(Re)membering the City: On Daphne Marlatt’s Liquidities

Published in 2013, Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now is Daphne Marlatt’s most recent development in her long-standing interest in examining Vancouver’s urban landscape through verse. Liquidities includes revisions of selected poems from her 1972 collection Vancouver Poems alongside fourteen new pieces that trace Vancouver’s “incessant deconstruction and reconstruction” over the past few decades (xii). Written in sprawling, paratactical verses driven forward by a strong political impetus, Liquidities is a process of remembering and re-membering the city and the text, as well as the personal and public histories that inform both. In what follows, I address the critique of neoliberalism that lies at the heart of Liquidities. I suggest that Marlatt’s account of the city’s changing landscape under late-stage capitalism provides an important lens through which we may consider contemporary feminism’s own relationship with—and possible resistance to—neoliberalism. To this end, Liquidities suggests the significance of memory in imagining an urban and feminist politics beyond neoliberalism.


The “liquidities” of the collection’s title references the multiple fluid movements that pass through Vancouver’s landscape and Marlatt’s own writing. As a term, liquidities refers first to the fluid sprawl of urban development as it lapses into catastrophic excess, flowing outwards until it struggles to sustain itself: “building bigger cruise ships bigger and / biggest” (59). It also designates the poet’s formal innovations, the running associations that “merg[e] images in an ongoing flow” (xi). Moreover, liquidities suggests the “incessant rain of global warming” that broods over Vancouver’s cityspace (xii): “it’s warming up / so grab a / rainhat” (69).


Liquidities also designates the liquid assets, the uneven flow of capital, and the influx of precarious labour that shape Vancouver’s economic inequities. Spaces of global capitalism such as Vancouver have, since the mid-1980s, been governed by neoliberal policies that neglect redistribution in favour of laissez-faire “trickle-down” strategies. Neoliberal policies of privatization, financialization, and austerity have led to immense concentrations of wealth in most of the world’s cities, all against the backdrop of what the United Nations has identified as an exploding “planet of slums” (qtd. in Harvey 4). Liquidities thus advances a linguistically innovative critique of the devastation wrought by decades of unchecked urbanization and tightening neoliberalism in Vancouver. The city is presented as possessed by a cannibalistic consumerism, “swallow[ing] men” (22), feasting on a “banquet / of flesh” (25), and “drink[ing]” and “eat[ing]” its people (62). Marlatt also addresses the uneven texture of urban development under neoliberalism in poems such as “raining buckets,” which includes a reference to a billboard erected by the Vancouver-based public art collective Digital Natives to raise awareness about the housing crisis facing the city’s Indigenous population: “If you lived under this bridge / you’d be home by now” (60).


The title Liquidities also designates the lapses between the porous boundaries of past and present that inform the collection’s littoral temporality. Marlatt’s poetics move swiftly across personal and public memory to unearth stories of subaltern suffering swallowed by the city’s expanse. In an essay titled “Salvaging: The Subversion of Mainstream Culture in Contemporary Feminist Writing,” Marlatt writes about the possibilities of recovering something meaningful from that which has been deemed worthless by dominant systems of valorization: “What interests me as a feminist writer is the concept . . . of retrieving value from what has been written off. Finding something valuable in trash” (Marlatt qtd. in Wiens 267). “Retrieving value from what has been written off ” is a process central to Liquidities, as Marlatt turns her attention to sites of urban abjection such as the “Limed / library steps” (14), the “pigeon / shit” that “stains Cosmopolitan Inn” (59), and the “rotting pier” that form Vancouver’s landscape (67). Her poetry also examines alternative temporalities that lie outside of the concerns of the city’s “official” history. Poems such as “approach” attend to Vancouver’s past socialist movements, such as the Habitat Forum, noting the emancipatory potential and “hope for community” found therein (59).


Liquidities thus emphasizes the radical potential of care against capital, community against commodity, and memory against neoliberal hegemony. Neoliberalism does its best to erase the ongoing histories of oppression and the sites of abjection on which our cities are founded. To perpetuate itself, neoliberalism upholds forgetting as its primary modality of thought, suspending alternative temporalities in favour of a “‘naturalized’ and eternized social structure, that is . . . conceived and considered as immutable, without any possible alternative” (Traverso 57). As urban spaces like Vancouver absorb their memories of suffering into shimmering new cities, we must, like Marlatt, always be attentive to the memories that slip to the margins of our spaces. By revisiting and reimagining past texts, geographies, and memories, we not only resist the impulse to forget but also uncover new political potentialities. As Dawn Thompson writes, when memory “takes on a political impetus, [it] also becomes a memory of the future; it is no longer a record or story of the past, but a map for social change” (5).


Contemporary feminist activism and critique, I would like to suggest, face a challenge similar to that facing Marlatt’s Vancouver. The fate of feminism, like that of the city, is often swayed by the logic of late-stage capitalism. As Nancy Fraser writes, for instance, second-wave feminism “dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social egalitarianism” (5). Neoliberal feminism, like the neoliberal city, also privileges forgetting: a sense of amnesia threatens at times to occlude its “emancipatory promise” as the importance of collective action and economic critique have fallen too often by the wayside (14). As feminist critics, then, we must consider what Fraser, quoting Hester Eisenstein, calls feminism’s “dangerous liaison” with neoliberalism with the sensibility of Marlatt’s urban poetics (3). Feminist critique in the here and now must, like Liquidities, be attuned to the contingent crises of racial inequality, climate change, and neoliberalism that threaten our communities today. From Liquidities, we may also learn to revalorize the process of revision and excavate memories of feminism’s revolutionary spirit in the hopes of imagining our futures anew.

Works Cited

Fraser, Nancy. Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Verso, 2013.

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso, 2012.

Marlatt, Daphne. Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now. Talonbooks, 2013.

Thompson, Dawn. Writing a Politics of Perception: Memory, Holography, and Women Writers in Canada. U of Toronto P, 2000.

Traverso, Enzo. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory. Columbia UP, 2016.

Wiens, Jason. “The Intertextual Condition: Vancouver Poems and the Development of Daphne Marlatt’s Archival Poetics.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne, vol. 44, no. 2, 2019, pp. 253–70.


Sophie Moulaison is currently pursuing a BAH in English at the University of Winnipeg.

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