“Welcome to Hamilton,” opens a new poem by Canadian writer and cabinetmaker John Terpstra. “You’re going to love it here.”
Terpstra read this poem to a group of Act Five students last fall, high school graduates taking a gap year program at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont.
“Welcome to the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe nations;
the Six Nations of the Finger Lakes area of New York,
the Anishnaabe from farther north,
in the land of the Dish With One Spoon wampum agreement.
This is this dish, lying spread out before us.
You’ll be dining from this dish.
You’ll do some of the cooking.”
Terpstra welcomed the students to Hamilton’s staircases, its bike lanes and one-way streets, “to nature, hidden in plain view,” to a city “that lives in two different centuries.” His poem deftly sketches a particular place over time with such precision that universal truths emerge. “Welcome to the changes, and more complications / some of which are hard to bear.” Despite depleted salmon, 25,000 lost jobs and mafia houses with drive-by bullet holes in the “armpit of Canada,” Terpstra’s hope is relentless. “You’re going to love it here / for the contradictions, the possibilities, the hope.” The final lines are an invitation – to his original audience and to us:
“What I love is where we are,
where we are standing,
where we are located,
this westernmost tip of the easternmost Great Lake.
I love it in spite of all the stuff I just said,
and because of all the stuff I just said.
The earth is a wounded creature here
at Head of the Lake.
Where is this not the case?
The earth is the body of Christ, I think,
wounded by all the things we do
Welcome to the healing
of which you may be a part.”
The poem feels epic, not only in length but in scope: one city in past imperfect, present tension and future conditional.
Q&A with John Terpstra
CC: How long do you have to live somewhere before writing a poem like this?
Terpstra: I should say right off the start that it’s not really a poem. It’s more a random compendium of the range of things that I know about a city I have lived in for half a century, and how I feel about it all. Time itself is not the provider. You have to be interested in where you live (as many people are not), on a variety of levels, social, historical, geographical, etc. Also, I guess, you have to have, or find, a voice. The mastermind behind the Act Five program mysteriously tapped into mine.
What shapes our understanding of place?
Experience. Attention. Commitment. Engagement. But the greatest of these is Love. Our bodies themselves are places, after all. They move among and bump against other places, some human, some brick.
(How) can we learn to see more than what’s there right now?
I can’t remember exactly when or how the scales fell from my eyes, but a seminal event was digging a hole in our backyard for a clothesline pole and discovering that just below the surface it was all slag: lava-like, light-weight, pock-marked, moon rocks. My neighbour told me the slag came from the steel industry, and that it was used as fill, because a stream used to run through the neighbourhood. A stream? Through our downtown Hamilton neighbourhood? A map from 1842, in the downtown library, confirmed the stream, which I could now also detect in the way the street dipped. The original landscape still showed through. It was the beginning of seeing everything at once, all the changes in the here and now. That’s a slightly longer way of saying the same thing as above: Experience. Attention. Commitment. Engagement. Love, and the Local History section of the Hamilton Public Library.
Any similarities between working with wood and with words?
None, and many. Wood is practical, to make things, though it comes from a tree, which is one of those seemingly gratuitous grace notes of beauty that Creation is so abundant with. Words are practical too, but not so much in my hands. When I make a piece of furniture, there are many parts. They are very differently shaped and sized, and do not look like they belong together. Then I put them together, and voila. It’s like magic, unless you’re the magician. Likewise, the compendium “Welcome to Hamilton.”
Has Tourism Hamilton put this poem on any brochures yet?
Not long ago I gave a talk to the Lady Hamilton Club, a volunteer organization that works with Tourism Hamilton. There, I tried to interest them in a guide map originally produced at Redeemer College, that shows the hidden route of the urban creek that is the subject of my latest book, Daylighting Chedoke, which was so nicely reviewed by James Dekker in these pages. If they pick up on that idea, maybe they will be interested in more “product” from the same source.
Read or listen to John Terpstra’s full poem here.
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