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Outlook - Spin Control
by Brian Bartlett

MIDNIGHT AT THE NEW $31-million Sheraton Casino in Halifax. I struggle through the push and block of bodies, past customers playing blackjack or big six, bow-tied dealers flicking cards across the gaming tables. Roulette wheels click click click to a stop. When a shower of quarters clatters out of a slot machine, curious strangers stare, wondering if the white-haired woman there got lucky.

Hours earlier I'd been to the new Atlantic Theatre Festival in Wolfville for an emotionally bared production of The Tempest. In the casino it was hard not to think about conflicting sorts of magic, differing dreams of a brave new world. The Tempest begins with a storm at sea; slot machines at the casino bear names including THUNDERBOLT and LIGHTNINGS SEVEN. But the goals here obviously aren't justice, redemption, and forgiveness. Under the eyes of ceiling surveillance-cameras, I began to think about the public use of images and language.

For its initiation and support of the casino, the Nova Scotia government has been promised $25 million each year from Sheraton. To fulfil that promise, each day Haligonians and visitors will have to gamble and lose more than $69,000. The premier likes to point out that the casino has created many jobs, but let's contemplate a sadder picture: thousands of unemployed or underpaid citizens, used to giving up a few bucks each month at their corner store for Atlantic Loto tickets, now sacrificing money much more freely at the casino. Like no corner store, that harbourfront gambling temple visually, atmospherically attacks the senses and encourages end-of-the-rainbow fantasies of -- to cite more slot-machine names -- a life-changing GRAND SLAM or GOLD RUSH.

That Saturday night many of the customers looked relaxed, unobsessed, just out for a good time with friends. But how had the phantasmagoria of lights, colours, sounds, and messages affected others? A drained-looking, thirsty- sounding woman said, "I didn't leave last night until 4:30 or 5." Three blank-faced men sat rigidly at a roulette table, unsmiling, uncommunicative, likely strangers to each other. A puffyeyed, drunk-looking little man was slumped alone with a dealer at a blackjack table. (Sheraton officials hope to get a liquor licence, the sooner the better.)

When I peered at one of the 650 slot machines, the woman whose shoulder I was looking over swung around and asked suspiciously, "What're you writing down?" "Just images," I said, then felt like a pretentious killjoy. Later, recalling Dostoevsky's Alexey Ivanovitch in The Gambler sneering at moralists who know nothing about the psychology of gambling, I lost $ 10 in a slot machine and felt less like an aloof spy. I could sense, like an itch, the vague urge to keep trying, keep spending.

"Just images," I'd said. But are images ever "just' 'anything? The Tempest and The Gambler -- and many poems, stories, films, paintings -- tell us no. Images and words speak to us, speak of us and for us, can put us to sleep or wake us up. Of course a book -- even a book we treasure -- can try to sway us in directions we resist and resent. But if its aims were as singleminded -- as propagandistic -- as a casino's, would we keep reading it? Would we want to return?

Near a cashier's counter, I felt I was walking deeper into a world where language is used sloppily and hypocritically. (Sound like our world at large?) A sign from the Nova Scotia Department of Health, Drug Dependency Division, advised BET WITH YOUR HEAD, NOT OVER IT! and went on to say If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, help is available. Below the sign was a batch of brochures entitled What Is Gambling?, which warned "Remember, anyone can have a problem with gambling. There is no typical gambler." If the intention is to discourage recklessness, isn't that like recommending friendly, chaste kisses in a brothel?

Looking around further, I laughed at the most unexpected touches of all. Great wooden masts of pirate ships with furled, multi-coloured flags. Under them, treasure chests with fake jewels spilling out. A three-cornered hat, a sword, a scabbard. A mural portraying the merry lives of buccaneers -- one of them dancing (or fighting) with a lively lass while nearby, another downs a tankard of ale. (A Sheraton spokesman has said the decor has "subtle elegance." He must have an enviably fine eye for nuances.) The sentimentalizing of actual piracy -- the hiding of bloodshed, betrayal, vicious plunder -was like some slick poem's heavy-handed, unthinking use of imagery.

Places like the casino can confuse us about our symbols and our language. In this way, the naive, the desperate, and others get hurt. Before leaving, I noticed a final, especially pointed example of mixed messages: while the government brochure assures us that most people "set a limit on the amount of cash they can afford to lose," one of the slot machines is simply named SPIN TIL YOU WIN.

Brian Bartlett's most recent poetry collection is Underwater Carpentry (Goose Lane).


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