ODE TO HIPPOCRATES

Who’s Hippocrates, I know,
in Crete or someplace else –
calling out to the Sirens,
the Sea’s own and asking you
for healing ways, the mind
or spirit’s, not the body’s own.
Oh, the body, and being with
Odysseus again but only with
Titans and Poseidon where all
life comes from underwater
close to a billion nerve cells,
globules, arteries and alveoli
I want you to know about
with an electron microscope –
pulse-beats really.

A magnifying glass, or what
else I must consider best, if
it is art’s longing you see,
or medicine’s ways it will be
with a stethoscope in hand –
a talisman hanging around
my neck, but not knowing
what’s beating in the brain
as nothing’s undone when
waves appear on the computer
screen, real art displayed:
a miracle I hear you say –
the heart beating stronger,
the aorta most of all, being
again in the Aegean Sea.

 

HEART & LUNGS

The air we breathe is what the lungs
know about, what the ancient Greeks
or the Pharaohs contemplated best
more than Harvey of blood circulation.

Oh the heart and knowing what else
the rib cage tells us about, a distinct
rhythm only I will contend with,
like Odysseus, or some other

I’ve considered less about at
odd moments in distant places,
the imagination indeed, or being
Homer again with mythology.

Ithaca I will aim for, returning
home where I consider brain cells
and start humming to myself
about the liver, kidneys, spleen;

and veins, arteries, aorta, the alveoli,
bronchial tubes as I breathe harder
making sure I’m one step closer
to my own creative self, I know,

but resorting to valves; and those
who will come after with gadgets,
a doctor’s tools yet hanging around
the neck I will again dwell upon

in my own way with a mighty
heave, not unlike real drama
played out on stage, bloodlust
being tragedy from the start.

 

 

 

 

 

My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen, Mosaic Press (2018), 129 pages

 

Cyril Dabydeen is a Canadian writer born in 1945 in Canje, Guyana, where he worked as a teacher. He came to Canada in 1970 to study at Lakehead University and later at Queen’s University. He is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his work has been included in numerous anthologies published in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., India and New Zealand. Dabydeen was appointed Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1985 to 1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations, and later taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and lives in the nation’s capital.

Dabydeen has been associated with the idea of multiculturalism, both for his writing and for his work in race relations and human rights as a consultant and an expert on Canadian diversity. Like many Canadian writers, artists and cultural workers with roots in or links to minority communities, Dabydeen’s position on multiculturalism seems to have evolved over time. While he has been critical of multiculturalism in the past, he and others have contributed, through their art and cultural work, to the evolution of multiculturalism away from essentialism or a focus on “origins.”

One could perhaps argue that the focus on culture of origin that was at the root of the ideal of multiculturalism also contributed to the sense that Canadians did not have a common identity. Our collective identity was characterized as a “mosaic” of communities, each defined by the state, using perceived distinguishing and immutable characteristics, seen as exclusive to each community. While superficially celebrating difference, this approach inevitably resulted in the creation of static cultural or racial profiles that simply perpetuated a sense of dislocation and erected systemic barriers to the evolution of mutual understanding and exchange across and between communities and larger Canadian society.

Over time, with the efforts of writers like Dabydeen, as well as aware artists and cultural workers from minority communities, we can see a shift happening towards a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism as a reflection of Canadian society as it exists and evolves as a whole, and the recognition of the cultural diversity that exists and evolves therein.

In My Undiscovered Country, Dabydeen continues this journey of discovery with a series of short stories that explore the question of who is a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian.

Dabydeen is very much at ease with characters and identities that are complex and multi-layered. This collection includes stories that juxtapose motifs from life in Guyana with those of life in a big city in Canada. He eschews the need to deconstruct or analyze with a heavy hand, but rather lets his characters be. They are living, breathing individuals who interact with each other and with the state. It is through their sharing memories, regrets, pains, hopes and dreams that we get to know them and understand their realities. It is also through this process that Dabydeen communicates his vision of a multiculturalism that is more dynamic and inclusive and allows for cultural values and identities that are fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.

