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Placing a “Place-Possessed” (“Fear”, 81) Robert Kroetsch

2017/02/03

This paper looks at Kroetsch through a CanLit, postcolonial, and globalization lens, to think (briefly) about the reception of his work, as I see it, from the late 20th c to today, with a focus in particular on how we might, today, think about his geographical imagination through a double lens of his engagement with Northrop Frye’s question, “where is here?,”  set in dialogue with what a contemporary feminist new materialist orientation might find in his work. This is a progress report on my thinking more than a fully articulated position.

I approach this workshop as someone who has moved across the Canadian continent and across the Pacific in search of challenging employment and with the determination to commit myself absolutely to each place I inhabit, while retaining my emotive attachments long after I have moved on; as someone with mixed feelings about the work of Robert Kroetsch, a thinker and writer who through his mastery of “the lovely treachery of words” has both enchanted me and left me wondering about his place within the ongoing metamorphoses of Canadian settler colonialism and its appropriations of space and place. Finally, as someone now committed to this place, to Winnipeg, I feel shortchanged by the fact that this city seems not to have inspired a major work from his imagination despite his long sojourn here.

As globalization proceeds to challenge established frameworks for making sense of the world, many theorists are arguing we need to rethink our organizational categories such as belonging, place, home, and nation, in addition to such philosophical standbys as epistemology and ontology. What might such rethinking of categories offer to readers of Kroetsch? For me, the self-reflective Kroetsch of A Likely Story, provides an intriguing entrance into thinking about the relations between Kroetsch and place. In ”D-Day and After: Remembering a Scrapbook I Cannot Find,” Kroetsch claims: “my imagination is insistently geographical” (147).  I take part of my title from his essay, “Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction,” from his naming of the prairie texts he is analyzing there as themselves “place-possessed” (81). What does it mean to be “place-possessed”? The sub-title of that essay, “an erotics of space,” further complicates the analysis. How place and space interact remains a challenging question for analysts across the disciplines. But for now, I focus on Kroetsch’s characterization of prairie fiction, as “place-possessed” in ways that are both profoundly gendered and also critical of mainstream gender positionings. In the context of the prairies, and the fictions that he sees emerging from living in that space, what does it mean to have an “insistently geographical imagination”? And how are such descriptions linked?  In other words, what does it mean to be both insistently geographical in one’s imagination and also “place-possessed”? To be “possessed by place” ascribes an agency to place that I will be arguing is more than metaphorical. What the description says about the agency of the person so possessed may be a bit more complex, especially in the context of an “erotics of space.” That phrasing suggests an alternative form of agency, of being open to otherness, perhaps, of desiring to be possessed rather than possessing.  The geographical imagination, on the other hand, inscribes a conscious and active human agency in naming and shaping place. Is one descriptor privileged in Kroetsch, or do they interact in exciting ways we are still discovering?

I think they clearly interact, but am still puzzling through how they do so and what it might mean for reading and appreciating Kroetsch. First: What is the geographical?  Literally, the writing of earth, our foundational place, an activity that often takes the form of mapping. But whose notion of earth and whose writing? The very word suggests that place needs to be written, possibly quantified and scaled, or at least controlled in certain ways, and, more importantly, that the relationship between geography and place cannot be assumed. Human intervention is required.  Kroetsch’s claim appears in a context of insisting on “our being present. Our being here” (147), with that claim achieved through story, memory, and the compiling of a now-lost scrapbook. But who are we? And where is here? Kroetsch references Frye’s famous question in an earlier essay describing Frye as a hero who teaches “the Canadian poet to be anti-colonial” (1989, 59).  Here, he suggests resistance to a colonial writing and modelling of space that turns it into a particular kind of place. Yet as the years pass, and Canada remains clearly mired in colonial habits and the imperial durabilities of our times (Stoler), we are less sure today of how to be anti-colonial, or at least productively so in a way that might truly decolonize our imaginations and our relations to this geographically-inscribed and nationally-imagined place. The anti-colonialism of colonials (the settlers and immigrants who were denigrated by those at the English heart of empire) exists in tension with the internally colonial denigation of western colonials, characterized as double marginalization embraced by mid twentieth century Canadians in Atwood’s terms as kind of victimage, but now further modified by the recognition that all these colonials also benefited to varying degrees from the establishment of the settler colonial state). Therefore, their anti-colonialism differs in kind and extent from the anti-colonialism of indigenous peoples. Colonials mediate between colonizer and colonized in complex and often compromised ways and the writing produced out of such mediations is not easily categorized as one or another.

