The City and Its Own

April 28, 2007 § Leave a comment

More poetry, anyone? This one is from last week, by Irving Feldman. It describes the New York I would have preferred to know, in the 30s and 40s. It’s from his collection Leaping Clear.

The City and Its Own

Among the absolute graffiti which
—stenciled, stark, ambiguous—command
from empty walls and vacant lots,
age and youth—Diogenes, say,
and Alexander, dog-philosophy
and half-divine, too-human imperium—
colliding, linger to exchange ideas
about proprietorship of the turf.
Hey, mister, you don’t own the sidewalk!
Oh yeah?
Yeah! the city owns the sidewalk—mister!
Oh yeah! says who?
Thus power’s rude ad hominem walks all over
the civil reasoner, the civic reason.

Everyone has something.
Everything is someone’s.

The city is the realm of selves in rut
and delirium of ownership, is property,
objects made marvelous by prohibition
whereby mere things of earth become ideas,
thinkable beings in a thought-of world
possessed by men themselves possessed by gods.

. . .

So I understood at twelve and thirteen,
among the throngs of Manhattan,
that I dodged within a crowd of gods
on the streets of what might be heaven.
And streets, stores, stairs, squares, all
that glory of forbidden goods, pantheon
of properties open to the air,
gave poor boys lots to think about!
And then splendor of tall walkers
striding wide ways, aloof and thoughtful
in their nimbuses of occupation,
advancing with bright assurance as if
setting foot to say, This is mine, I
am it—and passing on to add,
Now yield it to you, it is there.
Powers in self-possession, their thinking
themselves was a whirling as they went,
progressing beyond my vista to possess
unthought-of worlds, the wilderness.

These definitions, too, have meant to draw
a line around, to post and so prohibit,
and make our vacant lot a sacred ground.
Here then I civilize an empty page
with lines and letters, streets and citizens,
making its space a place of marvels now
seized and possessed in thought alone.
You may gaze in, you must walk around.
—Aha (you say), conceit stakes out its clay!
—That is a cynic’s interpretation,
pulling the ground out from under my feet;
I fall, I fear, within your definition
which, rising and dusting off my knees,
civilly I here proclaim our real estate,
ours in common, the common ground
of self, a mud maddened to marvel
and mingle, generously, in generation.

Best news I’ve had all day

April 24, 2007 § Leave a comment

At Christmas, my sister-in-law and I were discussing a friend of hers with whom I worked last summer.

Sister-in-law: Well, [friend’s son]’s baby was born in November, but obviously she can’t make it to Australia right now, so they’re holding off the Baptism until she visits them in March.
Me: That’s awfully daring, don’t you think, with all the poisonous snakes in Australia?
Sister-in-law: teacher look

But, by God, it turns out I was wrong.

The Ladybugs

April 24, 2007 § Leave a comment

April is National Poetry Month in the US, as lots of places pointed out a few weeks ago. I’ve been subscribed to the Knopf Poem-of-the-Day newsletter for three years now, and here’s my favorite from last year. It’s by Nancy Willard*, from her 2004 collection In the Salt Marsh, which I haven’t been able to find in anywhere in the province.
The Ladybugs

It’s true. I invited them into my home,
four thousand ladybugs from the Sierras.
I paid for their passage.
I paid for their skilled labor.
I was desperate when I read the notice
in a mail-order catalog showing flea zappers
and organic devices for vaporizing mold.

Are pests killing your trees and shrubs?
Ladybugs are the answer.

They arrived, famished and sleepy,
in a muslin bag slim as a pencil case,
or a reticule for opera glasses,
or very small change.
For once in my life I read the instructions
for sending my private army into the world.

The ladybugs will want a drink
after their long journey.
Sprinkle the sack before releasing them.

I shook handfuls of water over them.
Drops big as bombs pounded their shelter,
a mass baptism into our human ways.
They did not buzz or beat their wings,
but as the warmth of my house woke them,
I saw a shifting of bodies, of muscles rippling,
like waves adjusting themselves to a passing boat.

Do not release the ladybugs during the heat of the day
or while the sun is shining.

