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“Three Elegies for an Unloved Country,” excerp – Agnes Whitfield, Montreal, QC

I would like to submit to the Open Book of Citizens for Canada the following excerpt from my unpublished prose poem “The Hunter and the Loon. Three Elegies for an Unloved Country”.

In this text, I try as a poet to reconfigure the antiquated mythologies that keep our thinking about Canada bogged down in the immovable granite of our Canadian Shield. Robertson Davies once remarked that one of Canada’s difficulties lies in the absence of ghosts; my poem is an attempt to re-create a new land of romantic ghosts, to reweave the unlikely love story that never was, or so say the more pragmatic theorists of separation on both sides of our linguistic divide. To do this, I have reversed the usual metaphor. In the poem, English Canada is represented by a woman’s voice, who addresses a fictitious Quebec lover called, fittingly enough, Emmanuel, a name of new beginnings.

In its desire for a more harmonious meeting of our two languages and cultures, the text also builds on the famous quote from Rilke that Hugh MacLennan uses at the beginning of his novel, Two Solitudes: “Love consists in this that two solitudes protect, and touch, and greet each other”. It was important to me as I wrote the poem that both languages be actually present in the text. By interweaving French words and phrases throughout the English text, I wanted to show how, without reducing their difference, their separateness, both cultures could nonetheless “touch and greet each other” in friendship and commonality.

By is very form, the poem is a two-way dialogue between cultures. It speaks outward, as the anonymous English narrator seeks to make a more respectful connection with Québécois and French-Canadian culture and history. It also speaks inward, to anglophone Canadians, and our need to rediscover the importance, for our own identity and survival, of opening ourselves up to the creative forces of duality and difference. I am pleased to have it included in Dialogue Canada’s Open Book of Citizens for Canada.

Agnes Whitfield
Montreal, QC

EXCERPT FROM THE HUNTER AND THE LOON. THREE ELEGIES FOR AN UNLOVED COUNTRY

I would be grateful, Emmanuel, if you could send me a letter. You could write to me at Poste Restante, Menaus, Brazil. I am planning a cruise down the Amazon to the old opera house. They say the wood inside is beautiful, how it resonated under the rich vibrant tones of the greatest voices. The jungle growth is unforgiving, constantly reclaiming neglected space. J’ai tellement envie, Emmanuel, de cette confluence boueuse, those silt-drenched waters where the Amazon and the Rio Negro combine. The currents are ripe with reptilian vitality and multiplying bacteria. The decomposition is virtually instantaneous for any imprudent soul. Not like this slow stasis under the white weight of our own frozen falls, this battering of boulders at the foot of the precipice, this painful out-pouring of words over a narrow and rocky northern river bed.

Les chutes du Niagara. Our historic honeymoon capital, rivalled only by the Plains of Abraham, these are the unauspicious connections between Upper and Lower Canada. I am not talking about St John’s Harbour, Cape Breton, the Albertan Bad Lands or the Columbia Glacier. Our unwilling courtship is filled with unsavoury contradictions, ironic eccentricities, jostling each other in our antiquated horse-drawn carriages.

All this remixing and rematching of old words, all this picking and prodding of outmoded mythologies, my writing clip clops, Emmanuel, over the asphalt of our grey modernity. From time to time I run my fingers over the forelock, and lift a hoof. The gravel shoulders are not without discomfort. A quick poke dislodges the offending pebble. Have we forgotten the way, Emmanuel, to the cabin in the heart of the woods, the orange glow of the lighted windows over the crusty snow, la chaleur de l’âtre in the blacksmith’s forge?

For it is always to history, Emmanuel, que tu me ramènes, the tale is in the eyes of the beholder, to this unconverging telling of parallel affairs, to our centuries of stony indifference and diverging patriotisms, to the vast swamps of our myopic exclusivities. And I see only geography, two separate yet intertwining traces over the same hinterland.

In many regions, you would have to agree, the thin soil is ill-suited to concentrated cultural exploitation, light grazing by undemanding species has been suggested as an appropriate alternative. Mutual disrespect, mismanagement and neglect have led, d’un côté que de l’autre, to an unnoticed and undocumented reciprocal decline in our respective prophets.

This unlikely romance is full of folly, Emmanuel. There is something more than vaguely hysterical about this long, aimless scrawl through the underbrush. My pages are scratched and stuck with burrs. These are the scraggly shapes of my words as I crawl my way deep into our Canadian Shield, past the cedar bogs and the wild blueberries, around the myriad of swamps and the large, broad-leaves and gently dancing stems of our tenacious water lilies, inching forward line by line, through this unruly and unwritable language, into the unbecoming wilderness, into this uncharted and unloved hinterland, hovering, undiscovered and unsung, at the heart of our unreal and unfounded country.

