Are there Canadian Dragons?

Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.

There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.

Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.

All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.

In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada’: while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.

Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.

In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.

uccello

“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a  spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”

Gwendolyn MacEwen
Gwendolyn MacEwen

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.

MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.”  He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.

The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.

Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol  for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.

What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.

In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.

MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.

In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.

Photo Credit:

Uccello: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_%28London%29_01.jpg

 

 

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“Index”: an HTMElegy

CKUT 23 Dec 2015

On CKUT (McGill Campus Radio) this week on Monday and at the launch for the Veg magazine yesterday, I read some magical poems I composed recently. One was inspired by Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Dee, the other was an elimination of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the last was a pantoum, a fabulously musical poetic form if there ever was one. I hope I did it justice.

I also told audiences about a certain poem called “Index” that has been published in the Veg. I wrote this poem in Notepad and tried to pun on and play with HTML format tags, in order to produce two texts in a single poem: one written directly by me, the other intended by me, but actually put together by a web browser. Click on the link below to view the .pdf:

“Index: an HTMElegy

The radio show aired at 11:00 am Monday 23 2015. If I’m not mistaken, you should be able to find my reading in the archives here.

By the way, here’s a quick bonus HTMElegy that was not published in the Veg:

“Andy”

HTMElegies 1, Andy HTMElegies 2, Andy

King of Egypt, King of Dreams by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20150129_232323Gwendolyn MacEwen’s historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams was published in 1971 and as far as I know, it is out of print-except by online order from Insomniac Press. Nonetheless I am fascinated to review it, because it stands as a powerful testimony to the tragedy of those who own a unique, transcendent vision of the universe, when faced by the demands and adversity of a society that has rejected them. This description can be applied to Akhenaton, the pharaoh known as “the Criminal” who forms the center of MacEwen’s novel, and to MacEwen herself.

Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, Shadow Maker, tells about how the poet died of alcohol poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1987. Part of her despair sprung from her depression at the failure of her audience to bring her the success she had hoped for. Although she anticipated that her vast research into ancient Egypt, while on a Canada Council grant in Cairo, would result in a historical novel that would make her financially independent, King of Egypt, King of Dreams was greeted with a poor reception.

Perhaps this was because she had difficulty adopting to the form of the novel. MacEwen was primarily a poet. She could not make the transition from poetry to novel that Michael Ondaatje made with The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. By the 1980s, the period that Joel Deshaye in The Metaphor of Celebrity calls the “era of celebrity” in Canadian poetry was at a close; the novel was now the dominant form.

MacEwen’s vision of the poet as a magician did not successfully make the transition into the world of the novel. However, King of Egypt, King of Dreams testifies to the uniqueness of her vision. The story of Akhenaton becomes replicated in some ways in MacEwen’s own life–at least, it is tempting to see it that way. As the landscape of genre in Canadian literature did not accommodate her writing, changing times undid the visionary pharaoh Akhenaton.

Akhenaton begins life as the sickly son of the powerful, but aging, Pharaoh–the living god, Amenhotep. Greatly disappointed in his offspring, the god regards his son with anger and bitterness, causing Akhenaton to be terrified of him and develop a stutter. But after his father’s death, a new, golden man arises from the frail body of his former self.

It is not long before Akhenaton shakes up the court with his new religious vision–monotheism. He believes that there is no god but the Aton, who is lord of all that the sun’s disk surrounds. The names of all the other gods, he orders erased from inscriptions. Wherever a god’s name is recorded on the tombs and temples of the land, it is to be destroyed. Those who refuse him or challenge his judgment encounter the uncanny look of his gaze–but do his eyes reveal divinity, or madness?

Although MacEwen seems to treat Akhenaton as an example of the suffering visionary, a position with which she was no doubt in sympathy, his monotheistic religion leads to the collapse of his empire. MacEwen’s poetic career testifies to a belief the harmony found in oppositions, a more pluralist philosophy that is at odds with the Pharaoh’s conception of a single god. One man who is close to the king, and yet is distant enough from him to see how he angers his subjects, is Akhenaton’s servant It Neter Ay, the Father of Horse. From his perspective, we see Pharaoh ignore the rebellion of his empire’s tributary states, name his would-be assassin a high priest, and found the temples that he hopes will serve as testament to the glory of his god.

MacEwen’s writing style is particular and with a texture distinct from contemporary historical novelists. She writes in a poetic style that has a curious combination of mysticism and humour. Justifying her approach, she quotes from Guillaume Ferrero’s Les Lois Psychologiques:

“It is a very common belief that the further man is separated from the present in time, the more he differs from us in his thoughts and feelings; that the psychology of humanity changes from century to century like fashions or literature. […] And indeed, man does not change so quickly; his psychology at bottom remains the same.”

