“Assembling Urban Archives: Reading Daphne Marlatt’s Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now”
In Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Lisa Robertson deconstructs the protean nature of Vancouver’s public surfaces and spaces by engaging in a theoretical practice called “soft architecture.” In reference to New Brighton Park (or “Lot 26”), Robertson notes that “Soft Architects believe that [Lot 26] demonstrates the best possible use of an urban origin: Change its name repeatedly. Burn it down. From the rubble confect a prosthetic pleasure-ground; with fluent obliviousness, picnic there” (41). In this passage, and throughout her work, Robertson demonstrates the need for unearthing and tracing the in/visible public and private histories of urban space. Given its malleable urban geography—its fluctuating sub/urban character witnessed over centuries of industrial development—the city of Vancouver is a place haunted by previous iterations of itself. Many Canadian poets over the past century have observed the city’s changing geographic, architectural, and industrial dynamics. This is perhaps most notable in Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver collections, beginning with Vancouver Poems (1972) and on to the expanded and modified Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now (2013). While Marlatt’s texts, forty years apart, are thematically concerned with the way in which historical events shape the contours of urban space decades (even centuries) after they occur, Liquidities also echoes back to, or is haunted by, its first edition. Here I will not only trace Marlatt’s depiction of historical hauntings in urban space but I will also compare the editions of the texts as representative of such urban hauntings. Within the initial and subsequent editions of her poems, Marlatt explores different versions of Vancouver through an examination of historical events of the late 1800s and early 1900s. I argue that Marlatt displays queering techniques and imagery of embodiment to represent Vancouver’s history. She uses the poetic medium to underscore the iterability (or reiterability) of urban space and examines how the surface of a city is altered not only by the very physical, architectural, and industrial changes it witnesses, but also by the psychological impact of its subjects. While cities may change over the course of time, their histories, their hauntings, and, thus, their vitality (like the inhabiting presence/ghostly energy of the Japanese Noh character shite that Marlatt invokes) are fueled by the symbiotic interaction and engagement of its citizens.
In the foreword to Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now, Marlatt indicates that the “resuscitation” of her 1972 collection represented her “attempt to come to grips with the massive changes that have continued to shape the city since the early seventies” (xi). Like Vancouver Poems, which presents “a young woman’s take on a young city as it surfaced to her gaze,” Liquidities is composed of “running associations . . . within a shifting context of remembered history, terrain, and sensory experience” (xi). Marlatt, however, admits that the topic of “Vancouver’s incessant deconstruction and reconstruction” is given more focus within Liquidities, where “liquid assets, cash” and the “rain of global warming” form the “tidal marks of corporate progress and enduring poverty” (xii). The final section of the text (a new addition titled “Liquidities”) illustrates the relationship between urban renewal, corporate progress, and the suffering of citizens, where, the speaker says, “capital sets the mouth move relentless eddies to current / what the city drinks eats is people” (62).
The theoretical concept of iteration helps to clarify the connection between urban renewal and subjective experience. Iteration (a term associated with the theoretical movement of deconstructionism) is defined as a “repetition with a difference” where any “meaning or identity always contains within itself the possibility of being repeated and reinterpreted otherwise” (Dooley and Kavanagh 38-39). Although Vancouver Poems features “slower, more introspective rhythms” compared to the speedy “wordplay, faster image traffic” and “quicker jumps” of the revised edition, both collections expose a “generative force like that which runs through words to make connections continue” (Marlatt, Liquidities xii). In this way, they both emphasize the ties between expression, on the one hand, and the variability and connective possibilities of inhabiting urban space, on the other. Marlatt’s texts, then, illustrate how subjective experience highlights the iterability of city spaces in a way that painfully reflects the “refacing and defacing” (xii) processes of urban renewal. In other words, our subjective experience of the city iterates and reiterates itself as time passes parallel to the iterations and reiterations the city physically undergoes. What is significant to note, though, is that Marlatt’s texts illustrate how our subjective experience ultimately works to bring us into a more intimate connection with the spaces and people around us, while urban renewal often runs the risk of disadvantaging poverty-stricken populations, alienating particular groups of citizens, and privileging capital and commodity over community.
Marlatt concedes that both editions of Vancouver Poems are formed by “running associations . . . within a shifting context of remembered history” and “terrain” (xi). Examining the changes in these associations between the two editions reveals how Marlatt has reimagined the way in which she and her speaker relate to public history and urban space. For example, both editions of the text feature a poem titled “‘Our city is ashes’” (a reference to the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886), but with noteworthy changes in formatting and diction. At first glance, the differences in formatting between the two editions provide a visual contrast; Marlatt admits in the foreword to Liquidities that changes in style, such as writing “and” instead of using the ampersand and using italics instead of quotation marks, simply reflect a change in her poetic sensibilities and in the allowances of publication technologies (xi). These changes, however, cause the poems in Liquidities to extend across the page more pronouncedly and, therefore, inhabit more textual space. This extension reflects a change in how the speaker inhabits both the literary space of the page and the literal space of the city. Similarly, the alterations in diction between the two versions of the poem illustrate an oscillation between abstract and concrete representation. For example, in Vancouver Poems, the speaker discusses inhaling the smoke of the Great Vancouver Fire, stating: “It is not / separate, what we are standing in. Cannot be separated off / the skin or internal breathing.” In Liquidities, the speaker instead says: “It / is not separate, what we are standing in. Cannot be separated off / the skin or internal, marrow, bronchiole” (16, emphasis original). The changes in line breaks and use of italics in the revised version highlight “It” rather than the concept of separation, as the word “separate” heads a new line in the original version. The “It” can be broadly interpreted as the smoke and ashes of the fire that connote the devastation of the community, the strength of capitalism, and the indifference of the government to aid the homeless. This emphasis is in keeping with the notion that Liquidities highlights the causal link between commercial assets and corporate progress, on the one hand, and impoverished communities and the suffering of citizens, on the other.
