Monday, January 2, 2012

Sachiko Murakami's Rebuild

(Warning to the reader: this review skips over many of the poems, burrows into a few, veers off course towards the end, and departs with a poorly-lived-in feeling. But it's all about matching form to content. It's all good. Did Martha Stewart, that hero of the homesteader, with or without iron leggings, coin that?).

Having enjoyed (if that's the right word) Sachiko Murakami's first book of poetry, The Invisibility Exhibit, I looked forward to her follow-up, 2011's Rebuild. The relentlessness, the grim and gathering fury and depression of the former work was understandable given the horrific subject matter. And the author juxtaposed the historical nightmare with a fictional mother and daughter narrative which took themes from both spheres and added layers to both. The curious and ironic problem with Rebuild, however, is that the poems remain as excavations, no matter how much they're driven by social rage. This might be the point, but it's a dangerous ploy to evoke the moods and tones of alienation, confusion, rootlessness, erasure as a form-and-content union since it leaves behind the same feelings one gets after passing a construction site on a busy street: annoyance and distraction.

Distraction, especially. I had a hard time concentrating on quite a few of the poems. And I'm a careful reader. The postmodern deletions in variations of first efforts were poor: the idea is obvious, and though a few puns and some acerbic tweaking of tone emerged from the rewrites, after one has read them once -- and the "a ha" moment has sunk in -- it's hard to imagine returning to them again. It's like buying CDs of comedy acts. What's the point? And the Vancouver Special poems: blocklike prose settings, yes. That makes visual sense. But why the three-quarters blank page? The poems should have been stuffed against, or even across, the margins, top and bottom and sides.

I have a feeling this may otherwise become an even lengthier review, so I want to move to the content because there's a lot to talk about here. In my review (elsewhere) of Murakami's The Invisibility Exhibit, I praised much in the book, but had problems with political stances that left much out, and misrepresented much of what was included. Rebuild is no different, and the problems run deeper since the themes -- spiritless speculation; conformity to social rootlessness; aesthetic disregard; ownership vs stewardship; historical amnesia; motion as meaning; building corporations as spiritual weathervanes and dispensers -- are more endemic, tangled, inclusive, and nuanced. Murakami's views, however, don't add anything to what we've heard by a thousand-and-one previous city planners with a conscience. This could have been a terrific opportunity because, yes, the contemporary mania and chicanery in the real estate bubble that is Vancouver cries out for poetic blast and blasphemy. But the poems are uninhabited (again, this could be the point, but I disagree with it -- more on that in a bit) and idea-driven to convince by bald assertion. James Howard Kunstler, in one of his diatribes against architects in some city in the U.S., showed to an audience a slide pic of a mammoth block-long stone slab aggressively pushing against the sidewalk, and imagined how it came about. His conclusion was that a last-minute brainstorming session ended up with a who-cares: "Fuck it! Let's just throw this at them." What I wanted was more in that line: specific examples, carefully drawn, involving specific people; a narrative that implicates by historical and financial nuance and drama. (Many blast reviewers when they castigate a book for what it's not about, rather than what's there, but if that line of thought is followed to its natural conclusion, we'd have to dismiss sins of omission, faulty tone, and hasty conclusions, amongst other issues.) But we are encountered instead, page after page, with ideological predictability based on narrow reportage from a disembodied voice.

It's that narrowness that irks. If Hamlet lived another four hundred twenty years, and crossed an ocean and continent, he may have declared, "there are more things in Vancouver than are dreamt of in your philosophy". Murakami's Vancouver is a constricted blip in time. She rarely gets out of downtown/Yaletown, save for a few excursions to the East Side to opine on Vancouver Specials (that peculiar blocky, lot-hogging design). "A piece of grass, a peak, a peek" (from "Tower")? Sure, if you live in a particularly crapulous shoehorn special in the outskirts of Yaletown. Most, though, even in that neighbourhood, enjoy, if not oceanic vistas, at least a decent partial panorama of False Creek, street life, and/or the North Shore Mountains. I know. I lived there for twelve years (and all over Vancouver for half a century). "A piece of grass", though, suggests more than just a debased living space. Nature is denuded, shrunk, tamed, and eventually erased. It's hard to get too enthused over Murakami's directions, though, because there is zero counterbalancing throughout the collection. This is understandable in her first book of poems, when a shift to a lighter tone would have been not only impertinent but egregiously insensitive. Here, though, the destruction/rebuilding calls for quick shifts, and it also allows greater space, made possible by all that levelled ground, for longer reverie, humorous mockery, and different perspectives. But the tone is just as bleak.