Occasionally the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of Akhenaton, It Neter Ay, and the king’s wife, Nefertiti, might appear peculiarly modern, but MacEwen always roots their characters firmly in the cultural milieu of ancient Egypt. One example of the mundane in the ancient past, is the casual, realist description of Ay slicing a cucumber while he ponders what Akhenaton’s ‘true nature’ is. This attitude of continuity with the past might demonstrate MacEwen’s own self-identification with these historical characters–Nefertiti’s kohl-painted eyelids are not so different from MacEwen’s, who was famous for appearing like an Egyptian at Toronto poetry readings.

Like the historical fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay, there is but a sprinkling of the fantastic in King of Egypt, King of Dreams–but it is enough that it can be considered a historical fantasy, if Akhenaton’s divinity and the glowing presence of his body is read literally.

Together with her T.E. Lawrence Poems, this novel is also the consummation of MacEwen’s lifelong interest in the Middle East’s history and its mystery. It is also a psychologically and intellectually invested accomplishment, in which she confronts questions about visionary experience that define her career–and its untimely end.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of King of Egypt, King of Dreams

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Mystical Vision of the Franklin Expedition in “Terror and Erebus”

Wanted: the Franklin Expedition
Wanted: the Franklin Expedition

Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.

This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.

So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.

MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.

Erebus and Terror
Erebus and Terror

MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:

Rasmussen:

King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.

But I’m not the first here.

They preceded me, they marked the way

   ………………. .with bones

White as this ice is, whiter maybe,

The white of death,

    ………………. .of purity” (41).

Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.

Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.

MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:

“Crozier, what laws govern

This final tug of war

between life and death,

the human polarities?

………………. . The ice

Is its own argument” (46).

After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).

The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:

“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?

What fool said that light was good

………………. .and darkness evil?

In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).

One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).

With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:

“the snow turns red, there are sounds

………………. .of men puking, and sounds

Of knives scraping bone.

They are eating

………………. .one of their dead” (50).

Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)

Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54).  The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).

The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.

In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of "Erebus and Terror"
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of “Erebus and Terror”

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Works Cited:

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.

Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2

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Photo Credits:

Poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin%27s_lost_expedition

Erebus and Terror: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Franklin

 

Julian the Magician by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20140717_155257Julian the Magician is the work of a poet of the mythic, the magical, and the exotic: Gwendolyn MacEwen. Although she is better known for her poetry–and mostly, I suspect, by academics rather than the general public–I recommend reading her today. Her style is a “sort of powerful poetic mad half-abandoned prose somewhere between [Kenneth] Patchen and Virginia Woolf,” and is filled with mystical significance and humour. Julian the Magician is an early example of Canadian literary fantasy.

Set in a vaguely Renaissance setting–not exactly medieval, since Julian has studied Paracelsus–Julian the Magician concerns the travels of a miracle maker who believes he is Christ. He has studied alchemy, myth, and Kabbalah, but has dropped those disciplines in favour of sorcery. The work of a magician is similar to that of the illusionist, but more specifically, Julian’s art is “the means of inducing the state of suspended logic” (16). His job is to “[unscrew] hinges on all doors” that block belief and thus let his audience come to believe in his magic (20). The problem is that the people become fanatic about his supposedly godlike powers.

Wandering the countryside in a cart, Julian journeys with Peter, his young assistant, Johann, a bitter man, and Aubrey. Julian’s journey mirrors that of Christ, MacEwen putting her own spin on the baptism, the wedding feast at Cana, and lastly, the trial and Crucifixion. The difference is that though Christ was God incarnate, Julian is simply a magician, and does not want to be thought of as anything more than human. In one scene, for example, the audience sees him turn water into wine, but Peter is convinced that the liquid in the jugs is still water.

When Peter reads over Julian’s journals, which the magician keeps private, Julian’s mind is revealed to be … incomprehensible. His thought processes are intensely metaphoric, similar to his abandoned speech, which his followers struggle to understand. Gradually, it becomes apparent to the wise reader that Julian’s magic is an analogy for the poet’s ability to manipulate words and string them into mysterious meaning. The poet’s role is to suspend reality–but the poet should never be deemed godlike. If so, she/he endures the same fate at society’s hands as Julian and Christ suffer.

When Julian becomes framed for murder, a crime that could unravel the belief he has sown into a community, the only solution is to endure crucifixion at the hands of his accusers. Will the faith of the community be shattered forever? What legacy survives the magician’s death? You will have to read the book to discover your own answer.

“Without time and location,” states MacEwen in the role of the editor of Julian’s journal, “we cannot place his figure anywhere in history.” The historical period and place where Julian plies his trade is unspecific to make it universal, a reflection of all magicians and poets in all times. It is the poet and the magician’s tragedy that their revelations, filled with the greatest significance for them, become incomprehensible to future readers and generations. But since Insomniac still offers this hard-to-find book for purchase online, at least Julian the Magician can find that readership now, sixty years after its first publication. A new generation can now discover MacEwen and be initiated into Julian’s mysteries…

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician