64 pages,
ISBN: 1551520281

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Vancouver Ghost Road
by Jennifer Hunter

KINGSWAY is not a pretty street. It slashes diagonally across grid-prone Vancouver, defying the methodical efforts of urban planners to create a logical pattern of city thoroughfares. It's an unruly six-lane traffic corridor, connecting the proletarian east side of Vancouver with the westerly reaches of affluent Burnaby. It's the ghost of an old highway, abandoned to second-rate motels, flea markets, Vietnamese restaurants, used appliance outlets, and muffler shops.
Every Canadian city of some size has a Kingsway. There is Kingston Road in Toronto, the outer reaches of Jasper Avenue in Edmonton, and Montreal Road in Ottawa. These streets don't celebrate a city's history with centuried architecture or promote its aspirations with innovative design. They are caught in an netherworld of neon and forgettable low-rise buildings. Turner takes the reader on a trip down Kingsway, attempting to recreate the experience of driving along its course. The photographs in the book are blurred; the diction is choppy, allowing the reader, like a passenger in the car, only ephemeral glimpses of the street: "thinking this will never be/read at a reading/this will be read/as driving is."
The opening is a ten-part poem describing the street and its origins. The first lines locate it geographically for the reader: "1 a.m. this road, this way/diagonal, in opposition/ 2 the grid, the monarchy/of streets: Beatrice, Sophia/ 3 princes, Earles, a Duchess, lords...." The Kingsway was the original highway into Vancouver and was developed to accommodate the car, hence the great numbers of motels, gas-stations, drive-ins.
The opening poem offers the sights and sounds of the street and suggests its historical importance as the original trail that connected Vancouver with New Westminster, a community south of Vancouver at the Fraser River: "the first way/the short-cut/the clear-cut/the back door/the quick route/the mud bath/the milk run/the boardwalk/the bored walk/the low-rise/the highway/the stagecoach/another stage/the pit-stop/the piss-stop..."
As the reader follows Turner on the trek along Kingsway, she is introduced to the neighbours ("the art student/referred to as/the student/of the art college"), the commercial activity ("what was once a Safeway/is now the flea market/though no less productive") and the drama of life on the street ("reporters arrive by taxi slowly...to the scene of the accident/the sergeant in charge/is preparing a statement"). The garishness, the seediness, the violence of the street are fodder for Turner's poems. He has approached Kingsway with a sociologist's eye.
It's a pattern he's followed in previous books, notably Company Town, which details the workings of a salmon cannery in a small town on the coast of British Columbia (shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), and Hard Core Logo, which looks at life on the road with a bar band and is the basis of the script for a new feature film by Bruce McDonald. Company Town, in particular, is a useful book because it is slice-of-life stuff, a poetic record of a place-the salmon cannery-that is quickly disappearing. Kingsway does something similar, capturing part of Vancouver's neglected heritage. It isn't surprising to learn that Turner has a degree in anthropology.
Writing about a street or a city neighbourhood, however, is hardly new. One remembers Milton Acorn's On Regent Street and Elsewhere, or Dennis Lee's poem about Toronto's Nathan Philips Square in Civil Elegies or Malcolm Lowry's rhyme about Hastings Street, "the province of the pimp upon his beat." These poems have visceral punch, offering disconcerting but memorable images of urban life. Juxtaposed against poems like these, the Kingsway poems fall cruelly short. Like the blurred photographs and maps that dot the book, they seem unfocused, without a clear sense of purpose. They are reporterly in their detail and description of the street and they are intellectually alert, but they don't speak to the soul.
The subtleties of Turner's descriptions don't register with the reader, particularly with one who has never visited Vancouver, never driven Kingsway. Unlike the Dennis Lee poems that are about Toronto but reflect a universal urban angst, there is no resonance in the Kingsway poems; they are too narrow. You need to know the street before you can appreciate the allusion. When read aloud, the poems provide no pleasing assonance in the ear. There is no mellifluous, memorable phrasing, no haunting image, no remarkable characterization. Perhaps it's hard to create poetry from such banality.
Still, this is not to dismiss Kingsway out of hand. It is an interesting exercise in the documentation of a particular neighbourhood, an effort to capture something distinctive about an area that is physically unremarkable but historically important to Vancouver. One must never dissuade a poet from celebrating what is in his own backyard. It's crucial for poets such as Michael Turner to continue to record the minutiae of urban life. The only trick is to make it speak to the broader community of those who read Canadian poetry.

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