Perhaps the most significant change to note between these two versions, however, is the change in diction from “internal breathing” to “internal, marrow, bronchiole.” Between Vancouver Poems and Liquidities, Marlatt consistently displays a transition from the abstract to the specific or concrete; “breathing” is here replaced with anatomical terms to reflect a more visceral and literal relationship to space. This represents a reactionary move against forces of capitalism that Marlatt critiques throughout so much of the revised collection. As Anna Grear states, there is a critical relationship between “disembodiment, . . . capitalism, and oppression” that can be countered through “directly focusing on embodiment” (45). This change also illustrates how “the making of livable space entails constant struggle by city dwellers to appropriate and reappropriate city space for purposes other than means-end productivity,” significantly, in “the appropriation and reappropriation of the city for the body, since the abstraction of the body, like that of the city, has been violent and pervasive” (Chisholm 28). Examining Marlatt’s texts, therefore, reveals the different tactics she employs in combatting what she sees as destructive forces present within the city.
Moreover, the shifting contexts presented in Vancouver Poems and Liquidities demonstrate how public and private histories haunt the city and leave traces both visible and invisible. Between the two editions, the city is configured as both an entity upon which histories are inscribed as well as a body that is itself capable of remembering. In “‘Our city is ashes,’” changes in diction reveal an emphasis on the lingering presence of histories in the city. In Vancouver Poems, Marlatt’s speaker borrows from historical news clippings about the fire from Vancouver’s city archives to state that that “‘two iron tires / and some ashes was all that was left . . .’ / of our city [. . .] a mess of / charred stumps, molten bell smoke-enveloped &, human / ashes.” In Liquidities, the lines read much the same with the exception of the final two words: “human / remains” (16). As such, human “ashes” become human “remains” in the revised text. The difference may reflect a desire on Marlatt’s part to amend the repetition that linguistically connects the city and its inhabitants as, in the original version, the city is “ashes” and leaves behind human “ashes.” The addition of “remains,” however, invokes a double (even triple) entendre: while “remains,” in the context of the line, most obviously refers to the body of a deceased person, it can also refer to historical or archeological relics and can additionally act as a verb, meaning to linger, stay, or reside. The layered meanings invoked by this revision emphasize the way in which histories, coded through human existence and experience, are inscribed in public memory and space—they remain. In this way, the city functions as a living archive, collecting what Samuel Pane calls “non-paper documentation” (62). The “remains” of human existence form a sensory archive that is necessarily entangled with the construction of cities and global histories, where bodies “continue to be inhabited by their histories, and the local is always implicated in the global” (Brydon 991). This connection between the body and the haunting histories of the city is evident in another revision of the poem. In the original version, the speaker closes the poem by saying,
the ex / outside / extinct
. . . enters this present
city, as a residue we
Cannot, rid our selves of. (Vancouver)
The speaker in the revised poem states,
the ex / outside / extinct
. . . enter as present
Cannot, rid our selves of (Liquidities 17)
While both poems emphasize the human element of the city through the separation of “ourselves” into “our selves,” an amendment in syntax alters the way in which the city is configured. In the original, the object of the poetic sentence is “this present / city,” while in the revised version, it is a “present / residue.” This slight change in the configuration of the line’s simile stops the “city” from being “present”; instead, it is replaced by or reconfigured into “residue.” Examining the original and amended diction again highlights a transition in how the speaker relates to the space of the city. Rather than the city being “present” and time-bound, the residue—the traces from the past both physical and metaphorical—are present. Thus, through their overt investigations of historical occurrence and nuances of diction, Marlatt’s texts foreground the ways in which relics of the past re-inscribe themselves in the space of the present.
While Marlatt focuses on remembrance, context, terrain, and history, both editions of the text also foreground the speaker’s “sensory experience” (Liquidities xi) of the city. Marlatt includes images in both Vancouver Poems and Liquidities to highlight this foregrounding of sensory experience, but the medium of these images differs between the two texts. While Vancouver Poems features abstract illustrations by Michael Sowdon, in Liquidities, the illustrations are removed and replaced by photographs (taken between 1902 and 1982 and primarily sourced from Vancouver’s Public Library archives). This presents an apparent dissonance between the two editions, where abstract images invite interpretation and highlight notions of subjectivity and affect, while photographic images hold theoretical connotations of indexicality and objectivity. In other words, while Vancouver Poems’ abstract images reflect a more ineffable, purely affective experience of space, the photographs in Liquidities would appear to more directly represent Marlatt’s archival process. Both texts, however, highlight the nuances and differences in the ways in which space is experienced by the senses—and how these experiences of space, whether they be represented through abstract or concrete images, form the city’s visible and invisible archives. It is an archive of structures, of architecture and industry, but it is an archive always entwined with human experience, senses, and affect.