His vision also moves us away from a superficial sense of “this” or “that” – the binary duality – towards a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of individuals across Canadian society. While recognizing individual differences, the focus is shifted to places where we interact with each other and share experiences, good or bad, and to how these exchanges affect our evolution as a society, and ultimately our humanity.

Undiscovered Country,” the story that shares its title with the book, is a first-person narrated look at “Dacana,” a country, part imagination, part reality, where Dabydeen explores notions of belonging in a country with which he is engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.

Let me tell you straight, Dacanians are not an insecure people; and, they’re tolerant of others. They’re often generous to newcomers, what’s deep in their spirit. But from time to time you hear on the TV and radio talk-shows people railing against…who?

Terrorists?

Dacanians like newcomers to express gratitude for being here, for it makes them feel good about themselves, especially with the great big maw to the south still opening up. In the harsh winter months with the cold in my bones, I will say thank-you! Oh yes, “always work hard,” said the immigration officer handing me the official papers.

I will.

The stories in the collection touch on a variety of themes. The societal impact on collective understanding of minority identities based on static cultural profiling, including the emergence of a movement of intolerance and the undercurrent of racism, is explored in “Being Canadian.” In “Life with Ming, he appears as himself in a dialogue or interview of sorts with one of his created characters, Ming, a Chinese woman, who was once an English teacher in China and now works as a clerk in a government department. In addition to sharing their respective histories, Ming is curious about being a writer. This device allows Dabydeen to reveal aspects of his identity and his vision. The story also explores the paradox for him of writing in English, the language of the colonizer.

“The Committee” is perhaps the story that deals most explicitly with multiculturalism and the debate surrounding its perceived strengths and shortcomings. While the social and cultural analysis is engaging in and of itself, the depth of the story and the insight that it presents to the reader come from the skill with which Dabydeen communicates the discomfort that members of cultural minorities can experience working within state structures.

The remaining stories explore related themes with narratives drawn from Dabydeen’s personal and professional experiences as a writer and a teacher. With each story, whether through the narrative or the dialogues between characters, Dabydeen shares his reflections about Canadian society and the social and cultural dynamics it harbors. His is a style that is lyrical, engaging and insightful. My Undiscovered Country is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of multiculturalism in Canada!

 

Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.

Soren Kierkegaard

 

 

I

The Europeans left with a vengeance, what I said to Lia. Now a new political atmosphere marred our lives with land masses falling apart and going into the ocean, it seemed like. But Lia scoffed, for she had views of her own. Now nothing remained for us to contend with as power-drills kept being at it; and some people were bent on seeking pleasure like the highest satisfaction in life; call it hedonism, if you like.

How Lia laughed.

A new political state in the making we argued about, as we longed for more than an elusive identity. A new body politic in the making, but without the rule of law. I argued about going back to where we came from. But Lia balked. “We have to make amends,” she said.

“Amends?”

“It’s what we always thought, didn’t we?”

Balefully, I nodded.

And the locals talked among themselves debating every point of law, some being ideologues or polemicists snapping away at each other. Some simply called themselves sociologists and anthropologists ad nauseam. But who really understood Kant, not only Hegel and Marx? Indeed everything became mixed in with oral history. Folklore, yes.

See, Lia and I were caught in a whirl; and maybe we’d been away too long. Now a new spirit was taking over, Lia hinted.

“You will be disappointed,” I hurled.

“Disappointed?”

“About independence.

Because of our being in the “diaspora” – too long? Crossing continents, what only our forebears did, like being Marco Polo all over again? And the letters we’d written and reminded ourselves about.

“Maybe,” Lia countered.

“Do we belong here?” I tried.

And what did the Europeans leave behind as institutions appeared to crumble? Would we complain about the banality of Empire Writing Back? “I know what you’re thinking, Lia,” I scorched.