Under the full moon I carried my guests
to the afflicted catalpa waving its green flags.
I untied the bag. I reached in and felt a tickling,
a pulsing of lives small as a watch spring.
I seized a handful and tossed them into the branches.
They clung to my hand for safety.
Their brothers and sisters,
smelling the night air,
hung on my thumb, my wrist,
and my arm sleeved in ladybugs, baffled, muttering
in the silent tick of their language,
Where are we? What does she want of us?

Do not release too many at one time.
A tablespoon of ladybugs on each shrub
and a handful on each tree should keep them
pest-free. Keep on hand, always, a small bag
of ladybugs in your refrigerator.
Do not freeze.

I have made my abode with the ladybugs
and they have chosen me as their guardian,
because the meek shall inherit the earth,
because I found one at rest in the porch
of my ear, because I did not harm the one
that spent the night under the deep ridge
of my collarbone, or the one that crossed
my knuckles like a ring seeking
the perfect finger.


*Also author of Pish, Posh, Said Heironymus Bosch, a childhood favorite I’d nearly forgotten.

Review of Cheelin

April 14, 2007 § 1 Comment


Cheelin’s many virtues can solve any number of problems.

Cheelin is a great place to take a big family, when satisfying so many different cravings is difficult. It’s a fine place when you have vegetarians in your midst, and want to ensure that everyone enjoys their meal. Cheelin can also be a culinary adventure, for food lovers who wish to sample a variety of tastes and textures at dinner without breaking the bank.

And it’s a good place to go if you want Chinese — because it’s metro’s best Chinese restaurant.

Sure, not everyone agrees. Cheelin fell to the level of its competitors about 18 months ago, and was inconsistent at best, and we’ve never been a fan of food they serve at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. But throughout 2006, the kitchen has been first-rate, and we’re smitten.

Cheelin sits in the Brewery Market, an unassuming dining room located just around the corner from Mary’s Breadbasket, near da Maurizio. It’s a comfortable, quiet, casual room.

For this visit, it’s a family affair, with three generations at the table. My mother likes the place; on our last visit, she almost bit the server’s hand when he tried to remove her cucumber salad. My grandmother, though always game for something new, has never seen so many traditional Chinese items on a menu.

I start with the Pan-Fried Vegetable Dumplings, my partner has the Szechuan Shredded Cabbage and Pork Soup, and we split the Kimchi. My grandmother orders the Egg Roll and my mother gets her favorite Cucumber Salad.

The dumplings are my culinary compass here. When the food quality slipped in 2004, the dumplings led the downhill charge. They weren’t crispy anymore, they often stuck together, and— worst of all— some were waterlogged!

These days, though, they’re back on form: Crispy, tender, savory little packets of seasonal vegetables. Such bliss! My partner’s soup is a thin, spicy broth filled with strips of pork and cabbage. It needs salt, and then it’s Chinese comfort food. The salad is nice, too— cool cucumber with a bite of garlic and the deep, smoky flavor of sesame oil. Even Grammie’s Egg Roll looks tasty, both crunchy and meaty. And the Kimchi is fabulous, both garlicky and spicy. But too much fire for the uninitiated.

In Asian restaurants, we adhere to the n+1 rule. That is, the number of main dishes we order is equal to the number in our party plus one. Of course, we want to taste everything, which includes Szechuan Noodles, Egg Foo Yong, Lemon Chicken, Crispy Fried Scallops, Moo Shu Vegetables, Mapo Tofu, and Mushroom Fried Rice. Something for everyone, and a little bit more, because one of us couldn’t decide (or count).

The kitchen handles it all with aplomb.

The Szechuan Noodles are thick and delicious, with crisp vegetables and shrimp served in a savory brown sauce with just a lick of heat. Hoisin is slathered on the Egg Foo Yong to create a nice sweet-and-tingly counterpoint to the thick vegetable omelet. I normally shy away from scallops in Chinese restaurants, since they’re often rubbery and flavourless, but these— my grandmother’s choice— are fine; deep-fried batter surrounding a pillowy scallop. Fresh seafood, simply prepared. We liked it. Mapo Tofu is a spicy melange of Chinese vegetables and soft tofu; a Szechuan standard that few do as well as Cheelin.

