4 poems

Meredith Quartermain


Clean-cut concrete corners of skyward stairs, to stepped megalith of City Hall – tiny bronze Captain Vancouver stands in front of it – wig, top-coat, breeches and bird-splatters – scroll-chart in one hand, the other raised shoulder-height and pointing for days, years, maybe centuries spell-bound north by northeast to his imaginary passage. His right index finger pointing out to the east block for city officers and parking garage (just racks for two dozen bicycles in 1900). Pointing out to the avenues and condo towers, the false creeks and bluey dioramas of coastal mountains. A scene of primitive disorder said King’s Counsel recalling 1887 when three hundred and fifty signatures prayed to City fathers for a playground. Men rowed out to Brockton Point with Surveyor Hamilton. Then back to black stumps and crumpled branches at Bute (King George’s favorite prime minister) Street, clambering over sticks, boulders and felled trunks to the line on the map called Granville.

There’s a block you can have – Hamilton waved at a profusion of humps and hollows – in the distance stood a few wooden houses, Westminster Avenue and beyond that the mudflats. Workmen did the rough clearing, then cricketers went over it with picks and shovels and rakes. They made pitches of cocoanut matting. They played football and baseball. Balls stuck where they landed in the soggy ground – caught up like the men in games – their magic swings and shouts, their enchanted revolutions in knotted tapestry – possessed by stakes in forgotten history.

The ground was caught too – the Cambie Grounds (chief of the trains from Yellowhead Pass to Burrard Inlet). Grounds for Al Larwill’s cabin beside the cricket pitch, devoting his life to boys’ soccer, lacrosse and baseball, and the games of clean living and telling the truth. Forgotten Larwill Park paved over and leased by the City to the bus depot, then to movie-maker rigs, the red/ white/ blue post-office trucks, the razor wire and armoured transport of Lord Connaught’s Regimental Drill Hall imagined vectors for citizenship.

Baptizing Mars

Are things more than their namey dreams? More than a fight with monster chaos where blood’s the price of order? Humans calling Martian places Oxie Palus, Ophir Chasma, Labyrinthus Noctis, or Valles Marineris – the Mariner’s Valleys.

The positive or relative situations of all coasts, capes, promontories, islands, rocks, sands, beaches, bays, ports will hereafter be stated as true, or by the world, Vancouver wrote in his Journal of Discovery. He loaded sheep at Cape of Good Hope. For food. Seamen eating biscuit, sauerkraut and portable broth for weeks. The whole journey at close quarters, 80 men in a 100-foot boat – slaughtering. Sleeping. Shitting. Making lunar observations.

A Voyage of Discovery – imagine a passage through matter to a transcendental, Y says is IN language – not high as the sky. Gods like Mars not absolutely out there but in the word-dreams. Humans dream the real, the sanitized logic of money. Of divine right. Of absolute rule. Of sovereignty. The whole planet divided into nations, every one buying cheap, selling dear. Dreaming wealth of nations getting bigger and bigger forever.

He set out to map the true. He measured compass variation with 20 sets of azimuths. As though measurements would protect him from the dream. He found his chronometer eastward of truth. Rain and haze obscure every object . . . no indication of the vicinity of land. Which Cook called No Body Knows What. He named it Some Body Knows What. He named it Escape Point, Doubtful Island, Port Desire, Possession Sound.

Yet true places are never found on any map, Ishmael says in Moby Dick, speaking of Queequeg’s island Kokovoko far away to the West and South. Names’ apparent islands make holes in the world.


Four-alarm blaze, in the artists’ studios above the old ballroom and Miss T’s Cabaret. Someone on the third floor, cooking popcorn on a hot plate at 9 a.m. (rumor rages round the crowd of watchers) – popcorn? – yeah popcorn – at 9 a.m. – yeah, weird eh. Later, it was seeds popping for hash. The oil caught fire, a wall of flame. Tried to put it out. Arms and legs burned. Firemen got them out on a ladder.

