For five years between 2007 and 2012, Susan Dubrofsky and I ran Poetry Plus. These events were held six times a year at the Arts Café at the corner of Esplanade and Fairmount in trendy Mile End. Each event featured five readers of poetry or short fiction, and a musical interlude was a key to making the evenings successful. We made a conscious effort to include francophone readers in the lineup and over the years we were lucky to have poets and writers like Louise Dupré, Claudine Bertrand and Lucien Francoeur.
One of the great pleasures of Poetry Plus was to hear the author read in his or her own voice. For example, I am reminded of listening to a recorded recitation by Dylan Thomas of his A Child’s Christmas in Wales. While many great actors have recited this piece without diminishing any of my pleasure and appreciation, an author’s voice nevertheless lends authenticity to a piece that might otherwise be lacking. It offers the experience of being caught up in the story as opposed to being merely entertained by it. Another cogent example was listening to Alice Petersen read one of her New Zealand stories – as happened at Poetry Plus – and hearing the inflection of her delightful accent brush over a name like Archie. Or of Neale McDevitt reading one of his NDG-based stories with exactly the sort of tough-guy nostalgia that enlivens his reminiscences of growing up in that neighbourhood. His tone uniquely conveys locale.
A highlight for me at one of our evenings was when Louise Dupré asked me to read the English text of one of her recently translated works and she then read the French version immediately afterwards. The experience of switching back and forth between the two languages was electrifying.
When the same text is spoken alternately in French and English, one often hears the resonance of subtly shaded differences between the two languages. For instance, there’s a world of difference between saying je travaille sans fin and I work endlessly. To me, the sound of the second phrase doesn’t convey the exasperated gravity of the words of the first. One could say I labor without end, but an ironic tone creeps into the poetic bargain.
A few Poetry Plus authors like Anne Cimon have written in both English and French, which gave me the idea of writing some poetry in French.
I grew up in a bilingual household. My mother was French-speaking, born and raised in La Chaux de Fonds in the Jura mountains of Neuchâtel. As a child it always intrigued me how one would translate the town’s name – the Limestone Bottom? I grew up interested in linguistic nuances. My grandparents would say things like la pisse de coq for weak tea; and I was delighted to find out that elle a du bois devant la maison apart from its literal meaning (cordwood in front of a house) also meant that a woman was really “stacked.” Their argot was quite singsong. If you were working in an office environment, you wouldn’t normally pipe up with these homespun expressions as freely as you would in informal situations, where a bit of exaggeration lends spice to everyday exchanges.
All this to say that as host of Poetry Plus I fell into the habit of capping off an evening with a French poem. And it was Lucien Francoeur’s fresh style that inspired me to mix French and English in the same piece. Francoeur, winner of the 1993 Emile Nelligan Poetry Award, was a star of the 1970s francophone underground movement. With his band, Aut’chose, he published some 23 recordings of his fusion poetry. It was perhaps a precursor to rap; his signatory rich and intelligent humor was devastatingly “now.” His poetry had the epic quality of an observant troubadour; he was fascinated by American culture. He loved riding in convertibles and recaptured his L. A. experience in poems like Hollywood en plywood, published in Chants de l’amérique inavouable (vlb Éditeur, Montréal, 2002.) Francoeur’s reflection seems to be that American hero-worship has assumed an un-avowed, phantasmagorical dimension that is death to the soul.
Dans mon Hollywood en plywood
Un film d’horreur sans dimension
Où des majorettes mordent Billy the Kid
Où Rintintin Lassie pis James Bond
Grugent les os de Marilyn Monroe
His following stanza got me itching to try mixing French and English.
À travers le Nouveau-Mexique en Camaro
Dans le miroir le fantôme de Géronimo
No More kicks
On route 66
L’Amérique est en grand Woolworth
I recited my poem “Les barons de l’automobile/ Car Barons” at Poetry Plus.
Je chauffe une Pontiac
Je parle d’amour
Ma blonde a une peu de soie
I like buying poetry from a
It makes my day driving on
Franchement, y’a pas longtemps
J’arrivais tout juste de faire
My chances are slim
Of ever hitting a green light at
J’avoue qu’elle a une belle voix
Elle s’appelle Suzie Bellechasse
It was fun performing this type ofexperimental poetry before a café crowd.
I wanted to pursue two avenues in French Poetry. I loved my grandparents and La Chaux de Fonds. The large town was the capital of the watch industry; the streets fanned out from a boulevard running along the bottom of a steep-sided valley. Winters were rigorous.
This is from my poem Tintin et l’épisode des jolies seins.
De cette vieille ville coulée au
D’une vallée, le soleil passe
Une loupe d’un bord à l’autre
Surveille les habitants, leurs
Leur linge propre.