Moo Shu Vegetables are a surprise hit. The thin pancakes are coated with hoisin sauce, and filled with stir-fired veggies at the table. Everyone loves them, and the plate is quickly emptied. Lemon Chicken is essentially Sweet & Sour Chicken with a high school diploma, but there’s a couple of generations out there who love these faux-Cantonese dishes. It’s sweet and citrusy – a guilty pleasure that is better than expected. With a tad more fresh lemon juice, it would be better still. Mushroom-Fried Rice was delicate, if not distinctive, but works as a foil to the stronger flavors.

Service is kind and pleasant at Cheelin, though hardly formal. Occasionally, the pacing of meals stutters. We have also seen people come in, and just put themselves in the chef’s hands for the night. Regulars love Fanny Chen’s cooking.

We can see why. Our meal was a tricky order designed to feed a vegetarian, two guests who expect Chinese food to be sweet, and two people who read food magazines for entertainment. People tried dishes they ordinarily would have avoided, and the meal was animated and fun.

All left happy. And that’s pretty impressive for any restaurant.

Brewery Market
1496 Lower Water Street
Halifax, NS

caucasian evil incarnate

April 10, 2007 § Leave a comment

We’re watching Season One of Law & Order: CI on iTunes to fill in the gaps. Last night we watched the episode Homo Homini Lupis, dealing with the kidnapping and rape of a embezzler’s family. The kidnapper/rapist was Eastern-European, later identified as (surprise, surprise) Serbian.
I love how when the genocide was going on, no one wanted to get involved, (UN: Sanctions! And remonstrations! Strong remonstrations!), Clinton was policing the world, what happens in the Balkans stays in the Balkans… but now, bathed in the golden glow of a decade’s hindsight, Serbians are the Nazis of modern Europe. See: Prime Suspect 6

Also, this, this, and this.

Dinah, Blow Your Horn

April 3, 2007 § Leave a comment

How I long for the renaissance of the railroad.

The lion’s share of my railroad nostalgia comes from literature, of course, like most of my nostalgia. Rail travel figures prominently in some of my favorite books. The Hogwarts Express, of course, with its sweets cart. The train wreck in The Chronicles of Narnia. The “chance encounter” in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It was a favorite setting in Agatha Christie’s books— What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, Murder on the Orient Express— the list goes on. But I also love what rail travel represents personally.

There is a romantic, old-fashioned aspect to watching wilderness and small towns zip by, however modern the train. Building a transcontinental traveling system captured the imagination of Americans and Canadians. It’s a tangible connection to the past.

But, wait! There’s even more to my sentimentality!: my grandfather worked on the railroad for thirty years. Richard’s father was a CN cop. I lived on Quinpool Road just in front of the tracks for a few years, and never got bored with watching the daily from Montreal skate past up on the hill.

I’ve only really traveled this way once— from Moncton, NB to Halifax— but the experience was peaceful and contemplative. Exponentially nicer than air travel. In fact, I’d love to take the train into the city every time we had to go— and I presume the thousands of people who are stuck in traffic for two or three hours every day would too. (In my fantasy there are streetcars waiting to whisk us to our destinations, if you’re wondering. Very fantastic is my fantasy.)

A clean, modern railway would do so much to lessen Nova Scotia’s environmental impact, and it would go a long way to making the province more attractive to people who’d consider living here. If a train stopped in most small towns two or three times every day, does anyone really think commuters would prefer to pay $150 per month for parking rather than $75 for a train pass? Who would prefer to suffer through the Armdale Rotary than relax and zone out on the commute home?

As it is in most small cities, public transportation in Halifax is terribly inefficient. The busses run late, they’re either packed or three-quarters empty. The routes don’t serve most people most of the time. And the system only serves the Halifax and Dartmouth. There’s no cheap way to get into the city if you live outside it, and no cheap way to get out if you’re in.

And so, a province-wide passenger rail system makes good sense. To me, it seems obvious that instead of constantly repairing roads for passenger cars to travel on, the province should pour money into an initiative to lessen their use. It works in Europe and Japan— so why not here?

Damn that Rails to Trails project. This whole thing would be a much easier sell if there were still train tracks.

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