A Verse Map of Vancouver
Edited by George McWhirter, with photography by Derek von Essen. Anvil Press, 208 pp, $45, hardcover
I am somewhat averse to having a coffee-table poetry book represent Vancouver to visiting dignitaries and those with $45 to burn.
True, there is more going on in A Verse Map of Vancouver, the culminating project of the first poet laureate of Vancouver, George McWhirter. From the outset, he says that this anthology, which pairs “verse” (an archaic word for a contemporary work) with beautiful photographs by Derek von Essen, is not meant to be inclusive, but to “represent the city’s places and principal features in poetry”. So while I might be inclined to point out omissions such as Vancouverite and first national poet laureate George Bowering, who has written about many aspects of the city, this criticism is, I suppose, unfair, given the opening disclaimer. So let me speak no more of omissions.
This anthology is meant “to raise the status of poetry in the everyday consciousness of Vancouverites”, but it will do more to uphold civic pride. Still, there are some poems which veer from the celebratory formula to reveal glimpses, at least, of a lived reality, including Maxine Gadd’s: “i wrack my eyes to see below/what was so easily pleasant”. In places, the mix is compelling and mesmerizing, as in Daphne Marlatt’s sonic line “on the edge of the tracks a litter of shacks of what remained a bright/idea”, and in Jim Wong-Chu’s succinct “curtain of rain/another act unfolds”. The anthology works well in other combinations too, but most of the poems in the book function as if they were written on the backs of postcards designed to show the good time we’re having in this impossibly beautiful place.
No doubt there is some fabulous visual documentation here, but this collection of “word windows” is probably better for tourism than for everyday Vancouverites. Still, I can’t stay mad at an anthology that starts with Pat Lowther, features a poem by Al Purdy called “Piling Blood”, and includes Roy Miki’s line “Kits Beach across a vast network of exchanges.”¦Of the free fall into the maelstrom of fortune’s arms,” in a poem that also quotes the cultural theorist Judith Butler. McWhirter should be commended for that consciousness-raising range, at least.