Tuesday, August 30, 2005

“ottawa” by Judith Fitzgerald


he descended the fire escape
with the coffee in my hand
and a guitar in his
was running down
my white wrist

you are sleeping
in ottawa
it’s another hot night
after the fashion
of steam and tendrils

the humidity and stains
hamper the delight
you take in your fingers
the audience has claims
on these hands

paul chartier
was on the steps
of the commons
while i was thirteen
in a gallery chair

his face was red
it was april and the washroom
was the high note
in his history
for that split second

stains and humidity
hang in this air
resembling war wreaths
the dried blood
angles its journey

down the porcelain wall
the body was changed
by its explosion
he jacked off with a bomb
the prime minister went white

the arm was holding
the back of the head splinter style
in perfect vertical symmetry
you are sleeping in ottawa
were sweating in fine hair

it gets god-awful hot
sometimes in those bars
and directly above
the spick and span urinals
paul chartier’s body comes violently to rest

I’ve always liked the kind of poetry that shoves itself into you and tears your heart out, and for that, Judith Fitzgerald is easily one of the best poets of the bunch, Canadian or otherwise. Writing a highly literate, emotional and musical lyric for years, she has been influenced heavily by both poetry and song, and by authors such as George Bowering and Leonard Cohen. The author of over a dozen collections of poetry, including The River (ECW Press, 1995), which was up for the Trillium Award, and the more recent collections Adagios: Iphigenia’s Song (Oberon Press, 2003) and Adagios: Orestes’ Lament (Oberon Press, 2004), the poem “ottawa” is from my favourite of her collections, lacerating heartwood (Coach House Press, 1977).

It was through this piece that I first heard the story of Paul Chartier, called “the mad bomber of Parliament,” and the focus of a brand new book on the subject, The Mad Bomber of Parliament, by Ottawa author James Fontana (Borealis Books, 2005). There are suggestions that had the story of Paul Chartier been American, there would have been five books and a movie out by now, instead of the first book on the event appearing only a few short months ago. Canada’s Guy Fawkes, but without the whole “burning in effigy” thing. The story is simple: he went in to the Parliament Buildings to blow up the House of Commons as it was sitting, and, as he went into the women’s washroom to fiddle with it, he succeeded only in blowing himself up. Why do they never discuss these things on the tours? Why is it these are the stories that almost never get told?

Editor Frank Davey wrote about the poem in the introduction to her Given Names: New and Selected Poems 1972-1985 (Black Moss Press, 1985):

Hidden subversively in the lyric collection Lacerating Heartwood is the poem “Ottawa,” which re-tells Paul Chartier’s self-destruction in his attempt to bomb the House of Commons. Fitzgerald depicts Chartier as a guitarist, the lyric performer, who takes “delight” in his “fingers,” and as the Narcissus who, oblivious to women, destroys himself with self-love.
[. . . ]
For Fitzgerald this story seems to inscribe the death of the lyric poem, the focussed song of unhappy male delight. In her work after this book, “poetry,” a discrete product of phallocentric male creativity, yields to “writing,” a process that transcends genre in the writer’s attempt to constitute or fictionalize her self (“First Persona Regular,” “First Persona the Second”) in words.

Always glossed over for being the Capital City, in the poem “ottawa,” Fitzgerald writes the things that Ottawa has always had but has never been known for, including bohemian tendencies and immutable heat, writing the “steam & tendrils” of any part of July or August, with her own personal mix of sex and violence. From her first book, Victory (Coach House Press, 1975), a long poem on a stripper in the Victory strip club, to her Edith Piaf in Beneath the Skin of Paradise (1984) and her more recent versions of Iphigenia and Orestes, Judith Fitzgerald has written through a deep sense of loss, and those that have been lost, from that dark underbelly of the heart. Through her poem from the capital, she works around and through that, from a place not known widely for its dark side; Fitzgerald’s “ottawa” encapsulates a real, and human, part of the city in quick succession, writing a brief moment that includes the whole world of the heart.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

maestro mclennan — what you see!

i count the horseshoes on my ass
you live, work, breathe, and write with ease
your savoir-flair — unerring class
shall always bring me to my knees

the genuine article is
most assuredly all you are
steeped in eliot's trying biz
at least — or more — sweet blazing star

undeniably — you know me!