Pauline Butling / Laureating

Pauline Butling

Laureating in Ottawa Feb 29- March 1, 2012

The first day begins with meetings and a lunch (yes white linen table cloths and haute cuisine) with the Parliamentary Library officials who run the PL program, followed by a tour of the parliament building. Neither of us has ever been inside the building. We’re a bit awe-struck, like school kids rubber necking at the stunning architecture, stained glass windows featuring the provincial flowers, gothic flying buttresses in the archways, plush red velvet or leather seats in the various chambers, hand-carved wood everywhere etc. etc. It feels like another dimension, a glittering world of pomp and circumstance, if not a fairy-tale theme park.

In the afternoon we go to the so-called Question Period in the house (i.e. shouting match) where Fred is to be introduced. But the robo-call furor explodes first so we endure a blustery hour watching from the public gallery. The young Quebec NDP MPs are especially fiery, Bob Rae holds his ground, while Harper and his clones just kept repeating their boiler plate phrase “smear campaign by poor losers” over and over to the point where one wants to scream at them to stop the mind-numbing repetition. Fred’s intro is squeezed in quickly at the end. Harper and some others are already on their way out the door, but they pause for a quick glance when they hear members clapping (Fred says Harper glanced up at him and offered a faint smile). So much for poetry.

Next comes the official “installation” co-hosted by Senate speaker Noel Kinsella and House of Commons Speaker Andrew Sheer in the Senator’s spacious “chambers.” A gracious host, he also seems genuinely enthusiastic about the PL position. He has even taken the time to read the Act that established it, so his Intro is spot on. Senator Jerry Grafstein is there too (the guy who spent 4 years getting his private members bill passed that launched the position): nice to know that a few politicos think poetry matters.

The “installation” itself is brief. No laurel crowns or glittering medals, just a formal welcome. Then Fred takes the podium for the obligatory thanks and to read a poem (“The Snowflake Age”) that he’d written for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, as requested by the House and Senate Speakers. For me that’s a bizarre moment: I never thought I’d see Fred standing by a Canadian flag, let alone reading a poem for the Queen. And yet it’s just fine. The poem is a hit with the audience of a handful of MPs and Senators, some Ottawa poets and literati, the Library of Parliament officials, the out-going Poet Laureate, and a few reporters.

An informal hour follows, well lubricated with wine and buzzing with talk. As for the poem: the PL doesn’t have to create on demand—the Act “suggests” rather that requires—and most previous laureates have refused. But Fred was intrigued: “Much maligned and frequently scorned by poet laureates, the poetics of the occasional poem invite an intriguing spectrum of considerations” he explains in a chapbook published in conjunction with a workshop that he gave a few days after the Ottawa festivities at the Toronto New School (Medallions of Belief. Toronto: Bookthug).

Another highlight of the visit is a tour of the parliamentary library, including a trip to the basement vault of rare books. We see several archival gems such as an original History of Emily Montague (the first novel written in Canada, published in 1769), weighty historical tomes about pre-Canadian history, and a very rare 16th century publication about New France. A big thrill for this book lover.

But the day starts out with a jolt: we arrive to find the place teeming with RCMP and security checkpoints everywhere. Yikes, we think, is there some national emergency? No, it’s just the security screen for Israeli PM Netanyahu’s visit with PM Harper. We are scheduled for morning meetings and the afternoon library tour but are forewarned that we’ll have to leave the building if and when the head honchos arrive. Apparently Mr. Harper likes to bring foreign guests to the library to show off the architecture and fine woodwork. Hmmm.

After running the gauntlet of guards and security checks to get in, we have to detour through the basement to the library back door. So far so good: our meetings and lunch go ahead without a hitch. But come mid-afternoon—when we have just finished the library tour and are gathering by the side door with our library hosts—a security guard comes in, does a quick scan of the room, and notices a couple of bags beside a computer, but no one there: obviously a red flag. To his query about the bags, I reply, jokingly, “oh their owners have just gone to the restroom: don’t worry, there are no bombs in them.” Turns out I could have got myself arrested just for mentioning the “b” word. No jokes allowed. I guess they are too preoccupied to arrest me as a moment later, without warning, the main doors open and in come Harper and Netanyahu. Whew: do we move fast. Our hosts hustle us out of the room in a flash. Zoom down the back stairs again. A brush with the dark side.


“The Snowflake Age”
Written for Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee

“My whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service…but I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. God help me to make good my vow.” Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Daily News, February 7, 1952

She said looking through the monarchy of pronouns
Her halftone face profiles the moment

On our kitchen table headlines mourn the proper
Object of our common vale of memory and becoming

Dots of quiet morning snow outside the window 724
Victoria Street then Kootenay Lake the mountain

Mist-hackled town’s companion traced as Elephant
You take on the words new news so we too

Mark our time momentarily collected public
Memory longs for its own kind of peacefulness

All day soft snow hushes the valley but
For the truck chains clanking up Stanley

The sovereign We “… seemed for a moment
As though the heartbeat of a nation stopped”

That day your other you as white as the snow
Fell over the town and drifted into the bank

Of memory just like the city bus I always needs
Another pronoun for the we is speaking middle

Voice Dominion over CKLN radio’s hourly news
Sanding in progress up Josephine all clear tonight

My Tenderfoot to King’s Scout posing who
Is the many might be the mercy of whose light

Or how to function as the subject of what long
Moment caught within each sentence

Let’s not forget – between – the words the traces
We’ll line them up for their long parade

The street’s been plowed for their cavalcade
I Me You
Your They My We
this rime of snowy faces

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