September 5, 2019

Cascading Questions: Tanis MacDonald on Ascension and Decline in MOBILE

Part two in an ongoing conversation. Read part one, Four Paths, here

Susan Gillis: Reading Mobile, I can really hear the music in your language and feel the vitality of the characters. What I also find remarkable is the tender ferocity that runs through your poems. The Sybil elegies, the Jane poems, the irreverent and truth-telling bluestocking series – all have this candour that doesn’t shy from toughness, a frankness that’s also playful and caring.

The image that keeps coming up for me as I think about this question occurs early on, in Elegy 4 of the Sybil elegies: the statue of the crucified woman on Philosophers Walk in Toronto. The poem asks, is she “rising or hanging, ascending / or dying?” This feels like a central question in the book. Does it have an answer? Which things, people, situations are ascendant and which are in decline, dying even? Or maybe, in what ways are the same things ascendant and in decline?

Tanis MacDonald: I love this question; thanks so much for your careful attention to the book.

I’ve titled it Mobile because I wanted to examine women taking up public space, beginning with what it could mean for a woman to move through the city of Toronto as she moves through difficult mental and emotional spaces. Writing Mobile was a long engagement with a cascading series of questions about strength and vulnerability. Because the first section of the book is, in part, an homage to the work Dennis Lee did in Civil Elegies, I wanted to feature a piece of public art depicting a woman made by a female artist in order to echo the way Lee’s speaker looks at Henry Moore’s “Three-Way Piece No. 2” – known more colloquially as “The Archer” – in Nathan Phillips Square. After looking at the sculpture of Almuth Lutkenhaus’s “Crucified Woman,” one of the male characters in Mobile mocks the protagonist with “I’ll bet you think that’s feminist”; while the Sybil character just growls back at him because that’s who she is, my own answer to that taunt would be more like “I think it’s complicated. Don’t idea-shame me; I’m still thinking.”

I can’t say what Lutkenhaus herself intended, but I know that the multiple ambiguities of reading that sculpture have made it controversial from its installation. The sculpture appropriates the Christian crucifixion to suggest the divinity of the woman, but we also get a whiff of criminality