Meet graffitichild. Androgynous flâneur, she/he’s your intrepid guide into the urban underside of Steven Artelle’s debut collection, Metropantheon. (Full disclosure: he and I share the same publisher.) Through graffitichild’s demonic/saintly eyes, you experience “the noble stagger of addicts” and “catscratch legs and red lace” of the goddess of love.
Eloquent, this graffitichild, a naive savant, playful but dark, and elusive, too. Directly named in only a few of the 57 poems, the trickster avatar haunts the dystopian cityscapes, morphing into such creatures as “the martyr of hubcaps,” “umbrella hag,” “dandeliongirl,” “the half-skinned rabbit” and all the other animals in the Chinese zodiac.
So where the hell/heaven are we? The opening (and title) poem is the unfolding of a city map in 3D, “heights and arteries and hurtling vertigo.” Maybe Rome, you think, home of the Pantheon, an iconic Roman temple hugely influential in western architecture. In the second poem, “civilization” (most of the titles in the collection – in a font that cleverly resembles graffiti tags – are not capitalized), you might think Toronto or Montreal given the “metroprolific congestion.” But the seventh poem, “the evidence of windows” with its opening phrase—“hinton north and wellington”—provides an obvious (to locals) clue.
If you’re not that familiar with our nation’s capital, by “one day the ghost of vandalism will be avenged” there’s no doubt you’re in Ottawa: “the uncivilized civil servant divinity / brilliant as a river of kerosene on Sparks Street / dark as a whitewashed alias on a Byward wall”—powerful images delivered by a god-like voice, all mythic strength and purpose. This poem exemplifies Artelle’s poetic heft. Structured in six quatrains with fine attention to form, clean of but the most essential punctuation, it is textured with the rhythms, metaphors and thematic threads deftly tailored into most of the poems in the collection.
Take the opening quatrain: “did you wait for me there in the lamia city / resisting the downsized tide, the sluggish Queensway drive / emptying into neighbourhoods where streets stabilize / regular as the receding Ms of preschool geese.” We have longing and urban alienation, the stultifying commute through staid streets, the disambiguation and cultural cues. Such as lamia, a child-eating demon of Greek mythology, the subject of a long poem by Keats and a character in Japanese manga, among other manifestations. How appropriate, given the shape-shifting machinations that transpire there, to refer to Ottawa as a “lamia city” in the opening line, repeating this notion more specifically in the final quatrain: “the scar of speech healed against the bricks, still legible / in the stream of wounded copper, that lamia shape / haunting as the sunblasted sun, made hoarse with screaming….” Here the dome of the Pantheon shifts into the copper rooftops of, say, the Parliament buildings, a site of much ‘screaming.’
Once setting is established, the reader’s brain catapults towards a search for the universal. What, in a deeper sense, is this all about? An exploration of the old ‘graffiti-as-art/vandalism’ dichotomy? A gamer’s hyper/surreal brain riff? At its core, the book is a vivid and often sublime dialogue with the contemporary metropolis. Graffitichild, a product of the lamia city, could be your tattered soul scrunched into your wallet on your daily commute. Artelle is no steam punk spewing random subversive inventiveness. In Metropantheon, he’s constructed a survival guide to the harrowing routine of urban existence with a celebration of architecture in which the promise of love (the scaffolding of humanity) has not been annihilated.
The final poem, “the apocalypse of graffitichild” clarifies the possibility of art as both redemptive and immortal: “here is the vandalism that will never fade.” Hope is infinitely inclusive: “janitor stripper bureaucrat librarian transitcop / king busker poet madman jaywalker journeyman neighbour / everyone alive in the congested demographic of the urbanation…” And as they emerge from the depths of destruction, they’re clapping “the intro of everything like it’s the summer of cities / at last…” And you just can’t help it, you’re clapping, too.
Cora Siré lives in Montréal where she writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the author of Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014).
LET ARC BE YOUR GUIDE THROUGH CANADIAN POETRY.