For many contemporary critics, Kroetsch’s famous questions, “How do you write in a new country? How do you make love in a new country?,” once understood as arising from such dilemmas, are now more often understood as simply constituting an erasure of prior indigenous belonging and of the fact that this place, now named Canada, is far from new. The state may be 150 years old but the place-based and place-possessed imaginaries generated by contending notions of here have longer histories that also challenge the ideas of time and progress that are implicitly behind such questions. These questions that seemed to work so well for aspiring writers in earlier times are not the questions being asked today.

I will suggest here that it may be that Kroetsch’s other questions, “how do you grow a gardener?” (31); “how do you grow a poet?” remain more durable, because more attuned to Kroetsch’s awareness of the agencies of vegetative life and its entanglements with the whole world of things as well as with other animal and human lives. On Wednesday, I heard Catriona Sandilands discuss recent work in plant politics, critical plant studies and plant biopolitics, all forms of analysis designed to challenge “plant blindness,”  as an inability to see plants in themselves, for themselves, as both in the landscape but also as the landscape. She suggests that using these lenses, we humans can see plants as our abjected others and also as a vegetariat, sharing vulnerability with humans who are in the process of being vegetarianized, that is treated like plants in our current neoliberal capitalist systems. Kroetsch is certainly crudely aware of the agency of beans in intra-action with human digestive systems. But perhaps there is more to his invocations of cauliflowers and his comparisons of gardeners to poets than first meets the eye. Perhaps growing up on a farm is at least as important as growing up in the prairies to Kroetsch’s awareness of “place possession.”

In such a context of shifting priorities in theoretical thinking, I am wondering how to place Kroetsch’s often expressed longing for prairie space from exile. Can we see his “deep longing” for what he calls “the west of my blood and bones. My ancestral west, the prairie west, the parklands” (1989, 141) as other than a settler colonial longing that is problematic in the partial story it seems to tell?  I would like to think to think so but I am still working out how to frame that longing in a way that can do justice to its historical situatedness in time/space relations.

In earlier times, the 1970s and 80s, Kroetsch was acclaimed by mainstream Canadian literary studies, in Canada and Europe, for articulating the settler colonial dilemma in its hegemonic nationalist form, that is, for expressing the complexities of a supposedly new country in the language and generic forms of those places who had named themselves as older within imperial frames of reference. Kroetsch wrote of needing to find a voice equal to experiences of place not previously expressed in the languages or forms of European imaginaries. Simona Bertacco titles her study of Kroetsch, Out of Place (2002), a double-edged title that recognizes both that exile from connection to European imaginaries and that emergence from a very particular place, which is the home of his birth and youth to him, the centre of his experience, but periphery to others. Reading his work within the dominant frameworks of the early twenty-first century, Bertacco locates him “between post-modernism and post-colonialism,” seeing him as “typically Canadian” in his development of a “poetics of the periphery” (viii). That seems to me a standard postmodernist position but the postcolonial enables a shift in perspective that starts from the centre of one’s own experience rather than the periphery of others. Kroetsch has always exploited that contrast. He knows that margins are also centres, but he also knows that there is a power imbalance that refuses self-naming to some.

