Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Wide awake in High Park North

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Wide awake in High Park North

By rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series, "Sleeping in Toronto."

My own dream
was awake in the bedroom.

The rest of Ontario slept.
          Sonnet L’Abbé, Killarnoe (2007)

In mid-June, two weeks in High Park North, the space left in an apartment lease after Stephen Cain and Sharon Harris’s house purchase and move. We had only been there the once, the fall before, for dinner; arriving lost, two hours late. Two weeks on Quebec Street, a neighbourhood of writers, including poet/publisher Jay MillAr, poet/publisher Carleton Wilson and poet Shannon Bramer, with previous residents including poet/editor Paul Vermeersch, BookNinja founder George Murray, even back to Douglas LePan and painter J.E.H. Macdonald. The late poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) born but blocks east and south, a three-storey house at 38 Keele, since levelled for subway construction. As Rosemary Sullivan wrote in Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen (1995), “Keele Street was then a working-class district, though behind and to the south stretched the wealthy neighbourhood of High Park.” She went on to describe the immediate neighbourhood:

On both sides of the house were open fields: on the south a small field that the city had divided up into Victory Gardens for local residents to cultivate their own vegetables against the war rationing; on the north a huge expanse where the kids gathered to sleigh and toboggan, and, in the summer, build castles in the sandpits. West, along Bloor Street, behind the old Rome Apartments between Quebec and Gothic avenues, were the Mineral Baths. Originally built as a spa fed by mineral springs, the “Minies,” as the kids called them, had been converted into two pools, where, as a child, Gwen swam in the summer. Floating on her back, she could just see the old Victoria house on the hill.

An apartment on Quebec Street after the previous occupants moved, stripped bare but for kitchen utilities, a couch to sleep on and for what little I’ve brought — a box of books, a gym bag of clothes, a laptop and satchel of notebooks, and their two rabbits, still in the living room. I feel like Snoopy, I realize, living among bunnies; Schultz's repeated Peanuts panels as the group of them dance. The bask, after the van packed and sent, unpacked and returned; the glow as I settle myself in, just me and the bunnies, and Lainna but a brief car ride or subway. Mornings of sweet sunlight and strollers, of the air filled with dandelion-fluff, floating down like slow stars, or bare-silent snow. I'm amazed at the number of trees, and the highlight of bird-song, this residential neighbourhood of foliage and pedestrians, small children. Jenny Sampirisi, somewhere, accidentally setting her lawnmower on fire; a yard lined with scorch-marks. Or Humberside Collegiate at No. 280 Quebec, with students that included poets Margaret Avison and Raymond Souster, as well as Harris’s older son.

Now but a ten minute walk east, they lived here together for seven years, and I wonder of the resonant history of the place, if any part of his American Standard/Canada Dry (2005) might rub off, or those other works, including a novel-in-progress, composed here but not yet in print. An old issue of the critical journal Open Letter he slips into my hands, the first night I arrive. His PhD thesis, on Coach House and Anansi.

THE 1837-38 REBELLIONS

They’re marching from Montgomery’s Tavern to the Horseshoe. They want a microbrew that speaks for them, one that tastes great and that’s less filling. They want bullfrogs to boast about their beer. They want the Bud girls to bind them and give them Head. [Enter bpNichol bearing a sign that reads ‘Meanwhile!’] All the cool kids belong to the Shadow clique and the Habs have no place to call home. The Patriotes turn to the Sons of Freedom, but they all want to be in Paris, they want to call the Mona Lisa mom. Papineau is holding a press conference outside the Chateau Frontenac and crying, ‘Fly like a Frenchman, sing like Celine.’

A space, through Harris, entirely wrapped up and radiating love; what is the half-life of love? My residency in their apartment, Sharon offered, two weeks to be able to spend time with mine, moving the couple a ten minute walk east along a stretch of street you can see from the subway, sweeping clackity-clack across Edna. I even catch their front door as I pass, the brief portion where track above ground, heading into Keele Station, soft Indian Grove.

Constantly surprised at the greenery here, this largest Canadian city, the greenery and the sounds of the birds, including the back of their new house Edna, just across Keele, and the ghost of Gwendolyn MacEwen's small corner. As I settle in, coffee and newspaper at Annette Street's The Good Neighbour Cafe half a block north, where I meet, finally, Amy Lavender Harris, her toddler with nana back home, nestled snug in her bed. Or, not a week later, discovering playwrite and novelist Sean Dixon hard at work in the same, laptop and printout and iPod, across from Darren Hynes, reworking his first novel for fall publication through east coast publisher Killick.

Near the end of my tenure, wandering the stretch of Dundas West they call Junction, as though one neighbourhood smashed overtop another, high-end specialty shops up against discount stores, sidled up along rail, a line of warehousing, box stores, industrial wasteland. The Junction, the point where they meet, as though a working-class neighbourhood and million dollar homes, for the shops on the street. Like a bumblebee logic: every science says such a thing shouldn’t fly, but somehow, it does. How can it fly?

***

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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