10:30 – the roof’s evaporated. Window frames (once swiveling on their centres) open their charred sashes to smoke-billowing sky, above black shattered beams and smouldering shards of lath and plaster. The air stinks of scorched rubber. Smoke pours out of a room with a computer monitor on a desk. Below it the Internet Cafe, an automatic teller machine, Pender Grocery and the Retro Cafe abandoned sandwich-boards. Melted rubble, charred paper, burnt cans and bottles litter the street.

Flames lick up a stairwell, threatening the Victoria Block with its facade of double pediments and scrolly medallions. Young men from the Backpacker’s Hostel, with bedrolls and boots on hefty packs, sit on the sidewalk looking across at its window sign – Double $35, Single $25 – smoke swirling around its red brick, its green wooden facings that dream of classical pillars and dentilated cornices.

Fire is sharp; water is dull. The somnambulant coolness of reason overtakes the cutting torch of sense. Vibrant yellow hoses suck at hydrants, and snake up streets to pumps and ladders. Four jets fill the block with clouds of droplets as they shoot through the empty window-sockets and rattle sheeting dangling from the parapet. Two master-streams pummel the guts out, sending a torrent of sooty debris down cobble-stone Hamilton Street to the flooded surging sewer. Half a million gallons back to the sea. Someone finally pushing last century’s gutless wall into the rubble of bricks below the street.

Inside yellow do-not-cross tape, news crew (male) opens black suitcase of mikes, lenses and wiring, sets up portable stage-lights and camera on tripods, loads video cassette, clenches camera grip and swings it round to film reporter with jets of water in background. Techy (female) stands by wearing headphones and intercom to studio anchor. Shiny chrome steps lead to the open door and crew inside snow-white CBC van with space-shuttle mechanical arms and flying saucer on its roof, screaming News World up to the satellites. Community in Crisis, says Salvation Army van dishing out sandwich packs and cases of bottled water.

Everything at the scene is heroic: navy-blue men on cross-walks, with badges and photo ID, a leaking coupling spraying furiously, flat hose in jumbled folds between trash skips, POLICE holding up aperture of thumbs and forefingers, arms of aerial hose trucks bracing against pavement, men climbing ladders, men in yellow bunker gear and red helmets, men in white in clustered confabs, men tossing water-bottles to buddies, men in sky-buckets against looming thunderclouds, men speaking to walkie-talkies, yellow do-not-cross tape tying up street lamps, jacket saying XXL clothing wagon, chic suit talking to firefighter outside Wow Interiors, Ladder Truck No. 1 backing up, huge woman called Belle in purple smock saying over and over: painters lost their life’s work, patrol shooing off watchers sneaking under yellow tape, postie holding up camera getting permission to go in, water pouring on computer monitor, worker wielding long-handled wrench, water bouncing off globe at Internet Cafe, firemen cooling down on street lying near rows of oxygen tanks, hats, rubber suits, folding chairs, men wearing tanks and carrying sticks walking in clouds of droplets, then emerging on Victoria Block roof, crawling to edge, peering over, firefighter bringing shiny galvanized trash can to bystander. Bystander lifting lid, reaching inside, lifting out and stroking his bumpy foot-long lizard – a bearded dragon.

Homer Street

Going North on Homer Street, past old, bay-window Homer building and cafe. People cross rainshiny pavement under clouds, sun, the north mountains squeezed between skyscrapers. What would Odyssey poet sing here? For Homer Street’s namesake Joshua Atwood Reynolds H, sawmill owner, 1858, High Sheriff of the New West, proclaiming humans on tiny faraway island owned mountains to 500 miles east, 1000 miles north.

Next door, a window-washer 30 stories up sits on his little bench dangling from ropes. Reaches round behind him into bucket suspended below seat, plunges in squeegie, pulls it back rickety, rope joggle, rubs it over the big glass between him and mill owners. Who plant trees on top of skyscrapers’ glass trunks up to spreading lips, a torch flaming high in the sky acer macrophyllum. And Cheshire raccoons.