Canmore smokeless coal afforded war destroyers their
stealth. Stealthier. Carved out coal beds,
the town eroded like a cough strip-mines and deepens.
The mine was shuttered in the seventies.
An open-mouthed, boomerang valley. The Olympic Luge
was going to save it all, they said,
but the price was dear. Up on that peak, it’s coiled and asleep.
They used it for that film about
the Jamaican bobsled team, Cool Runnings.
Now the wealth is folks clamoring in who aren’t allowed
to buy a home in Banff. They come to ski
or hunt and try to stay–royalty, celebrities, you name it.
But you have to own business in town.
One woman, a doctor, schemed and plotted: promised
she’d open a medical office. Council said yes.
She bought a chalet up the side of a hill, leased a storefront on Buffalo,
placed a desk and phone inside, and never crossed
the threshold again. A bitter pill.
They filmed Brokeback Mountain on the Three Sisters. Little Big Man.
See those rocks there, those fingers
of rock like ribs? They say it’s a man reclined. The Edge was filmed
up on that range. A terrible film, we can agree.
Alec Baldwin, his grimace and spittle crescendos, beseeching
Sir Anthony Hopkins: How the fuck are we
going to get out of this hell hole? At the producers’ free screening
for the residents, we screamed: Look behind,
you idiot! At the highway!
They dug animal tunnels beneath the road, like a coillery, and paved
animal bridges above. Cougars stalk their prey
from the bridges. Stealthy, they are. Chain-link along the road
discourages animals, but doesn’t completely repel.
Years ago, the big fire cut us off from Banff. Wilder than anything Hollywood
could dream—smoke hurling bears, wolves, elk
out of the woods–Ursus jaws, saber teeth, antlers, nautilus claws,
fur for miles, pummeling the fence,
droving their own hearts into the wire.
- Published in Geist, April 2015
- Published in Best Canadian Poetry 2014
- Published in Maisonneuve, December 2013 (subscription required)
- In Sharps
Two nights ago, I was talking with some local artists about things that used to be cool and weren’t anymore—things we missed…. I told them that I missed “standing alone”—the whole idea that “standing alone” was an okay thing to do in a democracy. “Like High Noon,” I explained, and one of them said, “Oh, you could do that today…(pause for effect)…But first you’d have to form a Stand Alone Support Group!
—Dave Hickey, Air Guitar
THE CALCIFIED, DUSTY, cut-out figure we’ve come to know as “Clint Eastwood” is a product of the spaghetti western films of Sergio Leone: funhouse mirrors reflecting American culture back to itself. Leone rescued Eastwood, really, from the two-bit western TV show, Rawhide. The “man with no name,” as Eastwood’s character in the Dollars trilogy was called, was also a man of few phrases. He flipped his poncho up over his arm and killshot his way into our hearts. For half a century now, Eastwood has been America’s sniper.
Eastwood followed this iconic western role with an iconic urban one as Dirty Harry, from 1971–1988. A skinny Batman with bedhead, boiling over in a boiled wool blazer and preppy sweater vest, he flicked “thugs” into the gutters of San Francisco*. Better films were made about lone gunmen (e.g. Taxi Driver), but it was the low-brow, mass market Dirty Harry that precipitated the stingy, paranoid NRA-/DEA-fuelled, trickle-down spirit of the Reaganite ’80s. Everything from Bronson’s wiggy nihilist in Death Wish to Schwarzenegger’s slick, indestructible killing machine in Terminator can be spirographed back to Harry. If nothing else, his prototypical, applause-baiting, vengeful one-liner — “Go ahead, make my day” — ensured that future action heroes would arrive with a quotable calling card.
But race has always been the silent star of Eastwood’s work. In almost every film, one man’s value system is drilled into a series of non-compliant minority figures. His stoic characters always seem to stand alone. With his latest effort, American Sniper, the question is whether what Eastwood himself has immovably stood for has rendered him impotent, or whether his endurance has made him more relevant than ever. The answer could very well be both.
Being a director, like being a critic, is to sit in a position of authority, and directing made Eastwood more untouchable than his acting ever could have. And left him a tad out of touch. And then made him a target.
When Eastwood made the diptych Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, a red flag climbed its pole and a brief controversy fluttered: were these films too “balanced”? Did he demonize the Japanese enough? But he was redeemed by the Oscars, and non-voting critics went silent. The same thing goes for how he almost always mints box office gold.
