Figure and Ground: An Ecopoetic Travelogue

This essay is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

July 1: Canada Day: it’s interesting how you can brag

We stop at the Terry Fox Memorial outside Thunder Bay and watch people from several countries weep at the foot of the statue. Terry ran halfway across the country on one leg in 1980, the year I turned eighteen. Like a friend of mine that year, he had osteogenic sarcoma. Like her, he died from a cancer that is now treatable. The statue reminds me of how a body in peril can pit itself against the land, how it can move through the landscape, figure and ground. Seeing the statue against the dark lake and the felled body of the Sleeping Giant gives me a piece of the puzzle: writing the body, like writing nature, means writing death. No way to avoid it. Oh the smug irony, the gap-toothed pride of writing the body. Now that it has ceased to be my manifesto, I envy those who can escape from writing the body. Is envy toxic? It’s green. Decay looks like chlorophyll. A static body can fool you by imitating motion. Every body in the world becomes worn down by wind and weather, by time and grief, by hard use and even by joy.

For miles along the road, I see yellow triangular signs with drawings of moose and the words “Night Danger.” Maybe it is the length of the drawn moose’s legs, attenuated stilts holding up a massive body and antlered head, that make me misread these words over and over as “Night Dancer.” A black bear runs across the road two hundred metres ahead, hurried, aware of the cars and the need to make hard for the bush. When the moose, the northern Night Dancer herself, launches herself up out of the ditch, it’s the legs I notice pushing against the slope, legs used to traversing rough ground and hard climbs, now pushing against the gravity of the ditch by the highway. Figure emerging from ground. Figure crashing into the jeep two cars ahead. Motion meets motion, then stasis.

Or worse, a motion that precedes stasis. The moose is on her side on the road’s gravel shoulder, kicking her broken back leg: spasmodic, insistent. It’s not yet noon. The jeep who hit her is still intact, the people in it climb out, and a tour bus on the other side of the road stops and people pour from it. There is no town for a hundred kilometres in either direction, and looking at the moose who will never stand again, I know that none of us, passing through this space, is carrying a gun. My grandfather, an old CNR man and a veteran of two wars, would ask what good we were: an animal in pain and none of us able to relieve it. The moose’s eyes are wild and white as I pass carefully by, a Levite despite my looking. There are many miles to go, but the symbol has burst in on me. The moose’s eyes say everything about the country and space, about air and its breathability, about my search for a loophole in the law of the symbolic, about how our experience of the outer changes our understanding of the inner. How else to write an abundance of bodies in various states of productivity or decay? Where there’s a body, there’s politics; there’s no poetry without politics, no pure engagement of language that isn’t haunted by bodies heard or unheard.

Published online June 01 2009.

The Green Issue cover image

This piece was published in ‘The Green Issue,’ the Summer 2009 issue of CV2.

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