“You do?”

“Yes, dammit!”

She heaved in. We kept up a keen sense with eye and ear tied to racial origins–with our forebears inevitably being in the mix. Emotional baggage strapped onto our backs, more like it. Sisyphus going uphill! Like ancient history, you see. But came Lia’s new stance; it had to do with will power.

“Real power?” I challenged her.

“There you go again.”

Instinctively I laughed. And her name, would it always be Asian-sounding? More I contested. Call it integrity, if you like. “Don’t you know?” she grated.

“Know what?”

Lia becoming political, which frightened me.

It did.

I watched her on a platform talking about the “causes,” in bright sunlight. Human rights abuses and social issues tied to political freedom she went on about. Idealistic she became overnight. What else is to come? She scoffed and said I was indeed imagining things.

“I’m not!”

“We’re just returnees, remember.”

I hated the word “returnees.” She made a sourpuss face.

Now I wanted something else to happen, my being incorrigible. Yes, I kept testing the waters with her; and how I wanted Lia to laugh as before. She didn’t.

Yes, the newspaper columnists kept being at it with their self-styled rhetoric. Who else wanted to have their place in the sun – now that the Europeans (meaning the English) had left for good? Did we want to forge a new political path tied to our own aspirations? Ah, America was keeping a close eye on us. Not what we ever denied!

“It’s what’s not true,” I grated.

“It’s our destiny,” snapped Lia.

“Bah, what’s destiny?”

“Not what’s European is our legacy!”

“Europeans brought us stability.”

“What kind of stability? Kari, you’ve always had it good,” she slammed.

I wasn’t sure, because of my having come from the middle-class with my Asian sense – my family name being Kirpalani from a Gujarati source. How real? Who wanted to be seen as upstarts calling themselves the Alliance For This-or-That? Political frenzy swirled around us. Let large or small states learn about our real motives, I hinted. Oh, back to racial origin, with talk of ethnic cleansing!

Not a new political ideology in the making?

I blamed the “opposition,” people of another race, if only from a mythical Africa. Lia made a face. Then, about a hortatory India with the Vedas in the foreground, not background. Economic solutions we yearned for too as Lia quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen; yes, she reminded me of having once heard him speak at the London School of Economics. Our Indian ancestry came back in more than dribs and drabs. And Lia’s words started becoming her critical nerve-centre; she wanted change. Didn’t I, too?

She simmered. Who really were the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Africans with their own past empires? What Mughal state existed before the Europeans came to India? Did Alexander the Great really conquer the known world, but was unable to go beyond the Indus Valley? And why did the Romans leave generals behind when they tried to conquer China, some who intermarried with the local Chinese women? Oh, thousands of horses, elephants, camels were killed.

Who really was Genghis Khan? Marauding tribes with horsemen showing off their skill, like devilry itself. Imagine women being raped and children killed at every turn! Scribes too kept being at it… with the ink of conquest. A writer I was, I wanted it to be different.

Lia cautioned about what I was aiming for. Narcissus, watch yourself. Did Marshall McLuhan actually say that? Now the small state we’d returned to, where everything was more than metaphor. Motifs becoming leitmotif, yes. Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh I conjured up –

he who had his weird dreams in the Tower of London with his mind-mapping instincts as he wrote his Discoverie of the Worlde. And did I know that Sir Francis Drake had a black man named Diego in his ship as he circumnavigated the world?

“Kari, you never belonged here,” Lia said.

“You mean we never belonged.”

She was now an activist, more than role-playing. But this was no game. What else must I know? And how much did I really care?

She railed at me. “Kari, you’re a son-of-a-bitch!”

“What?” Then, “I’m not… but you are.”

“Because I’m female?”

“Yes!”

“Then sons-of-bitches we will be!”

