Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Concrete Trees and Animal Effigies

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By Melanie Janisse

Take a walk around Toronto and you’ll find trendy hipsters wearing t shirts emblazoned with stags, a plush quilt of caribou on display at Spadina Station, dolphin balloons for sale on the sidewalks of Chinatown, and the famous flock of geese frozen mid-flight in the Eaton Centre. No area of this city is free from our human habit of replacing the real thing with copies. Even the hard brick and concrete exteriors of the financial buildings in this city display stone sculptures of polar bears and deer. - Dani Couture (From her Animal Effigy website)

THE RED ROAD

For a recording of "Red Road" by Genevieve Marentette: http://www.myspace.com/whitewavemusic

I am remembering a night many years ago, when I first moved to Toronto. It was a bitter February night, and the winter wind was blowing through the uninsulated bricks of my studio on Dundas Street. Genevieve was living with me back in those days, finishing off her degree at Humber. She came in the door that evening looking devastated, and while I paraphrase, she was in concrete shock. She just couldn’t understand why we would choose to live in a place that made forests of concrete buildings, she wondered why not just forests? I thought it was a great question.

Now many years later, but another cold February night, my friend G and her concrete forest comes to mind. I am tucked in bed reading the story "Painted Tongue" from Joseph Boyden’s collection of short stories Born With A Tooth, and I am refreshed. Boyden crafts a character named Painted Tongue who sees the city so differently, so profoundly that I am left with images of a lonely and misunderstood shaman, disguised as a drunkard, as he walks a pilgrimage through Toronto. Through his eyes, our city becomes a sacred hunting ground for hotdogs, vodka and his friend Kyle who he grew up with in Cedar Point, Ontario. Along the way, he counts coup on his enemies, defends his home rock on the lake shore from hobos and joggers. Painted Tongue walks the circumference of the Skydome as swarms of workers build the giant circular structure.

Kyle always knew what was going on. He always had the right answers. Even though he walked a different circle than Painted Tongue did, they’d both had the vision of the turtle. Kyle’s was in paint and Painted Tongue’s was in concrete. He wanted to tell Kyle about the huge building growing out of the ground, the way it resembled a giant turtle with its roof nearly in place. - Joseph Boyden, "Painted Tongue"

Boyden perfectly captures the disjointedness that occurs when one is willing to see through and past the constructs of the city. When as individuals we identify the effigy of trees that constitutes a city, and we begin to question the very concrete we live in.

ANIMAL EFFIGIES

For Dani Couture’s Animal Effigy:
http://animaleffigy.com/about/

I find myself sitting under the big screen television in the Gladstone Café’s hotel, chatting with Dani Couture about an upcoming anthology we are working on. Somehow in the conversation the North came up. The Great North: our largest collective dreamscape; that massive land mass that most of us live under like a few million Atlases. Dani (somewhat impassioned by the North as place and as myth) began to sculpt a Gladstone Hotel napkin into our country, so as to help us both visualize this country of ours. "Now here you have James Bay." The napkin is missing a u-shaped portion. "You have Halifax and Vancouver Island here and here." Imaginary islands to the right and left of the mangled napkin. "And here we all are." Extra narrow and long piece of napkin gets rolled into a straw shape and is laid along the Southern border of the napkin. "And then there is this." Dani’s finger points to everything north of the straw shaped napkin roll. We both stare at each other incredulously. That is a lot of napkin that most of us don’t know much about.

It didn’t seem like much, but I offered up the idea of catching the new White Stripes documentary in order to see how Jack and Meg coped with the Northern Lights. I begin to notice that a gathering of about ten people have assembled themselves in front of us to watch the women’s curling match. Moon faces looking up at our countries athletes, suspended just above us on the large screen. Us, just below with our napkin map. I wondered, just how much did I know about my country whilst living this last decade amongst the concrete trees.

I now live in downtown Toronto and spend 24 hours a day amid concrete, skyscrapers, and hot dog vendors. There are no silver perch in the sewers, no grizzlies outside the Royal Ontario Museum, and no mink scrabbling across busy subway platforms—only cabs, bike couriers, and coffee shops. We’ve razed the earth, yet we repopulate it with steel moose and spray paint tigers. It seems that we wish to bring nature—muted and defanged—back to us. – Dani Couture

I wanted to tell Dani about the Joseph Boyden short story, about the mention of the massive concrete turtle that Painted Tongue circles as it emerges from Lake Ontario, because I know how she feels about effigies. I reach into my bag and pull out Born With A Tooth. She stares at me like I am nuts, then, pulls out a Joseph Boyden book that she had just purchased at Type. The books lie there with the napkin of Canada perfectly framed in the middle.

THE CLOCK READS 11:11

I have a very special friend named Frank. Frank introduced me to the movie Harvey, and the pooka. Here is the wikipedia definition of a pooka:

According to legend, the púca is a deft shape shifter capable of assuming a variety of terrifying or pleasing forms, and may appear as a horse, rabbit, goat, goblin, or dog. No matter what shape the púca takes, its fur is almost always dark. It most commonly takes the form of a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes.

I am pretty sure that Frank is a pooka, as he is constantly putting things on their head. Whether it be late night trips to the Golden Griddle or odd bike rides under the espressway, Frank lives outside of the boundaries of Toronto, by ignoring its logical structures.

We were having breakfast at Aris Place on Roncesvalles a few years back on Boxing Day, when he looked up at me and said "Do you want to go to Algonquin?" "Now?" I asked. "Yep." He said. I spent the rest of the day driving with Frank and my two dogs in his giant beige sedan. We drove and talked and drove some more. We listened to Bob Dylan. We tried to figure things out. Just as we entered the park, Frank pointed to the car’s illuminated clock. It was 11:11. "Hey, cool," he said. Then, we got out of the car and walked into the womb of the forest covered in a blanket of snow. It was late, dark and a brilliant white. The silence was maddening. We may as well have been on the surface of the moon. The walk only lasted a short while, but the way the stars looked is tattooed in my mind. Every time I glance at a clock and it reads 11:11, I think of him. He reminds me of Painted Tongue. It is just the way he sees things. The way the Red Road jumps out of Toronto when you are with him, the pavement shimmers away and becomes possibilities, trading routes, absurdities. Frank reminds me that the city is an effigy of the forest and that we make effigies to remind us of what is important. Just ask Dani. She’ll show you on a napkin.

I want to leave you with the lyrics to a really great Robyn Hitchcock song. I recommend putting the song on your iTunes and listening to it while you walk around Toronto today.

Guess what? I've spoken to Norm
We're gonna live in the trees
Dirty air will be transformed
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees

I'll bring you fat juicy worms
I'll bring you millipedes
Open your beak and close your eyes
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees

Norm tells me you're ready to fly
We're gonna live in the trees
You're that much closer to the sky
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees

You either take off or you don't
You can't fly by degrees
But fly an inch and you fly miles
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees

Now thanks to Norm there's a nest up there
We're gonna live in the trees
We're there in air and air to spare
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees

Virginia Woolf had a troubled mind
She was never at ease
But you're my children; you'll be fine
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees
We're gonna live in the trees

Guess what? I've spoken to Norm
We're gonna live in the trees...

Dani Couture is the author of Good Meat (Pedlar Press) and Sweet, which is forthcoming from Pedlar Press in May 2010. She is the photographer and curator behind Animal Effigy (www.animaleffigy.com). For more information, visit www.blackbearonwater.com.
Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

Click on any image to start the slideshow of photos by Dani Couture and Melanie Janisse

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