Winter 2022-23, Volume 43, No. 4
Our winter issue features Tolu Oloruntoba’s Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture ““What have we left to us?” Examining Questions as a Means of Existential Analysis in Poetry” as well as new writing from Beth Goobie, rob mclennan, Su Croll, Taidgh Lynch & more!
Cover photo of Tolu Oloruntoba by Caroline Latona
Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture
Ben von Jagow
Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture Preview
“What have we left to us?” Examining Questions as a Means of Existential Analysis in Poetry
The Fall 2022 Anne Szumigalski Lecture, delivered to The League of Canadian Poets | Friday, September 23, 2022
1: Who am I, and what am I doing here?
I wrote and am delivering these words from the unceded and traditional territories of the Katzie, Semiahmoo and Kwantlen Nations currently known as Surrey, British Columbia. As a recent settler in these lands, I have been asking myself what it means, as a descendant of recently colonized peoples, to have become a part of another colonial enterprise, also connected to the British Empire. I hold this contradiction within me, as well as a commitment to being an agent of healing, and not harm. In another way, I have asked myself who I am to be here at this time, doing what I am doing. When invited by Nic Brewer to deliver this talk to the League, my exact question to them was: “who am I to give this lecture?” Why am I, a poet and non-academic whose debut was released less than two years
ago, delivering a lecture to this august audience, joining a formidable procession of poets? Is the League unaware that I have no answers? All I have are questions.
Rose finally gets a third fish,
Two weeks beyond original purchase
and assembly of ten-gallon tank and fish regalia,
we appeal a different store, a different treatment plan, to seek out
alternate advice. Two fish dead across three days,
and how far my daughter’s grief
might fall. A slate of unknown causes, and how
to best inquest the possibilities of poor water quality, pre-
or aquatic stress upon their wee fish hearts. Our two snails, abide.
Philly slipped out of the dorm’s north entrance, into the face-slap of a brisk November wind. Cloud wisps scudded across a crescent moon; at one a.m., the college campus was quiet, with just the underfoot crackle of leaves. Twenty feet from the girls’ dorm lurked the Administration building, a long hulking shadow with a single overnight light on above the front entrance. Clutching her jacket close, Philly headed up the building’s west flank toward a little used side entrance that was protected from the casual glance by a small copse of aspen. Hunched in a bomber jacket, Quinn stood waiting, breath ghosting his lips. They kissed, another cirrus cloud ghosting the moon, and she unlocked the door.
They removed their shoes by the light of the EXIT sign and carried them up a short hall, which served several faculty offices. Turning left, they started along the building’s main corridor. The bible college was small, its 1982 student body under two hundred. Set in a residential area close to the city’s downtown, it was founded in the 1930s, the groundbreaking funded through donations raised by congregations across the country. Admin and the girls’ dorm were two of the initial buildings constructed, and they had the feel of the people who had paid and prayed them into being—solid and utilitarian, a collage of sober browns and beiges. Philly loved the high-ceilinged, creaky grumpiness of the girls’ dorm, the plain no-nonsense thrift of Admin. If Admin were a food, it’d be a perogy, was one of her favourite jokes. To which Quinn would reply, Potato and onion, with liver for dessert.
All in the Family
My Polish grandmother was a bootlegger. With apple dumpling cheeks, sky-blue eyes and wavy brown hair, she was beyond suspicion at border crossings. Being only ten years old might also have been a factor.
I picture her sitting quietly beside her younger brother in the\ rear of the black Ford Coupe driven by Uncle Louie. It’s mid 1920s. They arrive at the U.S. border from Canada, kegs of whiskey hidden under the bench seat. The guard—a prickly chap with a moustache— orders everyone out of the vehicle. Having anticipated heavy security checks, Uncle brought the children as camouflage, though he told their mother the purpose of the car ride was to indulge his niece and nephew with a jaunt to Detroit. Standing together, the three of them hold hands. Grandmother leans into Uncle Louie, pulls her elbows close to her body. Tucking her head, she steals a glance at the guard. A bashful smile quivers. Under her full-gathered, cotton skirt are several bottles of whiskey strapped to her chubby prepubescent thighs. (Oh, the things we hide under our femininity!) Her legs tremble. A bottle slips from its band. Glass shatters on the pavement. Whiskey sprays her thick leotards, splashes up the navy pant leg of the guard.
What happened next has many versions. Do they jump in the Coupe to escape? Do bullets zing the metal frame? Perhaps Uncle Louie goes to jail. Perhaps he avoids time in the slammer. Each telling I heard growing up had that hint of desperation. Being famous by association—was he an Al Capone affiliate?—had such great cachet.