Rural, isolated society often raised inhabitants to folkloric status; stories as magical as pebbles retrieved from the ocean’s tidal wash. When I was a child, I remember taking the train with my mother to La Chaux de Fonds. The train burst from a mountain tunnel and swooped down the slope to the town’s station, the tracks running close by the upper floors of some Belle Époque tenements. I noticed my mother would rubber-neck to peer from our coach window to a mansard window. She told me of a woman living there who exposed herself to the passengers going by. She was talking about an incident that happened in her youth, and almost a century later, whenever I take the train to La Chaux de Fonds, I am still drawn to this same window. I asked my mother what happened to this hapless woman, and she said, “On lui a parlé.” Meaning some officious busybody intervened. I loved reading Tintin as a boy. The two detectives, Dupond and Dupont, always got everything wrong.
J’imaginais les deux detectives,
Dupond et Dupont
vienaient sonner à sa porte.
Une pauvre repasseuse à vingt
centimes la chemise
accablée par un chaleur d’été
un peu trop nègligente
pour les gens du quartier.
‘Madame’, lui interpelle Dupond,
‘Vous montrez vos seins au
passagers de train.’
‘Je dirais meme plus,’ lui ajoute
Vous montrez vos trains au
passages de seins.’
I still chuckle over Tintin today. My mother was a great storyteller and even as adults we occasionally asked her to retell our favorite gossip, and if she left out a juicy part, we instantly reminded her of it.
Just as I loved La Chaux de Fonds, I also felt strongly about the Laurentians, and I wanted to write a piece about Bill le trappeur as an ode to a time now mostly forgotten, just as Mon Oncle Antoine was an elegy to the knitted social fabric and the rural quietude of old Quebec. In the early 1960s, my friend Ron Doleman got hold of his mother’s car so that we could go camping. We drove far north of St. Donat on the forest road that led to St. Michel des Saints. It was September; we were both at university. I’d heard of a trapper that rented boats at a place called Lac des Cyprès (today Lac Forbes). That far north we didn’t meet one other vehicle; the dirt road spat up stones against the car’s undercarriage. Suddenly, there it was, we almost missed it: Bill le trappeur – bateaux, scrawled in pine tar.
Ron went down a torturous track, slaloming past boulders and trees, and we abutted onto a promontory above the vast lake. The wilderness felt primeval, not crisscrossed with logging roads, fire access roads, hydroelectric lines and now the ubiquitous skidoo trails.
L’air, un vent d’océan
Dur, pur du temps des grands
As Ron shut off the engine to his mother’s poor car, Bill emerged from a gargantuan-looking beaver hut, fortified with a palisade of upright logs, which, as he explained, was a defence against bears and wolves. He held up his hand, smiling at us, intoning his customary welcome.
‘Quel bon vent vous amène?’
In fact, anvil-head clouds were looming above the distant mountains. Bill’s rowboats were oft-repaired tubs, one oar as thin as a broom handle snapped in the middle of the lake, as the storm burst upon us.
Du long au large
De baies en baies
Les vagues ragent
Nous basculent, nous cognent
Des dents d’eau coupés par le
Crachent du blanc
Plane la surface,
Nous ‘blast’ le visage;
Ron et moi,
Pas très sage,
On s’garoche, des naufragés
Su’l Radeau de la Méduse.
A few days later we returned from our adventure, Bill spying us from the bluff.
Après plusieurs jours
Nous voilà de retour
Bill, songeur, nous guette
Semble surpris de nous revoir
Sain et sauf
Comme si on revenait d’Afrique
Deux ‘englishes’ qu’il aborde
Avec tout la cerémonie,
De quelqu’un qui voit peu
In the 1990s I drove back to St. Michel des Saints; it was still a dirt road but much widened and smoother, with occasional traffic looming out of a dust trail. I was overjoyed but also perplexed to see a sign “Chez Bill.” The promontory had a few desolate-looking picnic tables. There was no commemoration of Bill le trappeur, no plaque or photos.
L’enseigne de Bill a disparu
Un clin d’œil a n’importe qui,
Qui fréquentais la beauté
De ce pays, loin de la ville
Cette civilisation qui devore
Le cœur de c’qui nous reste encore.
How could Bill simply be effaced with the efflux of time?
Bill—avec son air de chat maigre
Surveille son domaine
L’arrondissement de huttes
Le debris, le progrès, divers
Une rame reparé,
Lance de chevalier—
Nous a jamais présenté
Sa douce moitié.
Parlait de temps à autre
De certaines amenagements
Qu’il avait entrepris
Pour lui faire plaisir.
Last summer I went swimming with my two dogs at a lake west of Morin Heights. The former train tracks had been ripped up long ago and replaced by an aerobic corridor allowing for public access to the water’s edge. A raft of wood ducks paraded by us. A pair of loons teased us with their “where are we going to pop up next?” And a woman came along in a kayak. She stopped for a rest and we talked. She told me she had grown up on a farm near St. Donat. She had spent an idyllic youth working with her father at seasonal chores. At 18, she went out into the world and became an administrative manager in a diocese and later for a municipality, and was now retired. She had the burnished glow of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors. I couldn’t help asking her, did she know Bill le trappeur? She brightened. “Yes,” she said. “My father went fishing with him every fall. They’d smoke carp and walleye. For us, an important winter food.”
And she said St. Donat has an archive on Bill le trappeur. I liked her courteous way of guiding our conversation from French into English at times. Waving goodbye to each other, she said, “On se reverra”.