In addition to their focus on sensory experience, both editions of Marlatt’s text highlight the queer body’s symbiotic, yet productively disruptive, relationship with history and urban space. While Marlatt’s other works (The Given  and Ana Historic , for example) often feature more overtly queer subjects and interactions, Vancouver Poems and Liquidities underscore Marlatt’s queering of space and time through her use of the body. As Elizabeth Freeman suggests, the queered erotic body becomes “the scene of and catalyst for encountering and redistributing the past” (8), and although “the body itself seems an impossible object with which to think historically,” there has been a recent critical “call for a more sensate, sensory historical method” (10). This sensory engagement with urban space is evident in the opening poem of both collections, titled “Wet fur wavers,” which concludes:
cuts through time, your eye, my tongue, down where a
culvert mouths on the beach the city’s underground:
you come through walking, corpses, bits of metal,
bird cry. (Liquidities 5)
These lines remain virtually unchanged from the original edition and again highlight how the past continues to linger in the present, as the “you” the speaker addresses comes “walking” from the city’s underground in the form of “corpses.” In addition, these lines emphasize Marlatt’s embodied practice of mapping the history of the city: the asphalt cuts likewise through “time,” the “eye” of subject, and the speaker’s “tongue.” The materials and architecture of the city, though unfixed in nature, continue to uphold divisions between communities and to represent moments of the city’s history that contributed to the formulation of these divisions. Likewise, the speaker continues to feel the cuts that the asphalt produces both on herself and others. This reflects Freeman’s suggestion that “queer time generates a discontinuous history” where “touches that are both painful and pleasurable break open the past” (xi-xii).
Marlatt’s poems present these painful, lingering touches of the city’s history throughout the collection. In “To navigate,” the speaker observes the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge (now renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing), observing,
jumble of twisted truss span steel
workers flung from / to, murky tide divers lift bodies from.
. . . lost
ironworkers ghost on through intent on
the join) (Liquidities 23)
While Marlatt underscores the violence of the ironworkers’ deaths in her combination of industrial and bodily imagery, the ghosts of the ironworkers remain “intent on / the join”—or, in other words, focused on forging a connection across time through their ghostly inhabitance. Marlatt’s text thus demonstrates how the queer city is “not just for the city’s queers but for anyone who has known and enjoyed its layers and labyrinths of history and diversity, its real and potential emancipation” (Chisholm 24). The sensory experience of space, combined with an embodied relationship with history, promotes the liberation of the city’s inhabitants, as it provides an avenue for interrogating the ways in which cities are constructed by forces of capitalism and urban development—forces that frequently put the lives and livelihoods of inhabitants at risk.
Vancouver Poems and Liquidities were published over forty years apart, yet many of the underlying thematic concerns remain the same. While Liquidities reiterates and re-emphasizes the devastating effects of urban development, both texts stress the ways in which relics of the past continue to interact with the present. Comparing the two editions reveals the way in which the surfaces of Vancouver have altered but also exposes how the arguably less tangible forces of subjectivity, bodily presence, and lingering histories impact the composition of the city in literal ways. Marlatt’s poems, therefore, outline strategies for interacting with urban space (both personally and communally) in order to counteract tendencies of disassociation from the spaces we inhabit and the events and people who have shaped those spaces. As such, Marlatt’s return to her Vancouver Poems underlines the symbiotic relationship between subject and space, between city dweller and city, and thus accentuates the engagement of inhabitants, who fuel the vitalizing force of the city and can motivate its “potential emancipation.”
Brydon, Diana. “Dionne Brand’s Global Intimacies: Practicing Affective Citizenship.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 3, 2007, pp. 990-1006.
Chisholm, Dianne. Queer Constellations: Subcultural Space in the Wake of the City. U of Minnesota P, 2005.
Dooley, Mark, and Liam Kavanagh. The Philosophy of Derrida. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2007.
Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke UP, 2010.
Grear, Anna. “‘Sexing the Matrix’: Embodiment, Disembodiment and the Law—Towards the Re-Gendering of Legal Rationality.” Gender, Sexualities and Law, edited by Jackie Jones, Grear, Rachel Anne Fenton, and Kim Stevenson, Routledge, 2011, pp. 39-52.
Marlatt, Daphne. Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now. Talonbooks, 2012.
—. Vancouver Poems. Coach House, 1972.
Pane, Samuel. “Unofficial Collections: Organic/Artifactual Documents and the (Re)Inscription of the Civic Archive in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.” Ariel, vol. 42, no. 3, 2012, pp. 61-88.
Robertson, Lisa. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Coach House, 2011.
 The 1972 edition of Vancouver Poems has no pagination.