Now, if we revisit his work during our own period, a time more attuned to the shifting contexts brought about by globalization and indigenous resurgence, we may see alternative relations to place, or alternative understandings of what those relations mean. For me, Kroetsch’s geographical imagination is more attuned to “process geographies” (Arjun Appadurai) than to any assumed geographical stability. The presencing of the lost scrapbook needs constant updating. For Kroetsch, it’s about fielding rather than fields. For him, Frye’s question, “where is here?” is not just a settler colonial question arising from a belated sense of arrival but rather a genuinely existential question about shifting relations to places that themselves are always already in motion, sometimes quickly as in the avalanche in The Man From the Creeks, and sometimes only over the longer stretch of deep time, as with “the Battle River, with its deep, post-glacial valley, carving the landscape into form, that defined our parklands location” (112, A Likely Story). Re-reading Kroetsch in light of posthuman geographies can cast a new light on older readings. Place is not just something through which characters move, but rather itself also agential in ways that intra-act with the characters, stories, and voices that structure his work.

I see three dominant approaches to Robert Kroetsch within the Canadian literary field in our current time. In Raymond Williams’s terms, one is residual, one is dominant, or at least perceived as such, and one is emergent. You may dispute my characterization of the residual and the dominant; I am on surer ground in identifying the emergent. But I will throw these out anyway. For me, the residual approach is the older regionalist one, which emphasizes Kroetsch’s roots in the West, in a version of place he develops from the interplay of memory and the orality of a tall tale tradition speaking out of place to a world that sees it as margin to an established centre. Here, I need to say that forms of critical regionalism are redefining region in emergent ways. I suspect that this may be one of the conclusions of our workshop today. Critical regionalism, then, is taking regionalism in new directions that demand more thinking.

The dominant approach, which is fast becoming residual, is the nationalist-postmodern view best expressed by Linda Hutcheon, who famously labelled Robert Kroetsch “Mr. Canadian Postmodern.” That label raises many questions. In what sense is a nation-state as vast and diverse as Canada a place? What does postmodernism have to do with place? Isn’t it a globalized, placeless kind of concept that Hutcheon saw Kroetsch importing into Canada after his long stay in Binghamton?  For Hutcheon, Kroetsch was all about metafiction. His interest in structure, revision, parody, and story about story, about story-making, poetry, and the writer himself all support her views.  The question Hutcheon raises for us today, though, may be: how does Kroetsch ground that learned postmodernism in place? Or does he? Hutcheon appears to take the prairie situatedness of Kroetsch’s work as a part that can represent the Canadian whole with little violence done to its distinctiveness. For her nationalist vision, rooted in a naturalized southern Ontario, a regionalist approach can be reconciled with a nationalist approach in this way. Such an approach privileges an ideal of national identity over a material groundedness in the particularities of lived and remembered local place.

So my tentative argument today is that both the older regionalist and the nationalist approaches are now under attack by scholars who see writers such as Kroetsch as fundamentally expressing masculinist settler-colonial ideologies, displacing, marginalizing, or ventriloquizing indigenous peoples to stake their own claims to the land. In her Literary Land Claims, Margery Fee writes of a trope she calls a “totem transfer” where a person “inherits a creature symbolic of Indigenousness, such as the stallion in Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man” (163). Fee, like W.H. New before her, is interested in understanding such settler colonial articulations of claiming place. A new generation of critics working within emergent forms of critical indigenous, critical race, and diaspora studies tend either to ignore Kroetsch, to dismiss him as irrelevant to their interests, or to attack him for presenting a false view of Canada as a new country. His famous question, “How do you write in a new country?”, once seen as energizing Anglo-Canadian creativity, is now more frequently understood as profoundly misguided, clearing the plains of its long history of indigenous and diverse racialized forms of habitation to enable the telling of partial stories that further privilege the already privileged.

