This Side of the Border

Alberta lies mostly on the interior plain,
its southern reaches dry
and treeless, flat to the untrained eye.
Outsiders drive quickly west,
seldom notice sloughs far
beneath skies of geese.
They pull off the Trans-Canada
at Brooks, picnic in the irrigated gardens
of the Experimental Farm.
A boy tips up a newly
opened rose.

He breathes it in,

the scent vivid as the prairie winds.
He returns to the car, the rose
unlike him bred to withstand
the embrace of winter.

At the edge of each city, before
the poplar groves are ploughed under,
these green oases are rank with children.
Only these trees are old enough
to hold a child, shoulder
forts dreamt about in the school library,
the boards lifted from a half-finished house.
Unwanted jackets hung on lower
branches are thick with dust,
sunset sweating in the wind,
the call home for dinner
virulent as pollen.

Long ago surveyors walked the 49th parallel
past the Cypress Hills until they reached
the Rockies and struck northwest,
balanced along alpine ridges to an outlook
where, at the 55th parallel,
they grew tired of a view blocked
by misted peaks.

They descended,

cut north through
a parkland of scrub forest.
From Saskatchewan, the plains rose
to meet them,

foothills that chose

to kneel before them like
stepping stones.

They crossed the Peace and Spirit Rivers,

the day bitten with mosquitoes,
the rivers called to an ice-clogged ocean
beyond a border drafted one night
when, faint with cold,

they could push no farther.

Alberta lies mostly on the interior plain,
quarter sections paved for shopping mails
and highways.

In winter what is left

is open to masses
of continental polar air held at a distance
by block heaters and the Calgary Philharmonic.
Outsider beware.

What is brought from elsewhere

metamorphoses like pupae
caught among the weeds of Lac-des-Arcs.
The dragonfly that emerges has no name.
A child catches one downstream
in a mayonnaise jar.
It spreads damp wings.
The down-draft from holes driven
into the lid with hammer and nails
teases, barely keeps alive
all instinct of what these walls
of glass confine;
and of the river—

the current stirs up urges,
carries them along
to settle unnoticed in the shallows
of the river’s more eastern dips and turns—

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Side of the Border”?

“This Side of the Border” is the final poem of a longer sequence that I wrote to explore my Alberta childhood, which appears in “The Suburbs: Delivery,” the first part of my sixth book, Designs from the Interior (Anansi 1994). The poem draws upon the province’s physical map and geography to create the narrator’s mental landscape.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Side of the Border”?

This free-verse poem is constructed from a multiplicity of references drawn from physical, human, cultural, and urban geography. Many of these references form a personal arcana that defines how I have come to see the landscape of my childhood, which is particularly defined by the Bow River watershed as it was in the 1960s and 1970s between the Rockies and Calgary. The opening stanza echoes the physical description of Alberta in The Canada Yearbook, which places it in context with the other legal jurisdictions immediately around it in order to affirm its place on the planet and, in human terms, in the world men and women have created for themselves. The opening line, which is repeated as the beginning of the final verse paragraph, is a barely undiguised rephrasing of “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” which Eliza Dolittle must repeat ad nauseam in her elocution classes that Henry Higgins gives her in Pygmalion. In a sense, the vocabulary that the poem must enunciate itself through is a course in self-awareness mastered in a particular time and place.

This poem “This Side of the Border” originally appeared in Native, Individual, State. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 144 (Spring 1995): 41-42.

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