Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sleeping in Toronto

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Sleeping in Toronto

By rob mclennan

I’m as far away from Jim Bryson’s sentiment in his song “Sleeping in Toronto,” but it’s in my head as I arrive on Greyhound. Tornado warnings tear through the Durham region, ripping roofs off houses, and Hurricane Bill barrelling up the east coast, heading north into Halifax. I ask the question: how does an Ottawa writer find happiness in Toronto? You bring it with you, of course. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. Besides, she is already here; and from the opposite direction, after all. My city lives in her curves, wherever they be. What kind of city is this? This city Colonel John Graves Simcoe called York in 1793 just by the Seneca village of Teiaiagon, itself already near a century and a half established. Toronto the multicultural Good, living now as the proclaimed centre of country, and focal point of national media, national attention. The hole, as once been said, that must be filled. Are we even allowed to talk about Toronto, in a country built on further-flung cities, regions and regional alienation? The woman I have arrived for, living by the waterfront, the outside of her lone four walls and queen-sized bed. Or, as Toronto Island poet Lise Downe wrote in her poem “DRIFT” from the soft signature (1997):

outside is not drowning
it is silence

A silence, sitting on the shore of Lake Ontario. Or at least the lip between body and the tongue of Toronto Island, a plural known instead as singular. Just there, outside her window, how else to know the city but through waterfront, island, the lake? In his third novel in the “great lakes suite,” A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988), Hamilton-born David W. McFadden wrote our immediate neighbour, the lake:

Lake Ontario was a huge animal with magnetic lines stretching out from it in all directions, pulling you towards it, a huge animal that wanted to be looked at and admired by the millions of tiny human fleas (four million Canadian and two million American) who lived around it and dumped their garbage into it. Once you obeyed the pull and arrived with a clear mind at the shoreline the pull would stop and be replaced by a feeling of being blessed, as if by a silent and motionless Christ radiant in the darkness.

Along the waterfront, as foreign a destination as any I’ve seen, been to, as far away from what previous Torontos I have known. The tourist docks, array of skyscrapers, condos, her small shared rental on the tenth floor, St. Lawrence Market but mere blocks. This is an area of tourist cards, sailboats and the most expensive yacht club in the world. From her balcony, lower-level sunbathers that return to street clothes by three or four, as sunlight drifts up behind another set of highrises. A terrace of sunbathers between four seemingly empty condos of otherwise voyeurs, beside the tennis court and above the happy noises from ground-level daycare. Sailboats turn seemingly sudden at the twitch of wind, Toronto Island in the southern horizon between Toronto Star building and another apartment of condo living, so tall I can’t even catch its peak. Fragments arrive in my notebook, from her end of summer view:

skyline pure of sky; the water, lakes
a nervous lap

my shining errant knight in glitter,

between envy & the moon, financial districts
, cn tower blooms

in light-show nocturnes; you woke,
discovered stomach cramps & this,

basaltic rock you mention, standing
the circle stain

quick glances down one side

three hundred passing passing ships,
sails like silver, flags

a threadbare ease, a base of trees
at merlot’s end

no one is an island; you are,

What else can waterfront tell us, those islands? I’m sure artists, island residents or otherwise, have been contemplating the same for decades. There was poet and novelist Gwendolyn MacEwen, who lived on the island with Prince Edward Island poet Milton Acorn in the early 1960s, from one island to another, during that brief period they were married. A friend of mine, Noel Evans, a teenager during those days, spent days and evenings visiting the couple, dreading appearances by poet Al Purdy. A dry island, according to Evans, Purdy always arrived drunk to visit, the day’s final ferry from the downtown bars, loud and overbearing, into MacEwen and Acorn’s kitchen. Purest Al. John Robert Columbo makes no mention of such when he wrote MacEwen into his Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984). Concerning the Islands, he doesn’t mention Acorn at all.

Gwendolyn MacEwen (b. 1941) lived at 3 Second Street on Ward’s Island in 1962 and 1963. She wrote a group of poems about the Island experience and these appeared in Earth Light (1982). In “Animal Syllables” she wrote: “There is no key to this place and, in a sense, no door. There is no free passage in and out. Already small weeds shoot up between the floor and the wall.”

Greg Gatenby, at least, provides a bit more information in his Toronto: A Literary Guide (1999), about their short-lived marriage in February 1962 when they moved into “a small, four-room cottage at 10 Second Avenue on Ward Island.” Unfortunately, the marriage was over by July, when MacEwen left “the Island, had left Acorn, indeed had left Toronto temporarily to discover Israel.”

The islands, the islands. Is this what bpNichol was writing through his first little publication, Journeying & the Returns (1967) that George Bowering referenced in his Craft Slices (1985)? Writing islands, words floating happenstance, deliberately on the page.

     There are no large comprehensive statements, but as the philosophers have told us, poetry makes no statements anyway. Statements, Nichol will tell us later, are what the state meant. What is written here is very well written, with a sure understanding of notation, with a remarkable ability to make notation induce rhythm, and to do things like this:

the islands
at this distance

by the heat

               waves breaking

Waves breaking, just underneath the island’s historic lighthouse, called the oldest remaining stone structure in Toronto, constructed in 1808 and completed a year later. For Stephen Cain, writing far more deliberate a reference to such in his piece “[The Lighthouse],” that helped make up a fragment of his Torontology (2001):

the confident aspects the quirky sing-songs the statements of beauty & repose. drinking your juice & letting it dry in a burgundy promise a rimshot afterimage. wet vectors a glistening connection between cup & wand. Tarot somewhere on the Island where sand sings & ferries wear boats. a topdown transversal a harbour oyster glance. french for rodent impressed by her knowledge. her grace, her quest beyond language’s wage.

The island, the island, and these centuries of waterfront. On the way to the ferry for an island picnic, we walk past a hotel, its revolving restaurant high above street level. On the island, Lainna mentions a fragment of a Robert Kroetsch poem, part of Seed Catalogue (1977) that mentions another revolving restaurant, an Edmonton landmark and, coincidentally, another drinking story involving Purdy:

I went drinking with Al Purdy. We went round and round in the restaurant on top of the Chateau Lacombe. We were the turning center in the still world, the winter of Edmonton was hardly enough to cool our out-sights.

The waitress asked us to leave. She was rather insistent, we were bad for business, shouting poems at the paying customers. Twice, Purdy galloped a Cariboo horse right straight through the dining area.

Now that’s what I call
a piss-up.

Here I am in Toronto, writing new history, a city I have visited, but never spent more than a week at a time. Not as an escape, but a worthwhile new direction. She had already changed me out west, curved me in Calgary, turned me inside out through those Edmonton months, these long months since; where else can we possibly go? The drive she made leaving Alberta behind to Toronto by way of my Ottawa apartment. There is a different kind of sky that hangs over Toronto. The same sky as anywhere else. I am as far away from Edmonton as I can imagine, geographically and psychically; as far away from home. Go forth, weary traveller. Her tenth-storey window streaks with stormy late August weather, the CN Tower shimmers and fades from view. Birds make themselves scarce. Grey overtakes grey.

The birds are scarce, even without the summer storm. Resting in other parts of the concourse, other frames of this city of buildings, parks and trees. This conflation of neighbourhoods. I wrap myself around her, close my sleepy eyes to midnight views of CN Tower, same age as my sister. The lightshow that aims itself to who, I wonder. Whom.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review ( seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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