Clearly there is that element in Kroetsch’s characterization of prairie place as a new country. At that point, I always hear the echo in my head of Prospero’s answer to Miranda in The Tempest: “’Tis new to thee.” It does seem clear that for Kroetsch the newness of the country is epistemological and not ontological. It is not essentially new in itself and it is not new, or present in the same way at all, to indigenous peoples. At the same time, it is also possible to see place as new in other ways too, as always already becoming rather than just inertly there. If one sees the land itself not as stable, and not given, but as an agential force in its own right, changing and changed in intra-action (Barad) with all those who dwell there, plants, rocks, animals, and people, and moving at its own pace through history, then the challenge of how to write its ever-changing newness may be seen somewhat differently. I think there are intuitions of such a view in Kroetsch’s writing.

As we saw, Kroetsch’s twentieth century awareness of a colonial lack in the face of Europe and the U.S. could easily be translated from its prairie situatedness into a national sense of belatedness still dominant in the late twentieth century and arguably still present today. Yet in making that locational transition from prairie to nation, one might miss how that “colonial frostbite at the roots of the imagination,” as Frye once put it, takes distinctive form in Kroetsch’s prairie, where place is more than colony, more than landscape, more than emptiness, more than memory, more than weather—but also, all of these things in changing intra-relation. I take the term, “intra-relation” from Karen Barad’s work to indicate a difference from the ways in which we think about inter-relation. In inter-relation, we think about two pre-existing separate identities that come together to form a new kind of relation. In contrast, in intra-relation, the focus falls on the ways in which both emerge from their relations as always already co-constituting forms in motion.

Kroetsch’s poem, “Winter Parka” (31, Too Bad) suggests such an intra-relation among human, clothes, and weather. The speaker’s intra-relation with the parka enables a transition from the iconography of “vertical man, horizontal world (popularized by Laurie Ricou) into various metamorphoses into hybrid forms, from “a half-plucked duck” shedding feathers, on colder days, into a sweating “Michelin Man, / ready to explode,” on warmer days The identities of person and parka shift relationally in intra-action with the changing weather. In relation to the parka, the speaker transforms into two kinds of posthuman cyborgian identity: part animal, part thing, vulnerable through the changing weather patterns to “melt[ing] into green” in a relation through which “We are all casualties” (31). That is, “we” exists less as a distinct identity than as part of relation shaped and reshaped by place and its shifting weather patterns. The poem claims: “We rehearse the seasons” (31). Parka and speaker together in intra-action with the weather are co-producing this unstable drama. The poem is playful, yet it is also true to the particular realities of Winnipeg place.

Kroetsch seldom writes about urban places. The poem: “Pembina Highway, Winnipeg” (43 Too Bad), demonstrates ambivalence about what humans have done to the landscape of this place. He describes the haphazard ugliness of strip mall development and the disorder and smells of the highway, claiming that “What is pasted on billboards is our kind of art” (43). Yet he finds in this scene of crass and smelly chaos, both “The devious ways of pleasure” and “The devious ways of beauty” (43). The poem concludes: “To hell with plastic surgery. We’ve come to like the scars” (43). This built environment, with its “fast food outlets” and “even faster cars” is a long way from how he writes about where he grew up in Alberta or where he worked in the North.  There is a gritty realism in his few Winnipeg allusions that contrasts with what often seems nostalgia for the places of his youth. Yet even here, perhaps, we can see his awareness of the agency of things, what Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter.”

Perhaps he also finds vibrant matter in what he calls “the unspeakable white glare … of the North.” In A Likely Story, he muses: “Perhaps the generative moment of my young writer’s life came when I realized I had not two pages to write upon but rather two margins to write in. I could write alongside, with and against, the blackly printed page of our inheritance. I could write alongside, with and against, the unspeakable white glare of what I call, metonymically, North” (96). In opposing the fullness of European and US American tradition to the emptiness and silence of the North, he problematically repeats the binaries set up by those who used to argue that Canada had far too much space and not enough history. Yet he sees that “the glare” of the North, while unspeakable for him, also acts upon his imagination, possesses him as it does the speaker and main characters of The Man from the Creeks.  If he cannot write the North, he can write with it and alongside it, and he can emulate it. In a 1976 interview with Michael Enright and Dennis Cooley, he suggests: “You don’t imitate, you emulate” (28). Writers don’t imitate other writers’ work, they emulate it. Writers don’t imitate landscapes, they emulate them, and in emulating them, find themselves changed in the process.  What might that insight mean for re-reading Kroetsch?