We also knew unity never existed between the main races in the country, though some pretended it did. Christ, we were never one people, one nation, one destiny. How we yearned for a genuine rule of law, wanting crimes against “our people” to stop! And what more did we conjure up in the forest or bush the British left behind so close to the equator? The hinterland with the sea inexorably coming closer. And were there death-squads working hand-in-hand with the drug cartels in the midst of an army take-over?

“It’s imperialism’s curse,” I lamented.

Lia wasn’t willing to lay blame.

The local politicians kept up the hysteria, about fear that stalked the land. But Lia said we should only blame ourselves because of our lack of a tradition, as she quoted T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; she’d been an archivist at the London School of Economics, see. But I shared republican sentiments because of my time in America. America, oh America. Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln; good old Abe.

Let the Civil War stand apart as a special place in American and world history, as I beckoned her to it. And about Walt Whitman with his Leaves of Grass. What more? On shifting ground I kept hoping to find my true place. Yes, I was falling in love with Lia.

Indeed we didn’t want to be in an “outback” place any longer as we might have conceived it – being not unlike the Aborigines of Australia, come to think of it.

“Really the outback, Kari?”

“It’s what I sometimes feel.”

“We’re here now.” She breathed in hard.

“Without the sense of origins?”

The image of the wild coast becoming wilder with my keen writer’s sense – as I fancifully conjured up philharmonic orchestras and Mozart playing: everything replayed in the hinterland more than leitmotif. I kept imagining ourselves being really in Vienna. Tall trees, the greenheart and wallaba, fluttered their leaves; the forest canopy grew wider in an overarching sky. Zinnia and bougainvillea flowers rose among aromatic basil, this Indian herb along the coastal belt.

I yet disdained the word “returnees,” in our interlocutory manner.

“Tell me more, Lia.”

“Tell you… what?”

“What I must aim for.”

She chortled.

The nation-state being all we kept wrestling with in our self-created drama, it seemed like. Now how far back in time must we go?

You tell me.

“Tell you?” she hissed.

“Please.”

“It’s about love, is it?”

The land becoming bright and sparkly in our dreams, what we hoped for. How soon?

 

II

Lia joined a trade union movement, then started advocating for women’s rights. Her name blared out in the media. “I’m doing something about it, Kari,” she said. “I have a voice.”

“Voice?” I grew impatient. “You’re thinking of not ever returning?”

“Kari, I want to make a difference.”

I was surprised by her energy. She reassured me it would always be the same with our friendship. Not courtship? Then, “Kari, we must really do something.” See, she started attending meeting after meeting about workers’ rights – women workers, in particular.

The media called her someone who combined astuteness with charisma. Imagine her becoming a member of Parliament. Would she really seek political office? She had no such conceit. “Take me as I am,” she said.

“Who are you really?”

“Not who you are?”

Flashbacks… as I reminded myself about how we’d indulged ourselves talking about the essence of things, even pretending to be phenomenologists. Who… or what really? She was pragmatic, more than a mere ideologue-turned-activist, see. Lia stirred from deep within.

I watched her interacting with people. She wasn’t fazed by the crowd coming around her. Only I seemed to be an… outsider. She glared at me. Then, “Why did you really come back, Kari?”

“Why?”

“You heard me.”

I’d been away too long?

Lia proclaimed herself a leader as a real politician, in a few short months. In Parliament she assumed leadership of her party. Her charisma acted out, as the media described it. The masses gravitated round her, petite Lia. “Yes,” she cried.

“You’re fooling yourself,” I hurled.

“I’m not Marxist if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“The media’s calling you that. You’re no longer just liberal, you know.”

She was in her true element. And I was unable to accept who or what she was becoming, and told her so. I did!

 

III

We were coming to the parting of the ways. Was I really an outsider, while she kept being the insider? “I’m real, Kari. Only you are living in the past.”

“The past is all we have.”

“It’s much more, Kari.”

I didn’t want her to get caught up in something bigger than herself, and feel she was being “loved” by the people. She hurled at me: “It’s you – in love with me, ah!”

