How do you evoke a sense of place in a poem? How does a poem communicate what it feels like to be somewhere, not just as a tourist, but as a local, an inhabitant, someone who belongs? This seems to me especially tricky in an urban landscape. How do you trace belonging in a space that is poor in the flora and fauna that usually bring magic and specificity to a poem of place?
Bren Simmers’ second book, Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood 2015) makes its home in the Vancouver neighborhood of its title, and it unapologetically, even possessively, inhabits that neighborhood. My friend Paul tells me that Vancouver writers have a special knack for evoking their neighborhoods in poetry and fiction, and I will defer to his wider reading on the subject. So maybe it’s something about Vancouver? I can’t say, but there’s a dissertation in there somewhere for somebody.
Most of Simmers’ poems in this collection are untitled, and are organized around the time of year, so we trace Hastings-Sunrise over the course of a seasonal cycle. She starts with a table of contents that is actually a rough diagram of the “21 x 13 blocks” of her neighborhood, and adds playful maps of valuable local information such as “Map of Neighborhood Swings,” “Map of Open Doors,” lists of businesses recently opened and closed, “Map of Christmas Lights,” etc. Cumulatively, over the course of the book, we start to feel at home in some of the recurring cross-streets and sightlines, but before we get to that point, here’s one poem from the first section of the book which takes place during spring:
Night of nesting dolls,
many layers held
inside this one:
cocktails on the balcony,
supper at eight, the after-
dinner doubles games,
while kids pump legs
on swing sets.
At sundown, an old man
shuffles three times
around the park. Nightly,
I’ve started to look for
his cross-country gait,
tan paperboy cap,
started to call him ours.
Then falls the deep blue
scrim and the few
stars we can spot
amid shipyard cranes
and lights on Grouse.
the smallest doll
— from Hastings-Sunrise, published by Nightwood (2015), used by permission
There’s some lovely music and image-making here, but I want to spend most of my space unpacking the way Simmers organizes this poem, via the overarching image of nesting dolls. I find something delightfully odd in the progression and believe it reveals some real insight into how we encounter our little near-dwellings (neigh/nigh = near, bur = dwelling), our neighborhoods, and ultimately ourselves.
If I were to tell you that I was going to write a poem describing a landscape using nesting dolls as a metaphor, you’d probably assume that I would use the first, largest nesting doll to represent the world, the sky, the wider topography, elevation and longitude and such things. Subsequent “dolls” would narrow the focus in space until the smallest dolls might represent my street, my house, my living room, my couch, etc. Organizing the poem spatially would make a certain logical sense, but it would also be pretty predictable and boring.
It would also, ultimately, be a dumb way to explore how we connect to our landscape. On a day-to-day basis, we don’t relate to our neighborhoods thinking about elevation and longitude, but rather through the lens of our own lives, what we’re doing in the landscape, how we are living in it. So Simmers scatters the spatial, and starts with “cocktails on the balcony, / supper at eight” etc. The largest nesting doll, the one that contains everything else in the poem, is the set of actions that the speaker is performing on what seems like a pleasant, leisurely spring evening near a park.
We might also read the largest frame for the poem as being one of mood or tone, setting us up as readers to view the world here through a lens of ease and affection. Subsequent poems might reframe our encounter with Hastings-Sunrise through gloom or anger or worry or frustration (as indeed some do), but for now, for tonight, at the opening of this poem, we get to see the area at its most welcoming.
Once we know what we’re doing, and how we’re feeling, we can start to see the world around us, and the next nesting doll contains a living neighbour, “an old man” who daily “shuffles three times / around the park.” Our speaker knows him well enough to expect him every night, to recognize his “tan paperboy cap” (notice the nice assonance of the flat a’s there), to know how many times he circles the park, even to weirdly think of him as “ours,” but not well enough to know his name, or where he’s arriving from. It’s worth pointing out that even here, during the course of the poem, our speaker side-steps the opportunity to introduce herself to her old man, so there are clearly limits to the spirit of neighborliness that she feels, even under the ideal circumstances of this poem. Why not take a break from playing doubles to say hello? In another poem from the book, the speaker feels a tinge of jealousy when, at a coffee shop, the barista calls out to another customer by name, but the tinge isn’t enough for her to go ahead and make herself known. Something of urban personal boundaries, or a desire for privacy, or just plain-old Canadian embarrassment, remains, which also speaks to the kind of life our speaker has in Hastings-Sunrise – a life whose connection to those around her is not absolute, or fully without mistrust. There are good reasons for this which appear in other poems from the book, but here, given the lighter mood, it’s just a lingering reticence.
Meanwhile, if we are back-and-forth in space, we are fairly consistent in time, moving through the evening, cocktails on the balcony, after-dinner activities in the park, and ultimately, inevitably, darkness falling and night coming on.
Oddly, as night approaches, the description of the landscape is at its most specific – the shipyard cranes make this a fairly unusual cityscape, and I assume “Grouse” refers to Grouse Mountain, the well-known Vancouver landmark that can be seen quite clearly from the parts of Hastings-Sunrise that approach the water. (Feel free to click here to see some nice promotional images.) Again, notice the reticence, though – our speaker is willing to locate herself close enough to the harbour to see the cranes and the lights on Grouse, but she won’t tell us which street she lives on herself. Even to us, her readers, there’s a slight holding back.
(Can I say as an aside that I believe the word “grouse” to be one of the ugliest words in the English language? I mean that in a good way.)
The blessing and curse of belonging to a place, any place, is that it shrinks our horizons – if you belong somewhere, especially in an urban environment, you’re only going to see a narrow slice of sky. And so as the poem starts to close down, Simmers gestures towards the limitations of planting herself in Hastings-Sunrise knowing that doing so very literally narrows her vision of the rest of the world.
The final image, “the smallest doll / is sleep,” evokes the satisfaction we feel at the end of a good day, shutting down our outward-gazing selves and hunkering into our smallest spaces, the spaces that are most our own. But it also gives voice to complaint (sleep “so brief”) and to the limitations of our individual selves, trapped in the narrowness of the world inside our eyelids. We might dream of a wider world but we can’t build a home there.
I admire this poem, and indeed the whole collection Hastings-Sunrise, because it explores the richness and limitations of being at home in a neighborhood, but also being at home in an individual self who (in most cases) must choose just one place in which to make her life.