By Brittni Brinn
We may think the cover of a book is a promise. In the case of Flat Singles’ Leddy Library series, however, you never know what you’re going to find inside. The recent chapbook in this series, VANCAL by Christopher McCarthy, is no different. “Everything you ever wanted to know about UWindsor’s main library,” the cover reads, accompanied by a full colour image of students enjoying a study break outside the Leddy Library. It’s a brochure you would expect to find at an information desk or in a campus Welcome Week package. It blends into the mundane comings and goings, it promises practical information. It shows us that poetry is an expert at camouflage, hiding in the everyday, just waiting to be discovered. It breaks our expectations and laughs with us as we realize our assumptions were incorrect. We may not get what the cover promised, but after the initial confusion we do experience a sense of satisfaction from sharing in this artistic joke.
VANCAL is concerned with language, specifically language having to do with city transit. McCarthy juxtaposes this everyday set of terms with traumatic wartime images. In the first poem, McCarthy compares a tattered bus transfer to a soldier who survived the war, clearly setting up this parallel that continues throughout the rest of the poems. Transit terms like at the front, report, and service migrate with startling ease to wartime. We learn in “Vice” that the poem is set in WWI, where Tom matter-of-factly dies over and over again. Through this fresh approach, McCarthy startles us into thought about the implications of war by using everyday language usually associated with transit.
“90 minutes” especially evokes the experience of riding transit. Flashes of houses outside the window, things people are wearing, the printing on the thin paper bus transfer are impressions we can expect from an hour and a half bus ride. The speaker transitions into wordplay, breaking up “Calgary Transit” into character names “Cal” and “Gary.” The repetition of “Red” not only refers to Calgary Transit’s “Red Line” route, but also evokes bloody wartime scenes. Underneath the mundane yet intimate details of a Calgary bus ride is a societal memory of violence, tying the present to a past war. McCarthy combines two separate columns on the transfer to create “700 conditions… 600 Route schedules/ 500 Route maps/ 400 Service announcements.” These read as an overview of a soldier’s wartime experience: a numerical collection of drills, journeys, and rules that once added up are overwhelming. All of these numbers represent potential traumas experienced by a soldier, whether physical, emotional, or psychological.
In the last poem, the term alive & well appears. Not clearly associated with transit, we can assume that this term breaks through language to the other side of an experience, whether it’s riding a bus or going through a war. After their transfer runs out and they fail to find an alternate form of transportation, the speaker, not a usual transit taker, finds themselves a survivor of the Red Line, faced with another scene connected to war:
The workers lying in the shade evoke soldiers side by side in a trench; it also reminds us of corpses laid out after a battle, or rows of graves. The intimacy of these bodies contrasts the loneliness of the speaker, who has been on a long journey and has not yet reached their goal. The depth reached by this simple scene demonstrates McCarthy’s ability to use the everyday to encapsulate complex personal responses to trauma.
McCarthy represents wartime experience through his breakdown of everyday language associated with transit. He effectively parallels elements of transit with the details of a soldier’s experience and by doing so presents a unique perspective on what it means to survive. Just like the misleading cover of the chapbook houses a work of poetry, McCarthy uses language associated with transit to consider the deeper implications of wartime experience and survival.