Blaine Marchand: Prose poet retells his lyrical neighbourhood

Blaine Marchand sits in the dining room of The Bagel Shop on Wellington West, recounting the days when the room we are sitting in served as a funeral home. “That was the chapel back there (he points to the kitchen and line of people ordering coffee and toasted bagels). If you look at the window at the back you can see it’s like a church window.”

It is Marchand’s ability to look back into the past which has inspired his latest work: a series of prose poems that explore Wellington West the way he remembers it as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s.

Marchand, 64, has been publishing poetry for 34 years, earning recognition in the National Poetry Contest and the Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry for his book A Garden Enclosed. Having spent two years living in Islamabad, Pakistan and traveling frequently to Afghanistan, Marchand focuses on his travels to the Middle East in his contemporary work. Now, retired and living back at home on Warren Avenue as a full-time writer, Marchand is working to tell the story of local landmarks, long forgotten.

“I started the series because the area is changing, so things that I remember from growing up no longer exist,” he says. “When you hear people talk about the area, their memory only goes back a couple of years, or a decade. They don’t know the longer history.”

Marchand began his love of writing as a student at St. George School, a landmark that is one of the subjects of his poetry. He recounts other, ephemeral institutions – The Elmdale Theatre he used to frequent as a child is now a church, the restaurant at Clarendon and Wellington that once served as a teenage hangout is now Red Chair Kids.

Having spent over 50 years in the neighbourhood, Marchand has seen change and expansion come to the area. With residential infill and commercial development, certain unique services can be lost in the race for profit. “Do we need another restaurant in this area?” he says with a laugh and a frustration that’s visible.

“It’s an area that’s really in transition. Somehow I want to record, through the poems, what used to be here, so that maybe future generations know what it was at one time.”

Some things do stay the same, however. One positive consistency Marchand has enjoyed is the number of young families that are drawn to Kitchissippi, “When I was a kid growing up there were 40 kids in the one block, so it was a really fun place to be,” he says. “What I really like are the new families coming in with kids. I think that’s important.”

The new poems about Kitchissippi will be published in a book that will be counterpointed with poetry about Ottawa East, seen in the childhood days of Marchand’s mother – now 100 years old and still a resident of Kitchissippi.

Marchand is also reflecting on his time in Pakistan, with two books on the horizon. “One is poems based on my experiences and another will be taking poems by Pakistani authors and using lines from those poets to make new poems.”

 

St. George’s Yard
By Blaine Marchand

1.

And everywhere there was chanting. “Red rover, red rover…” Then September’s dust, like our voices, rose into the air. The scuffle of shoes pummelled by the chosen boy’s legs carrying him across the breach of yard. His gaze intent on arms linked like chain, all muscle and will, intent not to crumple but to hold him fast. He picks up speed, twists with determination toward the curvature of the smallest boys, calculating they are the chink that will buckle under his weight.

2.

Snow was the great equalizer. It levelled the yard with white expanse, perfect for wearing down to sheen by galoshes. We hurled our bundled bodies along its lustre as if caught by wind, freefalling through silver skies. But best was when snow held fast to itself. Boulder after boulder rolled until forts rose at the far ends of the yard, away from the eyes (or so we thought) of teachers. At recess and lunch hours, siege reigned supreme as our arms catapulted snowballs at the castle’s keepers. We were the invaders, the brothers in arms, history come out in the open, determined to take prisoners and plunder until the bell withdrew us back indoors to desks

3.

Oh glorious mud that sang at our heels grinding down into the spring-sprung earth, opening up a nook, a nest for prized cat’s eyes. It was not in the classroom, but here in the yard that we knuckled down. Addition, subtraction, division and multiplication might confound us, render us winter weary with schooling, but here calculation was intuitive, closer to hand, in the flick of forefinger against thumb. Such precise release had taught us the physics in the speed of glass, its arc through the air, its descent to clobber our opponent, and the roll in triumph into the hole.

4.

Dilapidated, downright dangerous, the parents in no uncertain terms told the nuns. But to us, the broken post and rail fence were the stuff of legends, the thrill of tales handed down of older boys, who on graduation and under the cover of darkness, kicked the fence in, left their mark by searing initials with smouldering smoke ends. The gouged decline of boards, a weather beaten runway to race Dinky cars  – a Packard convertible, a Studebaker Commander, a Chrysler New Yorker. Or, simply there to straddle like a horse, command as the Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers in images that flickered on TVs at home. Each June, when the last bell clattered, it was a rite of passage, just as our rhyme “No more pencils, no more books”. We ran headlong into the indolent months, little aware, our return would be into a pen of smooth wire and the forgiving earth altered to asphalt, callous against our knees.

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