Reading through A Likely Story, looking for place, I am struck by how often I am rewarded, but always with a twist. “Did the author write the text, or did the text write the author?” (16), he asks. We are all familiar with that postmodern question. But Kroetsch takes it somewhere else. “I am still uncertain how much we are the creators of the North, and how much we are the creations of the North. Insofar as the North carnivalizes given Canadian assumptions … it seemed an escape from the authority of traditions and hierarchy, an escape that would allow me to become a storyteller. The North …was the very geography of my desire. It was the landscape of my unspeakable narrative intention” (16). Is this statement a creative misreading of place, or an acknowledgement of a co-creative dynamic in which influence is never uni-directional? I think the latter, but I think the language, our language—English—trips him up at moments like this. As I suggested earlier, Karen Barad’s theories of agential realism help me to see a different dynamic in Kroetsch’s intuitions about what it means to be “place-possessed.”

In Cather and Ross, he reads an “erotics of space” in which conventional gender relations and the function of marriage “as a primary metaphor for the world as it should or might be” no longer holds (82). What new models for world as place does Kroetsch find in the prairie writers he reads so assiduously and so generously, and in the books he writes himself?  He begins “the Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction” by asking “How do you establish any sort of close relationship in a landscape—in a physical situation—whose primary characteristic is distance?” 73 italics in original).  Kroetsch’s answer, in poetry, is to focus on intimate, local details, focusing on objects with agency, such as “the ledger stone” (27, Completed Field Notes), or “No. 339—McKenzie’s Pedigreed Early Snowcap Cauliflower” (37) while at the same time asserting: “I come from huge silences” (146).

As part of my globalization research, I have been struck by the ways in which the identity of world itself is now being rethought in contrast to globe and earth as alternative models for our planetary place. Using world as a verb, critics are asking how writers world themselves in a globalizing world where anchors seem to be loosening.  Rob Wilson suggests that worlding “implies a more fully culture-drenched and being-haunted process of ‘de-distancing’ the ever-globalizing world of techno-domination and its badly managed nuclearized standing reserve.”  Such a reaction seems to be happening in “The Ledger,” “Seed Catalogue,” and The Man From the Creeks.

Kroetsch is continually grasping at the mystery of time/place intra-relations in his writing. In “Lonesome Writer Diptych,” a double sided poem, he tells a childhood memory of his eight-year old self taking apart his father’s watch while his father is away for the day and then failing to reassemble it before his father’s return. The balancing column reflects on the impossibility of writing autobiography, while at the same time, finding echoes of his home town and himself in the places, characters, and stories of other writers. Each side reflects on the ways in which place enters, making story and making identity. His childhood plan to dismantle and then reassemble his father’s watch, through the manner of his telling, becomes a reflection on the mutability of place through time. “Rivers are maps of Alberta, maps that shift, change, alter the landscape itself” (112), he writes. Their writing of place challenges human-centred ways of writing and understanding place. “For all our contemporary skepticism,” he writes, “we cannot resist reading the world as a small allegory of this or that. A river has something to do with time, but what does it have to do with a watch” (116).  The father’s intended gift of a watch is implicitly rejected, first through the theft of an intended inheritance, and then the exercise of the poet’s curiosity, in taking apart the mechanism. Refusing to possess the watch, the speaker finds himself, instead, “possessed by place.”

Image Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, 1991-6, sound installation by Anishinabe Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore

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