In Gran Torino—named after the beloved car that co-stars—Eastwood’s character both resents and rescues his new Hmong neighbours from the worst element among themselves. The white man’s burden, redux.
When he spoke in 2012 at—where else—the Republican National Congress, he presented an empty chair as his metaphor for America’s first African-American president. He was resoundingly, and rightly, heckled by most of the planet. I worried for a while about disrespecting a possibly no-longer-with-it elder. But by then, I’d also already begun to mourn the fact that one of my cinematic icons—the man who showed it was safe, and maybe even cool, to stand alone—had likely always had some troubled views that could no longer be viewed as a joke. This brings us to his newest and most controversial work: the highest grossing war film of all time.
AMERICAN SNIPER IS the cinematic realization of the same-titled, self-aggrandizing autobiography written by sniper Chris Kyle, who proudly and from a safe distance put a bullet into 150+ “ragheads for Jesus” (in the words of Chris Hedges). Kyle also claimed to have voluntarily gone south to kill Hurricane Katrina looters. No one is certain that last bit of bragging is true—but chew for a moment on what kind of person you’d have to be to share that fantasy.
The film opens with a coded scene of a stern dinner-table Dad telling his son there are three kinds of people: “wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.” It’s a line taken from a life, sure—but not his life. It comes from a decade-old book by Colonel David Grossman. But this is Eastwood’s masterful marketing: most of us recognize, and some of us get giddy on, the right-wing insinuations of liberal (read: anti-war) “sheeple.” The child is terrified of his father, but in his realm, terror is love. The echo of his father’s voice ultimately propels him into a rattling Mil Mi-26 on its way to Fallujah.
American Sniper is riddled with issues. The major glaring thing sure isn’t the plastic crying baby. It’s that Chris Kyle isn’t the self-effacing, “who’s counting?”, stoic sniper the movie portrays. He’s blood-thirsty. His book and the film are littered with the calibre of epithets we’ve ceased using against every other ethnicity on Earth.
If you haven’t seen the movie, or recent U.S. news, you’d be forgiven for assuming Kyle had been martyred by his job. But—spoiler alert—Kyle was killed by a friend and fellow second amendment enthusiast. On a Saturday at a Texas shooting range. For no reason.
In February, there were a few winded weeks, before the trial of Kyle’s assassin, when the film seemed to have enough critical mass to potentially capture the top Oscars. Texas christened a Chris Kyle day, and his legacy, and Eastwood’s vision, were starting to look inextricable. The outcome of the awards show was anti-climactic: the film won for best sound editing. People on Twitter said things like, “got to hand it to American Sniper—the sound on that film was SICK!”
WHEN CLINT EASTWOOD starred in and directed his masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992), Roger Ebert called it the western genre’s elegy. That wasn’t expressly true. The western isn’t so much about a specific time and place as it is about freedom’s enemies. Eastwood left America’s border in the able hands of locked-and-loaded militias, packed up the genre, and moved it offshore.
In a pivotal, biblical scene in Unforgiven, Eastwood stands in the scrub, his thinning quiff, like the plains around him, bowing in sync with the wind. And he says, flinching: “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” It kills me every time. But I still wonder, naively, how he could say those words and have played a killer for fifty years. But actors are paid to say shit for a living.
The part of me that wants happy endings wishes Eastwood hadn’t chosen this film to wrap his third act. No one wants stars to go out like Elvis, or Howard Hughes, or even D. W. Griffith. But I’ll take that over another young man being downed for walking while black, or Muslim sisters found dead because they wore headscarves.
Paul Virilio wrote, “film criticism no longer has any meaning. It is reality that we have to analyze in a cinematic way.” A man afraid is a man justified, Eastwood assured us for decades. But box office success is no longer enough to counter real-life myopia. No, art doesn’t need to be moral to be good. But it needs to be more than a mirror, it needs to create nuance, or depth—as Leoni once had. Otherwise it’s just accidental camp, fooling us that we’re strong, alone, and always right.
Originally published in April 2015 on Partisan (later retracted).
Here’s an interview with Hazel Millar of BookThug and the League of Canadian Poets, talking about some of her favourite poetry books (including Sharps).
