13 August, 2006

Of Montréal

. . . the concrete quays, prussic with age, of a glassy ark—
when I first saw them, I could barely see it was so dark—
from my bleary eyelids, an early dawn climbing over the Lawrence,
chiming on windows speckled with speckled moths
swept flocking in torrents
over the river, around the tower
and the clock, chiming.
There are few better feelings in life than arriving in a new city, all alone, and ready to make something of it. At the age of 18 I shored up in Montréal on the Greyhound, having divested myself (temporarily) of best friend, bodily hygiene and human contact. It was a transitional period for me, as I emerged from my adolescent cocoon and threw a few stones in the direction of manhood. I think all 18 year-olds need some opportunity to feel alone and free, some occasion to stir up banal but powerful romanticisms, scribbling verses in a notebook. I wrote a poem called 'The Bear', which wasn't very good, and I think I've lost it now. I felt unstoppable at that time, as I'd near won a poetry slam in Denver a couple of weeks earlier.

The bus arrived at sun-up, and I lugged my case to the youth hostel, weighed down with inexpensive CDs (mid-period Swans albums, mostly) and second-hand books—Joseph Spence, The History of Atlantis; Ben Willis, The Tao of Art; Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic; Walter Ivins, Art and Geometry—hey, I was young! For the next six days I spoke only to the wayfarers of the hostel, a German couple and a gaggle of idiot Australians, and a friendly local who told me where the best record-stores in the city were. Everything was so cheap in Montréal, I ate a three-course Vietnamese meal for 10 dollars, which is about 4 quid. I walked everywhere. There were so many things I saw but did not understand, like the cubist castle of Habitat '67 across the St. Lawrence, things that swelled me with an unreligious sort of wonder. I imagine that religion impairs the nihilism of pure wonder—makes it crave some sort of higher significance? I strolled around the old harbour, which was choked with moths—an animal I particularly loathe—and saw the boats, the clock-tower, and a couple of private design galleries. I ate club sandwiches and tried framboise, which will always be too sweet for me.
From Mont Royal the city was a grid of giddy sparks on coal,
a quilt of a town, which quelled the roil of my gadding soul
and raised me up, there, out of it all.
I also climbed up the hill, with its gigantic cross framed with light-bulbs. I was with the aforementioned local, who informed me about partisan Quebecois politics and the language policies of Montréal's mayors. He also mentioned the small throng of drummers who would assemble at the foot of Mont Royal on a Sunday dusk, an idea which delighted me, as I have some proficiency with a djembe or darbouka. The drum would become a theme of my stay in the city, for I happened to have one acquaintance there, a percussionist in a cult rock-band. I got an email from him one day before I left, and I wound up going over to his apartment in Mile End, a Jewish quarter to the west. He fed me tofu and mushrooms, a peculiarly unpleasant meal, and we drank homemade beer, which wasn't bad at all. He had a drum-kit in a room under a garage on Van Horne, but alas, I didn't get the chance to check it out.


Montréal excited me, it awakened higher impulses, by virtue of being alien and familiar at the same time. It is a beautiful city, I recall clearly a great white painted milk-bottle sculpture on a rooftop, and the 'cheese-grater' building, as well as the avant-garde stadium and biosphere.

This is an important time to remember for me, and I am not embarrassed by my jejune tastes or other naïveties back then. One must preserve in the heart a comfort with one's late youth, even after its values have been transcended. There are no photographs. My best friend and I patched things up soon after I returned home. I never got around to reading The Tao of Art, which speaks volumes about my tastes. A few months later I packed off to study philosophy at university, and then began my dawning interests in thought and literature. It was necessary that I felt no longer attached to the strictures of custom.


Andrew W. said...

Oddly enough, it was Toronto for me.

At 18, I came out here to attend the first Glenn Gould conference. The conference itself was a strange experience - have you ever enjoyed something, only to have the bizarre intensity of others kind of ruin that enjoyment for you?

Nonetheless, I managed to explore and fall in love with Toronto that same week.

My feelings about Montréal are more ambivalent. I think this has more to do with being an anglophone who had been taught in the bilingual school system and encountering Montréal at the height of its seperation anxiety than the specific character of the city.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"have you ever enjoyed something, only to have the bizarre intensity of others kind of ruin that enjoyment for you"

No, I can't really say I have had that experience. I quite enjoyed the uneasy linguistic status of Montreal, it fascinated me; for instance, the law that clerks must address clients in French, only reverting to English if those clients turn out to be anglophones.

Sir G said...

Nice, i am sure I will think about it as I go about my business today -- some writing is like that. When you read it, it isnt much, but you have a vague feeling it could be important, even if you are not sure why, only later, by degrees its significance seeps in. there is something here -- more than meets the eye, but i dont know yet what it is.

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, I'm planning to write a Voir Dit post on my experiences at that conference (thanks for the side bar link, by the way).

Like your time in Montréal, that conference had an enormous effect on me. It will flesh out my comment about my pleasure in listening to Gould changing as a result of my experiences.

I'm also hoping it will contribute to what's going on over at Heaven Tree and all this talk about tastes.

I'm also planning on visiting Montréal in the fall for a few days to take in an exhibition.

I'll be sure to take lots of photos and try to do a post that does as much justice to the city as yours did!

Conrad H. Roth said...

I look forward to it all!