Betweenity: the art of crossing the divide

Robin McGrath
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It’s a favourite ploy of politicians and civil servants to justify budget cuts to arts organizations by pitting the arts against something like children’s health. What’s it to be, folks, cuts to the LSPU Hall’s grant or cuts to the Janeway Children’s Cancer Clinic? Truth is, of course, it’s not necessarily always a one-or-the-other choice.

Artists and many others believe you can accommodate both sides in a dichotomous situation by rejecting the either-or option.  Don McKay calls this different mode of  things “betweenity,” by which he means “not compromise, but the inclusion of both terms along with the energy of their interaction.”

To illustrate or expand on his concept of betweenity, McKay looks at the metaphor of a ferry — a method of transition between two realities.

The idea of ferry as metaphor was triggered for him by a painting by Grant McConnell of a speaker’s chair (the traditional seat of political authority) being carried on a river ferry, symbolically sharing the power of the capital with the remote regions. McKay suggests that by putting the chair on a ferry, the artist extends the symbolic resonance.

If all this seems a bit abstract, keep in mind that McKay is a Governor General’s Award-winning poet, and his essay “The Speaker’s Chair” was first presented as the prestigious 2010 Pratt Lecture at Memorial University. He’s trying to stretch us, make us think.

Running the Goat Press has hand printed McKay’s text on heavy Arches paper, tipped in reproduced details of the painting by McConnell, and hand-bound the lot to make a small, gorgeous, dignified but cheerful two-sheaf booklet. It’s like eating a fine soup out of a Baleek bowl set on a starched-linen cloth, instead of from a Styrofoam bowl served on a plastic drop-sheet. The soup is the same good broth but it tastes so much better properly presented.

Having amused, or bemused, us with this tasty concoction called betweenity, McKay moves on to Mary Dalton’s riddle poems, Dr. Hank Williams’ “Harry Hibbs’ Effect” of plate tectonics, works by Canadian poet Jan Zwicky, E.J. Pratt, and more.

I’m not sure I entirely followed McKay’s argument in “The Speaker’s Chair,” but I think it’s fair to say he is discussing how poets express the inexpressible, and why scientists should sometimes take a leaf from that book.  

What I like about McKay’s approach is the way he reaches his hand into my cultures, both regional and national, and draws together elements that I am familiar with but haven’t really connected up before: George Story and Jan Zwicky, Mary Dalton and Ted Chamberlain, Hank Williams and Grant McConnell. It makes a fine broth indeed.

One thing I am sure of, after reading McKay’s own poem “Taking the Ferry,” which is included as part of his exploration of betweenity, I will never again be quite so casual about climbing on or off any of the many ferries I manage to travel on in the course of a year.

With luck, the insight or increased sensitivity this work has brought to my travels within the province will extend itself to my reading. Think of “The Speaker’s Chair” as a ferry that can carry you from one form of exploration to the other, and perhaps back again.

                           —

I’m not much of a fan of e-books, but Calvin Evans’ “Master Shipbuilders of Newfoundland and Labrador Vol. 1” has convinced me that there are books out there that simply cry out for word-search capabilities. Failing that, this work needs an index at least as long as the book itself.

“Master Shipbuilders” is not so much a narrative text as a prose rendering of entries from the shipping register and other sources  such as newspapers, which lists who built what ships and where in the province.  

A typical extract reads: “William Frampton and Charles King jointly built the 35-ton May Queen in 1871 somewhere in Trinity Bay.  And Thomas Frampton of Smith Sound built the 32-ton Petunia and the 32-ton Jessie in 1875, the 29-ton Nelly in 1876, and the 40-ton Sir John Glover in 1879.” Expand that sample out by 200 pages and you have a good idea of what to expect from this book.

The real problem with Evans’ work, besides the lack of an index that includes ship names and place names, is that it doesn’t cite sources. There is a bibliography, which fails to list many of the sources I would have anticipated (e.g. Guigné on Michael Kearney or Dennis Knight on the Knight family), so if you come across a tidbit you might wish to explore further, you’re usually out of luck.

Some of the most common words found in this work are “perhaps,” “probably,” “possibly,” “may have been” and “appears to have been.” Such speculation is understandable and even helpful when applied to 18th- or 19th-century shipbuilding, but when Evans writes that Orestes Vokey “may have been Henry Vokey’s grandfather’s brother,” you simply have to ask yourself why he didn’t ask Henry himself as Henry is very much alive and kicking.

An enormous amount of work has gone into this book, and it contains the seeds of a dozen or a hundred more works. For example, every now and again, Evans mentions that a specific shipbuilder also constructed a certain church or made furniture on the side — there has to be a book on that subject alone.

Clearly Evans knows his stuff, but he’s bitten off so much more than he, or we, can chew that reading “Master Shipbuilders” is not just tedious, it’s likely to turn you to stone.  Perhaps if he’d taken on just one bay at a time, it might have worked.  

I just hope Calvin Evans lives a long and productive life so that we can get the benefit of all his work in forms more palatable and useful than “Master Shipbuilders.”

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.” Her column returns Feb. 22.

Organizations: Goat Press

Geographic location: Trinity Bay, Goose Bay

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