Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Kevin Spenst : Fire in the Cove: Island Hopping Through 24 Galiano Poems (1977-1984), by Maxine Gadd

Fire in the Cove: Island Hopping Through 24 Galiano Poems (1977-1984), Maxine Gadd
(m)Other Tongue Press, 2001





When I write that Maxine Gadd is a “Vancouver-based poet,” I really do mean “Vancouver-based.” In the postscript of her 2001 chapbook, Fire in the Cove ((m)Other Tongue Press) we read that Gadd has been “published in over fifteen Canadian anthologies, some magazines, [and has] performed many readings in inner and outer harbours, continually writing from Vancouver’s centre.” Gadd’s family moved from England to Vancouver in 1946, where, from the age of six, Gadd grew up exploring the “streets and beaches of downtown Vancouver” (Fire in the Cove). That exploration continues to this day. Case in point, at an outdoor workshop I was leading in Oppenheimer park last summer, one late participant sat down next to me. I asked her to introduce herself. “I’m Maxine Gadd.” I was a little star-struck stunned. The prompt I had just given was about “the first time.” Within our group of about twelve residents of the DTES, Gadd wrote, and then shared a poem about her first day in kindergarten. I got chills over the immediacy of the writing: she took us back to her first day of school in Vancouver. At 82, despite the various “attempts to escape,” she’s still exploring Vancouver’s nooks and crannies and thoroughfares 

[image: Gadd’s family’s first home in Vancouver]

     Fire in the Cove spans a period of poems that coincides with the full length collection Lost Language (Coach House 1982,) but, being in chapbook form and including a photograph and linocut, Fire in the Cove perhaps more tangibly extends the counter-cultural poetics of the 60s into the 21st century. The sequence of poems reads like a trail towards Gadd’s comments in a 2008 interview with rob mclennan: “I’ve had to value chaos.”

     “in the backwoods” is Fire in the Cove’s first poem and what’s remarkable is its concentration of place: “across rainy georgia strait from dominatrix city on an island amongst islands known for thousands of years…” This prose poem holds us in suspense through a series of adverbial clauses of place and description. Through a sort of early version of a land acknowledgement, the poem takes us from the mainland of unceded Coast Salish territory through islands and into a cabin on Galiano island: “black nights, fire in a stove, silence.” The titular fire of the chapbook might be this very fire, but before we get too cozy, we read the last line: “sometimes soft cries of owls, and wounded deer, and neighbours’ tales.” Predator and prey are also part of this setting along with the story-making machinery of people and whatever the song might be running through this poem, there’s also a note of something sinister. The next poem “utopia” extends this effort at song while also maintaining a sense of apprehension. Here, we have a free-verse poem of very short lines. It begins “this fire now / as familiar / as Jesus.” A physical fire is established through details like “pull the coals forward” and with the positive valence of being warmed by a fire, we might assume that this Jesus might be the radical figure who upturned social norms. Someone we might emulate for living off the Roman grid. However, in this dream of idealism, there’s also the hint of danger: “leave a throat / for the draught / of air // be comforted/ beware.” Whatever comfort we might draw from this setting, the last word rhymes with “air” and takes us back to the image of an exposed neck. Utopia is a place of vulnerability.

     The first four poems in the collection move forward descriptively, firmly rooted in a place on Galiano, but with an eye towards its proximity to Vancouver. Freedom and danger coexist both in the forest and in the city but maybe it doesn’t matter where we go: we’re always stuck within our perceptual apparatus. This is my understanding of “perception,” a poem that plays across the page in the style of Mallarmé and coalesces into a concrete form. It begins in a non-urban setting: “person / pursued / by / pumas.” The alliteration beats like panic, but three stanzas later, we have a cool analysis of what we are: “human / humanizes / sys / tematically.” The basic structure of subject, verb and object is splayed down the page (is this the poet who’s the hunter and this sentence is the kill carved up?) Each stanza is its own little micro-poem with some epiphanic potential. The poem ends in a ball of string represented by the word “string” repeated nine times, perhaps suggesting that play reigns (or should reign?) in whatever pauses we can take between the difficulties of the world.

     The balanced ambivalence of the opening poems is blown up in the next poem “fr beth and don juan and their yacky ways.” All sorts of possible meanings shoot out across the page. It’s a poem that raves and roams between (or around) various points of view. Some darkness within the poet or maybe within the figures in the poem’s title is called up to be confronted and contended with and we read that this spider-like darkness “goes in for personal growth / wd jog on davie st. if the police wld leave it alone.”  Here, personal growth (which could include therapy and “yacky ways”) might be a positive channel for development. Does the city’s concentration of people hold out the potential for understanding? The poem ends by asking: “printers and painters and poets: how will we ever fly like farmers?” The rural seems to be the ideal, but the multitude of directions within the poem suggests there’s no easy answer.

     What I love about Fire in the Cove is all the different directions it takes. The political dimension is dealt with and indigeneity here and afar is touched upon. The titles hint at some of the tale: “the contralmirante answers my amnesty international letters,”  (Latin American dictators and the disappearance of women) “looking away from a comment in a critique of a book by Phyllis Webb” (a poet on Salt Spring Island whose life touched on central political questions, especially regarding the role of the poet), and “two views of the western journey” (which includes a retelling of a story about a warrior of the Cowichan nation whose story moves ‘from what we now call Saturna Island to “Kuper” island, then to / Sne-nai-mo’).  In almost all the poems, crows and other creatures are never too far away (if I had more time, I’d love to read this alongside When Species Meet by Donna Haraway.) Loved ones are often near; in “some of the celebrations,” we read “some friends come by / Martha Miller and / Freya Circe and Cheryl Sourkes / with a bottle of wine to / celebrate Martha Miller’s / birthday.” “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE ON THE EARTH!” is the last line in the last poem and in the acknowledgements, we read ‘the last line of this book is the voice of the magnificent old Armenian gentleman who ran the “Persian Arts and Crafts” in Vancouver.’ His emphatic question is certainly one that we can imagine Gadd asking herself. The energy for collective change, a hallmark of 60s countercultures, is one that runs through this chapbook’s poems and even the form itself that has a fantastically unique hand-constructed cover that uses a series of folds to hold the book together. Here is craft and care that Mona Fertig, one of the main forces behind (m)Other Tongue Press, put into the one hundred copies made on Salt Spring Island in 2001.

[image: launch of The Literary Storefront book at the Western Front, 2015, Mona Fertig, Maxine Gadd, Judith Copithorne]






Kevin Spenst (he/him) is the author of Ignite, Jabbering with Bing Bong, and Hearts Amok: a Memoir in Verse (all with Anvil Press) and over a dozen chapbooks, including Recto Verso Chez the Devil’s Printers (cowritten with Josh Pitre for Collusion Books), A Video Tape Swaddled in Purple Wool (845 Press) and Sand in the Bed (a holm with the Alfred Gustav Press). His most recent writing has appeared in the anthologies Event 50: Collected Notes on Writing and Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing. His book launch during the pandemic was featured in a book about creative practices: The Creative Instigator's Handbook. He writes chapbook reviews for subTerrain magazine, teaches creative writing at Simon Fraser University and he lives in Vancouver on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Swx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territory.

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