“Am I… in love?”

“Admit it, Kari.”

“I’ve always found you attractive.”

“But love is much more.”

Outsider-insider instincts I recalled: how we’d danced in the metropolis; and the meals we ate in fancy restaurants in London, New York, Vienna. We reminisced about the “good old times”… until the realization that we should indeed return home.

“I’m genuinely in love with you,” I said to her.

“Are you really, Kari?”

She only wanted us to have a solid place in the sun; and for her to show the former colonial masters what we were capable of. We would no longer be living in a failed small-state, not forever. Then, “I know you’re thinking of returning… there,” she said.

“I want to be here with you, Lia,” I pleaded.

“Do you?”

I also wanted to be in the centre of things… with her. Not being at the heart of empire anymore? Not where things literally fell apart. I throbbed. Lia glared at me.

Me.

She didn’t want me to “crowd” her anymore, she said. Others came round to cheer her on… the new leader. Applause followed.

Instinctively, I also cheered. “Kari, Kari,” I imagined her calling out. “Lia, Lia,” I called back. She kept leading her party in the polls; she would win the elections. She did! Let the trade unions rule the day, the workers’ rights being all. Capitalists beware! She kept saying the people wanted genuine change. Transformation!

I said the people, well, who were just the masses – always fickle.

They were never to be relied upon. She raised a fist at me. I raised a fist back at her, in our incorrigible ways. Never just foreplay! Now nothing would hold back Lia. Not hold me back either?

A plane flying overheard I looked at. The far sky. The country and its people… everyone applauding. Echoes: as I woke up from a long dream in London, New York. What a dream.

 

 

IV

It came to me one morning after I’d worked it out for myself, and I told Lia I didn’t belong here any longer; I wanted to drag her home with me – for her to get out of the maelstrom she was caught in. But Lia would have none of it. “We don’t belong here,” I cried.

“Then…where?”

There.”

“Oh?”

“Where we came from. London, New York.” I felt almost dizzy. “There… where we truly belong.”

“The people – ask them. Only they can tell us.”

“Christ, Lia, we’re not part of them.”

Them?”

Lia said it was what we might have imagined or fashioned for ourselves over the years. Images I quickly denied. And the locals: what about them? The wind of change kept blowing. But Lia wanted to deliver on her promise. The workers, women, the trade unions appeared more real. “No?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

When she screamed at me, I screamed back at her!

“D’you really love me, Kari?”

“I do!”

“What’s love, eh?”

We would go on like this for days… as the media kept describing her as a woman with true principles with unique abilities – she who’d returned to save “her people.” “Let’s go back there,” I begged.

“To feel we were only… returnees?”

“Before the whirl takes you over completely.” I wasn’t really sure why I said that.

“You mean before I become seduced by power?”

I harped back on identity, then about race that impelled us – and to ask who we really were. We also laughed, you see. Oh, Lia and I embraced – here in our final meeting; and she would remain here. And Empire… I reneged, or denied to myself. Lia said she never really wanted it to be this way. Do you, Lia?

She would come to her senses five or ten years from now – after politics took its toll on her soul – what she would never really admit to.  “Kari, you’re one of a kind,” she said. “You only live in the imagination.”

“And you… Lia?”

“I’m an activist.”

“Bah, what’s an activist?”

She scoffed.

I simply grinned, in a fool’s way.

Indeed, a new place with new people, and empires rising and falling apart once more. What we would imagine in the passage of time. Yet love was the only genuine emotion! We would meet in foreign streets and again see ourselves in the diaspora thinking we were yet “returnees” living out our existential lives. Shrill voices around us. Hysteria everywhere.

“You belong,” a voice called out. “You really do belong,” I muttered back to myself. Lia, where are you? Fate taking over, what I wanted to acknowledge, or accept. Lia, wherever she now was, was also looking or searching for me. Time passing us by.