average. In Toronto, it’s nearly 80 minutes a day, of what Boughn calls the “asphalt coffin” on the “flashing doom corridor.” One study found trips here in Toronto take three times longer than they should. Globally there are places worse off, so it’s good that someone has recognized the poetic potential of traffic. One hopes that knowing about the sheer unlikeliness of having a traffic poet in our midst makes it just a little tiny bit more interesting to be going nowhere.
I am getting closer to my destiny
even the slingshot
bayonet would ad
to my stick
Year of mercy is over
Year of mercy is over
Francis closed the gate
I can't walk on my knees
it hurts me
as I kneel
I can take any other pain
But devour not give
I have a bag on my shoulder
full of supposedly worthless
On my fairly broad
-- Piotr Manycz
-- Piotr Manycz
Here’s a tale for you, a bridge to another story: On a Toronto street on a recent afternoon a lion was spotted dragging a heavy boat across a desert. The lion, very tired, came to an island in the desert where a monkey-monk lived. You look like you're lost, said the monkey-monk. Yes I am, said the Lion, I’m looking for the ocean. Hmmmmm, said the monkey monk, I have a friend, the sandfish, he swims in the sand, and he’ll help you. And the sandfish appeared, saying, Hey Lion your problem is you’re not actually lost, because you’re not meant to sail the ocean! You are indeed meant to sail the desert! But the poor Lion, confused, can only say: Well my boat won’t move on the desert, I’ve been dragging it. No, the sandfish responded, I have a special bell for you: when you hit it you won’t hear anything but you will always know where to go and the boat will move. So the lion hit the bell looked toward the west and disappeared.
Well all that happened just like that on a Toronto street, after a man wearing a multihued vest woven in the Himalayas opened a box he had been carrying and pulled out a large flat stone. He placed the stone on the sidewalk. Then he removed a variety of trinkets -- the lion, the bell, the fish, the monkey monk, and others -- from the box and sat them beside the stone. The man in the Himalayan vest is Norman Perrin, the founder of Toronto’s folktale library, and the stone is what he calls ‘the story stone’, which he uses to bring folktales to the streets. A few minutes after he had set up his stuff, a couple of teenagers breezed by on skateboards. Intrigued by the set up, they stopped in front of Norman. “Hey man what you doing?” one of them asked. “I’m about to make a story. Wanna join?” The above tale was what they came up with together, adding each plot twist after picking up a new trinket.
When the story was finished the teenagers gave each other high fives and went on their way. But something in the story has got to Norman. “I feel like that lion dragging the boat across the desert,” says Norman. What Norman is dragging around is the loss of his beloved library and performance space, the Four Winds Library. The library is currently in storage since he’s been kicked out of his place in the Junction due to redevelopment. The woman who gave him the eviction notice happened to be Albanian, and after she handed him the notice, asked -- and here Norman mimes a thick Albanian accent -- “Do you have any stories on Albania?” As luck would have it he was standing right in front of that section of his library, and he reached down and handed her Post Wheeler’s Albanian Folk Tales. Needless to say, Norman’s library is extensive, with over 6000 books, and Norman has made it open to the public since 1990. It may be the only library in the world that is geared to the specific needs of the working storyteller and folktale researcher.
“When I was a kid the nearest library was ten miles away and I used to hitchhike back and forth. But, when I had my library, instead of having to go ten miles to the library, I could walk across the room and go across the world, and people came there from all over.” The Four Winds has hosted such events as the entirety of the 36-hour Haft Peykar Iranian story cycle, and people who've met during performances have gotten married.
“When someone is truly listening to a story they’re co-creators.”, says Norman. “My friend Jean, when she was 10 she caught polio and was dying. She’d gone into a paralytic shock, and the next step was death. They had a death watch going. And one person decided to pass the time by reading her a story, even though she was more corpse than alive, she was so deep in the coma. But his shift ended before the story ended and he stopped reading. And suddenly Jean spoke, ‘You didn’t finish the story! I want to hear the rest of the story!’ She then made a full recovery.”
I hope Norman too can make a full recovery from the loss of his library. He just needs to meet his sandfish, whoever or whatever that may be for him. In the meantime he’ll keep looking and voyaging and telling stories. The last time I saw him he was standing beside the Humber River, playing his pennywhistle.
I would like to smash my memories with a hammer
but I forgot my tools
in the lemon shack
where men chew on lemons
and women go about with their work
How many times have I sat
and chewed on a lemon
the parade of sand in the street
All to make us think
how liberating it is to at last be a slave