The thermometer has fallen again, but the buds have not shrivelled on the branches. I have advanced to February in this interminable winter journal. Basements are often full of clutter, and unused storage space, but under the proper conditions, and with some artificial light, they can be ideal for starting seedlings. It will soon be time for spring cleaning. I am constantly shifting territories, Emmanuel, caught between two different latitudes, two distinct polarities. Suspended between the wild and the domestic, my identity is constantly changing register. It cannot be contained in words, translation is virtually impossible.

I come from a long stalk of country dwellers, transposed to urban centres, flowering with a babble of multiplicity. Were you just another lover, Emmanuel, one among many? This can hardly be a suitable foundation for a lasting relationship, this unrepentant burble of minor mythologies and dubious details, this unrequited outpouring of unresolved reflection.

French has retreated, Emmanuel, to the edge of my sentences. It is lost in the spaces between the punctuation. These are the landmarks you observe through the thick lenses of your telescope as you survey the barely recognisable fences along our undefined border. We have forgotten all these more intimate connections in the roots of words, in our bubbling prefixes, our incantatory suffixes, in these reversible adjectives that twirl like pleated skirts, exposing their double patterns, over black and white saddle shoes. We have abandoned the juke box to another era and re-divided the continent. I no longer know if I am talking to you, Emmanuel, or to my American cousin. Les doigts qui tournent les pages me sont irréversiblement inconnus. The patterns they leave on my unseen parchment are invisible, illisibles.

Baie des chaleurs, Belleville, Cardinal, la rivière Rouge, what should I make of this scatter of names across my landscape, these words thrown into the four winds. They have taken root in the most unexpected places, isolated from each other or gathered in strange clusters. The evolution of my geography has been far from hospitable. With the passage of time, the syllables have shifted, the inflection has changed. Le respect et la tolérance. Linguists have spent years studying the impact of intonation on communication, but the pragmatic consequences of variations in inflection still remain, to a large degree, unpredictable. Experience has led you to be cautious. Tolerance and respect, these are only a few of the words we share. Our English pronunciation has been a double-edged sword. You do not place much trust in abstract semantic potentiality.

O Emmanuel, this chameleon rhetoric, this bathetic bleating of wings only confirms my marginality, my irretrievable anachronisticity. My writing will go down in history as the last, unconfirmed sighting of a long endangered species, inadequately equipped for the challenge of evolution. My solitude is complete. For you and so many others on both sides of our unmeasured divide, have decided that duality is a political perversion, the occasional unwanted complication of imperfectly executed blood transfusions. It is not part of the normal process of moral development. This continued cold front of indifference has hardened the crust over my pages. I take little solace in knowing that my amphibious matter is more complex, that it has, in fact, a certain hereditary inevitability, that this unrepentant attraction to difference is, en fait, an inescapable biological imperative.

I am impatient for spring, Emmanuel. The regenerative power of each minute particle of the marsh is simply miraculous. Tu devrais voir. The breaking up of structural barriers, the untrammelled transformation of each molecule, the empowering release of rejuvenating energy.

Have you retired, Emmanuel, from the cycle of life? You may find your pension plans overdrawn. We may find ourselves exposed to further negotiations. I too am growing tired. My pages have taken on a slightly yellowed hue, the parchment is noticeably more brittle. There is a price to pay for so much unrepentant cant, for so much public distemper. I too have not escaped infection.

In the heart of the marsh, in damp and shady recesses, grows a rare, carnivorous plant. My words, like black flies, make a friendly feast on the pulpit of this rapacious prince.

I pass my dry lips over your old letters, Emmanuel. Our small towns are dotted with churches and green cemeteries. When I was young, we gathered by the graves in June. We trimmed the over-exuberant spring grass around the memorial stones, we arranged the local flowers in different urns. We wandered from stone to stone, reading the names and checking dates. We reassembled on the hill overlooking the lake under the trees. There was something pleasing, almost soothing, in this gentle encounter with ghosts. We conjured their spirits, with our mild mischief. I feel that you, too Emmanuel, are not unfamiliar with these strange, intriguing whisperings, the fine veil of expectation draped over the rough granite backs of these unpolished tombstones. I like to think our fingers meet there still, in this irrepressible murmur of imagination, over the porous surface of our ungainly graves.

The black squirrels scamper over the snow, chase each other up the barren trunks. I forget this is a country of calculated hoarders, unrepentant up-rooters of bulbs, deliberate disturbers of fragile beds. Yet who knows, Emmanuel, what new plants will grow, from their displaced reserves, their lost treasures, and in what strange, forgotten places?”

Agnes Whitfield
Montreal, QC