So let's focus on her focus of geography: Yaletown. For the past decade plus, it's undergone the most dramatic facelift (or faceplant, if you're in the Murakami camp) of any city section in North America. The third stanza of "Ocean Views" begins, "If we are to be ruined by development,/let the rubble at least be tidy". First off, who's "we"? The general populace? The macro (worldwide) community? The narrator's friends? This indefinite pronoun is meant to be inclusive, or ambiguous, or an obvious assumption disguised as matter-of-fact. The "rubble" is a fact of any building torn down to make another. Is this rubble lasting? Of course not. Is it unseemly? Sure, for those gawping at ocean vistas, though I detect nothing but scorn for those who'd pay a premium for such an opportunity. Is the rubble symbolic of the destruction of traditional ways of life in which the new is automatically insipid or evil? Perhaps we're getting close. Ah, why be coy. The volume proceeds thusly and anon. Whites displaced First Nations who are in turn being displaced by Chinese and Hong Kong residents who in turn will be displaced by an as yet unknown race from another part of the world. C'est la vie. But if we're gonna stroll down that long and serpentine boulevard, we'd better be prepared to describe what we see. A further "Tower" variation includes, "Empty suites never inhabited/held safe for future profits". Well, yes and no. Yes, speculation is rampant as it is in any bubble economy and precinct. But "future profit" isn't the only reason. A major incentive for rich Far East buyers comes from their plan to move here when the shit hits the fan in their own countries and/or retirement beckons. In other words, not a vacant community, but a delayed one. And of course, the streets (and buildings) are choc-a-bloc with people, anyway ("bustling" is the usual term), so once again appearances bump up against facts and get bruised. And we have this notion of "traditional" being automatically sacrosanct. But Murakami was born in Vancouver, and should know what was on the long Seymour corridor before the condos went up. I used to walk that street often (still do, occasionally). Torn down were quite a few smelly, low tech autobody shops (you know, relatives of the rubble family), an ancient, run down pool hall notable for pot distribution (not a hardware store offshoot) and crappy tables, and used office furniture stores. But if people have the impertinence to want to move downtown, I suppose we have to bulldoze these heritage buildings and make way for the rabble (I mean rubble). Speaking of people wanting to move downtown, this should be encouraged, and thanks to the progressive planners and alderpersons (from the right and left), it's become a reality. Think of the reverse. And that's a reality in many U.S, cities. Hollowed-out Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago, where even the cops don't brave going into the downtown core. What precipitated that? Suburban build-out based on commercialized dreams and fantasies, incentivized, of course, and bulldozing heritage buildings (not declining businesses) to replace them with nothing but boarded-up facades and graffiti.

But now the boulevard gets even wider. Because now all those people -- all rootless, all amnesiac, no doubt, and superficial -- have to cohabit and "communalize", "bond", and congregate in what could have been .... well, again, we're not enlightened as to a positive alternative, so let's just look at the bigger, specific picture. "To develop; to encroach; to choke", from "Work In Progress" once again points the finger at the developers and the people who buy or rent their products. The next line is "To be a connoisseur of pebble and branch and sushi". Ah, you see, it's not just people with poor taste in architecture, it's those with money. Imagine, those with money wanting to buy or rent an apartment! And the former are always the latter. The moneyed riff-raff. In another poem, it's a given that the realtor's dream of the perfect lifestyle is synonymous with that of the prospective buyer. What the specifics of this dream are is not delineated, possibly because that would involve an actual character based on nuance and idiosyncrasy. A living person, then. But we're given, repeatedly, this benign and crass class warfare. The low-cost renters are being squeezed out, it's true. To some extent, anyway. There are still quite a few halfway house shelters and rentals, community house buildings, and small low-end bachelor pads for the working poor. But if there's a new denizen ("inhabitants", "tenants", "citizens" to use Murakami's derisive terms) inside the condo, it's, I suppose, at the expense of a homeless man outside the swept, circular condo piazza. Why else the rage?