Have you heard about Authors for Indies? It’s a new, national (actually, international) initiative to bring attention to the amazing work that independent bookstores do in terms of supporting regional authors, hand-selling books, hosting events, and building communities—for starters.
I don’t talk about it much (yet) but I used to co-own an independent bookstore, so this is a cause not only close to my heart, but a longstanding part of me. Authors for Indies takes place Saturday, May 2nd, 2015. On that day, authors will be in stores doing everything from reading and signing work to very likely recommending books for Mother’s Day. I’ll be at Book City Bloor West Village May 2nd, from 2:30-4pm. What will I be doing? I DON’T KNOW! But it’ll beat having been snowed in, reciting the parts of a Eukaryote to myself.
In advance of the event, the organizers asked me to supply a list of books I would recommend, with the intention that they might order some in. And I thought, hey, why not post my list with some comments?
But you know, also get out on May 2nd and visit your local independent bookstore!
Saeed Jones: Prelude to Bruise
Saeed Jones calls himself “the ferocity” online, for every reason you can imagine. He is a force of nature—not only in this, his multiple award-nominated first book of poetry, but also in his work for Buzzfeed LGBT, his creation of their groundbreaking paid writing fellowships and forthcoming literature section, and a number of recent essays that slay. He’s unstoppable, and can break fools with glance. Jones grew up in the American south (mostly Texas), and his writing captures the spectrum of southern atmospheres—parchedness giving way to lushness, community ebbing into threat, and back again. The nameless “Boy” of the book (that ancient, loaded condescension) could be anyone, but reading this book your heart will race as if you are the first person:
In a four-legged night,
clouds sink into the trees,
refuse me morning
and mourning, but I pass
what I thought was the end
of myself. To answer
your rifle’s last question:
if you ever find me,
I won’t be there.
— from ‘After The First Shot”
CA Conrad: The Book of Frank
CA Conrad is one of our most fearless and original poets, and I’d recommend anything he has written. When I got The Book of Frank, I read it three times in a row in one sitting. “Frank,” is a character without a plot, a boy whose learned sense of self-worth is reminiscent of that Sexton line: “I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender into this world.” BUT. Aimless Frank has a surrealistic vision and the distance of a wizard, both of which help him transcend his chaotic environment.
Ken Babstock: Methodist Hatchet
Methodist Hatchet is a masterpiece. Each poem is its own world, each line its own breath. In this book, there’s urgency, there’s resignation, there’s scoffing, there’s pleas—but never prayers. Lines will inhabit your mind like destabilizing mantras, like koans: “No one occupies me like me. And no one/makes me lonelier.”
Lordy, I remember recording this at work with my door closed and hence I might sound more panicked than usual. Or not.
“I’m currently reading Stevie Howell’s debut, ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ [ a.k.a “Sharps”]. I first became hooked on Howell’s poems after reading one of her chapbooks, Royal, and her first collection doesn’t disappoint. The poems are often darkly cinematic and linguistically-charged, full of slant-rhyme and clever phrasing. Howell is also daring with form, inventing unusual stanzaic shapes and renovating inherited ones—for example, the nursery-rhyme-inflected lines of “Mother’s migraine” sprawl across the page as if tracking their own lilting music and “flutter[ing]” images. Howell’s speakers are also diverse and run the gamut from hard-boiled but wounded (“No Good”), to wistful (“ • • •_ _ _ • • •”), to downright unsettling (“To the free felons who run your facility”). Accordingly, the poems interrogate an ambitiously eclectic array of ideas, including the monarchy, the film industry, crises of faith, and the loss of loved ones, all while remaining a cohesive and striking debut.”
I’m in party unicorn mane mode to celebrate the nomination of my book for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award from the League of Canadian Poets. There’s also (already!) a write up about the full shortlist in The Toronto Star. Really happy my wildly talented pal Kerry-Lee Powell is there, too. I mean, all the books are great.
Anyway this is what the judges wrote:
“Stevie Howell’s writing, in Sharps, has an inevitable quality, as though there is no other way to say what she wants to say. There is a wonderful mixture of high and low culture achieved with enormous skill. Her writing is original, skillful and quite often humorous without being self-consciously that way. Howell is always asking questions and answering them in ways that are quite often totally unexpected. Her choice of words have implications that make a careful, considered reading necessary. She comfortably inhabits a poetic world of great depth and richness. She writes, “Anything can happen, and it will./ The question is, to whom.”