And the boulevard goes down a side street where it enters upon a world apparently unknown or at least unconsidered by our guide. I'm talking of the slightly more important theme of the twin horrors of overpopulation and fossil fuel depletion. Because there are lotsa people about, and because lots of them want to live in Vancouver (all of them superficial, lotus-eatering, art-hating, sushi-scarfing, consumer-crazy athletic troglodytes), it does no good to simply say "full up, no entry". Alas, we live in a democracy, a soft one, no doubt, but a democracy all the same, and so we must allow for the free transport of people within our country. It's wonderful that the billionaire Li-Ka Shing had the care and vision, and that the councillors and planners had the desire, to fashion and complete the post-Expo North False Creek redevelopment. Because living in a condo or apartment in a community with other condo dwellers in a relatively small space, among other benefits too numerous to mention without going into many more essays, leaves a much smaller energy deficit than does living in a detached dwelling that some of the thumbs-up reviewers of this book inhabit (not that there's anything wrong with that choice, and I'm sure they're not all ostentatious spenders -- I'm just sayin'). Water usage, electricity, garbage disposal, transportation: these are some of the issues that can be fairly stacked up against carefree sushi-eating and vista-gaping, while still holding their own.

But we leave the confining philistinism (bookstores disappear downtown, too, Murakami laments, though there are more good bookstores downtown than in any other concentrated community in the lower mainland), the rubble, and the small patches of grass for the Vancouver Specials of the East End. "Are you compatible with the other homes on the street?" begins "The Agreement Agreement". It's a satire on the conformist drones of the urban home owner, a kind of reverse welcome wagon. But the owners of Vancouver Specials are also pummelled for their poor taste in most every other poem in this section, and the irony is apparently missed. (Vancouver Specials have become more prominent, but they would still be the receiving party in the "behave, and present your home in accordance with our wishes" exchange.) And there are so many other houses on that block, or on many other blocks. We don't get to travel on those streets. So take my hand, gentle reader, and let me guide you through some other areas of town that don't get noted because they don't afford the easy ideological buzz so beloved in circles of the Kootenay School of Writing, where every private enterprising home owner is a capitalist stooge. (For the record, I was a dependent, then a renter, in Vancouver, so I'm certainly not protecting any front yard turf behind kitschy lions.)

I, son of a truck driver and steel worker, walked to high school in 1969, and met, on the way, my friend, the son of a TV repairman (O! quaint career), then to another friend (son of a corner grocer), then to another friend (son of a mechanic), then to another friend (can't remember the dad's occupation), where we eventually hit the halls. Killarney is a big school, encompassing a large district, and we collided with other kids from the Fraserview area, sons of dentists, accountants, teachers, and lawyers. I liked some of those fellow students, but I felt more comfortable with Boris, Kelvin, Frank and others. Nothing to do with racial preferences. The three aforementioned friends were Russian, Chinese, and Italian, respectively, and the middle-class kids to our working-class crew were all Whiter than fridges, long-necked Brits with manners and goals. Boring kids, mostly. Stay-at-homes. Bereft of girl friends and girlfriends. Unfunny. (Except for Geoff.) During elementary school and high school, close friends included Fijians (dad was a barber) and Sikhs (widowed mother), Japanese (dad was a fisherman) and Portuguese (dad was a cabbie, I believe), and uncouth Scots pugs (not the dog, and dad worked in a meat-packing plant). I've detoured to this racial and class-infested forest because ... well, 'cuz I'm the guide and I like exploring. But there's a broader point. Eventually, I made peace with those from a different economic sphere. Often, our differences in personality and aspirations either dovetailed or at least lessened. Some working-class acquaintances became shitheads, or maybe they always were, only now personalities didn't hinge on cultural quirks, but went much deeper. Initially idealistic in the Murakami fashion, I set out simplistic sides. And those on the other side of the street were those who not only had money but who obsessed about and desired it. But for every one of those greedy or undeserving rich kids turned insensitive rich adults, there were and are many more rich or moderately well-off adults who have the same problems -- the important ones, spiritual and physical and emotional -- that afflict us all and that aren't ameliorated by exclusive bribes and secret deals. Travelling to the rich West Side, we come to the gates of a Shaughnessy mansion where old money is still propped up in the form of an 80 year-old woman living off a rapidly draining nest egg, and who short-changes the cabbie for a six buck ride. That doesn't infiltrate the consciences of readers of The Province "news"paper. Neither does the alcoholic whose money's been squandered on whiskey in even older moneyed Dunbar, community of silent rectitude, or so its thought (if anyone other than its residents even thinks about it). Conversely, we re-enter the East Side where a man getting out of his pick-up on Sophia Street ascends his dilapidated steps in his homely neighbourhood, plumber of thirty years, wealthy and sane.

Rebuild should have been rebuilt from the ground up. It's simplistic and often false, more so than the creek it makes facile wordplay with. And its tone is needlessly depressing. If The Invisibility Exhibit's colours were red and black, Rebuild's are brown and grey. Those tones are duly noted. But -- and you wouldn't know it from the book -- Vancouver is a colourful city. And I'm not talking about the trees, the mountains, and the ocean.

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